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Marginal Gains - Artistic Freedom & Financial Viability

Marginal Gains is a theoretical principle that focuses on many small, incremental steps that eventually lead to notable gains and improvements (as opposed to big shake-ups or reinventions). It's a practice often adopted in sports and business, but not something you hear about as often in terms of the arts and music. However, in practice, marginal gains theory is something many, if not most musicians practice as a part of their creative pursuits.

A few years ago, I penned an article discussing the notion of releasing music as a necessity for any aspiring musician looking to improve. I surmised (from my own experience) that only once you've released music and allowed time to pass (thus removing yourself from the creative process of that work), can you achieve the necessary objectivity to effectively and accurately critique your own work, and thus improve (via critical self-reflection). This could be considered a practice in marginal gains.

More recently, I penned an article about how I'd learned to be patient and adopt a laid-back approach to the long-game of gradual artistic and audience growth, and not worry or panic to reinvent my processes if a new release failed to make a notable impact. Potentially another form of marginal gains in practice.

Generally speaking, we (musicians) don't usually reinvent our processes of composition and production, but rather we make small adjustments and evolve.

It's common to reflect on our work, hear feedback from others, and focus on small details within our process that can be improved. This is a pattern or cycle that repeats indefinitely, all the while focusing on small details. It is Marginal Gains in practice and if you're a musician, you're probably doing it to some extent already, whether you realise it or not.

The reason I'm so keen to stress an awareness of practicing Marginal Gains is that I believe there to be an underlying (and very healthy) philosophical ethos that comes (naturally) with this method of working. A philosophical approach that can help negate the tumultuous (and unhealthy) notions that so often plague aspiring musicians attempting to find their place in the quagmire of online streaming, social media validation, and so on.

The struggle is real; something I notice all too often...

Over the last ten years I've interacted with, and/or observed many musicians doing a similar thing to me; trying to escape the rat-race and earn a living doing what they love. I've often noticed a tendency for aspiring musicians (myself included in the early days) to be in search of the silver-bullet; the one thing to ignite and propel their success to the point whereby they can quit their day-jobs and create music full-time. The one piece of music that will gain significant traction, trend in some way, and earn tens of thousands of streams a day.

I've witnessed the urgent and impatient pursuit of this goal lead to confusion, frustration, disappointment, disillusionment, and even burn out, resulting in people giving up on music entirely. Yet for all the people I've seen struggling, striving and falling out of love with music, in the pursuit of a viral hit, I've only seen a tiny number of people land upon that one tune that brings them quick success. This all begs the question "how feasible or realistic is this pursuit".

The exception, not the norm

When something ends up trending (even on a small scale within a sub-genre) it's usually because the music is absolutely on-point and just right for what's happening in the cultural zeitgeist of that moment.

I'm confident that if you asked an artist if they intended to trend, they'd answer something along the lines of "well, everyone wants to, but nobody expects to".

So we're left wondering if they found the silver-bullet that the rest of us are chasing, or did they just get lucky.

Luck is a complicated topic, as many believe it's manipulatable, or that you can manifest luck, or make good luck happen through hard work, etc. We'll set aside discussing outright luck, but whatever the case, artists who gain streaming success to the degree that they can go full-time as an independent artist, intentionally or otherwise, made something that audiences unknowingly desired in the moment of its release. Whether what they made was artistically or technically any good or not, is beside the point. Their timing of release, and musical aesthetic just so happened to be what the whim of social consumption wanted/needed in that moment. I don't believe there's a reliable way to accurately predict that.

I imagine that most independent musicians have probably been guilty to some extent of chasing these silver-bullets at some point in their career, and understandably so; it's as enticing as a lottery win. It's a golden ticket out of the rat-race.

But if you don't win the lottery, do you take to Twitter and have an impassioned rant about how broken the lottery industry is, or vent your frustrations in a lottery-players Facebook group? Of course not! That would be irrational. We all know the odds of winning the lottery are miniscule.

The numbers - let's keep things rational!

Two years ago, an estimated 40,000 new pieces of music were uploaded to Spotify every day (that's 14,600,000 pieces of music a year - this figure has been steadily climbing every year, but let's stick with 40K a day for the sake of this exercise).

If you release 1 piece of music a year, that places you in direct competition with approximately 14,600,000 other new pieces of music that year. Current estimates suggest there are over 100,000,000 pieces of music on Spotify. Some of this music will be well-established and popular; deeply embedded in the algorithms that recommend music to listeners. Also, let's not forget the tendency for people to often re-listen to the same music and not necessarily seek out new things (people know what they like and they like what they know).

I.e. you're in competition with 100M pieces of music that can be considered established back-catalogue, and 14.6M new pieces of music uploaded in the same year as your piece of music.

Now obviously, more than one song can trend in any given moment, and there are many more variables at play. I'm no statistician and this is a super crude numerical analogy. Nevertheless, I'm sure you can see that these numbers are simply astronomical and your chances of getting your song to trend favourably are very slim.

So while there's no harm in hoping for a silver-bullet of a song/tune, it would be very unwise to expect it. Moreover you'd be doing yourself a grave disservice by getting frustrated or disillusioned if nothing you make gains significant trending traction.

