Thursday, 23 April 2009

Marketing the mid-tail: how the business must do more for great records by established bands

In 2007 Turin Brakes released the album Dark On Fire. Have you heard it? It's a great record. Great tunes (hardly a weak moment among the entire 12 track set), heartfelt lyrics, superb musicianship and a wonderful sound. It represents a career high for a band which, until then - despite a couple of hits - had just trudged along – for three albums. But they still just trudge along, the issue being that nowhere near enough people heard or bought Dark On Fire.

Every music fan has a list of albums like this. Records they love, play to everybody they know and talk about a lot, but no-one else actually has. As for record companies, well, they have a shed load of unsuccessful records of course - at least 20 misses for every hit – that's the standard business model. But each label also has a good bunch of skeletons in the cupboard –great records that sold next to nothing. It's how a lot of artist and label relationships come to an end, when the label decides it has done everything in its power to take the band to the next level, but it just hasn't worked.

Now of course, I realise that sadly, we don't exist in a world where talent rises biologically to the top. The entertainment world is many things but Darwinian in nature it isn't. From time-to-time, positively vacuous movies, books and records make massive global hits – hardly anyone seems to truly understand why this happens. Meanwhile, genuine works of art go unwatched, unread and unheard. That's just the way of things in entertainment media. In some ways you have to have more admiration for people who do produce the big blockbuster hits – they somehow captured the public's collective imagination, or lack of it – a true marketing skill.

But in this case I'm talking about neither the hits or the obscure, out-of-time lost classics. I'm talking about great records by established, if not yet superstar bands. Subjectivity is not the issue here. When you are a producer of records day in day out, you know when your charges have created something special. Dark On Fire was Turin Brakes out of their skin. Last month I wrote about Starsailor's All The Plans – again, out of their skin. You simply cannot argue with genuinely good song writing and execution by bands that already have a proven track record. But then, these great records still bomb – and quite often. Why? It's a question bands, managers and labels should investigate, post-mortem, government-enquiry, coroners-inquest style.

The first problem is of course, that it’s hard to determine any one factor contributing to the lack of deserved success. But if anything, suspect number one will be lack of radio support. The radio has so much to answer for in the workings of the modern mainstream music business. Any marketing executive from outside the music business is vexed and slightly amused by the relationship between records and radio. Certain bands occupy radio slots like they own them, whether or not they release a good single or a stinker. Meanwhile whole swathes of new bands and great new sounds can't get a look in, certainly not across daytime slots. Frankly, if a total overhaul of the relationship between music & radio was called for, that wouldn't be a bad thing in my book.

But lack of radio support can't be an excuse for a failed marketing campaign – not these days. Radio might still be where the casual majority hear new music, but digital platforms register the most growth in influence, especially for the under 30s demographic. Digital platforms are more fragmented than radio in terms of audience reach, but for a new artist, they represent a greater opportunity in aggregate than chasing precious, unobtainable radio slots.

The next culprit is the supply system itself. Release schedules are crammed (especially the notoriously over-crowded 4th quarter) and physical music retail is in complete disarray. If you are not a superstar act in the promotional stratosphere (and if you were you would probably be taking up way more than your entitled share of TV & radio-slots and retail space) you can only hope that enough supporters somewhere along the value chain will champion you to the point where the punters take note.

Suspect number three might be the artist themselves. Are they willing to go the extra mile for their baby? Get off a high horse or two perhaps? Really work it – blood, sweat, tears? I wouldn't blame artists for complaining about promo schedules in the way Paul McCartney did before the release of Memory Almost Full (through Starbucks). Macca, at sixty-odd, was willing to work as hard as any artist one third his age, but was simply crying out for something different to do other than hawk himself around an endless circuit of radio and TV stations. Apart from a few genuine over-precious cases, the artist is not culpable.

Finally, the last suspects are consumers. Like the radio, they (we) also have a lot to answer for. A large chunk of the record buying public (deliberately chosen anachronism there) are lazy in the extreme. That's party how some superstar acts get away with somewhat rocky creative periods – the people continue to buy their stuff because that's all they know! Fact: the number one reason people claim they don't by as much music as they should – lack of information – they don't know what to buy. They are quite literally stuck in a groove.

It seems to me that if every record released has to go Route 1 through radio, TV and retail in a vain attempt to reach a respectable chart position, many genuinely good albums will simply fall by the wayside. There simply are not enough effective media or retail slots available to every record justice.

