Photo Credit: Collages via Billboard
Most people will tell you that the only success that translates financially is “success.” In music, certainly, it’s thought to be almost entirely mathematical: the more records an artist has sold, the more “successful” they are (of course, in recent decades the number of downloads and streams would also have to be factored in but the underlying point stands). But what about the quality of the music itself? Is that more important? Less? Equally?
By contrast to album sales, the “quality” of the music is subjective – infinitely so. You’re currently looking at a website dedicated to popular music, which means you’ve probably engaged in many heated discussions (both in-person and online) about which band, rapper, guitarist, album, song, genre, era, etc. is better than which other one. And needless to say, we’ll never all agree. Some people don’t like the Beatles, and somewhere out there are individuals who truly believe that Vanilla Ice was a misunderstood genius (at least if we’re going to go by the law of averages).
There’s been plenty of music that never got the widespread recognition it deserved, but can unquestionably be considered successful in terms of influence. Blues players from the 1950s and earlier were never allowed true mainstream success but were probably the most crucial element in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll. The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album didn’t sell many copies but it’s been said (though by whom originally is uncertain) that each person who bought it started a band. In the early ’70s Clive Campbell aka DJ Kool Herc never even had a commercially released recording but is considered to have all but invented hip hop.
Probably the saddest case is that of artists who do seek at least some measure of mainstream success but whose record never reaches more ears because of politics among record labels, promoters, radio, music video outlets, etc. (although the internet has leveled the playing field quite a bit). However, there are quite a few artists – particularly those that record for smaller, indie labels or even just release tracks online – that are willing to sacrifice the chance for a larger audience as long as they get to make music that they believe in one-hundred-percent.
Many artists in this position have the added bonus of getting to interact more directly with their fans, whether it’s meeting them after a show in a club where they’re selling their own merch, or even by having more (or exclusive) hands-on involvement with their social media. These artists get to see fan bases that are comprised of those who truly believe in what they’re doing, weeding out those who are only there because the artist is currently “in.”
Still, those audience members that are just along because an artist is considered popular that given week do translate to record sales and concert attendance, which in turn give an artist more financial freedom to pursue their craft. So obviously, to answer to whether it’s album sales or the quality of music which truly equals success is never going to be cut-and-dried. However, if someone somewhere likes any piece of music, on at least a small level, that can be considered a success. But mostly, if the artist is satisfied with what they’re created, that should also definitely be viewed as a success.