Last week, I was invited to participate in a workshop at my alma mater, Davidson College. They recently launched an interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship Initiative, and had brought in the foremost expert on the intersection of innovation and education, Tony Wagner, to facilitate discussion with students, faculty, and alumni about what the Initiative might mean and become.
A few things about the initiative are absolutely correct, but a number of major challenges still face the school and program.
To be sure, Davidson is coming from a more privileged place to begin with than other institutions, with strong foundations in leadership development, an impressive endowment, and an open and honest culture that is difficult to replicate. It’s a selective enough place to know that the vast majority of students will go on to have successful careers, even if they’re not completely prepared for the workforce on graduation day. As such, the term “vocation” can be kept off-campus, and the decision to make the Entrepreneurship Initiative interdisciplinary (rather than creating a new major) is a good one.
They’ve already set up an internship program, a venture fund, a maker and innovation space, a scholarship, and a post for an Entrepreneur In Residence. All of these vehicles will prove incredibly valuable for students with a desire to pursue an idea as a business.
However, the biggest challenges remain in communication and changing the way students view entrepreneurship.
Davidson students are known for being workhorses. The school has more rigorous workloads than anyone outside of top military academies, and most students balance school work with Division 1 athletics, community service, or any number of extracurriculars. Many students come in groomed for such rigor, having been top of their classes at top high schools from around the world.
While this work ethic is crucial, the current context for it is troublesome when contrasted with the sorts of attributes that help entrepreneurs succeed. The biggest issue at hand is the fear of failure, which is something every entrepreneur has to overcome. In an academic setting, taking risks very rarely yields positive results, and anything less than perfection will hinder a student from achieving their goals — how many Davidson students got an F on anything in high school? In order to get students taking big entrepreneurial leaps, Davidson will either need to innovate in the realm of measuring academic success (no GPA? different grading criteria?), or communicate to students that academic success is measured differently (which also requires educating students on work-world success metrics).
That said, I think there may be lower hanging fruit, too. In the workshop, we were asked to associate words with the question “What is entrepreneurship?” The majority of the terms thrown out painted the same picture the media paints of entrepreneurs: self-assured risk takers who come up with crazy ideas and make billions of dollars from them. While some of that is true to some extent some of the time, I think entrepreneurship, especially as it applies to a college program, is far broader.
In my small workshop group (one student, one recent grad, the current EIR, and me), we decided Entrepreneurship is a framework that involves asking hard questions, setting a course, and creating spaces and vehicles for others to help push towards a shared goal. Nothing in that definition necessitates starting a company or taking enormous, potentially life-altering risks. It’s very possible to be entrepreneurial within existing organizations (even as big and old of organizations as 3M), and it’s very possible to be entrepreneurial without pursuing large sums of money.
A few other words came up that could be terrifying for Davidson students, but shouldn’t be. The big ones were “failure” and “execution.” San Francisco is the only city in the country where “failure” is not only embraced, but celebrated (see FailCon), yet all of America has a long history of entrepreneurship. Everyone fails several times daily, but our success (and happiness) is generally more contingent upon how we recover from that failure than the failure itself. Thus, communication should focus on “iteration” rather than failure. Similarly, “execution” is merely a fancy term for doing successful work — it could be replaced by any number of terms, and it’s something Davidson students are highly capable of.
On a whole, the Entrepreneurship Initiative has created and will continue to create great opportunities for Davidson students, but its challenges lie outside of logistics and in communication. I’m hopeful for its future, and for the future of Davidson, and extremely humbled to have been asked to participate in its formative discussions.
While the band’s representatives could neither confirm nor deny a rumor that the idea was conceived after a leisurely wake-n-bake (okay, I just made that up), I thought it seemed like a reasonable idea and set about building it.
I built it on Tumblr so it only took a couple hours from beginning to end product, and now anyone can look old. Just submit your picture and await your aging. Miley did it, so can you!
I wrote a post the other day about the Myth of Discovery, and at the end I mentioned I have similar feelings about social. While I’ve held them for a while, I realized Andy is the only person whose ear I’ve bent about it. It would probably be a more shocking view a couple years back when I first made the realization, but I’m posting it now in case it still merits discussion. And because Hunter asked nicely ;)
In the last decade or so, no word has been thrown around tech circles than “social.” As we’re now seeing a burst of “Uber for ______” startups (some of which could be more legit, since they’re applying economic pressures to inefficient markets), so too have we seen hundreds of companies try to ride Facebook’s coattails and “make _______ social.”
Simply making something social is not a valid foundation for a startup business.
Much like discovery, social is a feature. It’s actually more of a layer, which should be built into most every consumer product these days (in some fashion, at least; because hey, we’re connected, so why not?). It may even bring you a whole bunch of new users, but it’s not sustainable in and of itself as a value proposition.
The motto for startups that I keep repeating is “add value or die.” Social does not add value, it multiplies the value you add. Add real value, then multiply it using social.
Now, this may seem obvious to some of you, but we’re still categorizing apps as “social.” The App Store has a “Social Networking” category, and Google Play has a “Social” category.
Tell me: have you ever gone looking for an app because it’s “social”? Have you said, “Hmm, I want to be social today. Is there an app for that?” My guess is no.
Ok, so let’s look at the top list of what these stores categorize as social and see what they really mean:
Facebook: Identity. They can (and probably soon will) sell ads anywhere you’re connected, which is probably almost any app on your phone. Why? Because they offer identity as a service. Their own apps just happen to be the biggest client of that service.
Tumblr: Creative expression & inspiration. As they say: “Follow the world’s creators.” They haven’t *really* proven how much that’s worth yet, but it’s clearly worth enough to get Yahoo!’s attention.
Twitter: World’s biggest comment platform and/or personal news feed. You can comment on anything, and Twitter targets ads based on that. Check out their TV ad system. Just reading news? Ok, then get ads like you would on any other news network.
Skype: Telephony. No longer requiring physical land-lines to make connections, Skype makes money when people call each other all over the world. And it’s cheaper for you.
Pinterest: Collections. First and foremost, it’s a personal utility. They wouldn’t exist if it weren’t. Social becomes a multiplying factor on engagement, but it’s not the core.
Foursquare: Connections to your physical surroundings. These guys realized (arguably a little too late, but I still have hope) that their early focus on social (making it a social game with leaderboards and such) was actually damaging their core business proposition.
Kickstarter: Really? I love Kickstarter too much to even comment here.
LinkedIn: Recruiting tool. If it was social, they’d focus on having you network with other folks through LinkedIn. Instead, they plead with you *not* to connect with folks if you don’t know them. They make their money by making it exceptionally difficult to find anyone in your extended networks unless you pay up.
And on and on. I would’ve expected more messaging apps in there, which, like Skype, are really about communication (something that people have been monetizing for centuries).
Point is, social is not your business. It may help, perhaps significantly, perhaps to a point where your business couldn’t exist (or thrive) without it. But it is not a business in and of itself.
Worth noting: The myth of social is particularly dangerous in media businesses. See Turntable.fm (“making listening social”) for a high profile example of a business that applied social really well to get growth, but never added real value to back it up, and thus collapsed. There were plenty more that never got as far as they did.
Discovery as a scalable, tech-driven service is a wonderful dream. It’s one I’ve had several times over the years. But in the end it’s just that: a dream.
Everyone wants to believe they can build a better way to make sense of the ridiculous amount of content online, and a lot of people have built some really cool ways.
But there’s something different about how discovery happens online, and it’s tied to the core infrastructure of the Internet: links. Links make it easy to direct people to content from anywhere; meaning, infinite contexts can be places around a link.
Because of the freedom links offer, we’re always capable of better discovery experiences outside of a static app context — we can find contexts that resonate with us better, be it a real-world conversation, a blog, Twitter, or really anything else. I’m more likely to trust a song a good friend sent me than if that very same song were recommended to me by an app.
It’s also difficult for apps that are predicated on helping you discover content to deliver that small shock of surprise that ripples through our brain when we find something new we like — if we’re expecting to find something new, that shock isn’t there, and we’re less likely to be irrationally giddy with excitement for the newness.
This is not to say that apps can’t effectively drive discovery, it just can’t be their core value. A lot of apps and sites that appear to be successful and predicated on discovery are actually about community — a group of folks who enjoy similar content and/or similar ways of accessing content. The Hype Machine is a huge community of music fans, who have proven they love dubstep remixes of indie pop songs by constantly voting them up. Reddit is a community that surfaces much of the viral content online, but the product is just about connecting people in conversation.
That connection it’s what successful discovery ultimately looks like as a feature set. Rdio and Spotify connect you to what your friends are listening to, and even give some more context (like whether they’re playing an album or playlist), but ultimately allow you to take that last step to “discovery,” allowing for that little shock in your brain. And discovery isn’t their core value; access is. Successful “discovery” is really a set of features that help drive engagement.
At first I had taken issue with Hunter Walk’s post on video discovery apps not being a venture scale business, but now I whole-heartedly agree. Does that mean I’m leaving the video game? Hell no. But I’m shifting focus to driving value through functionality, and rethinking discovery features as a means to get out of the user’s way of using the product successfully, rather than getting in the way. I would encourage anyone working on a “discovery” product to do the same.
PS - I believe a similar story to be true of “Social,” but that’s a post for another day ;)
Starting a conversation with a stranger can be intimidating. Layer on a “prom” setting and I, for one, start running the other way.
Last month, I went to Yes by Yes Yes down in Palm Springs. A free-form gathering of creatives (an “unconference”), YxYY’s one official event was a prom. As others clamored to “say yes” to a variety of things (from making friendship bracelets to debating the anti-singularity), I decided to say yes to saying hi.
I grabbed a ream of paper from the front desk and carried it around with me for a day, writing down every good question I could think of that could help initiate good conversation. In the end, I had over 130 of them.
I set out two bowls at prom: one filled with the questions, one as a repository for the answers. Participants were to take a conversation starter, use it to begin a conversation with someone, and document the response they got.
I’ve taken fifty of the questions and answers (so far — happy to add more if the conversation continues) and laid them out here: http://pepperlandlabs.com/yxyy/
Most folks were pretty good about it, and many of the responses were phenomenal. A few folks were, well, not as into it. I’ve decided to include both this project, because the bad answers are even better conversation starters for the next set of conversation (this time using Twitter).
If you see a question you’d like to respond to, use the tweet button on the page — that way folks who see your tweet will be linked directly back to the question. I’m hopeful #YxYYhi will begin another form of conversation, and help more people get to know each other by answering silly questions. :)
I first got interested in video through my friend Will, who, along with three friends, runs a music blog and video production agency called Yours Truly. They shoot absolutely gorgeous music performance videos.
For a couple years, I brainstormed with Will about ways to get more eyeballs on their videos. It’s tough out there for videographers today. The web offers numerous (free, or close thereto) distribution channels, but none have eyeballs guaranteed. And heck, how could they with 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every hour? That’s a lot of content to sift through.
But I’ve been considering the problem ever since: how can people and technology come together to help tease out the good content from the bad and put it in front of people who are most likely to care?
Today I’m proud to announce the first itty-bitty baby step in a series of experiments towards that end: three curated video “channels,” each focused on a different type of video content.
Griio (named for the storytellers and historians of West African cultures) is a collection of the most interesting portraits, personal stories, and documentaries from around the world.
Hearscene is dedicated to finding and surfacing the best music videos we can find. While MTV may be irrelevant today as a tastemaker, music videos are far from dead — they’re a more integral part of music than ever before, and the diversity far exceeds even Spike Jonze's portfolio (each with a mere fraction of his budgets).
Yeahmazing is right in the thick of internet culture. It’s full of emoticon-inducing videos that make you laugh, cringe, or stare at the screen with your mouth agape. Whatever the topic, the videos provide a great, quick escape from your daily routine.
Each of the channels will start by posting 1-3 videos per day. The content will be posted to blogs built on Tumblr, so you have a plethora of subscription options: visit the sites daily, subscribe via Tumblr, subscribe via email (daily digest for each blog), follow on Twitter, or Like on Facebook.
The hope is to offer just enough content to ensure you have the time to watch, allow you to consume it from the platform where you’re most comfortable, and ensure quality is high enough that you’ll want to keep coming back. If you don’t feel like we do a good enough job of either of those things, please, by all means, let me know — this is ultimately an experiment to learn what people want from web-distributed video today.
Oh and that adorable bunny video you just saw on Facebook? Yeah, send that my way, too. We’ll watch anything, and publish the best.
AirPlay is one of the most disruptive technologies ever to come out of Apple. It completely reverses the power dynamic of the entertainment center — traditionally the TV & stereo have been in charge, with limited inputs and a barely usable controller (when was the last time you picked up a friend’s remote and knew immediately how to use it?); now the TV and stereo are merely display and output, with the mobile device providing a limitless array of content and control.
But the truth is Apple wants to know they can own the majority of the distribution channels for the content that gets played via AirPlay before *really* turning it on. They know the iPod wasn’t anything remarkable before iTunes (and being top dog now makes it tougher to push an incomplete solution).
And everyone else has to somehow develop a common standard, adopted on every competitor to Apple’s devices? That won’t happen overnight. DLNA is a partial solution, but needs modernization and even wider spread adoption. DIAL is a joke. A viable AirPlay alternative needs to happen at the chip *and* OS level, and Google only has half of that today.
For now, I’d bet on a stronger push of Apple TV / AirPlay as soon as Apple gets better content deals than Netflix / Amazon / Hulu (not likely), or (more likely) finds a huge video game hit (or three) that depends upon AirPlay for a revolutionary experience that other developers can learn from.
When the rumors of Instagram offering a video product first started to circulate two years ago, I was furious. I thought they stood to completely undo all the good they had done by introducing a different content type in the stream.
My main objection was that photos and videos have fundamental differences in requirements for digestion. The biggest difference is sound: I can look at Instagram while I’m at the bus stop listening to music, but as soon as a video comes up, I’ve been interrupted. I could also look at Instagram without my headphones in (say, while waiting for a friend at a restaurant), and if a video came up I would miss out on the sound.
Good video content is also generally tougher to produce than pretty pictures — it leaves less to the imagination, which means you can’t just put a filter on it and turn crappy content into tolerable content (which Viddy & Socialcam proved).
Vine has changed the conversation a bit, but the default sound-off state also changes the media type from video to moving pictures. Vines *can* be videos, but more often they’re just a moment collage.
I would expect something more along those blurry lines from Instagram as they roll out a “video” product. I would also be curious to see if Snapchat might alter their video product in a similar way. Ultimately all three apps are about sharing moments, and they’re all just adapting media to that goal.
My girlfriend asked me a question last week (which she may have thought was rhetorical): “Why is it that top 40 music makes me want to cry?” I told her it was because she wants to engage with the music, whereas top 40 music is designed to be engaged around.
Top 40 songs are to be played in every public area, especially bars and restaurants — places where memories are made, with friends, and a soundtrack. The music remains as a reminder of those memories, and brings you closer to those people again every time you hear it. Everybody says they love music, because it serves as that biological trigger for good memories. There will always be more music lovers than music aficionados (those who sit in their bedrooms reading the liner notes in their vinyl collections). And concerts will still appeal to both, but for those same divergence of reasons — it’s why you’ll find some folks in clubs, and others at festivals.
A similar situation occurs in the world of video. TV Networks, particularly with the advent of Twitter, design shows for people to engage around — they take only enough risks to continue to appeal to a broad enough audience for it to be reasonable to bring the shows up in social conversation. They design the sort of drama that will spark conversation. Yet many folks won’t be caught dead near a major network show, preferring to watch for the sake of the content rather than the conversation. Those who watch the network shows (often, now, with far from undivided attention) want the satisfaction of having an opinion, and to be engaged with a broader network of folks around a mutual topic. There will always be more TV viewers than Netflix subscribers, just like there will always be more folks using radio/Pandora than Spotify.
The big money is, of course, in the broad appeal, because the winners have the reach to influence culture by igniting conversations (influence = power = $$$). But the folks who want content for content’s sake are not to be overlooked — as more content is produced and distributed in all formats, technology’s ability to connect aficionados of a given content type to content they love can maintain or increase their engagement (while the more mainstream audiences become less engaged and more distracted). That engagement can also be valuable, as it can be more effectively targeted — lower volume, but higher margin.
The important thing is to understand which type of audience you’re targeting.
I took a poll the other day: “Do you feel like you have a music discovery problem?” 1/3 of respondents said yes, the other 2/3 said no. Honestly, I was expecting a stronger skew towards no, but I suppose we’ve been trained to expect a constant stream of new excitement, regardless of the medium.
