When people search for information about investing in the music industry, about investing in artists, and when they are looking for information on 360 deals, my blog posts often appear within the search results. As a consequence, at least once a month, someone calls me about investing in the music industry or about investing in artists. Although this post speaks to artists, I plan to use this post and the accompanying comments as a tool to make my conversations on this topic more efficient.
One Billion True Fans - It Won’t Happen.
Even with overlap, at one thousand fans per artist, one million artists cannot acquire one billion true fans. All the music lovers in the world are never going to accept and process billions of artist-initiated emails, status updates and text messages. Pushy self-promotion doesn’t scale. If everyone is doing it, nobody is going to do it effectively; the same applies to fundraising; fans are going to tune these messages out. Collectively, artists and their managers are running the risk of appearing like financial planners at a cookout…occasionally invited, but often avoided. Moreover, the sum of all the effort and capital invested in music promotion generates such a negative return, that it makes investing heavily in time travel machines appear outright attractive. Perhaps it’s time to consider jumping off of, or avoiding altogether, the self-promotion bandwagon.
In this post I am going to argue that given the career economics of the music industry, a Promotionless To Popular Strategy (theory) is a strategy that artists are compelled to pursue prior to attempting to climb the mass-exposure / fan-acquisition pyramid.
First, some history: back in the day, to record an album in a top residential recording studio with the help of a gold-record producer and his tuned team of unkempt engineers and star-struck interns, it was commonplace to spend a small fortune to make an album. To afford a major-label dream team and a big-studio experience, you had to have an illegal drug business, a shaky investor, or a record deal. The ticket price to recording in an expensive studio on somebody else’s dime was to have long, long lines outside and crazed fans at all of your live shows. If you ask me, you should set the same bar for yourself when it comes to investing in self-promotion. Unless lines are forming out the door, down the street and around the corner, consider improving your songs and your live performances prior to doing anything else. Given the economics of the industry and what I am about to describe below, artists really don’t have many other options.
A weak online pulse equals an anemic act.
For the first time in history, if fans are impressed, you should be able to find, analyze and measure fan-generated content that features you on YouTube, on Flickr, within an expanding list of Google search results, within numerous Twitter tweets, on blogs, on file sharing networks, on music social networks, and all over Facebook. If fans are not rating, mentioning and featuring you or your songs, if the pulse of your online buzz is weak, then the very real possibility exists that your songs and/or your performances are just not good enough yet. (I do acknowledge that the behavior exhibited by fans will vary (today) from genre to genre.)
The online landscape is far different today than it was twenty-four months ago. As I stated in my last post, 500,000,000 music fans have recently acquired the unprecedented capacity to capture, edit, annotate and promote for you. The creative and promotional work done by fans will be, or already is, powerful enough to build a solid fanbase upon.
Fan-based ad creation and social promotion is already occurring across a broad spectrum of consumer products. There isn’t a smart consumer-facing company today that is not motivating ‘fans’ (crowds) to assist in message creation and/or promotion. Given the 24/7 news cycle, fierce competition and shrinking margins, reliance upon ‘fans’ is more than a passing fad, it’s becoming necessary to compete and survive within numerous industries.
The Promotionless To Popular Strategy (theory)
Theoretically speaking, if you are brave (promotion consultants will say foolish) and remarkable, you don’t really have do anything today but continually improve and consistently (weekly or monthly) show up at the same place(s) and play. Fans can almost do everything else. Give them permission and a way to capture a clean recording of your live performances, and there’s not much you can do…that fans can’t do faster, wider and better, and this includes motivating new fans (prospects) to attend your shows.
Even if you are semi-famous, operating at the lowest cost structure possible has never been more important.
The economics of a Promotionless To Popular Strategy
The cost to create studio-quality recordings has plummeted; the cost to distribute music is negligible; music is nearly free; and now the cost of promotion (including effort) is rapidly approaching zero. Going forward, you will practice and improve; you will be paid for live performances; you will sell physical merchandise and digital stuff; the need for middlemen will continue to fall off; fans will play an integral part in your rise (more so than ever); and the rewards for reaching the apex of the industry will continue to be substantial. A Promotionless To Popular Strategy is really the only promotion strategy that any unknown artist can economically justify now.
