This site is a blog for musicians and music industry people. It is a free educational resource and it is also the way I advertise my music consulting services. I am an entertainment professional with deep roots in the music industry. Throughout my music career I have been a major label A&R representative, a music supervisor, an artist manager, a reality show producer, a bass player and the head of a digital record label.
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Jeff Chenault is the Founder and Creative Director of Eleven07, a multi-disciplinary creative agency specializing in brand building, art direction, graphic design, photography and video content. As an art director and creative director, Jeff has designed album cover artwork and merchandise for artists in every possible genre, from heavy metal and rock, to country and jazz. Prior to forming his own company, he headed the creative departments at both Roadrunner Records and KOCH Records (now eOne Entertainment) and creatively advised labels including MCA Records and Universal. During his 20-year career in the music industry, he has worked with musicians and bands including the New York Dolls, Loretta Lynn, Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Green Day.
Jeff shared some factors bands need to consider prior to working with an art director on album covers and other merchandise as well as methods musicians can use to select the perfect designer for their projects. He also shared some tips for artists that want to create cohesive and memorable brands.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Jeff. What should every artist know about working with an art director? What homework should an artist do prior to showing up at your office?
There are a couple things. First of all, you have to remember that it’s artwork, so it’s very subjective. Sometimes bands come to be with no clue what they want. Other times, they come to me with a very specific idea of what they want. My best advice to you if you are an artist is that you need to try to give as much thought to what you might want before you have a conversation with a graphic designer or an art director.
Even after you give it a lot of thought, you might realize that you don’t really have an idea or a direction. And that is fine. But you just need to be aware of that before you get into the process of working with a designer. I’ve been in situations where artists said, “I don’t care what you do. Just give me a couple ideas and go for it.” And then I started heading down that road, and it turned out they did have some preconceived ideas, and what I came up with was not at all what they wanted. I need to know what an artist is thinking so I can try to avoid the potholes that can be part of the creative process.
Be as descriptive and informative as you can, even if that means just mentioning a color you don’t like or an adjective that describes a vibe you would like the artwork to convey. For instance, words like “dark” and “moody” will send you down an entirely different path than words like “bright” and “bold.” Both of those avenues could potentially work depending upon what the music sounds like. Just try to formulate some creative thoughts and ideas and some words and give your designer as much ammunition as you can come up with, so he can distill it down and create something really special.
And this goes without saying: You need to get your music to the designer as well, because often it’s easy to pull descriptive information out of the music or the lyrics. In general, you want to make sure your designer has any materials about your band that might inspire him/her as an artist.
You’ve just described the creative side of the process. What about the commerce side? Clearly, you’ve dealt with bands who are trying to actually sell products. Are there best practices to keep in mind, especially now that album artwork shows up as a thumbnail on iTunes, etc.?
It’s interesting you bring that up, because that exact issue has really become an important factor to a lot of people when it comes to creating artwork. Because, like you said, a lot of people today are seeing a very small version of album artwork on a computer screen before they see any other version of it. Making something work in that type of format didn’t used to be as much of a consideration. Before the iTunes era, really well-established bands were much less concerned about how big their name was on an album or how legible their logo was. The bands that the labels were trying to break as new artists were the ones that wanted and needed to have the artist name appear very prominently.
Now, because of iTunes and other similar stores, a lot of bands, big and small, specifically say, “We want the artist’s name to be as big as possible.” I understand where that very pragmatic thought process. But at the same time, the artwork is so small on iTunes that no matter how big the artist’s name is on the cover, it’s never truly legible.
I’m very conscious of marketing and of being somebody who creates work that is commercially viable. But I think sometimes the thumbnail detail can be over-thought a little bit. Because, when you’re on iTunes, you typically have to read the artist’s name and the album title that is written below the album cover anyway, because the album covers themselves are just so incredibly small.
Everybody has a different take on this issue. In my experience, people at labels get a little more hung up on it than bands. I see both sides of it, so I just try to accommodate what the artist or the label wants. If somebody is really adamant about making sure their name is visible on a thumbnail in iTunes, I’ll make it work. I want to make sure my clients are happy with the work I do, but I think sometimes that can be detrimental to a good idea. It’s a delicate balance.
You’re very cognizant of marketing when creating album artwork. And obviously, because you have been part of the creative team at labels and now have your own company, you have a lot of experience when it comes to branding. What do you see artists doing wrong or right when it comes to creating a cohesive brand, especially now that they have to communicate that brand not only through their album cover artwork, but also through all their social media channels, their website, etc.?
I’m a big fan of continuity. I don’t want to go so far as to say that as a band, you need to pick one logo and then use it for the rest of your life. In my opinion, music fans’ attention spans are so short, and they are being bombarded with so much information that if, during the course of one record, you have three or four completely different-looking images out there with a couple different ways your band’s name is being presented – whether the difference be the entire logo or just a typeface – that’s going to be really confusing to people. It’s not going to stick.
For each record, you have to pick a vibe, a logo and a type treatment for the album. When you lay all the pieces out on a table or see them all up on a wall, they need to come together visually into a cohesive campaign. And I use the word “campaign” a lot with my clients. For example, you don’t want to have an album cover that is black and then sell a t-shirt that is pink with a different logo. I see a lot of young bands making a bunch of different t-shirts with five different logos for their band. Visually, this is confusing. And when you’re a small band, especially, you’re trying to break through and get people to notice and then remember you. Nobody is going to remember you if every time they see you, you look different.
David Byrne said, “People will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit.”
Exactly. He’s obviously a perfect example of that, especially with the work he did in the mid-80s. Maybe it feels boring to create pieces that look the same, but it’s just one record – so, a year of everything looking the same. And it really does seem to work. Just think about branding down to the smallest detail: Use the same colors, the same font and make sure your band photo – if you’re using a color photo – has colors that work with the album cover and other merchandise. Try to create a real theme and put it everywhere. If people see that theme enough, it will stick in their minds.
And how do you recommend people go about selecting an art director to help them create this theme?
There are a lot of factors to consider there. I think, first of all, you need to connect with the designer’s previous work and really like the look of the projects he/she has done. But the ultimate consideration is how well you work together. So, you need to get the person on the phone, talk and see if you gel. I’ve worked with a lot of artists who I knew were just on my same wavelength right away; within the first 30-minute conversation, there was an energetic flow and a vibe. There needs to be an unspoken camaraderie, whether you and the designer use the initial ideas you come up with together or go with something different … or whether you even have initial ideas at all or are going to that designer with nothing specific in mind.
Then, there are the more practical issues. You have to obviously find someone you can afford. And sometimes that can be challenging. I have a very broad spectrum of people I work with. Record labels can pay X amount, whereas jazz artists making their own CDs at Disc Makers will have a much, much smaller budget. If the designer is interested and has time to work with you, you should push ahead.
The other thing I would say is, as a band, you need to be as flexible as possible. If you have very little money, try to give the designer a lot of time and creative freedom, which will make the designer more likely to be able to justify doing the work for less. And on a slightly different note, if you need the work very quickly, you need to be able to pay for that speed. If, as a band, you are flexible about what you bring to the table, often it will work out well for you.
Going back to the creative aspect, another piece of advice I have is, try to have an opinion. A lot of bands don’t. Your designer is trying to read your mind, take inspiration from you and create something that is going to properly portray your music in a commercial and artistic way. So, you need to have a strong opinion about how you see your band. And make sure all the band members and anyone else working with the band are all on the same page. If there’s a label, manager, etc. – other people not in the band that will have an opinion – you need to get those people involved early on in the process. You don’t want to go down one road and then discover that the label or somebody else is not on board with the idea after the designer has already fleshed it out.
Also, be open-minded during the creative process. You may have an idea that you’ve been talking about for a month. But remember that your designer is a creative person; this is what they do for a living. You may end up going with the original idea you had, but let your designer throw a few things out at you. What the designer comes up with may expand your original idea or give you something that is absolutely perfect for what you’re trying to accomplish.
To learn more about Jeff Chenault and the creative work he does with musicians, visit the Eleven07 website.
(And the Other Top 4 Reasons Your Email Isn’t Being Returned)
This is a re-post of an article originally published April 14, 2011. In honor of some truly lousy emails I have received lately, I felt now was the perfect time to run it again.
I am a big believer in doing as much legwork on your own as you possibly can before reaching out to music industry executives. That being said- there comes a time in every artist’s career where they are going to have to approach someone in the industry to get to that proverbial next level. Let me assure you that there is a right way of doing this … and several wrong ways of doing this. Sadly, many artists repeatedly write emails that go right into the trash because of very basic mistakes that can be easily avoided.
Obviously the first and most basic rule of the approach is “Don’t approach someone with a cold email if you can avoid it;” knowing someone who knows the person you are trying to get in touch with can help a great deal. However, I realize that going in with a strong referral isn’t always an option. Consider the top 5 suggestions below when you’re putting together your next cold email.
