Not too long ago, there was an established route for promoting musical talent. The music would go into heavy rotation on the radio and MTV, the artist would play in a record store, and promotion might include an advertisement in a music magazine. But the old formula has been updated with the advent of digital distribution, social networking sites and web radio. Now bands can sell their music directly through iTunes or CDBaby, and can build their fan base directly through band havens such as MySpace.
The Arctic Monkeys are just one example of a band that parlayed early online success into a mainstream career on stages and in physical CD sales. And Wired magazine has listed a group of what it calls MySpace bands that have used online buzz to help break through to larger audiences.
But every band that creates a MySpace profile doesn’t become the Next Big Thing. Just because you can get global distribution and attention via the web doesn’t mean you will rise above every other band doing the same thing. So I decided to ask two experts in the music business to explain the new realities of online music promotion in the digital age.
Jason Feinberg is founder and president of On Target Media Group, an online marketing agency for bands and record labels. He worked in software development in Seattle, and has also worked at record labels. Scott Perry is the founder of New Music Tipsheet, and has done marketing and PR for a number of artists and labels in his career. I created the following six maxims for digital music promotion after talking to both Feinberg and Perry, and include quotes from them below taken from our phone and email conversations.
1. Give away some of your music. This has been the most controversial element of digital promotion ever since the days of Napster, when file-sharing was blamed for damaging the music industry and musicians’ livelihoods. But savvy marketers have found that setting a few tracks free online as downloadable MP3s can lead to more awareness, a stronger fan base and even better sales over time.
In July, Prince gave away his new album, “Planet Earth,” for free with the Daily Mail in the UK, while also selling out 21 stadium shows in London. Recently, Radiohead released its new album, “In Rainbows,” allowing people to name their own price before buying it online. The average price people have paid for it so far, according to New Music Express, is about $10.
But those freebies and promos by bigger artists are much different than an up-and-coming act wanting to get attention by giving away a few tracks. Those newer bands probably won’t want to give away the whole album, and would have an easier time getting legal clearance to set a few tracks free into the online wilds.
Jason Feinberg: [Giving away tracks] is important and useful because nothing sells music better than hearing the music itself. If you’re selling ice cream, you can describe it all day, but you can also give them a spoonful and that helps sell it the most. It’s the same thing with music. If someone can download a song, and hear it in any format and they can give it to their friends, you’re giving your fans a marketing tool. You let your strongest asset do the work instead of trying to force people to want the music without having it. You don’t want to give it all away.
With established artists, it’s a different story. There are so many people that all have to agree to give something away. If a song has four or six streams of money coming out of it, then you can’t get all of them to give up those revenue streams. When we work with a major label, we understand when they can’t get all the rights to give away a song. It’s a very difficult chain to make it all the way through.
Scott Perry: Hell yeah they should [give away some music]! The music is their calling card, the live show is the product. All bands should give away an MP3 or two, but it is important to have a sales option — the music itself is ultimately what motivates someone to be a fan, and the artist should be compensated for his or her work. Bands still need to sell a full disc at their show for $10 to get some gas and food money for the road.
2. Record labels aren’t dead yet. The low cost of digital recording equipment allows anyone to record an album pretty cheaply. The ease of uploading music to websites makes it easy to get distribution. Record labels might be losing stature and income in the digital age, but they aren’t obsolete quite yet. They still help get physical CDs distributed into stores and onto radio stations, while also providing marketing muscle and support. However, the relationship between labels and artists is changing as more functions of the label are becoming automated online.
Perry: Being on a label has certain advantages if you want to reach a certain level of stardom, but by and large, bands can now do a lot of the groundwork themselves. A band has to ask if they want to be big and make less per unit by signing with a label (and risk falling by the wayside if the band falls out of favor with the label), or would they rather make more per unit by pulling out their own checkbook to hire the right publicist, sales and marketing team, radio promotions guy, online promotions person, someone to pitch music supervisors, etc.
The key these days is to cause enough of a splash on your own to where you can command better terms with a label. Hopefully, you can retain the rights to your master [recordings], yet have a bank account to draw from and a small, dedicated staff with a small roster who are going to go the mat for you every day. I see it happening right now with artists like Ingrid Michaelson and Manchester Orchestra.
Feinberg: As someone who loves the idea of raw talent writing great songs and getting exposure, I think it’s fantastic that there are so many options for [new bands]. But I still see the need for heightened exposure that artists still need. I don’t see labels dissolving as quickly as many people say they will. Talent isn’t enough. Marketing dollars and branding and pandering to the masses at times builds an artist, not raw talent. That’s not all it takes. There’s always going to be a need for centralized structure, funding, a marketing team that knows how to reach your target audience. We’re still a little ways off from the full demise of physical music product.
3. The old gatekeepers don’t hold the keys anymore. At one time, a live performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “Saturday Night Live” could break an artist into the mainstream. Now, there are very few one-time catalysts that help artists break through with the huge Long Tail of niche content online. As media itself splinters away from mass hits, so too does the venues for promoting musical artists. Now artists need a slower buildup through social networks, touring, targeted ads and word of mouth rather than one TV appearance.
