Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Music artists your route to market is as easy as A, B, C...(post#1)

“For all it may be a workable and pragmatic model, a teenager miming with a tennis racket in front of the mirror is hardly dreaming about running a small business with low overheads and low expectations”.
Alexis Petridis, The Guardian, from “This song was brought to you by...” April 2008.

It’s never been easy for pop musicians who are not yet popular. A few years back, a friend of mine delightedly, excitedly told me his mate’s band (UK indie hopeful’s Vega 4) had at last been signed by a label in the US - a major in fact, Capitol. What did I think about that? My response was inevitably, rather muted. “Do let him know when you congratulate him that his chances of a sustainable career in the music industry have just improved, to roughly 1%”.

Since I was The King of Music Industry Stats at the time, he couldn’t really argue. The percentage I quoted was the appropriate one – the chances of releasing a record and going to Gold sales, and therefore, being in with a shout of getting a second album with real momentum behind it. It didn’t happen for Vega 4, even though the band was unusually fortunate to get a second bite of the cherry when they signed in the UK with Columbia 18 months later. They sunk with barely a trace.

That was back in 2005/6. Fast forward just a few years, and the music industry landscape for a new band has become even more crowded, competitive and complex. With an increasing groundswell against the idea of signing with a label (at least in the traditional sense) - but a rapidly fragmenting media landscape making any other route look bewildering - what exactly is the best route to market for a new artists these days?

Two HUGE questions face you:

1. Just what do you do to get your music heard? and;
2. Just how long do you intend to last?

This was the subject of a very recent discussion I took part in for Radio 4’s Today Programme. In fact, the programme never got aired due to the valuable airtime being sucked up by UK retailers going down like nine pins in the recession. It’s a shame, because the debate was interesting. A young Welsh artist called Rod Thomas was involved. http://www.rodthomasmusic.com/. For Rod & artists like him these two questions might as well be written in huge letters on the side of a wall the size of El Capitan, they are so big.

But what exactly do you do to climb up & over the wall? And how do you make sure that when you reach the top, you don’t take two steps forward only to drop right off over the other side? It isn’t enough to do everything and hope for the best, yet in the ultra competitive landscape of new music, a lot of artists do exactly that.

The ‘strategy’ such as it is, follows a much worn path. With or without the help of a label, the approach usually follows all of the following (and, appreciated, probably much more):

- Set up various digital properties: Artist site, MySpace, Facebook, iLike profiles etc.
- PR your best songs & story to tastemakers in the music press, radio and TV
- Do lots of live shows and get mixes to DJs, clubs & bars

If you can get any traction at all you can start to build your own fan base through a digital ‘street team’ approach, collecting emails for mail outs and deploying various digital widgets to get these fans to spread your music a little further.

This is all very well, and to some extent if you didn’t do this, you wouldn’t be covering all the bases you need to, so go ahead - and good luck. If some traction is gained and a buzz starts to generate, it’s then time to seriously ponder Huge Question 2: what is your longer term plan? Are you focused on sustainability, longevity? Or do you just want to get a deal and take it step-by-step. If the answer is the latter and you are in a hurry to get signed and get on with it, that’s fine. You just have to be aware of being sucked into the Hype Machine (Post #2 of this series, coming soon).

If it is the former, there are deeper things to consider. There are options to be more strategic about your approach, what you do and when you do it. I can’t offer a cut out template solution, obviously. Since each and every artist is different, it would hardly be appropriate. Individuality & uniqueness – preferably with great quality and low on gimmickry – are critical, and in short supply.

What you can and must do, is recognise wider trends in music consumption and work with these – or if you are supremely confident – deliberately against them. But recognition and understanding of what’s going on with wider trends might just help give you a focus, edge and advantage. I’ve specifically noted three trends here – a kind of A, B, C rule that you may want to keep in mind in working up your strategies for winning, building & keeping your audience.

Rule A – Recognise that music discovery is shifting from recordings to live performance

Used to be you could do all sorts to ‘get the record out there’. Of course you still can, but with greater choice and ubiquity and fragmented channels for recordings, it’s a less effective method, because whether or not people get to hear it is less relevant than when they get to hear it and how they feel when they do. It is contextual discovery that’s important. And that’s were live performance can be so effective – because it has a greater impact on the listener.