1) Form Letters
Sure, you may be able to get your message out to hundreds or even thousands of people. But if people feel like you are sending them a form letter (don’t confuse this with a newsletter – that’s a whole other blog post) about a specific need or a desired business relationship, then it’s over. No one likes to feel like they are just a name on a list. And speaking of names on a list, sending an email to yourself and cc-ing rather than bcc-ing everyone won’t win you any favors from people who hold positions where both bot-generated and musician-generated spam mail comes with the territory.
It is perfectly acceptable to cut and paste part of a letter to a certain type of executive, but at least take the time to customize the first few sentences and address them by name. Also, let the person you are contacting know specifically why you are contacting them. What makes you think you are a good fit for what they do and why? Let’s just say you are looking to approach a blogger. Saying something like, “I just read your story on this other artist and I really like the way it was written. I thought that since you liked what they do you might appreciate my new single…” is much more likely to get a response than a press release about your new product addressed to no one in particular.
2) Poor Presentation
This is so common it boggles the mind. I often get emails from people in which their names are not obvious from the email address and not included in the “from” field by their email program. On top of that, they don’t bother to introduce themselves or put any kind of signature indicating who they are or where they are from. From my vantage point, I am getting a message from SlappyMcJellyPants@Yahoo.com. The rest of the email had better be stellar (or at least very funny) for me to consider responding.
*As a side note, I’m damn easy to get a hold of. I am in the business of selling music marketing services so it is part of my job to be as reachable as possible. That said, it isn’t hard to tell from presentation who is taking their career and image seriously and who is not. If there are people out there who are having trouble getting a hold of me, then they can forget about people who are really difficult to contact cold like A&R people, Music Supervisors and music journalists. *
Another huge issue in presentation is spelling and grammar. Look, I’m no grammar Nazi and I would be completely lost without spell check, but reaching out to a stranger for help and then sending them what looks more like a text to your girlfriend is probably not a great idea. This all might sound silly, but I have found a huge correlation between the way people present themselves on email and how together their career is, and I respond to emails in order of the likelihood that I am dealing with someone who is serious (and willing to work!)
Lastly on the presentation front: Saying you have talent is meaningless. Executives hear this all day long. The best thing you can do to get someone’s attention is to make a concentrated effort on your pitch prior to crafting any email and running it by friends and peers that can be honest with you. What turns my head is not when people talk about their talent, but when they describe the achievements that they have earned with their talent. Are you drawing well or playing with more established artists? Are you working with anyone who has great credits? Did you win a local contest? Do you have a ton of social media followers and an obvious dialogue with fans online? Do you have a mailing list with a ton of people on it? These are the things that will get people’s attention.
3) Lack of Research
You can much more easily begin a personal relationship with someone when you have specifics about their job function and their professional history. With blogs, Linkedin and any of the other resources available online these days there is no excuse not to have a good understanding of what people have done in the past and on which projects they have worked. Knowing these things can go a long way in adding a personal touch to the email you are sending someone. I am always flattered that people took the time to read about me before reaching out. Admittedly I’m usually annoyed when people don’t bother to read anything and just ask for help without knowing who I am or what I do. And in my case, all that information is provided in a link right next to the contact link. I get intoxicated calls on my Google Voicemail at 3am on a Sunday from people wanting a record deal (from me … even though I don’t run a label) or want me to manage them (I don’t manage artists). My favorite call to date was someone asking for Jay-Z’s phone number (which I still don’t have) and then offering me 50% of the guaranteed collaboration that would result from me giving it to him.
Beyond the research on any one individual though it is important that you also research understand the mindset of a person who is the gatekeeper (Music supervisors, A&R people, Publishers, major journalists etc.) of big opportunities. Firstly, they can’t possibly return all the correspondences or listen to all of the music they get. Secondly – and this is especially true with big organizations – virtually no one executive makes 100% of the decision about a song getting placed in a movie, getting a major write up in a big magazine or getting someone signed to a record label or publisher. Damn near every executive these days has a boss, a client or someone else who guards the purse strings to contend with before pulling the trigger on a decision that could really help your career as an artist. The second part of the job is important to note also, because the easiest part of a gatekeeper’s job is getting in a steady flow of music to pick from. The hardest part of a gatekeeper’s job is keeping a gatekeeper job. It’s easy to think of these people as people who sit around listening to music all day on a pedestal and then giving a Ceasar-esque thumbs up or thumbs down. The politics and juggling involved with keeping everyone happy internally and making sure your external relationships are sound in case you are out of a gig (there is a high turnover rate with creative jobs like this) are almost full-time jobs in and of themselves. Long story short, like these people or hate them, it’s important to know before you approach them that they are often pretty stressed out.
4) Unreasonable Expectations
The next time you go out on a first date… or hell, the next time you encounter someone attractive from a distance, you should briskly walk up to them, say “Hello my name is _____,” and while heading towards them at an uncomfortable pace (preferably without letting them reply to your hello), you should attempt to French kiss them. This is actually best done when starting with your tongue fully extended from a distance of 20 yards or more at a full sprint.
* Editor’s note: Actually, don’t try this. I am not responsible for the whiplash, broken jaw or harassment suits that may follow if you do*
Now you might be thinking, “Wow that was unexpected/inappropriate/ scary…” Yes, indeed. It is. What is my point? Well, my point is that bluntly asking for a huge favor, a contract, a partnership, a record deal or any other lasting business relationship from a stranger in a first email is equally inappropriate (although admittedly it is considerably less creepy). I can’t tell you how many emails I get without any information, background or even someone’s name that say something to the effect of “Help! I am really talented and I need you to manage me.” Not that I manage people, but if I did, would I want to partner with someone who was willing to blindly decide that I was the one to guide their career without having met me or had a phone call? Boundaries, people!
Those are some extreme examples obviously, but the real point is, take your time to get to know someone and what they do. Breaking the ice with an email never instantly leads to a partially executed contract on your doorstep. It’s supposed to lead to building a relationship and getting someone to take you seriously enough to give your material their time and attention.
5) Undefined Goals
Vague emails are really hard to respond to. A very common request I get (and I’m sorry, I know I reference this a great deal) is about “getting to the next level”. Do I understand in a general way what it means? Sure. Do I know specifically what people mean by that and what they need or if I am a good fit for getting these people to said next level? No, I don’t have a clue.
Before asking someone else, make sure that you have clearly defined your goals. Many people respond with knee-jerk responses like, “I want a publishing deal,” or “I need a booking agent.” It’s important to break down these wants into what most people actually mean. What people forget is that for every brilliant partnership, there are plenty of lousy ones. And many of the lousy ones result from people not taking the time to really think through their needs and desires.
When you say, “I need a publishing deal,” do you mean, “I would like…” (‘cause really, people – we need food, water, shelter and good health; lighten up). Don’t you really mean, “I want someone to help me get my music placed in film and TV and arrange collaborations and co-writes with other artists I like and respect”? Maybe it means something else to you. But whatever it means to you, write it out for yourself. Be specific without making a plan that hinges on the participation of a person or a business to which you don’t have access.
Of course, it need not apply to only publishing deals; it can be for whichever goals you have for yourself. One of the most encouraging things you can do in the eyes of a gatekeeper is to demonstrate that with or without their help, you are making progress in getting where you want to go.
I realize I am no longer a gatekeeper but I certainly sat behind a desk where dreams went to die for many years. Still – if you would like to check out a more current A&R person’s vantage point on the approach check out my interview with Jason Jordan VP of A&R at Hollywood Records – here.
Marty Maidenberg is an independent marketing and management executive with over 25 years in the music business. He got his start in the industry right out of college, when he took a job at PolyGram Records as a publicist, working his way up over the course of 12 years to a position as Senior Vice President of Marketing and Creative Services. Eventually, he moved onto Epic Records/Sony Music, where he was the Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, directing marketing efforts for international signings. In 2001, he co-founded S-Curve Records, which he helped shape into the #1 independent label. S-Curve sold over 10 million albums in its first two years of operation and joined forces with EMI Music. Marty continued to work as General Manager for S-Curve/EMI until becoming the full-time manager of Joss Stone for six years. As Stone’s manager, he joined forces with Sanctuary Group Management and continued to help her establish her career as a multi-platinum artist and producing all her performances at live events, including the Super Bowl, Oprah Winfrey, The Today Show, PBS’ Kennedy Center Honors, among many others. During this time, Marty was also part of the management team for Elton John, working through Twenty-First Artists, a division of the Sanctuary Group. After serving five more years as Chief Operating Officer of S-Curve from 2007-2012, he began his own marketing and managing consulting business, which he has been running for the past year.
I had the opportunity to talk to Marty about the evolution of the music industry during the past 20 years and what both developing and established artists should be doing to market themselves in the current climate. He also shared some tips for artists that want to develop a strong brand and build sustainable music careers.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Marty. How did your career in music get started?
I graduated college with a degree in business and communications and got a job at PolyGram Records in the publicity department. I worked my way up at PolyGram over a 12-year period until I ended up heading both marketing and publicity there. When that company was taken over by Universal Music, I went to Sony and ran their international marketing department for a few years.