Feinberg: In the ’80s, MTV was a gatekeeper. If you got on it, you would sell records. Now most people would be hard-pressed to name a gatekeeper. You can’t even say that for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ There have been plenty of independent artists that have played SNL without having much happen afterwards. I have 500 channels at home through cable, I have a laptop on the couch with almost infinite streams of content, along with iPods and Blackberrys. There’s too much, too many sources of content for any one of them to get my attention. I’m not going to strive to get my artist on one specific website, because there’s so many sources of content and distribution now.
Perry: The flood of new information and activities has definitely changed how bands and labels market their goods. We’ve gone from buying ads on targeted sites and blogs and buying into email marketing blasts to geographical ad targeting and behavioral/cookies-based advertising (matching consumers with similar products and artists based on their online activity). This will continue more as folks learn on a macro level to zero in on marketing opportunities presented by companies like iLike, MySpace, and Pandora.
4. MySpace isn’t the only game in town. Although MySpace has helped bands spread the word about their music and live shows, making “friends” with their fans and keeping them updated, it’s become so big that it’s hard for anyone to get noticed there. Other social networking sites such as Facebook or even Last.fm have gained in stature as well, and music blogs and online publications should be included in any online outreach for music promoters.
Feinberg: AOL Music has always been relevant, and Yahoo Launch and MSN Music are relevant too [for promoters]. With the social networks, you’re relying on proactive users. With AOL Music, we set up a stream with them, and we know people will log on to hear music ahead of the release date. On social networks, there’s a limit to how many networks people can actually use.
A lot of artists have only focused on MySpace. We get this all the time. A band finds us, gets in contact and sends us a link to their MySpace page. And that’s all they’ve done, that’s where they put all their effort. They have bought the automated ‘friend finder’ software to add 6,000 friends. They’ve tried to maximize the usefulness of it at the expense of doing anything else. That just doesn’t make sense. When you have a medium with unlimited options, it doesn’t make sense to just focus on one…It’s the same thing on iTunes. Just being there doesn’t mean a thing. It just means you have digital distribution at the biggest distributor. But with millions of other songs, your music is in a sea of other artists.
Perry: Obviously, iTunes, CDBaby, and MySpace [help artists the most]. But Facebook and Twitter are where things are heading. There are a ton of other sites and services that can enhance the artist-fan relationship, but labels and bands have to seriously measure what is good vs what is popular, otherwise you spend all day updating your profiles instead of doing more important things like practicing, playing, and interacting with real live human fans.
5. The music and technology businesses are like oil and water. To understand just why the music business is suffering in the age of the Internet, you only have to look at the clash of cultures between the music and technology industries. While music folks fight against piracy and music sharing online, techies look at ways of getting music into the hands of as many people as possible. It’s no wonder that a technology company, Apple Computer, was responsible for the most successful digital music playing device, the iPod, because it could play MP3s — a format loathed by the music biz and loved by fans.
Perry: The music industry is full of arrogant old men clinging to a dying paradigm, and are (rightfully so) trying to protect their cash flow. And the technology industry is full of a bunch of arrogant young men who think that technology and engineering can trump art…Hopefully one day we will find a common ground that allows every rights holder to make a penny from every single digital transaction, but all sides will have to make a lot of concessions before we ever get to that point.
Feinberg: The technology industry is about creating as many opportunities as possible, and about giving users the ability to use information in as many ways as they can. In the music industry, it’s almost the exact opposite. They’re trying to control what is being put out there and how it’s used. Many labels are still very reluctant to give up control and let people use technology to its fullest potential. That’s not the best way to endear your fans.
The labels and the artists pushing for DRM-free content, they get it. I’ve never been a big fan of DRM. There’s the technology side, the music business side and the fan’s side. The fans want as many options as possible, the tech industry wants to provide as many options as possible and the music industry wants to monetize their content. I understand the difficulty in synching that up. The labels that are giving users the most options are the ones having the most success.
6. Mobile marketing isn’t mature yet. Many bands have made money by selling ringtones to mobile companies and the iPhone has finally brought a fully realized convergence for music and cell services. But is the mobile platform a place for bands to promote themselves in the U.S.? Not yet. Until people are more comfortable buying songs through their cell phones and mobile advertising becomes acceptable, cell phones are still an experimental place for music promotion.
Feinberg: In Japan, mobiles are utilized splendidly. In America, consumers and companies haven’t met up yet. Do consumers want streaming audio on their phones? Do they want to be able to buy songs? There are so many options. But we don’t know what the consumer wants at this point. Plenty of people think they know that, but none of them agree yet. Until there’s a consensus on what people want and there’s a value to it, it’s going to be a little messy.
Perry: Mobile services are still largely the domain of superstars and urban artists. If you’ve got the goods to be big, great — some urban artists make a ton off of ringtone sales, oftentimes selling more ringtones than singles. But if you are a developing artist, then the only thing you should be using your cell phone for is to advance a date with the promoter in the next town, to stay in touch with your girlfriend back home, to Twitter all your fans, or to encourage your fans to take pictures of you and forward them to their friends.
What do you think? How do you think bands should be promoted online? Are there sites you think will help them find an audience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
UPDATE: Multimedia journalist Michael Amedeo Tumolillo remixed this blog entry, changing it to 6 Maxims for Story Promotion in the Digital Age Instead of promoting music, he made it about journalists promoting their work in new ways. Tumolillo knows about that well as he just launched his new blog, NewsroomNext, in advance of his employer, the Albuquerque Tribune, possibly shutting down.