If this were a bio on Twitter, it would be short and sweet: “Music biz entrepreneur, artist manager, marketing guru, strategist, consultant, speaker, blogger & web designer.”
“Today, my goal is to find the best unsigned, independent artists and deliver their music to the world. I develop careers, facilitate business connections, negotiate deals, present opportunities, and consult on marketing and branding initiatives. I distribute music to record stores and digital download sites, chase down radio stations for airplay, and execute press and publicity campaigns. I preach about the power of the blog, social media marketing, and how new technologies can make your music heard. I understand the music business, the needs of an artist, the desires of a music fan, and the essential tools needed to help artists realize their goals.
I’m excited and confident about the future of music for many different reasons. For the Music Industry, because it’s an incredible time of new discovery where emerging technologies continue to change how we interact with music in our daily lives while the demand for music has never been greater. For Thorny Bleeder Records, because we’re helping an amazing collective of artists develop their careers in music and increase their fan base. And for Fans, because we’re delivering killer-quality, top-notch, emotion-packed, sweat-soaked, real-life music that truly connects with people.
We’re the voice of a new independent scene and our volume is getting louder. Together as a collective we’re stronger, making the best new music be heard.”
— Brian Thompson
A few years back I came across Thorney Bleeder Records and their free compilation, “Get Thorny”. Since then, it seems that Brian’s name, along with that of Thorny Bleeder, are constantly associated with exciting music updates and a wealth of music business knowledge. Brian’s DIY Daily and blog posts carry some priceless insight for bands that should not go unread. Getting the chance to pick Brian’s brain on a topic he knows better than most was interesting and insightful to say the least. Thanks again, Brian, for sharing your knowledge! Aaron Bethune.
Interview with Brian Thompson:
How did you get started in the music and entertainment industry?
I got started playing in some bands as a teenager. Then I ended up getting a job unpacking boxes in a warehouse for a big record store. I loved that job a lot, so I stuck around. Next thing you know, I was managing the store. Then, a number of years later, I became a buyer at the corporate head office at that chain. From there, I worked my way up to being the head buyer for the whole company. From that position I dealt with a lot of independent labels and all the major labels in Canada, as well as artist managers. I was doing all the marketing and advertising. I spent 14 years with that record chain, right up until the whole physical sales just started to kill the brick and mortar industry. That’s when I finally left to start up my own thing, which is where Thorny Bleeder got started. Thorny Bleeder has been around now for 5 years; it started off as myself and my two partners using it for promotion and distribution of the band we were focusing on, Art of Dying. We realized that we were essentially doing the job of a record label with everything we were doing for Art of Dying, so we decided it would be easier on the business side of things if we actually became a record label. So the next day we said, we’re a record label and here’s our name. We spent a number of years working on Art of Dying and after we got them up to a good international level, we got them signed to Reprise Warner worldwide. That’s when I started to focus on developing the rest of Thorny Bleeder Records and our roster of artists, building our roster of distribution and management.
What would you say are the main sources of income for bands beginning a career in the business?
The main source of income for bands in the business would be your day job. There is no main source of income for bands starting. There really isn’t. I mean, it’s playing shows and selling t-shirts. For bands starting out there really is hardly any option for creating revenue other than playing live. You’re not going to sell any records except to your few friends and family on iTunes. It’s very, very hard to get a song played in TV or a film as an upcoming artist. So, it all comes down to playing as many shows as you can and having a good variety of merchandise to sell to your fans, and just keep on doing that, because without that you’re not going to grow your fan-base. Everyone else that could potentially present you with an opportunity for revenue, probably won’t knock on your door, unless you already have a good history of live performance dates.
What is your thought on giving music and information away for free?
I’m a huge proponent of that. That’s basically my entire philosophy on marketing and music. You have to give stuff away. I do that as a label. Even what we’re doing now – I give away advice. I do that on my site all the time as well. In fact, last month I did an hour-and-a-half live web-chat on UStream which was just basically a music marketing Q&A. I gave unrestricted access to myself, to artists, and anybody else that wanted to pick my brain. So I practice what I preach, and what I preach is give your music away. It makes no sense to not let people hear your music, the whole reason why you create music is to have it heard. No one wants to pay for something that they haven’t heard. So there’s millions and millions of tracks out there for free, and if yours isn’t one of them, then you are missing out on many opportunities to create connections with potential fans of that style. So if you’re upfront with your demographic and you give music away, when you do stumble upon fans that like what you’re doing, they really appreciate the fact that you’ve given them something. That’s the start of a relationship. Music nowadays is really based on relationships with your fans. And that relationship can really stem from you giving them something for free. If they love it, chances are eventually they will reciprocate, either by paying for a ticket to come and see you live, or wanting to actually buy that piece of vinyl rather than just the free download that you gave. Your music is your business card. When you’re out networking as a business owner, entrepreneur or whatever, when you give someone your business card, you don’t ask for 15 cents, you give it away for free. As a musician, that’s what your album is. Let’s face it, you’re not losing anything. As a digital download you’re not losing anything, it’s a free item. There’s nothing to lose, there’s everything to gain. I can’t preach that enough.