Eventually, I decided to go out on my own and started S-Curve Records. While I was there, I worked with a lot of developing artists and some established artists. But one of the biggest developing artists I worked with was Joss Stone, whom I worked with from the ages of 14-20. She actually asked me to be her manager after being her marketing representative for several years. From there, I went to Elton John’s management company and worked with both Joss and Elton.
That ran its course, and I ended up going back to S-Curve Records and was the COO there for around four years. I just left there last year to start my own marketing and managing consulting business, which I have been doing for about the past year.
You’re in a situation where you’re working with many established and aspiring artists, so you get to see people at many different stages of their careers. Have you found that there some things people really could be doing on their own to advance their career that they aren’t paying attention to? I would imagine there are some very basic elements that people could be handling but are not.
There are. And the things people are missing are basic things, but also based on misconceptions among both established artists and developing artists.
People who don’t have a lot of experience and are managing their own career for the first time seem to have this idea that one or two big items or promotions will make a career. I can’t tell you how many people who have come to me and said, “How can we get into an iPod commercial or a movie?” Licensing and television inclusion is the hot thing of the moment. And what people don’t realize is that sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t. Most of the time, it ends up just being background music. It’s very rare that one promotion or link to an artist’s music is going to inspire people to go out and buy it and establish that artist’s career.
People aren’t necessarily aware that in today’s marketplace – while everyone is talking about how easy it is for people to be promoted online and through social media – that all these available tools have diluted their marketing efforts. There’s not any one placement, one TV show, promotion or review in Rolling Stone magazine that is going to make or break someone’s career. Having a solid career is about a series of events and being credible, because, in this day and age, if you’re not credible, people can find out online. I think that’s what damns a lot of people: When people find out an artist is a produced entity that can’t really perform.
There has to be a measure of honesty to what you’re doing as an artist, because our lives are all much more accessible than they have ever been before. The side effect of that is that if you’re not truthful and are trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, or if you’re trying to use your music as a commodity rather than something you want to do as a real career, people will find out. And that’s not going to come across very well.
So, to go back to your question, “What don’t people do that they should be doing?” I think a lot of people don’t stay true to who they are as musicians and kowtow to whatever the trend is, who is at the top of the charts or whatever has just broken through. We can’t all have a song on Grey’s Anatomy that works and turns into a hit. Efforts have to be well thought out, and the music can’t exist in a vacuum. So, when someone hears a song on Grey’s Anatomy, they also need to see that the band or the artist is on tour and that there is an album of material that is solid and not just around the one song. I think as an artist, you also have to string these disparate elements together to create critical mass for someone who is going to take his/her money and actually point, click and buy what you have to offer above the thousands upon thousands of other records, albums and songs that are out there. You have to give people a reason to hear your music, want your music.
To sum it all up simply, I think the biggest misconception among artists is that old idea that being a musician is easier than it actually is, and that there’s not a lot of work that has to go into the marketing or promotion of their music. It used to be, “Get a song on the radio, and you’ll sell albums.” We all know that doesn’t work anymore. And it certainly isn’t, “Get your song in a movie, and it will explode” either. Some people still think that’s the way it works.
I find that so much of music marketing goes way beyond the music; it’s also about persona, culture, etc. Are there things people should be thinking about before going out and hiring a marketing consultant like yourself to help them break their band, even if they’re doing it on their own?
I think there are a couple of answers to that question. Before you decide to “market” yourself, the best thing you can do is have a firm idea of who you are. It’s similar to what might happen when you go in for a job interview. If someone asked you, “What do you want to do?” you might say, “I want to do A&R. I like artists.” That’s a broad generality. There is a similar problem when an artist is asked by a marketing professional, “What kind of music do you like?” and that artist says, “Oh, I like everything. I can do a little bit of pop, rock, whatever.” Marketing is about knowing who you are before you set out to manufacture who you are.
A lot of people come to the table and say, “I’ll do whatever it takes.” But that doesn’t work 99% of the time. There has to be some sort of credibility and honesty about what you’re bringing to the table. And that only comes from knowing who you are, what your tastes are and what your talents are. You can’t come to me as a marketer or a manager and say, “Make me an artist.” You have to know what it is that you are looking for.
And a music career has to be something you’re passionate about, because, this is a hard business that’s going to take its toll on you. And there are going to be so many more places down the line where you will have to compromise your vision and idea for the sake of commerce. You shouldn’t start out sacrificing who you are or compromising on who you are before you need to. It takes a strong personality to withstand this industry, both as an artist that is not successful and an artist that is successful. They each come with their responsibilities. You have to be ready to work and work on something that you’re going to be passionate about.
Part of your gig as a freelance marketing executive is making sure all the parts come together and there’s a schedule and a plan. I think there are so many misconceptions people have and so many mistakes they make when they are releasing a record, marketing or on tour. Are there basic steps people should think about when they are putting up music online to sell, etc. and organizing a campaign?
I think timing is the most important thing. So many people finish an album or an EP and want to put it up online, then figure they’ll promote it after the fact. But once you put something up online, the clock starts ticking. If it’s not a new product or something that has come out with a lot of heat around it, you’re not going to generate what you need to generate in terms of ears to listen to your music. There has to be a reason for people to listen to it. If you look at iTunes, you’ll see there are so many songs and albums that come out each week. There used to be over 10,000 albums a year released when the major label system was king. Now anyone can do it.
In terms of timing, you have to realize that there are sales programs going on at a certain time of year. Your song or album can’t come out in a vacuum where you are not on the road or able to promote it. You also shouldn’t send a song to radio at a time that can’t help you get to critical mass.
I know a lot of new artists will throw out records in November or December, not realizing that all the big companies are putting out their grand slam artists for the holidays.
And those are basic mistakes that, if you don’t know the business or the industry, you just need to make. The reasoning behind that for new artists is there are more people buying music in the fourth quarter. But they don’t realize that while people are buying more music, there are also more releases and more high profile releases. And that means less space for you and less of a presence wherever you are, which means a diluted marketing effort. If you go on The Tonight Show, that’s just one thing, and it’s gone in a day. It’s no longer the case where a Saturday Night Live appearance will sell records for you. If you look at every artist that’s been on Saturday Night Live this year, very few have seen significant sales bumps after their appearance. And that’s because of the dilution of the market, the number of albums and artists out there.
You can’t have the tail wag the dog and say, “I have a product. I’m going to put it out and then figure out how to get people interested in it.” You really have to build steam ahead of time and get people interested not only in the product, but also in you. That way, when the time comes, if there are nibbles and bites where you see spikes in interest, you can actually go and support that. You can play live for people, tour, do publicity and interviews and understand what you’re talking about rather than just be giddy that you have an album coming out. Because, it will come out and go away, just like the thousands of other records that came out last month. If Rihanna has an album out, she’s not helping you because more people are looking at iTunes; she’s taking time and space away from you and attracting the attention of people that could be listening to your album or watching your videos.
Marketing is about competition. And it’s about business practices with sales programs. It used to be the case that as an artist, you’d get an ad in the Best Buy circular, and your sales would go up 40-50 percent. That doesn’t happen anymore. And right now, the brick-and-mortar retailers like Best Buy or Target will only take your album if you can guarantee a certain number of sales. Target won’t take albums that sell less than 10,000 units. And who does that, except for superstars?
You have to realize that every other artist is in competition with you. And you have to win other people on the inside of the business over first, like promoters, agents, etc. And then you move onto utilizing all those people in harmony with each other to get your message out to people. You can’t start with the premise, “The people are going to love me, and this music is so good, it’s just going to work.” If that were the case, there wouldn’t be so many extremely talented people who just fell by the wayside.
You are someone who was successful in the traditional record label system and continues to be successful today in the digital era. Can you point to ideas from the traditional label system that people are still clinging to that just no longer hold water?
I think some of the major labels are slow to come around to new ways of thinking. There are people that have been in this business for 15, 20 or 25 years that are either not up to date on the digital arena or don’t understand how damaged the brand of the major label is. It’s no longer about signing artists to multi-album deals; it’s about signing artists with multi-platform revenue streams. That’s why I think a lot of the large companies who have these contracts with artists that are for three or four albums are suffering. They’re not flexible enough to adapt to selling singles, which is the way the market is going right now.
In a way, we’ve gone back to the 1950s, where singles are a lot more important to people than albums. Every ten singles sold represents one album. If you look at someone like Katy Perry, in the old paradigm, she would be a mid-level success. She’s sold about five or six million records. Back in the day, someone with five or six #1 songs off one album would’ve sold 10, 12 or 15 million records. Katy Perry has sold millions and millions of singles.
I think when as an artist, you say, “I just want to sell singles,” it contributes to the commercialization of your product. Then it cannibalizes on the other end the fact that you might not be credible and might be a one-song wonder. Carly Rae Jepsen is a great example. She had a huge song and sold lots of singles. You’d think the album would come out and sell tremendously. It hasn’t.
