Playing, recording and consuming music remotely is not a new phenomenon. In 1906 the first talk and music show was aired on radio from a small town called Brant Rock south of Boston. Over a hundred years later artists continue to write, produce and record music for the world to consume remotely. One could be forgiven for thinking this is one of those sectors that hasn’t evolved or been forced to evolve radically over time. One would be wrong. In this piece we get live insights into the journey and evolution of two of Ireland’s leading singer songwriters. 

To survive in the music space you must ‘Change or Die’

Vinyl records were introduced first in the late 1800s with the LP’s format (12inch 21 minute per side) arriving in the 1940s and changing the face of the music industry. In this era, the record labels were the kings, held the power and made most of the profits. Fast forward to the 1990s and the introduction of the internet facilitated online music streaming and the emergence of “free music downloading and sharing” with businesses such as Napster challenging the conventional record labels business models. 

By 2021 music streaming companies such as Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon had grown to dominate the market.  Spotify a company only started in 2006 now has 32 per cent of the global streaming market with almost 400 million active monthly users. 

Streaming is wonderful for artists seeking a global audience but the streaming companies together with the social media channels have increased the level of competition and accessibility in the market, making it even harder for emerging musicians to stand out. The streamers also pay musicians very small amounts for their material. In 2021 it is estimated that Spotify pay on average $0.004 per streamed song, and only a percentage of that goes to the artist. For most musicians this has resulted in their primary source of income no longer being their cut of record sales and radio plays but more their income from touring and live gigs with a little merchandise income on the side. 

To succeed emerging artists today need to become multimedia professionals developing skills in online brand and community building, online performing, experts in the intricacies of existing and emerging social media channels to ensure the music they create has a chance of getting noticed.  It’s the same game with new rules.

Life is a Rollercoaster and there isn’t enough rock ‘n’ roll in rock ‘n’ roll

My interactions with recording artists in recent years has given me a glimpse into their real world which is very different to what you might perceive.  The journey’s they are on is more akin to that of a Silicon Valley Tech Start-up than the traditional, slow moving industry misconception. For artists, the market is ever changing, the highs are high, the lows are low, complacency is not an option, resilience is a prerequisite. You evolve, or you die, you are only as good as your last song or gig, competition is everywhere and barriers to entry appear to be a thing of the past.  Making a living in the industry was always hard, but now it has become even harder with changes in technology and market structures radically shifting the power and profit dynamics of the industry.  My biggest takeaway is that if you want to play in this sector, you are on a permanent roller coaster and to survive it you must be willing to permanently evolve and have exceptional levels of resilience. I therefore quickly concluded “Rock n Roll” ain’t so “Rock n Roll” in reality.

For that reason, I felt getting inside the hearts and minds of two of Ireland’s leading singer songwriters would make an interesting and insightful opening Episode for Season 2 of my Potential Squared Podcast. The podcast focuses on digging deep into the soul’s of successful Irish people both at home and abroad to identify the key ingredients to their success. 

With Covid the music stopped

With Covid the music stopped, no live gigs and no corresponding merch sales. This was the reality for Danny and Cian.  In business there is an old saying “A rising tide lifts all boats”. In Danny and Cian’s world, when the coronavirus hit the tide went out and it never came back in. The backdrop makes both artists’ achievements over the past twelve months not just remarkable but very interesting and insightful. In the podcast we explore lots of areas in our chat but here’s a glimpse into some of the highlights:

Never stop believing

They say the darkest hour is just before dawn and both artists managed to battle through the adversity that Covid threw their way and find a ray of light in their dark days. Both artists experienced the lows of Covid but both decided to “Control the Controllables” and dig deep, change and fight. They looked at the world differently, developed new skills, pivoted and moved on. Cian, in the last two years, has gone from writing and singing his own music to writing two of the tracks on the newly released Westlife album. Their confidence has grown over the past two years and they will enter a still uncertain 2022 stronger as a result.

Fuelled by living

An artist’s creativity is fuelled by living. I thought lockdowns might have provided the space and quiet time to write lots of new material, but I was wrong.  Live gigs ending robbed them of the feedback they got from their audiences, the lack of personal interactions with people restricted the feelings, thoughts, and ideas essential for writing authentic new material.  They developed a form of writer’s block.  I did wonder what my own equivalent of writer’s block was and where there areas that I have missed out on due to Covid that may have had an impact on my own craft as I return to working from home. Food for thought.

Understanding egos

Both artists speak of the self-reflection journeys they have been on in recent years. Both have explored deeply some of the big questions facing us all. Who am I? What do I value? What do I love? Where are my strengths? Where are my weaknesses? Am I playing to my strengths? Am I having positive impact? As lead singers and songwriters do I need to control everything? Am I empowering people? Do I trust and respect people enough to empower them? Do I have the personal confidence to let go? Am I collaborating with world class people? They are no different to leaders in business, sport or other disciplines. Both have discovered that they could excel more by empowering others more and having to do and lead less. By understanding their egos better, they are confidently playing to their strengths and having others support them on everything else.

Confidence is king

Confidence has been the key to both artists’ success in recent years. It takes real confidence to collaborate successfully in such a creative, personal and emotional industry.  2021 was a huge year of collaboration for both artists and they had to be willing to be vulnerable for it to succeed. To have peers critique your work and you theirs with the singular goal of improving is impressive. Most peers compete in small markets but both Danny and Cian have chosen to collaborate both with each other and other world class talents in the sector to make the quality of their work even better.  

It’s amazing how many learnings I took from listening to their journeys and their personal responses to the Covid Crisis.  If a crisis can often bring out the best in us, I wonder should we simulate our own mini crises on a regular basis to force us to think differently and identify opportunities for change and evolution in our lives and businesses?  More food for thought. Listen here to the full conversation which includes many more interesting insights.

Pete Smyth is an experienced investor, company mentor and the founder of Broadlake