What are effective ways for bands to gain a larger following on social networking sites?
You have to spend time at it. You can’t just create a profile and expect people to show up. It’s like having your phone number in a phone book. Just because your number is in a phone book, doesn’t mean your phone’s going to ring off the hook. It’s the same with social profiles. You have to spend time letting people know that it’s there. Whether you spend 15 minutes, half an hour or an hour a day, you have to network and add people that you think would be receptive to what you’re doing. So for example on Twitter, you can very easily search the profiles of people who are talking to bands that are similar to you, and then just start adding them. With Twitter, I don’t know exactly what the return rate is but there is a very good, high percentage chance, once you follow someone, they’ll follow you back. So immediately, just by adding 50 people a day, you’re creating an opportunity for people to stumble upon you. The other main thing on social media is to talk with people as opposed to talking to people. If all you’re doing is essentially spamming people, saying “Hey look at me, I’ve got a new album. Check this out, check this out.” You’re not creating any opportunity for conversation and that is what social media is all about. It’s all about being social, it’s about talking with people, having conversations, creating relationships. So many bands use it as a poster board, a billboard. All they do is post things for people hoping they’ll come and check it out, but they’re not creating any 1-on-1 direct relationships. You have to be entertaining. If all you do is post tour dates and tell people, “Here’s my latest song, please listen.” Really, you’re not engaging them in any way, so be engaging. Being funny works huge, across all social media. The funnier you are, the easier it is for people to re-spread whatever it is you’re doing. So, spend time, add people, be funny, be engaging, and be consistent. You have to keep at it. If you only make one post a week, you’re just lost in the phone book. So you have to create some new habits.
How do you build street teams, and what is usually in it for the team member?
First you have to have had some success with social media. You need to have a number of followers in different cities. That’s where the street teams originate. So if you haven’t created a fan-base outside of your home town, then street teams just won’t happen. Also, street teams won’t happen until you have hardcore fans. A casual fan won’t want to be a street teamer. There are different levels of fans, and they always start off being a casual fan. So your job using social media is to convert a casual fan into a hardcore evangelist for what you’re doing. Once you can recognize that you have a handful of hardcore evangelists for your music in different cities, then that’s when you can start approaching them to promote you in their area. Street teams usually are used for when you’re passing though their towns, so you can use them to put up posters in their city, hand out handbills, try to use any connections that they might have in their local area to get you some local press, college station coverage, talking to radio stations, music blogs that they may know, or anything like that. Aside from that, if you’re not on tour, then really a street teamer can be used to preach to their network of friends and followers and just try to convert their friends to fans, but it’s most useful when you’re on tour.
What are some of the most influential online music blogs, in your opinion?
Music blogs are very, very niche driven. There is no one answer. If you are a goth-pop-synth band, there’s a whole variety of music blogs for you to look at in that genre. If you are a metal band, then there’s another range of music blogs. You can’t just say, “Here are 10 blogs you need to check out.” The best thing to do is use Google Alerts. Google Alerts is a very important tool for bands to utilize. What Google Alerts allows you to do is to punch in a few band names that are similar to your style, and have Google auto-deliver to you, everyday, results from that search. So let’s say you sound like Three Days Grace, you punch that into Google Alerts, you save that search, then every day you’re going to get delivered to your email a list of blogs that are mentioning TDG and talking about them. From there, you just start knocking on their doors, because if they’re talking about Three Days Grace, and you sound like TDG, why not approach them? So, that’s the best way to find blogs that are suitable, but the next step is to fine-tune the art of how to approach them. You have to be particular not to spam a blog. If your first contact with the blog is a 5-paragraph email with 5 different attachments, it’s just going to go into the garbage. Most bloggers don’t respond to cold-calls. Like anything in this business nowadays, it’s all relationship driven. The best thing to do is to send a very short email, quickly introducing yourself personally, not the band, and asking the blogger if you can send him something to check out, with a quick reference as to who you are similar to. This way he has, within 20 seconds, a very quick idea of who you are and whether he’s interested in what you’re soliciting. If it’s anything longer than that, you’re just going to be an annoyance, and you won’t get a reply. So, keep it short, simple and sweet. Keep it personal, don’t just copy and paste the same introduction to every single blog that you are going to because for a professional person who works on the internet, it’s very obvious when you’re copying and pasting an email. If you’re talking to XYZ blog, talk about why you want to get on there. Reference the name of his blog. Maybe reference a review that he recently did that you really enjoyed. Number one, rub his ego a little and create some goodwill. Second, keep it short, and let him know why he might be interested in you, and ask permission to send him more. That way, it’s all polite, you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes, you’re not being too spam and you’re hopefully establishing a potential, new relationship.