So what's the answer to maximising a great record in these days of fragmented mainstream media but ubiquitous, commoditised music?

At the risk of being coy about potential solutions to this I am going to be deliberately careful here. I've already littered previous posts with potential routes to market for new bands, but for established bands (with or without record deals) it is in many ways trickier. You have history to contend with. When you're on the 3rd or 4th album bands tend to have a certain vibe going on with the media – who either will still feel goodwill towards the band or will have become long since bored. If it's the latter you are dead through this route, try the alternatives:

Digital + Live

While record labels have marketing departments and talk about getting records to market, a lot of the mainstream activity isn't really marketing as such, but promotion. Even established bands should go back to roots, focusing around a combination of web & live, where fan data can be combined with a deeper connection to the artist and the scarcity of the live performance.

There can be few better examples of working web & live than The Script, signed to the Sony label. But the Script is a new group, not established. For an established band to do the equivalent, they would need to accept the idea of touring much more extensively, perhaps taking residences in smaller venues and/or taking the support slot for a superstar act. More touring festivals could work well here, especially in the current value-seeking climate.

Marketing not promotion

There are occasional examples of record campaigns that look more like marketing in that the approach is either more subtle or radical than simply scatter-gunning (or if you have a bigger budget, carpet-bombing) media placements. For example, Radiohead's approach with In Rainbows was to radically alter the marketing mix – in this case price and place. Coldplay chose a classic give-away-the-song-to-sell-the-album, but also went for a pretty startling art and styling theme – risky but clever, since rarely do big artists choose to radically alter their image. But these are superstar acts of course, not the immediate subject here. It's harder to find examples of marketing innovation lower down the food chain.

Look out for The Hours' current campaign. Here the band – second album in - leverages its relationship with a 3rd party – in this case the artist Damian Hirst – to achieve something different. The Hours has teamed up with The Guardian & Observer Music Monthly (also note, a good audience fit for the band) for the launch of new album See The Light. The Observer and Guardian ran a month-long teaser campaign offering consumers the chance to win a Damien Hirst original piece around the album's cover theme. Just how much it built anticipation for the album is harder to tell though.

What's the rush?

Finally, the slow-burn must come into it. With most album campaigns spanning not much more than a quarter-year, truly great records may not have time to reach the audiences deserved before attention spans waver on behalf of everyone involved - except the potential audience. As a listener, I don't care whether a record is new or not - it's new to me that's the important thing. This shouldn’t happen for the best records - grind it out for the best. It didn’t for Elbow’s Seldom Seen Kid - now bring back the 18-month long album campaign!

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Music discovery Spoon fed, courtesy Daytrotter

Do you ever become utterly gripped by just one song? This one song becomes your adopted theme tune of choice, pushing aside all other songs in your current consciousness. More than that, the song seems to be a perfectly apt soundtrack – a response, to just about everything that happens to be going on in your life. You literally can’t get the song out of your head and don’t want to, necessarily.

That’s happened to me very occasionally and it happened all last week. The song is by Spoon and it’s called “The Ghost of You Lingers”. It’s from their last album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, though I only just came across it.

This track has infected me. There’s something strangely compelling about it – the way it pulses nervously, urgently along (the keyboard on the track is used as a rhythm instrument, which is a sound I have always been attracted to). It’s experimental in structure, but melodic too – nearly all of the melody supplied by the vocal. I don’t think I could ever get bored of listening to this track. It is however, a bit menacing – it’s an anxiety trip – especially with some weird interference sound buzzing towards the end (this is what first caught me ear with the track).

The lyrics and the music could not be any more together. And the lyrics are to a pop song what Pinter prose is to a play. There’s something mysterious going on with this song. The singer’s voice is concerned, reflective. The lyrics are a riddle:

Put on a clinic till we hit the wall
Just like a sailor with his wounds being salted
Come on
I had a nightmare nothing could be put back together
Would you settle the score?

If you were here
Would you calm me down?
The ghost of you lingers
It lingers
And I always think about it

A little detailed so far I know, but stay with me. A little cursory interweb research unveils the impact on the world of “Ghost of You Lingers” and it is not insignificant. A (what looks like an unofficial art) video for the track is approaching 111k views on YouTube. But on the band’s current Myspace page, the track clocks up over 635k plays – and has over 470k on - so plenty of web activity around this track.

Daytrotter - new music, timeless values

But I didn’t discover the track on these titans of web music real estate. I found it on And Daytrotter has amazed me these past few weeks I can tell you. I first came across it after reading about it in Chris Salmon’s ‘Click-to-Download’ column in the Guardian’s Music & Film supplement.

