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.