Sunday, December 28, 2008

Turn a virus into reverberation to get lasting fans

There have been a couple New York Times articles recently that have stood out to me. The first was Jon Pareles's piece on "Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan," discussing the licensing business's rise in recent years (thanks to DA of Chester French for the tip). The second was Gregory Schmidt's article on Broadway's use of MySpace and other viral techniques to fill theater seats. Both articles are about new ways for the arts to generate awareness.

The final quote of the Schmidt article touches on a point that I've been adamant about: “In the theater, there is only one proven marketing technique that works: to generate word of mouth,” Mr. McCollum said. “Everything else is a shot in the dark.”

Viral Marketing techniques are little more than the next generation billboard or TV ad -- they generate a bit of brand awareness if executed properly, but don't have any real lasting effects. You may see a spike in traffic as a result of a Viral Marketing campaign, but it rarely has any meaningful long-term revenue impact. Same goes for music licensing -- having your song licensed for a commercial is often good exposure, downloads of the single on iTunes will spike, as will MySpace plays, but how many new fans has it given you?

I actually admire the band Chairlift for deliberately not calling attention to the fact that their song "Bruises" was featured in the latest iPod Nano commercial ("I tried to do handstands for you..."). They knew that by making a big deal about one song being featured on TV, they'd alienate their true fans and make a big statement about their intentions as artists (to make money and get famous quickly instead of caring about their art and the fans who have supported them from the start).

As Seth Godin has posited for many years now, the best products, those that sell and that people love, are the ones with the marketing built in. Andy Sernovitz says "Advertising is the cost of being boring," and he's absolutely right. Viral Marketing is little more than a new generation of advertising -- its purpose is to generate brand awareness rather than create long-term fans and customers.

Reverberation Marketing, on the other hand, happens when a product (be it an album or a bottle of soap) is worth talking about and is properly exposed to its target audience. The first part, that it's worth talking about, must be baked into the product. The second piece, exposure to the target audience, is the job of a marketer.

Fleet Foxes have topped a vast number of Album of the Year lists (including my own), but that has nothing to do with the fact that their CD was available at Starbucks. In fact, the Starbucks deal came after they were playing sold out shows to thousands of die-hard fans around the world. They built a remarkable product, and exposed it talkers and tastemakers in their target audience (, for example). They continued to build with a tour opening for Wilco, a band with a similar target audience, and are now selling out headlining shows in Australia.

Perhaps most importantly, the fans they've made will stick with them. Viral Marketing encourages flash-in-the-pan artists or brands, whereas Reverberation Marketing builds a lasting fan-base that can be marketed to for years to come.

Fleet Foxes have focused on their fans, rather than general exposure, as they recognize the true fans will allow them to do what they love for the rest of their lives. I talked to them briefly after a sold-out show at The El Ray in October and they said they would be thrilled to play to that crowd at that venue for the rest of their lives if that's where their fans were. They even mock the marketing ploys of dollar-driven artists in a recent blog post:

"We have found the perfect place to record our next record, we've rented a barn/house in Port Townsend a few miles from where my dad used to build boats, and we're gonna build a big ole Titanic that will seem indestructible but will actually sink quite easily due to something minor that we overlooked (something like hella world beat / glitch pop influences or a continuous literal narrative). SO watch out for FORD AUTOMOTIVE PRESENTS FLEET FOXES II: TIDES OF THE UNDERDEMON, SERMON 3:16 exclusively at Best Buy, January 17th 2009!"

So what can they do next? Make the ties to their existing fans stronger. Get more direct contact routes than MySpace (email addresses, cell phone numbers, etc) in order to increase quality of communication (read: segmentation by location or depth of connection (single purchase vs large purchase and sharing)) and strengthen the connection. Understand what those fans want from them, understand who else those fans are listening to, reward the fans who help spread their message, and most of all continue to be themselves.

The true fans have come because they feel an untainted connection to the band. They will support the band for years to come. The folks who buy your single off iTunes because they heard your song on a commercial are virtually meaningless in comparison. Thinking financially of the lifetime value (LTV) of each:
  • True fan: Buys 3 albums (3 x $10), 1 vinyl ($15), tickets to 5 shows (5 x $20), and 2 t-shirts (2 x $15). Also, they inspire 3 other fans, who might spend half that on average. Total LTV = $437.50
  • Single purchaser: Buys one single on iTunes ($.99), likes it enough to buy the whole album (rarely happens -- perhaps 1 in 20 at best). Total LTV = $9.99
Obviously nearly every artist is going to have some of each. Exposure is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact it might help create more true fans. However, your time is much better spent targeting the true fans than worrying about a sheer number of ears you can get your music in. True fans enable reverberation for years to come.

For more on how targeting true fans can benefit the bottom line more than mass exposure (and some great examples), I highly recommend Ian Rogers's recent keynote speech from the GRAMMY Northwest MusicTech Summit.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

First Aid Kit: A story of discovery

Many folks ask me how I discover music. I wish I had an easy answer. I download a lot of stuff (both albums and playlists, which sometimes inform album purchases) via torrent or other filesharing options, I also read the occasional blog, and hear about a lot of good music from coworkers and friends. I don't use Pandora, I scrobble to but never look at it, and I keep the iTunes Genius sidebar open but I'm not sure why (it's not like I look at iTunes when I listen to music--I click once and it plays).
I can speak in broad generalizations all day, but I thought it best to take you through how I found out about a couple teenage sisters from Sweden in a band called First Aid Kit. Every time I play them for someone the immediate response is "Who is this??" (in a good way). But I can't take credit for finding them.
I first found out about First Aid Kit from Peter Rauh via a Twitter message: "Some inspiration for the day: Two Swedish teenagers covering Fleet Foxes in the woods (no lie)" The link takes you to this video:

After I told Peter how much I loved the video, he told me he heard about it via Light In The Attic.
I downloaded the mp3 of the song for free, and checked out their MySpace profile. From there, I bought their record from Klicktrack.
After more than a few listens in a short time span, I knew others would enjoy the music, so I published an OpenTape player on my website:

I told a number of friends about the music, and my friend Britti even thought she played them on her radio show. Unfortunately, she had come across another band by the same name, this one from Spain -- goes to show you the importance of picking an original name for a band.
At any rate, I hope you all enjoy First Aid Kit as much as I do. I think they're mature beyond their years, and anyone who fashions themselves after the Fleet Foxes is A-OK in my book.

Collective Patronage: Your next advance is from your fans

Collective Patronage is not a new concept (heck, a quick Google search turned up this article from 2001 -- the author says "I can think of four local San Francisco-area bands, and one each in Minneapolis and New York, to whom I would happily give $25/year to support their music"), but only now is it beginning to be properly realized in the music industry. The idea is a return to the days of classical music, when composers were paid by their wealthy patrons to compose music that everyone could enjoy.
In a perfect world, someone richer than you would pay for your favorite bands to make lots of great music for you to enjoy for free. However, we live in a democracy with a free(ish) market, so we all have to do our part.
Artists are no longer confined by a physical medium (CD, cassette, vinyl, etc) as their flagship product, and fans have many options to avoid paying for music. Yet many, if not most, of us still pay for music that we like. In talking to others who work in the industry, the standard routine seems to be to download a number of albums without paying, take them for a few spins, and pay for the ones you like.
Had I said that 5 years ago, I would've had the RIAA all over me. As it stands, however, much of the fear of file sharing has subsided -- heck, there are even "marketing" companies who will seed your album on torrent sites.
While many of the barriers to entry for artists to produce and distribute music have diminished, they have not disappeared. Artists still need to cover recording costs, equipment costs, gas costs, etc. Claiming "oh, they can make that money on the road" only applies to a select few bands (and that number is diminished with high gas prices and harsh economic conditions).
Artists need fans, and they need some of those fans to pay some money. Yes, those "some"s are intentional. Fans can pay in many ways (eg - pay attention, pay permission to market to them, etc), but some of the fans do need to contribute money for the band's survival.
Some services have sprung up with the concept of Collective Patronage in mind --,, etc -- but those are focused exclusively on unsigned, relatively unknown artists, and instead of fostering a true relationship between artists and fans, they are more of a game for the fans and a one-time "make or break" for the artists. In other words, they're not focused on long-term, sustainable growth. They also fall short in extending the concept of Collective Patronage to larger, more established artists.
"Oh, but the big artists have labels to cut them big checks!" Sure, sort of. But even large artists could do better for themselves taking checks directly from their fans rather than from labels. Think about it: with how much they're struggling, and with all their bureaucracy, would major labels make a major investment were they not almost positive they could recoup? Not likely.
Take the David Byrne - Brian Eno release Everything That Happens Will Happen Today -- by contract I can't speak to specific numbers, but the goal was to recoup recording costs and make as much as they would have made from a major label advance. Perhaps that was a bit audacious, considering the amount of marketing money a major label would have dropped, but guess what? The album hit that goal in well under the three months it's been out -- long before it even hit traditional retail outlets or iTunes/Amazon. Not only that, but both artists draw from a slightly older fanbase that isn't as likely to dig for music online.
Even ETH was a fairly traditional release -- digital only, digital plus CD, and digital plus limited edition tin with bonus disc. To move to a system truly based on Collective Patronage, a group of fans would all pay an agreed-upon sum to an artist each year to ensure that artist continues to produce music. In exchange, they receive access to all the artist's output for that year, plus maybe a few extra bonuses. Essentially, it's a subscription or membership to the artist.
Josh Rouse posts an album of some sort each month for his patrons (okay, subscribers) to download. Jubilee recorded an EP, gathered patrons based on that EP, and put the money they collected towards further recording (which, of course, the patrons receive for free).
I've probably belabored the point more than I need to, but I encourage fans to become patrons of their favorite artists, and artists to seek out patrons -- we all want to make each other a little bit happier and bring a little more beauty to the world through music. Some have the talent and inspiration, others have the money.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why Trent Reznor Rules