The concept is beautifully simple. Band’s drop by The Horseshack studios in Rock Island, Illinois (while passing through on US tours) and record a 4-5 track session – usually new or recent material – sometimes un-released songs. The session tracks are offered as free MP3 downloads and the site itself is funded through banner advertising (it wouldn’t be right somehow for audio ads to be part of this set up).

Now I’m pretty late to this party. Daytrotter has been going since 2006 and with the frequency of one band every day, has amassed an impressive session archive – all of which is still available for download. I have been like a kid let loose at the pick ‘n mix counter the past couple of weeks raiding this archive. It’s hard to distinguish which sessions are best – that depends on your tastes. But if it’s any help at all, I have listed below my favourite ten songs I’ve been living with lately from the Daytrotter sessions, including the Spoon song.

[Btw, you'll have finished with the YouTube Spoon clip now, so click on the Daytrotter radio player on the right to stream Lonely Dear - number 2 in my Daytrotter session top ten].

I don’t often gush about individual music services on the JB blog so now to the justification to do so with Daytrotter. Daytrotter isn’t just another music blog. It’s done with such care, and so nicely wrapped in its own indie music ethos, it’s immediately attractive for fans of this type of music. And it’s sticky as hell - I just can’t stop dropping by on the site to see who has recorded a new session. It’s marvellous for real, lasting discovery and connection – I’ve found Spoon, Ingrid Michaelson and The Local Natives on there and I suspect I will listen to a lot more by each of them and many others.

The sessions themselves are quite something. I’m not really one for live session content, but something about the setting or the atmosphere or something definitely rubs off on the artists who record for Daytrotter. They seem to put in real performances and the sessions sound great – warm and capturing plenty of subtleties in the music – credit to both the artists and to the studio's sound engineers. These are so much better than your run-of-the-mill promo-circuit radio show sessions where the artist just shows up and plays with half their usual players or equipment and then have to suffer the DJ concluding with a cringe-worthy “that was just fantastic” (awkward moment of radio silence follows).

In short, the recordings made here are well worth the effort in downloading, listening and keeping. I’ve talked a lot in this blog about how the music industry desperately needs new content brands – nicely curated, edited and presented – in a way we the fans come to know, love and trust. I can think of very few that have so far emerged in the digital music space so far.

I wrote about Lost Tunes last month (which won a Music Week award last week, congratulations). I’ve featured Calabash-Mondomix as well. Pitchfork certainly qualifies these days as do a number of the more established music blogs (though these lack a substantial archive). Such music editorial brands are so few and far between however.

But Daytrotter is my new favourite music brand. I can’t see me getting bored of something so lovingly put together and superbly well executed. It’s so simple. Not only is the music great, but the editorial features written by founder Sean Moeller are briefly diverting and fun to read. A strong voice that’s never dull, and sure does justice to its quirky and individual subjects. The other aspects to the site work fine too – a radio player, some video, a cartoon strip, a merch shop. And it’s all beautifully signatured by Johnie Cluney’s highly attractive artwork. Everything about it smacks of an effortless (and perhaps even accidental) focus.

And in this focus is a great model for all of the endless technology-driven music services that show up week in week out and mostly, depart quietly sometime later by the rear exit. Being a valid, lasting contributor to the changing face of music discovery doesn’t have to mean a gargantuan library with all the music ever made, or the latest whizz bang recommendation engine that can rip that library apart with an algorithm.

Put some thought into it. Think about your audience, think about your artists, and think about how you can add real value to their needs in connecting. Word of mouth will do much of the rest.

I’d love to see Daytrotter move up to a gallop, perhaps syndicating its content onto the bigger music or ISP platforms so desperate for character development. But the Daytrotter crew aren’t as consumed by ambition as I am. By e-mail I asked Sean Moeller what his longer-term ambitions for the service are. His response was “long term goals are just to continue doing what we're doing really”. Once again, focus.

My top ten digital tracks from the sizeable archive:

1. Spoon. “The Ghost of You Lingers”.
2. Lonely Dear. “I Was Only Going Out”. (embedded for your listening pleasure).
3. The Maccabees. “Precious Time”.
4. The Local Natives. “Airplanes”.
5. Aimee Mann. “Little Tornadoes”.
6. Spanish Prisoners. “Mantequilla”.
7. Ingrid Michaelson. “Breakable”.
8. Death Cab For Cutie. “Styrofoam Cup”.
9. Foals. “Jam (Figure#3)”.
10. Deerhunter. “Dr. Glass”.

