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Create Validate Sell

Up until recently, and in a caveman sort of way, I divided the tasks of building a music business into two rock piles: a pile of things related to creating music and a pile of things related to selling music.  

In the creating music pile I accounted for iteratively improving songs based upon fan and professional feedback, and in the selling music pile I accounted for monetary feedback; you either sold music or you didn’t.  

Recently, I evolved from lumping tasks into two piles to lumping tasks into three piles.  Create and sell has become - create and validate and then sell.  In fact, the sequence has become create-validate, create-validate, create-validate, and then sell.  Thanks Steve Lawson.

While this is not information that makes the earth spin in reverse, adding a third classification column to your to-do list does cause you to perform discrete actions that you may not have taken otherwise.  

For example, when you approach validation as an essential task to be executed efficiently, as unbiased as possible, and without prejudice or lasting consequences, you end up reclassifying products or services previously lumped into another pile.

On Saturday, as I wondered about the simplest way to validate music using the criteria I just described, I ended up reclassifying the music community site Aime Street out of the interesting-way-to-barely-sell-music rock pile to the music validation pile.  For me, this action shed an entirely different light on the value Aime Street generates for artists.

AmieStreetlogo.gifAime Street is a music community site that has a unique pricing model where tracks start out as free and as popularity increases the price of a track goes up.  I only recommend sites that charge flat fees to artists and I steer clear from sites that extract percentages.  However, when I reclassified Aime Street as a music validation service instead of a place to sell music, a new recommendation emerged.

Aime Street probably isn’t going to put a lot of money into your pocket, but I have to say that Aime Street is the fastest way to validate music that I have tried to date; it’s also fun.  I would have gladly paid them a flat fee to validate songs within their community.

I simply uploaded music to Aime Street and over the next 48 hours I watched as the price of the tracks rose and the recommendations rolled in.  It was hardly profitable, but it was gratifying and comforting validation.  I’m surprised that Aime Street is not growing as rapidly as some of the other music sites on the Internet; as a music fan, this site really appealed to my sensibilities.

Similarly, I am trying the site called OurStage for the same reason.  I really like the unique voting funnel that OurStage offers, but the gratification will not come as rapidly as on Aime Street.  My guess is that both of these sites will yield the detailed validation or invalidation I’m looking for ninety days from now, albeit using entirely different methods.

The bottom line: setting out to purposely seek validation is not only important; it enables you to reframe your approach to sites, services and relationships.  The saying “necessity (to validate) is the mother of invention” applies here…


Think Tank Talk Question?

Would you give exclusive rights to a download store in exchange for keeping 100% of your music revenue?




Capitalizing On Fan Feedback

Imagine you’re an independent DIY artist that’s just starting out. You’ve recorded some music and started promoting it online. The initial response is overwhelmingly positive. You get emails from friends and strangers saying they can’t stop listening to your tunes. People leave you MySpace comments saying your music is the best they’ve heard in years. Someone on a message board has declared your release their favorite album of the year.

Encouraged by this feedback, you decide it’s time to target bloggers, journalists, online radio stations, and other “tastemakers” in hopes of expanding your fan base. But as an unsigned artist without much of a track record, you know it will be hard to get these folks’ attention. Bloggers and DJs are inundated with new music every day from bands proclaiming how great they are. Without any significant press, tours, or other achievements to point to, you worry that you won’t be able to differentiate yourself from the pack. Maybe they’ll eventually get around to listening to what you send them, but you’re afraid you may get forgotten or ignored if you can’t prove in writing that you are special. You know your music is great, and that ultimately it will speak for itself. But before that can happen, you first have to speak for your music in a convincing way.

So how do you do it? Is there a way to leverage the listener feedback you’ve received to get more press and promotion? Could you use glowing MySpace comments and forum posts in the same way that bands traditionally use press quotes? Would writers or DJs find your supporters’ comments credible enough? Are they going to care what a bunch of no-name listeners have to say about you?  

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. It seems to me that exceptionally positive fan feedback should carry some weight, if organized and presented correctly… right? What do you think?


Ask the readers: What's important?

