Catering to a Niche vs. Appealing to the Masses

It is known that people often view their favorite musical genre as “the best,” and can cite various reasons why. But since musical taste is subjective, I find ranking styles irrelevant—we might as well be arguing about which flavor of ice cream is the best. Some people like mint chocolate chip, and some like rocky road. We can all agree that neither flavor is right or wrong. I happen to have a pretty diverse palette and believe that all flavors can be a “favorite,” depending on the mood I am in.

I like to compare ingredients in ice cream to ingredients in music because it helps me strategize about the consumer base I am marketing towards. Sometimes I want to make a simple flavor that appeals to the masses, like vanilla, and sometimes I want to make a more complicated blend, like pistachio-banana-walnut ice cream, that requires a specifically developed palette to be properly appreciated. In this case, vanilla ice cream is like pop music and the latter is comparable to a more specific genre, like dub-step.

Catering to a nuanced niche is important because the more specific the target, the more loyal the fan base. If we take a non-mainstream genre like dub-step, for example, and investigate its growing market, we will see that its fans are typically more dedicated. Because dub-step is not as easily accessible as commercial radio music, listeners are forced to do research and discover new artists on their own. This self-discovery is powerful because it helps them bond and identify with artists, more so than if they are simply spoon fed content from public sources. When fans find an artist on their own, they feel as though the art is exclusively theirs. Once that same artist goes mainstream and becomes more popular to the masses, the sound becomes less special and less personal. I have been researching this phenomenon for most of my life, ever since my older sibling told me to stop copying her musical taste and form my own identity. I’ve also felt it first hand with my favorite genre of music in high school, underground hip-hop, which includes artists like Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan. As much as I may appreciate seeing underground acts grow and blossom, there is something special about keeping an artist exclusive.

Moreover, people who listen to mainstream radio are usually more indifferent about the specific artist they are listening to. Not to generalize, but those who are plugged into the Top 100 world, are usually more inclined to put on the radio and listen to what’s played, without questioning what they might be missing. In addition, they typically do not financially support or patronize individual musicians as much as fans of a smaller, dedicated genre might.

Understanding that niche fans are more loyal is key while developing your music business. Take, for example, Math Hoffa, an artist I produce who has embraced his nuanced demographic by building on it. He came onto the scene several years ago as a battle rapper, and realized that by appealing to a specific market, he could establish a loyal fan base. His goal, of course, is to be bigger than battle rap, but if he went too mainstream too quickly, he would have watered down his brand and blended in as just another “rapper from Brooklyn.” Now that he has found his fan base from battling, he can comfortably and slowly expand into different styles of music, and true to form, his fans will follow.

Check out one of his non-battle songs I produced featuring Method Man:

While catering to a niche will help an artist establish his or her sound more quickly and uniquely, creating pop music and replicating mainstream radio may be okay for some artists too.

Speaking from my personal experiences, while much of my success has come from hip-hop, I also produce a wide variety of other styles. One of my brand’s values has always been its ability to cater to any artist that enters my studio. There are millions of hip-hop producers, but what has differentiated me over the years has been my ability to create MUSIC, not just hip-hop. Some could even say my niche is that I do not have a niche. At the end of the day, producing a variety of genres is what keeps me interested and inspired by musical expression. Ultimately, I like to make music, not just hip-hop, and exploring uncharted musical territories is my number one priority. Artists who do not take enough risks when creating music tend to imitate what is already on the airwaves and play it too safe when choosing sounds and melodies. Being safe is boring to fans. Above all else, artists should always be themselves, think outside the box, and believe in the music they are making. Take this as an example of how to form your own ideals and motivational strategy.

On a separate note, I want to make the point that I believe pop music does not get the artistic respect it deserves. No one is going to argue that vanilla is a bad flavor just because it is simple, but unfortunately this uninformed stigma does exist in music. Music snobs argue that there is little musicianship in pop music. But as a classically trained jazz musician, I must respectfully disagree. In fact, given the limitation of ingredients, creating competitive popular music is more difficult that creating any other genre. Pop music requires a certain level of familiarity and because of that, creatively arranging the prefabricated chord structures requires genius. Especially given technological advances in music, it is far easier to make complicated self-indulging music and more difficult to make music that the majority of the masses will relate to. The beauty in creating pop music, much like in favoring vanilla ice cream, is that it is not about the quantity of ingredients, but rather the quality and way they are blended together. Usually, the instrumentation, arrangement, tonal structure, and lyrical content in pop music are refined, simple, and easy to digest.

In an effort to keep the analogy going, let’s compare Häagen Dazs to a successful pop producer, using high quality limited ingredients, and Ben and Jerry’s as one that established its market by creating interesting, one-of-a-kind flavors. In this case, I’d like to compare myself instead to Baskin Robins, because I economically provide a wide array of musical styles, both simple and complex.

With that in mind, the next time you sit down to write a song, strategize before picking your lane. What kind of music do you want to be known for, and what kind of company-and potential legacy-are you going to build?

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3 Responses to Catering to a Niche vs. Appealing to the Masses

  1. While I would agree that simple popsong architecture is seldom easy, the story of mainstream hits since the fifties has been more about the same three all-purpose diatonic chords dished out in drone-like redundancy, beginning and ending on the same big fat predictable dominant triad; John Cageian anti-establishmentarianism and Stravinskyite atonality notwithstanding. Moreover, these repetitive nurseryrhyme kindergarten incantations are foisted upon us by an industry that chooses only freshfaced fratchildren, simultaneously dancing frantically, to perform them. This “star-making machinery of the popular song,” as Joni Mitchell aptly characterized it is capitalism at its tackiest and one must make a personal decision either to listen to their soul or to sell it. When money becomes the mainstream motivator, the true purpose of music is inevitably drowned out by the ka-ching of cash registers.

  2. Vuk Lazar says:

    Every artist, no matter how pop or how famous, exploits a niche. However, it’s not one of music genre, but rather ethnicity/nationality, lifestyle, fashion, personality, etc. And fans identify with these sorts of qualities more often, and more deeply, than they do with musical genre alone. Sometimes that niche is small, sometimes it’s just relatively small compared to the pop scene. And pop artists have die-hard fans as much as any other artists. Gaga has her monsters, Minaj has her barbs, and Bieber has his beliebers.

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