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.


Ronnie Day said...

Strangely inspiring and yet completely realistic.

I'm glad to have found this blog, and look forward to reading more.


therewasatime said...

fascinating read. i can't wait to read part two.

Glenn said...

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

I understand what you're saying, but I would have phrased this as "live performances carry more weight than do recordings." People rarely go see a band they've never heard (not counting opening bands) so the discovery starts with the recordings. But the concert is more important for building a relationship. That's where an artist makes it or breaks it.

Some bands attract concertgoers purely through word of mouth. But let's face it, there are a lot more mediocre live bands than the sort of incredible live bands that build that kind of buzz.

The ugly truth is few people go out to see live music -- especially to young, developing bands at small venues. A concert is a big, expensive, once-or-twice-a-year event. Nearly all concertgoers hit two or fewer concerts per year.

Lately I've been talking to people in Nashville about the live music scene and how it discriminates in favor of (a) young (b) single (c) people with (d) disposable income who are either (e) unemployed or (e) don't mind going to work tired the next morning. Springsteen on a Wednesday night is a no-brainer, but it's much harder to go out to see some young, underdeveloped buzz band on a Monday night when you know the headliner is going on at 10pm *at best*. By pushing live music so late into the evening, artists and venues are chopping off a sizable portion of the potential market. Venues can get away with it in New York -- there are plenty of people with nothing better to do or with a job that allows them to show up at 9am or 10am. But most the country doesn't operate like that.

So if getting people to your shows is going to be tough (outside of a few major markets), you have to connect with them via recorded music (or the marketing that is centered around the recorded music). It may be an album review. It may be a video on YouTube. It may be traditional advertising or marketing. But people will have to hear the songs first, then decide whether to go to the concert.

Interesting choice of DIY artists. Ingrid got a song on "Grey's Anatomy," did she not? That's where here fans came from, that's where her story comes from. That's like winning the lottery, so it's not a DIY strategy people can bank on. The gatekeeper is too choosy. Jill Sobule had a major label-driven hit in the '90s. She has reverted to the DIY method.

Purdy and Smith are the real deals, the guys who understand the interaction of touring, brand development and fan management.

Keith Jopling said...

Thanks all for these comments along with those made on the MTT web pages.

Glenn, typically thoughtful comment from you, thanks for it. You're generally right, but remember I'm referring here to new artists - so it's hard for them to get recordings heard on any platform, esp. the big ones.

And re live, think festivals, support slots. Also look and listen around you at shows. It amazes me how many people at the show are only just familiar with the band. This has simply been a bi-product of the live boom - people taking friends along, etc. or people going to see what 'the buzz' is all about. People just having a good night out.

But yes, live is a place to strengthen and grow your existing audience, no doubt. And many artists will work much harder to do this.

I think we'll see a big shift in multiple artists on the same bill too, which will increase young artist opportunities further.

Nelson Ramirez said...

Very good article, I would like to ask for your permission to post a link to it. I am starting out a Hispanic Songwriters Circle in Miami florida, and this is the type of content that can help new artists realize that they can do a lot more to promote their work while dreaming to land a record deal. My email is nelramirez@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

I've got to agree with Glenn for the most part.

Having been in this business for some 35 years I've watch a lot of things changed and all too familiar with the reasons of those changes.

Used to be people flocked to the clubs where they could drink and smoke and everything else they didn't normally do... but now there's smoking laws and the price of drinks has you nursing the same beer all night because the cover charge is roughly the same as a concert ticket was 10-years ago.

The music transitions flowed rather smoothly and people were there for the next new band - they looked forward to it... until the 1990's when we were bombarded with music nobody was ready for. Cover bands continued to flourish!

With everything said and done the only venues out there that guarantee any kind of exposure are Festivals and Events (that's where I've managed to stay alive).

But, some nights I just want to go out and hit the clubs. Unless you want to listen to karyoke, Live music is hard to find; and when you find something, the band is playing to an empty room because everyone is outside where they can have fun without wondering what laws they might be breaking. They used to do that inside with the band - who actually became popular for encouraging that type of behavior.

There are no rules now. You try everything, you do everything, and you hope for the best. Everyone has a market, finding it is the challenge.

Brent Malnack said...

Great post! It confirms that we're headed in the right direction. We're a bit older so most of our shows have been to our age group (40+). However, we played a multi-band all ages show last week and connected to an entirely new audience. We've gotten some good numbers streaming through Clear Channel, etc. but the live connection has helped boost our iTunes sales. After each show our web traffic and sales are up for a few days.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the insight. Very informative.

