“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.