Music Success Tips: How to Be Like the Top 10 Artists of 2020
Top 10 Artists of 2020 – Each year I recap the most successful artists of the year and see what we can learn from their success. This year will be very different, due to Covid and tour restrictions. However, major artists are still making bank, and we can study them to learn how to emulate their success.
Obviously, all of these artists are under major labels. I wrote about why that’s important to success here. You don’t *need* a major label to be successful, and each of these artists can teach you important lessons for your own career!
Top 10 Artists of 2020
Please note: I am NOT saying these are the best or most talented or anything of the sort. These are the top ranking artists according to Billboard Magazine, which you can see here. We’re going to analyze how each artist got to where they are and what tips you can use for your own music career. Here’s to being in the top 10 artists of 2021!
10). Pop Smoke
Bashar Jackson, aka Pop Smoke, began his music career in 2018. He initially “hung out around other recording artists,” (according to his Wikipedia) which could mean literally anything. Were they making music? Were they playing pool? Or was he just loitering around recording studios?
His first single was “MPR,” which was a big deal in his inner circle in Brooklyn. His next single, “Flexing,” went semi-viral on YouTube, but his hit “Welcome to the Party” skyrocketed his fame in 2019:
Here’s the sad part: Pop Smoke was fatally shot before his album was released in July of 2020. He was shot in the chest during a home invasion. His debut studio album was released posthumously, so sadly he never got to see his final impact on the music industry.
I really try not to focus on the downside, but in 2018 a rapper named Xxxtentacion was in the Top 10 artists of the year for basically the same thing (you can read that post here).
Obviously, you don’t want to die just to make it to the top artists of the year. I’m also not saying that’s the entire reason he’s here, but it definitely had an impact. Let’s try to focus on the positives, because there are plenty of those:
Make friends with other music people. I still don’t know what “hung out around other recording artists” means, but we don’t have to. As long as you know other music people, they’ll open doors for you to other people, and so on. No one is an island, and that’s especially true in music!
9). Taylor Swift
I mean, duh. I’ve been doing these Top 10 artist roundups since 2017, and Taylor Swift has been on every single one. She’s certainly earned it every year, but she really outdid herself in 2020.
Despite the entire world being a flaming dumpster fire, Taylor Swift recorded and released two albums in 2020. The first, Folklore, was a surprise album, and it also blew everyone’s mind when they heard just how many genres Swift is capable of crushing. The lead single was “Cardigan,” which became her sixth #1 single:
I’m speaking as a fan here, so you may disagree with me, but Taylor Swift is so, so amazing.
All I achieved in quarantine was a deeper sense of existential anxiety. Taylor Swift wrote, recorded and released two incredibly groundbreaking albums. There’s a reason she’s where she is, and I’m where I am.
Anyway, one perfect album wasn’t enough, because she then released Evermore to end the year in December. It’s known as Folklore’s sister album, and they both share the same indie-pop folk vibe. The first single, “Willow,” became Swift’s seventh #1 single:
I honestly don’t think there is a lesson here because Taylor Swift is just on a different level from the rest of humanity. I don’t feel right saying something like “write and record two albums in a global pandemic” because 1). For most of us that wasn’t possible and 2). For all her talent, Taylor Swift also has access to MANY things that we don’t, due to her name and finances.
My number one lesson I guess would be to stay creative, even when times are tough. I can’t do this due to crippling depression/anxiety, but if you can do it, please do. Those of us who lost our voices this year relied on those who still had them. Swift rose to the occasion not once, but twice, and she deserves every bit of her accolades in my opinion.
8). Harry Styles
After his meteoric rise in One Direction, Harry Styles left to do his own thing. He’s been killing it ever since, but 2020 was an exceptionally good year for him.
The success in 2020 actually came from 2019, when he released his album Fine Line. “Adore You” was released in December of 2019 but continued to smash its way through 2020:
Not much happened for Harry Styles in 2020 in terms of releases. His tour was postponed due to the pandemic, but that didn’t stop his album from slaying. Rolling Stone included Fine Line in their list of the 500 Best Albums of All Time. Stevie Nicks adopted him into her witch circle which makes me eternally jealous. Fine Line was nominated for a ton of awards. Styles had a great year, all because of hard work from the previous year.
Everything you make is an investment into your future. What you release today can open doors for you years from now, trust me.
If you can make music now, do it. If you can release it now, do it. Any work you put in now can pave the way for you later. Or, if you have a year where you can’t do anything, either due to a global pandemic or personal issues (depressed peeps where you at), your previous work can carry you over for a while.
