The music biz loves a panacea. So far this century we’ve had file-sharing, then online retail, then mobile music, then music & brands, then ad-funded music, then 360 degree deals, then total-music, so on and so forth. And now we have them all at once, with experimentation seen by some as the new solution.
A lot of recent talk that has intrigued me has been of ‘owning’ the artist-to-fan relationship, and making more of all that. Ticketmaster just bought Front Line Management and is re-launching itself with the intent of capturing the whole artist-to-fan experience, thing. We’ve recently had majors, most specifically EMI, talk about the same concept, quite a lot. Live Nation bought Music Today a few years back and Music Today was doing this from the outset – selling all sorts of artist stuff – direct through artist websites to a mailing list of signed-up fans. Now Amazon has launched 100,000 artist stores aiming to do a similar thing.
Not only that, a number of brand new businesses have been launched recently, with the central business model of helping artists manage relationships with their fan bases directly – same theme again. There’s been a whole slew of these launched, but my personal one-to-watch in the space is Topspin Media, for fairly obvious reasons – smart leadership and a well funded operation with some early successes in working with the likes of David Byrne & Brian Eno on their recent collaborative release in the US. The attraction of a model like Topspin, to artists, is that it enables artists to get a good start in managing all of their digital spaces and properties themselves and so to begin building a fan base that way (without signing to a label deal). Even more clearly, to my mind, these services enable established artists who already have a core & loyal long-term following, to keep their digital plots well watered.
I don’t doubt there is something in all of this, but what exactly? Is it just me, or is there a slight suspicion of alchemy with this concept?
As a fan (of say Elbow, which I am, big time) I can pretty much get whatever I want from Elbow, the way I want it, already. I’m happy to sign-up to the artist site provided I don’t get bombarded. I haven’t struggled to get tickets for the band’s shows and of course I buy the records and have bought a video from iTunes and rented another from Virgin Media. I read interviews with Guy Garvey in music magazines and listen to his 6 music show sometimes. As an Elbow fan, that does me, and is very fulfilling experience, thank you very much (after all, it is Elbow’s music that matters to me most). What’s more, I enjoyed shopping around for these things and the serendipity of just finding them available at the right time & place. I feel no particular need to get them all in one place at the wrong time.
Now it may well be that Elbow wants more fans like me or desires a wider audience. No problem there either. I have been evangelical about the band for two years and especially this year. I’ve recommended them, bought their record as gifts and taken friends to the shows. In some cases this has led to more fans for Elbow, thanks to that most powerful of mediums – word of mouth – something the band inspires a lot of I would imagine, just by doing what they do.
For the greater part of the artists out there that’s the way success will continue to happen. To this day, we don’t really have an example of an artist that has ‘broken’ (okay I’m not defining that term) through digital media alone. No artist that I know of has been able to make a living via building a direct relationship with their audience through just a kit bag of digital tools, unless that audience was built previously during a commercial recording career.
How many separate artist places does a fan want to sign up to and want to get stuff from anyhow? We’ve had artist subscriptions – Prince, The Who (remember ‘Hooligans’?), Madonna etc. - these have all struggled as commercial entities in themselves. And that’s for major superstars!
In this day and age, with more & more releases, commercially via the mainstream and via DIY platforms, are a zillion direct-to-fan artist properties what’s required? As an artist, can you work to foster loyalty in an age where, because choice and media proliferate, loyalty is exactly the quality that consumers demonstrate less and less? I’m not sure very many artists will be able to do that.
Myspace is living proof of the need to build a collective concept around what artists can provide individually. Fans aren’t dedicated to one myspace page. They will use myspace as a resource to find out about artists that interest them – including sampling the songs of course.
In the artist-to-fan space, who will win out? Myspace, Last.fm and iLike have sucked traffic away from artist pages for a couple of years now. If the labels want to take a more direct role in building the artist-to-fan audience, they will need to win this traffic back to artist sites. Either that or do deals to get data from these sites. But data feeds from these services might not make sense for specific artists when taken out of the context of the service itself. I’ve worked with data for a good chunk of my career and I’ve worked on CRM concepts – the execution of which is 100 times harder than thinking up the concept. If and when you do get the data and it’s clean and has context, it’s then what you do with it that counts.
Where choice explodes and content supply proliferates, common sense tells us what is needed most are aggregators, filters, curators etc. In digital, we need content brands that package & programme multiple artists and music genres in pretty much the same way magazines and retailers do in the traditional physical space. Just new, better ones with more immersive, addictive experiences for fans.
With digital, come all sorts of new opportunities for new entrants in the aggregator space – including ISP’s, device makers, music editorial and radio brands, even labels (if the roster makes cohesive sense). These aggregators bring in and build fans for artists with the added functionality of a direct transaction. Sure, if the fans want more from a particular artist, they might sign up to the artist’s site, but that happens already doesn’t it? And labels have the data from those, don’t they? So what exactly is new in the artist-to-fan space?
So again, my issue with exploring brave new territory in the artist-to-fan space is this: what is the big value-add? What is the nature of the connection being made, with what experience and content, and how, via which platforms?
Artist’s & managers should quickly delve beneath any hyperbole on this (in the same way they have done for 360 degree deals), and ask the searching questions about what relationship they want to build with their fans, how, and who should help them do it. The choices are out there and growing, but no one has really nailed it yet. It isn’t clear who will win out among the providers of these services, mainly because the services themselves are not being clearly articulated.