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My Interview with SXSW Magazine on Online Strategy for Musicians

SXSW Fight Portland

At last count, if I’m correct, I’ve attended the SXSW Conference at least seventeen times, and on many of those visits I have been very grateful for the opportunity to speak on a panel. When Brian Zisk, a co-founder of the SanFran MusicTech conference, invited me to speak again on a panel in December, and also to join him on his panel at this year’s SXSW, I gave pause.

Seventeen years is a long time, therefore that begs the question - what has all the talking, presenting, networking and mingling at SXSW achieved for the music industry/community at large?

The answer to that is simple - it’s hard to know what, if anything, changed and even harder to quantify. Yet change came along anyway. In that seventeen year timeframe we all saw the rise of the more public face of the Internet, the nascent World Wide Web. And as Chris Anderson of Wired points out, “… the Internet is the once-a-century invention. The Web is just one application upon it. There are, and will be, others.” For music, as we know, this was a serious game changer. The labels blinked…

Some musicians learned to use the web well and at SXSW in March 2007 David Byrne warned record labels that they must act very quickly and adapt much faster to the web’s promise. He predicted that by 2012, sales of music as downloads or through streaming services would strip the sales of CDs. He was very prescient. I share his views but I also now lay the blame at the feet of the musicians themselves. There is so much more they could be doing if they fully embraced the social web with a strong, well planned digital strategy. Or, as I put it in this essay - Dear Musicians, Please Be Brilliant or Get Out of The Way.

What follows here is the full version of an interview I gave for SXSWorld Magazine. An edited version appears in the print and online magazine on page 58. The discussion centered around our company Fight and its approach to brand strategy and iterative marketing. Our ideas would work just as well for bands and labels. After all, they are brands too.

For the layman, how would you describe what your company does, and how it functions in relation to the changing online and media landscape? Fight is a brand strategy company that works with clients to help them align their brand strategy both online and off. For too long, advertising agencies have been struggling with the asymmetrical online world. It puzzles them because they consider the web like TV, as if it has multiple channels. They see the web as packed with eyeballs all wanting to see their clients messages - that is totally untrue. Getting attention online is the key. One-way, controlled messaging is not the answer.

Fight approaches this problem by working with companies, setting realistic goals and targets, then moving ahead in iterative steps to see what is working. If all is well, we move to the second stage of the campaign - based on results. If something isn’t working we move back to the previous phase. We continue testing and analyzing throughout the campaign. The old adage of “build it and they will come” doesn’t work on the web. We want to show results and actual $$ ROI for our clients.

How does the social-networking aspect fit into this, and how can musicians make better use of it? What needs pointing out is that “social media” is just an idea. [Edit: I prefer to use the term, Social Web] The term “social media” feels like it was dreamed up by marketers, who, believing the web is like TV, wanted to create “channels” to reach people online. Remember, as Chris Anderson of Wired wrote in a Tweet recently “the Internet is one of those ‘once in a century’ inventions and the web is just an application that sits on the Internet. There are, and will be other applications.” 

Social networks are simply places where people gather online. Anthropology takes care of the need for humans to be constantly in touch, technology just shortens the distance between us via, say, the web or mobile devices. Therefore, I’d argue, that bands need an online digital strategy worked out in advance. Having a MySpace page or Facebook fan page is not a digital strategy for musicians.

Now that Google has delivered Google Music Search and Twitter provides real time search, I argue that musicians must now have their own url. If they did, then they would benefit from those searches by having their url come up in the results. If they don’t then their MySpace url will come up first.

A digital strategy would ensure that the intended actions of a fan landing on the musician’s web page might include buying some music, a T-shirt or signing up to an email list. If you are just one of millions of bands on MySpace I’d say those are difficult result to achieve. All those social network tools should simply be used as part of a strong digital/online strategy.

How does your background as a musician and [former] label owner influence the way you approach these issues now? I developed my thoughts and ideas about online music distribution over the last 15 years. I reached my current phase of thoughts and ideas after attending SXSW 2009 and realizing that musicians were using the web because of its zero barrier-to-entry model, but I felt they weren’t using it wisely. That was when I wrote “The End of The Recording Album As The Organizing Principle” 

In your SanFranMusicTech essay, you lay much of the responsibility for the current state of the music industry on musicians, rather than record companies, for not taking better advantage of the branding and social-networking opportunities available to them.  Could you expand on this a bit, and on what musicians can do to function more efficiently in the current climate?  Should artists be focusing more on building and developing their brand, rather than focusing on record sales? I’m not sure that you’ve grasped the big idea behind the essay. I’m not saying that musicians should necessarily be using the web for branding and social networking opportunities, I’m saying that merely releasing a CD in 2010 will be a bad idea. The web should be used as one part of musician’s strategies for the music-release-as-an-event idea.