In the current climate, there’s a disposable element that’s around now that is being embraced by the old school, because that’s what makes money. There’s not a lot of focus on albums and careers at the major labels, or by people that used to do artist development. I think that’s a lot of the reason the music industry is suffering: There aren’t a lot of artists out there who are looking at their careers; they are looking at a record. I think if you want to look toward making it and doing what you want to be doing for the long haul, you need to look at your career and make sure you’re lined up and running your business in a way that makes you sustainable.
To learn more about Marty Maidenberg and the work he does, check him out on Facebook.
Ben Maitland-Lewis is the CEO and Founding Alchemist of Indie Ambassador, a collection of entrepreneurs with backgrounds in music, business technology and marketing who help artists of all shapes and sizes navigate the ever-changing modern music industry. Indie Ambassador is also the creator of the mobile press kit app Presskit.to. Ben started playing instruments when he was six-years old and is a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston. He officially began his career as a performer in the U.S. and Europe before working with the head of A&R at Columbia Records. While at Berklee, he managed the Northeast retail marketing initiatives for Sony/BMG Music Entertainment, helping design award-winning campaigns for artists such as Modest Mouse, Bruce Springsteen, My Morning Jacket and Incubus. In 2004, he founded an artist development and management company that went on to release 23 records, a full-length rockumentary DVD, and won a couple of Boston Music Awards. In 2008, Ben and his then co-op student, Chris Cave, teamed up to build Indie Ambassador, a forward thinking music tech company, dedicated to building tools that make the lives of creative professionals easier and more sustainable.
I talked to Ben about how he came to found Indie Ambassador, and what the company’s press kit tool Presskit.to can do for artists trying to build relationships with their fans and music industry professionals. He also delivered some advice about important steps artists need to take to be successful once they have well-crafted press kits.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Ben. How did you get into the music business, and what led you to found Indie Ambassador?
I’ve been in music my entire life. Both my parents were entrepreneurs and also really had a passion for music. They encouraged me to go fully into it. So, I started playing instruments when I was about six-years old. My uncle is a very successful conductor in Europe and works with the Vienna Philharmonic and runs the Johann Sebastian Bach Institute. I grew up around him, shadowing a lot of classical music in Europe.
Eventually I started getting into playing in bands in California. I played with Incubus on their Science tour playing drums in a band called Phallus. It was really exciting, not only being a drummer in a band, but also handling all the marketing, distribution and everything else that needed to get done to run the band.
It was during high school that I got really serious about being part of the music industry. I started touring a lot with my band out there and then volunteering for things like Tom Whalley’s Warner Bros fundraising events, etc. I just started getting involved a little bit more. At that time, I also got involved with the Berklee College of Music summer program.
I graduated from high school in 2000, and had been accepted to Berklee, but decided to take two years off between high school and college, because I was touring, happy and managing my band, which was doing well and had become really well-known regionally in Southern California. Finally, Berklee called and said they wanted me to come and check in or re-apply. I took off and came to Boston with the intention of just going for one semester and then returning to California to keep touring, just so I could keep my spot at Berklee.
During the first semester, I flew back to California three times. But my band had diminished, and we weren’t playing well, partially because I was gone so often. Meanwhile, back in Boston, I was in an environment that had 4,000 musicians in a city, and 450,000 college students and was really growing. So, I decided I would stay in Boston and start writing all the label heads in L.A. and said, “I am a first-semester student at Berklee, studying music business. And I would love to work for you.”
By chance/fluke/opportunity, I heard back from the assistant to Tim Devine, who was the head of A&R for Columbia. I started working directly for him and his executive assistant, who originally had told me there were no openings when she called. But I noticed she had an English accent, and asked her where she was from. I had actually gone to school in England for a while, because my father is English. I turned it into a conversation, then finally said, “I’m going to be in L.A. in a few weeks … do you mind if I pop by?” I actually had no intention of going to L.A., and I didn’t think she would bite, but she did. So, when I got off the phone with her, I booked a flight to L.A.
That is exactly the type of story that is inspiring for people that want to get into the music industry to hear.
I remember initially being laughed at, because I showed up in a suit and tie with my portfolio of show posters, and no one wears a suit and tie at a label unless you’re part of the security staff or work in the legal department. But I walked out with the gig assisting Tim Devine and his team.
So, I went back to Boston and convinced the head of the business department at Berklee to let me do this. I hadn’t even taken a business class yet. But thankfully they honored this internship I got at Columbia Records.
After my internship was over, Tim called New York and got me a gig working for the college department at Sony Music. I ended up taking over as the college marketing rep for Sony in Boston during only my second semester at Berklee. I ran all the campaigns for all the college artists for those four years all around Boston. Because there are 40-50 colleges there, it has a great college radio market and a great retail market. That took me from about 2002, when I started college, to 2005, when I graduated.
Before I graduated, I started an artist development and management company called Sidehatch Entertainment Group. We were around for four years, and during that time, we accomplished a lot and had a great time. Simultaneously, from 2005-2008, I was promoted to the New England Retail Marketing Director for Sony BMG. So, I was running the entertainment company, playing in bands and doing all the retail for Sony. I was doing as much as I could and reinvesting all the money I made from Sony into my private endeavors, which were expanding and growing.
In 2007, my first co-op student, Chris Cave joined me from Northeastern. We were managing my artist roster for Sidehatch, with five artists in Boston and two in Los Angeles. All of them were gigging a lot, and some of them were actually making some money. But we were turning the money they created and reinvesting it right back into the artists, not really taking a cut. It was much more about the artist and getting a career going for those guys, so we could build a company and support system around them as well as ourselves.
I realized I didn’t have the tools I needed to do everything I could do to support my artists. That is when Chris – who is my co-Founder – and I started Indie Ambassador. We wanted to step away from artist management and build tools that would allow musicians to help build sustainable careers for themselves. We basically discovered we were better at teaching bands how to look at their bands and run them like businesses. We wanted people in the creative industry as a whole to be more independent and in control of their own careers. And we wanted to be able to introduce the tools that would help make that possible.
Now, we just released our first product, and we’re still developing a lot more. I’m still playing in a band, and we host a monthly panel in Boston and continue to contribute to the music world and its future development.
As someone who has successfully played in bands for a while now, from a business perspective, what do you think people who are actually making a living at creating music are doing that those that have fallen by the wayside are not?
My favorite band of all time is NOFX. They’ve been independent for almost their entire career. They have put out their own material and have been able to work on their own timeline, because their whole career path is dictated by the fans they have, not perceived markets or any of those other factors. And they’ve been around since 1983, putting out new material, touring and going strong.
NOFX and some other artists had the opportunity to get onto one of those major label waves during the time when major labels had budgets to put albums out and were able to put out some records and be successful. But then NOFX managed to survive the consolidation of the early 2000s and were able to go back to being independent, whereas some other artists did not. They got lost in the mix, got their rights shelved or sold and were limited by restrictions put on them by agreements they made.
I still see a lot of bands that have the goal of getting on a label and selling their rights. And I’m not saying that labels don’t have a place in this world at all; I just see too many garage bands shooting for a label right away without putting the steps into place and without seeing all the opportunities that the Internet has granted them to grow their fan base and market their music on their own first. They want a major record label deal before they’ve even cultivated solid relationships with fans or used social media to position their brand in a way that will allow them to build a brand in a lifestyle-driven society.
We’re in a very interesting and exciting time right now, and I’m excited to be contributing with some technology that we think is going to help. We understand that it is very noisy already in the music tech space, and we’re not looking to add more confusion to that noise. We just want to simplify things for artists. The talent is out there. And musicians aren’t going anywhere. Opportunities to make money are more plentiful than ever before. But they just exist in smaller increments.
The idea of musicians building up their careers organically is really interesting. There are a lot of “X Factors.” When you described NOFX, you described a band that is completely fan focused rather than industry focused, which I think is – even in the Digital Age where it is more necessary than ever – becoming rarer and rarer.
I had a conversation with some people recently who asked me, “Who do I call to get myself somewhere?” And I told them it wasn’t about that. It’s about who you get to your show that isn’t already inundated with too much music and doesn’t listen to it for a living, which is the situation that industry professionals are in at this point.
You’ve proven by citing the example of NOFX that this tactic of getting more people who are passionate about your music to your shows contributes to success directly. And you’ve identified that people rushing towards a major label without doing their homework doesn’t necessarily provide long-term results either. It has always seemed to me that, for the most part, artists that put in real time have lasted longer than those that get signed with a major label and have their songs thrown at radio with their fingers crossed.
And there are so many strategies you can use now as an artist – from promotion, to publicity, to merchandising and even blogging. Most bands have a good handle on social media and on engaging with their fans through Twitter and Facebook, because that’s what they have had to use every day. But where they are all starting to fall short is in representing themselves as well as possible within the professional landscape.
I get a lot of emails from bands that have four, five or six links to social media sites and ask me to discover their brand on my own and hope I will interpret it correctly. I certainly catch myself doing this as well.