Friday, 3 April 2009

A cure for industry breakdown - Elbow grease

I just checked on Elbow's UK sales for The Seldom Seen Kid, which have just cruised past the 500k mark. When I first posted on Elbow's momentum and the contributing factors to it back in September, sales had just past 150k. But Fiction boss Jim Chancellor confidently suggested the album would reach platinum. I believed him. I suggested an arena or two might be in the offing at last? It was in plan said Jim – and was signed, sealed and delivered with aplomb at their triumphant Wembley show a couple of weeks back (my music mistake of the year so far: not attending that show).

At that time the band had just won the Mercury Music Prize, so platinum sales and arena shows looked very much on, but even Chancellor probably wouldn't have bet on a Brit, which the band won in February. And so, Elbow was resurrected from a languishing obscurity. Their wonderful, but very 'unpop' Seldom Seen Kid Album has become popular (let's not overdo it, The Seldom Seen Kid ranked 35th best-selling album for 2008, though is by far the most 'progish' repertoire on that list) and will probably tick-over into double-platinum (UK sales of 600k) at some stage this year.

This is all great of course, with the band themselves and Garvey in particular, seemingly able to enjoy their long-awaited success with a lovely humbleness – basking in it without melting in it, and at the same time none of the awkward embarrassment that can often come when 'indie' bands break into the mainstream. When Garvey says “it's been good being me of late” on his 6 Music show (if you haven't discovered it yet, do, it's a genuine radio gem) it comes across as genuine appreciation.

Better than great in fact, Elbow's success is refreshing. The sometimes cynical UK music press has launched no backlash at all, not a hint of it. Instead, just continued good will. I've yet to come across one hard core Elbow fan to reel from their mainstream success. Maybe in these hard times, a little glory to the underdog is simply appreciated. Of course, the whole episode is underpinned by sheer quality. Listening to “Grounds For Divorce” and “Weather To Fly” this week, those two tracks are still revealing new qualities to me now, 18 months after first hearing them, and listening to them lots.

Elbow's success is now widely recognised and often referenced. In reviews for new releases by Starsailor, Doves and The Hours (all of which are very good records) you'll find obvious references to Elbow as unlikely but welcome trailblazers. I've been thinking though, could Elbow's success have a greater significance for the music business itself? It has certainly lifted the mood (as well as raised the stakes) in many record label marketing camps for other indie bands. In these hard times that is much appreciated. Perhaps there is now room for a bit of confident swagger in the way the campaigns for these records are executed. People really want this stuff! And there's no doubt The Seldom Seen Kid has nicely created a public appetite for more of it.

Being both fun and serious and about it, Elbow's success has scratched some very stubborn itches that have plagued the ailing record business for quite a while:

  • Labels: Think the 18 month long album campaign is dead in the age of immediacy and music-streaming-file-sharing ubiquity? Not necessarily - The Seldom Seen Kid

  • New bands: Can you survive in the cut & thrust of today's ruthless business, with one or two album deals and at best, three-strikes-before-your out? You just might – Elbow

  • Old bands: In the hole? Sales & audiences falling despite delivering your best work? Past your prime but not past your best? Do carry on – Elbow!

  • Fans: Think the age where you go to a gig and hear a charismatic front man not only talk between songs, but actually say something entertaining and informative (possibly to you directly?) are sadly gone? No! - Guy Garvey – man of the people and master of audience participation

  • Music press, retailers: Think bands that don't erm, scrub up too well, will struggle to find a large audience through mainstream media? Not always – Elbow!

  • Everybody: Think a complex, melancholy 'unpop' record can't become a mainstream blockbuster hit? Wrong – The Seldom Seen Kid

  • Everybody: Think a band with a terribly dull name will struggle to catch on? Wrong – Elbow! (okay, there's also Coldplay, Oasis etc.).

But where does Elbow go from here? What's next? Obviously there's the question of America and subsequent global super-stardom. What about Elbow The Movie? Personally I would love to see something done in the spirit of Wilco's “I'm Trying to Break Your Heart” or “Ashes of American Flags”. I'll be there for the theatrical release and the DVD, and the coffee table book.

Probably best of all, this band of 18 years in the making, that have worked blood, sweat & tears and must have been several times on the brink of throwing in the towel, is currently writing a new album and no doubt, will make several more after that. That way, they don't miss out on anything and nor do we. At least something in the music business is working.