Radio is background for most. Music streaming services are more active, sure, but users are either streaming back playlists, which makes the experience more like radio anyhow. And if they are actively looking for certain artists or checking recommendations, they may well be ‘snacking’, so artists, you can’t hope that your music will make a truly impactful impression in the way you intended when you lovingly, painstakingly wrote & recorded the track. When music is live, the listener is actively receptive to the music – they want to hear you play. They are ready to be moved & convinced by you & your music.

The catch is there’s no catch. You just have to play live a lot, in a lot of different places and to keep your audience – with a lot of variety. That’s why Jack Savoretti http://www.jacksavoretti.com/ toured Caffe Nero’s up & down the country. And make sure you have a way to make the listener tune into you again when you’ve finished performing. So think USB giveaways, flyers with download codes etc. And think quality. Make sure what you give away directly to your live audience are your very best tracks or recordings of your best live performances. And if you don’t consider yourself to be a ‘live act’, and you’re not Kate Bush, get out of the business!

Rule B – Understand that the internet is not an effective platform for discovery, when you’re on the supply side

This is just the flipside of A, very simply. The web is a very misleading platform sometimes, because it’s so eulogised. For all the talk of democratising content and liberating the long tail, digital platforms are essentially bigger icebergs, with narrower tips, than mainstream media platforms. Viral videos are statistically harder to achieve than hit records – and generate a lot less revenue. The long-tail has been largely debunked as far as music providers are concerned. See the recent work by Will Page and Andrew Bud.

The majority of people actually want to be advised what to like, so aggregators & filters are where you need to be. No wonder an iTunes or e-music feature can be worth so much – such real estate is valuable, as it will be on successful new digital aggregators such as ISPs, when they arrive. Although it’s hard to get onto these, in the same way it is to reach mainstream media gatekeepers, you can service them better with varied, regularly refreshed content and you should strive to build a relationship with music programmers and content editors purely through innovating with content. Beck is pretty inspiring when it comes to this sort of stuff.

Rule C – Make sure that your representatives get Rules A&B

A label might still be ‘Route 1’ to reaching an audience (discuss). But you do need to think about what audience you want to reach and for how long do you want to keep that audience. With labels working the Hype Machine ever faster out of sheer necessity, you may reach a wider audience more quickly, but with no guarantee of longevity – in fact a risk of flash-in-the-pan like transience that may prove hard to recover from in the longer term. This is complicated and deserves more detailed analysis.

Fan loyalty is hard to build and harder to hold on to. Actual research with consumers, as well as the market data, confirms that loyalty is on the wane. Yes, you can carefully manage e-mail lists and work hard on engagement tools like digital service profiles and blogs. You should definitely work on more episodic content releases – shorter EP’s, live sessions etc. and keep some exclusives for your own lists even though you are reaching smaller audiences than the big digital platforms (these are crammed full, remember).

From some recent presentations made elsewhere and from comments on this blog, there is a growing list of new artists who might be working their way slowly to a workable, pragmatic DIY model (Corey Smith, Ingrid Michaelson, Jill Sobule, Joe Purdy, Jonathan Coultan ). These have all been stated as examples of the new ‘middle class’ of artists who can make a viable living from making music. Whether or not they want to be classified in such a way I have no idea. That’s back to the opening quote and for every artist starting out these days, to seriously consider.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Recorded music 2009: What would Don Draper do?

As we enter the last odd year of the decade, it's a good time to reflect on where we've come since 2000. That was the year I entered the music business, the one that marked the beginning of the slow but sure decline of CD sales and the conundrum of digital distribution. Noffin’ to do wiv me guv. I've bought more records in the past eight years than any period in my life and I expect quite a few mid 30's to mid 40's music fans would say the same. We've taken advantage of the increasing choice, increasing channels and falling prices. Meanwhile the vast majority of people under that age band have probably gone the opposite way, taking advantage of free music (legal, illegal, ambiguous) and cherry picking downloads from albums while finding a multitude of other sins on which to spend their money. For other punters, music's general ubiquity has probably negatively affected sales rather than the other way around. Record promotion just isn't what it used to be.

And the institutions in the value chain really are, finally feeling it. Retailers, right in the front line, first took one for the team and now appear to be going down like nine pins. Physical distributors, well they're all but done for. More worryingly, many market-leading digital music services are folding or making cut backs and lay-offs. But what about the record labels? There were some small indie casualties in 2008 (Gut for example), but nothing of real significance. Meanwhile the majors appear to be soldiering on.

