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Marketing Music Through Non-Linear Communication: The Ecosystem Of Fans, Artist & Label

This contribution is by Bas Grasmayer (@Spartz), head of online communication at, a d.i.y. platform for music creators and content owners.

Be remarkable, be easy to discover, turn your fanbase into a party, connect, listen.

Those were the final words of my article when I introduced my thesis’ main theory of the ecosystem of fans on hypebot back in March. Being a perfectionist, I’ve been waiting with the public release of my thesis until I felt that the layout matched the content. I teamed up with a wonderful designer called Ryan Van Etten, who built an amazing site for this thesis, which you can visit at (and the entire thing is available in its entirety for free).

Moving beyond piracy

To be frank, one of the main motivations for writing about this topic has to do with my opinion about the piracy debate. I find it a waste of time, partly because I’m a so-called ‘digital native’ who grew up with the internet and I’ve never really seen piracy as a huge problem compared to the massive opportunities the internet created. When I recently interviewed French electro-producer Para One, he echoed my opinion about the internet: “it would be unfair to hate it.”

So after doing some basic research about the music industry more than two years ago, which included interviewing Gerd Leonhard over Skype, I realized that what I wanted to do for record labels and artists is develop a marketing model which accepts and embraces the full reality of the web, not just the bits and pieces that the major lobbies are willing to tolerate. You either embrace the full reality of the web, or you don’t embrace it at all. To me, there is no in-between. Either you get it, or you don’t.

Non-linear communication

Soon I realized that piracy is actually not the main problem or main cause of problems; it’s a symptom of something else. The web has allowed for non-linear communication through networks on a massive scale. The music industry’s first introduction to this was probably Napster (oh yes I said the N-word). To me, Napster symbolizes the music industry’s near total loss of control over the distribution of their product. The industry’s unwillingness or inability to adjust to this new reality of non-linear communication only made things worse (perhaps a lack of understanding has been the problem).

Other symptoms of the web’s non-linear communication are social networks (including the music industry’s darling MySpace), ‘word of mouse’, music like water and there are even people who say it has changed young people’s thought processes:

“It’s not always easy to understand what millennials are saying. That’s because they’ve developed a non-linear way of thinking, that exactly reflects the language of the internet where an infinity of subjects can be followed at the same time. For these millennials, it is natural to start out with something and end up […] somewhere else.”

For a full understanding of what has happened, you should really read the problem section of the thesis.

What I wanted to figure out is: how can artists and labels fully adapt to this changed reality?

The answer is the ecosystem: marketing music through non-linear communication

Although people like Gerd Leonhard, Derek Sivers and Mike Masnick had given me ideas about the dos and don’ts, I didn’t get the full frame I was looking for until I met with Dutch music manager Niels Aalberts for a cup of coffee. When he described his artists’ fanbases as ‘ecosystems’, suddenly everything clicked together.

To me, fanbase suggests a certain distance between artists and fans. It comes from a more linear age where one-to-many was the norm. You would communicate to fans through your music, interviews in magazines, appearances on the radio, music videos and perhaps you would return fanmail every now and then. Now the artist can be placed at the center of the network and is the unifying factor of fans who can now get interconnected. One of my favourite examples of this is deadmau5’ Minecraft server, where fans and artist literally immerse themselves in a world composed of fan art.

The basic formula for the digital age is best explained like this:

  • Be remarkable: whatever you do, whoever you are has to be a story worth talking about. Without that you’re never going to be able to leverage non-linear communication. There are a lot of very skillful musicians and artists out there, but how many are really worth talking about?
  • Be easy to discover: pretty basic, but you’d be surprised. Be on YouTube, be on Facebook, be on Twitter, have a homepage that unites them all. Publish in as many different places as possible and let your content be your marketing. If your content is truly remarkable, you should make it easy for fans to let it go viral. My favourite example here is The Ugly Dance.

  • Turn your fanbase into a party: this is where you will really start witnessing the ecosystem’s dynamics. We’ve all been to house parties where everyone was bored, standing around, waiting for the host to come talk to them whilst figuring out an exit strategy and how much food and drinks to consume to make the trip to the party worth it. What a huge difference that is with a great house party where the host makes sure everybody’s connected and having a good time; the type of party where people wouldn’t really notice if the host went for a 30 minute walk. The internet works the same way!

  • Connect: at the same time, one needs to deepen their connection with fans. Fans have to feel involved with you, make them care. People are more likely to buy music after connecting with them.

  • Listen: your fans listen to your music and you should listen to them. If you’re really interconnected with your fans, you can more accurately pick up the non-linear communication and jump in whenever people want something. From this listening the business opportunities arise. They go way beyond selling digital or physical copies of music. People want to spend money on music, truly, but you need to give them a reason: don’t offer them something you want them to buy, offer them something they want you to sell.

Be remarkable, be easy to discover, turn your fanbase into a party, connect, listen.

Link to thesis site: The Answer is the Ecosystem: Marketing Music Through Non-Linear Communication

Bas Grasmayer (@Spartz) is an International Communication Management graduate, music biz 2.0 consultant and currently works as Head of Online Communication for startup which hypebot named one of the 10 Smartest Startups at SF MusicTech.