I hope this shows up decently. If not please view it at:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Synchronous audio over video chat

If someone knows how to do this, please let me know...
I want to be able to play music synchronously over video chat. Meaning, I imagine, writing a simple streaming audio player on a video chat API that could either play songs from skreemr and seeqpod or from your computer (temporarily hosting them or pushing them to another hosting service) so that people on both ends can listen to the same music at the same time without the time lapses and audio overlaps that exist in playing music on one end through the computer microphone. Help?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Artist Idea #3: TXT for Video

This is the third in a series of relatively short posts of potentially crazy, potentially profitable ideas for musicians to use. If you use them, you don't have to give me any credit, but please do write in and tell me how it worked for you.
Here's an idea that is best enabled with Topspin, but is worth running by any means necessary. Get a phone for the band (or, alternately, get an SMS receiving number/account online), post the number at concerts (tape it on your amps for full effect), and have fans text you their e-mail addresses. At the end of the night, or in the van the next day, compile all the e-mail addresses (and their phone numbers) you received. Put them into a list titled the city or venue you just played so you can keep track of where they are for future communications.
Finally, give them a reward! My recommendation is a private link to a video of the previous night's performance, but I know not everyone travels with video cameras (you should! get the merch guy or someone in one of the other bands to tape you). Alternately, a personalized message would be nice, an exclusive song download would be better, and encouragement to tell their friends if they had a good time is always good policy.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Artist Idea #2: Dedications

This is the second in a series of relatively short posts of potentially crazy, potentially profitable ideas for musicians to use. If you use them, you don't have to give me any credit, but please do write in and tell me how it worked for you.
I don't know what it is about chatting it up with my friend Adam, but I always wind up with new artist ideas while talking with him. The next three are all from one conversation about ideas for Mondo Pr!mo's new release, 2FN HOT, and upcoming tour with The Pink Spiders.
Start by emailing all your fans and let each of them pick a song to have dedicated to them on your next tour stop nearest to them.
If you scale like crazy, it would be tougher to keep up with the dedications (perhaps start selecting fans at random, or fans with the best reasons for why they deserve the dedication), but while you're still building, the satisfaction and excitement of a personal dedication is a huge reward for your initial core fans.
Sure you might make a dedication anyway if someone asked you outside the venue before the show, but by offering the opportunity in advance, the fans will get more excited to go to the show and more excited about bringing friends to hear that song dedicated to them.
THEN you follow up with them, having brought a video camera on tour with you, by posting that song, with dedication, on youtube and email them the link.
Then they share that to all their friends who didn't go to the show, those folks hear your songs, get hooked, and, from the details of the youtube vid, know where to go to buy your stuff.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Katy Perry's hit single, "I Kissed A Girl," recently tied The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" for the longest reign at #1. While we can all sit around all day and all night debating the merits (or lack thereof) of each, I would like to point out the difference in culture surrounding these hits.
Namely, the fact that I eat, sleep, and breathe music, work in the music industry, am young and relatively "hip" (okay, the fact that I just put that in quotes takes me out of the running), yet have never heard this "I Kissed A Girl" song. In fact, every time I hear it mentioned, Jill Sobule's classic 90's hit by the same name comes to mind.
I could rant about how this is a sign of the changing landscape of music made possible by the digital medium and infrastructure, but you know that already. Instead, today I'd just like you to sit back and think about what it really means to have a #1 single these days--Katy Perry has sold fewer cumulative albums in 7 weeks than The Beatles did in 1.
The lowest common denominator will always exist, and will always sell. It's human nature to be attracted to artists and songs that other people like. That market won't disappear. The difference is not that people aren't buying music--music sales are still well above what they were in the 60s (and 70s and 80s and 90s)--it's that not everyone has to buy the same albums. They have different ways of discovering music, and more music to choose from.
As an artist, you should view this change as a boon--you no longer have to conform to a "norm" to get a coveted record deal and thus sell records; you can make whatever music you want and there will, more than likely, be a market for it. In a world where #1 means much less, being down the list a bit doesn't look so bad anymore.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Artist Idea #1: Taco Truck

This is the first in a series of relatively short posts of potentially crazy, potentially profitable ideas for musicians to use. If you use them, you don't have to give me any credit, but please do write in and tell me how it worked for you.
It's a well known fact that the way to a (wo)man's heart is through (her) his stomach. It's also a well known fact that selling cheap food near concert venues is almost always a home run. Why not utilize both of those facts and cook for your fans? If you want to go all-out, buy yourself a taco truck (or similar food-serving vehicle) and use it as your tour van. Alternately, you could get one of those dorm-room pizza ovens and plug it in by your merch booth. The key is to have something easy to make and easy to sell, and the means by which to do both. If you cook it, they will come.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Quick Follow-up

Just thought it was worth mentioning that a month after I posted about Foxboro Hot Tubs (Green Day's label-less side project) playing to a crowd of maybe 500 in Dallas, my cousin told me they played to a sold out Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. Word of mouth? Yep. A little help from radio? Sure, but it's not like it was a label pushing the track on the radio.
They've proven they can migrate a fan base from a major to no label, the next question that still remains is: How does an independent artist effectively grow their fan base without the advent of traditional label backing? There are no easy answers, but three things that help a lot are 1) good music (a good product sells itself); 2) patience (the days of the debut album megahit are largely over); and 3) luck (see post on randomness).
I can try to offer suggestions of ways to help get attention, but ultimately those three principles pervade in any success. The harder you work at making a quality product and growing your fan base organically (read: great, ongoing, two-sided communication with your fans), the more likely lady luck is to smile on you.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The DUH Effect (or, the WWID generation)

Let me preempt these comments by saying the following generalizations are not necessarily true of all members of my generation. They are, I believe, more prevalent in my generation than those who have come before us, however.
I just read Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier, way to build a successful web application by the guys over at 37signals. The book is smart, well-pointed, and a fun read the whole way through. However, one word stuck out in my mind after nearly every sentence: DUH!
The same word has gone through my head with every business book I've read recently: The Long Tail, The Tipping Point, Wikinomics, and nearly every Seth Godin book out there.
This mental commentary is not reflective of the authors; rather, it is reflective of the difference in mindset that a few years makes.
The readers of my generation don't need to be told that niches exist, that collaborative knowledge is powerful, or that breaking down barriers (including broad advertisements) between a company and customers can bring lots of benefits. DUH!
We know these things. We assume them. This is how our world works. All the processes that these books are built to break down, we never knew existed. We digest the world in snapshots and snippets, diving deeper into only the specific realms that pique our interests (for example, the reading I've enjoyed recently has involved the brain's cognition and processing of music and the many definitions and significances of infinity).
Take social networking for example: it took someone of my generation to get it right after other, slightly older tech geniuses got bogged down after building great promise. While many of us were frustrated with it's abrupt implementation, the Facebook News Feed proved to be the most significant feature of it's growth. Zuckerberg noticed that students were spending hours on Facebook digging through each others' profiles and walls trying to find out who had changed something recently or had a conversation with someone else recently.
We as humans seek transparency into the people and companies we care about. Due in large part to lack of technology, past generations rarely realized or acted upon this human urge--but why were newspapers started? Why have sit-coms succeeded? Why do tabloids make billions?
The personal focus, the focus on the individual, manifests itself in countless ways. There's the urge to participate, to make yourself feel like you made a difference--volunteering at a homeless shelter or contributing an entry on Wikipedia. There's the urge to get your personal message heard--sending Christmas cards or blogging or, most recently, Twittering. There's the urge to know what other individuals are up to, as noted above.
My generation recognizes this personal focus and has an understanding of the tools necessary (mostly web-related) to act. When we get stuck creating something for public use, we simply ask "What would I do?" and chances are pretty good that there are some other people out there of the same mindset--be it a large market or a niche one. And if asking WWID doesn't work, we look at who we want to reach and explore their wants, needs, and what they're doing. Then we go back to our drawing board and change accordingly.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Randomness and Predictive vs Social Forces

In traditional media marketing, there's a sense that one can predict consumer preference (and those who do the best job of this make the most money). Unfortunately for many who have made careers out of this line of thinking, their processes have relied largely upon situational factors that have allowed their success--with few media outlets (eg- TV, radio stations), those who could spend enough money to get placement for their acts would see great returns.
But times have changed. As Leonard Mlodinow says in The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives :

That is the deterministic view of the marketplace, a view in which it is mainly the intrinsic qualities of the person or the product that governs success. But there is another way to look at it, a nondeterministic view. In this view there are many high-quality but unknown books, singers, actors, and what makes one or another come to stand out is largely a conspiracy of random and minor factors--that is, luck. In this view the traditional executives are just spinning their wheels.

