My Interview with SXSW Magazine on Online Strategy for Musicians
February 15, 2010
Dave Allen in Advice from the Experts, Developing a Strategy, Digital, Internet Strategies, Resources, & Websites, Music, SXSW, Social Web, strategy
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

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (
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