One of my main ideas behind setting up Music Think Tank - apart from simply to provide a community blog for some of my favourite writers and thinkers in the area of online music business - was to create a space where these people could come together and discuss - perhaps even attempt to solve - some of the biggest issues in digital and online music composition, production, promotion, distribution and consumption.

We’d like to have a go at some of the little ones along the way too. 

In order for us to do that, we need to know what the burning questions are in your mind. We’re building something in the back laboratory right now that will allow you to post your specific questions, so that we can put our minds to work and see if we can generate solutions that you can take and apply to your individual, specific circumstances.

But for now, we’re interested in hearing what your biggest concerns are. This is the big picture stuff. Is it copyright? Is it audio fidelity? Is it information overload? Getting a break?

Hit the comments, and let us know: what are The Issues That Matter?

Give us the things to think about, and we in the Think Tank will put our Thinking Caps on. 


1,000 True Fans to Make a Living

When Seth Godin calls something the “best riff of the year,” people notice. And lots have.

I’m talking about Kevin Kelly’s blog post titled “1,000 True Fans,” which has struck a powerful nerve online. He puts his own spin on what I and many others have been saying for years about succeeding in the arts in this modern era.

This concept of attracting what Kelly calls True Fans (a diehard subset of a larger group of Lesser Fans) is very intriguing and deserves some serious consideration. Here’s an excerpt:

Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day’s wages per year in support of what you do. That “one-day wage” is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let’s peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable. Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.

The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans. They are giving you their support directly. Maybe they come to your house concerts, or they are buying your DVDs from your website, or they order your prints from Pictopia. As much as possible you retain the full amount of their support. You also benefit from the direct feedback and love.

Again, this all dovetails with the indie message I’ve been hammering home for years. You don’t have to be a household name to be successful. Thousands of musicians, authors, artists, photographers, filmmakers, bloggers and more make a nice living serving their unique slice of the population. I proudly count myself among their ranks.

These self-empowered creatives work outside the traditional structure and usually make smart use of the Internet to bypass middleman roadblocks and take their craft directly to the end user: the fan. Reach enough fans in this manner and serve them well … and you will eventually have a solid list of True Fans — people who will reward you often with their time, attention and money.

Read Kelly’s entire blog post and the reaction to it around the Net. Then get busy building your fan base … and serving them well!



Save The Earth Use BitTorrent

A recent article in Harpers (via Nicholas Carr) describes a data center that Google is building that will use enough energy to power 82,000 homes a year.  Information Week also reports that data centers worldwide will consume the combined output of fourteen nuclear or coal-fired power plants this year.

What if BitTorrent was repositioned as earth saving technology, and every time someone purchased a digital media file they had the opportunity to buy a locally “recycled” file instead of one that was sent from an energy intensive data center located 3,000 miles away?  And, what if recycling everyone’s “spent” media files could save enough energy to power 1,000,000 homes a year?

In the scenario above, recycling is a codeword for file sharing.  Language is powerful.  Sharing is a negative word in the media industry, but recycling gives sharing an entirely new meaning.  It would be hard to justify putting an end to file sharing - if sharing/recycling was found to be a highly efficient method for conserving a significant portion of the energy required to deliver digital media.


The consumption of digital media and cloud computing is exploding.  You have to wonder if the far-flung, hub and spoke model that large data centers are founded upon is hugely inefficient compared to obtaining a song or a movie from your friends in the neighborhood?  My guess and investors are betting that BitTorrent is more efficient.

BitTorrent may not be ideal for streaming; however if waiting ten minutes saves energy, the benefit should outweigh the inconvenience.

When companies, organizations and governments clamp down on file sharing, whose interests are being served?  Are they protecting copyright holders, or are they protecting the billions of dollars that have been poured into the hub and spoke model for owning and delivering media files?  It makes me wonder; there are legal and legitimate ways to use BitTorrent.  

Think about this: BitTorrent is a disruptive technology; it enables just about anyone to be a media company without the burden of running a huge data center.  The next time some entity clamps down on media sharing, politely remind them that they could be contributing to global warming☺

For the record, I am a rights holder.  At this point, I believe file sharing will help the music industry more than it hurts.  I also believe that every artist should be so lucky to have his or her music wildly shared around the globe.  MP3 players are the new radio, BitTorrent is a broadcaster; if an artist is not on the “radio”, he or she will remain unknown.  

