He deals with changing realities in the music industry, and the strategies indie labels (though the advice applies to the major labels too) and artists will need to succeed in the face of these changes. Among his topics: The long tail, the importance of opinion leaders, and the overriding value of a great web site.
He recently completed the list, 20 “things” in all, and assembled them into an e-book which he’s offering on his site free of charge.
I read 20 Things this weekend, and two things struck me: First, how much of Andrew’s advice seems like common sense in hindsight; and second, how few artists and labels even remotely “get” the advice. Most of my musician friends fall somewhere in attitude between “if I put it on Myspace, fans will come,” and “what’s a web site?” If Andrew’s right, and I’m certain he is, my friends have no meaningful future in the industry!
20 Things is directly relevant to indie artists recording and promoting their own music, so I asked Andrew some follow-up questions on the book via email.
Hometracked: I’ll start with a quote from the book that resonated with me:
And a 30-second sample is pretty much a waste of your time and bandwidth. In fact, it’s worse than useless. That’s not enough to get them to like your music. Let them hear it, keep it, live with it. And then bring them back as a fan.
Do you recommend outright that musicians make full songs available on their web sites, rather than 30-second teasers? Should they put their whole catalog online for free?
Andrew Dubber: I think you should give it all away — but not for the reasons you might expect. That never makes me any friends, but hear me out. I don’t suggest that musicians put their livelihood on the line on a gamble that they might be able to sell music that people can already download for free. I recommend they recognise that their recordings are not the totality of their economic value. Recordings are idealised performances that show musicians in their best light. These are the best promotional tools available.
It’s entirely arbitrary that we think of songs as products and music videos as promotion. It could as easily be the other way around. More importantly, recordings are a tiny fraction of what musicians do, and yet they’re always going around creating value. It’s a profession for which most spend more years training than heart surgeons, and yet they are conditioned to believe they can only earn off one small part of what they do — and only then if they get really lucky.
The record industry has convinced the world that it is the music industry. It’s not. It’s just one bit of it. The major labels claiming to be the music industry is like the lions claiming to be the zoo. Music business is a wild and interesting place where all sorts of different people can make all sorts of different money in all sorts of different ways. But to get the punters in, you need to let them hear the music, live with it, learn to love it and become fans. Then you can have a sustainable and ongoing economic relationship with them.
And if records are the way you want to make your money, just think of it this way: it used to be that you’d press 1000 copies, give away 200 promos, and hope to sell the other 800. Now you can press 1000 copies, give away a million copies and sell the thousand.
HT: So is there any value in keeping some content behind a paywall, available to people who pay a premium or subscription fee?
If you think about this advice and then choose to put your music behind a paywall or only make it available to subscribers anyway, then you’re no doubt doing the right thing. Doing it without considering the alternatives is the mistake.
HT: In “20 things …” I’d say you blurred any distinction between music promotion and web site promotion. Will the successful artist of the future be as much SEO and web master as entertainer?
AD: I’m a big fan of clustering. Music business is overwhelmingly local, despite the few massive hits at a global level. And local music business makes its money by clustering. Local businesses who all do complementary creative things, all working together, paying each other, growing the local scene, co-promoting gigs and festivals, releasing compilations, linking to each other and using each others professional services.
Throw other creative professionals into the mix: documentary makers who need scores, games developers looking for theme music, local radio, website designers. Everyone in an organic, creative ecology. Sounds very hippy, but it’s local capitalism at its finest. Everyone makes money when everyone else makes money.
In order for that to work (and this is my point here), everyone needs to know the value of what everyone else does — and they need to know what those services are and how they work. Getting a grasp of Search Engine Optimisation lets an independent musician just starting out get a bit of a leg up into the new music economy — but once they have a bit of cash to spend, they know how valuable that is, and what to ask their local web developer for. Likewise, musicians should be educating other media professionals about the competitive edge that commissioned music services provide.
HT: That strikes me as novel and important: Not only do we musicians need to convince others that our music is good, now we also have to convince them that it has applications they may not have considered? Will we become service providers more than entertainers?
Well first, music’s far too important to just be entertainment. We’re improving lives here. I don’t care if you’re making children’s music, disposable pop, avant-garde noise music, polite dinner jazz or political acoustic folk. You’re contributing to an experience of the world in a specialised way — reshaping acoustic space, providing context, colouring in the emotions, building a personal history, emphasising an important message, and just generally contributing more to the quality of existence on the planet in five minutes than most people manage in a year.
And when you turn that into a profession, it’s a high-value service industry, whether that service is purely for casual ‘entertainment listening’ purposes or as add-ons to other media.
I’m not sure that idea is especially novel — but I think those sorts of services have been de-emphasised. With media coverage of music being almost exclusively about recordings and concerts, it’s no wonder that a whole wide range of music services that can be provided tends to get overlooked by artists looking for ways to make money. I reckon if you sat down with a piece of paper for 10 minutes, you could come up with dozens of ways to make money from music.
And these days, there’s so much more scope than ever before. The digital environment means there are more independent film makers than ever before, there are computer games and digital art installations… there are even websites with their own commissioned soundtracks. The list is pretty much endless, once you get going.
And it’s not hard to convince people that music enhances pretty much everything. People get that intuitively, I think.
HT: In the evolving music industry you describe, how important is “big label” sound in a recording?