Today, though, I want to make the case that content discovery is not a problem with a single solution. No matter how good the algorithm, there’s no way that Rdio, Spotify, HypeMachine, exfm, or any blog could possibly single-handedly “solve” discovery. No matter how perfectly they can match content to my tastes, they are inherently devoid of the emotion that comes with disaggregated discovery.
After I graduated college, I spent a few weeks in Scandinavia. I was fascinated by the similarities and differences of cultures and countries, and as a music fan I was on the hunt for great artists and songs that hadn’t crossed the ocean. In a record store in Stockholm, I heard Oh Laura playing over the speakers. While not particularly awesome, and certainly not in line with most of what I listen to, I became obsessed for the next few months (I had to hunt like crazy to get the MP3s in the US). It was real-life context and happenstance that caused me to like the music.
A few days ago, I opened the daily email from The Listserve. A guy I don’t know from Brooklyn who apparently likes baseball and Game Of Thrones recommended everyone check out Lorde, a 16 year old New Zealand female pop artist. On any other day, I would’ve passed over his recommendation (I don’t know him, why would I trust his taste?), but I was feeling adventurous. I checked it out, and after a couple days of listening, I shared it on Twitter.
Discovery comes from all over, and it should. When you’re surprised in a good way, you ascribe more value to the thing that did the surprising. Algorithms can be designed to make better choices for you than your brain is often capable of (“What should I listen to after this Foxygen record?”), but they’re rarely designed to surprise and delight; they’re designed to build trust, which means consistency. We take more risks with our choices than algorithms do, and with greater risk comes greater reward.
Does all this mean companies shouldn’t try to help you discover content? Absolutely not. It simply means those efforts should be designed a bit differently than we see today. Ideally a system would include:
- A variety of choice, with some close to the user’s comfort zone and some towards the various edges; some suggestions from social data, and some from “likeness” algorithmic data.
- Additional context to power further discovery. This could be as simple as user-defined tags (Bandcamp does this well for music, Instagram does it well for photos, etc).
- Easy ties to other points of discovery. Eg - if I discovery something elsewhere, I should easily be able to bring it into this system.
The final point is clearly the toughest. Content platforms want to believe that they are your only source for that type of content — if you have access to “every song in the world” through a streaming service, why would you ever go to blogs and SoundCloud (or even crazier yet, a live show)? But opening up to those inputs will add value to the platform’s ability to better understand your habits.
Discovery doesn’t happen in silos. It never will. It’s as capricious as we are, by design — we appreciate things more when they come from surprising places.
My friend David published an interesting piece today titled “How Online Advertising Is Killing Music Journalism." It has moments of sheer brilliance, including the title itself, which, he admits, is "just a catchy headline that assured I’d get a pageview." He argues that our lust for pageviews, fueled by the promise of ad revenue, has devalued music journalism to a point where it hardly exists.
I disagree. I don’t believe music journalism is in any worse shape than it’s ever been. In fact, it may be in better shape than ever before. But I think I know where David (and others engaged in the debate) got confused: blogs.
When blogs came about, every talked about them democratizing journalism. Everyone can have a voice. Everyone can write. Everyone can build a following. Those are all true statements, but just because you can doesn’t mean you will, or at least not sustainably (hence Medium and Quora’s attempts to get more people to write better blog posts less often).
People blog about the things they’re passionate about, so naturally music fans got on board quickly. Thousands of music fans suddenly had a way of showcasing their tastes to the world, not just to their best friends. But music blogging had a different purpose than mere democratic journalism — it also served as a distribution mechanism for MP3s, which were the gold of the time.
That’s the key right there. Bloggers were putting a lot of effort into writing great pieces, but (most) consumers only wanted those little golden (digital) nuggets. HypeMachine understood the consumer side and aggregated those nuggets, delighting journalists in the process, who saw a rise in their “audience” from folks discovering the music elsewhere and coming in to download it.
Several bloggers also discovered what consumers were really after. Stereogum, Pitchfork, IndieShuffle, and more began posting more and more music with less and less writing around it. They even studied their analytics to best time their posts to get maximum traffic from HypeMachine.
Those folks (the “content farms”) are in the music content business.
Journalists are in another business altogether.
Journalists aren’t just there to tell you something. They exist to tell you why something is important. They craft stories from research and experience. They have a choice of media through which to tell their stories — written, spoken, imagery, or video. (I’m particularly bullish on video, but that’s a story for another day)
Journalists will continue to exist and thrive because people like stories. The businesses built on top of it are all about quality — the winners are those who can convince people they have something truly valuable. They keep their audiences coming back by engaging with them deeply and for prolonged periods of time.
Content, however, is commoditized by technology. Anyone can create it. Anyone can distribute it. The businesses built on top of it are all about scale — the winners are those who can amass the largest audiences by having the most content. They keep their audiences coming back by always having something fresh and interesting.
Many early music bloggers were, unfortunately, caught unknowingly in the middle of these two disparate business models.
The good news for everyone is that there’s room for both models to exist, and at times even reinforce one another. Hell, that’s how the magazine business has worked for years — you stuff the front of the magazine with a ton of small snippets of content to lure in a whole lot of people, then you add some long articles to engage with the folks who want journalistic stories, then you add some more snippets towards the back for the real nerds on whatever the magazine’s content is. Only a few online publications have adopted this model so far, but I would imagine we’ll see it more and more.
At the end of the day, most people go to any sort of publication, be it traditional or web-based, for small, digestible nuggets of content. They’re attracted to headlines that quickly convince them that content is worth their time. However, fans of the topic will yearn for more depth, and will identify with brands who consistently offer them that depth. Sites like Buzzfeed will always favor the former, but brands like Pitchfork and VICE will need a little of both sides to continue to grow beyond the walls of pageviews.
Never fear, David — there will always be a place and an audience for your wonderful words about music :)
I stole this title from a story I saw tweeted several weeks ago. I don’t recall where. I apologize, and will attribute it properly if someone can point me in the right direction.
I’ve seen some alarmist posts lately, suggesting that music blogs as we know them may be in their waning years. It’s a fair question to bring up: in a world where music is streamed, rented, borrowed, but rarely owned, what role do music bloggers play?
If we step back a bit, we see that music regularly falls at the forefront of the disruption spectrum. The content, relative to movies, books, apps, and other media, is relatively easily to produce and distribute. It comes in small, easily digestible chunks, regardless of the packaging.
Bloggers, then, fall into the spectrum as tastemakers. They are de facto replacements for the magazine and newspaper journalists of yore.
Or are they?
At one level, yes. They do the dirty work of sifting through heaps of bad music to find gems to share. They provide context for the music, and some go so far as to give insight into the lives and creative processes of the artists.
However, the context in which the bloggers themselves exist is significantly different.
Journalists worked for very straightforward businesses, generally driven towards mass appeal. Few bloggers aim at mass appeal — that business is ever more in the hands of the major players (radio drives the pop audience, Pitchfork drives the indie audience, and frankly I need to do more research to understand what drives the massive and ever-growing EDM audience — I suspect a mass of simplistic Tumblr blogs). A few accidentally stumble into it, by being one of the many sites that roll up into aggregators like The Hype Machine, We Are Hunted, Exfm, and Shuffler.fm.
Most bloggers are not Pitchfork. Most bloggers have a niche audience that has spread largely organically. They shared music with their friends, who shared it with their friends, and so forth. Many blogs promote concerts as a way to both make (a very small amount of) money and build brand recognition. Some bloggers occasionally get DJ gigs.
So what happens to music bloggers when the MP3 is virtually dead and there’s little incentive to download when the rest of your music library is in a streaming service like Rdio or Spotify?
Sure, their platforms might change. They might start sharing Rdio links instead of MP3s. They may become an app on Spotify. The best ones will change formats entirely, to focus on video or mobile apps to tell their story. But their fundamental purpose does not change.
Pandora has found their business in customizing and replacing radio, not as a music discovery site. They are not a threat to bloggers. Spotify and Rdio replace iTunes and Best Buy, not music bloggers.
Aggregators could not exist without music bloggers, and they’ve proven their ability to follow the bloggers regardless of format — The Hype Machine has progressed from pure MP3 aggregation to support Tumblr, SoundCloud, and a plethora of others (which make up an ever increasing proportion of their content). They’ve even brought their aggregation to Spotify, making it clear that they will exist wherever there is music.
Bloggers, or whatever they may be called in their next iteration, will continue to exist, too. There will probably be more of them than ever before. Or at least we should hope there will be — consumer interest in the stories surrounding music sits largely on their evangelical shoulders.
There’s a long-standing mantra in advertising that you need to have people see or hear your brand in some capacity several times a day in order to achieve brand recognition. It’s the reason why billboards exist, and why you see Coke and Pepsi signs on restaurants and on high school scoreboards.
But momentum has shifted away from traditional advertising, as the return on those investments cannot be as easily targeted or measured as online advertising. It still works for the biggest of the big, but anyone past the top ten or twenty brands is looking elsewhere for customer engagement.
Naturally, recent smartphone growth has become mightily attractive to these brands (as it is to thousands of entrepreneurs).
The approaches to mobile engagement varies widely. While brands like Dole and Heinze rush to stick QR codes on everything, which take you to horribly lame mobile games and trivia, retailers like Target (and most others) try to make it as easy as possible for you to buy more from them through native apps. Perhaps the most successful app building brand is Nike, which has a suite of apps (I count fourteen) to get you more active, and hopefully using more of their products (like the FuelBand).
One approach, however, is particularly interesting. Japanese clothing brand UNIQLO has built four different iOS apps. Only one of them has anything to do with clothing.
One app is an alarm clock that changes its tone depending on the weather. One app is a “fun clock” that tells time with singing and dancing. Their most popular app is a calendar app, which showcases beautiful video images of Japanese seasons and music from Japanese musicians, alongside date, time, weather, and your personal calendar.
Their least popular app? A social app geared at sharing the way you (and others) wear UNIQLO clothes.
How could this be true? Well, it turns out people are looking for value when they download apps. And they don’t particularly care what brand is attached, as long as it adds value to their life.
UNIQLO recognized this, targeted the most common utilities used by their broad audience, and added their own brand flavor to them. As a result, they have brand engagement on a minimum once per day basis (alarm functionality) from everyone who has downloaded the apps. And, perhaps most importantly, their cost of development for all the apps was probably less than a single billboard for a month.
If you have an offline brand, apps are an efficient marketing tool for extending your brand relationship, when done right. In the music world, Bjork’s Biophilia apps allowed fans to explore themes from the album more deeply, when most other musician apps are merely condensed lists of tour dates and YouTube videos. Nike’s most downloaded and top rated app is Training Club, which offers anyone personalized exercise routines without the need for a gym or trainer. It vastly outperforms their apps that tie directly to Nike+ and FuelBand products, but is just as free.
While they often require more thought, well done apps may just be the new billboards. Your attention used to be a plentiful commodity, which could be exploited easily by brands with big budgets. Now they need to find ways to catch your attention on the regular, and the best place to do that is the phone. The key is adding enough value to make it worth your download.
I went to my five year college reunion, and all I got was this stupid blog post.
College is an important time in an ever-growing number of young peoples’ lives. It’s often the first time you move away from home. Sometimes it’s the first time you pay rent. More often than not, it’s the first time you take on debt. And almost always, it’s a huge growth period for social connection and human engagement.
And yet none of those things are college’s purported purpose: higher education, and a gateway to the working world of adulthood.
This fact is troubling to me, particularly as tuition costs skyrocket and the bar to a college degree is constantly lowered. I don’t mean to suggest that broadening access to higher education is inherently bad, but it detracts from the value that those increased tuition costs are intended to justify, creating an imbalance.
You can see this imbalance play itself out through the frustrations of recent college grads. Their expectations going into college were to get a degree in order to be more employable, yet most are discovering that isn’t necessarily the case. Many hide in graduate programs, adding to their debt and hopes that they will become employable, but many find themselves only slightly better off employment-wise, and rarely much happier. Others find themselves taking jobs that really don’t require a college degree, just to pay their bills and avoid moving back in with their parents.
Why is this happening? What’s happened to our beloved college system that, just as its become a more universally attainable right of passage, its value in pointing the way to a fulfilling life post-passage has diminished?
I believe that the learning part of the institution has simply not yet evolved as the admissions and operational parts have.
The key factor that hasn’t sunk in is that the fundamental product offered, knowledge, has been commoditized. Everyone has access to several orders of magnitude more knowledge instantly, at their fingertips, for free than any university and its libraries could offer.
But that doesn’t mean college is inherently irrelevant, for many of the reasons I listed earlier. It can still be an incredibly powerful transition to independent living, it just needs to rethink what it offers.
What I find fascinating is that the elements for this restructure are already on campus, and have been for nearly as long as college has been around. Ask people across generations what college is all about, and the two most common words you’ll hear are “learning” and “experimentation.” Yet somehow college administrators believe that learning should happen in the classroom, whereas experimentation should happen outside.
The two are, and should be, more tightly coupled than any college administrator cares to recognize. The best way to learn is by experimenting. The best teachers are not those who impart the most knowledge, but those who help shape paths to productive experimentation.
Sadly, on most college campuses, experimentation is a word that’s relegated to the science wing. And even then, most “experiments” are routines that hundreds of students have performed before, all yielding the same result if “done right.” Those aren’t experiments, they’re demonstrations.
Experiments are empowering. They are designed to teach that failure is inevitable, and more revealing and exciting than success. They keep you coming back to try again. Imagine a world where college students are as excited to go to class as they are to get drunker than they have before and try new ways of getting other people to share their beds.
It’s not impossible. And I don’t mean to replace the parties and idiotic-in-retrospect choices we all make in college — those failed experiments are just as important to learning.
The issue is not that kids aren’t experimenting in college, it’s simply that they aren’t being taught that experimentation is a great thing. It doesn’t just result in hangovers and STDs. It results in greater, more rewarding successes than college kids are even allowed to dream of today. It results in the ability to change the world and control your own destiny. It results in innovation and discovery.
Aren’t those the results we always wanted from our college experience?
I’m often asked when I have time to sleep. It seems from the outside like my work and social lives are all-consuming and demanding of unimaginable hours.
The truth is, they’re not. I think I’ve found an incredibly solid work/life balance, and generally get plenty of sleep (when I get less, it’s almost always my own fault).
How? In large part, the key is a ruthless and constant attention to the things that really matter to me. But the more universally applicable theme is minimizing engagement with pop culture.
Pop culture encompasses a broad spectrum of media designed to engage a large audience, and make those who aren’t engaged with it feel left out. Therein lies the biggest challenge to minimizing engagement with it: making yourself okay with feeling out of the loop on certain topics.
Do you need to see every movie at the theater that’s designed to appeal to your demographic? Do you need to read the news story about the drug-related murder five states away (which, incidentally, was published two days after another drug murder, making you want to talk through a possible perceived trend — don’t think for a second that isn’t highly intentional)? Do you need to watch that video of the cat playing the piano with his laser beam eyes?
The answer is no. You will lose the ability to voice your opinions in ten seconds to three minutes of discussion in group conversation on occasion, and one in a hundred times that conversation will convince you to go back and engage with that piece of pop culture. There’s your social curation at work.
Instead of voicing your opinion on pop culture, you’ll be able to voice your opinion on far more fascinating subjects, where your contribution will be more than an interjection starting with “remember that part when…” You’ll be able to introduce people to new ideas, or engage with them on a more honest, personal, emotional level.
In the time you save from engaging with pop culture, you can study and create things that speak more personally to your own interests. The Internet has given everyone the tools to do both, and there’s even a whole world out there beyond media (gasp!) waiting to be explored.
I would encourage you to first believe that you can have an impact on your own life, then start paying attention to the things you love, then go deeper with those things. Ignore the things other people (and companies) tell you to like.
If you focus ruthlessly on what you love, I think you’ll find that pop culture naturally falls to the periphery of your life, and you’ll feel dramatically happier and more productive.
I like email. Maybe not all the time, but as a medium, I really like it. Unfortunately sometimes that means I feel free to write at length to people who may have expected no response at all. I often think that those rants might be better suited for blog posts, so my poor friends can choose whether to be subjected to them or not. This blog is derived from last night’s email to my poor friend Willo.
I had written to her previously about my girlfriend’s excitement over painting something beautiful herself. I asked: how do we bring the magic of creation to more people who might benefit from it? I mean it as a larger question for anyone motivated along those lines, which I believe deep down is significantly more people than are experiencing it today. How do we get more people over that first hump of creativity?