What do you think?  Conserve energy and get on the new “radio” - it all sounds like a win-win to me.  (Note: The GreenBrick advertisement above is something I invented for this post.)       


The Blanket License Debate

Ahead of the actual discussion led by Jim Griffin at SXSW Friday, Wired has posted and overview of a notion that has been whispered about in the hallowed halls of the major labels for years…a fee imposed on ISPs that provided end users with an “all you can eat” music service.  Read Music Industry Proposes a Piracy Surcharge on ISPs for additional details, but the idea is pretty basic.  All ISPs would put a fixed amount (for example, $5 per month per subscriber) into a pool, and that pool is then divided up between the various rights-holders (performers, songwriters, labels and publishers).  An independent third party would be responsible for dividing the pie according “popularity”.

I’ve been a proponent of figuring out the details on such a model since the early days of Napster, but such a notion was blasphemous back then and is only starting to gain some interest now that its clear the toothpaste can’t easily be put back into the tube.

There are unquestionably a multitude of issues that would need to be worked out…would this require Federal regulation of ISPs in the U.S.?  What is are the global impacts and requirements?  What technology would be agreed upon to determine the exact content of the traded bits & bytes?  What privacy issues would arise from the implementation of such technology?  What about the technology itself?  What are the development and deployment costs?  What about advertising and marketing plans/committments in a world where “street date” ends up being whichever day the music leaks?  And what about the enormous hurdle of getting all of those stake-holders to agree on the raw dollars, the allocations, the methodologies and a manageable audit pathway?

These questions are just a handful that represent the tip of the iceberg.  And while plenty of folks at the labels that I’ve discussed this with have balked, myself and plenty of others believe that resources put into figuring this out will prove to be well allocated, and with the right solution will more than outweigh the current resources being put into anti-piracy (both technology due diligence and legal fees).  In fact, should this become a reality it only makes it easier for many new music business models to gain traction.  But make no mistake about it…the notion sounds interesting but the necessary legwork and underlying platform are enormous tasks to undertake, and likely years before they could be reasonably implemented.

Feasible? Folly?  What do YOU think?


9 Mistakes To Avoid When Recording Your Own Album

Before you can begin to think about marketing yourselves online you’ll first of all need to take care of the music. If, like me, you’re making that music at home then you’ll be aware of the many benefits this arrangement brings - you have the freedom to try whatever you like, you don’t have one eye on the clock and you never have to get the last bus home.

The flipside is that you are on your own and, to put this gently, there will be no-one there to keep an eye on you. You are entirely free to lead yourself down any number of blind alleys before you grab the wrong end of the stick and beat yourself up with it. Recording at home requires patience, discipline and good planning……and all at the same time…and from musicians.

What could possibly go wrong?

Since the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, here are the 9 mistakes we made in homemaking our debut record that I’m keen to avoid as we begin our second. I’m fairly certain I’m not the only person in the world who learned his good habits the hard way so if you think I’ve missed anything important please feel free to add some tips of your own. I’d also very much like to hear your tales of self-inflicted recording calamity!

OK, off we go..

1: That Odd Buzzing Noise Will Come Out In The Mix

..and one day there will be free jetpacks for us all. No matter how good you think that last take was, if your singer kicked the mikestand halfway through or the small change was rubbing against the keys in your pockets, then you need to think about starting that take again.

2: If You Are Having Drums, You Might Want To Record Them First

You may think you’ve nailed that guitar part to that click track but there are two people who won’t share your confidence. The first person is the drummer and he will till you all about this when he comes to play along to the song. The second is the person who will spend weeks going through the all the component drum audio files, making miniscule adjustments to the placement of a kick beat here and a high hat there. When I say weeks, I mean WEEKS…easily enough weeks to fill a month or two.

3: “Hey, Shall We Tune-up?”

This one sounds teeth-grindingly obvious, doesn’t it. Oh yes, so obvious in fact that you’d never believe anyone could make such a stupid, stupid error.


Moving on, then…

4: Effects Breed Like Rabbits

It might not sound the way you hear it in your head but if you cave in now and add that tiny bit of distortion - just to make yourself feel better about everything - then imagine how great you’ll be feeling when you come to the mix and you can’t get rid of it. Record EVERYTHING dry.

