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!


Nathan said...

Great article to start the conversation Keith, thanks! In a recent CD Baby interview I listened to with David Nevue, he credits much of his success to just sticking around. So the music business is not a meritocracy and the media is an enigma. Damn!

If we are living in the information age, and yet it's true that the #1 cause of the lack of music sales is consumer ignorance, then this huge social networking website balloon is just full of hot air, right? I hope you'll research this more. It would be great to see an article about some more concrete steps that artists can take to inform consumers and build a career without big media support.

Larry said...

Good article Keith! Your propositions ring true for ALL artists no matter what there level of success.