Reader Comments (8)

Great article! I have implemented alot of these thing in the past year or so and seen a big change in growth. It's a lot more fun this way too lol

July 20 | Unregistered CommenterFloco Torres

Yeah it's not as fun when bands are disconnected from their fans. I'm more into bands that aren't too afraid/lazy to connect with their fans. When playing a show, I love going out to the crowd after my set and talking to people. It makes it so people will remember you better.

July 21 | Registered CommenterRhubarb Jam

@Rhubarb: True, I think a lot of bands forget how special it is/was to feel connected to your favourite band :) or even a band that you just really like.

@Floco: really interested in hearing more about that.

July 21 | Unregistered CommenterBas Grasmayer

Bas, thanks for a well presented post.

Perhaps it's because you are a 'digital native' that I find there are huge chunks missing from your new model.

There are many people who like to buy things who are not as at ease with the online experience as you. At current rates of life expectancy they (we) will be around a long time. It's one of the reasons why the arguments about the music biz are so skewed.

On the one hand, there are all the newly expressed thoughts (including 'non linear' - which could also be another way of saying 'young' - people have been saying that young people are natural anarchists for centuries) then there is a weird assumption that pop music is still mainly for young people, just like it used to be from the 1950s to the 70s.

So, perhaps this model needs to be presented as appropriate for a certain demographic and, potentially, for a certain genre of music, too, as not all genres will benefit from a close relationship between artist and public.

I also wonder if the key to this and many other posts and blog articles running in a similar vein, is that this really isn't a model for music. Rooting it in pop music makes it seem quaintly old fashioned, when you're really talking about an immersive dalliance, or an engaged transitory entertainment with music as just one of its elements.

And when you look at it like that, you realise it's already in existence and must be a fairly average experience of being online, with the surfer (do you still call them surfers?) picking and choosing their online environment based on old fashioned taste, word of mouth and peer influence.

But the biggest problem with your model is in the 'First' solution on your website: 'music has to be very good' which is entirely subjective. For instance, I took a listen to the jazz funk hip hop of Kyteman, who you cite as a good example of an artist working the 'ecosystem' and I think his music is an awful cliche. That's obviously just my opinion. But he lost me at the first hurdle. the rest of the model is pointless without that crucial 'First' proviso.

So it boils down to: do you like my music? And if people do, you can just sell it to them on iTunes then put your feet up.

July 21 | Registered CommenterTim London

Hi Tim,

In a lot of ways you're absolutely right. Especially this part:

And when you look at it like that, you realise it's already in existence and must be a fairly average experience of being online, with the surfer (do you still call them surfers?) picking and choosing their online environment based on old fashioned taste, word of mouth and peer influence.

Exactly! It IS already in existence. I'm not interested in new models grounded in fantasy; I'm interested in identifying successful existing models which are also sustainable. You see, this model is the result of research and it's what happens when you put all of the current trends and developments together. Personally I think the age of mass media kind of distorted the 'natural business model' for music and created a sense of self-entitlement for artists. I.e. make good music, put it on iTunes with your feet up. ;-)

Then when they're not making enough money, they blame piracy.

What I outlined is not a new model: it is just part of the reality of the web. However I thought an overview like this was really missing.

As for Kyteman... I too am not that impressed by their music. However there are a few elements at play: location (they focused solely on The Netherlands), timing (very important!), hype, and the ability to amaze. They made a huge 'hiphop orchestra' which was said to be especially amazing in a live setting. Anyway, my point is: if the music is not good, amazing, exceptional; you're going to have a very hard time creating a decent ecosystem (without having to spend millions).

As for the 'pop music' thing... Hardly any of the case-studies in the thesis can be described as 'pop' in my opinion. This thesis really isn't about pop. It's about building your own ecosystem within your own niche. From there, who knows... maybe it will become pop(ular) :)

Also, this is not just for young people. You'll see within the next 5-10 years, with an increasing number of convenient devices which integrate physical and digital reality (like iPads), we'll also see an increasing number of older people playing much more active roles in the ecosystems. If you look at iPad user demographics, you'll see an interesting trend.

Besides, who says an ecosystem has to be purely an online thing :-)

July 22 | Unregistered CommenterBas Grasmayer

Good answer, Bas.

Re: piracy

It's not a question of right or wrong, it would just be stupid for someone who makes their living out of music to celebrate it being devalued, even if your music features as a part of a greater 'ecosystem' that involves other experiences based around whatever you might think your 'niche' appeal is.

July 22 | Registered CommenterTim London

I don't know as I'd go so far as to say that pop music has been solely youth-focused since the fifties; while rock'n'roll and rock were blooming, there was still an awful lot of Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand on those pop charts which reflected the best of the best from a number of genres/tribes, presented cheek by jowl. Certainly the focus of the Top Forty has narrowed significantly in recent years. Thanks for the very good article, Bas, and I look forward to reading your thesis in detail.

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

This is a very good’s very interesting thank you for sharing your ideas had fun reading this thank you

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