I’m hugely confident that the iPad (and all mobile devices) can help. It’s not the be-all-end-all, but things like Paper and Instagram (and heck, even Draw Something to some extent — I met a suburban East Texas housewife Santorum supporter who was more proud of her (rather solid) Draw Something screenshots than anything else we discussed in two full days working together in a county fair box office) are huge steps. By reducing options, and adding some math and computer wizardry behind the scenes, they’ve made it tougher to fuck up photography and drawing. And that is an incredibly powerful step.
People are diverted (sometimes permanently) by failure. Particularly when there’s the risk of public judgement. Instagram especially has inverted that paradigm by adding a like button that has virtually no importance beyond social feedback. It doesn’t affect what other content shows up like it does on Facebook or Pandora. It’s a low-risk way to say “oh, neat” or “good job” without saying “yes, I want more of this please!”
And despite that flying directly in the face of what I believe the next decade or two will completely hold on the content digestion experience side of things (all based on interest graphs built on implicit engagement data, with social as one input), it’s still incredibly powerful. We all love receiving those digital “likes” — they keep us coming back.
And coming back is exactly what more people need to do, to creative pursuits. We can’t have people trying something creative once and never coming back because of fear of fucking up.
We can’t survive as an assembly-line culture anymore, and that means we need more folks willing to take even the slightest creative risks.
I believe in technology’s ability to help empower those risks.
A recent entry into Instagram’s weekend hashtag contest #vacantplaces
One of the hottest jobs today is the Community Manager position. With the growth of social media in the last decade, more and more companies are realizing they need to have open relationships with their customers and fans.
Enter the Community Manager.
There’s an inherent problem for most companies hiring a Community Manager — they’re hiring someone to tweet, pin, like, and comment, but the hiring manager rarely understands the value, strategy, or tactics in the job they’re hiring for.
Worse yet, there’s a line around the block of seemingly qualified candidates — folks with resumes touting their writing skills, personal skills, and Klout scores (bonus points if you only include a Twitter handle as contact info).
What to do? How do you cull through all these exceptional folks to find someone who would be good at something you don’t understand?
There’s no easy answer, but I’d like to offer what I see in quality Community Managers.
1. Embodies the spirit of the company
This is crucial beyond all else. Social media channels change. Methods of communicating change. Situations requiring many different types of communication come up constantly. You want someone who will communicate publicly every few minutes, so they need to embody the values and spirit of the company.
Traditional PR has a microphone and podium to hide behind. The Community Manager is on the street talking to people on their level. There’s nowhere for them to hide behind rhetoric.
There is also no way to coach this later. You cannot hire a Community Manager based on their skills and hope to educate them about the values of the company. It has to be so baked into their nature that every statement out of their mouth could sound like it’s coming from your company — to many people in the community, it is.
2. Is a member of the community themselves
The concept of dogfooding your own product/service is crucial to a Community Manager. They need to be able to relate to the challenges the folks they’re talking to face. Empathy is key.
Eventbrite, Yelp, and many others have some form of local community managers. Eventbrite’s Evangelists throw events about once a week, always using Eventbrite for ticketing. They also attend 3-10 additional events per week, and are in constant communication with their local organizers.
Jess Zollman (@jayzombie) of Instagram is another incredible example — she is an avid photographer herself, and posts some of the best pictures on Instagram.
Perhaps more importantly, she understands that great photography of everyday life often requires an impetus of something to look for. Thus, she created Weekend Hashtag Contests, where the community is encouraged to take photographs that fit a given theme (eg - #soloparking, #twoofakind, or this past weekend’s #vacantplaces) in the hopes of appearing on the Instagram blog.
I have no idea on the traffic to their blog, but I’m sure the reward for winning is tiny in comparison to the reward for being part of the community that are all contributing our interpretations of the theme. If Jess wasn’t part of the community herself, she might not understand how to engage us that deeply with such a small explicit reward.
3. Doesn’t suck at communicating
I put this third and worded it that way on purpose. Communication skills are often the first thing people look for in a Community Manager, but they’re amongst the least important on their own. If a candidate has #1 and #2 nailed, they just need to not suck to get salient points across to their peers in the community.
A Community Manager is not just a blog editor. They don’t need to be novelists in their spare time. They don’t need to give TED talk style presentations. They just need to be able to communicate to one or more people on a personal level about the company or related topics.
So who am I to talk about this stuff? Why does a product guy care?
Because I’ve seen the value of community building first-hand. I did some time as a Community Manager (without the title) at Topspin. We had a product that wasn’t ready for mainstream use, but hundreds of people clamoring to use it based on the vision alone. When I joined Topspin, I was asked to send everyone who inquired via email a polite note declining their access. I evolved this note to send them to valuable related resources.
A few weeks into doing that, I realized it was silly to push our biggest advocates away, and created the Green Room — an email listserve where folks could discuss topics related to being a DIY musician (eg - without a major label). We had hundreds of people sign up immediately, and were up to nearly 1000 when I left. We averaged 4.5 new posts per day, with most of the posts coming from the community themselves (we would seed ideas or share results of some of our marketing experiments, too).
When we were able to open our platform to more users, the Green Room was our first source of customers. We had built a community and positioned ourselves as thought leaders in that community, even without a product, when the default behavior would have been saying “no” and pushing them elsewhere, and had done so by following those three guidelines above.
It all started accidentally. I bought my first iPhone in January, and it was a lemon. I had to go back to the Apple Store a couple days after my initial purchase, and my pimpled male Genius was decidedly less interesting than the cute girl from Phoenix who sold me the dud. As a result, I was beyond the “ooo new cool toy!” phase and into the “jeez, this thing better just work” phase of ownership.
I thought I was done. My contacts had switched (the cute girl thought I was popular ;) ). My Google Voice already knew my cell number, and that hadn’t changed. I had to redownload the first ten or so apps, but so be it — I wanted to give a different company the “first downloaded app” data point, anyway (for those who aren’t nerds, this is where bragging rights come from).
It wasn’t til a couple weeks later when a friend called me, didn’t get through, and texted me to say I needed to set up my voicemail did I realize I had cut it from my life. And frankly, the realization felt amazing — it was only by that accident that I realized anyone I wanted to have calling me could: a) text me if it’s urgent, b) email me if it’s not urgent, c) set up a time to Skype if they just wanted to chat, or d) perhaps get a call back from me at my convenience if I recognized their number.
But why is that so liberating? Is voicemail all that bad? My argument is yes — I am no longer beholden to the most awkward form of communication in today’s age. It’s not so much that talking on the phone is bad — it’s more personal and conversational than writing, and convenient for everyone at this point — it’s the interruptive nature combined with the awkwardness of the medium.
David Foster Wallace ridiculed the video phone because it destroyed the happy notion that the person on the other end was paying attention. But the truth is that those people weren’t paying attention, and it made life less efficient and conversation less effective to pretend they were. Luckily the sheer availability of video over the internet and its coupling with text-based chat (a crucial distinction) have dictated social rules whereby it’s frowned upon to call someone without chatting with them first or scheduling the call in advance.
The only problem with the video phone in DFW’s world was that it was tied to the phone paradigm, for lack of instantaneous communication to check if a chat was convenient for the recipient of the call. Voicemail is a vestige of the same problem — it was more convenient than sending a letter to let someone know that you’d like to speak with them.
Now you’ve got Facebook creating a single identity for us all, tying it to our existing email addresses and phone numbers — if you have one, you can find the others. That’s why Facebook Messages is such an incredible concept: the distinctions between email, text, and any other form of communication are blurred when they can happen instantaneously and across any platform.
So, if you have my phone number, you have more methods than just that one to get in touch with me. You can prioritize based on immediacy of the need. It may sound pretentious, but it’s an exercise we almost all go through today. We just leave voicemails out of habit and laziness. Have you listened to yours lately?
My guess is they fall into one of two categories: “hey, call me back when you get a second” or “I have all this important stuff to tell you and I want to know your reaction.” The former is implicit in the call, or could be noted by a text. The latter implies a desire for conversation, and 9 out of 10 times the caller winds up saying the same thing all over again when they get a call back — they want to hear your reaction to you saying what you’re saying, not just to what you’re saying.
I know not everyone thinks they have the luxury of shutting off any form of communication with their friends or networks (my guess is you’re also still on MySpace ;) ), but I encourage everyone to try going without voice mail. At least think twice before leaving one. Methinks we’ll all be a tiny bit happier.
My good friend Anthony asked a great question yesterday: How do new ideas catch your attention? He jotted down some pretty spot-on answers, so I’ll try to word things a bit differently (and add one or two new things).
In no particular order, these are the questions I ask subconsciously when evaluating a new idea:
1. Does it make the customer happy?
This is what draws me to product as a career. Hearing thesetestimonials at the first big beta test for the product I’ve worked on for a year made all the effort worthwhile. I hope founders are drawn to that same satisfaction when creating their businesses.
2. Does it impact something I care about?
Not a necessity for me to fall for you, but certainly helpful in getting my attention. Music? Yep. Arts? Absolutely. Data? You betcha. Education? Right again. Games? Not so much. Ads? Once every 10 years.
3. Is it built on technology that will be around in ten years? Fifty? And is the team likely capable of adapting?
Things change ever more rapidly. A “neat-o” business using the technology of the moment is difficult to keep up long-term.
4. What are its opportunities for evil?
I suppose this could be better said “Will it absolutely, positively be doing good in the world and helping people at a reasonable cost, and continue to do so for the foreseeable future?”
5. Would I want to work on that?
Not a requirement, but something I always consider.
6. Is it made by someone I know?
To some extent, this question is “Can I influence it?” because that’s pretty fun :) But on a more human level, I pay attention to things that involve how the people I know and love spend their waking hours. Sometimes I feel like TechCrunch is my Facebook feed.
7. Does it make me completely rethink how the incumbent system worked?
We’re all systems thinkers. The top of the heap are those who can get to the root of why the most painful incumbent systems exist, and think of a new solution to the underlying problem. That’s an art, and should be appreciated as such.
8. What are the founders motives?
No, I don’t want to talk to them to find out. Ok, maybe I do, but I shouldn’t have to. Their love should seep through every pore of their product.
Recorded Music As A Commodity and The Implications
Let’s just admit it: recorded music is a commodity product. The abundance of recorded music now more than satiates the (plentiful) demand, and the market of recorded music is losing differentiation. Sure, different recordings will suit different needs and wants to some extent, but that’s no different from other commodities like coffee or petroleum or pharmaceuticals.
So what does business in a post-commoditization music industry look like? I see two big, important things that will drive the rest:
1. Music everywhere — use the commodity to fuel other (not necessarily music) businesses
2. Artists need a vision worth showcasing — to keep a music-focused business alive, it will take something special to rise above the commodity market
I’ll talk briefly about why I think each is important.
1. Music Everywhere
As I pointed out in my last post, Soundtracking is a tiny step towards universal integration. They’re a moment sharing app like Instagram, Path, and PicPlz, but they’ve theorized that music can be a more compelling way to turn pictures into moments than photo filters (like their competitors have). Ultimately it’s just a question of prioritization — all those apps are trying to accomplish the same goal, they just have different ideas as to what is most important to get there.
EchoNest is banking on the idea that music’s integration into other applications is inevitable, and I agree. To date, however, most of the apps built on EchoNest have been focused on the music — probably because it’s both the most obvious application, and the interest of folks who are familiar with EchoNest. As other apps and companies start to realize music’s value as part of their app, however, EchoNest stands to be a powerful toolkit.
But music’s integration into other parts of life doesn’t stop at online apps. The licensing process for commercials and other broadcasts continues to be more and more automated. YouTube pays millions of dollars a year to publishers for music that’s in the background of user-generated videos. The list goes on.
Recorded music has become more accessible than ever before and in higher supply than ever before. Anyone who wants to access any song for any purpose should be able to within a few years, and dozens of successful businesses will be built upon assisting with that access. ——
2. Artists need a vision worth showcasing
With so much abundance, how does an artist avoid becoming a faceless data point? By putting a compelling face to their artistic vision.
In what I imagine to be the majority of cases, this face includes (and may be driven by) a live show. Of course, if everyone who has been creating recorded music starts playing live shows, the market will become as crowded as the recorded space, necessitating more help to cut through the noise.
Songkick, Sonicliving, and others are great tools for helping to keep track of your live shows and tying the live show to your own library of recorded music. The problem, though, is they don’t help cut through the noise any further (yet). I admired Songkick’s initial vision of being a concert recommendation engine, and while I wish they would get back to that now that they have significantly more (and cleaner) data, I acknowledge it makes far more sense for them to simply power the ticket listings in a variety of discovery channels.
There’s a large, very active community of music bloggers out there who help folks comb through all the recorded music that comes out. It’s a fantastic community with some brilliant folks, and I’d be devastated if they ever went away. However, they’re focused on a commodity product and barely drive any direct, attributable value (the exception being a “Best New Music” rating from Pitchfork).
The new era of music journalism (and potentially journalism in general) will focus on letting the subjects (in this case artists) showcase themselves — journalists become producers and editors, rather than verbose writers. I believe Yours Truly (disclosure: I’m involved) is at the head of this charge, along with folks like La Blogotheque and several others. I suspect many more will follow, and more artists will see these videos as their best promotion mechanism for their new top product: the live show.
Which of these is more compelling to get you to spend money on the hottest new rap act, Tyler the Creator:
I would also count Kickstarter amongst the companies helping artists showcase themselves, and the one doing the most to tie that showcase directly to revenue ($13 million pledged to music projects thus far). Like buying tickets to a live show, you pledge money to artists solely on the promise of getting something worthwhile in return (most of the time it doesn’t exist yet). I have backed 11 projects, have only received one reward, and yet will continue to pledge — a great Kickstarter video is so inspiring you feel compelled to help bring the products into the world. The same goes for music video journalism and live shows — a single video taste of an epic performance (plus a little interview with the artist talking about inspirations) makes you immediately want to buy a ticket to the real live show, no matter how far off it is.
In any of those cases, though, the onus is on the artist to make themselves appear worthwhile. No amount of cleverly written marketing copy is a substitute for raw, personal, intimate content.
I, for one, am excited about the new music business. Like the rest of America, the music industry as a whole is in dire need of a wake-up call that the industrial revolution is over and greatness does not come off assembly lines in little plastic packages. I’m hopeful that we’ll be resourceful enough and passionate enough to make music an even bigger part of everyone’s lives, and maybe even make a living doing so.
Soundtracking and the Future of Music Distribution
I got back from SXSW last week and started thinking back on the experience, and, being the nerd that I am, what apps I used. I hardly touched Twitter (not focused enough on people near me), I didn’t use Facebook (I hardly ever do), I didn’t open Yobongo (had enough people I already know to talk to). I had one Beluga pod going (never wound up seeing anyone in it), and one GroupMe group (for all the Eventbrite folks). I checked FourSquare when I wasn’t sure what show to go to (at least a couple times a day). Good ol’ SMS proved to be my killer app, but a new app called Soundtracking was a close second.
Soundtracking lets you post any song (be it playing on your iPod, playing around you, or just playing in your head) along with a photo, a location, a photo, and a message. It also (optionally) lets you share all those things in a nice polaroid-like format to Twitter, Facebook, and FourSquare. Within SoundTracking, you can follow other users (a key point — follow is the right paradigm for music sharing, not friend) and either like, love, or comment on their SoundTracks.
Why it worked so well for me at SXSW was because it streamlined my outbound communication. In seconds, I could give whomever I wanted a snapshot of where I was and what band I was watching, in a more media-rich format than was ever available before (you can listen to a 90 second iTunes sample when you check out someone’s SoundTrack, which, as it turns out, is almost always plenty).
The key to SoundTracking’s success, and why I think it stands to take off beyond where any music check-in app could otherwise go, is it’s realization that the music isn’t what most people want to share — music is just an important part of many moments, and those moments are what people want to share. Most people still listen to Top 40, and those songs aren’t interesting to share because everyone else is listening to them on repeat as well. However, a Top 40 song as part of a unique moment is totally worth sharing (ask your parents about a Beatles moment).
This point is proven by the Trending section of the SoundTracking app — I would wager every album on there has been in the Top 40. It’s also why 90 second samples work — almost everyone usually knows the song already, and all you’re really checking out is a moment anyway.