Mlodinow goes on to tell of a study in which 14,341 participants are asked to listen to, rate, and if they desired, download 48 songs by bands they had never heard of. Some got to see how popular the songs were, in terms of their peers downloading them. These folks were further divided into 8 groups, and could only see the data from the folks in their own group. Then there was a group that got to see no data whatsoever--this group was considered to be determining the "intrinsic quality" of the music, without any outside influence.

If the deterministic view of the world were true, the same songs ought to have dominated in each of the eight worlds, and the popularity rankings in those worlds ought to have agreed with the intrinsic quality as determined by the isolated individuals. But the researchers found the exact opposite: the popularity of individual songs varied widely among the different worlds, and different songs of similar intrinsic quality also varied widely in their popularity.

One song ranked 26 of 48 in "intrinsic quality," but was #1 in one world and #40 in another. As one song or another, by chance, got ahead early in downloads, it's apparent popularity fueled others to find it appealing.

The influence of others will always be important to us--we inherently trust the recommendations of other humans more than anything else. Traditionally, the only music recommendations we had access to came from the DJs and VJs who played what the major labels asked them to. There were a few "tastemakers." Now we have all the music options we could ever ask for, plus the option of getting recommendations from anyone and everyone--it's a reactive market now where hits aren't made by radio, but by our peers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How I Landed My Dream Job

For most of my life, I had dreamed of working in the music industry. The catch? I didn't see any jobs which didn't require either a) making no money (I'm not greedy, but I don't want to live in credit card debt), or b) fucking over the artists. The latter gave me more trouble than the former. In the traditional music model, where was there room? There wasn't.

Thank God for the internet.

But even among all the technologies out there claiming to enable and ensure artist success, one stuck out to me: Topspin--they weren't just building tools, they were building solutions for how artists could legitimately ignore the traditional label structure and make a living on their own. This is the story of how I landed my dream job with Topspin.

Earlier this spring, I noticed my idol Ian Rogers had made the shift from heading Yahoo! music to heading Topspin. Here was a guy with nearly limitless options in the digital music world, and he took a position with a stealth startup with a 3-page website. Really? Surely there must be more to it.

There was. The more I learned, the more I was enthralled. Topspin was founded by Peter Gotcher (who, among MANY other things, holds an Oscar and a Grammy for creating ProTools recording software) and Shamal Ranasinghe (who managed MusicMatch for many years, including their acquisition by Yahoo!) and described themselves as enabling bands to become their own businesses. I was intrigued, to say the least.

Doing a bit of research on LinkedIn, I discovered my friend Mike Harkey (with whom I had chatted extensively about my attempted startups NewkBox and Scenem) had been a business school classmate of Shamal's at Stanford. I asked Mike if he would be kind enough to pass along Shamal's contact info, and he was kind enough to give me a very nice introduction.

Unfortunately, my e-mail to Shamal ended up in his spam folder. Oops. Luckily, a few weeks and a phone call later, Shamal uncovered my e-mail and shot me one in return. I then did a phone interview with a manager and with Shamal.

Then silence. Topspin was in the process of moving offices, and Shamal told me they needed a bit of time before he could come back to hiring decisions.

Luckily, being the Ian-stalker that I am, I noticed Ian posted something about a job on Twitter, so I took that as a sign that I should call Shamal again. I did, he said he'd talk to Ian the next day. Well, the next day I also received a rather lucrative job offer from a consulting firm in Dallas, so I had to apply a bit more pressure to Topspin. Within 10 minutes of my e-mailing Shamal, Ian called me (surreal, yes), sang my praises for 8 minutes, and spent 1 minute telling me they wanted me to start tomorrow. The offer letter came in 10 minutes later, with a note from Ian requesting an "I <3 TYWHITE" t-shirt (as featured in picture above).

I was sold. But I had to be absolutely positively sure they were for real (keep in mind, they were still in stealth and hadn't publically revealed any funding), so I asked them to fly me out. They said absolutely and had only rushed the offer knowing I had to make a decision on the other job soon.

When I arrived in Santa Monica, I was greeted by Shamal and a sparse office that had more musical instruments than computers. As the employees trickled in, they were all smiling, kind, and smart. They had all read my blog, been to my website, and probably knew more about me than I know about myself. Even one guy who hadn't started yet, but swung by the office briefly, had checked me out. This was a tight-knit group who knew exactly what they were doing, both with computers and with other people. Sold.

I did lunch with Ian (how many people would pay how much money for that opportunity?), where we saw his idol (ironic?) ride by on a one-speed. It was storybook. He then layed out why he chose Topspin over all the other opportunities he had. Sold.

I took an afternoon break (while Ian, Shamal, and Peter ran off to a Billboard cover shoot) to wander around Santa Monica (and take a nap) before returning to the office to sign my contract. When I returned, Ian was chatting it up with my old friend from middle school DA Wallach, whose band, Chester French, is making quite a splash even before their album drops. Unbelievable.

I signed my contract and have never looked back. I started last week and it truly has been a dream come true. These people are brilliant, creative, and highly motivated to produce the best products on the market. It's everything the digital music business should be: beautiful, powerful tools that sit behind the scenes helping the artists build their relationships with their fans. While it's been a journey to get here, the true journey lies ahead, as we play our (hopefully sizeable) role in changing the music industry forever. I'm not sure I've ever been more excited to be a part of something.

Thanks to all who have helped me get this far, and to those who will continue to help along the path to the future.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Understanding the New Economics of Music: Three Necessary Realizations for Artists

Same essay as last post, but in downloadable and shareable format. Please feel free to pass it around!

Understanding the New Economics of Music: Three Necessary Realizations for Artists - Get more Business Plans

Understanding the New Economics of Music: Three Necessary Realizations for Artists

The music industry is changing. Actually, it already has changed. Technology has transformed everything from production to marketing and distribution. The business side is still trying to catch up with technology, with major labels suddenly trailing the pack.
But if you’re anywhere near the music industry, you know all this already. The question is “How can I survive in the new music economy?” The answer is not easy. It requires a complete change of mindset from traditional music business thinking.
As an artist, there are three basic realizations you need to come to in order to understand and survive in the new economics of music: your band is a business, the traditional model is broken (for good), and your fans are your best assets.
I’ll lead you through these necessary realizations, but much of the rest is up to you. The beauty of this shift is your creativity gets to spill over from music into the business side of things more than ever before. There will be plenty of people to help you along your way, but ultimately it’s you making decisions for yourself.

Realization #1: Your band is a business
Take a minute, let it sink it, get comfortable with it. It’s difficult because you think of yourself as an artist—don’t lose that! The key is that you are an artist who needs to make a living. You are an employee of your band. Pretty sweet job, eh?
Traditionally, bands have at best been brands in a larger corporate label structure (yes, even the indie labels). If you weren’t in one of those structures, you weren’t a professional musician. Well guess what-- labels, in the traditional sense, are irrelevant today (a point we will hit in greater depth later). With the labels gone, you are your own entity.
The thought might be scary at first, but the fear should become an element of excitement for the opportunities this freedom affords you. You now have complete control over everything related to your music, and for the first time you can realistically make a living while keeping that control—there are no more middlemen.
Sure, you will have to learn more about the business aspects of music, but there are many of us here to help. Just remember, as your own business you are no longer fighting for the attention of a few label execs who will magically make you huge, you are fighting for the individual ears of every possible fan out there.