7). Lil Baby
Dominique Jones, aka Lil Baby, is a rapper and singer/songwriter who is one of the most famous trap artists currently. His first album in 2018 went platinum, which paved the way for his 2020 album. My Turn hit #1 on the Billboard 200.
The first single was “We Paid,” which was a big deal but the second single, “The Bigger Picture,” hit #3 on the Hot 100:
“The Bigger Picture” is a political song, released in June as a response to the murder of George Floyd. Of course, any political song is going to get more attention simply due to its polarizing nature. However, the song itself should be judged regardless of one’s political beliefs. A good song is a good song, and this song certainly fits. This song was kind of a “theme song” for the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred across the world in 2020.
Lil Baby was also featured on Pop Smoke’s song “For the Night,” which, as we already know was a major success. My Turn was the first album of 2020 to become certified double platinum.
Some people caution artists not to make political songs, but if you believe strongly in something, I say go for it. You’ll get a ton of haters, so be prepared for that, but that will likely happen anyway.
We also have another example of past success opening doors for future/current success. I think that’s the biggest lesson of this whole post. Whatever you can get done now, do it.
6). Juice WRLD
Welp, this is gonna be another sad one. Jarad Higgins, aka Juice WRLD, was a singer/songwriter/rapper. He started working on music in high school, uploading consistently to SoundCloud until he gained attention from bigger artists such as Waka Flocka Flame. After uploading to SoundCloud for two years, he signed to a record label.
His breakout song was called “All Girls Are the Same,” and the video led to a $3 million deal with Interscope Records:
From that point, Juice WRLD was unstoppable. He collabed with everyone from Eminem to Ellie Goulding.
Sadly, Juice Wrld died of an alleged drug-related seizure in December of 2019. His posthumous album, Legends Never Die, was released in July of 2020 and debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200.
Again, we’re not focusing on his death, because that’s just sad and I don’t want to attribute all of his success to his death. While it may have boosted his overall ranking, Juice WRLD was hard at work for all of his very short career.
The lesson I would take from this one is to work with as many people as you can, and to post music consistently. Easier said than done, especially right now, but both of these things certainly contributed to his success.
Obviously, you won’t be able to collab with Eminem or Ellie Goulding right off the bat. However, the more people you know, the more connections you make and the better for your career.
Drake has been another consistent artist on these lists each year. He was #1 in 2018 and #5 in 2019, and he holds that place steady this year.
I won’t go over Drake’s entire history because, like Taylor Swift, you can read his beginnings in the earlier posts. Instead, let’s focus on Drake’s 2020.
Aubrey Graham, aka Drake, collaborated with a ton of artists in the beginning of 2020. In May he released Dark Lane Demo Tapes with a bunch of other collabs. Following the album release, Drake continued to work with other artists and had so many releases I’m just going to link to them here because there are too many to list.
The biggest song this year for Drake was (arguably) Toosie Slide:
Drake just had so many releases this year with so many artists. That has to be the lesson here. Don’t rest on what you’ve made before, and don’t be afraid to reach out to collaborate with others.
Jonathan Kirk, aka DaBaby, is a singer/songwriter/rapper whose fame came seemingly overnight. However, like all “overnight success” stories, there were years of prep work behind it. In 2015, he released his first mixtape. He built a huge local following (in North Carolina) by playing at local clubs.
Arnold Taylor can be credited for a lot of DaBaby’s success. He signed DaBaby to his label and promoted him to big radio stations. In 2019 he guided DaBaby into a bidding war between major labels and a multi-million dollar contract with Interscope Records. He remained (or remains?) on Taylor’s label in a joint contract between the two.
2019 was a huge year for DaBaby, and 2020 continued that path. Blame it on Baby was released in April and it was his second album to hit #1 on the Billboard 200. His biggest song of the year was “Rockstar:”
He also collaborated with a ton of artists, including Pop Smoke and Roddy Ricch, whom we’ll meet in a minute.
Building a local following is a great idea if you’re starting out. DaBaby’s local hustle led him to Arnold Taylor, who was instrumental in forwarding his career. Start small and build your fanbase from the ground up.
The second lesson is harder to achieve, but definitely try to connect with door openers once you have a fan base. A good agent or manager can open so many doors for you. In my latest post about Dolly Parton, we learned that a new manager made a huge, pivotal difference in transforming her career. This was decades after she had already been famous, so a good manager cannot be overestimated.
3). Roddy Ricch
Rodrick Moore Jr, aka Roddy Ricch, is a singer/songwriter/rapper. He released his debut mixtape in 2017, climbing steadily ever since. In December of 2019 he released his album Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial. This was considered his “debut” studio album, and it was “the longest running number one debut rap album in the US since 2003,” according to his Wikipedia page.