5: “You Sound Like You’ve Got A Cold…”

If you didn’t have a cold when you recorded the vocals for the other 9 tracks, why do you want to do record the vocal for this one now?

6: Clean Out Yer Ears

If you’ve listened back to that rough mix more than 10 times today then it’s probably time to go out, meet your pals and get drunk. Additionally, when you all come back from the your night out your friends will probably be in the mood for some ELO or possibly some Fu Manchu. That track without vocals and that piano part littered with cack-handed mistakes will be waiting patiently for you tomorrow - it ain’t going nowhere.

7: Less Is More

These days home studios can be augmented with a dazzling array of plugins that enable you to have thousands and thousands of different sounds and instruments at your fingertips. You are limited only by your imagination, but remember that this cuts both ways.

8: Organise, Label & File

At some stage, when you’ve recorded your last vocal or overdub, you’ll want to think about mixing your album. When this point comes it is waaay too late and entirely pointless to have the bright idea of giving audio files sensible names and putting them into folders that, say, represent the names of the different songs they come from.

9: Back-Up

Death, Taxes and At-That-Crucial-Point computer malfunction. They come to us all in the end. Back-up your work daily, weekly or even monthly….but make sure you do it.

Now, go and make a great record!



Was 90%. Now 10%.

It used to be that, as a musician, only 10% of your career was up to you. “Getting discovered” was about all you could do. A few gatekeepers controlled ALL outlets. You had to impress one of these magic few people to be allowed to present your music to the world. (Even then, they assigned you a manager, stylist, producer, band, etc.)

As of the last few years, now 90% of your career is up to you. You have all the tools to make it happen.

Record labels aren’t guessing anymore. They’re only signing artists that have made a success on their own. As Alan Elliott says, “A record label used to be able to look at a tree and say, ‘That would make a great table.’ Now all they can do is take a finished table and sell it at Wal-Mart.”

You have to make a great recording, a great show, a great image. You have to come up with a plan and make it happen, too. You have to make thousands of people want your music so much they pay good money for it. You have to make things happen on your own. Even if a record label puts it in the stores for you, it’s still up to your own hard work to go make people buy it.

The only thing stopping you from great success is yourself. This is both scary and exciting. At least you’re in control.


Can't try it? Won't buy it.

When Trent Reznor expressed disappointment over Saul Williams’ sales data last January, bloggers and journalists offered many reasons why, when fans were given the option to download the NiggyTardust album for free or for $5, only 1 out of 5 downloaders chose to pay the $5. Some argued that there should have been an option to pay something less than $5. Others suggested that Williams wasn’t a big enough act to pull something like this off, and that Reznor may not have been the right man to endorse and market Williams’ style of music. And of course there was talk about sorry state of the recorded music business.

But I think there was a more fundamental problem with the payment option for NiggyTardust that was not emphasized enough in the analysis following Reznor’s annoucement: Fans were being asked to pay for music BEFORE hearing it. No previews, no 30-second clips, no nothing. Getting people to pay for music before hearing a single note is, as others have explained, a very tough thing to do. I have to imagine that some portion of the downloaders who chose free would have been willing to pay if they actually knew what they were getting beforehand.

(Now don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to download an album like this for free. And given the tremendous promotional fallout from the NiggyTardust experiment, I personally don’t consider the release an economic disappointment at all. But I do believe that many fans want to support their favorite musicians when possible, and selling downloads isn’t dead yet. So for artists and labels, it’s worth thinking about how to incentivize fans to pay for digital music even when free is an option too).

I wonder what the percentages of free and paid downloads would have been if streaming audio clips of NiggyTardust had been made available on the website? My purely speculative guess is that some of the free downloaders would have chosen to pay (because they know they’ll love it), some would have chosen not to download at all (because they know they’ll hate it), and most would have still chosen free (because they’re not sure how they like it or they simply don’t want to pay). So they probably would have gotten a little more revenue this way, and still delivered the music to a lot of hard drives and iPods of potential long-term fans.

