Self-taught musicians dominate USA’s Spotify charts. 10 remarkable examples

This story originally appeared on Skoove and was produced and distributed in partnership with DataPulse

For almost as long as popular music has been around, kids have dreamed about becoming famous musicians. It’s the dream for almost everyone who picks up a guitar or sits down at the piano.

For a lot of learners, the challenge is that becoming a professional musician can feel like an impossible task if you don’t take (or can’t afford) music lessons. But the thing is … a lot of people at the top of the charts never had formal lessons!

The data

Skoove, in collaboration with DataPulse, conducted a study that revealed key insights about the top US Spotify artists and found that 87% of the top 100 did not engage in regular training with music teachers or instructors. The remaining 13% had lessons. The data suggest that the vast majority of successful musicians pursued alternative approaches to learning music, such as apps or self-guided learning, for example with YouTube or tutorial books.

The underlying data for the analyses came from multiple sources, including ChartMasters’ list of Top Spotify Artists, Wikidata, and manual research and aggregation. In order to extract insights about musicians who are in bands and groups, we looked at characteristics of the lead composer or band frontperson.

Skoove and DataPulse also dug a little deeper into the numbers around formal music degrees. The discrepancy here is even greater. We found that only 4% of the Spotify top 100 have a music degree. An additional 4% started a degree, but didn’t finish it. So it goes without saying that the remaining 92% don’t have a music degree and didn’t even start one.

Self-learning vs. formal education

Are private lessons all they’re cracked up to be? Private lessons are often considered the gold standard for musical education. But, as the data show, this doesn’t necessarily make them the automatic or the appropriate choice for every aspiring musician.

There are various reasons why formal music education, including private lessons, might not be ideal or even an option for musicians. The curriculum for academic music qualifications, such as degrees, can often be rigid with the student having little to no choice over what they play or how they learn. The environment may also be too pressurized for some students with factors like exams and homework. It goes without saying that both academic music qualifications and private lessons also require significant financial resources which may make them less accessible.

In contrast, self learning is becoming more and more accessible for aspiring musicians with resources like YouTube. There are countless music tutorials and instrumental courses available on YouTube and entire apps dedicated to learning musical instruments. In comparison to the financial commitment, time investment and inflexibility of a traditional musical education, these options offer support and guidance, while putting the learner in the driving seat.

It’s not just instrumental learning that’s becoming more accessible. Plenty of tools for music recording and production are also readily available now, such as apps where you can sample beats or autotune your voice. These technological developments have arguably made it easier to learn and produce music outside of the traditional framework of formal education. Developments in pop music itself may have also made writing a chart-topping hit more attainable. Based on an analysis of over 500,000 pop songs, pop music has become less harmonically and structurally complex over the last few decades. So writing a song that would harmonically fit in today’s charts has never been more accessible to people without a traditional musical background.

Despite today’s abundance of resources, going down a path of self-learning is never an easy task. With private instrumental lessons and academic music education, there is a level of guidance and structure that they offer which keeps your learning on track, which self-learning can lack. But it’s precisely this absence of structure which can make self-learners incredibly driven musicians. Whether it’s performing at open mic nights or putting their music up on platforms like YouTube, TikTok or SoundCloud, self-taught musicians learn how to be self-motivated when it comes to their learning and to getting their work out into the world.

 

10 Self-taught icons

The following list is just a sample of the artists in the top 100 who haven’t relied on formal music lessons to help their careers.

Eminem - #3 in the USA

Eminem

Eminem (born Marshall Mathers) is considered one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. He’s won countless awards, including 15 Grammy Awards, eight American Music Awards, 17 Billboard Music Awards, and an Academy Award. Eminem grew up in and around Detroit in the 1980s. He started making music at 14 with a friend and spent years in the underground rap scene in Detroit participating in rap battles and performing. During this time, he honed his skill at freestyling and grew a reputation for humorous lyrics and speed, among other things. His work eventually caught the attention of Dr. Dre, who has worked with Eminem on and off since the early days.

