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  • Writer's pictureLyle Burns

What Makes A Superstar? From Niche to Mainstream

What makes a superstar? That’s a question that runs through the heads of both the public and artists. How does someone make that jump? There are so many talented artists in the world, but there must be a differentiator that propels some talented artists to stardom and leaves others struggling to get their music heard. Obviously, the first answer that comes to mind for many is resources. While that’s certainly part of the equation, there are numerous artists that have had label backing, resources, and a hit or two, and they were still unable to make the jump to lasting stardom. So, there has to be more than simply talent and resources. There must be an intangible, magnetic energy, as part of the brand. There must also be a deep understanding of their core fanbase, a solid body of work, an unstoppable vision for their career, and finally, a marketing plan to follow that allows them to reach new audiences. All of these come together to help create superstars.

The Intangible “It” Factor

That intangible, magnetic, energy that draws people in manifests in different ways for each artist. However, the simplest description I’ve come up with is a blend of being relatable while also being something fans aspire to be. It can start off as an ambiguous and ethereal thing, but if an artist can wrap their heads around what comprises that energy, it can provide a clear path for building connections with audiences.

Let’s take Beyoncé as one example. For many Beyoncé fans, they grew up with her from Destiny’s Child and have followed her until now. It feels like she’s an ingrained part of their life and that they truly know her. Beyond that, her discography is packed with vulnerable moments and relationship struggles, along with moments of triumph, messages of self-worth, and display of incredible self confidence that fans can only aspire to. In a song where she sings about disbelief and hurt after being cheated on, she is also able to confidently state that she’s the baddest woman in the game.

Drake follows a similar formula making tracks full of emotions and vulnerabilities that men often don’t want to share, and he intertwines that with a healthy dose of bravado, braggadocio, and ambition. Jay Z takes a different path all together. He didn’t really include vulnerability into his music until recently. What people connected to with Jay Z was their own ambition. People who see themselves as hustlers, entrepreneurs and who want the finer things in life connect with his music. Jay Z is the ultimate fulfillment of those desires they aspire to achieve.

On a smaller scale, look at the group Run The Jewels. Alone, Killer Mike and El-P didn’t have huge careers, but as RTJ, they’ve grown to new levels. Fans relate to the sense of outrage in their music, a message of living on their own terms, an overall just rebellious feeling. Fans aspire to live their life with that same feeling in which fans relate. That’s a much less mainstream feeling and desire, but it’s one that catapulted their careers to a new level and allowed them to connect with a specific niche audience.

Building a Brand and Core Fan Base

Across the board for any artist, it is essential to build and focus on a core fan base early on. That early fan base can seem like a niche market and that’s fine because opportunities to expand it will come. In fact, according to Music Industry Insights by Midem, fan bases are now built through niche audiences across different platforms and channels. This is incredibly important, because these niches can be cultivated not only online but also locally. It’s important to know how to pitch to local publications, radio stations, and college students. Knowing key venues and players also gives artists an inroad into local niches and allows them to cultivate an audience. From here, artists can book shows and continually gain new fans that can tack onto their core fan base.

A strong core will keep you afloat and will generate the necessary buzz to create new, and larger, openings. Billie Eilish’s manager said the first major thing they did was focus on the core. As she began releasing songs, fans were able to drive engagement. For example, when her song “Ocean Eyes” was featured on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist, it didn’t perform as well as some of the other songs, but her core fan base was able to drive engagement and that engagement opened pathways for her to eventually reach new audiences.

Beyond the basics of brand building, artists who want to build a brand that draws fans in and stands out should think about how to incorporate some of these influential brand elements:

  • Community

  • Storytelling

  • Rituals

  • Symbols

  • Vision

  • Sensory appeal

  • Competition

  • Evangelism

  • Mystery

  • Grandeur

These brand elements help build the narrative around an artist and Amber Grimes, the VP of Creative for Capitol Music Group admits, “The difference between a superstar and a run-of-the-mill artist lies in their narrative.” The Weeknd is one of the most legendary examples of building a brand with a shield of enigma. For a while, he only gave fans music and elusive posts on Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube, but he made sure that he didn’t reveal basic facts about himself. Fans had no clue whether it was a single artist or full band. In fact, his music would play in the American Apparel store he worked at and his coworkers had no idea it was him. In an attempt to put the music and the aesthetic of the brand at the forefront, The Weeknd was able to establish an authentic image and values which eventually led to a cult following of fans who passionately shared or admired the lifestyle of his music.

The lyrics in these dark, unstructured, and often unpredictable songs were the only context that fans had, so they believed his stories about sex, excessive partying and drug taking. By being anonymous, The Weeknd silenced any competing narrative or image that wouldn’t support the life he was portraying in his music. In fact, the mysterious nature allowed fans to let their imagination run wild and shape the experience themselves. It also had the added benefit of encouraging fans to focus on the lyrics for their own personal connection rather than trying to guess if they referred to a past relationship with another celebrity or a party they heard about in the tabloids.

The brand is only one part of building a core fan base. The music must resonate with listeners and artists must constantly dig deeper in their marketing efforts. A consistent release of singles that lead to a mixtape, EP, or album is necessary to keep fans’ attention. It can be a way to ensure fans return to an artist again.

A body of work that is built during this time is critical to feed the core base and for when an artist is ready to expand beyond their niche. For The Weeknd, releasing his first three singles, which led to the House of Balloons mixtape, allowed for an opportunity to work with Drake. He had songs ready to give to Drake for his album Take Care. He then followed up by releasing two more mixtapes over the next nine months: Thursday and Echoes of Silence. By the beginning of the following year, all the major labels were working to sign him. He had proven his ability to build a fan base, consistently release music, and now he had leverage.

Moving Beyond the Niche to Superstardom For any artist who wants to be a superstar, a clear and major vision is critical. That vision not only guides the direction of the artist’s career but also shapes their sound. For Billie Eilish, her label’s CEO credits her strong vision as key in helping the label properly support her. They were able to give her freedom in developing her sound while having clear direction on where to build partnerships that would expand her reach and grow her fan base. After building a niche and core audience, a brand grows by expanding its reach to new audiences by attracting their eyes and eventually their ears.

After The Weeknd’s release of his debut album, Kiss Land, which was a success with his core fan base and critics but failed to catapult him to the stardom he envisioned, he went back to the drawing board. With a goal of being the biggest artist in the world, he first did a collaboration with Ariana Grande, an artist with a different fan base than his own, allowing him to reach new audiences. He continued the collaborations with other major artists, and he also began working with more traditional pop producers and songwriters while adding his own stylistic twists. He learned about traditional song structures, hooks, prehooks, bridges, and major and minor keys. These fundamentals were extremely important because as Quincy Jones says, “You have to master the rules before you break them, so you better know what you’re doing.” This allowed his style to evolve to retain what made it unique in the beginning while allowing it to appeal to wider audiences.

There’s no guarantee a certain path will work in achieving stardom. If an artist has a magnetic energy — the “It” factor — along with a strong core fan base to center on, a well-defined brand built, a solid body of work, and focus on expanding from their niche, then the odds are much better. Expanding reach isn’t about just collaborations, local pitches, or very consumable music — it takes marketing, as well. Marketing must also be focused on reaching new audiences while clearly communicating what an artist’s brand is and why someone would want to experience it. If artists build a strong foundation and then shift to marketing smartly, to expand their reach, not just engage their existing audiences, then achieving superstardom can move from being just a dream to something that can be accomplished with a smart, carefully plotted plan.

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