A recent post on my musical tastes elicited an interesting reply from “Anonymous” about the predominance of indie acts that struggled with maintaining early critical and/or commercial success. The question was what these bands could have applied from business strategy to improve their longevity. Here are a few thoughts:

  • In applying business strategy, most of these bands are “product brands” (Liz Phair, Cracker, The Lemonheads, Crowded House, etc.). Records labels are the businesses. They Might Be Giants is probably closest to a true business with its diversification into other mediums.
  • Based on the first point, most indie bands don’t subscribe to typical business objectives initially (i.e. Liz Phair disavowing interest in selling records early on, only to realize later that it’s okay). As such, the indie strategy is typically “build it and they will come” – far from a successful long-term marketing strategy.
  • How achievable long-term success is for indie bands seems tied to how their brands are defined:
    - “How” oriented bands – a brand built around style whether musical (M. Ward, Fatboy Slim) or visual (while not on my list, Flock of Seagulls is the ultimate footnote in this category).
    - “Who” oriented bands - built around individuals or groups of individuals (Lemonheads, R.E.M.).
    - “What” oriented bands – the brand is tied to the group’s structure and form. The Clash was about its members and a point of view; U2 is another example. “What” oriented bands seem to have the most viable options for growth and staying power. “How” and “Who” acts seem more hemmed in by fans unwilling to allow change.
  • Speaking of fans, another factor limiting broad commercial success for indie bands is music’s highly emotional nature. This phenomenon limits maneuver for brands seeking out new stylistic territory. If your bathroom cleaner changes formulation, big deal – there’s no emotional connection. If your favorite indie band tries to change, however, there’s a lot greater likelihood you’ll feel betrayed and look for a new one with which to connect.
  • Finally, from a strategy perspective, a business can only afford for its products to be as niche as distribution systems allow for efficiency and profit. When most of these acts became popular, distribution was through physical stores, with higher inherent costs. As a result, bands had to meet tougher sales hurdles to continue recording. With today’s electronic distribution, minimum commercial sales targets have likely declined. The greater distribution efficiency is the only reason most of these acts still even have music available for purchase.

The net of all this suggests a variety of factors that make it tough, albeit perhaps easier today, for an indie band to breakthrough to broad commercial success. But doing so still often pulls a band away from its critical base. The key to doing all this successfully ties to staking out a broad enough structure and form for the band’s brand early on, providing enough room for the expansion necessary to go after commercial success.

As usual, check out Seth Godin’s blog for a couple of intriguing posts that address related aspects of the questions of popularity and targeting your strategy.

Thanks for prompting this response Chris, I mean, “Anonymous.”