I spoke to Adam Gold from American Songwriter recently for a piece he was working on about the changing music business and best practices for success. A couple of my comments made the piece, along with some thoughts from folks at Kickstarter, SoundExchange, and Moontoast. Check out Adam’s interview with all of us, here.
Here’s the rest of what I said, which didn’t make the piece:
American Songwriter: 2011 is over. I just recorded the best song I ever wrote. What’s the new model for getting my music heard? What to do with my demo?
Do I post my music on Facebook, or is there a better place for music?
Mike King: This is a long answer. I think there are really so many paths and so many options for musicians now to get their music heard. That’s both a blessing and a curse. I think the key is to think about this from a consumer, or fan standpoint. For consumers, there has never been a better time to listen to music. It’s everywhere. The floodgates are open, and if I want to check out practically anything I can do so in a matter of seconds.
I think the tricky thing, and something that a lot of folks are trying to figure out, is curation. Although larger gatekeeper-based vehicles still do have an effect at exposing folks to music, like commercial radio exposing folks to pop music, I think that for the most part consumers are moving towards niches, and are finding new music through trusted sources within these niches. For example, there are some rooms on Turntable.fm, and some DJs, that I totally trust to turn me onto new music. In one of the soul/funk rooms I’m part of, one of my favorite DJs is also a musician, and occasionally he “spins” his own music – which I love. So for me, that DJ is a trusted source, and that is where I am finding some of my new music. Same thing for blogs. A site out of LA named Rollo and Grady has the exact same taste in music as I do, and I have been turned on to some great music there. The other way I find new music is by providing my contact info to artists that I love, and I let them deliver new music to me. For example, I found a band Fanfarlo a couple years back, and because I gave them my email address, I am among the first to get new music from that band prior to release, and then can be one of the first to purchase when a new record is out.
All of this should filter into how bands release their music, and their plan for getting heard. I think that everything in a marketing plan should be integrated, and there are a lot of moving pieces that include live events, press, online retail, your own site, PR, and more, but from an overview standpoint, I think that realizing that A) fans are more niche based and look to certain outlets to curate music for them, and B) it’s possible to connect directly with fans to deliver music to them, are both key. I would approach both of these areas separately, using some of the developing marketing / technology tools and best practices. Starting by identifying who you think your core fans are, and then looking at pitching the niche outlets where they hang out is a good first step. I think that acquisition is also extremely important for all artists, and I suggest using email for media widgets from Topspin, Official.fm, SoundCloud or other marketing/technology companies to help retain a permission based contact for future communication and up sell. I also think that optimizing your site for the search engines, and making your site an awareness and conversion engine by providing media in exchange for an email address is a best practice, too.
Finally, I think you have to develop a content plan for your release. This is something that I think Metric did a great job with for their last record, Fantasies. Metric sketched out what type of media (single, acoustic version, live version, demo versions) they were going to release on their site and through widgets on third party sites prior to the release of their full length. This allowed them to acquire email addresses prior to the pre-release of their record. They were then able to reach out to these folks across the full timeline of the record release, and engage with them, make them aware of what they were doing, and also provide them with the opportunity to buy. I think that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Thisismyjam.com, Turntable.fm, YouTube, and more could all fit into your plan, but I think having a plan is key.
American Songwriter: If I do post it for free, will anyone want to buy it?
Mike King: The short answer is that case studies, examples, students experiences, and data I have seen say yes, but I think the long answer is more nuanced. My personal opinion is that artists have to think about sales differently. I think artists have to romance new fans a bit – it’s really kind of like dating. I don’t think going in for the kill immediately makes for the best long-term relationship, you know? I mean, I suppose sometimes that works, but I think a better option for retaining a fan for years, which is much less expensive than finding new fans for every record, is to treat your fans respectfully, offer then what they want, provide them with some free gifts, communicate with them regularly and effectively, and then offer options for monetization. Again, not so different than any other relationship you might have in your personal life. This is the difference – artists now have an option to provide music for free, and engage with their fans in ways that was not quite possible before. I think the new technology / marketing companies that have emerged to foster this relationship have been really helpful.
But to say it simply – I think that providing free music is key to building up your larger community, and I think that in terms of sales, you are going to want to sell a variety of items to your fans from your own site, with the idea that you can sell items that are more personal, and not available in traditional retail. Talk to any of the third party direct to fan companies like Topspin, Nimbit, Pledge Music – they will all tell you that the average revenue per sale is over $20. This is because artists have this relationship that they have built with fans, and they are monetizing much more than a single song on iTunes.
American Songwriter: Should I sell it on iTunes, CDBaby, Spotify? What sort of cut will I get?
