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.

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