There are always different kinds of audiences. You have the early adopters, the first to hear about an artist. These early adopters are looking and wanting a different experience than the people who identify as the critical mass market. Early adopters want something fresh, exciting, new and interesting. The critical mass market doesn’t. They want something that that’s familiar.
Metallica when they started had an audience that adopted them early. Some of those fans stood by them all the way, even when they broke through to the mass market in the 90’s and some of those fans just moved on to something new and different.
Motley Crue had an early start in the Sunset Strip look and sound, so the early adopters saw them as the innovators. Meanwhile bands like Ratt and Dokken appeared when metal and rock music reached critical mass.
Sometimes a person in the mass market becomes an early adopter and sometimes the early adopter becomes part of the mass market. It’s all by choice.
And artists are in it for the art first. And if they get an audience, money might start to come in. And money makes it complicated, because money promises a shortcut. A bigger recording budget, a fancy video clip, a big name producer or better marketing budgets or hire session musicians. We use money to hurry up, but it distracts us from what we actually seek to build. Great art. Without the art, the artist has nothing.
And who should the artist please, the early adopters of their music or the mass market?
Does the artist start creating art for profit?
Profits are fine as they allow the artist to invest back into their art. But if profit becomes the main aim, well, nothing and no one benefits if profits are the only thing the artist seeks.
If you want to be as big as the MTV stars of the 80’s and early 90’s you’ll need to hit critical mass. MTV was the critical mass vessel that spread music to the masses. It allowed metal and rock music to go viral before going viral was a thing. In physics, critical mass has a negative meaning as it describes the amount of plutonium you need in a certain amount of space before a reaction goes out of control, leading to a meltdown or explosion. But when you talk about critical mass in a circle of artists, it’s a positive thing.
There is a belief out there that once enough people who know enough people start talking about your music, your fan base will multiply and growth kicks in.
And that is true from a certain point of view. Like “Game of Thrones”, when it hit the right number of conversations, the buzz creates its own buzz and popularity, which in turn creates more buzz and even more popularity. But “Game of Thrones” didn’t start off with critical mass at the start, even though it was marketed heavily. It was people who spread the word. And it was in full swing by Season 3. Same deal with “The Walking Dead”.
Twisted Sister had this buzz with “Under the Blade”, “You Can’t Stop Rock’N’Roll” and reached critical mass with “Stay Hungry”. “Come Out And Play” should have continued the rollercoaster ride, however poor decisions over what songs to release as singles, over exposure of the band (mainly Dee Snider) in the press, competing against album releases of other artists and an MTV ban on the video clip of “Be Cruel To Your School” hurt the band.
Facebook reached 100 users in a Harvard social circle. It was enough people for it to gain traction and it started spreading all over the campus, the town, the state, the country and then, eventually, the world.
And yes, there are routes to popularity which are random or accidental or luck or being in the right place at the right time.