“If people take anything from my music, it should be motivation to know that anything is possible as long as you keep working at it and don't back down.” Eminem

Post Malone - #5 in the USA

Post Malone

Post Malone (born Austin Richard Post) is a genre-blending performer who quickly rose to become one of the top artists in the world. Since the release of his first album, Stoney, in 2016 Malone has won ten Billboard Music Awards, three American Music Awards, and one MTV Video Music Award, along with nine Grammy nominations.  Malone was introduced to music at a young age by his father, who was a DJ, and helped him discover genres like hip hop, rap, and country. This exposure to a variety of different genres helped contribute to Malone’s own unique style that blends multiple genres together. His interest in learning how to play the guitar was fueled by the game Guitar Hero and he taught himself to play using YouTube videos. While there have been fan theories about the origin of his name, Post Malone says he used a Rap Name Generator to select it when he was a teen.

“My dad was always playing music. Not, like, playing music but listening to music.” Post Malone

XXXTENTACION - #10 in the USA

Xxxtentacion

Although his career was short, XXXTentacion (born Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy) was considered to be one of the driving forces behind the popularization of the emo rap and SoundCloud Rap genres.  XXXTentacion started writing music when he was released from juvenile detention in 2013. He and another artist, Ski Mask the Slump God, began recording together and, in 2014, XXXTentacion uploaded his first track to SoundCloud. Over the course of his career, he garnered critical success, winning both an American Music Award and a BET Hip Hop award.  Although XXXTentacion tried to use music as a way to avoid issues with the law, he wasn’t able to escape them. He was found dead in his car in 2018 after being shot.

Kendrick Lamar - #14 in the USA

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar (born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth) grew up in Los Angeles in the 90s during a time when gang activity was at its peak. Lamar was introduced to writing at a young age when a teacher heard him use the word “audacity.” He started using music as a way of dealing with everything he saw going on around him. He started releasing mixtapes under the name K-Dot when he was 16. The tapes eventually caught the attention of Dr. Dre, who signed Lamar. Along with being a critically acclaimed rapper and songwriter, Lamar is considered to be the second greatest rapper of all time according to Billboard Magazine (Jay-Z is the greatest). In 2018 Kendrick Lamar also won a Pulitzer Prize in music for his album DAMN.

“I don’t do black music, I don’t do white music. I do everyday life music.”  Kendrick Lamar

Chester Bennington - #23 in the USA

Chester_Bennington

Linkin Park frontman, Chester Bennington, started using music and poetry at a young age to help deal with his struggles with mental health. This outlet became the passion that pushed him into a life of music. At 17, he recorded his first album with his first band, and by 1998 had recorded another three albums with the band Grey Daze.  Bennington got the opportunity to try out for Linkin Park in 1999. He left his birthday party early to try out for the band, he got the job, and they released their first album Hybrid Theory in 2000. The song Crawling from the album would go on to win the Grammy for best hard rock performance.  When Bennginton was younger, he dreamed of being a member of the Stone Temple Pilots, something he got the opportunity to do in 2013.

“When I'm writing, I'm constantly thinking about myself, because it's the only experience I have to draw on. And I don't see an exact reflection of myself in every face in the audience, but I know that my songs have validity to them, and that's why the fans are there.” Chester Bennington

Doja Cat - #24 in the USA

Doja Cat

Doja Cat (born Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini) has been releasing albums since 2012 and has been described by the Wall Street Journal as “A skilled technical rapper with a strong melodic sense and a bold visual presence." Doja Cat has said she knew music was what she wanted to do with her life since she was in the 11th grade. She dropped out of high school a year later, despite being in a performing arts high school, to pursue the dream. She started by uploading the songs she made to SoundCloud and by the time she was 17 (a year after dropping out of school) she had signed a record deal. In 2018, her song “Mooo!” went viral and her debut album was re-released in 2019.

“I just really enjoy doing it and I've always loved making music.” Doja Cat

SZA - #29 in the USA

SZA

SZA (born Solána Imani Rowe) may have only released two albums to date, but she’s been making waves in the music industry for over a decade, which isn’t bad for someone who’s talked about how they never planned on getting into music.  SZA initially studied marine biology in university but didn’t complete her degree. Although she started singing at a young age, her big push in music came from her brother, who asked her to record something for an album he was doing. When he noticed that she could sing, he encouraged her to work on her skills. This, combined with meeting people like Kendrick Lamar, led to her working on her own material.