When to conclude a Promotionless To Popular Strategy
There’s a point where it makes strategic sense to invest in capitalizing on the momentum that fans have created for you; this timing would also coincide with the point where you have probably become…remarkable. I would argue that this milestone (milestone one) has been reached when the amount of online touch points, mentions and impressions has climbed into the high hundreds of thousands to low millions. This is when it makes (more) sense to seek mass-exposure placements (radio, television, film, ads, large festivals etc.); prior to this point, you are just one of the many millions (soon to be tens of millions) seeking fame and fortune via the submit-to-the-lottery-and-pray model, combined with the who-you-know-and-take-out-to-dinner method. Good luck.
Moving forward, once an artist has obtained 50,000,000 impressions (multiply listeners by spins to get impressions), it makes sense to me to invest in a support organization and the offline/online effort to capitalize on 1) your efforts to date, 2) the momentum fans have already generated, and 3) the risk mitigation that has resulted from mass-exposure placement(s). Obtaining anything less than 50,000,000 impressions diminishes your organization’s chances at achieving sustainable profits.
Note: there are plenty of people, including labels that gamble on investing in artists prior to achieving either of the milestones just covered above. However, artist investing is a business that nearly has a 100% failure rate. My advice is to never invest in expensive album recording projects, and to never invest in paid advertising, paid placement, or paid promotion until an artist has achieved milestone one.
Building a team for a Promotionless To Popular Strategy
Different times call for new thinking when it comes to ringing up obligations (paying cash or sharing percentages) to the people that work with you. Think about the YouTube videos that fans will create; the compelling images people will post on Facebook; and generally about what will be mentioned on the Internet. Strategies such as running a great party (consider a professional event planner), ensuring that your live sound quality is dialed in (use an experienced sound engineer), and seeking proven professionals to work on a single song, are more important than traditional management, Internet interns, and radio promotion consultants. You can’t afford (time and money) to keep attempting to promote yourself forward. Surround yourself with people that can help you create an unforgettable song, stage an arresting party, and deliver a stunning performance; these are the things will make your online pulse strong.
Promotionless To Popular does not equate to doing nothing! Make it easy for fans to promote you, but don’t get worked up about investing time and money into promoting yourself.
Question: My live shows are packed and I am really good, but there’s very little measurable, fan-generated activity. How come?
Response: You are just not good enough, your niche is paper thin, or you have confined yourself to a sparsely populated area. The Internet is packed with competing alternatives. Try harder and/or move to a bigger city.
Question: I have songs that would be great on a movie soundtrack. Do I really need all those touch points, mentions and impressions to obtain a placement?
Response: If I had a dime for every time an artist said they have great soundtrack songs…I would be rich. No, perhaps you don’t need all those touch points and impressions, but they prove that your song is remarkable, and more and more song and talent buyers are using ‘remarkable’ filters to find songs and artists. Good luck.
Question: I can name artists that are doing it differently, and artists that are building businesses on top of aggressive promotion. What do you say to that?
Response: There are exceptions to everything. It seems like some random artist dreams up a press-worthy promotion stunt every month. Good luck with that. Aggressive promotion costs time and money. Are these promotion-heavy artists truly generating consistent, family-supporting incomes?
Question: Does fan-generated content/messages have the same reach as artist-generated content/messages?
Response: Consider the sea of friend-networks on Facebook, the ocean of hourly tweets on Twitter, billions of text/picture messages a day, fan videos, and remixes. For any random artist, which entity generates more views, clicks, rates, mentions and re-mentions - the artist, or the sum total of his or her fans?
Question: What about the 1,000 True Fans model?
Response: Depending upon how you execute it (passively or aggressively), the 1,000 True Fans model is a subset of this model. Nobody wants to artificially stop at 1,000 fans. Keep going. If you are really starting to ‘hear’ your online buzz, leaning on 1,000 true fans to propagate your message is a great next step.
Question: Fan-generated content is not eye-popping enough.
Response: Fan-generated content is compelling enough to drive traffic and to create a measurable buzz. Watch the example video below. You be the judge. This home video (notice the sound quality) was good enough for me (a fan) to promote it. (LuxDeluxe on MySpace)