What’s the best way to become a superstar? First, become a successful mainstream artist.
That’s one of the key takeaways from the inaugural annual report from music data company Chartmetric.
Of the roughly 710,000 new artists added to Chartmetric’s platform in 2023 that placed into one of six career stages — ranging from “undiscovered” to “legendary,” only a small fraction of a percent finished the year amongst the top 35,000 artists. Instead, most new artists — 87.6% of them — fell into the “undiscovered” category, while 12.3% of them reached “developing,” one category above.
The upper echelons were incredibly difficult for new artists to reach. Just 0.05% of new artists — about 355 — finished in the mid-level category or higher — meaning they ranked in the top 35,000 on the platform. Chartmetric created its proprietary Career Stages categories by taking into account artists’ performance across streaming services, social media platforms and radio airplay.
But wait, the numbers are even more imposing! There were actually 1.3 million new artists added to Chartmetric in 2023, but only 710,000 of them were actually assigned a career stage. Chartmetric told Billboard it does not assign every artist a career stage to limit duplicates, remove non-artist profiles and filter out artists with limited data.
Chartmetric’s statistics throw cold water on the notion that social media and do-it-yourself distribution can help any artist reach the levels of success previously attainable only to artists on record labels. Those rare instances grab headlines and feed the narrative that technology has eroded traditional gatekeepers’ powers and democratized access to audiences. And while it’s true that artists such as Armani White and Jxdn rode TikTok fame to major-label record deals, those success stories are outliers. Anonymity, or something close to it, is the norm.
Economic mobility is far from impossible, though. Because Chartmetric tracks so many artists, even incredibly low odds of success can result in a meaningful number of artists moving up the ranks. The 355 new artists that broke into or surpassed the mid-tier level is a big enough number of breakthrough new artists to feed a system of record labels and artist-services companies that must constantly seek out young candidates to become future stars.
Still, the challenging math underpinning success in music makes sense. Getting heard is difficult when audiences live under a constant deluge of listening options. A massive amount of music is released every day — more than 110,000 on average every day in 2023, according to Luminate. Chartmetric added 17.2 million new tracks to its database in 2023 — 7.7 million were released last year — and has 103.9 million tracks in its system.
To evaluate career stage development, Chartmetric took a sample of artists who had reached a career stage on June 11. The vast majority of artists fell into the undiscovered category. In fact, undiscovered artists made up all but 150,000 of the roughly 1.5 million artists who had been given any career stage category on June 11.
Rather than take huge jumps in career stages, most artists who break out to superstar status come from the mainstream, not from the mid-level or developing categories. More than half — 54.2% — of mid-level artists (No. 12,000 to No. 35,000) rose to the mainstream category (No. 1,500 to No. 12,000), the strongest relationship between any two career stages, says Chartmetric.
Put another way, getting to the upper echelon usually means you’ve already had considerable success. This is likely to result of “a steady, consistent rise to the top,” Chartmetric opines, rather than overnight fame.
This path to success makes sense given the advantageous starting point of most major label artists. Rare is the artist plucked from obscurity and developed into a chart-topping success from scratch. In most cases, artists build a career independently and prove themselves — whether through a TikTok hit or ticket sales — before signing with a record label. The bidding war comes after, not before, an artist finds an audience. Undiscovered artists are far riskier propositions for record labels than mid-tier artists.
There is some economic mobility for less successful careers — but not much. About 12% of developing artists were able to rise to mid-level status (No. 12,000 to No. 35,000). Far fewer jumped all the way to the upper echelons: Just 0.25% of developing artists jumped mid-level status and reached mainstream (No. 1,500 to No. 12,000) or superstar (top 1,500).
Just as economic mobility characterizes the “American dream,” the idea that a person can strive to achieve a better life, the great hope of the modern music business is that artists can make a living on streaming royalties. Whether the system is fair is under debate. Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud have changed their royalty calculations to favor professional and developing artists over undeveloped artists and non-music content. In the European Union, lawmakers are pressing music streaming services to improve payouts to artists.
Chartmetric’s report doesn’t dispel any notions that the odds are stacked against new artists hoping to break into the mainstream. Success is possible, but it’s rare.