Realization #2: The traditional business model is broken. For good.
In the traditional model, a band worked for the attention of major labels, as the labels collectively had near monopolistic control of all distribution channels. This control allowed them to essentially dictate who succeeded and who did not.[1] Additionally, the only way an artist could get a quality recording made was with the financial backing major labels offered.
The result of all this control was a set of contracts that meant any band that was good enough to get signed, but not good enough to sell literally millions of records wound up in debt to the labels. For an overview of how a band can sell 250,000 copies and still lose money, see:[2]
I added the “For good” part to the section title because major labels still seem to be desperately grasping for every element of the old model that still remains. They don’t understand the new economics. In fact, Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music admitted in an interview with Wired:
"There's no one in the record industry that's a technologist," Morris explains. "That's a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn't. They just didn't know what to do. It's like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?"[3]
Now is your opportunity to get ahead of the majors. Kick them while they’re down and reclaim total control in the name of artists everywhere.
  • Talking Point #1: You don’t need a label
    This is a tough one for most bands to realize—all your favorite bands growing up were on labels, and you may have dreamed of being on the same label as they were. But think of what a label’s primary functions are: financing recording, handling distribution, and providing marketing support. Well guess what: you don’t need any of that anymore.
    Recording is practically free. Yes, you still can shell out loads of money for studio time at the best studios with the most famous producers, but with the advent of Pro Tools and other recording software, the costs of doing so now generally outweigh the benefits.
    Distribution is practically free. Self-distribution options, selling directly to your own fans, are coming very soon. In the meantime, you can pay TuneCore what you’ll make on two or three copies of your record and they’ll distribute your music to all the major online retailers (I’ll hit on the advantages of self-distribution later, but both options are important).
    Why has the traditional distribution structure broken down? Simple: physical space in stores (and in warehouses and delivery trucks) costs money, digital space on servers essentially doesn’t. What does this mean to you? It means that instead of getting at best 7-10% of record sale profits (after paying back the record label in full for recording and distribution investments) through royalties, you get about 70% of all sales. Period. In a best case scenario on a major label, you still have to sell upwards of 10 times more copies to make the same amount of money.
    Marketing is dead. At least in the traditional sense. Marketing is no longer direct advertising, as labels still believe it to be—people have become immune to traditional advertising. Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing, states “Advertising is the price of being boring.”[4]
    So what are the new goals of music marketing? Enable and encourage existing fans to help build your brand, and know your potential fans better than they know themselves, so as to get them to discover you in the way in which they are most susceptible to being hooked. Are people finding you through MySpace? Are they passing mp3s around between each other? Are they avid blog readers? What blogs? I’ll touch more on the importance of your fans later, but it’s your job now to know them as well as you possibly can.
  • Talking Point #2: The pricing model is broken as well
    You’ll see this more in the next section with “The 80/20 Rule,” but static pricing is not reflective of the real value of music.
    Let’s look at an example: One fan listens to your album multiple times daily, it’s struck such a chord that she knows every line and her MySpace screen name is one of your lyrics. She’d drive hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to see you live (she already watches all your live videos on YouTube, over and over). Another fan had your music recommended via Pandora, heard a song, decided to buy the album on iTunes, put it on his iPod, and listens to it about as often as anything else. If you come to town, he might go if he has nothing else going that night.
    In the end, both fans paid $10 for your album and $20 to go to your concert. For one, it was every penny he was ready to invest in you (if you put on a great show, maybe he bought a $20 t-shirt as well, and maybe you began to convert him to be more like Fan #1—each individual product he buys (music, live show, t-shirt) strengthens his ties to you). For the other, she would’ve gladly spent hundreds more dollars on you had she been given the opportunity (you only print 3 styles of t-shirts and she owns them all already).
    The situation with Fan #1, which happens far more often than bands realize, is called Consumer Surplus—in economic terms, the demand exceeds the supply. In real terms, this means lost revenue for the band.
    The ideal solution is a sliding scale pricing model. The issue with adopting such a model initially is that fans wouldn’t know where to start—they are unsure of how to value your music as well. A compromise is to offer more options—sell your B-sides, make a live DVD, print collectors-edition posters. Unfortunately, those kinds of compromises are just that: compromises.
    One possible implementation of a sliding scale involves touring. With gas prices rising, more bands are going to have to get more monetary support to justify going on the road. Now say they asked their fans to help them come on the road. The top fans, like Fan #1, those who would stop at nothing to see the band succeed and to see them live personally, would donate. The fans like Fan #2 would not.
    Beyond simply asking for donations, the band could offer simple rewards for donations and let the fans know how their money is being spent—say, everyone who donates money gets a personalized picture of the band using your money (holding a sign with your name on it—it could be in the tour van if they spent it on gas, or in a restaurant if they needed food). To help the fans visualize what their money will be used for, you can set up some suggested donation levels and examples of expenditures from each: $5 buys a band member a burger, $20 buys new guitar strings (if you don’t get them free), $50 fills up the van with gas (okay, maybe closer to $150), etc. Perhaps the bigger donations warrant a phone call from the band as they spend the money. Perhaps an extra-large donation gets a private acoustic session for you and your friends. None of these interactions inflict any extra cost on the band, but they let the fans know how their money is spent and make them feel wanted, which in turn makes them more likely to spread your word even further.

Realization #3: Your fans are your biggest asset
“But wait,” you say, “how can someone I’m just selling stuff to be an asset to me?” And there’s the trap: you don’t have to merely engage in single, one-sided transactions. Your relationship with your fans shouldn’t end when they put you on their iPod—if they like your music, they don’t want it to end there, and neither should you.
There’s a phenomenon in Economics that goes by a number of names: The 80/20 Rule, Pareto’s Curve, Zipf’s Law. Traditionally the rule meant that the top 20 percent of companies in a given market controls 80 percent of the revenues in the market. But as distribution has changed in music, so too has The 80/20 Rule. Now the rule takes on new meaning: your top fans are responsible for the majority of your marketing. As a rule of thumb, the top 10 percent of your fans carry about 90 percent of the weight.
So who are those 10 percent and what can you do with them?
Have you looked in the front row of your concerts lately? Have you seen those screaming fans who melt when you make eye contact with them or hit that high note in the bridge of their favorite song? Do you have any idea how early they bought tickets, how early they got to the concert to make sure they were as close to you as possible, how late they’ll stay after the show in the hopes of catching another glimpse of you as you disappear into your tour van? Do you know how many friends they’ve told about you and how many message boards they’ve posted on about you…in the last week? They would do anything for you.
All you have to do is ask. Help them help you.
How can they help you? We already established that traditional marketing is dead. Your existing fans are your best outlet for generating new fans. They’ll put your songs on mixes, bring friends to shows, talk you up on blogs and message boards, and anything else they can do to spread the word. Additionally, they are likely to be your best individual sources of revenue.
Up to today, much of online distribution has mimicked physical distribution, just in a more accessible format. However, as previously stated, there’s no reason the relationship between artist and fan should end when the music is purchased and put on the fan’s iPod—neither side wants it to end there.
Think of the information Amazon, iTunes, and Ticketmaster get from the fans that you as artists never get to see: e-mail addresses, locations, what else the same fans bought (or listened to and didn’t buy). Many fans want you to have some of that information so you can best stay in contact with them and cater to them, but they don’t want to go through the hassle of looking for where and how to give it to you.
iTunes recently started releasing specifics of sales by zip codes through a service on This data can help you get a better idea of where people who are buying your music are located, but it still doesn’t give you statistics across all mediums of consumption (ie-Amazon, MySpace, imeem, etc), nor any way to get in contact with those individuals apart from booking a tour nearby and hoping they find out about a show and come.
Soon artists will be able to sell their music and other wares directly to the fans, possibly on a sliding scale, and receive and maintain the personal information the fans want to share. Artists will be able to utilize that information to increase communication to their existing fan base and maximize their reach to new fans.
However, ditching the existing outlets in favor of nothing but selling directly is also generally a mistake. Remember what we said was the new marketing ideal? Know your potential fans better than they know themselves, so as to get them to discover you in the way in which they are most susceptible to being hooked. This means you need your music to be accessible to as many of your potential fans as possible—forcing them into a single distribution method puts you in the same trap the major labels fell into, and you’ll lose many potential fans in the process.
You can try to influence new fans to see the advantages of doing business directly with you (via links on your MySpace and YouTube videos, and encouraging your existing fans to drive their friends to your site, among other ways), but if they don’t want to go beyond simply buying mp3s through their favorite retailer and throwing it on their iPods, they’re frankly not worth your time and effort. Yes, it’s great that they bought your music, and it would be great if they came to a show, but remember our version of The 80/20 Rule—if they aren’t willing to put in the effort to count themselves among your top fans, they have a relatively low utility to you.
Concentrate on your top fans—they will help you the most in any number of ways.