"I never wanted to do music. Doing music seemed like a job, like a burden that would remove the joy of listening." SZA

Tyler Joseph (Twenty One Pilots) - #34 in the USA

Tyler_Joseph

Tyler Joseph was well on his way to a career in basketball when he saw a songwriter perform at a local club. He declined the basketball scholarship he had, dug an old keyboard out of a closet, and started teaching himself how to play by imitating songs he heard on the radio.  During his last year of high school Joseph recorded his first album in his basement and uploaded it to the internet. A year later, he formed the band Twenty One Pilots. As Twenty One Pilots, Joseph and his bandmates have been nominated for 6 Grammys and have one win.

“I didn't know that there were many rules in music when I first started writing.” Tyler Joseph

Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers) - #35 in the USA

Anthony Kiedis has been making music as part of the Red Hot Chili Peppers for close to 40 years. Despite the fact that some members of the band are now considered virtuosos with their instruments (bassist Flea and guitarist John Frusciante), the band initially had no musical training and relied mostly on energy and enthusiasm.  Kiedis met the founding members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in high school. Although the band’s makeup changed over the years, Kiedis, along with bassist Flea, were always a part of it. Neither had any musical training until Red Hot Chili Peppers had been together for almost 20 years.  Regardless of their training, Red Hot Chili Peppers is considered one of the greatest bands of all time and has won 25 awards (including 6 Grammys) over their career.

“I think there is always going to be inspired music and there are always going to be inspired listeners and there is always going to be an inspired method of getting it from A to B.” Anthony Kiedis

Mac Miller - #42 in the USA

Mac_Miller

By the time he was six, Mac Miller (born Malcolm James McCormick) had taught himself how to play piano, guitar, drums, and bass. He spent a lot of time in his youth working on his music while his friends were out playing. He taught himself how to record music on his laptop. At 14, his dreams of becoming a singer shifted when he got into hip hop music. By 17, the mixtapes he recorded started earning him recognition around his hometown. In 2010, he won best hip hop video and 21 and under of the year at the Pittsburgh Hip Hop Awards and he signed his first record deal.  His career was cut short when he passed away in 2018, although Miller’s music continues to do well. He posthumously won the Grammy for Best Rap Album for his album Swimming (2020).

"Once I hit 15, I got real serious about it [rap] and it changed my life completely. I used to be into sports, play all the sports, go to all the high school parties. But once I found out hip-hop is almost like a job, that's all I did."  Mac Miller

Broader implications and concluding thoughts

It’s fascinating to see just how many artists in Spotify’s top 100 did not receive formal music education. Some of these artists managed to become household names without instrumental lessons or being able to read music. Today, it’s possible to learn an instrument, produce music and share that music independently without a traditional musical education. In some sense, the playing field is now more level. As mentioned, there are more tools than ever that can help people learn music or mix songs to create quality music without spending money on lessons or recording studios. From apps and tutorials on YouTube to help you learn to play an instrument, to platforms like TikTok and SoundCloud where artists can share their music. Artists are no longer limited to begging radio stations to play their crudely recorded demos. This gives them the ability to create an authentic connection with a core audience before they’re even on the radar of big music producers. You could also argue that learning outside of the regimented structure of formal education may allow self-taught individuals to express their creativity more freely as their learning and engagement with their instrument is unconstrained in some cases. Without traditional frameworks and support, they have to be resourceful in their learning and stand on their own two feet, both when making music and making a name for themselves. Regardless of musical education, these self-taught artists have succeeded in attaining global fame with their music. This is a testament to alternative learning methods and shows that a traditional music education is not the only way to bring a passion for music to life.


Author of this study: Susana Pérez Posada

Susana Pérez Posada

With over seven years in piano education and a deep passion for music therapy, Susana brings a unique blend of expertise to Skoove. A graduate in Music Therapy from SRH Hochschule Heidelberg and an experienced classical pianist from Universidad EAFIT, she infuses her teaching with a holistic approach that transcends traditional piano lessons. In her writings for Skoove, Susana combines her rich musical knowledge with engaging storytelling, enriching the learning experience for pianists of all levels. Away from the piano, she loves exploring new places and immersing herself in a good book, believing these diverse experiences enhance her creative teaching style.

All images used in this article are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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