[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
Even before music started transitioning to digital listening formats, numbers have always been a big part of gauging the value of singles and albums through radio charts, record sales, and the number of fans piling in to venues to see their favorite artists. But in 2020, the numbers associated with music are constantly around us.
From the amount of streams a single gets to social media likes and follows to the view-counts music videos rack up on YouTube and Vimeo, music fans are constantly barraged with data designed to measure musical traction, as are musicians. While it’s natural to want your music to succeed and to pay close, constant attention to the numbers to see whether it does or not, letting the statistics associated with your music impact your confidence or creativity is one of the worst things you can do in your music career.
Why Numbers Can’t Reflect Your Value as a Musician
Listeners often look to the numbers to choose which music to listen to and to measure an artist’s success. “If a song has a lot of streams, it must be good”, conventional thinking says. But when musicians put too much stock into the numbers associated with their own music, it can limit their creativity, usher negativity into their careers, and distract from their music.
Because numbers in music can easily be interpreted as indicators of status, many musicians get wrapped up in endless quests to boost their streaming and social media standings. This is where an earnest desire to share music with people can morph into an unsatisfying game of points where the definition of creative success is narrowed down to whether your numbers go up or not. It’s the opposite of creating authentic, meaningful music, which is what your focus should be as a musician.
Streams, album sales, and Instagram likes can’t tell you your value and potential as a musician, (or a person in general for that matter). You absolutely should strive to reach as many people as you can through your music if that’s your goal as a musician. But believing a song has value because it’s streamed a lot (or that another has less because it isn’t) misses the point. Myriad human-related factors like your unique fanbase and the way you promote your music as well as things out of your control like algorithms and trends typically determine whether audiences latch on to new music or not.
You could do everything right in music and still not succeed in terms of generating data that shows large numbers of people interacting with your music. If you release music and not many people end up listening to it, then you’re in the category that most musicians fall into. A recent single you’ve released could be the best song you’ve ever created whether it’s listened to by millions of people or a couple of friends in your hometown. Conventional success in music is fine to strive for, but measuring it purely with numbers will leave you and your music worse off.
Let Your Creative Decisions Shape Your Music More Than the Numbers
In a music career, there’s the act of making music, and then there’s everything else. Paying attention to music-related statistics is unavoidable in 2020, but the absolute best thing musicians can do for their careers is to shift their obsessions with their musical numbers to focusing on creating the best music they can. By letting your creativity, talent, and tenacity shape your music more than the pressure to be successful, you’ll have the best chance at making music that authentically connects with people. Fully scrubbing your music-making process of superficial expectations and baggage isn’t something you’ll ever be completely able to do, but bringing your focus back to the creative merits of your work over and over again will help bring you back to a healthy, genuine place.
Music is more competitive now than it’s ever been, which means that artists who are able to produce something genuinely interesting and unique are able to best connect with audiences. Making great music isn’t easy, and most of us will need to devote all the time and creative energy we can to come up with engaging ideas.
Lamenting over low streaming counts or trying to shape your new music around old songs that performed well will make your creative life much harder as a musician.
The balance between wanting to be conventionally successful and creatively focused is something tough to find, and it’s going to look different for all of us. But the first step towards figuring it out is by questioning where the creative choices you make in your songwriting practice come from. If you’re more motivated by making music that gets your numbers up than the desire to create great music, it’s time to rethink your priorities.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.