Case Study: The Format made the new economics work for them
The Format was dropped by their major label, Atlantic Records. Twice. Many bands would pack it in, but best friends Nate Ruess and Sam Means weren’t giving up on their dream. After an initial thought towards seeking another major label, they looked into the audience at their shows and saw a devoted fan base that was more than they could ever ask for. They didn’t need a major label to get their next album in the hands of those fans.
So they took their severance check from Atlantic and recorded Dog Problems the way they wanted to. And with major labels lined up out the door trying to buy the rights to their sophomore LP, they made the difficult decision to self-release it on their own aptly named Vanity Label.
Nate and Sam gave away a free acoustic EP including some of the songs from Dog Problems to their fans about two months before the LP’s release to help get them excited. Then a month before release, they posted 30 second snippets from four possible singles and had the fans vote for their favorite.
When it came time to release the LP, they paid for distribution out of their own pockets and were among the first to embrace SnoCap’s widget to let fans purchase and download MP3s directly from their MySpace page.
The result? Dog Problems debuted at #77 on the Billboard 200 in July of 2006, a chart virtually untouched at that point by bands without labels.
Then, a year later, seeing sales slow to virtually nothing, The Format did something a major label would never consider: they gave away Dog Problems for free, as long as you signed up for their mailing list (and no, you didn’t have to confirm your e-mail address—if you didn’t want to put in a valid e-mail address, you didn’t want to hear from them, so what good would it do them to e-mail you?).
Over the course of a month, 40,000 people took them up on the free album, and another 29,000 downloaded individual tracks from the album. The Format’s e-mail list grew immensely (how much would a major label pay to get 69,000 more fans on a band’s mailing list in one month?), and as a result of that their next tour had far and away the highest turnouts they had ever seen. All without spending a dime on marketing, and all profits going into their own pockets.

Conclusion: YOU can do it
Undoubtedly, this sounds like a vast amount of work and responsibility above and beyond what you anticipated when you first joined a band. Fear not—tools are on their way to help you sift through all the clutter and make your life much easier. Sure, they won’t be free (all those employees put on the street by the labels need to make money somehow), but they’ll be far preferable to signing 98% (or more) of your life away to a label. If they get their act together, labels will still be able to participate in the new music economy—but they’ll be much more like business consultants to you than corporate overlords.
Control is now in the hands of the only two crucial entities in music: the artists and the fans. How are you going to build and maintain a strong bridge between yourself and your fans?

[1] The “hit machine” of major labels is a predictive force, which only works when options are limited. When fans have all the choice in the world, hits are determined by the fans themselves—hits are made reactively to fan response and viral spreading. Instead of what the fans listen to and like being determined before an album comes out by some guys in a board room, the best albums are elevated to the top by aggregation of real fan interest.
[2] In his book Confessions of a Record Producer (Backbeat Books), Moses Avalon shows how a million-selling artist can still easily wind up in debt to a label.
[4] Sernovitz XXV

Monday, June 16, 2008

Music as a medium (or, why video games appear to be winning)

Bob Lefsetz wrote a week or two back that "Gaming’s got all the sexiness that music used to have. It’s the land of visceral excitement…and profits." There's some truth to that statement, but does it mean music is dying? Absolutely not.
All that's happened over the past few decades is that music has shifted from a rivalrous to a non-rivalrous medium--instead of sitting down and listening to a record from start to finish while doing nothing but maybe look at the album cover, we have music playing constantly while doing other things. It doesn't compete for our time. It accompanies other daily activities like driving, reading, running, shopping, etc. The same shift has happened for TV--the hours people spent watching TV spiked in the 70s and 80s because people were starting to while TV while doing something else. (Will all cinemas of the future be restaurants as well? Or have other activities integrated?)
Gaming enjoys its sexiness and profits because it is the newest major entertainment medium, and is naturally a step ahead of movies and music in terms of being naturally engaging (a point that the wii brought to the mainstream). But watch as they follow a similar arc to music. Already gamers are complaining of the major studios releasing "safe" games--sequels or new games that follow existing models for success. Soon, tools will be made available to allow anyone to create their own games quickly, cheaply, and easily; and we will have the computing power to be able to distribute those games quickly, cheaply, and easily over the internet. Already you see the beginnings of it with user-modified levels. The real question is will the major gamining studios learn the lessons of the music, film, and TV industries before them?
But back to music. Music as a medium is alive and well, despite its gradual shift away from demanding our attention. More people are listening to more music today than ever before. Just because the medium itself isn't as engaging as it once was doesn't mean that music can't be engaging. Artists need to build relationships with their fans, and need to give them more to play with than a new CD every 2 years. This doesn't just mean releasing every track that you record and mix in the back of the tour van. It means everything from video blogs to merchandise to live shows--get creative! Get engaging! Give the people what they want, and then some! Your band is a brand, and a single product, updated once every two years, simply isn't going to cut it if you want to have any of the sexiness and profits of the gaming industry.

Friday, June 6, 2008

What is Chipotle up to?

Yesterday at Chipotle, I decided to forego my usual routine of picking up a copy of the Dallas Observer (local indie weekly newspaper) and reading the music section, and instead just sat outside and enjoyed the breeze through my hair and view of endless strip malls. As I looked down at my chicken soft tacos, I noticed something odd: the brown paper lining the basket now had some writing on it making out spiral designs. More than that, I immediately picked out the word Evoka--a small band out of NC who I tried to book for a show at Davidson once. Odd, I thought, then looked at the paper a little closer and saw many other names I recognized mixed into the hundreds of names listed.
I searched everywhere for an explanation, but only found a little logo saying "Design. Art. Music." No links, no explanation, no nothing. So I went to the Chipotle website and this was the best I could find: From that all I can discern is either these bands are on Chipotle's radio station, or they're going to have concerts sponsored by Chipotle. But maybe there's a different supersecret plan. I think it's great that Chipotle is doing SOMETHING to support these indie rockers, but would it kill them to tell me WHAT?

Slight Change of Heart: Lala vs Ad-supported music

At first I was totally opposed to Lala's new model of charging $0.10 for unlimited streams of a song--how on earth did they plan on competing against the free streams at imeem? Then my friend Adam started sending me albums to check out on Lala. I could listen to the whole thing straight through for free, no ad interruptions. Had he sent them to me on imeem, I would have had to put up with a 15 second audio commercial every couple songs.
On the surface, this limited interruption might not sound like a huge deal. But let me put this another way: think of your favorite album, the one you loved the second you heard it, that you listened to from start to finish and didn't multitask while doing so. If the first couple times you heard it, a McDonald's audio ad telling you to buy a Big Mac played between every other song, would it still be your favorite album? Would you have listened to it from front to back? I'll give you a "maybe," but in a lot of cases you'd give up or it at least wouldn't have struck you nearly as heavily.
At this point in time, the primary use of streaming services is still to try out music before deciding whether to buy or not. While Lala's model might not make them any money on streaming revenue, the simple fact that you can listen to the entire song or album for free or next to free and purchase it from the same page is genius. Would I like to see them drop the $0.10 rule and eat the extra costs? Yes, from a consumer standpoint, but it wouldn't be a smart business move--by adding the preventative measure of requiring people to pay to keep streaming, even if it's a trivial amount, Lala forces the user to reach for his or her wallet no matter what, and at that point they might as well invest the extra couple pennies in buying the mp3s (the actual revenue generator).
I was thinking about it the wrong way--Lala is not directly competing with imeem, they're competing with iTunes and Amazon. And kicking their asses. At least for now...
(On a side note, I have no idea who has kept Lala funded through all their different iterations (not even a year ago they were strictly a CD swapping broker), but I want them to fund my startup--they sound patient and willing to throw some cash around)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

