I look at the Billboard charts regularly. I look to see what is capturing the interest, the ears of the public. Some weeks, everything seems very predictable. Other weeks, there are surprises.
The reason I do this, and the reason I think you should be doing this too, is that if you are serious about competing in this crowded market, you need to know your competition. Now I know you are thinking "where is she coming from? I am an ARTIST!" So that's a legal question – after all, you are absolutely COMFORTABLE with the starving artist thing. I know you are TOTALLY DOWN WITH leaving your legacy behind to be discovered by musicians searching through unmarked boxes in the attic of the Smithsonian. RIGHT! GO FOR IT!
That's the easy path. Believing no one understands your artistry so you do not have to connect with an audience. But wait a moment, even air guitarists can get noticed AND THEY AREN "T EVEN MAKING A SOUND! So what do you really want?
So here is what I do to try to make some sense out of what is happening in the industry – who's getting attention, what are listeners into, etc. First, I look at all of the lists and try to get a sense of what is getting airplay and sales. Then I focus in on the specific genres I am interested in current. I try to listen to everything on the list (at least the TOP 20) that I have not heard before, and I try to get a sense of the patterns. When I am really ambitious, I might look over a several week period and see what is rising and what is falling on the charts to see if there are any trends that might indicate changes in fashion. Now I am not saying this is easy going – sometimes you have to listen to music you just do not care about. But in my experience, I almost always find a little gem here or there, and I also tend to pick up a bit of what is going on (sometimes more than a bit). And I find it valuable to try to understand even the music i do not like. After all, if I can come to some sort of realization as to why something I do not care about is a hit, then that's all the more I understand about the listeners and the industry.
So how do you use this? Let me tell you what I do. I use what I learn to help critically examine the records (and other projects) that I am working at the time. I tend to be very self critical, and critical of the work I am helping guide, but some of the things I am looking at include: what kind of ambient or other characteristic seems to be popular in a particular genre – are people going for a "live" sound, a "wall of sound", a sparse clear arrangement, tight or loose performances, etc. This is all very subjective, and extremely I tend to go with what I like – but what I like is constantly influenced by what I am listening to at the time, and certainly by the new artists out there that is making a difference.
Bottom line: the more knowledge you have about the industry, the better chance you will be able to make a go of it.