But all isn't well, clearly. Overall sales figures tell only part of the story - total global trade value is down approx 6% in 2008, with the value of retail music sales now rapidly approaching half of what it was in 2000. The more telling indicators though, are the sales of individual 'blockbuster' titles, which are getting hammered. Universal dominates the blockbuster charts, but even its big guns in the final quarter – Razorlight, Snow Patrol and the three K's: Keane; Killers and Kaisers – all took disappointing yields despite good reviews. Those titles combined have racked up 1.7m sales to date in the UK (OCC figures) – not bad but probably not much above half those forecasted by the marketing teams, who are now left with deep scratch marks about the head. With all the chart markers down, but the business of selling music still costly, artist P&L's must make grim reading for the accounts men. Who on earth can call themselves a genuinely profitable long-term music venture in these days?

With just about every panacea turned to and from, where exactly do we go from here? More to the point, where are the visionary leaders that will take recorded music in a new direction? Who are the pioneers cutting new paths for artists just setting out on their careers making music? If you should shout these questions into the chasm, it’s pretty echo-y, isn't it?

Well, it seems to me there's nothing else for it. We need to call in Don Draper.

Come on now, you aren't asking yourself 'who the hell is Don Draper', are you? I'll bet you're not, but just in case, I'll fill you in. Don Draper is the Creative Director and recently promoted Partner, in Sterling Cooper, a boutique firm of advertisers in New York. In the 1960s. In a TV show called Madmen. So yes, strictly speaking, Don Draper doesn't actually physically exist. But Draper is such a brilliantly drawn fictional character that it really shouldn't stop us giving him a bell – or at least pretending to. For if we step into the Draper mindset, admittedly, not easy, it might be revealing.

The Draper Method

Firstly a quick tutorial. Draper is nothing if not thorough. He doesn't just take briefs, read the 'research report' (god I love Madmen) and brainstorm. No no no. Don 'lives with' his clients problems. He mulls them, ponders them, sometimes obsesses over them. He becomes them for goodness sake. In the Draper method, Problem Definition is everything - the root of any solution. But then comes the hard bit – the solution itself. Draper is first & foremost, a creative genius. He'll look at charts and matrices drawn up by his junior colleagues, but only in order to reassuringly, dismiss them outright. He's inclusive though. Like all good leaders, Don will ask around. He'll consult colleagues yes, but more critically, he will tend to ask those uninvolved and detached from the problem. He’ll ask his wife as they climb into bed with their good books. He’ll consult his mistresses over a post coital cigarette (we forgive Don all sins and infidelities btw, as he is genius and this is the 60s remember). He’ll even quiz complete strangers. He’s not looking for the answer directly. He just needs to bounce off his interlocutors on his journey to the answer.
It all takes time this, but then something occurs and it's this: The Miracle Happens. It might strike like a lightning bolt in the middle of the night, or it might ping into Don's Brain in the middle of a conversation, or it might simply rise gently to the surface. This is why clients call Sterling Cooper and ask for Don, and not go to the major agencies for cookie cutter, safe solutions. Draper gets to the truth of it, the heart of the matter. He's not simply a contrarian, so you can't try and second guess him.

However, since he doesn't actually exist, this is precisely what we will attempt to do, because the recorded music business quite simply, needs a miracle.

Don's Analysis of the Problem

Draper would quickly recognise the fundamental nature of recorded music’s problem – the downward spiral of devaluation: digital technology, piracy and music ubiquity combining to eat away at the notion of music as a luxury, and subsequently falling prices and margins.

Let’s start with the music itself. That’s where Draper would begin. Would he see issues here? Almost certainly. There’s no shortage of high quality new music (just turn off the radio and read any music blog!). That isn’t the problem. But new music just doesn’t last as long as it used to, vastly reducing artist life cycles and increasing risks for producers out of hand. Don would look at any number of breakthrough acts who had a successful 2008: The Ting Tings, Sam Sparro, Friendly Fires, MGMT etc. and he would worry about where they might be two years from now. That is a problem.

Draper would probably see music as two markets: New Music and Classic Catalogue. The old greats from the latter are literally timeless. They will sell forever. They can be re-invented over & over, like Dylan, Young, McCartney have only very recently. There is no gain whatsoever in commoditising the Classic Catalogue. However, the pipeline from New to Classic is thinner and more unpredictable than ever. It’s almost closed. Even deserved modern classics don’t have a shelf life of more than a few years, if they even achieve breakthrough in the first place. This is because of music’s proliferation and because of reduced consumer loyalty to any particular artist or genre.