Side-note: For the sake of another (very crude) comparison, the odds of winning the lottery in the UK are about 1 in 46,000,000. It takes less than a minute to purchase a lottery ticket, and many, many hours of work to produce a piece of music. I.e. for the goal of accruing wealth, playing the lottery is arguably a more efficient use of time than producing music.

Hopefully that should suffice as more than enough ammunition for you to cease any and all negativity you might feel about yourself and/or your music in terms of not achieving anything in the way of Spotify play-counts.

"But Steve, it's not about the money, it's about the artistry!"

If you're thinking this, then good! That's the right response. Our chances of ascertaining overnight trending success are frankly absurd and perhaps we need to focus on the core reason we began making music when we started; the purity, honesty and artistry of composition!

Excavated Chinese flute-like instruments carved from bones. Approx. 9,000 years old.

When humans first evolved beyond nomadic ape-like creatures into settled, arable communities, with safe shelter (caves, houses, tents, huts, etc) and food supplies largely assured, we began being artistic. We made cave paintings and carved instruments out of wood and bones. I.e. being artistic is far more fundamental to the human experience than digital communication networks, social media algorithms and Spotify play-counts!

Most people who feel compelled to create music will do so from an inner drive to be expressive in ways that speech and other means of communication are not. If you feel this desire to create music, first and foremost, just do it! You owe it to yourself and the human-artistic canon.

Side-note: If your drive to make music is fuelled by a desire to accrue wealth, may I refer you to the above-mentioned probabilities and recommend you go and play the lottery instead.

Money matters

So, we've concluded that money doesn't matter and it's all about the artistry. The only problem is, money does matter as it puts roofs over our heads and food on our tables. When I was a kid, I dreamed of earning loads of money from music, living in a mansion, driving Ferraris, having sexy-pool-parties, etc... Last week, I used some of this year's OSC earnings to buy new school uniform for my son, as he's 13 years old and won't stop growing! Rock and roll, right! 🙄

I expect that many of the musicians reading this have day-jobs and financial commitments that don't relate to their musical artistry, but that their musical artistry offers supplementary income which helps ease the strain of the cost of living.

There's no escaping the fact that the global economy is an absolute mess right now, and across the world the cost of living is spiralling. Therefore, there's no shame in considering if and how our musical creations might be able to help us gain a little supplementary income. It sure would help to have a viral hit, but that's about as realistic as winning the lottery, so we need to be a bit more pragmatic in our outlook and ambition.

Slow and steady wins the race

Without even necessarily doing anything different (in practical terms), I'd recommend ensuring your outlook is measured and patient (as opposed to worried or concerned about low Spotify play-counts). Taking inspiration from the Marginal Gains ethos, consider every piece of music you release to be a tiny addition or gain to a collective body of revenue-generating material that acts as a top-up to a day-job salary, and helps make life a little easier.

Let's say you release 20 pieces of music this year and they are each streamed 100 times a day on Spotify. They'll earn roughly $8.74 a day which adds up to roughly $3000 a year (before expenses and taxes).

If the next year, you release another 20 pieces of music, you could potentially double this amount to $6000. In year three, another 20 pieces of music could take this figure up to $9000, and so on. Factor in that over time, this will feed algorithms and most likely, slowly expand your listener-base. Assuming a little audience-expansion, things will begin to climb in a more exponential way.

Understandably, the reality is not nearly so linear, as naturally some things will be more or less popular than others, and this is all depends on how well you promote things via other channels such as social networks, etc. Nevertheless, hopefully you can see that over time, keeping things focused and patient can yield results that are meaningful. I.e. the Marginal Gains start to pay off.

Furthermore, and most importantly, this is possible without compromising your artistry or burning out in the pursuit of trends or silver bullets. All it needs is a switch in philosophical outlook from chasing an unlikely possibility, to focusing on realistic and achievable goals. A sort of "slow and steady wins the race" approach.

Speaking from personal experience, this switch in mindset was of huge benefit to both my quality of life and the quality of my music (and as the music improved, so too did the audience numbers... go figure!).

Marginal Gains & the philosophical calm

It's my belief that once the notion of eager financial ambition is removed from the equation, the quality of your art will improve, as will your productivity, and hopefully also your supplementary income.

Scrap the anxiety-inducing notion of chasing a viral hit! Don't take any rash decisions to reinvent your methods and processes, and despite the financially dire prospects of 2023 and beyond, stay calm, measured and take incremental steps to remain musically productive. Provided you do some social media legwork, the Marginal Gains should (hopefully) take care of the rest.

If you've wrestled with uncertainty, disappointment or anxiety about the performance (or lack there of) of your music online, I hope this article is in some ways reassuring. Please keep in mind that quick success is the anomaly and it can be very detrimental to chase it. A gradual, organic growth is far more normal, and there's nothing to worry about if only a handful of people are streaming your music right now. Keep seeking out those Marginal Gains and in time, you'll feel the benefits.

There are a lot of auxiliary and supporting aspects to this topic, such as how you utilise BandCamp and YouTube metadata, social networks and so on, and I'll delve into those in future articles, but for now, if you're starting out or feel like you are stagnating, hold tight and don't panic! Don't let small numbers bother you, take a holistic, long-term overview of things and just keep making your music.


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