VA said...

I think this is great information, but I think the fact can't be forgotten of how much of this game is based off consistency as well as if your song evry catch an audience!

Check out this group


John said...

I'm curious...did you moderate my comment and not post because you thought it was unreasonable, or just because you haven't had time to go through those you've received?

I ask just because I increasingly see a pattern of blog moderators only allowing views with which they agree, or which contain mild criticism at best, to appear, and block everyone else out thus shutting down any substantial dialogue. Just wondering if that's what's happening here, or if you're just a really busy guy....

Keith Jopling said...

To John - I didn't receive any previous comment from you John. I publish all comments whatever side of the debate! I only moderate for extremeties!

John said...

(trying again)

"And if you don’t consider yourself to be a ‘live act’, and you’re not Kate Bush, get out of the business!"

This assertion is increasingly common, but nonetheless deeply misguided (and a bit offensive).

If you're 22 and in a pop band, spending a large portion of your time driving around the country in a bus playing relatively simple music is probably viable.

If you're 35, have kids, and a mortgage, and commitments, your ability to spend large amounts of time on the road is largely curtailed. And since for most folks (except those people living in L.A. or New York or London or Berlin) leaving town is the only way to make money playing live, saying "play live or don't expect to make any money" is basically a music career death certificate.

And there are plenty of folks making music that's simply too complicated or requires too many players to be viable as a traveling live act (unless you have the backing of a large corporation). Should we as an audience be denied that music as well if the creator can't be "a live act" as you suggest? Should they too get out of the business?

And what about the folks who simply don't want to live the life of the traveling minstrel? Should we toss all their music out as well? Are we only interested in music from people who live that particular lifestyle?

Ultimately the push towards live performance as a primary income source favors young players without commitments, playing music that requires only relatively simple setups and is thus highly mobile and can be set up quickly in a small venue. To the extent that this view becomes accepted we as an audience will lose access to music by anyone who can't fit that narrow mold.

I'm not a huge fan of copyright or the way it's exploited by large corporations these days, but the intellectual laziness of making this "play live or go home" argument is really starting to wear thin. It's a tacit acceptance of online music theft ("Hey, you can't make money selling the music itself 'cause everybody's stealing it, so you better enjoy playing live...") and completely blind to the reality of touring for anyone but young pop musicians. It's very similar to telling authors "I'm not going to pay you for your book, since I can just read it online, but if you come read it to me personally I give you some dough..." This would never be tolerated in the publishing industry, I fail to see why it should be tolerated in the music industry.

Melonie Gillett said...


Definitely informative; however even though I agree that performance is something I need to capitalize on, performing for an audience who don’t recognize your music can also be very difficult and ineffective. So I try myspace, which hasn’t been that bad, but when it comes to gaining traffic to my site, that’s the tricky part. 1. “Set up various digital properties: Artist site, MySpace, Facebook, iLike profiles etc” (check), 2. “PR your best songs & story to tastemakers in the music press, radio and TV” (check), and 3. “Do lots of live shows and get mixes to DJs, clubs & bars” (check). Of course in the life of an artist those things never get scratched off the checklist.
So my intention is to be recognized worldwide. I've opened for a few artists before and so far I still don't even have video footage of my performances. If I want to put on an excellent performance I've got to come out of my pocket for everything! And half the time they're either not paying or paying very little. I'm one of those not in a rush to sign any record deals or manager contracts type of artist. So what are your thoughts on distribution deals?
Thing is, a manager is vitally important at this stage in my career, however; finding the right one is so difficult. The music business seems to be so sticky an artist can't know who to trust. Everyone wants to help, but at the end of the day, they've got to get something out of it. The life of a striving artist is definitely not an easy one. But then again, what is? I love writing music, recording music, and even though it's not necessarily easy to get up on a stage and perform, once I've perfected the performance aspect I might be able to love performing as well (I'm getting butterflies just thinking about it). How good does it look for an independent artist in a suffering economy, a controlled industry and people seemingly waiting for you to slip? Maybe in another 6 years I’ll have enough money to pay my way into the lime light, or maybe someday I’ll just be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Until then I’ll just keep on keeping on for as long as I can.

aRaneS said...

This was a really insightful piece of marketing advice.

Thanks for your help.


music business said...

this advice are really easy to remember yet some of them are getting difficulties of its application...