Next, Don would consider distribution. He would almost certainly challenge the notion that the future of music is entirely, digital. In ten years+, digital has added no monetary value to music sales that hasn’t been lost from core products, a situation that is unlikely to be reversed. No institution built around selling products for dollars can survive from selling those same products for cents. Don’t press down the accelerator on commoditisation, he would advise. However, Draper would not be fool enough to ignore file-sharing (much as his instinct would want to do so. After all this is a man who insists his firm should drop ungrateful clients!).

Finally, he would meditate music’s customers. More fundamentally than supply-side issues of music creation and distribution, Draper would see that it’s the people, the audiences that are changing the most. In fact, audience habits are fragmenting so fast around the discovery, listening and storage of music that most consumers – critically those of the highest value to the business – are becoming confused themselves about what to do with the products on offer, if they know anything about them.

Don's Solution (sort of)

These changes in both supply and demand mean that it has become impossible for incumbent institutions to cope alone. It’s clear why new entrants into the value chain are those which make all the impact, for good or bad. The business manual says that when an industry’s core product is being commoditised, industry players must build new added value products or services around the core and at the same time, milk the cash cows and diversify, ASAP.

Draper appreciates this landscape isn’t easy for music producers – artists or labels. Everyone is already trying to do this, with patchy, limited success. Hence we have a land grab going on between labels, live promoters and artist management. But clearly, each of those individually isn’t good at doing everything – so this is counterproductive. The core product in music is still a song and if you’re lucky, an album of songs. That won’t change. What needs to change is the quality and care with which these are presented and packaged – both in terms of promotion, marketing, consumer information and product packaging. And much better cooperation between the partners involved in delivery to consumers. It all needs a good dose of Draper-like class. We can do so much better than this, he might say.

In the end, Draper’s solution is both easy and very difficult at the same time. What he wants, as a music fan himself, he thinks the people also deserve. Where do you discover great music? Don would not dream of listening to music radio, during the day anyhow. He doesn’t have that much time to read about music, so he lacks what others lack – a decent, concise filter to what music he might like. Don’s a busy man and can’t spend hours playing around with a recommendation engine that’s hit and miss. He certainly isn’t up for anything like social networking (in his case because he would expose himself to strangers from his mysterious past, but that’s another story).

What do you decide to buy? These days, Don hesitates to buy a CD in a plastic jewel case that is by design both faulty and environmentally unsound. Nor would he download a music song file of such poor quality that he couldn’t conceive of why he would want to actually store it somewhere for long term use. Nor would he subscribe to a music service which has every song, because why on God’s earth would he want access to every song?

Can you see where Draper might come from with the solution? If we respond to the forces of devaluation with reduced prices and offers of ever greater volumes, we are contributing to the downward spiral and our own eventual demise.

The examples of successful initiatives going the other way (quality not quantity) are what Draper would point for potential bigger, wholesale solutions. In the physical space we’ve had Radiohead’s £40 In Rainbows box set (no discounts there!). In radio, Bob Dylan’s phenomenal Theme Time Radio Hour. In music TV, Later With Jools Holland and now Spectacle: Elvis Costello With...(have you seen this yet?). In film/soundtrack, Mamma Mia. In digital, there is little to challenge iTunes/iPod, but that can change.

Productions, content brands, franchises, apps – something that indentifies and builds high value audiences and takes them on a journey. Whether that journey starts with a digital search for an artist or the physical purchase of a CD, a radio show or music TV, there must always be a next step for the consumer, to something really worthwhile and of high quality.

Footnote #1. The subjects and views elucidated in this post are those of fictional character Don Draper, not your usual author.

Footnote #2. There is actually a tumblr site called What Would Don Draper Do?
http://whatwoulddondraperdo.tumblr.com/ I did e-mail a week ago for the ‘real’ answer. No reply yet, but as I said, these things do take time.

Footnote #3. For UK viewers, Mad Men season 2 returns to BBC4 this year (doesn’t say quite when) but you can catch up with season 1 by spending £12 on Amazon, which is amazing.

Footnote #4. Happy New Year for 2009. January is a busy month but have no fear, The Brew blog intends to be back in early February with another thrilling essay.