What’s important about SoundTracking is it represents the start of a new form of music distribution — horizontal integration. You might think SoundTracking is a music app, but it’s not — it’s a moment sharing app, like Path or Instagram or many others, but with music as its killer feature.
Music as a feature is incredibly exciting. It represents a new era of distribution for recorded music, allowing music to be plugged into more parts of life. It began with indie rock songs being licensed for commercials (without mention of the words “sell out”), and music of all shapes and sizes being licensed for video games and movies. Soon, we’ll see distribution through any number of apps, many of which will have very little to do with music or “the industry.” It seems to me like Google is best positioned to come in and set distribution open with a slew of APIs, but the opportunity is there for anyone.
What’s exciting to me about this future beyond the health of music as a profitable endeavor is it represents the first chance the music business has to go down a path that books and movies will struggle to follow — being purely auditory, music naturally has more applications, and so should be distributed as widely online as it is in real life.
A discovery phenomenon has been creeping up amongst music bloggers lately: they’re digging through Bandcamp pages by clicking tags and exploring other artists with those tags. It’s a little bit like the MySpace phenomenon of a few years ago, where bloggers would discover new music by clicking through other bands’ Top 8 friends, but even less efficient (the Top 8 is almost an explicit introduction from the artist).
This phenomenon seems counter-intuitive — why would anyone spend so much time sifting through the cruft that inherently bogs down an open platform with user-generated tags? Aren’t there far more efficient methods for music discovery these days?
Sure there are, but efficiency is, to some extent, the natural enemy of a blogger. Bloggers rarely make money from their work, and even more rarely make enough to justify the time they spend discovering and blogging. There are clearly other psychological factors driving them to blog.
The blogger’s brain gets rewards from several factors:
- satisfaction of people valuing their taste
- satisfaction of helping people discover new favorites
- satisfaction of personal discovery
It’s the satisfaction of personal discovery that drives the Bandcamp phenomenon. Discovery is most satisfying when you have an appreciation for how many other options there are. Finding a needle in a haystack is far more rewarding than finding a needle in a pin cushion. The same phenomenon applies to nearly anything — the harder a task is to complete, the greater appreciation you have for completion of that task.
That said, not everyone desires that level of appreciation in every part of life (that would be exhausting). The desire for that sort of reward is generally in line with one’s passion for a given topic. Music bloggers love music enough to spend loads of time on discovery — long past the point on the curve where the additional effort to reward ratio for most people goes negative. They’re the same folks who used to dig through crates of unorganized vinyl rather than buying from the Top 40 rack, just in a new era.
What does this phenomenon mean for artists? It means you should probably have a Bandcamp page, and make sure you tag it appropriately. You could, of course, tag it with every genre you can think of, but that won’t gain you any more fans and will only cause people frustration. It’s like spamming bloggers’ emails.
Bandcamp is a great platform for emerging artists — it’s like MySpace done right (eg - if Snocap lived up to its promise, and if it wasn’t so effing hard to design). Artists have already discovered it, which has led the bloggers to it in a fascinating way.
In my last post, I talked about the Buy One Give One campaign I ran with All Smiles. Several folks have asked me to open source my code, and I’m more than happy to oblige. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Set up your offer page with Topspin purchase buttons
Pretty straightforward, and starting next week everyone will be able to use Topspin.
2. Add a Topspin API call to listen for the end of the purchase flow
Okay, actually two calls if you want to get it right. You’ll need both LIGHTBOX_CLOSE (when the user clicks out of the purchase flow) and PURCHASE_COMPLETE (verifying the user made a transaction). Add this code to the end of the <body>:
The window.document.location is the URL of the page you want to direct to once the two API calls are true.
3. Set up MySQL database
This will vary by your hosting provider and server setup, so I recommend Googling how to create the database. You’ll want to make sure you have columns for ID (primary key, can have it autogenerate the next number in a list), sender/purchaser name, recipient name, and recipient email.
4. Set up a “process.php” file
Pretty simple PHP code:
mysql_connect(“localhost”, “MYSQLUSERNAME”, “MYSQLPASSWORD”) or die(mysql_error());
mysql_select_db(“DATABASENAME”) or die(mysql_error());
mysql_query(“INSERT INTO `shares` (`sendername`, `name`, `email`) VALUES (‘$sendername’, ‘$name’, ‘$email’)”);
A few months ago, George Howard blogged about a great idea for artists trying to get their word out: offer your fans the option to send a free copy of the record to a friend when they buy a copy for themselves. It’s a great way to offer your fans additional social capital (by sending a copy of a great record to a friend) while helping the artist get introduced to new people.
I took this idea to Jim from All Smiles, who immediately agreed to try it out with the new record. Easier said than done. As it turned out, we needed a new API call from Topspin (BIG thanks to Varley and Kris!) to detect when the purchase was complete, and also needed a way to store the sharers name, recipient’s name, and recipient’s email. I dove into PHP and MySQL for the first time, and thankfully Topspin bent over backwards to help get the API calls working. We originally intended to automate the email sends as well, but found it worth the extra effort to send them personally.
Two weeks ago we launched pre-order, and this Tuesday the album hit the street. As of writing, we’ve seen 21% of purchasers take the option to send the album to a friend. I’m pretty happy with that number, but I wanted to explain why it’s not any higher.
First and foremost, there’s the added effort required to send to a friend. We ask for three items of info, after they’ve just filled in all their billing (and potentially shipping) info in the purchase flow. They’re exhausted and just want to listen to the music. In the future, I’d like to experiment with using Facebook Connect to allow the user to select friends by their Facebook photos and send the link through Facebook.
Second, the other side of potential social capital gains is potential social capital losses. If the fan is just getting the music for the first time, they haven’t even heard it yet to know if it’s good enough to share. If the music sucks, the person they sent it to is less likely to take their recommendations in the future. Maybe we’ll send a follow-up email to purchasers letting them know they can come back and send to a friend to see how that performs — the reactions to the record have been incredibly strong, so I would expect we could get a few more shares that way.
Third, there’s the “I don’t know who to send to” syndrome. I’m guessing this is vastly overshadowed by the first two scenarios, but it’s still worth noting — we’re putting the fan on the spot, asking them to send to a friend immediately. That friend doesn’t always come to mind right away. Again, perhaps another offer to share via a follow-up email will yield better results.
With those three things in mind, though, I think a 21% uptake is mightily solid. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the early buyers were more likely to share than the later buyers — closer to 30% of pre-ordering fans shared, whereas less than 20% of orders since street date have shared.
Largely Unsolicited Advice for Entering the Music Business
Being a driven, moderately successful twenty-something in a generation that rarely decides what they want to do with their life before our counterparts from previous generations were married with children, I get approached fairly regularly by my peers and their siblings who are interested in getting into the music business. I’ve written long emails, waxed prophetic over adult beverages, and otherwise found ways to scare dozens of people away from careers in the music business (yea, I’m that good). I thought it might be prudent to share some of my thoughts more publicly, if only to provide a resource I can point to the next time someone asks. And hopefully scare fewer folks away.
So here goes, my advice to someone in their twenties looking to break into the music business:
1. Read Confessions of a Record Producer and Kill Your Friends. Know what you’re getting yourself into. The industry doesn’t work the same was as it used to, but what you’ll learn from these books is what the industry was like when most of your future cohorts were coming up and making a name for themselves (if you haven’t read Plugged In, it’s about having a better work experience by understanding the generational mindsets of your coworkers).
2. Understand your motivations for getting into the music business. Are you mainly a fan? Do you like to perform? Do you like curating? How technical are you? In no way should these questions scare you, they should just direct your efforts so you don’t wind up grinding yourself (and your love of music) down in a role you hate. It’s a $65 billion business — there are more than enough ways to get involved, so don’t accept a job that doesn’t speak to your interests just to “get in.” That said, once you pick a track, pay attention to the others as well so you know how everything comes together — read Digital Music News or Hypebot or New Music Tip Sheet (actually, read that plus one of the others) to keep up.
3. Leave your ego at the door. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back. But back to bullet point #1 — the majority of folks you’ll encounter got to where they are by navigating a complex corporate structure over many years and decades. Even if you think you know more than they do (you very well might), don’t ever act like it.
4. Be ready to separate music from business. This is often the most difficult part of the job. Plenty of perfectly good records have been ruined for me for life because of the circumstances I encountered while working on them. Even more than that, you will likely be working with lots of music that you wouldn’t want to listen to on your own. Do your best to appreciate it for what it is, understand it from a business perspective, and make the most of it.
5. It’s a relationship business, and (most) people have feelings. This means a few things. First, go to every show, event, dinner, meetup, etc you can, regardless of whether you think you want to or not (hat tip to my friend Margaret Gregory for that one). Second, position yourself for introductions from your bosses — they will undoubtedly know far more people than you, and will usually be happy to introduce you if you’re at events together or if you ask to sit in on meetings (you might have to stay later to get work done, but it’s SO worth it). Third, be nice. Not fake nice, genuinely nice. As your mom taught you, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all (see #3).
6. Learn to use every online tool you can get your hands on (and learn to code if you can). Even if you don’t find yourself particularly savvy, you’ll pick it up far faster than anyone who is currently in the industry. They’ll rely on you more than you can imagine.
Using Blogger Motivations to Drive Fan Connections
I was reading David’s post on "Music Blogging in 2011" and was especially moved by the comments. Dozens of bloggers chimed in with their viewpoints on blogging, and, most importantly, their own motivations for blogging.
I’ve written before on constructing personas for bloggers, but I think it’s worth looking at the personas in a different light: motivations. Most music bloggers exhibit some combination of these four motivations:
- Participating in a community - Bloggers are almost always the biggest consumers of other blogs as well. They comment on each others’ posts, repost content they’ve found on other blogs, join forums, and go to meetups. People like to feel close to people similar to them, and musical taste goes a long way towards identifying potential friends.
- Sharing with friends - Most bloggers are the same folks who made all the mixtapes for their friends and parties in high school and college. They want their friends to hear great music, and blogging is a great way to publish their favorites. I know a good portion of the subscribers to my blog personally, and often subscribe to their blogs on other topics.
- Feeling of accomplishment - There are two main ways this manifests itself: being (among) the first to discover a new artist (coolness), and driving more traffic to your blog (attention). Many folks are ashamed to admit these motivations, but they’re natural and human.
- Helping the artists - I believe this is the most under-appreciated motivation. Simply by the act of creating a blog and posting music, bloggers are raising their hands saying “I want to help by telling everyone I know about your music!” I’m shocked at how many artists take that for granted, and how poorly “PR” is constructed to account for this motivation.
It’s also important to identify the underlying motivation of nearly all online motivations, something Paul Ford recently described as WWIC: “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” (Clay Shirkey refers to it in different context as Cognitive Surplus). People want to share their opinions, and feel that those opinions are being heard. The three levels of participation on the web are content creation (the artists), commentary (bloggers, commenters), and approvals (like buttons, word-for-word reblogs, tweeted links — “the digital equivalent of a grunt” according to Ford).
A lot of bloggers are missing out on the opportunities grunts present because they view them as distractions and competitors for attention. While it might not seem like much, harnessing the grunts can add up to a lot when it comes to fulfilling the blogger motivations. Allowing people to grunt gives a better sense of community (the most avid grunters are the most likely to stay on and return to your site), and counting the grunts can add to a sense of accomplishment for building that community (and measuring how to better serve that community).
Perhaps most importantly, the grunts can help the artist (the most unfulfilled motivation of the bloggers). Something as simple as implementing a Facebook Like button will drive more eyes and ears to the artist’s content. Taking it one step further, bloggers could tie those Like buttons to the artist’s Facebook page — the blogger fulfills all their motivations, and the artist gets the benefit of being able to accumulate and communicate with new fans via Facebook. It’s really easy to implement, too — there’s a simple Like Button Generator on Facebook’s site.
That’s only one way bloggers could increase their value to the artist and fulfill their own motivations. Undoubtedly more will emerge. I would challenge the industry, rather than the bloggers, to figure out how to make that happen — you need the bloggers more than you realize, and they’re feeling somewhat unloved at the moment. Rethink your communications with bloggers, and find new ways to empower them to spread your word. They want to help.
Post script: The other motivation that is prevalent, but not all bloggers share, is enjoying the art of writing a well-crafted review. Several of the commenters on David’s article lamented the fact that a seemingly increasing number of bloggers write half-assed posts, rarely containing any analysis or original thought. Frankly, that criticism is like saying the teenagers on YouTube singing along to a song into their webcam is a poor cover song. As I alluded to above, these simple posts are really more of grunts (approvals) than commentary.
For three weeks in December, Jim from All Smiles sent out similar emails — all had the same components:
- Update on recording/mixing
- Plea for support on Kickstarter
- A download of two new instrumental tracks
The emails we’re performing consistently, and not terribly from a statistical perspective:
- Average open rate: 24.5%
- Average clicks: 312
- Average CTR (clicks/opens): 21.9%
- Average Unsubscribes: 35.3
Then we got a note from Patrick Ross (a fan of All Smiles and fellow music marketer) wondering what was up with the plain text emails. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought to that point — I figured the personal, down-to-earth approach would more than make up for the losses one usually sees when images are removed (nothing about the numbers above would prove me wrong). But, since I love a good experiment, I hacked a quick little HTML email template.
The fourth week contained the same message components, but now contained images, buttons, and clearly called-out links. Turns out it made quite a difference:
- Open rate: 29.2%
- Clicks: 1893
- CTR (clicks/opens): 112.3%
- Unsubscribes: 26
We increased click-throughs six-fold simply by presenting the same message in a more visual format. People love clicking on images. It catches the eye, and we’ve been trained to understand that clicking is an undoable action (we have a back button and ctrl + z).
Almost as importantly, we reduced unsubscribes by over 26%. We acquired a large number of emails through our Facebook Ads campaign, and providing those users with a more visual context for our message reminded them why they cared (we also included a header with the band name and a subheader of “Jim Fairchild and Joe Plummer from Modest Mouse” to provide additional context).
Using images to entice subscribers is a classic strategy of email marketers. None of what I’m telling you today should come as a surprise. It should, however, serve as a strong reminder of a low-impact strategy that makes a major difference.
Use clickable images in emails — ideally use an image, a button, and a text link for each major item you’re linking to
Give your subscribers as much context as possible — everyone has cluttered inboxes, and your fans might not remember why they care about you (especially if they have only heard one track and downloaded it in exchange for their email)
As with most folks who work in the tech business, I think it’s important to celebrate failures — they often teach us more than success. As such, I wanted to share a few Facebook Ads campaigns I experimented with and why they didn’t work.
The question I wanted to answer after the almost-too-easy success with the All Smiles campaign was “How easy is it to convert fans of related (but not directly tied) artists from Facebook Ads?”
Answer: Not easy.
I set out to target three groups of fans with free downloads from A B & The Sea: Jukebox The Ghost (with whom they were touring), Katy Perry (whose song they covered), and Beach Boys (to whom they sound most similar). I set up Facebook ads driving to dedicated landing pages (eg - http://abandthesea.net/jukebox/) with unique Topspin widgets on each so I could track conversion data at a granular level. Here’s how each campaign broke down:
Jukebox The Ghost
$1.65 CPA (Cost Per Acquisition — cost of getting a new email address)
These are clearly a far cry from the $0.33 CPA we saw consistently in the All Smiles campaign. But why? The difference is in degrees of separation.
For All Smiles, Jim is part of these other bands that people already love (Modest Mouse & Grandaddy). He’s merely introducing a different project to people who already love the music he plays. Had we gone about the ads in a slightly different way (eg - “Like Modest Mouse? You’ll love All Smiles!” instead of “All Smiles (Jim from Modest Mouse & Grandaddy)…”) I think the results would have been markedly different. For these A B & The Sea ads, all we had was the power of suggestion — “We (the people you don’t know or trust) think you’ll like our music. Won’t you please give it a shot?” (It’s the same approach that people often take to blog outreach — see why it’s hard? More on that another time.)
What the data tells us (beyond “Um, yea, this is expensive. Let’s stop.”), though, is the priority order of those degrees of separation — touring with a band is a closer connection than sounding like a band, which is a closer connection than covering someone’s song. This helps us begin to build a value hierarchy for related artists, which we can use when planning bigger marketing campaigns. In order of value:
Explicit Introductions — We’ve seen this work now with Fanfarlo, The Pixies / Interpol, and several others. Using the artist’s voice to recommend another artist is about as strong of a recommendation as you can get.