One of the things we are trying to do with Indie Ambassador is make sense of all the great tools that help bands connect with fans, venues, etc. and help artists communicate with people who can actually get them opportunities for exposure.
That brings me to your product, Presskit.to. What have you built, why did you build it and how does it work?
When we started building Indie Ambassador, we wanted to build a tool that put transparent financial management, tour routing logistics and direct-to-fan marketing and merch fulfillment all on a mobile device. Chris and I had no technology experience or product development experience. We failed miserably in the first couple years, multiple times, but it was a learning experience.
Finally, we found a new developer who helped us change our development method into one that was more agile. In January of this year, we took what we learned from our mistakes and through the panel we’d been co-producing monthly in Boston called “Rock Shop,” which we put on with Kevin Hoskins (Rogue /BostonShowlist.com) and Steve Theo (Pirate! Promotion) and started over.
We’ve always been completely self funded and bootstrapped. We’ve been able to stay afloat for the last few years while we figured out the development of our product by playing music ourselves and also by doing marketing with Antler Agency for Wilco, Dispatch, Newport Folk Festival, Jazz Festival and launching some liquor brands through artist sponsorships.
Through the work we were doing with the Rock Shop panel, we noticed that artists have their information spread throughout the Net, through Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, media sites, and outdated websites. And they don’t have it formatted for mobile. We also noticed that journalists, writers, promoters and radio guys were getting emails with seven or eight links in it and were being asked to go do all the research themselves and find the right bios, etc. And artists just had to hope that these people were inspired enough by what they saw and heard to do their jobs properly.
We wanted to create something that would help guide these people and simplify the process. Through Presskit.to, we wanted to revisit the traditional press kit and re-envision it for the music entrepreneur and to help consolidate all their best media into a nice, clear deliverable that is responsive and will work on any device with no limitations. We wanted to have everything linked – SoundCloud, Vimeo, YouTube, etc., which are just a few of our third-party integrations. The product we came up with has a clean URL that is free of slashes or brands. So, your band will have a URL of just PressKit.to/”NameofBandorProject.” You can manage all the identities initiatives or projects under one roof, which cuts out a lot of the fat. We’ve created a mobile solution that is geared towards communication between artists, music professionals, journalists and writers.
In terms of cost, Presskit.to is subscription based. It has a free plan, which gets you one mobile press kit. And for a limited time, you can sign up for $1.99 per month, to get the pro plan that allows you to create up to ten different press kits with public/private sharing, extra storage and a bunch of different features.
And why would an artist need multiple press kits?
The reasons are twofold. You might be creating press kits for yourself and have a lot of different things happening. For example, you personally might have a press kit for Musician Coaching, which has all the things you have going on and all the placements you’ve received. Then, you could have one for your band. And you might need one also for a consulting gig you do on the side or for one of your specific consulting clients.
If you’re in a band, you might need one for the record and one for the tour. We have bands right now that have even split up their their tours into different press kits. We have a client that has created separate press kits for their U.S., Australia, Chinese, Japanese and European tours, so they can deliver it to the different venues, which might have different requirements depending on the country in which they’re located.
And you’d want to stress a different set of highlighted accomplishments, depending on whether you’re going to a music supervisor, a record producer, a booking agent or a journalist.
There are other companies that have products similar to yours within the music space, like ReverbNation, Sonicbids, etc. What sets your product apart from your competitors?
I’m actually excited that there are a lot of options out there. Panos Panay, from Sonic Bids and I know each other pretty well. We are both Berklee alums, and he was the first person to really mold the subscription billing platform for the industry. I have nothing but respect for him, and I’ve used Sonic Bids as a band and also as a promoter.
Sonic Bids is very focused on the band-to-venue relationship. They’ve been around for a long time. But the thing is, you pay for the service, but then you also have to pay for the opportunities. Then you get into a pool with a lot of other people. I have heard a lot of bands that are jaded and have spent a lot of money on it without seeing results from it. The press kits are also not mobile. There are a lot of things that are very different from what we’re offering.
Onesheet, which is actually very clean and easy to use, is dictated by tying in all your social media streams. So, it’s very much catered to whatever is happening within your social media channels at a given time. You’re NOT dictating the brand; your social media is.
Then, ReverbNation’s RPK is free, but once you get charged to use it, it’s actually very expensive. There are a lot of other services out there that are extremely expensive.
We’re taking a different approach with Presskit.to. We’re the industry’s first mobile portfolio that is responsive and a complete piece, not just a picture with your social channels underneath it. It’s a full deliverable. We also host files, which no one else does and track Wins – a chronological sheet of accomplishments. It tracks all your quotes, accolades, milestones, etc. in an easy-to-read-and-access list.
We provide the ability to have public and private press kits that you can see on your dashboard. Our public sharing also has expiration dates attached, so you can give someone access for a certain period of time. And you can manage all your kits through a centralized dashboard. Also, Presskit.to’s paid subscription is the most affordable out there.
Another thing that separates us is that we offer managed kits – a white glove service – where we will act as their personal press kit consultants and will make sure press kits stay current each month for a nominal fee.
Through all the work we’ve done fine-tuning our product, we’ve also learned that a lot of musicians really don’t understand the power of a press kit. They know how to build profiles and put together their picture and information, but then they forget what happens after that. They expect people to come to them and do all the work themselves. We’re really happy to be there to help artists with that development process and coach them along the way about what they need to do after they’ve built the press kit.
And what are some of the things artists need to do after they build their press kit?
It depends on where that artist is at that moment, but I can give you an example. We had one artist from England who sent me an email and asked, “I have an EPK and a profile on Sound Cloud and Twitter … do I need you guys?”
I went through his five or six links, and I really looked at what he had. I checked to see if his site was mobile, how it was situated and what was on it. I thought about whether it spoke to me as a professional or as a fan. I looked at his bio and determined whether it was 10-pages long or exactly what I would need to put in an article. And I discovered none of what he had was working.
I gave him the following pieces of advice:
- Focus on getting a shorter bio.
- Put a link to our press kit as a mobile icon on his site, so that if somebody is looking for it, they can just click the icon.
- Pick the best two or three videos you have and put those forward.
- Replace a list of all your albums with just your best two or three songs – the songs you need me to listen to … right now.
- Define a message for yourself that allows you to properly communicate your brand – your creative identity and your music – to the channel you want to get it to. For example, if you’re looking for an agent, you want to cater that message to an agent. Understand what that person is and what he’s done and address him personally. If you want to get into a publishing deal or get on a tour, it’s the same thing.
You have to hyper focus your initiatives. It’s not about mass marketing; it’s about reeling it in and bringing it back to direct, in person, on-the-go and relationship-driven marketing.
That was what happened for one of our guys here, but it’s slightly different all the time, so you really have to think about your strengths and what your focus is as an artist at any given moment. You need to understand your market and your message.
And a lot of musicians don’t even have a market yet, so that becomes a problem.
And that’s why I think if you build up a really great social media presence, then hire a really savvy publicist to get you some new eyeballs, you will be able to tell whether or not your music is good. If you get a couple thousand eyeballs on your music, and no one is biting, then you know something is wrong. But if you get some people that love it, you can find out who they are and figure out a direction.
As an interesting note, our Presskit.to flagship artist, Karmin, blew up originally by doing covers on YouTube. The band found a market on YouTube doing cover songs, then shifted to original material and built up that way, eventually signing to Epic. It all started because the band found an audience through cover songs.
I think that’s the interesting thing with the industry right now: There’s really no right or wrong way to do anything. You just have to get out and do it. You have to think strategically and be business focused, use your local resources and keep your eyes and ears open.
To learn more about Ben Maitland-Lewis and the work he does, visit the official Indie Ambassador website. You can also check out the company’s press kit tool – which just released into public beta on September 4 – at Presskit.to and follow its developments on Twitter.
Chris Price is the Head of Music at the global music discovery service Last.fm. A lifelong music fan, Chris’ first official job in music was working at Sony’s distribution center in his home town near London, where he started out processing returns in order to pay off his student loans and eventually worked his way up to managing Sony’s client relationships with labels such as Independiente and Ministry of Sound. He has worked in music and the media for over 15 years, in a career spanning radio, TV and online. Aside from his work at Sony, he has also held marketing and distribution positions at Warner Music Group and directed music strategy for MTV and BBC Radio 1 in the UK. He has also helped make several award-winning radio programs and is the co-writer of the book Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America.
Chris talked to me about how his career in music developed and how the changing music landscape has transformed the way artists market and share their music over the past decade. He also offered some advice for musicians that want to leverage the Last.fm platform successfully and build a loyal fan base.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Chris. How did you first get started in music, and what led you to decide to make a career out of it?
My first job in music was at Sony’s distribution centre near London, in the Buckinghamshire town where I grew up. Every summer through university I processed returns from the Sony sales force in order to pay off my student loans. After graduating I moved ‘upstairs’, into a role managing Sony’s client relationships with distributed labels such as Independiente and Ministry of Sound. Later I took a job as a product manager at Warner Music, marketing the alternative roster at London Records, before jumping at an opportunity to move into radio at BBC Radio 1 in 2000. Then I went to MTV and later Last.fm.