Again, he collabed with a ton of people and had Grammy nominations before his own album was even released. He was in DaBaby’s song above, “Rockstar,” but his biggest song of 2020 was “The Box,” which was at #1 for eleven weeks:
All in all, 2020 was huge for Roddy Ricch. Variety Magazine named him the “Breakthrough Artist of 2020,” he received 8 AMA nominations, 6 Grammy nominations, and won Apple’s Album and Song of the Year for 2020. I’m super curious to see where his career goes because his trajectory has been incredible thus far.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but every artist here (especially the rappers) have collaborated with a ton of other artists. Roddy Ricch had a Grammy nomination from someone else’s song. This just shows that you need to work with as many people as possible.
Collaborations can be great, but they can also be very draining and can put your own work on hold. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons to see what’s best for you. I have a post about working with difficult co-writers here in case you need it!
2). The Weeknd
Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, is a songwriter who may be new to the Top Artist list, but is certainly not a newcomer to the music industry. He’s been well-known since 2013 and has been consistently working since.
The Weeknd released his fourth studio album, After Hours, in 2020. However, he spent a great deal of time promoting it and teasing singles before its release. He also had several original promotional methods: He appeared on a series of songs inspired by Game of Thrones, his first single was released as a Mercedes commercial, and he “leaked” footage of a music video as a teaser.
Right after the album was released, The Weeknd released three more songs. He also collaborated with many artists, including Juice WRLD and Ariana Grande, who also released an album this year:
I’m kinda blown away that Ari isn’t on the Top 10 this year, but she did have some very tough competition (and came in at #27, which still seems low to me).
It seems the key to 2020’s success for The Weeknd lied in the diversity of his promotion. I know his exact methods are not easily accessible, but you can get creative with your marketing and PR.
I love the idea of a series of songs based on a TV show. The Game of Thrones series was a variety of artists, but there’s no reason you can’t release your music inspired by a show. If it’s a currently running show, you can time your releases with the show to gain more attention.
Let’s also focus on how The Weeknd released new songs after his album came out. This is a great strategy and will keep eyes and ears on your release for longer. If you have an album coming out, there’s no reason you can’t hold onto one or two songs and release them later as bonus tracks or something.
1). Post Malone
This dude is unbelievable. He was #3 in 2017, #2 in 2018, #1 in 2019, and #1 again this year. Love him or hate him, this is an incredible track record. His polarity is part of his success, of course, but no one can deny that he works hard.
Since I’ve covered him three times already, I won’t focus on his backstory. Instead, let’s focus on how he stayed at #1 for two years in a row.
It was likely that controversy played a role in Malone’s success this year as well. In March of 2020, he performed a sold-out show to 20,000 people, which was the largest enclosed gathering in the United States before forced lockdowns. Although the show was pre-lockdown, Post Malone got a ton of backlash for going through with the show.
In April, Post Malone did a live stream of Nirvana covers to raise money for the World Health Organization. He raised over $5 million for the WHO’s Covid-19 relief fund.
Besides the live stream, Post Malone was only on one release this year, as a feature on “Tommy Lee” by Tyla Yaweh:
While I want to give the obvious advice of “lean into controversy,” I also want to say that I don’t think this show was purposely held to defy the government or as a “spreader party” or anything. I think it was just a massive show that wasn’t cancelled in time, and while Post Malone took some heat for it, he tried to make up for it with his livestream donations.
I think Livestreaming should be the lesson here. Bars and clubs are closed, but there’s no reason you can’t hop online and perform! A lot of my musician friends have done that this year, and donating to charity is another great way to get your name out there.
Reach out to a cause you believe in and see if they’d back a livestream show. They might bring potential fans to your stream, and you’ll get to use their name in your performance and boost your stream a bit.
Here are the biggest lessons from the top 10 artists this year:
- Collab, collab, collab. Work with as many people as you can.
- When you’re not collaborating, make friends with other music people. Be genuine, but keep introducing yourself to new people.
- Adapt to challenging times by staying creative. Remember that people will always crave music, so it might as well be yours!
- Whatever you can get done now, do it now. Think of every release as an investment for a future release. You are constantly building on your previous successes.
- If you feel strongly about a political or controversial issue, channel it into a song.
- Start small and build a local following.
- Try to find a good agent or manager to help (keep in mind, however, that most managers won’t bother with artists until they already have a career to manage, so focus on other tips first!)
- Get creative with your marketing and try to think outside the box.
- Be consistent with your music releases, and don’t be afraid to release some songs after you’ve released your album.
- In a time when live shows are unavailable, streaming is your friend.