In this current state of the music business, what are some of the most effective marketing tools available to bands?
It’s all online. Whatever you can do online is effective, because online is free. It doesn’t make sense to pay for ads anymore in your local entertainment papers unless you have a really built-up awareness for your band name. Paying for any time of print advertising, even posters in town is almost guaranteed to be a waste of money. So utilize whatever you can online, and aside from that the number one best thing for marketing yourself is playing live shows. Nothing beats getting in front of people and playing. Going on the road, and letting people hear you.
How do you find out about new music?
Word-of-mouth, music blogs, Twitter, Facebook, you name it.
As a manager and label what are you looking for in bands?
It’s five things. Number one, I have to be passionate about the type of music that they’re playing. Number two, after I dig it, I have to really honestly look at the songs, and say, “Okay, how good are these songs?” Regardless of how the music makes me feel, realistically, how good are the songs? How do they stack up to everything else that is out there? If I were to start pushing this song, whether to a music blog, or to a TV company that is looking for a song for a show, or to an agent, how realistic am I that this song has what it takes? So if I’m passionate, and I believe in their songs, then I need to see them live. How good are they live? Do they really pull it off live, or are they just great in the studio and don’t have that vibe happening on stage. I need to make sure they’ve got that live connection with their audience going. Next, how good are they at marketing themselves? How good is their business sense? Do they just sit in the garage and rehearse all day? If I’m going to work with someone, I need to know they have the same commitment to the business on the marketing side that they do to the music, because nowadays it’s pretty much 50-50. You have to spend 50% of your time doing the business side because no one is going to do it all for you. I need to see some initiative on the marketing, see what they’re doing online, see if they’re blogging. And lastly, do they have the ability to get out on the road and tour, tour, tour? Do they have the financial ability, do their jobs allow them to take off for months at a time, and do they have the mental stamina as a group and as individuals to be out on the road. Essentially, if I can check off all those 5 criteria, then chances are good that I would want to work with them. And I think most people in the industry are the same way. Unfortunately, if there’s only 4 of those 5 that are checked off, it doesn’t make sense for me to work with them or for that matter, for others in the industry either. Like I said before, everything comes down to – can the band get out on the road. If the band tells you they can only tour in the summer, well there’s no reason why I would work with them, because that’s where a band makes the money nowadays. For me that’s what separates a hobby band from a professional band.
Regarding approaching companies for endorsements and sponsorships – what are good ways to do that?
The number one thing is to be creative. Don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Chances are you’re going to find someone to help support you in your music, who potentially has never been approached before. Be creative with who you think you’ll be properly aligned with. Think outside the box, don’t just think of the same three things: “beer company, energy drink, sunglasses.” You’ve got to be creative, because those companies are being approached by hundreds of bands every week. Number two, is when you make that approach, it has to be as professional of a pitch as possible, because that’s what these companies are expecting. Typically, they deal with professional marketing salespeople. That’s what you’re up against. It’s either you or someone else, so you have to make your pitch as researched and as strong as possible, with as much data and facts as possible that can sell your story. At the same time, much like approaching a blog, you can’t just cold-call someone with this huge PowerPoint presentation, and huge attachments. You have to essentially reach out to these people and ask for their permission to send them more. Once you have the green light to send them a package, make sure that it is as professionally put together as possible. If you don’t have the experience or knowledge of what that person might be looking for, then find someone who does, and pay them $50 to put a package together for you. It could make a world of a difference.
How do you get your music, as an independent artist, on the radio?