Implicit Introductions — This is the All Smiles case — it’s not Modest Mouse telling their fans about the record explicitly, but there are clear ties to the band which are messaged to fans of Modest Mouse.
Professional Relationships — Be it touring together, signing to the same label, or any other professional relationship, there’s a nameless tastemaker who has put the two brands together at some point, implying some correlation.
Similar Sounds — This works far better organically or through the voice of a tastemaker — someone (or some web service like Pandora or Last.fm) you trust has to make the connection between the two sounds for it to have value.
Similar Content — Just because you like “November Rain” doesn’t mean you’re going to like the Darude 30-minute club mix version of it.
We’re just getting started :)
There are tons more tests we can run across the board, and ultimately it all comes back to helping us prioritize our efforts. That is the real value of data — you can know almost instantly how any given effort performs and whether or not you should continue down that path.
My proposals to clients rarely have details past the first week, even for longer retainers; instead, they say the next steps will be based on the data collected along the way and list some guiding principles or prospective targets. I encourage everyone in the music business to start thinking that way as well — the most successful tech businesses are the most flexible, and ultimately we’re all running little tech businesses.
Bob Lefsetz wrote a characteristically verbose and largely accurate response to the Edison Research study. He’s right that Ticketmaster is paid to be hated, and that many acts are overcharging for tickets and touring too much for any one show to feel as special. Where he falls short, however, is in assuming the current state of affairs in the ticketing business applies to the future.
If we want to create real change in this industry, we have to resist the temptation to build too heavily to existing business models. I believe you’ll soon see a serious reduction in fan-facing fees for three main reasons:
1. Fees Suck
It’s the one thing people who attend concerts and events unanimously agree upon (clearly not everyone feels the same way about what they’re seeing or live events would become as cookie-cutter as Hollywood films). Everyone has that same feeling of “what the fuck, Ticketmaster?” when they see the extra $10 they’re being charged for “convenience.” In the age of the internet, a terrible consumer experience screams for disruption.
2. Fees don’t need to suck (at least for the consumer)
As much as fees suck, they won’t disappear from the back-end of the business for a little while. So many contracts are built on fees that it will take many years for the business to make sweeping change.
That said, why do the consumers have to get stuck trying to figure out why they’re being charged so much on top of the “official” price of the ticket? The traditional argument of the artist (who works with the promoter to determine ticket costs) not wanting to damage their brand by appearing to gouge fans is bogus — everyone associated with an event is culpable for the total price, which fans begrudgingly still pay. We can manage all those fees on the back-end and provide the user with a clear, simple price and purchase flow.
Ultimately all purchases are somewhat impulsive (usually moreso the less an item costs), so the fewer questions we allow a user to ask in the purchase process (“What’s a maintenance fee?”), the higher conversion rates we’ll see, and ultimately the more sold-out shows the event organizers will achieve. Everybody wins when the fans don’t worry about fees.
3. The middle-men are becoming less necessary
I’ll go into detail on this point in another post, but with the advent of the internet, there’s less and less need for some of the folks who set and receive the fees.
I think you’ll see more artists booking their own shows (perhaps through existing relationships with venues, perhaps through online tools like Gigmaven, Sonicbids, or ArtistForce). They can also do their own promotion online through their direct marketing channels (email, Twitter, Facebook) and paid marketing channels (Facebook ads, sharing-based giveaways, and eventually promoted tweets).
At the end of the day, fees are the tool the promoter and venue use to feel like they’re getting a square deal on any given event. The result of ditching the middle-men (in music, the promoter) is a simpler contract structure with fewer needs for fees.
Between these three points, I can say with a good deal of confidence that change is coming very soon to the ticketing business. I’m hopeful that more folks will see the value in ditching fees, and that doing so will open the floodgates to far more exciting innovation as the trust between the fans and the people organizing the show is rebuilt.
@scottperry paperless tkts restrict fans’ rights to resell. reselling in sports is accepted, yet in concerts is stigmatized. #dmfw
That fact is not without reason. That reason is the contract structure and the notion of who owns the fan relationship.
In sports, the team generally manages their own ticketing, and often has their own venue. They own the relationships with their ticket buyers. The same goes for theater — Broadway producers (let alone local troupes) are not beholden to using the venue’s ticketing system, and they almost always get access to whatever data they need on the ticket purchasers.
In music, however, the promoter (which can often be the venue themselves) owns the ticketing and the fan relationships.
This difference creates not only different contract structures, but different incentives and uses for ticketing systems, and ultimately different ways of approaching the ticket resale market.
Sports teams and theaters make a great deal of their money from subscriptions and season tickets. Beyond those sales and their most premium one-off seats, they care less about how much a person is paying for their ticket and more about getting them to come at all (why services like Goldstar exist), and hopefully getting them to come back. They’re interested in recurring revenue and building long-term business relationships with ticket purchasers. For them, an active resale market is merely a sign they need to adjust their own pricing — a reason both sectors are very interested in dynamic pricing.
In music, however, the promoter only occasionally has any relationship with the fans — they are shielded by the artist, the venue, and the ticket company to a point where most people don’t even know they exist or what they do. Some of the savvier promoters are starting to make their brands more public, but they’re also having to change their business models a bit to do so — anyone putting their brand at the forefront of a ticket purchase experience is susceptible to any backlash from fees (which have traditionally been a way for promoters and venues to make an extra buck off concerts).
The difference in opinions towards scalping comes from the contract structure and points towards another necessary change in business model. Because there are three distinct parties involved in the music gig booking (artist, promoter, venue), dynamic pricing is a logistical nightmare — the artist doesn’t want to have to deal with constant approvals for ticket price changes at every venue on a tour, and neither do the venues or promoters. Who can blame them? As such, prices have to be static and defined rigidly in music contracts before tickets ever go on sale; whereas the natural market forces that occur after tickets go on sale are what end up driving the resale market.
This is one of many reasons I think you’ll find more and more musical acts booking their own tours, selling their own tickets, and doing their own promotion. There’s a bit more overhead up front, but you save 15% on promoter fees, you own the fan relationship (and data), and you have a great deal more freedom to run your business as you please (meaning, you can make your fans happier by reducing fees, or sell premium access tickets to your biggest fans).
This is obviously not for everyone (promoters play important roles for many artists), but certainly the middle class of artists who have toured long enough and know with some confidence how many people they’ll draw in any given city will benefit.
The second new approach in PR is to leverage network effects that already exist. Everyone wants to “go viral.” If fewer than 10% of posts come from PR, that means PR is inefficient at getting bands there. However, a more nuanced understanding of the space reveals that the vast majority of music bloggers discover music through other blogs. Therein lies the opportunity.
A single post is not a true measure of success. Turning that single post into multiple post, and ultimately more eyes, ears, and opt-ins to fandom, is the real goal of PR. There’s a common misconception that the biggest blogs discover the best music first. That, in fact, is rarely the case — they pay attention to a network of other blogs, who in turn pay attention to an even bigger network of blogs. The key to a successful viral spread is finding the best point in the graph for your particular content — not just based on similar artists being posted, but also based on what other bloggers read and regularly repost content from that blog. (The genius behind Pitchfork launching Altered Zones is their explicit exposing of some of the blogs they discover music from, saying essentially “if you want to get to us, these are some of your better smaller channels to target.”)
The most successful PR agents will not only be the best tastemakers and communicators with the deepest and most targeted relationships, they’ll also understand where in the network the content they’re promoting fits best and can generate the most efficient viral spread amongst likeminded bloggers.
Who are the people most prepared to step into that role? Other bloggers. They understand the space incredibly well because they’re the most active participants. They pay constant attention to a multitude of other blogs, and often communicate directly with them. They’re respected themselves as tastemakers and communicators. All they’re really lacking is the business side, and that’s the easy part (look at all the computer programmers who knew nothing of business and now run multi-billion dollar corporations).
I’m not suggesting that the traditional and incumbent PR business is going anywhere anytime soon, but I think you’ll see the smartest PR businesses starting to hire bloggers (those who aren’t parlaying their tastemaking abilities into other careers) as staffers and consultants, insisting that they maintain their blogs. The networks they’ve already created and joined are infinitely more valuable than any length of blast list that a more traditional PR agent maintains.
I’m also not suggesting that every blogger out there is cut out for this role. There is a certain breed of bloggers who, regardless of what their original motivations for blogging were, are fascinated with and driven by the blogger community. They organize blogger meetups, plan blogger parties on a grand scale, and go to music festivals to meet other bloggers. When they’re not interacting directly with other bloggers, they spend most of their time reading dozens, if not hundreds of blogs. They’re students of the blog graph.
In much the same way Facebook has built a great business by understanding the network effects of person-to-person communication, the opportunity for brands of any kind (including bands) lies in that same understanding of blog-to-blog communication. Until (and even after) more data becomes available on the blog graph, the most efficient and effective method of unlocking that understanding is through the people with the best domain knowledge: the connectors of the blog community.
The New PR, pt. 2: The Importance of Genuine, Targeted Communication
One of the most important parts of being a tastemaker, and one that’s highly undervalued, is the ability to communicate with your audience. It’s no wonder that your stereotypical blogger is an English major (and no, not just because they’re unemployed) — the best communicators are the best leaders of tribes. The most successful tastemakers, however, are also those who also best understand the audience with whom they’re communicating.
PR agents also have the first part down pretty well — they generally know how to write really compelling copy. What most of them lack, however, is the understanding of their audience on anything beyond a surface level. Some get away with it by perfecting the first part of tastemaking (building great brand association through a client list) and blasting to enough potentially relevant people. This approach sort of works for now, but it won’t last much longer as a new breed of PR agent emerges and builds the best client rosters by being the best communicators and targeters.
In my informal surveys of bloggers, the percentage of posts that come from PR emails doesn’t even approach 10%. This tells me two things:
Traditional PR blasts are becoming less and less effective
The strategy behind PR needs to change
The first point is pretty obvious — the model of blasting bloggers is built around creating noise in the blogger’s ears and hoping that your voice is heard among the others. This model worked in an attention-rich economy, but as the barriers to communication are broken down (most bloggers list their email addresses on their sites — literally anybody has access to their inbox), the likelihood of any given message making it through the noise decreases exponentially.
Which brings us to the second point — how does the strategy change in a world where the gatekeepers are totally overwhelmed? Two approaches immediately come to mind, and they work best together.
One approach is to make the business more personal. I’ve said before that one hit from 20 emails is infinitely better than no hits from 2,000 emails. You get that one hit by establishing a trusted relationship with a highly targeted gatekeeper. I’ve given advice previously on how to do so, but the point that’s worth emphasizing again is being genuine.
Bloggers (and most people in general) can smell BS a mile away. You have to prove two things to them before they’ll let you into their castles: 1) you are a relevant and consistent tastemaker, 2) you understand and appreciate their brand.
The first is proven in large part by your client roster (a point we talked about in detail yesterday). The second is a combination of doing your homework and communicating well. PR agents should be the most voracious readers of and commenters on blogs out there, a title that currently belongs to other bloggers.
Does that mean the new breed of successful PR agents are actually bloggers? Yes, and I’ll talk about more of why tomorrow when we talk about the second approach to PR strategy when the gatekeepers are overwhelmed: leveraging the network effects that are already in place.
I’ve talked several times before about the need for everyone to be a tastemaker and the importance of being genuine, but I think it’s worth revisiting.
Tastemaking is the biggest opportunity that’s available to everybody — building an audience that trusts you to bring them the highest quality content can empower any business to do remarkable things. In the PR space, this means building a client roster that you genuinely believe in. In one sense, it will be difficult: saying no to a check, especially in a business ripe with hustlers (not necessarily in a bad way, just in the sense of doing whatever it takes to get stuff done), is no easy task. However, ensuring that you are passionate about what you’re promoting will not only make your work more rewarding emotionally, it will also help you build a rapport that will drive your future business to new heights.
I’ve been talking to a lot of bloggers lately, and while each have their own ways of working (why it’s important to get personal with them), there are several trends that stick out across the board.
The first is that bloggers get most of their music from other blogs. This shouldn’t be surprising, but think of the rationale — bloggers, like anyone else, have their preferred tastemakers whom they go to for recommendations on the music they like.
The second is that bloggers tend to have a few trusted PR relationships whose emails they’ll read and whose bands they’ll almost always check out. What determines who those PR relationships are with? The PR agency’s roster. The blogger views that company as consistently pushing quality content. Again, they’re looking to the tastemaking ability of the PR agency before trusting them enough to open emails.
PR agencies are used to taking on almost anyone who would cut them a check. They place value on the number of people they reach, and charge the clients accordingly. The number of hits they get may affect their future business to some extent, but more often than not, their reporting to their clients is attempting to prove “we did the best we could.”
While this rationale makes sense, the ways to measure best they can do are fundamentally changing as a result of technology. Instead of “how many hits?” the question should be “how many new fans did you bring me?” These things can now be measured in far greater detail thanks to things like Topspin’s email for media widgets.
In order to bring in new fans, the PR agent has to know where to find those new fans and figure out how to introduce the artist’s brand to those channels. In order to find the fans, they need a deep understanding of where fans of similar artists discover music. They need to pay close attention to the space and use their own data from past campaigns to develop more and more targeted campaigns. The data is available, it’s simply about how you use it.
In order to introduce the artist’s brand to those channels, the PR agents themselves need to gain the trust of the gatekeepers to those channels (eg - the bloggers). As we’ve established, the bloggers are like anyone else in that they trust content from tastemakers, and the biggest demonstration of that tastemaking is the client roster.
That’s a lot of explanation to drive home a crucial point: your brand is built by those with whom you maintain working relationships. Just as my music marketing business would be fundamentally changed if I took on everyone willing to pay me a bunch of money, a PR agent’s business is defined by the artists they work with, and an artist’s business is defined by the labels, PR agencies, marketing companies, producers, lawyers, etc with whom they work. Their brands are an extension of your own, and vice-versa.
The next step is thinking about how you portray that brand to the tribe you build. We’ll talk about that next time.
The most common question I’ve gotten since my posts a couple weeks ago about Facebook ads is making the decision between CPM (paying per thousand times the ad is displayed) and CPC (paying per time the ad is clicked). For me, it was an obvious choice — we had a specific conversion metric we were trying to optimize, and clicks got us closer to being able to do so. In other words, we wanted action rather than awareness, and a click is a measure of action.
That said, I couldn’t back any of my reasons up with hard data, at least not specifically to our campaign or Facebook Ads. One friend shared this article advocating for CPM (the article works purely in hypothetical data, which is misleading, and also targets on far larger audiences than most artists should). There came questions of “why not run campaigns in parallel — one targeting with CPC, one picking up cheap remnant inventory with CPM?” The discussion got to a point where I just had to prove the value of CPC over CPM in our campaign’s scenario.
Turns out the data backs up my initial inklings exceptionally well. I tested the same ads with the same budget on a CPM basis and came up far short of where we had on CPC.
Over several days of data (giving Facebook’s algorithms a chance to adjust) and varied bidding prices, the Cost Per Click on the CPM-based campaign was 2-3+ times what it was when run based on CPC (the CPM rate was half that of the CPC-based campaigns). Of course, that’s not the real metric to compare. Our goal was to collect email addresses. As expected, though, the rates of email addresses collected more than followed the trends of the bidding model adjustment — the number of email addresses collected through the ads was more than 3x less than with the CPC-based campaigns (~20/day vs ~60/day).
Again, CPM campaigns have their place. If your goals are not tied directly to a click action (eg - you’re trying to maximize your spend per set of eyeballs that sees your ad), it’s probably the better way to go. However, if your goal is to collect fan data, CPC is almost unquestionably the proper path.
Constructing Personas: Get Inside the Blogger's Head
In the product world of tech companies, as with most marketing departments and agencies, we spend a lot of time creating personas (fictional characters that embody the characteristics prevalent in a given group) for our target audiences. We take time to interview the people we want to use our product and shadow them as they do the tasks that our product might help them do better. The more people we talk to, the more we get a sense of their personalities, their tasks, and their views towards our product and our competitors.
In other words, we do everything we can to put ourselves in the client’s shoes. The same should go for any form of marketing. As Jonathan Franzen writes in Freedom, “There are few things harder to imagine than other people’s conversations about you.” The only way to get closer to imagining what other people will say about you is to understand them better. The best marketers are those who best understand not just the demographics of their target audience, but their personalities, their routines, and their perceptions.
When you’re asking a blogger to post your content, you are marketing to them. As such, it will behoove you to understand more about them. It would be a bit insane to try to create a universal persona for music bloggers, especially in a blog post like this, but there are several commonalities I’ve come across that may be beneficial.