Big thinking is required and unfortunately the thinking still remains small and cloistered around the old way of releasing a CD, as part of a release/reviews/tour campaign that is still a label mindset. The web isn’t suited to a ‘campaign’ strategy. Labels will argue “oh, but we use the web by posting videos to YouTube and getting MP3s to music blogs” but that is small potatoes I think. I know it’s a cliché, but Radiohead and NIN gave everyone pointers to how it can be done. Embracing those ideas is now up to musicians. If they don’t start to embrace bigger thinking, then musicians will definitely not make a living from their recorded works.

What are your goals and objectives for your SXSW appearance this year, and what issues do you plan to address? I believe I have attended SXSW at least 15 times and I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to speak on panels for many of those visits. I always look forward to SXSW [especially now, as it has expanded into the Interactive world] and I arrive expecting to learn something new, which does happen occasionally.

One example was being able to sit in and hear Clay Shirky remind a panel of journalists, book publishers and newspaper folks that “the internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history…”  That phrase of his could also be paraphrased as “the internet is the largest group of people who care about music ever assembled in history…” When musicians, labels and others paint music downloading as ‘piracy,’ ‘stealing’ or ‘illegal’ they are creating a “Fog of War” that is intended to serve one purpose that can be summed up as -

We don’t understand how music lovers want to access music, nor do we understand how an eight year old girl today will want to access her music in future. Therefore we will continue to speak out in media catch phrases, instead of doing deep research that will allow us to understand, via real data, how better to serve new generations of music fans.  My goal? That’s easy. I would love nothing more than to have a forward-thinking record label or band manager hire Fight, to help them be successful in a shifting online music world. Talk is cheap, action is required based on real information.

Fight is a brand strategy and iterative marketing company based in Portland, Oregon, USA

Reader Comments (11)


Thanks for the great posts you have dropped onto Music Think Tank. Looking forward to hearing more about Fight.

"Iterative Marketing Company" - Never heard it that way before, and it's perfect. Shrinking the feedback loop should be everyone's goal. Great thinking.

Good luck with the venture.


February 16 | Registered CommenterMusic Think Tank

Good post, lots of great ideas. On issue that comes up for me, however, that this article does not rally touch on is Time. As in having the time to do all this social stuff. I agree, the web is the future and digital distribution will most likely fully supplant digital distribution. But, as with so many things, the web's greatest strength is its greatest weakness: By allowing one person to do everything himself, the web creates a massive time suck, not only in keeping up with social interactions but also in keeping up with the knowledge using it effectively requires. In the end, despite the web's massive promise, if you want to leverage it, you should hire an expert like Fight. And how much does that cost? Probably too much for most musicians.


February 16 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Shattuck

I appreciate you drawing attention to the neccesity for a "digital strategy". It is my opinion that this digital strategy has to be well intergrated with whatever non digital strategy is to be implemented. Everything piece of the machine should work together with every other piece to create an efficient sales funnel and it needs to be automated. I think about this constantly. Musicians are generally resistant to this idea, as it is really a marketing professional's world. However, if you are trying to make a living with your music, then you are a marketer. Sorry.

You can't just jump on the internet with one of the digital distributors, get a myspace page and a facebook account and then consider that aspect of your marketing plan accomplished. You have to think it through and figure how you are going to connect it to your shows, your merch, your mailing list and so on. All of it has to make sense.

Tom Siegel

February 16 | Registered CommenterTom Siegel

I posted the following on Dave's website ( ) and got a nice response. I'm reposting here because I heart MTT.

Dave, you have been advocating for a re-imagining of how artists should utilize the internet to spread their music. I think, however, that some of your readers like myself may feel a bit confused as to what, exactly you are proposing.

Both here, and in your "Dear Musicians" piece you say that musicians need to act more independently and think outside of the box. I do wonder if this speaks to a genuine new paradigm in music, or if it is simply another way of saying that artists need to find their own special digital gimmick to break through.

I don't think you're advocating gimmickry, per se, but when you write: "Big thinking is required and unfortunately the thinking still remains small and cloistered around the old way of releasing a CD, as part of a release/reviews/tour campaign that is still a label mindset", it is confusing and disheartening because this remains the continuing model for success. What bands who found new success in 2009 did NOT follow that model? Animal Collective, Phoenix, and Pains of Being Pure at Heart did.

I think what needs to be explained is what, if any, are the guiding principles for this web-savy 21st century "big thinking." Because if there are none, save for 'whatever works, online.' Then you may as well be telling people to brainstorm gimmicks. That, for me, falls short of strategy... and I think we can agree that this is all about strategy.

A strategy is not just a list of objectives and ways to achieve them - thats a shopping list. To be considered strategy, a plan must be based around certain guiding premises, which are used to refine those goals and make adjustements to tactics as events unfold. Of course, each strategy is unique to each artist. But if we can't say that there are some general underlying ideas that should be incorporated into how musicians use the web (that are deeper than saying "use it well!"), then we're just blowing smoke.