Mike King: Yes, absolutely. There are folks that only buy music on iTunes, and are not interested in buying from an artist directly. I think for some larger artists, the volume they see from third party sales on iTunes is much greater than what they will see on their own site, but I think that the margin has the potential to be much greater by selling from your own site. In terms of the cut, every service is different. iTunes takes 30%, and if you use CD Baby as a distributor, they are going to take a 9% fee, too. So for a $.99 cent sale on iTunes, an artist would see about $.63 if they were using CD Baby. TuneCore takes no fee on sales, but has an annual fee for distribution. I consider Spotify now as more of a way for folks to discover music, not unlike radio, and I think that artists have to be there. They certainly don’t pay artists anywhere close to what iTunes pays, but I tend to think that is more because of the deals the labels / distributors made with Spotify than it is an inherent problem with the service itself. I am optimistic that as the service, and other streaming services grow, we’ll see better deals, and larger payments to artists. But I think worse than the lower payments from these streaming services is being anonymous. I have Spotify and Rdio open all day long, and if I hear or read about a new band, I have the option of immediately looking these artists up on a streaming service to check out the whole record. If I fall in love with it, I’ll then check out their site, perhaps download something interesting, and the relationship between the band and me starts. The band now has a direct, permission –based contact with me, and can up sell me on live events or other items. This all starts on Spotify. If I didn’t see the band on a streaming service, I am likely to move on and find some other music to listen to.
American Songwriter: What if only ten people buy it? Will I still get digital royalties? Via Soundchange? How do I protect my recordings?
Mike King: There’s a lot of confusion around how digital royalties work. SoundExchange collects and distributes royalties from statutory licenses, including digital cable and satellite television services, non-interactive webcasters like Pandora, and satellite radio services like Sirius XM. SoundExchange only covers performance rights, and doesn’t collect for downloads, interactive services (like Spotify, Rdio, Mog, Rhapsody), or traditional radio or TV. It really depends on where the “sale” originates to determine how much you will be paid. So, 10 sales on iTunes will pay you much more than 10 listens on Pandora or Spotify, and 10 sales off of your own site has the potential to pay you much more than all of these services. In terms of protection, copyright exists as soon as you have a tangible version of your music, such as sheet music and/or CDs. In the US, you can register the copyright to your music here: www.copyright.gov/eco. I also think that Creative Commons, which sits on top of copyright and reserves some rights, can also be a positive thing for artists who are interested in allowing their fans to participate in their work via remix contests or other forms of “participatory culture,” as Clay Shirky would say.
American Songwriter: Next, how do I get people in the industry to hear it, so I can get a record deal or have it placed in a commercial?
Mike King: You have to build up leverage. I think you can look at some recent success stories to see how other folks have done it, but all paths are different. For the most part, a label is not going to care about you unless you have leverage – unless they see that you have a base of fans that you can leverage to sell your music. Things are much harder for labels now, and while I think some labels can be great for artists, I think that artists should really consider building up their own base, hopefully with a smart in-house team. Once they have some leverage, then can then determine if they want to keep things in-house, or partner with a label. I think Karmin is a good example. Amy, Nick, and their manager Nils focused on creating great content on YouTube for years. They slowly built their base through some really great cover songs, and then did a cover of Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” which exploded with over 30 million views on YouTube in a couple months. They got on the Ellen show, they were featured on Ryan Seacrest show, and built up a huge following on Twitter, Facebook, and via email. This is leverage. The labels saw this, and Karmin had deals with all of the majors on the table in the course of a few weeks. They ended up signing to LA Reid’s Epic sub label on Sony. All paths are different, but I think leverage is a component to whatever you do.
American Songwriter: The response has been great but I haven’t been signed or picked up for a commercial — what’s my next move? Tour? Hire PR?
Mike King: It’s different for everyone. Getting in a commercial is great, but if you are having problems with getting folks interested, perhaps you have to look critically at yourself and see what you can change or do better. There are so many data points musicians can analyze these days, supplied by companies like Next Big Sound, Google, Topspin, and many others. If you are not building up a base online through strategic release of content, if you are not generating interest on your site, if you are not seeing an increase of fans at your live show, I think it makes sense to look at what you are doing from a holistic standpoint. Perhaps your music isn’t there yet. Maybe your live show isn’t quite right. Perhaps you’re marketing to the wrong people. Data can help you to see what is working and what isn’t, and I think you can iterate your campaign and your approach. Also, I think that not everyone is going to make music their full time career. Steve Albini has a good quote that I think is accurate: “Not everyone can become a professional artist. Maintain a realistic perspective on your art that allows you to enjoy doing it.”