1. Bloggers’ inboxes are usually their worst enemies, and sometimes their best friend
Ask any blogger how many emails they get. Their response will almost certainly be “too many” (perhaps accompanied by a pained groaning noise, or an outburst of hysterical laughter). Sadly, as a result, everyone doing outreach is being punished for the actions of those folks who blast to large lists — very often, bloggers feel like they could delete every email in their inbox and still be very happy with the music they discover and post.
That said, excellent things CAN come from email. I discovered Beloved Rogue, whom I love, after they sent me a very nice and simple note and a link to download their EP. When I wrote back to say I liked “Capital Sense” they asked for my address so they could send a 7’. Three of the last 55 tracks I’ve posted have come from email. It’s not an impossible way to reach bloggers, but if your content isn’t relevant, you’re only making it worse for everyone.
2. Bloggers read other blogs and are friends with other bloggers
Want your music to spread? It will once you’re in with one or two bloggers. Many bloggers won’t admit (or won’t realize) just how often they discover music from each other, but it’s incredibly common.
If you think about bloggers and their tribes, those tribes very often include other bloggers — most bloggers will even post a “blog roll” along the side of their site of other blogs they like and read. This does not mean you should click all the links to those blogs, find contact info, and spam them all. It means you should use the opportunity to research the posts on each of the related sites, find the one or two that are most likely to post your material, and concentrate your outreach there.
3. Bloggers are people and like people
In Almost Famous, legendary music journalist Lester Bangs insists to young William Miller that the worst thing a writer can do is become friends with the band. William, of course, is too excited about the opportunity to hang out with rock stars to heed the advice. In that sense, the majority of bloggers are very much like William — they are fans first, critics second. They would be thrilled to be friends (at least in the Facebook sense) with people whose music they like.
So how do you make friends? By sending impersonal email blasts to them every once in a while and hoping they do something about it? Nope.
Friends are established in a variety of ways, but it almost always begins with some commonality — a mutual friend, shared interest, same hometown, take the same bus every day, etc. An introduction from a mutual friend will always be your best route. If you are trying to make a friend solely because you want something from them, you’ve got an uphill battle.
If you can’t get a direct introduction, it’s best to start engaging with them on a casual basis. If they’re blog has comments, comment. If you see a post you like, email them to say so, without pitching your music. Show them that you respect them and have a genuine interest in their brand, then you can make a better pitch.
If you want to go back to the funnel concept (yes, it applies to all parts of marketing and building a brand), you can’t expect a blogger to make the jump from the top of your funnel to the bottom in one fell swoop.
A friend in PR told me recently he wished he could take every blogger out for a beer, but geography doesn’t permit. Your job is to get as close to a direct personal connection as possible without the benefit of geography. It’s hard, no doubt, but it also goes to show once again that trying to reach thousands of blogs at once is horribly inefficient and ineffective (for 99% of bands, at least — of course there are the edge cases, who would get posted all over the internet even if they didn’t do a press release). Creating relationships is more work, but it will lead you to more success as well.
4. The music matters, a lot
At the end of the day, it’s all about the music. You can take into account all of the above and still completely miss if you’re not honest with yourself about whether or not a blogger will like your music (which you’ll hopefully have a better sense for after engaging with their blog for a little while). Creating those personal connections may help get a blogger to listen to your music, but it’s not going to change whether or not they will like it. Quality is hyperefficient, especially when coupled with highly relevant targeting — the better you know your audience, the better you’ll be able to match your audience persona to your target blogger persona.
I’ll continue to post bits and pieces of the blogger persona, but I encourage you to go out and talk to any blogger who will take the time — not to pitch them anything, but to understand how they discover music, what their reactions are to mail in their inboxes, and what makes them tick. Start to build a persona for the people you want to reach, then build a plan for reaching them.
Success with Facebook Ads, pt. 3: Execution & Optimization
Once you have your creative, budget, targets, and landing page nailed, it’s time to launch your campaign. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty on execution because it’s very straightforward if you have prepared properly.
The fun part for data nerds is the optimization. It’s easy to assume that Facebook’s algorithms are doing their jobs as well as possible, but you’ll often find you know your business better than they do. You will often find parts of your target audience are being exhausted and your money would be better spent elsewhere. Sometimes doing so will take you on a crazy roller-coaster ride in the process. What’s great is that you can analyze trends and make tweaks entirely on the fly.
It may be most helpful to run through an example:
A few weeks into the All Smiles campaign, there was a dramatic drop in performance, despite a consistent budget and number of impressions. There was a sudden drop from 350 to 250 clicks/day about two weeks in, and it stayed that way for several days. This shift was accompanied by a drop in emails per day from around 200 to around 150 (so people who clicked were converting better, but our overall volume was down). In other words, our budget was still being used, but not nearly as efficiently.
Then, in a moment of banging my head against the wall, I realized we had only been targeting American fans, and the American portion of the Modest Mouse tour had just ended. I asked Jim where his bands were big, and he said the UK, Germany, France, and Australia. So I duplicated the existing ads once for each of the four new countries.
The new ads went live the day after we had hit a record low of 105 emails in a day, and even though the Australian ads were the only ones approved within 24 hours, we hit a record high of 279 emails that day.
The international spike didn’t last as long as the American spike did (presumably just on sheer number of valuable impressions available — America is far bigger than the other countries we targeted), rounding back down to about 150 emails a day within a few days, and tumbling towards 100 shortly thereafter.
At that point my instinct was that we had begun to exhaust the audience (not to mention our budget), so I cut the budget in half to $25/day. Sure enough, the clicks stayed consistent at 70-75 for another week and a half, with emails dropping to about 40 per day.
But then I noticed something: the CPC for these international regions had been much higher than the $0.14-0.18 we had been getting in America, with only Australia coming anywhere close. However, over time, the CPC in the UK dropped from around $0.40 to just under $0.20. Conveniently, this occurred at the same time as Modest Mouse was flying to the UK to play nearly a month worth of shows.
So I turned everything off except the UK ads, to see if they could perform even better given a little more love. Sure enough, clicks doubled back up to 150/day and emails have consistently been growing to about 85/day now.
It’s a little like a simplified stock market — if you catch trends at the right time and understand what they mean, you can help yourself generate a lot of value. The understanding what they mean part is the toughest, and any explanation I give is seriously prone to error due to all the intricacies and interplay of possible factors. But I can at least try to cover a few scenarios:
Dropping CPC is generally an indication that Facebook has started to hone in on some key identifiers in targeting within your chosen parameters, and there are plenty of those people who have yet to see your ad
Changes in performance of creatives relative to each other are not something you usually need to monitor manually (unless you are also doing full conversion tracking and can close the loop, in which case you should ignore CPC altogether and target based on your conversion data) — the top performing creative on any given day could change dramatically depending on who the algorithms are targeting that day, and consistently poor performing creatives are turned off by Facebook’s algorithms
Your own conversion data should trump all Facebook data when making decisions — your goal metrics should define success, not Facebook’s algorithms (which are only concerned with impressions and clicks at this point)
There are countless more, and I’d love to hear any experience anyone has in the comments, as well as any other thoughts you might have on Facebook Ad campaigns. I know I will continue to use them for bands I work with, but would love feedback from the community on what you’ve seen work and not work.
In keeping with the Facebook Ad theme this week, I’d like to dive into the key components you’ll want to have prepared before launching a campaign:
If you’re a Mad Men fan, you’ll see them testing several different creatives at various points prior to launching a campaign — they’ll ask each others’ opinions, do focus groups, present something(s) to the client, and sometimes even take multiple variants to market. One of the most beautiful things about the Facebook Ad Platform is that it takes care of all your testing for you, and continues to do so throughout your campaign. It will serve a small percentage of impressions of each of your creatives on a rotating basis through various targeted audiences. It will then (really, pretty constantly) monitor where success is coming and double-down on those matches of creative and target.
In other words, Facebook is working constantly to make sure your ads are performing as well as they possibly can. That’s is an incredibly powerful concept, and not an empty promise. But a testing algorithm is only as successful as its inputs allow. Garbage in, garbage out. But how are you supposed to know what’s garbage?
You’re not. You test. Use any possible variant on creative you can think of (three components: headline, image, copy) and let Facebook’s magic algo-sauce go to town. The more options you give the algorithm, the more precise its targeting can be, and the lower your costs per click will be.*
Components of good creative:
Headline: Should be strong and straightforward, it’s your primary call-to-action on the ad.
Image: Say what you will but the numbers don’t lie — pictures of attractive women outperform other images in ads by a 3x factor. I’ve seen it time and again. You want to stay consistent with your brand, but if it’s appropriate and relevant, you’re likely to see positive results. In the case of All Smiles, the ads just with Jim’s photo outperformed those with the album cover by between 2-5x per day over the course of the campaign.
Copy: Be descriptive, be excited, and most of all, explain why your brand is relevant to this person in particular. Will this mean a bit more work up front? Yep. But you’ll see results in spades, both because your message will be clearer and because you’ll have to put extra thought into how your target audience is likely to respond to you.
Make sure you understand how much you’re willing to put into the campaign and how much you’re willing to pay per desired action taken (eg - click, email address subscribed, etc). I say willing because you should be monitoring closely, optimizing as you go along (we’ll talk about this tomorrow), and if things aren’t working out be willing to pull the plug and invest the money in other channels.
There’s also a tricky balance in terms of timing and budget. I have yet to establish a baseline on whether it’s better to do a large spend in a short amount of time or spread it over a somewhat longer period. Theoretically they should be equal, but no algorithm is that perfect. I would love to know if anyone has any experience in this area — please leave a comment.
Selecting your targets is arguably the most important part of any campaign. Yes, Facebook will help you by optimizing to the best performing targets if you target too widely; but as I mentioned in the creative section, the creative needs to match the targeting, so you could easily wind up having to make an insane number of creative variants (a set of each of each different headline and image combination with different copy targeted at each group).
Targets should be defined by whether or not they would be interested in your brand and why. Again, this requires you to get into the heads of the audience and be brutally honest with yourself: would these people have any reason to take interest in my music? Even if I have a really great looking ad, will they actually become my fans after they click through? Why would they?
If you start your scope small and incredibly focused, Facebook will help you expand to a more reasonable list to get the number of impressions you’re looking for. They do so by analyzing their own data on similar “likes” (among other things) and finding similar, real taste profiles (instead of a list of bands you come up with in your head that you want to sound like but sound nothing like). I may just be a nerd, but I trust data over my own preconceived notions on just about anything.
4. Landing Page
Minor detail: you need somewhere for all these newly interested people to go! Not only that, you need to have a rock solid idea of what you want them to do when they get there, and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do it.
The actions you want them to take should be directly tied to the goals of the campaign. I’m a big fan of a primary call to action asking for permission to market to them and a secondary call to action providing context in case they’re not sure yet. This generally means an email for media widget as the primary call to action and a streaming player as a secondary call to action.
Making it easy involves reducing clutter to an absolute minimum while still making them feel comfortable giving you their contact info (be it email, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, etc). A professional, clean design with as few elements as possible will prove most effective.
Our landing page for All Smiles has 5 elements: an email for media widget, a short note from Jim, a streaming player streaming the whole album, a Facebook Like button, and a small link to the rest of the website. The background is white, the title and text are black. The calls to action are the only colors on the page. Very simple, but incredibly effective.
Once you have your page prepared, your targets and budget defined, and your creative designed, you’ll be ready to dive in and start your ad campaign. We’ll pick up next time with some thoughts on execution.
*What I would really love to see, and what I think Facebook is trying to build, is optimization based on conversions. They can’t reasonably do a cost-per-conversion payment plan (too easy to game based on variants in implementations on the advertiser’s side), but optimizing around conversions instead of clicks would allow for far and away the most efficient ad platform ever.
Success with Facebook Ads, pt. 1: Rules of Engagement
First off, thanks to everyone for the positive response to yesterday’s post on the Facebook Ad success with All Smiles! I got a plethora of calls, emails, txts, and tweets (though strangely no comments on the post itself) about it, and I’m so glad everyone has taken interest. What became evident, though, was the need for me to articulate how to get value from Facebook ads a little more clearly. I want to focus on the strategic parts first, then we can get into the implementation part in another post.
When I shared our success with my coworkers, one told me that he had been testing Facebook ads on some ticketed events, with extremely limited success. I told him I wasn’t surprised. Then he told me he sold his dog using Facebook ads very successfully, but he first had people like a page and then he messaged them asking to spread the word about the dog. This also was no surprise. Why?
There’s a natural progression progression of engagement that people go through with brands. It’s typically referred to as a funnel. It starts at awareness and ends at transaction or telling a friend, depending on whom you talk to and what the campaign is. In between are various levels of engagement, including, but not limited to, expressing interest, engaging conversationally with a salesperson or storefront, and signing up for an email list.
Making large jumps in this funnel is very difficult, especially without the help of friends leading friends through the funnel. Attempting to do so inorganically is almost always a waste of resources. A good marketing strategy should be designed to guide people through the funnel.
Going back to the work example, selling tickets to people who are being exposed to an event for the first time is asking people to jump from the top of the funnel to the bottom in one fell swoop — and through an ad, no less! The chances of that conversion happening are very slim, and the data proves it.
The dog sale, however, was a far more natural progression — he reached out to well-targeted people, asked them to fan the page, asked them to share, then asked someone to transact. Double the steps, far better results.
The same principles need to be considered when designing any sort of ad (or any marketing interaction, really). What are you asking this person to do? Where are you trying to take them? How are you making it easy for them to get there?
The All Smiles campaign worked because we had a soft introduction (lots of people already know of Jim without realizing it, just from his other bands) to a large audience in an appropriate channel (Facebook is a destination site with interactions fueled almost entirely by curiosity), we had a low-barrier, high-value offer (free high-quality album for an email address), and we designed an incredibly simple and straightforward landing page (you can do four things: read a short note from Jim, stream to the album, download the music, or like the page).
We weren’t asking them to pull out their credit cards. We were really only moving them about halfway down the funnel, and made it incredibly easy for them to do so. We’ll continue to engage them over the coming months, and hopefully eventually several of them will support Jim by buying something.
I also received a question on what the correct timing is to run a Facebook Ad campaign. I think if the above lessons are incorporated, timing is somewhat irrelevant as long as your offers in exchange for their engagement are appropriate and compelling. Generally the people you’re trying to get to with ads are those who would like your product/brand if they only knew about it. What do you want their first interaction to be? What will get them to stay engaged with the brand after that first interaction?
Thinking about retaining a fan or customer instead of merely asking a one-time, almost unreasonable favor of them will go a long way for you in the long haul. Create and target your ads with the people you’re targeting in mind (and be as honest as possible with yourself in assessing their likely reaction) and you’ll find your conversion rates on Facebook or any other marketing platform significantly improved.
Finding 5,000 Fans Under Your Nose: A Case for Facebook Ads
One of the biggest challenges a music marketer faces is selecting a channel (or multiple channels) to focus their efforts on. More than anything, this means researching and understanding the ways existing and potential fans discover and consume music.
In the case of a young, hip band like A B & The Sea, it was clearly the social channels — with a product that is almost universally appealing and a fanbase that spends hours upon hours daily on social networks, it was a no-brainer. All Smiles, however, is a different case entirely.
Jim Fairchild spent most of his musical career influencing a generation as the guitarist in Grandaddy. More recently, he’s touched another generation as the touring guitarist for Modest Mouse. His work isn’t relegated to these well known bands, however — he’s also put out two LPs and a few EPs as All Smiles (with some help from fellow indie-famous friends).
The first All Smiles LP was put out by Dangerbird Records, replete with marketing budget, press tour, and all the other standard trimmings of a major indie album release. The second LP, however, came out independently with little more than an old-school (read: largely ineffective, for a variety of reasons) PR campaign behind it. As a result, it made about $1,900 (against production costs of $19,000) and Jim, somewhat disappointed, wrote it off in favor of other professional engagements.
I ripped the second LP before it was out. About a week later, while I was still working at Topspin, I learned I’d be helping Jim set up his web store. I already loved the album, so working with Jim directly was a dream come true. Jim then moved to San Francisco almost immediately after I did and we became great friends. A few months ago, as I was on my way out at Topspin, I told Jim we should give away the album as an effort to build his email list before he dropped his next album. I even suggested a crazy bet (any fewer than 500 emails collected and I’d pay him $5 per download, and more than 500 and he’d pay me a percentage of sales on the next record), but backed off a little as we were both on board regardless of the terms.