I’m not sure I ever made a conscious decision to make a career out of music. I just honestly never considered anything else. Music has always been my greatest passion – making it, listening to it, sharing it – so it just seemed natural to follow that path. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had such a diverse career working with music from all angles – at labels, in radio and TV, and now online.
You have a lot of experience working for big music companies and organizations, like MTV, BBC Radio 1, Sony Music and Warner. How did you make the transition from more terrestrial formats into online music, Internet radio and social media, and specifically to Last.fm?
After leaving MTV in 2009 I set up a music strategy consultancy, New Slang Media, working mainly with broadcast radio clients in Europe. I advised programmers on music policy best practice, how to build an audience through music scheduling, and creative use of technology. Realising that my expertise had applications for internet radio and other digital music services, towards the end of 2011 I expanded my client base to include digital partners. Initially I viewed Last.fm more as a potential client than employer, but they happened to be in need of a Head of Music at the time, giving me the opportunity to jump into digital music and personalized internet radio with both feet.
What are the most notable ways you’ve seen the music landscape change in the past decade? How do you think this has affected the way artists market themselves and the way people listen to music?
The slow transition from physical ownership to digital access has obviously had a seismic effect on every corner of the music industry, but there has never been a better time to be a fan of music. Thanks to services like Last.fm, Pandora, Spotify and countless others, it has never been easier to find, sample, and directly connect with your new favorite band. Many people falsely predicted the death of the music industry now that artists have the means to cheaply produce, distribute and market their own music, but the facts don’t seem to bear this out. It’s still the case that the most successful new artists are products of major and independent labels; there hasn’t been a glut of unsigned superstar artists as many people predicted.
The second major change worth noting is the rise of the live music sector, in particular the rapid growth of the festival business. When I first started my career, recorded music was king, and touring was seen largely as promotion. The idea of a label paying tour support is almost unthinkable now.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists through the major label system and on radio and TV as a program director. What qualities or behaviors get a band noticed by program directors and other executives and help the band find success on radio, TV and other formats? What qualities/behaviors will turn people off to a band’s music?
SONGS! Easier done than said of course, but the most effective way to get noticed by program directors is by writing killer songs. Everything else – how cool or hyped you are, the genre of music you make, the color of your hair – is secondary. It’s true to say that radio and TV programmers are much more data savvy these days when it comes to playlist decision making; You Tube views, Twitter followers, Last.fm listeners are all a useful indicator of popularity, but without a song that will work on the radio you’ve got nothing but numbers.
Why do you think Last.fm has grown into such a great discovery platform for artists? What sets it apart from other music recommendation services?
Last.fm’s greatest asset is the huge community of active music fans who make the site what it is. Not only are they uploading millions of photos, editing artist bios and so on every single day, crucially they are scrobbling in massive numbers. Scrobbling technology is unique to Last.fm; it is a means to keep track of every song you listen to whenever, wherever and however you listen to it. You can scrobble from any one of 650 devices and services, from iTunes to Spotify, an Xbox to a Sonos hi-fi system. Scrobbling is what makes our recommendations the best in the world, and it’s the reason we’re the only music service around that can truly claim to know what the world is listening to. That combination of great recommendations and active music influencers is what has made Last.fm such a powerful discovery platform for all of its ten years (it’s our birthday this year – hint, hint).
Do you have any examples you can point to of bands whose careers have
been “made” by the Last.fm platform? How did they use it to find success?
Because of the reach and visibility afforded to us by scrobbling, we think of ourselves as the “connective tissue” in the digital music ecosystem. It means we can spot trending new artists early via our own Hype Chart and, in some cases, be a part of their upward trajectory. A good example of this is Florence & The Machine. While we don’t claim to have ‘broken’ Florence in the usual broadcast radio sense, we have been proud both to chart and play a part in her journey from first scrobble on Last.fm, via a New York session, all the way up to a Live on Letterman performance – the jewel in the crown of CBSi’s promotional offering (Last.fm is owned by CBS):
What can artists do to maximize their experience, get their music heard and grow their fan bases on the Last.fm platform? Are there specific steps artists can take to make their music more discoverable?
Yes! There are loads of things you can do to get yourself noticed on Last.fm. Here’s a handful to get you started:
- Upload all your music. All tracks have an equal chance of being played on Last.fm, so the more music you upload, the greater the chance of being heard.
- Listen to (and scrobble!) your own music. Ask your fans to download the Last.fm software (find it here) and scrobble-enable their listening devices and services. Certain features on Last.fm, such as search and similar artists, work better when you’ve reached a certain number of listeners, so this bit’s important.
- Tag yourself! One great way of making sure you get streamed on the radio and discovered by users is through tagging. Tags can be genres, moods, personal notes, anything that will help new listeners find your music.
- Make your artist profile rock. Upload artist and album images and be sure to write a great bio.
There’s more you can do to get yourself heard on Last.fm. Go here for the full list.
In addition, through our partnership with Musicmetric, artists on Last.fm have access to a powerful free tool to track their online popularity and fan trends across social media platforms and the Web.
How important is it to their success for artists to have a variety of content out there – mp3s, video, etc.? What does an artist need to do in order to create a compelling video or track?
It’s really important to have a breadth and variety of content in the market. YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world, and that should speak volumes to any new artist looking to get themselves noticed. (It’s an important source of revenue for many artists too, as well as promotion.) OK Go has proven beyond all doubt that you needn’t have a million-dollar video budget to generate impact, just a great idea, a camera and a killer tune. At MTV there was always room on the playlist for a creative music clip, even if obviously shot on a budget; stickiness is everything when audiences have 33 music television channels to choose from!
These days, it’s critical for artists to connect in meaningful and personal ways with fans. What do you feel are the most powerful and unique ways for artists to interact, both online and offline these days? What are some ways you believe Last.fm helps enable the process of building personal relationships with fans?
From house concerts to crowd-funding an album or tour, there’s a multitude of ways for artists to engage with their fans, all offering a sense of proximity and ownership that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. One Direction’s US success has proven that a solid social media campaign can break a band in the absence of radio or TV, and Daria Musk has built an incredible following on Google + Hangouts (even if her Last.fm scrobble count suggests she’s not converting them into listeners yet). But remember that social media is a two-way street; you’ll grow your Facebook and Twitter following by responding to comments and questions, as well as making yourself more visible and approachable in the process.
As for Last.fm, a well-maintained artist page is an invaluable tool for engaging with and learning about your fans. You can see who is listening to your music, coming to your shows, tagging your tracks and leaving you shouts. We use this fan engagement to inform our video content production too. For example, we recently invited the Last.fm community to help us interview The Noisettes at a session we recorded for Last.fm Originals. Fans left shouts for the band on their Last.fm artist page, which were then included in the video which will go live on Last.fm Originals later this week.
Do you have any parting words of advice for artists trying to build their fan bases? What do you feel is going to be most important for artists to do going forward in order to build sustainable, lucrative careers?
Tour, tour, and tour some more. Playing live is the best way to learn your craft, build a fan base and – these days – earn money. Earnings from recorded music might come later, if they come at all. Meanwhile, learn about your customers from the vantage point of the stage!
Brian Thompson is a creative coach and music marketer with over 20 years in the music business. A lifelong music lover and collector, he got his start working at A&B Sound, which was once the #4 record store in his home country of Canada. He stayed with the company for 14 years, moving up from a position in the stock room to head music buyer for the entire music division, working extensively on marketing campaigns and directly with bands and record labels. After the chain closed, he went out on his as a music manager and also launched an independent record label called Thorny Bleeder Records. After noticing that many artists did not know how to make it on their own in the increasingly DIY market, he decided he wanted to shift his focus to inspiring and motivating bands to manifest their action plans and run their own careers. He now runs a music marketing and branding blog offering free tips and resources, has his own podcast that discusses music industry issues and releases a free daily newsletter along with working as a consultant for developing artists.
I recently got to talk to Brian about the changes he has witnessed in the music industry during the past two decades and how artists can set manageable goals to find success and leverage the power of social media to connect with their fans and build solid, lasting careers.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Brian. How did you get into the music business?
I’ve been in the music business for about 20 years now. I started unpacking cassettes and compact discs in the back of a record store. I put them on the shelves and priced them and just really loved it. Even when I was a kid, I really wanted to work in a record store. I spent so much of my childhood in record stores, because that was the environment that called me. It felt like my home, and I felt like I was amongst all my friends – not just the people, but also the records. I’ve always been an avid music collector.
I started moving my way up in this chain of record stores in Canada called A&B Sound that had 22 stores. I bounced around to a few different locations in different cities and eventually became the head music buyer for the entire music division.