My weekend in social media

Two interesting snippets from the weekend:
1. I came across my notebook from Junior year (two years ago, for those counting), which included notes from my radio show, "Middle School Dance." I noticed one point where I had asked my roommate Jared what the worst thing on the internet at that moment was. His answer? "Facebook's 'How I know this person' option." I agreed. At that point, that was the first sign we had that Facebook was becoming something bigger than a way to keep track of and interact with your closest of friends, mostly at your own school (not even all the schools had Facebook at that point; as I recall, High School Facebook caused the next uproar). Many of my friends are now very rare Facebook users for precisely these reasons: the original social graph made sense, and made sense in our context--the people we interacted with most online were the people we interacted with most in person. As connections became more and more distant, more and more people were turned off. As soon as coaches were found digging through athletes' personal photos online searching for incriminating evidence, nearly all the athletes significantly limited their Facebook use. Facebook has grown dramatically, but they've lost much of their core original audience. I'll leave it up to you to decide if that's a bad thing or a worthwhile sacrifice.
2. I went to a bar with some friends this Saturday. None of us had been to the bar before, but we were wary because it had potential for being a "hot spot" and thus far too crowded for our liking. Turns out it was incredibly crowded, and one of the people in the crowd is a star of Gossip Girl (Chace Crawford? is that his name?). Anyway, as I pushed my way through the crowds to catch up to my friends, I overheard nearly constant chatter about Facebook. But this story isn't about Facebook. When Chace walked past, the girls I was with swooned. One spent the rest of the night (and probably longer) kicking herself for not jumping his bones. The other was on cloud nine because he brushed her chest as he squeezed past her in the crowd.
What was their first move upon leaving the bar? Telling everyone they know, of course! First a series of TXTs, then a phone call or two, update the Facebook status, then send a few more TXTs. This is precisely why Twitter, if they get their problems solved, will hit it big in the mainstream. The objective of all those TXTs and the Facebook status could have been accomplished with a simple TXT to Twitter saying something like "OMG Chace Crawford just touched my boob!" On the surface, Twitter messages are little more than Facebook status messages. The difference is in the response they elicit. While 95% of both just get read and passed by, there's that 5% there on Twitter that make people want to respond to each other--and Twitter gives them the mechanism to do so (either @(screenname) or direct messaging). Plus, if Twitter catches on for purposes like it did at SXSW last year (note to developers: geotagging will be BIG with Twitter), lots more people would have tried to cram themselves into that bar. If I were a bar owner, I'd be studying up on ways to get people to tell their friends about the bar via Twitter--it might not be necessary now, but will become a huge boon to word of mouth very very soon.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A new model idea

I don't claim to be qualified to be positing this idea (tax law is not my speciality), but I think it's at least worth throwing out there:
As bands and artists become more and more independent, would it make sense for them to incorporate as nonprofit organizations?
It sounds crazy, but here me out: the price of music is dropping to zero whether the artists like it or not. This doesn't mean fans don't want to support the artists, it's merely a function of distribution--it's easiest to get free mp3s, so that's what people do. Artists still need to make money, but they have to find other ways to do so.
People want to support their favorite artists, but often in varying ways and for varying amounts of investment--I might go see a show of 2 or 3 bands I sort of care about, while I might buy 2 t-shirts and a CD and e-mail all my friends about my favorite band. Currently, there aren't enough ways for artists to leverage the dedication of those top fans who would be willing to do almost anything to see their favorite bands succeed.
Being a 501(c)(3) wouldn't prevent artists from selling merchandise and such--those are "unrelated business expenses" that get taxed like they would if the artist weren't a nonprofit. However, being a 501(c)(3) allows the artist to receive tax-free donations, and the donors would likely be able to deduct their donations from their taxes. With gas prices soaring, this would enable a band to set up a fundraising effort (perhaps on Tipping Point models like or where nobody pays unless the goal is met) to ensure they can afford to make the drive around the country. With proper donation tracking, the band can try to book shows near where their big donors are. I would gladly give a few hundred tax-deductible dollars to my favorite bands to allow them to tour--I almost called the guys from Kaddisfly last night to let them know I wanted to do so, til I thought there might be a better way to go about it than just sending them a check for gas money.
The key is enabling the artists to "make the ask." Most artists understand business in the traditional sense: you get paid to play a show, you sell CDs and merch, and you make friends on MySpace in the hopes of spreading the word. Some understand that the top few fans are infinitely more valuable than all the rest put together. Few know how to capitalize on that concept.
In a step-by-step process:
  1. Incorporate as a 501(c)(3)
  2. Give your music away for free--your fans will appreciate it (they almost expect it, but still get excited when artists embrace it)--and encourage them to spread it to their friends
  3. Sell merch as you normally would
  4. Ask for donations. Bloggers often use a "Tip Jar" widget, but I envision something more relevant for artists: associate items with levels of donation ($5 buys the band a beer, $20 buys the band lunch, $100 fills up the gas tank (heck, you could base it all on gas--sponsor the miles on a tour), $500 buys a new amp, etc). A simple widget on your MySpace page goes a long way (especially if the fans can also put the widgets on their pages when they donate to spread the word further).

Thoughts? Anyone willing to give it a shot?

A lesson in execution

My punk rock ideals make me a bit of a cynic towards anything even remotely "mainstream" or "corporate." I'm certainly not alone in that mindset, as we see more and more people rebelling against big business in favor of niche markets (enter The Long Tail).
The exception comes in execution: if a large or mainstream entity executes an idea incredibly well, it's very tough to hate or avoid. Apple is the biggest example--some, but by no means all, of their products are revolutionary, but from design to customer service, their execution is impeccable.
I just got back from lunch at a new location of Corner Bakery. I don't know who owns Corner Bakery, but I know it to be a large chain that competes with the likes of Panera and Atlanta Bread Company in the upscale fast food market. I had never been, but the experience will keep me coming back: there was a smiling greeter holding the door and handing out menus; while you wait in line, you can peruse the menu or check out the various packaged baked goods on the table next to you; they move people through the checkout extremely quickly without rushing anyone; between each checkout lane is a table full of fresh baked goods, which they ask if you'd like to add to your meal; the seemingly standard americana montage wallpaper actually includes many local pictures; they bring your food to you, quickly; the manager is on a constant roam around the dining area, smiling and checking with everyone to make sure they're enjoying their meals. Picking it apart, I can't think of a single thing they could have done better. And to top it off, the food was delicious!
The importance of execution is relevant to music as well. The example I come back to is Green Day--one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and notorious "sell-outs" from the early 90s. But I can't hate them, because they do what they do so well. They proved their abilities to me again recently when I watched their side project, Foxboro Hot Tubs, perform for a crowd of 500 in Dallas last week, the day after their album came out. The music of Foxboro Hot Tubs cops to many classic rock n roll styles, largely drawn from 1970s-early 1980s influences (from The Doors to Joan Jett)--it does NOT sound like Green Day. Yet I have never felt a cement floor move under my feet as much as at their show--the band, who are used to playing to tens of thousands at a time, sold each and every moment of their performance to a small group of folks who only could have listened to the songs a handful of times before the show. Without major label support or more tour plans, Foxboro Hot Tubs remains a test in word of mouth. So far, so good--the next night's show in Austin sold out before noon.
Regardless of what you're doing, attention to detail in execution gives you an extraordinary advantage over your competition. When mass advertising is no longer effective, people who notice the details drive your success--give them something to talk about.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Subtle but important update for TuneCore

TuneCore, the service that allows independent artists to easily distribute their music across digital music services like iTunes and Amazon, just unveiled the ability for artists to see weekly trends and zip codes of people who buy their music through iTunes. This is HUGE in any number of ways: everything from booking tours to seeing responses to marketing efforts or big concerts. The issue, though, is how many artists truly understand the depth and importance of this data? I would love to see TuneCore either open their APIs to allow third parties to help bands manage these numbers in relation to other band activity (and internet buzz, etcetc) to try to make sense of why these numbers are showing what they are and what can be done to make the most of them.

Monday, May 26, 2008

I want a magical jukebox (that doubles as a washing machine?)

The more I pay attention and ask and read (in that order of importance), the more diversity I see in how people discover and consume music. For the first time in history, we have choice. Music is, and the forms in which to consume it are, more abundant today than ever before.
As many online music services seek to refine their methods for our music playing and discovery pleasure, I'd like to offer my own personal ideal:
  • I generally prefer my standard listening and discovery modes to be separate. Then again, not always. When I want them together, I generally just have my standard listening device (for these purposes, we'll call it "myTunes") on random. Make me a checkbox when I have random on to say whether or not I want random reccomended tracks inserted (and a slide bar with 3 states: often, sometimes, rarely).
  • My friends are more likely to get what songs I'll want than you are or than "other fans" are. And bands I like a lot are more likely still to get it right than my friends. Ask them--they know music pretty well, and I generally respect their opinions. Oh and hey, while you're at it, make sure I can find out why something was reccomended to me.
  • Speaking of random, this state (as it has become such, rather than just a feature) should pay closer attention to me. Am I clicking to the next song often? What have I been stopping on recently? Am I clicking off certain songs nearly every time? What songs have I been playing actively recently? Pay particular attention to my reaction (play a lot vs click away from immediately) to reccomended songs and play more or fewer from the source of the reccomendation based on my reactions. Sometimes I like rating things, but not often when random is on.
  • I want to be able to share my music from where I am (in myTunes). Sometimes I want to just share one song, sometimes I want to share a bunch of songs at once. The other person doesn't need an mp3, just a stream (a full stream, without having to register).
  • Songs like the ones I recently shared or put into playlists or have been playing a lot recently should play more often on random (including, but only occasionally, other songs by that artist).

Get on that. If I was smarter at programming and algorithms, I'd build my own version of Songbird. Perhaps there is a market there? Looking into the future where all music is free and computers are merely portals to the internet where files exist in a cloud, will the market be in custom built music portals, tailored specifically to your listening preferences? Probably not, but it's worth throwing out there--I think you'll see a growing long tail of market-quality music players and reccomendation engines.