We started to work on timing for the giveaway, and the Modest Mouse summer tour seemed to make a great deal of sense — Modest Mouse fans would be actively engaged with their brand, and probably looking and hoping for new music from the band.
Then we started thinking about ways to get the word out. I was traveling and preparing to start a new job and Jim was traveling with Modest Mouse, so our time resources were limited. I designed and printed several hundred postcards for Jim to take on tour and leave at the merch booth, but circumstances didn’t allow for that to happen. I coached Jim on reaching out to bloggers in the hopes of getting some coverage, but since bloggers tend to focus on new content there wasn’t much uptake.
It became quite obvious that the route we’d have to take would be advertising — we knew the market we were targeting (Modest Mouse, Grandaddy, and related fans) and didn’t have many resources or time.
We started with a Google Adwords campaign. It served up tens of thousands of impressions at the top of searches for Modest Mouse, Grandaddy, Elliot Smith, All Smiles, and a couple others, yet didn’t garner a single click over a two week period. A conversion rate of zero is never a good indication, but I heard many great things about Facebook ads from my friends in the Topspin Green Room and decided they were worth a try.
Sure enough, Facebook ads were an overwhelming success. With a daily spend of $50, a max CPC of $0.62 (at the high end of Facebook’s recommendations), and three variations of creative (the two with photos of Jim easily beat out the third with the album cover in terms of effectiveness), we suddenly started seeing conversion rates of about 150 new fan emails per day. We were paying about $0.14 per click for about 350 clicks/day, or about $0.33 per new fan acquired.
After about two weeks, the rates suddenly dropped to about 250 clicks/day and 100 emails/day, an indication that we had reached a point of penetration on impressions across enough of the market that subsequent clicks would be tougher to come by. Luckily, it was at this same time that I noticed we had only been targeting American fans. I asked Jim where the associated fan bases were strongest, and he told me France, Germany, Great Britain, and Australia. I copied the ads and targeted these regions.
Immediately upon approval, the Australian ads started to take off — we had our biggest day on August 9th with 279 emails collected. Unfortunately Facebook ads are more expensive in many other countries, so after a while the Facebook targeting algorithms started to level us off again at around the 250 clicks (and then 200 clicks) / 100 emails mark. After seeing these trend down for a couple days and realizing how far over budget we already were (which was fine since we were having such overwhelming success), I turned the Facebook ads down to $25/day, and will shut them off shortly as the emails are down to a trickle of about 40/day ($0.80/email; about 80 clicks/day — the conversion rates are superb once on the site, but the ads are more expensive per click).
So Facebook ads must work for everyone, right? Not exactly. There are definitely some advantages over other advertising channels (the passive discovery user behavior on Facebook (avg time on site: 45 mins) vs the active searching behavior on Google (focused on finding vs discovering)), but no channel is inherently better than any other. It’s all about the fit.
As a bit of comparison, San Francisco’s premier nerdrockers My First Earthquake recently ran a similar campaign and spent $44 to get 26 additional downloads — $1.60 per new fan acquired. They also tested three creatives and had a very clear winner very quickly (the one with the picture of their cute lead singer — photos of women in ads tend to perform at 3x of other pictures). So why didn’t My First Earthquake enjoy the same success?
Simply put, it wasn’t the right channel. The success of the All Smiles campaign (our initial lofty goal was 1000 downloads, but we’re nearing 5000) was because we (eventually) picked a channel that allowed us to easily target a very specific but rather large group of people with a relevant and compelling offer. We had some brand recognition to go on (“I like Grandaddy and Modest Mouse, so yea, I probably would like free music from a member of both”), which My First Earthquake is still building. We essentially used Facebook as a means of introduction in much the same way Fanfarlo benefitted from an introduction from Sigur Ros. It cost us more than an email from one of the bands would have, but without that as an option Facebook was the best possible channel.
Jim is extremely pleased that so many people have had a chance to listen to the record; but, to be fair, much of the really interesting data lies ahead — are these fans captured through Facebook ads as valuable as fans captured organically? My guess is no, but the real question is if they’re worth more than we spent to acquire them — on that point, I’m hopeful. At the very least, they’ve helped reach more organic traffic, as nearly all blog posts about the album (accounting for about 300 emails) have come in the last couple weeks.
Stay tuned for data from the next album launch this fall. And if you’ve run an ad campaign for an artist before, I’d love to hear your results in the comments.
One of the biggest reasons people worry about the future of the music business is because they don’t understand the new value chains, often rightfully so as there’s a lot yet to define. One part of the chain that is starting to be defined but isn’t widely understood is the role of the tastemaker. I’ve talked about the tastemakers before, but as the trust economy grows, so too do their power and opportunities.
A tastemaker can be defined as anyone who influences culture through curation. They are the rulers of their domains in the trust economy. Traditionally in the music business, this was the role of a label, their A&R agents, and radio DJs. As the business has evolved and the internet has become prevalent, the tastemaker role has shifted primarily to bloggers. Bloggers aren’t the only ones who can be tastemakers, though: music supervisors (who pick music for tv shows, commercials, and movies), internet radio stations (like Pandora, which curates via personalized algorithms), and peers (sharing via Facebook, Twitter, email, or anywhere else) can all play the tastemaker role.
But it doesn’t stop there: I would even go so far as to say everyone trying to make money and/or build a reputation in the music business, from artists to press agents, has an obligation to play a tastemaking role. The audience for the tastemaking can vary, but when trust is the currency, being a tastemaker is part of proving one’s value to others.
The shift in roles itself is not that interesting (it’s a natural evolution alongside the internet), but the flow of value around those roles is fascinating.
In the old business, the labels relished their roles as tastemakers because it was directly tied to their bottom line — the better talent they signed, the more people they convinced that a given record was better than others, the more of those records they sold. Radio DJs’ revenues were also directly tied to their tastemaking ability — the stations and shows playing the best music got the most people listening and sold ads for the highest price.
The labels that continue to have success selling new records today are those who develop their own following based on their tastemaking abilities — Beggars Group, Frenchkiss Records, and several others are especially strong tastemakers in the indie world. The majors make most of their profits these days from their tastemaking of the past — they’re not building any brand loyalty today.
Bloggers are taking over the role of radio DJs — they broadcast their tastes, attempt to pick up an audience, and then usually monetize via advertising. The parallels are pretty obvious. What’s not as obvious, and where the opportunity lies for enterprising bloggers, is the ability to parlay tastemaking via a blog into a real business with a bigger place in the value chain.
The obvious path, the one that several bloggers have already started down, is that of starting a label. Bloggers simply recreate the traditional model and become the owners and promoters of the content. It requires some capital for investment in the content production, but much of the marketing is already built in — people who love the blog and the blogger’s taste will be the most likely supporters of any artist the blogger signs.
Then there are the blogs who create original content — the Daytrotters and YoursTrulys. These bloggers invest in the tools to create the content (recording studios, video cameras, etc), and in return they have the ability to monetize not only the traffic to their site, but also the content itself. If they’re especially good at what they do, they can also get contracted to produce content, which they can generally repurpose for their own use on their blogs — if they’re really good, all costs of creation are covered (and maybe a little more) by third parties even before the content hits the web. If they’re not paid up front, they may have the opportunity to sell the content for a split gain.
As I mentioned, though, bloggers are not the only tastemakers in the music business — they’re just generally the best and most prolific. Where I see the biggest need for change is on the PR side. The most effective PR agents are not the ones with the biggest lists (anyone can build a list of contacts if they scour the web long enough), but the ones with the best relationships with the most appropriate publishers for their clients’ content.
I think this point is crucial, and not one understood by many folks. PR has traditionally been a business of writing copy and “putting it on the wire” — they have the Field of Dreams mentality of if you build it they will come. That mentality no longer works in an age of attention scarcity and content abundance.
Remember the radio analogy for bloggers? Well, there used to be people at the labels who would spend all day on the phone developing relationships with DJs across the country, pitching them the best and most appropriate music the label had to offer them. Some would even travel the country extensively. Their success was dependent entirely on playing tastemakers to the tastemakers (ok, and maybe a little cash under the table every now and again). They built up trust with the tastemakers. Where are those people today?
Today’s PR agents are doing half the job and slowly gaining on the rest — most will send blasts as far and wide as they can, and most will nurture relationships with a few of the top bloggers on their list, but few do anything to target bloggers or make the bloggers they’re pitching to believe they care about the music they’re pitching and have trustworthy taste. Every email blast damages a PR agent’s business in the long run as a result.
Is it hard to turn away potential paying clients because you don’t like their content or don’t have the right connections to help them succeed? Absolutely, but doing so will benefit your brand in the long run, and you’ll be able to work with more clients you believe in.
Again, when trust is the currency, the best thing you can do for your business is build trust. Tastemakers hold the trust of their audience. If you’re trying to promote a brand in music (be it a band or a business), you should be focused on building an audience instead of a contact list.
Welcome to the new home of my rants! I stopped blogging actively a while back and realized that a big reason was having to deal with Blogger — the most painful blogging platform on earth. In a moment of frustration, I tried to switch over to WordPress, but had issues importing past posts and embedding OpenTape widgets. After giving up there, I started a Tumblr, but that wound up being a far more casual experience, more akin to a media-focused Twitter — not bad, by any means, but not as appropriate for a professional blog.
After stewing on several posts in my head for a week or two, I decided it was time to hit the reset button and reestablish a blogging presence. This blog will focus on a wide variety of topics related to the music business, from social media to ticketing and everything in between. I’ve copied a few past posts below so the site doesn’t look so bare, but I hope to fill it up quickly with new content. I hope you all will join me on this new journey, and will participate with comments and feedback along the way.
I’m in a bit of a unique position as both a marketer and music blogger, but I hope (and expect) more marketers will follow my lead — blogging about your favorite music is a great way to build brand identity, introduce yourself and your brand to your favorite artists, and, most importantly, eat your own dogfood.
It’s the eating your own dogfood part I want to hit on today. The communication between artists (or, more often, their PR representatives) and bloggers today is abysmal. I talk with artists weekly who are pissed at their PR firms for taking their money and not delivering any blog hits. On the flip side, bloggers detest opening their email for fear of another run of spammy, impersonal blasts infiltrating their inboxes and wasting their time.
Ultimately it’s a problem of communication — bloggers expect to be hit with the personal touch that the web and word-of-mouth marketing have made possible (or, arguably, required), while PR agents rest on the laurels of having thebiggest (read: most impersonal) “list” they can. The disconnect creates a problem like two parties trying to communicate in two different languages (hint: being on the receiving end of the sale, it’s the blogger’s language that wins).
I thought the best way to start approaching this problem would be through analysis of two real-world emails from artists to bloggers. I’ve altered them both to appear to be from the same person (one of my clients) for the sake of comparison, but they are both real-life emails pitching bloggers on a post.
The first hit my inbox a few weeks ago and struck me not because it’s particularly good or bad, but because it does a lot of things right and yet misses entirely because of a couple seemingly small factors.
My name is Jim and I’m an indie-singer songwriter. I’m based in San Francisco, but I’m known in 57 countries and am building up a wide fan base.
I’m writing because I saw your site and enjoyed reading some of your reviews.
I have a new LP out called “Oh For The Getting And Not Letting Go” and I think that you and your readers would like it. “Oh For The Getting And Not Letting Go” has been described as a mix of Elliot Smith and Grandaddy. It has the perfect balance of songs – from those that are ideal for sitting back and relaxing, to those that make you want to get up and dance.
"Oh For The Getting And Not Letting Go" has gotten great reviews from sites such as Bloginity, Consequence of Sound, and Spinner. We’re offering it for free while Modest Mouse is on tour this summer. I know time is scarce, but if you could give it a review, I’d love to read it. Even if it’s negative, I really respect your taste, and would be interested to hear what you think.
If you would like a cd or a t-shirt, please shoot me a size and address and I’ll get one out to you. If you prefer, you can listen to my LP for free on my site.
- Sent from “the artist” - the intent is right, but the quotes signify that it’s not actually successful in convincing me it’s from the artist, and thus you’ll see a corresponding negative point below
- Spirit of “I saw your site and enjoyed reading some of your reviews” - again, right idea, but fails in execution (boy, that’s a nice thing to say to…every blogger out there…so why me?)
- Links to other reviews - while many bloggers won’t admit it, we’re all interested in what our peers think. However, I would show an excerpted quote from each instead of just linking — show me that they thought it was good without my having to click through and find out what they said.
- Offer of a CD or t-shirt - bloggers also like free stuff — getting a 7” in the mail from Beloved Rogue reminded me to post a second song from them — but don’t emphasize free merch ahead of telling the blogger how to listen to the music
- Impersonal - while it’s signed by the artist and comes from what sort of appears to be his personal email (the name field on the email was the equivalent of “AllSmilesMusic.com” — how do I know that is actually Jim and not his management?), it doesn’t address me or my site with any sort of personalization. If you want me to listen, tell me why you thought *I* would like your music (what other music have I posted that you like or associate with? had you ever seen my blog before today? BE HONEST! All the crappy PR blasts have turned bloggers into finely-tuned BS-sniffing machines).
- Link organization and calls-to-action - The whole email is about getting me to listen, but never explicitly tells me where to listen. Should I assume it’s on the homepage since that’s the first link? Honestly, my first instinct is to go to the download link (where there actually isn’t a stream), but I shy away from that because I don’t want to clutter my machine with music that I might hate. I want a taste first. And what is the purpose of the MySpace and YouTube links? Is there something I’m supposed to look at there? Or do you just want me to include them in a post? Be as specific in your calls-to-action as possible.
Now for an example of an e-mail with similar intentions and structure, but is personalized and organized more effectively:
Dear Chris and Gorilla Vs Bear,
My name is Jim Fairchild. As a bit of background, I spent over a decade in Grandaddy and now tour with Modest Mouse. I was turned on to you guys by my friend Scottie Diablo a while back and I dig what you do. In particular I was stoked to hear about Vega and Neon Indian early on from you guys. And then Cults!
Anyway, I’m writing to let you know about another project I work on when not doing stuff with Modest Mouse. It’s called All Smiles and it’s mainly me and Joe Plummer (one of the Modest Mouse drummers) with a wider ranging cast of characters as are near and necessary.
While I’m away from home this Summer, I’ve decided to try and turn more people on to our latest album Oh For The Getting and Not Letting Go. By giving it away for free in exchange for an email address. We’ve been working on a bunch of new stuff, with the thought we’ll get a new album and EP done by the end of the year. More home spun affairs this time. But I’d like more people to be familiar with what has preceded it when that happens.
If you haven’t checked it out, you can either stream and download it at allsmilesmusic.com or use these to download:
Okay Chris. I hope you enjoy the album. If you do decide to post something about it, I’d really appreciate if you’d include the widget that lets folks download it, the code is down at the bottom.
Take good care and thanks for your time.
Sure, the grammatical structure may be a bit awkward and imperfect, but that’s how Jim writes (and talks) and it helps his personality shine through. Note what is done properly here:
- Personal background - answers “why I might care” off the bat, and points to real-world examples of why the music would be a fit on the blog (he’s inspired by the music they post)
- Quickly gets to the point - no frills, elaborate bio, or page-long story of the inspiration for the record — this can all be posted on a press page for those who care to dig deeper, but don’t waste the blogger’s time up front
- Direct links to the most relevant content - stream or download the record, or download two suggestions of singles (a suggestion of a starting point for listening is always good)
- Soft ask to embed widget - this was actually Jim’s move, to move the widget code to after the sign-off, and I love it — it keeps the entire body of the letter personal while still including the ever-important code
Remember, bloggers are often combing through hundreds of emails a day, and 99+% of the time won’t even listen if you don’t catch their attention. The way to do so takes a little more time and effort than your traditional PR blasts — it requires a personal touch. If you want them to be interested in you, you need to show interest in them. I guarantee you, though, that if you put the same amount of time into sending 10-20 really good emails to the right people, it will be infinitely more valuable than sending a slightly less personalized email to a much larger group (1 hit out of 20 is still far better than 0 hits out of 2000).
Bloggers can and should be one of your most valuable allies, but you have to learn to speak their language. Put yourself in their shoes and think “why would I be interested in posting about this artist?” Then write with that in mind.
My not-so-secret passion has always been helping emerging artists grow their fan bases and make a living making music. A few months ago, I was presented with a fantastic opportunity to do just that. My friend Steve invited me to his office at Different Fur Studio to listen to some new tracks a young band he manages just recorded.
