It’s hard to believe that back in 2000, *NSYNC sold an impressive 9.9M albums, while the highest selling artist of 2011 was Adele with 5.8M albums sold—almost half the volume.
In the early 2000s file sharing inundated the music business, and the entire industry was affected, resulting in dramatic sales reduction. One of the upsides was the breadth and depth of music that was now available to those who were previously reliant on their local Sam Goody. There was, and still is, a fine line between stealing and curiosity, but as time has gone on and illegal file sharing curtailed, the legacy of the Napster period has been extremely positive for music. Boy bands began to lose their enormous status and true musicians began to emerge.
With such a huge range of music readily accessible through stores like iTunes and subscription models such as Spotify, the landscape has changed in tandem with tastes. A new organic, home-cooked wave of acts has materialized, displacing many of the manufactured artists, and paving the way for a new breed of artists who are representative of our times and those ahead. These are primarily acts writing and performing from the soul, yet they are definitely results-minded (often on their own labels) and balancing commercial goals with true artistry.
Consider Mumford & Sons—the Brit roots-based phenomenon that has taken the industry by storm over the last 3 years. I firmly believe that their rise would have been impossible around 2000 due to the formulated shackles the music industry had imposed on itself.
Their success has been based on a carefully managed results-based approach to selling music through writing “real” music and creating bonds with an ever-broadening audience. The appeal of their act, and others like Adele, is extraordinary. Their authenticity and credibility of their music is recognized and loved by dedicated fans—from 16 year olds to 60 year olds.
As Billboard Magazine recently stated, “This is a storybook rise for an unlikely act who has proved that results truly count.” Musically, they’re not exactly pushing the boundaries. They’re essentially the same flavor as Bob Dylan, the Buckleys, and early Wilco—roots-driven with an ability to bring people together united in music and message. But on a relative scale, they’ve achieved more than most of their predecessors in a shorter period of time.
When they got their first break, it was opening for Brit indie band, the Macabees, in the UK in 2007. Brit audiences are notoriously skeptical about opening acts, often preferring the bar to the stalls. But they responded overwhelmingly, enabling the band to play the festival circuit as well as opening for acts associated with the new Brit folk movement such as Laura Marling.
Organic to the end, the band financed their own first album “Sigh No More” to enable them to have creative freedom. Word of mouth, online recommendations and endorsements from credible UK radio presenters helped to spread the word, and brought the band attention in the U.S.
But it wasn’t a fast ride to fame. The band toured the U.S. relentlessly, conducting 10 separate stateside tours since 2008. Each month the live audience not only grew but also widened as their appeal reached new demographics. “Sigh No More” entered the Billboard 200 at #127 in February 2010, selling a humble 5,000 records. It has now sold a cumulative 2.5M copies in the U.S. alone and hasn’t fallen out of the top 75 on the Billboard 200 since July 2010.
The singles “Sigh No More,” “Little Lion Man,” and “The Cave” grew slowly on the radio while the band and the label continued to dig into the results they were achieving, looking for new opportunities on which to build. From college rock stations to festivals like Bonnaroo, to TV appearances on CMT’s Crossroads alongside Emmylou Harris, they found the warmest of greetings.
Their slow-build strategy has paid off, after scoring two 2011 Grammy nominations (including best new artist), Mumford & Sons notched four more in 2012 and were a focal point of the broadcast. Mumford & Sons were up there in the echelons of not just rock, but of all music worldwide—organic music with commercial sense.
Usually the launch of the second album is fraught with concern and doubt. Bands often have years to develop and tweak material for the first album, and then have to deliver the second in a much shorter time. But the band used their intense touring schedule to refine the new tracks, and they listened carefully to the audience reaction.
The Mumford & Sons second record, “Babel,” was released in September 2012, debuting at number one following a performance on The David Letterman Show. Spotify Chief Content Officer Ken Parks stated that 1 out of every 10 U.S. Spotify users played a song from Babel in its first week of release.
It has since become the fastest selling album of 2012 in the UK, selling over 158,000 copies in its first week, and was the biggest selling debut of any album in 2012 in the U.S., selling 600,000 copies in its first week, and over a million worldwide.
Mumford & Sons have become the proof of the pudding—that commercial success based on a careful results-based strategy can still be rooted in beautifully crafted and uncompromised music. A far cry from the pre-Napster world and its manufactured acts, it’s a sign of the future laden with brilliant artists who are musically driven yet marketing-aware and fully tuned into the results of their creativity.
It’s a win-win for all.
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