Most people don’t. It’s almost impossible to get your song on the radio these days. So again, you have to be very, very realistic – how good is my song? Is it really, honestly, as good – and not just the song but the recording, the mixing, the mastering, the production – is it really up to calibre with that latest Three Days Grace song you’re hearing six times a day on the radio. If there is any question that it might not be, then there’s no point in chasing down radio. If you’re not on tour, if you’re not planning on going on tour, it’s almost pointless in chasing radio as well. Even if they do like the song, chances are they won’t add it if you aren’t passing through their town. There are 50 other bands with songs as good as yours that are passing through their town. That gives them more of a reason to support that band over one that isn’t coming through their town. Radio, they’re gatekeepers. They want to know what they are playing is the best of the best. So they want to know what your story is, where have you been, where you’re going, who’s your team. If it’s just you, and your song, and you don’t have management, if you aren’t playing a tour, if you don’t have a publicist, you don’t have a radio promoter, they know that you’re just not on the spot that’s suitable for them. So not to be a downer, but that’s what radio is. Only two to three songs a week get added to each radio station, that’s it. So just give yourself a reality check “Are we really in that spot to be one of those 2 artists in the entire world to be added to this station?” That’s traditional FM. On the other side is college radio. College radio is a lot easier to get on, but again doesn’t have the same reach, doesn’t have the same impact. I think a lot of independent bands need to focus on internet radio. Internet radio is the place to start because they don’t have the same criteria as all the other FM and college. Jango is a good place to start to try and build your radio story online and see if you actually are resonating and connecting with new fans. From there it’s just a lot of Google work. Do some Google searches on internet radio stations, blog-talk-radios and that kind of thing. Just start knocking on the doors, sending people promo packages and trying to get some people to add it.
I recently heard one person say, “Listen to the station you want to be on, and write songs that sound so much like what you already hear, based on quality and song-writing, then the radio can’t not play you…”
I wouldn’t recommend that. If you’re just writing songs to sound like somebody else, then it’s pretty obvious when an artist isn’t genuine. But if your songs are genuine and they happen to sound like someone else, then it’s okay. One of the things that FM commercial radio stations look for, and they’re the first to admit it, is that they want songs that sound instantly familiar to their listeners. And the reason why they do that is because if a song isn’t instantly familiar, whether they’ve heard it or not, if it isn’t instantly familiar, a listener may reach out and change the dial. FM listeners are very fickle, if they instantly don’t like what they hear, they change the station. If they change the station, then the radio station loses a piece of its audience, and that means they lose advertising dollars. A radio station’s job is to make money through advertising. So they want to put together a playlist that least offends an audience, they don’t take risks. So that’s why they typically add songs that sound like everything else that they’re playing.
How do you get your music distributed? What should the process be? Do you think it’s important to be on the retail shelves?
Again, back to some of the things I was saying before. If you’re not touring, and if you don’t have a publicist on board, then physical distribution doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter. So sign up to CD Baby, people that want to buy your CD can buy it through CD Baby or through your website, and of course, get it online to all the digital stores, so you can either do that through CD Baby or through a digital aggregator like TuneCore. There are other options to get it online, most notably Bandcamp, but TuneCore and CD Baby are arguably the biggest to get your songs onto the big digital storefronts. And just keep it there. Unless you’re actually on the road touring across the country, there’s no point in getting distribution. If you’re not touring, then that distributer isn’t even going to get your album into stores. Stores are the same way – why would they put your CD on the shelf, if you‘re not on the road and no one’s talking about you? No one’s walking into CD stores anymore. It just doesn’t make sense.
How do you get your music on the shelves and listening posts?
Almost no places have listening stations anymore, so aside from personally going up to that indie record store in your neighbourhood, again, it’s all relationship driven. Hardly anyone has listening stations nowadays, and if they do, that space is usually bought by a major label. Usually it costs them about $500 every couple of weeks. Very, very few people can get their music into listening posts. Chances are if you don’t have a manger, if you don’t have a publicist, if you’re not on the road, don’t even entertain that thought. Work on everything else to get yourself ready to that point.
In your opinion, what is a good song?
It has to be honest, it has to be genuine. Regardless of genre, I want to hopefully remember it after it ends. You want to hit play after hearing it again. Is there a hook? I don’t care what genre it is, whether death metal or folk, there has to be a hook, some type of hook. A lot of up-and-coming bands don’t realize that. They focus on, “Dude, that’s a really groovy riff.” No matter how groovy the riff is, it comes down to vocal melodies – that’s what makes a good song. It has to connect – there has to be some connection, real lyrics that aren’t cheesy and cliché.
Where do you see the music industry headed?
The music is going in many different directions all at once. A lot of people out there are trying to predict one place where the industry is going, and I don’t think there is going to be just one single place. I think it’s going to continue to diversify, and there are going to be many options for people. Physical sales are still going to exist, digital downloads are still going to exist, mass-pirating is still going to exist, and paid-streaming services through the Cloud are going to exist. I think they’re all going to exist altogether, and it’s just the matter of the fan choosing what’s right for them. The labels are becoming less important. Bands are having to rely less and less on a label, because labels are taking fewer and fewer chances. The power is going to continue to be put into the hands of bands that are doing it themselves. The ones that succeed in doing it for themselves are the ones that treat it as a business, treat it as their career and put every bit of money and time into it, the ones that create a team of professionals around them. So rather than a record label putting their staff to work for a band or song, it’s going to be the band hiring people they have relationships with to work for them. It’s all comes down to the bands and growing those relationships grassroots with their fans.
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