Watermelon Boy: Redefining making it for 2022
When I was in bands in my late teens and early twenties, I had a very clear idea of what success in the music biz would look like. The idea was built around a 20th-century “rockstar” myth and what it took for them to be a success.
As the industry recovers from 20 years of turbulence, it’s time to address this idea of success. So many of its facets no longer apply or have become toxic. With a new focus on wellbeing and mental health, with the decentralisation of the business, with more opportunities and revenue streams the time is now to redraw the image of success and work towards something generative, sustainable and healthy.
“We’re really gonna make it, aren’t we?” I can remember “Bird” the bass player in my old band Sprokit saying to me as we cranked our fresh demo in my Nissan Pulsar. “I mean, the singer from my old band used to be all like ‘when we make it…, when we make it…’ and I knew for real the band wasn’t going anywhere but WE are gonna be huge”. Like over-caffeinated rats in a laboratory maze, we powered through the motions that we thought we needed to take, in a pre-internet revolution music industry. Outside of practising, recording brash demos and playing the occasional gig, we didn’t have a clear path towards this concept of “Making It” that was in our heads.
We knew “Making It” involved a “Big Break” and that had only a handful of manifestations. It could have been that one touring act we supported decided that we were so amazing they wanted to take us on their next run and everything would take off from there. Or we somehow get playlisted on Triple J, either from a debut on a specialist program or by winning the (then touring) Unearthed program and everything would take off from there. Or we would send a demo to a label and they would fall in love with us and everything would take off from there.
The “everything would take off from there” concept was a blind faith in the machinery of the music industry. The idea that once the machine was behind us an unstoppable momentum would be on our side. This blind faith was reassured by every story of success we’d ever been privy to. The story stated that a musical act was small-time, they would meet a gatekeeper who loved them and then ‘voila’, the act became big-time. The machinery wasn’t a big part of that story. We knew it’s there, we just didn’t know what it did. We knew even less about the heavy wooden sabot which was about to be wedged into the gears of this machine by our own generation and how this would change things permanently.
In 2001, peer to peer file sharing such as Napstar, Audio Galaxy & Lime Wire promised my generation all the music they ever wanted for free. Not only was it free, you didn’t need to go into a record store, you could just look it up and download it. You didn’t need to know you liked it, you could try an album or a song and if it sucked, you could free up valuable megabytes by deleting the file. As hard as the industry would fight to maintain scarcity and value in recorded music, the genie was out of the bottle and recorded music was about to become ubiquitous.
Fast forward twenty years and the music industry now appears to be in a sustained recovery and spared from total annihilation. The streaming model offers the same (or better) instant access as piracy but with a payment system consumers are happy to subscribe to. Steaming along with other changes have resulted in consistent revenue growth for our once embattled business. On top of all that, the price barriers to making a decent recording have crumbled. With no need for physical printing of discs the cost of releasing music has essentially evaporated leading to a huge increase in the amount of music being released.
The result being that even though money has come back to the industry, it has to be shared among many more musicians. The pie has a lot more slices. Also, the long tail of streaming revenue lends itself to prolonged, sustainable income rather than larger cash injections during active release cycles. This revenue can continue for many decades as long as the audience keeps listening to your music.
So how does this affect the definition of success? Rather than only a handful of musicians every year crossing the threshold into professionalism, a livable wage from recorded music is more accessible than ever. Many of the processes (the machinery) guarded by the gatekeepers of the past are now publicly available and low cost. One can have an idea for a song, track it and have it available commercially within a week. Most importantly this can be done with little capital expenditure and can be done repeatedly.
Like any business an independent recording artist should aim to make profit from their recordings which means efficiencies of process are paramount. You can of course try to go backwards until your long awaited “Big Break” but sustainability dictates that if your music is a constant drain on your income, your window of operation is limited. I would also argue that not only are big breaks no longer necessary they may just be an archaic concept.This old model of “spend & pray” may be powered by self belief but it remains dependant on good fortune
If an artist makes high quality/low cost recordings then the reality of these projects being profitable gets so much closer. If an artist can set themselves up to constantly make and release music then these new advantages of profitability multiply. If they have a few projects on the go at once, they can trial ideas and follow the most successful projects. Income from successful projects can subsidise passion projects. If an artist connects with an audience, it will grow. If they feed their catalog, it will grow. This can train the artist into efficient release processes that will apply across any endeavour.
If an artist spends their time making music they love, collaborating with talents they appreciate, connecting with an audience and are able to draw profit then they are successful. This looks nothing like the image of success I had when I was 19 but the world is a very different place.
Reprogramming 20 years of aspiration into something workable in the modern era has been a challenge to me. But balancing a handful of projects, writing songs, producing, collaborating and encouraging people to listen gives me a lot of joy and excitement. Those motivating feelings have been key to my sustained engagement in (what can be, at times) a brutal industry.
Redefining one’s image of success for the modern era can also free an artist from many unfair self-criticisms. When we try to compete with an image of success that’s based on a 20th-century rock star concept, of course we will find ourselves disappointed. This is clearly bad for our wellbeing. Creating a workflow that allows us to make music while still leaving room for social connection, exercise, mentoring and community involvement is, without doubt, a mature and sustainable approach. If we can also find a way to do this affordably (or even profitably) then we’ve unlocked the final door to a career as a musician.
We must love what we do rather than just loving a dream of who we think we could be. If you love the idea of yourself as a famous musician but find releasing music stressful, unaffordable and upsetting then it’s going to be very hard to do the work you’ll need to do to become a professional and it will be very unlikely that you’ll be able to fulfil your precise aspirations.
Would I still love Watermelon Boy to have a string of massive hits? Yeah, of course but that’s not the only model of success now and I’m happy making and releasing music I care about. My desire to live fast and die young has vanished while balance and sustainability have become more important values. If I could explain this “long haul” vision of success to young musicians, it would involve dispelling the 20th Century rockstar myth and helping them build generative patterns that will let them invest in a fulfilling career and sustain them and their family for decades.
Arlo Enemark has spent more than 11 years working in the music industry from label & artist management to distribution & PR. A lifelong music producer, he released the debut album for his current project Watermelon Boy in November.