Monday, December 14, 2009

Marketing music and other things that no one wants to buy

McGill's Stein-Sacks and my Saturday-morning remedial music class.

The marketing question of our times:
"How do you make money from free?"
Perhaps there is no one fighting harder to answer that question than the lowly musician.

Once "radio-friendly unit shifters," in recent times our musical artist has found herself unable to get paid for her music - now in intangible digital-file format! - reduced to pitching T-shirts and touring smaller markets to more and more niche audiences.

You know something is up when even a band as huge as the Rolling Stones has started to notice markets like Regina and Halifax.

Manitoba Music seminar

With that in mind, I recently attended a Saturday seminar on "Marketing Music in the New Economy" at Manitoba Music, partially because I'm advising two CreComm students on their Independent Professional Projects this year (promoting local musicians Rebel Yell and Joel Nickel), and also because "the music problem" is an interesting marketing challenge.

The solution to this challenge could have repercussions for not only the music business, but all of the other businesses that have been hit hard by new media (newspapers, photography, and the once recession-proof porn industry, to name just a few).

Having worked at promoting musicians in the past, I know how it usually works: the musical genius toils for a year (or years) to make a CD, puts it out, and waits for something to happen. It doesn't, so he or she records another CD, puts it out, and repeats the process.

The musical mind tends to shut down when it comes to promoting the product, which is probably common among artists in all mediums. "Commerce" is the point where "artistry" becomes a business and is, therefore, less interesting to the artist.

But, "everyone's gotta eat," right? And it's harder for a musician to eat when no one buys his or her music anymore, right? Right!

So, I was pleased to see a number of musicians at the seminar living up to their reputation as being flighty, creative, and mostly uninterested in the promotional side of the business - but doing their best to force it upon themselves in these troubled times, which is really all you can ask.

The basics of making money in the music business today

The seminar was conducted by Shelley Stein-Sacks who teaches about the music business at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.

Some snapshots of what he had to say:

1. Marketing music is about creating memorable experiences - you have to know who you are before you know what you're going to say.

2. Live performance is bigger than music sales, because it can't be duplicated. As a new artist, you should never play more than 20 or 30 shows a year to create urgency among an audience to come out to see you; once you can fill 250 seats with paying customers, tour all you like.

3. For Canadian musicians, the best market is your city and the largest, closest U.S. cities. For Winnipeg, that would be Minneapolis and Chicago, because - culturally - they're a lot like ours.

4. The slotting allowance ruined music stores. The reason music stores used to work is because the hip people who worked at them front-shelved the merchandise. As soon as the music companies paid for that privilege, the experience bottomed out.

5. Bad "authentic" music is better than good "inauthentic" music. Be genuine in your marketing, speak with your own voice, and be true to your own beliefs.

6. Every band needs a marketing plan that covers brand, fans, publicity, and PR.

7. Never "work out your product" onstage. If it's not ready for the masses, don't perform until it is. "The next one will be better" is the path to musical destruction.

8. Merchandise is where you make most of your money. It's not "the music business," it's "the merchandise business;" however, musicians have to be better at tracking where it all goes and not handing out too many freebies. Zazzle, CafePress Canada, and House of Bands are essential.

9. "The media blitz" kills artists. Promote yourself to a maximum of 10 media outlets to maintain an air of exclusivity.

10. PR is huge. But it's uncontrolled media, so you have to be genuine and true to yourself when you're being interviewed.

11. An electronic press kit (EPK) at is essential. Use succinct phrasing in your EPK, because you want journalists and bloggers to lift it. "Push marketing" doesn't work with an EPK - you have to "pull in" your audience by making them seek you out.

12. Your most important press day is album-launch day. Don't waste it by having a "launch party;" they're no longer news and not part of a marketing strategy, because they don't change anyone's mind.

13. Arts funding is useful, but counterproductive to promotion - it ruins the artist's drive to "do it yourself."

14. A niche audience can pay rich dividends. Case in point: Eileen Quinn, the musician who sings "music for sailors."

The online strategy

Having a good Web strategy is possibly the most important thing for a musician today, according to Stein-Sacks. In addition to using EPKs and the merchandise websites named above, he says that musicians and bands require the following:

1. To control the online experience; MySpace and Facebook aren't enough, you also need a website under your own domain name. Your website should never launch with Flash, which is too boring and makes your audience instantly click away.

2. To be transparent. Continually update your audience with what you're doing. This may take on different forms. See below.

3. To conduct research. Know who your audience is, where they live, what they care about, demographics, etc., and speak directly to that audience. Google Analytics helps.

4. To troll the sites that write about you. When someone writes a blog or posts a podcast about you, thank them by posting a comment in return.

5. To offer online promotions and contests to get people interacting with you.

6. To get on Twitter and Facebook, but don't just sit there when you do. You need to really listen to what people are saying to and about you and respond accordingly.

7. To start a blog, and be prepared to spend eight to 10 hours a week on it. If you can't spend that much time on it, don't do it. A blog is labor-intensive but builds one of the deepest relationships with your audience.

8. Email your fans, but get their permission before you do it. Once you do, don't just sit on your hands: communicate. Only send emails if you can personalize the email, keep the subject line important and short (and avoid spam-like appeals), consider how often is too often, and avoid using use emoticons, all caps, all-bold, or high-priority wingdings.

One last thing

Stein-Sacks' last bit of advice for musicians: selling music and merch is like selling Tic Tacs - the money will come in a little at a time (micropayments), but you'll make enough to live on if you've got the drive, ambition, and talent.


  1. Some great insights, thanks for posting this, Kenton!

  2. Hey, i just bought 2 CDs on the weekend!

    Interesting stuff, Kenton.

    Have a few questions:

    1) Did the seminar touch upon putting up your music entirely for free and letting fans decide how much to pay for it, if anything?

    This is being done recently by NIN, Radiohead, etc. Though NIN made around $1.6 million in the first week of sales, most people paid nothing for Radiohead's "In Rainbows."

    And what are your thoughts on that?

    2) Do record labels even have much of a future? Especially in the age of social media, is it becoming easier for bands to cut out the middleman (labels), market themselves and take a healthier cut of the profits?

    Interesting math here:

  3. (sorry, ignore that Radiohead comment. Reading a ton of different stuff, but it does seem that they made quite the pretty penny from their promotion)

  4. Hey,

    The major labels are in big trouble; his point was that in the old days, every artist would be propped up by the labels' huge artists, but that can't happen anymore.

    He also said that most musicians don't understand that an "advance" from a label is something that has to be paid back! You might as well just invest your own money.

    The "honesty box" approach was actually first done by Canada's own Jane Siberry, but it took Radiohead to take it to the mainstream.

    I think he'd say that it's not a bad business model, but that there'd better be something you are selling for actual money at the same time. I'm sure Radiohead isn't hurting for T-shirt sales and other stuff!

  5. Mostly good observations, but I'd take issue with "general rules" #7.

    The only way for a musician or band to actually get better is by performing for people.

    There are no shortcuts to this, and for a lot of bands means playing to nobody a number of times a year.

    Learning to handle the on-the-spot issues that crop up on stage vs. the practice studio/space is key to controlling the 'product' and can't be underestimated.

    Amp goes out? what do you do? PA feeding back? Strings break? Drummer drunk?

    And, I'd add, bands who truly care about being seen in context in a live performance lose money on shows in the early years because they forked over the $$$ to hire an invisible, but absolutely invaluable member: the soundguy.

    James T.

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