Going one step further, I wonder what would have happened if Reznor and Williams had emailed the free downloaders a couple weeks later and said something like, “Hey there, we hope you’re enjoying NiggyTardust. If you’ve decided you like the album, consider clicking the link below where, for only $5, you can download higher-quality audio files and help support Saul Williams.” Could a significant number of listeners be persuaded to pay after the fact? I guess someone’s just going to have to try it…


Welcome to the Think Tank

Music Think Tank is a brand new group blog, featuring some of my favourite thinkers in the online music world. The site’s so new, it barely has any words in it - but it’s already picking up interest as the new source of the best conversations about music online.

I’m looking forward to growing the site and developing some new and exciting features (keep an eye out for the Friday Clinic - coming soon), as well as introducing you to my friends who are - without exception - talented, witty, knowledgeable, intelligent, insightful and passionate people, who are all totally committed to music, musicians and the (new) music business.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, and if you’d like to get in touch, there’s a link on the sidebar for just that purpose. Don’t forget to subscribe to the RSS feed and stay up to date with all that’s going on in the Music Think Tank.

Thanks for stopping by! 


Aiming to please a few big clients versus aiming to please lots of little clients

Thinking about the difference between aiming to please a few big clients versus aiming to please lots of little clients.

From a business point of view:

Many small entrepreneurs think, “If we could just land Apple, Google, or the government as a client, we’ll be all set!”

Software companies often do this. They hope to make some technology that a huge company will want to build into every product, or install at every employee’s desk.

But there are many problems with this:

  • you have to custom-tailor your product to please very few specific people
  • those people may change their mind or leave the company
  • who are you really working for? are you self-employed or are they your boss?
  • if you do land the big client, they practically own you
  • by trying so hard to please the big client, you lose touch with what the rest of the world wants

Instead, imagine if you designed your business to have NO big clients - just lots of little clients.

  • you don’t need to change what you do to please one client - only the majority (or yourself)
  • if one client needs to leave, it’s OK, you can sincerely wish them well
  • because no one client can demand you do what they say, you are your own boss (as long as you keep clients happy in general)
  • you hear hundreds of people’s opinions, and stay in touch with what the majority of people want

Now, let’s think of this from a music point of view:

Some musicians think, “If I could just land a deal with Interscope or Warner, I’ll be all set!”

But look at the above lists again. It all applies.

The dangerous thing about the record deal mentality is you start changing what you do to please the one or two people at companies who have shown an interest in your music.

It not only hurts your music, but puts you on shaky ground when (not if) that person leaves the company.

By making a plan to only please your fans, labels be damned, then not only do you stay in touch with what people love, but it puts your career on much steadier ground.


People are like sheep. To market music, the appearance of celebrity momentum matters.


“It’s on the radio, it has to be good.”  Of course you don’t agree with that statement, but the average person thinks it, says it and acts like every artist in heavy rotation is the second coming of Christ.  Moreover, once an artist is on the radio, the time it takes to go from lame to fame is shorter than a London summer.  

Song quality is not the major determining factor here.  Radio, among other methods, has the ability to demonstrate the appearance of celebrity momentum.  People are like sheep, or perhaps I should have said people are like primates.  

According to researchers at the Center For Cognitive Science at Duke University, “primates will perform a variety of behaviors, including pressing levers or moving their heads into a viewing channel, to gain visual access to other [powerful and attractive] individuals.  Moreover, primates will sometimes forego food rewards to view videos of [these] other individuals”.

I don’t think it matters if we are talking about oceans of fans or puddles.  If the people in your puddle think you are on your way to becoming a celebrity they press levers, move their heads and forego food to help you.        

What else generates the appearance of celebrity momentum?

  • Does having studio-quality recordings give off the appearance of celebrity momentum?
  • Does the use of a famous or legendary studio give off the appearance of celebrity momentum?
  • How about your selection of a producer?
  • What about being featured on numerous film or television soundtracks?
  • Opening up for an a-list act gives of the appearance of celebrity momentum, doesn’t it?

It seems to me, that it doesn’t matter how good your songs are.  If your celebrity momentum starts to diminish, fans go back to eating again.  What do you think?

Thanks to Jake Halpern (WSJ, Oct. 4th, 2007) for pointing out the Duke research.


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