AD: Like I said, they’re the lions insisting that they are the zoo. Because they have all the teeth and make all the noise, they’re the ones that get the attention and everyone wants to be recognised and promoted by the king of the jungle.
But actually, internet technologies pull back the curtain a bit and start to put things back in their proper perspective. I can be a professional musician and have a sustainable income for the rest of my life as a result of doing what I love — and it can happen without even recording a single song. Really.
That said, nobody’s having the lions taken out the back and shot. Record labels are massive multinational marketing firms and they’re quite good at what they do — when they remember what that is. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of them.
It’s interesting to note that of the top Fortune 100 companies listed in the 1980s, something like 85% simply don’t exist anymore. I heard that statistic this morning and went “huh…”. Anything could happen.
HT: A band tells you they have $500 to spend on promotion. How would you recommend they spend that money?
AD: $500 is branding money. Who are they? What do they represent? What is their look, their values, their logo, their font (seriously), their story? These things make it easy for everything else to line up.
If you don’t have a story, then you have no reason for local newspapers to talk about you. If they don’t have a logo or chosen font, local promoters will always list their band name in ‘Generica Bold’. You need to stand out.
Perhaps the best thing you could do, if you live anywhere near a university or college with a media programme is to give $100 to the brightest PR students for a local PR campaign — community newspapers and the like; $100 to the best graphic design students for logos, sticker, t-shirt and sleeve design for promo CDs — as well as imaging for website use; $100 to the best television students for a half decent studio performance clip you can upload to YouTube, give away on DVDs, etc; $100 for web hosting, domain name and an enthusiastic web and new media student that knows their stuff about CSS to make the most out of a WordPress-based site.
The last $100 is for new strings, drum heads, a piano tuner or whatever you need to get your work tools sounding as good as they can.
Otherwise $500 is a week off work in a rented place in the middle of nowhere so you can just practice, practice, practice. Websites are great, but a tight band goes a long way.
HT: So even though you say bands should now focus a lot of their energy on online promotion, live performances are still important. Are they any more or less important than, say, a decade ago?
More important. And less important. Statistically, more money is being spent on attending live gigs now than at any other time in history. Equally, the technology exists to have a perfectly successful career and never see another human being. Technologies don’t replace things, but they do mix the ratio up a bit. Let’s not forget, online promotion is just a tool. It’s one that wasn’t around not too long ago, so we’re still figuring out the things it’s good at and the things it isn’t so good at.
I think everyone thought that the internet meant they were no longer constrained by geography. A band in Madison, Wisconsin could have a hit in Jakarta and never even release in the US. While that might be true in principle, it’s more likely that decent online promotion will improve turnout, following and support in Madison.
HT: “20 Things…” extols the virtues of frequent web site updates. Would you recommend an artist post unpolished or unmastered work? How about works in progress?
AD: Publish everything. Scraps of ideas. Works in progress. Rehearsals. You’d be amazed at how fascinated people who aren’t musicians are by the creative process. A song that has just sprung fully formed into the air is a wonderful thing, but even more precious is the work you have seen being crafted from scratch.
People like stars to be stars, of course — but if stardom isn’t on the agenda, then people love human beings with human stories. A friend of mine once said that the best music is the sound of someone’s insides being displayed on the outside. Metaphorically, of course. But if you can participate in that process — or even just watch it take place, that’s really something special. Seeing a deer in the forest is kinda cool. Watching it being born, taking its first steps and growing up is a different experience all together.
And you can choose how much of yourself you want to reveal. The web makes you the gatekeeper. You get to decide what stays in the story and what gets cut. This is how you manage perception. But invite people in. People like to belong.
HT: You touch on the long tail a few times. I like the quote “The more easily searchable you make it, the more you will benefit at the business end.” Do you have any real-world examples of indie artists leveraging the long tail?
Indie artists ARE the long tail. The mass of music that does not register as ‘hits’ is increasingly more economically powerful as time goes on. But to leverage the long tail, you need to cooperate rather than compete. If you only promote your own stuff, then the chances of people finding you are remote. If you hang out in the sorts of places where bands like yours are enjoyed, then the chances of being stumbled upon are much, much higher. Of course, you still have to stand out in order to be memorable — but getting in the game is a great idea.
eMusic is probably the best large-scale example of independent music turning up in an environment where the people who like independent music are already spending money.
HT: The eBook is fairly comprehensive. So what’s next for newmusicstrategies.com?
The e-book is probably better titled ‘The FIRST 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online’. There are probably another 50. I’ve got a bit of paper with a couple of dozen scrawled down that I’ll return to at some stage. In the meantime, it’s back to business as usual at New Music Strategies: reporting on new developments as they happen, thinking about case studies of independent music from around the world (an Indonesian hip-hop artist starting his own label is next in line for the NMS treatment) and just generally coming up with tips and techniques for independent music business.
The 20 Things was important to get out there in some sort of comprehensive form — but it’s the tip of the iceberg.
Actually, the very next interesting thing I’m diving into is a series about time management for independent music types. The sorts of people who wear jeans and t-shirts, work till 2 in the morning, sleep till noon and are deeply suspicious of corporate speak about ‘maximising potential’ and ‘actualising goals’ — but who still want to be able to get things done and not feel overwhelmed with all the busy work all the time. Chances are, that might end up as its own e-book as well.
So — lots to carry on with then.
Thanks Andrew, for the interview, and for the great book.