That band was A B & The Sea, and I was sold immediately. They write insatiably catchy songs in the vein of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Shins, replete with multi-part harmonies, oohs, ahhs, and topics that rarely stray far from cute girls. On top of that, they were originally from my home state of Wisconsin. What’s not to love?
The challenge presented was to grow their fan base using Topspin tools and no budget. Normally that’s a task that’s nearly impossible, but two key elements made me believe it was possible:
The music is awesome.
The guys were willing to work hard and do their own outreach.
I went home that night humming the tunes and racking my brain for the best way to approach this challenge. I decided there needed to be a game-like element involved in order to maximize the viral spread — every (smart) small band is giving away their music free, but few have any sustained relationship with the fans who download (at best an email address). Why not prolong the engagement period by building anticipation, while at the same time incentivizing fans to keep the conversation going around the music.
What I came up with was an “unlocking” campaign — the more fans to download the tracks, the more tracks that are unlocked for everyone.
I set 2,000 emails as a relatively arbitrary (but realistic) goal, figuring 2,000 direct connections is enough to start building a legitimate business on top of. In order to get to that goal of 2,000, I set milestones — the first song is free for anyone who enters their email, the second is unlocked after 500 emails, third after 1,000, fourth after 1,500, and fifth at 2,000.
We set up a very simple page at http://abandthesea.net/ outlining the idea of the campaign and asking fans to enter their e-mails in exchange for the available tracks. To get the few existing fans excited for the promotion, we set up a listening party on MixApp to kick things off — we streamed all five songs online a few times through while the fans chatted with each other. While the listening party went down, we launched the website and told fans to enter their emails to download “Bone Dry” and tell their friends to do the same.
In the first day we collected 81 emails, and 75 the second. Certainly a good start, but would it keep up or were we just converting MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter fans (aka - the guys’ moms, girlfriends, and friends) to email list subscribers? Luckily the game element kicked in and fans started to tell their friends. We unlocked the second track, “Yellow Haired Girl,” in just 8 days.
Just after unlocking the second song, the band played their biggest show to date, opening for Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros at Bimbo’s as part of Noise Pop Festival. We set up two laptops with signs saying “Free MP3s,” but despite a large crowd that grew and moved closer to the stage as the set went on (ending with many folks dancing along), only 9 people entered their email addresses that night.
The next week, the band set up office hours, where they all came into Steve’s office for a few hours a day and emailed blogs who had posted similar artists (using HypeMachine to track down the most relevant blogs), introducing them to the music and asking them to post the email for media widget. This resulted in a few very nice mentions, and a few widget placements, but nothing major.
Emails Collected vs Time:
The biggest spike of the campaign came from an unexpected place: Mashable. In the tradition of a trend that started on Twitter, Mashable posts their favorite free music every Monday. A B & The Sea was featured on March 8th and wound up collecting 159 emails directly from that post (and probably a few more who clicked through from the post to listen before downloading).
After a few weeks of little action, averaging just under 10 new emails a day due to relative inactivity on the band’s part (travel and spending time in the studio with Jim Fairchild (Modest Mouse/Grandaddy) to record a couple new songs for future release), we decided to see if the game element had really worked by introducing a share campaign — if shares were high, the existing game element hadn’t worked, but if shares were low, the game element had indeed worked and fans had already exhausted their networks.
Shares vs Time:
It turned out the latter was true. Despite offering premium prints of the artwork in exchange for shares, the share campaign didn’t even produce 30 shares in the two weeks it ran (though those few shares did increase the new email numbers). Again, this is in no way a failure as it merely proved the success of the original model.
The band also received some coverage you might traditionally expect to drive a large number of signups, but didn’t. First, they received a tweet from my friend DA (in the band Chester French), who has nearly a million followers on Twitter. I can count on one hand the number of signups that drove, due largely to the messaging (“Great marketing effort” rather than “Great free music”) and timing (1am PST). Second, they received spins on the big rock station in town, Live 105. While it’s impossible to track just how many signups came as a result of those spins, there was no increase whatsoever in the daily averages as a result of the spins.
Plays vs Time:
Finally, the 1,000 mark was nearly reached. In anticipation, the band’s friend and videographer Gairo put together a montage of scenes from writing, recording, and debuting the next track, “Down and Around,” live, set to a demo recording of lead singer Koley playing the song on a piano. That video hit nearly 300 plays in the first day it was out, and also drove a small spike in sign-ups, enough to cross the 1,000 threshold.
On March 12th, just under two months after the campaign started, fans received “Down and Around” via email. Since then, coupled with some increased coverage around upcoming shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, email signups have continued to grow. We’re hoping to hit the next unlocking level within another month, if all goes well. So what are the takeaways thus far?
Quality is hyperefficient — if you have a product people want, it’s far more likely to spread
Game mechanics can help growth (particularly when financial resources are tighter than content resources) even more than additional incentives
Relevance is more important than sheer number of eyes and ears when it comes to exposure
I should also note that the emphasis on email is not just for tracking purposes, as email connections are far more valuable than those made on social networks — email tends to account for about 1/3 of direct-to-fan sales, whereas even the most disproportionately large social network followings rarely sniff 20%, generally falling below 10%. These are lasting connections that a long-term artist business can be build on top of. Those extra 1,300 Facebook Fans the band picked up along the way are just icing on the cake.
Stay tuned for more details on the campaign — we have a few more tricks up our sleeves yet :)
John Loken’s blog post a couple weeks back got me thinking about a post I’ve been meaning to do for months, but have been too swamped to actually spit out. The post, titled “More Metrics Please,” is, as the title suggests, a plea for metrics on par with the TV business.
Some of this data has been collected in the past, but for various reasons (the biggest of which being the market and channel control by the majors) almost all data points beyond Soundscan and Billboard charts seem to have been ignored. Now, however, there is a perfect storm for music data: more artists than ever before, more listeners than ever before with easier access through more channels than ever before, and more technology for data collection than ever before.
Put simply: music data is both more important and more available than ever before.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, and John is not alone in asking for more data. Companies are springing up left and right to help answer her prayers. Companies like Next Big Sound, BandMetrics, and Music Metric are busy collecting third party data from around the web in single dashboards. Companies like Bandize and Artist Data are helping bands organize their own data. Companies like HypeMachineand Elbo.ws are aggregating marketing/A&R data in the form of blog and Twitter charts. Companies like Songkick and Gigulate help fans track basic concert data and music news, respectively, creating interesting data sets that are sure to surface soon.
The issue isn’t in the data collection or availability, it’s in the connecting, processing, and understanding. Like all data, the points themselves are completely irrelevant without context – a MySpace play doesn’t inherently mean anything, nor does a friend on Facebook. Data can only be understood with relevant ratios.
Connecting the data might be the biggest obstacle at the moment, but I’m hopeful that will change. It’s primarily an issue of a few major players (namely, the retail channel) not having open APIs, or sharing any of the data with the artists – when a fan buys an album on iTunes, that fan data belongs to iTunes and iTunes doesn’t want to part with it.
The other obstacle in connecting the data is the breadth to which music discovery, engagement, and purchasing have spread. You used to get your discovery metrics solely from radio numbers, your engagement metrics from concert tickets, and your purchasing metrics from Soundscan. Now discovery can span blogs, P2P, internet radio, and beyond, engagement can be a play on a blog, a MySpace page, an iPod, or anywhere else, and while record purchases are still largely covered by Soundscan, records are an increasingly small portion of the overall business picture for an artist.
Pulling all that data together is not easy, but I think it can be done as long as those collecting the data are ensuring it’s clean and are willing to make it accessible. Purchases should be easiest, as long as retail channels come around. Last.fm and Twones are handling engagement fairly well (though neither has all the necessary channels covered, by any stretch). Discovery is incredibly tough without having the engagement piece nailed – if you don’t have a view of all a fan’s engagement data, how do you know the first time/place they interacted with an artist?
Progress is coming, but only as a stream of one-dimensional data points. More radical change is needed in order to get to the ratios that are truly relevant and key to making informed business decisions. We need to be able to close the loop on fan data – how fans move down the funnel from discovery to engagement to purchasing. Knowing that you had a spike in MySpace plays around the same time you had a spike in iTunes sales shouldn’t be surprising, and is thus practically worthless (if you didn’t see a spike in sales, it would indicate a strong PR effort but not a high enough quality product for fans to take out their wallets, so the data isn’t totally worthless). Knowing that the majority of the folks who purchased your deluxe edition CD through Amazon first heard your song on Pitchfork and downloaded your EP through P2P is highly valuable.
The technology to make this happen is not expensive, nor particularly difficult to implement, with APIs and OpenID or OAuth. Thanks to the web’s ever-expanding processing power, we have far easier access to more data than ever before – it’s no longer reserved for the major corporations who can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to market research firms to run surveys. We just need to have the right technology implemented properly in order to make the data connection easier.
If we can connect all the data collection points properly, the processing isn’t horribly difficult – it’s merely implementing techniques that economists and social scientists have used for ages to slice and dice large data sets. Everyone should be able to be armchair statisticians (as Google Analytics has enabled web hosts to be), the winners will be the ones who have the deepest understanding how to find the most relevant data and take the most appropriate actions as a result.
The understanding is the place where I fear the music business will have the most catching up to do. From my personal experience, data analysis seems to be a new concept to many industry veterans. Many are excited by the prospect of data being available, but few seem to know what to do with it – it serves as little more than eye-candy, another blurry trend chart at a corporate meeting (to be fair, it’s not yet easily available in relevant and easy-to-read format without some tech savvy and excel skills). Layer on top of that the fact that people in the music business seem to be among the world’s biggest optimists, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster when it comes to biased or outright incorrect interpretation of data.
The winner of the data wars among the music startups will be the one who can provide the deepest insights, not just the most data. They will preemptively answer both questions of “What does this mean?” and “What should I do?”
The biggest winner will also have the tools to power the “What should I do?” actions. This means marketing, ecommerce, and access to relevant channels. These tools need to empower the artist, but also add value. In the end, I believe success may be measured as some variation of the following equation (would love to hear your feedback on improvements to the equation), and the winners among the startups will be the ones who can prove to consistently impact the quotient the most:
(Engagement + (Investment x Demand Generation Execution))^Quality = $$$
Note that quality is hyperefficient and falls almost entirely on the artist. Even the best data analysis in the world can’t make up for a product that doesn’t appeal. But it can tell you why your product isn’t selling as well as your competitors, and what you can do to make incremental improvements from a business perspective. And that makes data incredibly valuable, and a worthwhile pursuit — it will undoubtedly unlock a plethora of new business models for music, and allow artists to figure out their own optimal model.
This post is a re-post from July 9, 2009. These first few posts are just to populate the new blog with some relevant past content.
There’s been a great deal of debate lately around the Freemium business model that Fred Wilson helped describe (and a commenter helped name). Many take it as an inevitability, others as a bogus anddestructive force. I’m a believer, personally, but I also think it’s horribly misunderstood as a model and, frankly, not very new.
The first thing to understand is that free isn’t a business model, it’s a piece of a business model. No company, band, or person will ever make money on free. Free = $0 income. Duh.
The second thing to understand, then, is that there’s always been a piece of a business model that was value “wasted” — generating no directly measurable return. For ages, big companies have thrown empty money at marketing departments, asking them to provide the consumer with entertainment so that they might build brand equity — radio or tv was the medium, and ads were designed to pique the audience’s interest. Advertising is entertainment for an attention-wealthy consumer base.
The problem for those companies is that the attention-wealthy consumer base is dwindling as the internet (among other things) helps put a wealth of options at the consumer’s fingertips. Andy Sernovitz has one of my favorite marketing quotes of all time is “Advertising is the cost of being boring.” In an attention-scarce world, advertising is a last resort.
So what replaces advertising in the marketing department? Higher quality, more targeted content. In the music world, this means digital files or streams distributed to fans and potential fans via their chosen method online. As with any other industry, you pay for quality and convenience — you pay for cable to get more and better shows, but still get commercials; you could bypass those commercials by spending even more money on a DVR and spending the value of being among the first to watch by waiting for the program to record; you could spend more time and money to reduce commercials to a screen wipe by buying the DVDs; or you could spend more time and effort searching online and downloading the videos. All above factors being equal, experience wins: companies (read: Hulu) win when they find the right balance of quality, convenience, and monetization.
In the music industry, people began demanding the convenience of MP3s, and no content owners wanted to make them convenient or at the right price (that right price being whatever the fan thinks is fair). The content was going to get free eventually, with no cost of packaging or distribution, but “piracy” reigned as a result of the resistance of the content rights holders to provide that content conveniently and at a rate the rights holders and fans could agree upon. They didn’t realize the inverse relationship between attention and necessity for convenience, nor the shift of media for their advertising dollars from endcaps and radio promo to studio and production costs, so the fans figured it out for them. Apple has won the market to this point solely on convenience — if it weren’t for the success of the iPod, there’s no way iTunes would be the leading retailer after having clung to DRM and proprietary formats for so long.
It’s not free that’s killing businesses, it’s that free is not enough. It’s the inefficient use of free and the inability to find alternative methods of monetization.
Chester French gained tens of thousands of email addresses by giving away an entire album’s worth of content for free on their website. People were willing to exchange their contact info for the value of the mixtape, because the band made it easier than searching around on P2P networks. Most of those people went on to buy a record and/or ticket to a show, again, because they made it easy (he emailed them all a link to a page on his website) and at an appropriate price ($7.99 for digital download, $13.99 for vinyl or cd, $19.99 for vinyl or cd + tshirt + poster). They gave the fans options to self-select their level of support for his brand, and the vast majority went with one of the higher-priced options.
The only worry on an album “leaking” at this point (if anyone cares about you, it’s almost inevitable) is that you don’t make it more convenient for fans to get at a reasonable price. That price can be free (though I’d advise that if you’re making it more convenient than other sources you should at least get some contact info) or whatever the “reasonable” price you and your fans agree upon by them transacting — keep in mind many folks like to shop for deals, so convenience is only a relatively small markup. I’ve worked with anumber of artists whose albums I’ve had on my iPod even before knowing I was going to be helping “put out” the record, and all have made significant revenues off whatever delivery channels they made convenient for the fans.
Need more evidence that free is not enough? I have spent over $1500 on music in the last year, according to Mint.com (which is a severe underestimate as it doesn’t account for cash purchases nor many other music-related purchases). I have almost exactly 1500 songs in my iTunes library that have zero plays, another 1415 with one play, and 5000 total (would take 14 days to play, 35.16 gb of music) with 5 or fewer plays. I can point to maybe 5 of those bands that I’ve ever spent money on. You can give me your music, but you can’t make me listen to it.
The next stage of music, when the triviality of “free” content has passed, is getting in peoples’ ears. I’ve said before that I think a great deal of that will be through tastemakers, and that other artists (or their brands) are likely to be the most profitable tastemakers. Tastemakers add context and relevance to convenience, and should have the ability to offer content at a fair and reasonable price, and should benefit as a result of their addition of context and relevance. Currently, blogs are compensated almost solely through ad sales (and some through promotions and concerts) as a payoff for their ability to bring in eyes and ears, and precious few are even remotely profitable that way. Sites like HypeMachine and iMeem add another level of convenience (you can find almost any track you want merely by searching), and pick up affiliate fees if the user clicks through to purchase a track on iTunes or Amazon (the biggest bottom-line difference between the two being that iMeem hosts the content and thus has to pay streaming bandwidth fees and royalties, and spend their efforts on negotiations and legal battles whereas HypeMachine can innovate great, engaging, context-adding features like Twitter charts).
As new business models emerge in the music industry (all incorporating a free component as marketing), I have little doubt that more business models will emerge for tastemakers. Major labels missed their chance at retaining their status as tastemakers, and now have to earn it all over again. As they rebuild their own reputations (and I have faith they can get there), they’ll begin to start letting artists pay them to leverage their connections with the real tastemakers (as we saw today with UMG’s deal with Tunecore). Someday soon, though, those tastemakers will also have methods of monetizing their connections — and yes, free will be part of their business models too. Whomever can get people to listen has the opportunity to make money, and those who can get listeners to take actions have the greatest opportunity. Same thing goes for any business in any industry, and that’s nothing new.
The interesting piece of the puzzle is not the changes in business models, but how companies and industries adjust to the changing landscape. The underlying business principles remain the same: those who can provide the highest quality content conveniently have potential for revenue, and those who select the right business model and provide the right context for the content will wind up profiting.