I will admit that I myself am on the fence as to whether such strategies can, in fact emerge. It may very well be that, on the internet, the best policy is to throw stuff at the wall until you find an interesting meme or tactic that sticks, and then work it. But there's little new about that.

February 17 | Unregistered CommenterJustin


Can't speak for Dave, but when I say things like "big thinking" and "elaborate plans" (see my post from today), I am giving you just enough rope to hang yourself :) What I am hoping for (and often get) is an email or phone call (preferred) asking for more details. It's hard to put "operational details" into a post because every artist is different. I like the (two way) phone calls because they enable me to obtain a ton of feet-on-the-street information without having to leave my office.

February 17 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Warila


I'm not proposing or demanding that Dave (or whoever) lay out a nice template that can be applied to any artist. What I am trying to say is that I am having great difficulty separating the idea that artists need to have a well-greased-machine of a Web Strategy, from the notion that artists should just throw stuff at the wall, and (attentively) see what sticks.

Now, your Elaborate Plans post made a lot more sense to me, because what I heard you talking about was building creative value. Making yourself intriguing and interesting, through your work (I think we're not allowed to use the term "branding" anymore right?). I heard you talking about the product - the message.

Now, when we get into the big "the-medium-is-the-message" territory, things look more iffy for me. I simply don't see examples of success cropping up that fit in this new paradigm. And part of the reason is that I guess I just don't get what this idea of an all-encompassing Web Strategy is, if not putting interesting content online, and trying to communicate it to people with as many web tools as you can muster. Thats all I'm hearing. But there is clearly some deeper zeitgeist in what Dave is saying; some vision of a shift in how we "think about" and "experience" music and artists. That all sounds real, real cool, but it seems a bit like waiting for the second coming or universal zen enlightenment. We can talk about what it would be like and how great it would be and how we would be different... but its not a clear concrete thing.

At least not in the way I'm hearing it. I admit that the problem may just be in my inability to digest this and see the concept in action already.

February 17 | Unregistered CommenterJustin


Great comments. Enjoyable reading and I completely agree. Andrew Dubber is about to kick of some research through his university. ( We need more research and evidence for sure.

I can only advise you all based upon the general things that have worked (really well) for me in other industries over numerous years of plugging away (I am 46) . In this industry (this is true for everyone), it's mostly all uncharted waters now. We need a few (2-3) more years of navigation to figure out where we have beached the ship.

It's almost like building the first rocket to send a chimp to the moon with advice from automotive engineers. When considering the complexity of the task, I guess you are better off with the willing experts than with just the chimpanzee.

February 17 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Warila

It would be great to hear from those involved in successful campaigns in the music industry that have managed to exploit what already exists: the combination of radio/TV/press profile plus web action. You know, who did what and how. My own feeling is that the new mindset that Dave points to will be the natural state of the generation that grows into it (like my 16 year-old daughter who loves but never pays for music) and will always be uncomfortable for those who remember going into shops to buy records and CDs. The marketing strategies will probably, in the end, be worked out by members of this new generation FOR this generation, even at the behest of old ex-punks (myself) and post-punks.

The web is a glorious mess and I don't see that changing. The old rules can't apply: as Jeff Shattuck implies, above, artists hoping to exploit the new possibilities of the web have to calculate return on investment as much on personal 'time-suck' as on advertising costs, production costs etc That's harder to quantify for a musician than it is for consultants.

And, of course, there will never be a complete cut-off from all the other media. Building relationships with the ten or so influential BBC radio producers in the UK (or hiring someone else to) might be/is just as important as updating your website. A different kind of time-suck.

In the end, updating the music biz is less like updating the operating system on your computer, more like the constant toil of keeping a car on the road, acknowledging wear and tear and taking into account new laws on safety and occasionally, ignoring them.

February 18 | Unregistered CommenterTim London

I just read this entire post and all replies and realized that it says nothing.

" I know it’s a cliché, but Radiohead and NIN gave everyone pointers to how it can be done. Embracing those ideas is now up to musicians"

You know what, I'm getting sick of that example. Radiohead and NIN, 2 bands built with the old model now rich and using their name to give away music (they can afford it).

February 18 | Unregistered CommenterFebreze

Febreze, let's switch gears. Seth Godin has very useful insights for brands, this can be applied to bands and artists when it's time To Make A Difference

February 18 | Unregistered CommenterDave Allen

I think Febreze makes a cogent point...And yes, Seth is probably a bonafide genius if there ever was one,
yet music is different terrain than book/idea thought-leader type work or artistic model.

With one sweep of the hand and saying "be remarkable" leaves a large void for most bands
who are already doing their damn best to. (be remarkable)

Most are willing to embrace the emerging model, (are there any alternatives?), but as the on-
going discussion proves, "if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there".

and Dave, thanks for all you do.

February 19 | Unregistered CommenterDale Morgan

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