Unfortunately, they went out of business about six years ago, but they did exist for over 47 years. At one time, they were the #4 music retailer in the country and were often known as the cheapest place to buy music in the world with the largest selection. We were a real music store and not just a place that offered the Top 20 selection. We had the biggest jazz and classical selection in the country. It was amazing and just a great store. When I was the head buyer for the chain, I was working with advertising, marketing and the record labels, dealing with co-op campaigns, promotions and contests. I was also bringing bands in for in-stores. I was there for 14 years, until the digital world really impacted brick-and-mortar music retail and made my job obsolete.
At that point, I decided I couldn’t be an employee again. It was too painful to see so much of heart and soul being poured into something and then to walk away with absolutely nothing. That was when I knew I needed to look out for myself. And at that exact moment in time, my good friends in a band called Art of Dying had just finished mixing and mastering a new album, and they came to me because they didn’t know what to do with it. I came on board, and we decided to form our own record label called Thorny Bleeder Records. I was tour managing this band around the world and managing the band along with the lead singer. They’re signed to Warner now, but we put out their debut release. I was doing their marketing and managing their online presence. I spent about three years with them. And once they signed to a major label, we found them a big-time rock manager – the same guy who was managing Disturbed.
After my time with Art of Dying ended, I decided to start evolving Thorny Bleeder into a full-on independent record label. I spent a couple years signing on some artists and putting out some records. At that time, I also had an artist services division helping artists with radio campaigns, press, publicity and marketing. And then, the whole DIY world really picked up and changed to the point where it didn’t make sense for me to operate as a little record label anymore. We didn’t have huge budgets to invest in a band. We were pretty much just there as a means of distribution, and of course, bands can do distribution completely on their own now.
That’s when I decided to stop signing artists and managing bands. To be honest, I got frustrated with managing bands, because I found artists were looking for me to get them to where they wanted to go when they weren’t even ready to get there themselves yet. I saw this over and over again across the board, looking at the industry as a whole. There were so many bands that thought getting signed was the answer to them getting a bigger audience. And it dawned on me that there is a real disconnect here. Even though there are all these tools available that enable artists to take their careers into their own hands, nobody is really doing anything with them. Regardless of how good your manager is, if you fail to put in strong effort yourself, no manager is going to be able to help you.
For example, there were bands I came across who said, “We can only go on tour two weeks out of the year, when our drummer has his holidays.” If you can only go out there and support yourself on the road two weeks out of the year, where are your priorities? And how can you expect someone to want to work with you on a percentage basis if you are not even creating an opportunity for revenue to happen?
I go back to the VH1 Behind The Music example a lot. I think people are shown through the media what it means to be a success and a celebrity. What they’re never shown is the thankless hard work and the gigs where no one shows up.
Absolutely. I eventually drifted away from artist management, because it was taking up 100 hours a week, and I was making $50 a month from it, in great part because I was working with developing artists who just weren’t ready yet. We all have to put bread in our basket and food in the fridge, and management just wasn’t working for me or for me or for the artists. Artists were relying on me rather than taking the initiative themselves.
So, I decided I wanted to focus on helping to kick people in the ass a little bit. I wanted to try to inspire and motivate people to really do the things they need to do to get to where they want to go. The more I started poking and prodding people, the more I realized that they really were receptive to working harder. A lot of them really did just need a wake-up call to make them realize they don’t need to make excuses and they can do it on their own. They realized that maybe it wasn’t a manager they needed, but that they might just really need to get out there and play a little bit more and develop their own story.
I started focusing on the blogging aspect of Thorny Bleeder and on sharing information with people that would help them do what they needed to do. That’s what led me to start up the DIY Daily and develop a podcast. Everything has evolved. Every day I’m putting out tons of information. I just want to give people the tools to realize their dreams if they really want to chase them.
On top of that, I do consulting as well.
And you often refer to yourself as a “creative coach.” Why did you decide on that term?
I used to call myself a consultant, and I found that the word scared people and sounded a little too businessy. I’m trying to use my blogs and my podcasts to talk about things in the industry in a much more open way, so I’m not just talking to the independent musician. I’m also talking to anyone in a creative field, whether that person is a poet, an author, a musician or anything else.
You’re obviously great at keeping up with podcasting and do really well on Twitter. You strike me as someone with a lot of strong specialties. What do you feel are your biggest areas of expertise in the industry?
I think first and foremost, I am a marketing guy. I’ve always been a marketing guy, even before I realized it. I’ve always had an aptitude for observing and picking things apart. It didn’t dawn on me until a couple years ago how knowledgeable I am about marketing. I feel like the more I dive into the digital world, the more value I’ve been able to provide to people, because I do have such a wide swath of different experience in music, from physical, to advertising to digital.
Marketing is definitely my forte, but I don’t really hire myself out to run musicians’ advertising campaign or their promotional efforts. I just want to help brainstorm with people and create ideas. Earlier this year I came up with a title for myself called “Idea Development Engineer,” which I thought kind of summed up what I am doing.
I know it’s hard to distill a creative process into something I can explain using a couple sentences. Are you someone who is helping artists take their existing creative products and develop ways to get them out there?
It’s different for everybody. A lot of people think they have a goal for what they want to do, but they just need somebody to talk to about it to make it take shape. And many people just don’t have anyone to talk to. They’re not ready for a lawyer or a publicist yet, but they just have some questions and don’t know who to talk to. They have all these ideas floating around in their heads and feel confused.
Even just in my daily newsletter, I’m sharing 20 stories a day with people. There’s so much information everywhere, and a lot of people don’t know where to start. Even if they have started, they don’t know where to go next. A lot of times, I will just sit down with someone and develop a singular goal. That person may have 20 goals, but I encourage them to start with one that is the first thing they should go for. I’m really just helping people organize their thoughts, clear some of the B.S. away. I help them focus on the right priorities at the right time and get them to a place where they can start taking the steps to move forward.
So many people have a head full of ideas, but are so overwhelmed that they never begin any of them.
Well, the reason you put blinders on a horse is to keep it focused on the track.
Right. After I create goals with someone for the next 6 months or a year, a lot of what I do is sit and brainstorm ideas for them. I also do social media training. I’ve become known as a guy who understands social media and how to use it effectively for marketing, networking and creating opportunities.
A lot of times people come to me with really basic things they need help with – like blogging. But as I work with these people to develop these different components, they are able to do something unique on their own website or blog that gets me excited, because I see that they’ve managed to build excitement within themselves about the medium.
I push people into using the free tools available to them. A lot of people still want to buy advertising and buy their way into the music industry. They don’t realize that this just doesn’t work anymore. I invest a lot of energy into teaching people how to effectively use content marketing – the same concept behind your own blog.
I really take issue with anybody that identifies themselves solely as a “social media expert.” Many times, I find that this title does not point to an intelligent, thought-out process surrounding what information to broadcast and often what information not to broadcast. It speaks nothing of the programming and thought that goes into creating your own personalized multi-media “TV station.”
Having someone like you to curate, formulate and understand the strengths of the different channels is key. It’s not enough to tweet about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich you had on Twitter.
A lot of what I dive into is the behavioral habits that lead people to use social media, so we can provide the end user with an experience that is entertaining to them.
And why do people use different social media channels, in your opinion?
Let’s face it: The reason most people go to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube is to be entertained. They don’t go there to be advertised to. That’s the point I try to hammer home with people: social media is not an advertising medium. Advertising, and more specifically, marketing can be a side benefit. But I don’t go to Facebook to get advertised to. If you are advertising to me, I tune it out, because that’s not what I want. I want to laugh at a silly photo, or click on a funny video.
The thing I really try to talk to bands about is that you have to provide value on your profile. Make people feel something; make them cry, laugh, hurt, feel happy or angry. Try to evoke something with what you’re doing online. If all you’re doing is a spam newsfeed of your shows, the music you’re putting out or where they can buy your products, people will tune out. That information isn’t complimenting the music anymore.
Years ago with compact discs, you would pull out the booklet. And the booklet would complement the music. You would read the liner notes, the “thanks,” the lyrics. Nowadays, there are no liner notes with an mp3, with Spotify or whatever you’re using to listen to music. So what people don’t realize is, it’s the social media experience that can provide that supplement to music. If you’re not providing fans with additional things to consume above and beyond the music, you’re missing a huge opportunity.
Very true. It really is funny: Originally people would say, “Slip in a personal comment here and there.” Now it’s about sharing a portion of your life. And if your life happens to be leading to one of your shows, then you can mention it. It has come full circle.
I also don’t think anybody should share something they don’t want to. You can still be as private as you want. When I say, “sharing” it doesn’t mean you have to reveal your entire personal life. You can still share a lot of stuff without revealing anything personal.
And I think you, as someone with a personal brand facing forward in your job probably do just that. Part of the reason I interview people like you is because I elect to share the people I’m lucky enough to have access to. A lot of my own thoughts end up going unnoticed, and that’s on purpose.
And I try to practice what I preach online. That’s how my whole online brand has started. When Art of Dying got signed, they were my sole artist. They are some of my best friends and still my partners at the back end of Thorny Bleeder. But when they went onto their major label life, I didn’t know what would come next. I had a label with no artists. And my website was just a splash page. That was the start of me realizing I had no budget to advertise and also didn’t have anything to advertise. So, I had to create something out of nothing.