Note: Bonus points to anyone identifying the reference in the title.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Recent Album Purchases

As I wait for the 10 oclock showing of the new Narnia movie (how cool am I on a Friday night?), I figured I'd offer my takes on some recent musical purchases:
Byan Scary and the Shredding Tears-Flight of the Knife- This work of musical Literature is what Alexandre Dumas would write were he writing music. I think I've described Scary's live show as Genesis and Meatloaf having a piano orgy in space, and they don't disappoint on recording either. Scary takes us on an epic journey of fantasy, introducing us to characters like Susie High ("a walking imitation of the sky") and Airship Valentine ("the station master's son"). You get so caught up in the journey that you forget to question the incredible quirkiness of both the story and the music.
Atmosphere-When life gives you lemons, you paint that shit gold- This is a tough one for me. Ant's beats are so much fresher and more innovative than any previous album, yet Slug's rhymes, well, just don't have the edge they once did. I do admire him for departing from his usual tales of his own hardship and trying to tell other stories, but the truth is he's more passionate and knowledgeable about his own life, and it really shines through. What makes me keep coming back to it, though, is that every time you start to get down on Slug, he rips in with a sick line, just to remind you he's still the same rapper.
The Matches-A Band In Hope- Another tough one for me. I want to like this album so much, but it really is leaning towards mediocre. Every song has countless flashes of brilliance, but the only truly complete and solid song on the cd is "Wake the Sun" (which, by the way, is an AWESOME song). I maintain that The Matches will forever be on the forefront of punk--I've thought that since I saw them when they were 14 year olds opening for Wakefield, Zebrahead, and Reel Big Fish. And you can't deny them a place near the top of the live show ranks. But they missed just a little with this one. They'll be back.
Panic at the Disco-Pretty. Odd.- Oh, Panic, what emotions you stir in me. I want to love you and hate you at the same time, I want to stop listening to your music, but can't. It's just so. damn. catchy. The hottest thing out of Vegas since The Killers, Panic settled down from their debut on this CD to find their pop rock roots in the likes of The Beatles and Beach Boys. They said they went for a "timeless sound." Well, they got it. That's for certain. But that doesn't equal greatness. Timeless + innovative = greatness. When you define timeless, as The Beatles did, that's when you've created something great. Pretty. Odd., on the other hand, will be a good listen for a month or two--you know, til the next really catchy cd comes out.
Phantom Planet-Raise the Dead- "Holy what? You mean those guys who used to have Jason Schwartzman as a drummer and used to have the theme song to the most popular teenage tv show (The OC) are still making music?" Yep. And while they may not regain their fame from 2003-2004, they've learned to make some legitimately good music. Anyone who can get me screaming "GERONIMO!" out loud every time the chorus kicks in has done a helluva job in my mind. I can't say this is the absolute best album ever because ironically they've lost their gift with the slower songs, but it's absolutely worth your $10.
Death Cab For Cutie-Narrow Stairs- What happens when a talented set of musicians force a major label debut then take a ton of drugs to try to get back to their indie roots? The answer lies in Narrow Stairs. Of course they have their moments of brilliance--they're a very talented set of musicians--but on a whole this whole ordeal seems forced to me once again. Ben seems further separated from his lyrics, and all the rest of the band can do is layer the sounds to try to create a deeper narrative. Sorry guys, not my cup of tea.
Anti-Flag-The Bright Lights of America- Anti-flag's best effort of the past few, this still won't appeal to more than the punk fans. That being said, it is a very energetic album, and they keep that energy going for at least 3:30 in each song--which I think must be a record on punk albums. The only real reason this couldn't be huge is that singer Justin Sane's voice is an acquired taste.

Mobile Social Interaction

Three of the hottest topics these days in the tech world are Twitter, mobile social networking, and the iPhone. For those who don't know a thing about these, let me take you on a quick overview.
Twitter is a microblogging network that allows you to blog in spurts of 140 characters or less, which allows you to blog via text message on your cell phone. You can also follow your friends and "tweet" at them, thereby holding conversations via blog. The big controversy right now is whether it will make the jump from the early adopters (tech people use it so incessantly that one of the hottest areas is building applications around Twitter and Facebook feeds) to the mainstream. The issue is that to get value from it, you need a lot of your friends to use it as well. But once you're all on it, it's horrendously addictive, to a point where the tech world has a crisis every time the servers go down (which is too often).
Mobile social networking is the movement to add physical location relevance to the functionality of social networks (Facebook, MySpace, etc--though most talk on the social network scene is separate from the big guns in traditional social networks).
The iPhone has two big things coming soon: a developers platform (allowing anyone to create their own applications for the iPhone) was recently released, and those programs will be released soon; and there are loads of rumors about a 3G version (meaning faster data transfer for internet, plus potentially really good GPS) of the iPhone being released within a month, potentially with a price drop to $199.
Up til now, though, these conversations have been largely separate from one another. There are exceptions--TechCrunch wishes there were an iPhone-only social network, Twitter essentially acts as a stripped down mobile social network--but essentially these topics are discussed in their own realms. I take issue with that.
If I went into all the possible tie-ins and reasons, I'd be writing pages upon pages. Instead, let me posit my idea of a "killer app."
Picture an iPhone/mobile application that keeps track of where you are and adjusts accordingly. You can see where friends are and message them directly, or you can "tweet" (to borrow the Twitter term) from/about where you are. When you tweet, your message gets geotagged. All the public messages from that immediate area (adjustable on preference) would be accessible to anyone in that immediate area or to anyone searching for that area (thinking they might go there). Think of it as dynamic geospecific message boards.
If that doesn't immediately make sense, consider how Twitter first became popular: South By Southwest. People twittered about where the hot parties and shows were, other people picked up on those tweets and showed up to join the fun. Now translate that to everywhere.
You've got a few minutes away from a conference in another city and aren't quite sure what to do. Whip out your iPhone, launch the program, see what others in the area are up to, see if any friends (or friends of friends) are around, get geotagged Yelp reviews, etc. In the most active areas, you could even post a sort of "help me" question and anyone within your range could see any help out. You could also find a way to reward folks who were willing to receive and respond to TXT messages when those "help me" messages popped up near them.
There are, of course, also tie ins to media, being able to tweet photos and videos from anywhere (I would think someone will be making an app that lets you Twitter and automatically upload any attached video or photos to YouTube/Flickr). Fuzz just came out with a Twitter-like mashup with Seeqpod and Skreemr called "Blip" that lets you attach streaming audio to your tweets (follow me here:, and I can only imagine that more will follow.
Personally, I struggle with Twitter simply because so few people I know are on it (if you are, hit me up at I think the way to bridge that gap is to build utility around it that makes it useful both to those who don't use it, and to those who are interested in using it, but don't have friends on it. The geotagging ability of the iPhone makes that possible, and can essentially turn it into a social network. I'm not the only one who sees this, but I think there are a number of ways to go about all this integration, and there will be a long tail with this sort of application if they are open enough.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bands vs Fans--Who's responsible for spreading the word?

