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Right, first of all, this is (kinda) my opinion and also focuses on commercial pop artists so don't @ me!
I have been fascinated with this topic for a LONG time and had many arguments/discussions with various musician friends about it. I've heard the standard points; 'X factor is shit', 'go to watch local bands who are GOOD', 'people who write their own songs are BETTER'.
In reality, I think these points are completely subjective and very generalised.
To me, there are five factors that make an artist successful:
4. musical ability
Now, this pie represents what I think are the optimum percentages of each, however, this does vary with each artist and some will dominate in one section over another. examples of this would be:
Lady Gaga- dominates on image and songwriting
John Mayer - dominates on musical ability and songwriting
I just want to talk about songwriting and timing for a minute though, as these are the most important points imo.
Timing is crucial to anything, ever. businesses, artists, shops, products... Everything needs to be exposed to the world at the correct time or else it will fail (or half succeed at a very slow pace). An artist can be practically perfect in every way but if the timing is wrong and the audience at the current time aren't feeling it, then it's a no go.
The 1975 and Billie Eilish are fabulous examples of hitting out at the right time. Play 'When we all fall asleep, where do we go?' to kids in the seventies and there's no doubt Eilish would not have had the same impact. It's worth mentioning authenticity here; it's not a case of researching musical trends and taking an educated guess at what the world might pick up on. It has to be 'you', it has to be authentic and real, otherwise the like-ability and image will suffer.
Songwriting is another must-have. I don't mean a technically impressive song, I'm talking about catchy, pop anthems that immediately grab the audience in and have them singing along. Think 'Shotgun', 'Havana' and 'Shape of you'. Obviously there are other popular songs, but those that will become classics have to dominate every radio station, be played on repeat on your Spotify and be instantly stuck in your head.
Go forth, onto image and branding!
I think this one is a factor that many people think isn't important. I've heard phrases like 'it's all about the music' or 'we want to be authentic'.
Having a professional team work on an artist's image and branding doesn't have to mean less authenticity, if anything it should mean more. ALL super successful artists have a team for this without a doubt and there's a reason for it.
Similarly to businesses, branding helps to build trust in the audience; they know what they're getting and the familiarity turns to loyalty.
Image is arguably the largest section of Lady Gaga's pie (lol). We all wanted to see what she was going to wear to each event, how she was going to push the boundaries even further for the shock factor and be completely wowed by her live show creative. and that image is HER. That is her authenticity.
Another interesting band to talk about here would be the Sex Pistols. They were known for being authentic, DIY, working class and punk and that WAS their image. Their image captured everything they were about and communicated that visually to their audience.
Image and branding encapsulates what the band/artists is all about in a visual way and exaggerates it. I think the confusion comes from thinking that the foundations and philosophies will be lost in a shiny image and that is in no way the case.
Another point I've heard is in regards to John Mayer. 'He doesn't have a brand, he's all about the technical ability'. That IS his brand. His album covers, his live shows will all be focused towards an audience that values musical ability and has a more sophisticated musical taste. it's all planned!
This takes us nicely onto musical ability, doesn't it? I have no doubt that most people would argue that this slice of pie is too small but it's not, it's not.
The Beatles' songs are not the most technical, some pop artists will pick up a bass and learn it because the opportunity is there to be part of a successful band, not all pop bands have singers that are able to hold their own on a stage.
And I think that's ok.
Anyone who prides themselves on their technical ability and is solely focused on that element of their career, should not strive to be a famous music artist but a session player.
Session players are the ABSOLUTE BEST.
A music artist with only musical ability is a lonely slice of pie.
You know on X Factor, when an excellent singer gets sent home early and everyone screams 'it's a fix!'. That happens because a great singer is not necessarily a great artist. They would be showcasing musical ability and songwriting (because the chances are they're singing a classic song) but they're probably lacking an image (authenticity and knowing who they are) and charisma. They're possibly a bit boring and by the time you've watched another 10 singers, some of whom are a bit witty or OTT, you've forgotten Mr Nice Singer and definitely won't be voting for him.
X Factor is difficult if you go in without even a glimpse of a brand identity. The builders and call centre workers who happen to have phenomenal voices struggle by going from song to song, with a different image each week and they fail to make an impression. Basically, you need to know yo vibe in order to attract yo tribe!
Sometimes the great singers who also have some like-ability win, but without an image or brand they fail to make their mark on the real world, resulting in forgotten winners and an increased scepticism in the show's credibility.
Well this leaves us with charisma and like-ability. I reckon this is the smallest piece of pie because I have seen some artists who are a bit fucking boring and can't hold their own in an interview and to be fair this probably has a lot to do with the gruelling work hours which no one ever appreciates. I know I would struggle with 3 to 4 hours sleep a night for years on end.
However, some people really make that DNA work for them and reality stars are a prime example of this. Their pie would be largely charisma with a little slice of branding. Enter X Factor's Rylan; his whole career was launched from a predominantly charismatic pie, so there's nothing to scoff at there.
John Mayer, Harry Styles and Matt Healy (the 1975) are examples of artists with a healthy slice of charisma pie. They're articulate and interesting to listen to, as well as being entertaining (if you haven't seen John Mayer's smokey eye tutorial on insta stories I would thoroughly recommend). The benefits of having these skills is how it allows the audience to get to know you better and the more they like you, the more they feel they know you. This in turn helps to sell records and tickets to shows. If you're all about increasing your income streams then this could also lead to other opportunities such as judging a TV talent show at the same time your new album comes out, wink wink.
Before wrapping this bad boy up, I'd like to mention a couple of acts who have had a long standing career BEFORE being catapulted into the (very) mainstream, pretty much over night.
Sia and Green Day were respected in their own fields and had a good deal of success, yet both faced criticism of 'selling out' when they were reinvented and had their commercial success.
This is a really tricky one, because both their images and branding were authentic and exaggerated versions of their previous selves, if a little more fine tuned, but when you make the transition from slightly more alternative to commercial, you will no doubt lose some of your original audience. However, you gain more than you lose so it comes down to a personal decision. Me being me, I loved seeing their growth, enjoyed their new slightly more OTT styling and continue to enjoy both their old and more mainstream music.
This leads me on to my final point. I would argue that in order for an artist to achieve longevity within their career, reinvention is necessary. This doesn't mean losing authenticity but more embracing natural growth and being aware of the changing trends within popular music.
Taylor Swift, Madonna and Eminem have done this flawlessly and have continued to keep momentum going, taking their audience along with them. A bit of controversy never hurts in these journeys as well!
With incredible songwriting and a constantly evolving brand and image, they take any mistakes or negativity in their stride, embracing them and focusing on continually moving forward, all while staying true to themselves and maintaining their authenticity. Phew. Not an easy task, aye?
That's all for now, chickens
Thanks for reading ✌🏼