The beautiful thing is, with all the wonderful tools around us, we can build something out of nothing. I learned how to build a website and built it for free just by going to Google and YouTube and figuring out how to do it on my own.
From there, I realized I needed something on the website. Because, why would someone come to a website with nothing on it? So, I started blogging. I also put out a compilation as a free download. I just wanted people to come to the site and start checking out what I’m about. People did start coming and listening to the free music I was giving away. An audience started to develop just because I shared with people. And, again, I wasn’t necessarily sharing personal stuff; I was sharing tips, how-tos and free music.
As I saw my audience grow, I started talking to artists more directly and saying, “Listen. You don’t have an audience. You need to start using the Web to create your audience, especially if you say you can only tour two weeks out of the year. You’re never going to start growing an audience if you don’t dive into the online world.”
Just having a profile doesn’t mean you’re really maximizing its potential. I’ve tried to show people that the more you use media smartly, the more you connect with people one person at a time and win over a reader or a listener one person at a time and create content that actually matters to people, the more they will listen to you, come back and visit you again, tell their friends or tweet about what you’re doing. Artists can grow their audience the same way I’ve grown my audience to tens of thousands of people. It’s no different, and in fact, it should be easier for them. Because, I am not a musician and am not releasing amazing music or going out on tours. I’m just a guy talking at and typing away on his Mac at home. But I’ve managed to create a pretty big audience, and people are paying attention. And that’s really rad.
Shikhee is the founder of the band Android Lust, a band that combines mixes elements of rock, industrial and electropop. A Bangladeshi-born New Yorker, she has always been an avid musician and songwriter and got her start playing in bands in the New York City area in the 1990s. Eventually, she decided to branch out on her own, founding Android Lust as a one-woman project in 1996. For the past 15 years, she has continued to maintain a rigorous performance schedule, toured throughout the U.S. several times and has put out four full-length albums on several different prominent industrial record labels. Android Lust has been covered by publications such as the Village Voice, Boston Globe, Jane magazine as well as MTV, a number of underground music zines and a variety of international blogs and periodicals.
Shikhee spoke to me about the unique experience of building up a presence within the Goth/industrial scene and provided some insight for other artists about creative on- and off-line methods of marketing, networking and building personal relationships with fans.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Shikhee. How did you get into the business, and how were you able to build up the Android Lust band within the industrial/Gothic music community?
I was always interested in music and songwriting. I started a few bands that didn’t work out because there always seemed to be personality conflicts or directional issues. Eventually, when those fizzled out I realized it was difficult for me find people that I really identified and clicked with. It was exhausting going through the process of trying to meet people. I even put out ads on Village Voice at one point.
I pretty much just decided I just wanted to do it on my own, because the process of trying to find people to work with wasn’t worth the frustration. It was creating a lot of negativity instead of producing something positive. I decided I would just start and figure it out as I went along. And I did. I had learned a bit of recording from my last band, Strange Fruit. We had a guitarist, a drummer and a bass player. But the core of the band had been just the guitarist and I. And after all the conflict we had, it was easier just to figure out how to do things myself than to look for people.
So, I started Android Lust and put out my first cassette demo in 1996. I basically just started going to a lot of Goth clubs in New York and connecting with people: Bat Cave; the Bank and a couple clubs in Jersey. It took off from there.
Were you just playing those clubs, or were you also attending when you weren’t playing and getting to know people?
I was doing a little of everything. When I wasn’t playing, I was going pretty regularly back then and making friends. That was pretty much my scene back then.
Most artists at one point sit down and think, “Who am I as an artist, and what kind of people would ‘get’ me?” Did you actually have a moment like that, or did you just say, “Underground night clubs, etc. are going to get this”?
I never really sat down and thought about that part of the process. I think at that point in my life, it was the music that I was listening to and surrounded by I felt connected to. So, I naturally gravitated towards it myself. And the people that were receptive to it just happened to be there at that time. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to push towards a specific goal. I was just there, and I happened to fall into something that I connected with.
Did you ever feel like you had to politic, or had you just become friends with the people who were the gatekeepers into the clubs you wanted to play?
Politicking and building relationships with people would’ve probably helped a lot, but I’m really bad at networking. I am really not good with just schmoozing, so I never did that. It just happened that I met a guy who was a DJ at one of the clubs, and he had was the head of Tinman Records. He liked my demo, and he ended up wanting to sign me, which was how my first release came about.
I did give out demos, but it was always hard for me to present myself, so I just gave people my cassette demo without doing much else. I guess I was lucky in that way. Networking is a skill I’m still working on, and I don’t know how far I’ve come, but I must’ve gotten better.
You’ve been working on Android Lust for about 15 years now. Knowing what you know now, what are some of the things you would’ve told yourself in 1996, when you were just starting out, that would’ve helped your career?
In the late ‘90s, it was pretty much all about the music. And I think I was really naïve in a lot of ways. You mentioned politics, and that was something I really didn’t think about. I just thought if the music was good, it would get attention, which I know now just isn’t the case. It just doesn’t work that way. Everything is about relationships and the people you know, those you do favors for and the people you’re friends with. It’s something that I know exists and I accept, but it’s kind of hard to swallow. There are a lot of other introverted artists out there, and it’s difficult knowing it doesn’t really matter how good you are. Ultimately what matters is the relationships. And networking and building relationships is a skill people need to learn, especially now. Because, with social media and everything else, that’s where we’re at, for better or for worse.
And have you found one type of social media more useful than others in promoting your band and getting your music out there?
I use Facebook and Twitter more than anything else. MySpace kind of died away, and in terms of all the others, I just don’t have the time and energy for them. Facebook has been successful for me, in part, because people who become your fans on Facebook seem to not be out to put you down. With some other sites, there seems to be this sadistic streak where they want to put down artists. There is no accountability, because you’re an anonymous face, and you can just get away with saying whatever you want. You can say things you wouldn’t say face to face. I think people tend to be more genuine on Facebook.
Sure. They’re connected to real personas.
Right. Of course, there’s other negative stuff that happens there too; I don’t go to Facebook except to manage my band page, because I can’t handle all the noise. But that has become the most supportive community for me in terms of promoting Android Lust.
But interestingly, I’ve actually made some real-life friends through Twitter. In fact, my merch and touring manager, and our road tech are people I met through Twitter. I haven’t found myself building real-life relationships like that through any other social networking sites.
What I find curious about Twitter is that you could say, “I made chili today,” and you’ll get 30 responses. But then you’ll say, “Hey, I bared my soul and created this piece of art that I connect with,” and you’ll get one response. And that’s usually not the case on Facebook, where people tend to respond to that kind of thing. I’m not sure why that is.
Everyone’s experience with social media is different, which is why I enjoy talking to people about it and what they pull away from it.
You guys are definitely in a very specific niche. Do you find that having a presence on niche sites, like, for example Goth/Industrial sites like Vampire Freaks, etc. and other scene or lifestyle sites has helped out?
Yes. Though, our presence on sites like Vampire Freaks is probably not as active as it could be, simply because I don’t have the bandwidth to maintain all those sites. Also, to be honest, the whole “push, push, push” style of marketing has always been incredibly draining for me. I want to focus on creating and of course I want to connect to fans. But this whole style of constant promotion, which is the new paradigm, is I think in some ways very harmful. It really drains you and takes away that bubble that artists used to be in, that was a good thing for being able to create – the bubble that really isolates you as an artist and allows you to immerse yourself in your own world. Now, you’re constantly doing a back-and-forth. For me personally, that’s not been a great thing.
How did you go from touring regionally in New York, New Jersey and Philly, to pulling off a cross-country, national tour?
That was a great experience. Over the years, I’ve been getting a lot of DJ play and club support. That was when the music was more club friendly. Now it’s a little more experimental. I did build up a lot of contacts across the country that way. And I basically just put together my first national tour back in 2005.
And when you say you built up a lot of contacts, was that pursuing relationships with other bands or directly with clubs?
It was about getting on playlists and having people say, “I really like your music. I’m spinning you.” I basically contacted a lot of DJs in different cities that were playing our music and said, “Hey, do you know of a promoter in your area who would want to book me?” I collected a lot of names by emailing and asking for contacts from people that already liked what I was doing. From there, I started contacting the promoters and tried to put a route together across the country. My first cross-country tour was three-weeks long.
Had you talked to these DJs before you got on the label, or was your success with them the result of being on the label?
Being on the label helped. At that time, I was on Projekt Records. And that definitely helped me get a lot of plays. Back then, I was also in contact with people across the country through MySpace. And in the industrial scene, the DJs were the ones that knew who the promoters were in their local region.
Do you have any other parting words of advice for artists?
Something I tell myself all the time is, “Self doubt is your biggest enemy.” You need to have faith in yourself. That attitude is something I try to practice, and sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed. But you need to go for what you believe in, because nothing else really matters.
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