The following was an e-mail I sent to my friend Adam a week or two back, so excuse any typos:
I was thinking yesterday, the niche of folks who are active in pushing music to others is pretty small, but they're pretty much the only ones who are truly engaged with the music. The average music listener might buy a cd, or might get something from a friend, and will just throw it on the iPod and be done with it. They don't check MySpace, iLike, etc, they don't generally buy merch, they go to concerts when their friends go or when it's one of their top 5 favorite artists. Is there any way to engage those folks more? Or are they a lost cause as they are just not predisposed to get more involved with the music they listen to?
If we count them as a lost cause, how do bands best use their fan support to grow? There used to be a whole market of folks to help manage street teams and such. Now everyone just uses MySpace (one such person came up to my friends in scenes from a movie at warped tour this year, as soon as he left they threw his card in the trash saying "unless your name is MySpace, you're worthless to us"). But let's face it--as much as bands are businesses, and as well as bands generally know their audience, precious few are truly marketing geniuses themselves. That opens up a new market of providing marketing tools to the bands (I know you know all this, I’m just thinking out loud). They have tens, hundreds, thousands of folks who would happily perform easy tasks for them, particularly if those tasks are fun. In the traditional method, fans get rewarded with tickets or t-shirts for passing out flyers, emailing the most people, etc. those kinds of rewards are great and appreciated, but they aren't a constant. Bands need their fans to CONSTANTLY be pushing the marketing for them. Thus, the fans can't always be physically rewarded. Instead they either need to have fun in the process or feel good at the end--or better yet, have it be so mindless that they don't even have to think about it.
Putting a band in your favorites on Facebook or MySpace rarely does any real good. The very very very few people who notice it generally already know the band. There really needs to be a PUSH of information (or whatever it is) for any promotion to have an effect.
Speaking from my own experience, my pushing happens a few ways. First off, I RARELY push music to people who I’m not at least 70% sure will take the time to listen and will enjoy it. When I do push music, it generally happens in one of three forms: cd, imeem, blog. For cds, I send out mixes to about 10 people every month or so (it started with my college roommates and has grown a bit as others have asked to join). I plan the cds as though I were making a mix tape for a girl in middle school (while I feel I can push my friends a little musically, I know what they like and tend to play to that), and even design cover art for them. Imeem I use for only a couple friends (I think I only have one or two on there). If I hear a song I like on my iTunes or on some band's MySpace page, I go to imeem, do a search, click the song, and send it along. That is the only thing I use imeem for. Since the usability design is so bad (almost has to be as they need to serve a whole lot of ads to make money), I don't find value in any other site functionality at this point. Finally, if I see a particularly good concert, I’ll blog about it. Each story on my blog averages about 20-25 reads, and only a few people click the links to listen to tracks (they more readily watch embedded videos, but even then it's maybe 20% of readers).
all this results in my pushing of music more than once a year to maybe 20 unique people, and probably 200 unique tracks end up in peoples' iTunes as a result. knowing my friends, I probably influence about 2 cd purchases a year--they already have the songs they like and don't often feel the need to explore a band further ("if they're really that good, Ty will send me another cd with another track or two from them"). Case-in-point: I got my college roommates obsessed with Kaddisfly. Not an easy task, considering one's favorite music is jazz, one's is rap, and the third is top 40 through and through. But they now LOVE Kaddisfly. Yet I’m the only one who owns a cd or t-shirt or has been to a concert. How do I make their love translate to revenue for Kaddisfly?
And there's the big key: sharing is all well and good, but how much sharing has to happen before the band can actually make money off of it? the process needs to be refined on both ends--fans need easier, more fun ways to spread their favorite music (and perhaps a better sense of who might be open to listening to it?), and the people they spread it to need a fun, easy, relatively inexpensive (at best, free--work on that) way to generate revenue for the bands.
Part of what I think might help this is if bands truly take it upon themselves to build their brand beyond the music. I used to blog a bunch about the need to think of a band as a small startup business, and I truly believe that. Of course, in both Seth Godin's (marketing guru) concept of a "Purple Cow" is incredibly relevant--if you have a product that is truly "remarkable" (his term), it's infinitely easier to market. remarkable doesn't just mean unique or fascinating, because different is not always good or pleasing to the masses; instead, it means something that is innovative and interesting, but is generally relatable to things we already are familiar with (why Panic(!) at the Disco's first cd got so huge--it was new instrumentation of very traditional pop punk music, so people thought it was new and different but were still universally comfortable with its conventions).
Regardless of how "remarkable" a band is, though, they can always do more to build their brand. Merch is one extension, and touring is one outlet/marketing tool, but there has to be more. Videos, blogs, hotlines, etc help, but can also be overdone--fans want to feel a like a part of the music and the band, but there also has to be some allure left. It’s like if a company was so into creating a "team" environment that they completely do away with hierarchy and put the management in the same cubicle as the entry level folks--teams are good, but they also need leaders who garner the respect of their peers partially by having closed-doors meetings and such. It’s a fine line between encouraging fan involvement and pandering to them. Ultimately, the best thing to have happen is to have the fans work with each other in a sort of community setting that you can oversee and occasionally communicate with to give some direction and encouragement. That being said, you have to make sure the conversation in the community is constant. If you think of it as an internet message board, if people run out of things to talk about related to your band, they'll stop coming to the site, and it happens as a snowball effect. If they stop coming to the site, reengaging each of them is infinitely difficult, and the longer you wait, the more folks you'll have to try to reclaim. Lil Wayne is a decent example of keeping fans engaged--he keeps releasing songs on MySpace rather than waiting every 2 years to do a cd. He doesn't have to do much in the way of talking to fans or anything really besides constantly providing the content for them to enjoy and buzz about.
The traditional thinking is that the music is the product. Now, it's sort of a product (people still buy it, but iTunes overtaking Wal-mart as top music reseller is evidence that people are more comfortable with digital music, and digital music has a marginal cost of zero, thus market forces will push price towards zero). In the future, it may only be a tool. Google started as a search engine. Now their search engine is a tool for selling ads, and they have a plethora of other free services that would traditionally have been considered products but are really just tools for building a brand and generating revenue through other areas. Can a band mirror that? I think so. They just need the tools to do so.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? If the kids have anything to say about it, yes.

Last night I went to an event put on by Democracy Matters, a student group dedicated to clean elections, at SMU. The event consisted of a documentary showing and some talkback with the subject of the documentary. Figuring I could use an education, and a meal, I went for the free JimmyJohns at 7 and stayed for the conversation til after midnight.

The subject of the movie, Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?, is a guy by the name of Jeff Smith, who ran for the seat of retiring Missouri US Representative Dick Gephardt. Jeff was 29 at the time, and teaching political science classes as an adjunct professor at a couple universities in St. Louis. Seeing the opportunity to make a lasting impact and maintain the everyman image of the soon-to-be-vacated seat, Jeff decided to give the race everything he had.

He gathered a team of loyal, passionate, but extremely young and inexperienced folks to help him run his campaign. Together they beat down doors all over St. Louis and placed hundreds of thousands of phone calls in the hopes of gaining support. Nobody gave him a chance. The top candidate in the race had a last name synonymous with politics in St. Louis. In an early name recognition poll, 99% of voters had heard of his opponent, 3% claimed to have heard of him (though his campaign manager says 2 of those percentage points were people who thought they knew a Jeff Smith from somewhere).

In the end, Jeff raised more money than his rival (even with his opponent's mother being a US Senator with an impressive Rolodex), had far more volunteers working on his campaign, and darn near won--in fact, he won most of the key districts, but his opponent won the overall vote count.

Saddened, but not discouraged, Jeff ran a very successful (and even bigger) campaign to become a state Senator in Missouri based on the same principles his youthful team had run his previous campaign. He spoke to the difficulties of running a campaign in which you want to be beating down doors and meeting people in your district, but need to spend 6-7 hours a day calling people for campaign donations and support (less personal, but far more efficient). His favorite part of the campaigns were the coffees they had supporters put on--invite 15 of your friends over and Jeff will come talk issues with you for an hour or two. That or playing one-on-one basketball with inner city kids, saying if they won he'd give them $5 and if he won they had to pass out a few fliers in their neighborhood (though he found the word spread faster through their friends who shouted from every street corner than a short white guy had just beaten their friend).

A true grassroots campaigner, I gained a lot of respect for Jeff. Speaking with him for many hours after the event, I gained much more respect for him. He is very well read, has a great perspective on life, and genuinely enjoys people. He was horribly tired after filibustering for 5 hours that day and dealing with American Airlines flight issues, but he still really drove the conversation with the group of us who took him to Cafe Brazil.

I think the most impressive thing about Jeff and his campaign, though, was his willingness to take on unqualified, but very passionate youth to drive his campaign. While by the end his volunteer corps spanned all generations, few of the core group had even graduated college yet. The field manager even lied to the people he was managing, telling them he was 23 so that he would be perceived as older than the volunteers he was managing (he was actually 20 and admitted it on election day).

For their part, the kids proved him right--the learn-by-doing method triumphed once again, as the lack of "knowledge" freed them to be innovative and idealistic (they insisted on running a campaign free of slander). Additionally, because of their youth, they had the time and mind share to dedicate themselves entirely to the campaign--sleep seemed a rarity, and few had time for anything other than the campaign, yet they all stayed positive throughout. Many of them were even high schoolers who couldn't vote, but dedicated their summer and weekends to helping Jeff win.

Certainly cases can be made that the youth of today are impatient, self-interested, demanding, and don't have the encyclopedic knowledge of some of their predecessors, but I think Jeff Smith's campaign staff proved that we may just be a new kind of smart. We can retrieve information instantaneously and process new skills and ideas on the fly, rather than needing to have deep roots and work with the concepts for long periods of time. It's the same philosophy that my favorite billionaire Richard Branson employs with each new Virgin brand--a fresh look at stagnant industries can be best if taken by an outsider. If you are intelligent and dedicate yourself to a new challenge, the fact that you have little no experience in that specific field is irrelevant, or may even be a boon.

It may take a long time for the jobs of today to transform to suit these new kinds of brains, as it continues to take a while to incorporate the technology these brains rely on, but I encourage employers to allow for the possibility that previous skills might not necessarily be the biggest key indicator in what kind of a job someone will do for you. A few fresh brains who really understand people, like Jeff, have already discovered how to adapt. Will you?