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Musicians

The power of enigma

Enigma

In pre-internet days of yore, there was a clear barrier between rock stars and their fans. If a rock star wanted to communicate with fans, this was generally done at gigs attended by thousands of people, through big newspaper interviews or via appearances on TV shows watched by millions. The communication was generally one way, with the rock star talking to (or sometimes even down to) his/her fans using the 'traditional' mass media. 

Fast forward to our whizzy fancypants digital era and, to a large degree, the internet has brought this barrier crashing down and changed the whole way stars communicate with their audiences. Firstly, the rock stars in question are able to inject themselves much more easily into a fan’s everyday, personal life, via appearances in Facebook accounts, email inboxes, Twitter feeds, Instagram pictures and so on in a way that was unimaginable even a few years ago; secondly, they can’t seem to resist using this power to divulge sometimes quite boring details of their personal lives that would never have been shared by their rock star forbears. Finally, the communication between a star and his/her audience is now two-way, with even the most successful of musicians replying to fans’ online comments on Twitter, taking part in Facebook conversations with them and so on.

All the above has led to the arrival of a conventional wisdom which says that bands – particularly unsigned bands – need to ‘engage’ with listeners in order to attain success. The idea being that artists need to develop a very direct relationship with their fans, where they must reply to even the most inane of queries; do requests of cheesy Christmas songs; go round to fans’ houses and play gigs; post pictures of themselves at home doing the washing up and so on (and yes, I've probably done all or most of these things myself at some point or other throughout my, ahem, music career). Through these personal interactions with fans, the theory goes, an artist eventually develops a fanbase comprising people who feel like they really know that musician, are friends with them, and ultimately feel compelled to buy their music when that oh-so-engaging artist finally finds time to stop chatting with fans online and actually record and release an album.

In many – perhaps most – situations, the above approach works, not least because fans, accustomed to the two-way communication processes facilitated so easily by online technology, almost demand this level of interaction and attention. And for emerging bands with small fanbases, where the act effectively knows each and every one of their listeners, it seems almost rude to ignore them. 

However, something huge is lost in all of this personal, two-way, share-everything communication business: the mythology that used to surround musicians.

When, many moons ago, I was a teenager, following a band meant devoting time and thought to a bunch of guys you really had no direct relationship with or access to. This meant imagining what that band was like. Forming your own idea about what the front man ate for tea. Developing weird and completely unfounded notions regarding what the band liked to do with their groupies at the weekends. It did not mean being shown Instagram pictures of an artist’s cat, or being subjected to tweets about a band’s preference for a shot of vanilla syrup in their lattes. The inaccessibility of musicians (coupled with the imaginations of fans) meant that rock stars ultimately ended up shrouded in enigma.

And enigma is a powerful thing, because it provides two key ingredients for rock success: interest and ‘cool’. It creates interest because an enigmatic star often represents the ultimate, sexiest mystery for fans and the media to get to the bottom of; and cool because it is the enigma surrounding an artist that makes him/her stand apart from the crowd – they form a hip clique all of their own. But too often bands today (particularly those using social media for the first time) tend to use the digital communications tools available to them to strip away anything remotely enigmatic. Inevitably status updates of the ‘I’m having a sandwich for lunch now’ variety appear, and there is nothing particularly cool, enigmatic, or curiosity-generating about that (unless your listeners really want to know what was in the sandwich).

Ultimately what I’m getting at is that in this age of instant, interactive digital communication there are still alternatives to the ‘show all, tell all’ route to pop stardom available, and sometimes an approach which focuses on maintaining enigma and mystique may be far more productive than the ‘let’s engage everybody to the nth degree’ option. Being enigmatic online doesn’t mean that you have to ignore your fans, but it does mean using online tools to communicate with them more cleverly. You can use social media to be cryptic, oblique, dark, moody and mysterious just as easily as you can use it to tell listeners what colour socks you are wearing at any given point in time – it’s really a question of deciding what sort of relationship you want with your listeners, and if you think potential fans will be more impressed with a dark and mysterious musician or one who is good at sharing pictures of his cat.

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Inbound marketing and what it means for musicians

Inbound marketing - a visual representation

Have you heard of ‘inbound marketing?’ A lot of my non-music clients are getting quite obsessed with it. And rightly so, as when employed correctly it is a powerful way of attracting and retaining new customers. ‘What the feck is inbound marketing then, and can it make me a pop star?’ I hear you mutter. All right then, I shall elaborate.

Inbound marketing typically revolves around the internet, and involves three key steps:

  1. Getting found (i.e., driving traffic to your site)
  2. Converting (capturing data and generating sales)
  3. Analysing (looking at site stats and sales data to improve steps one and two).

Although I think that inbound marketing probably works better for traditional businesses than musicians, there are still some big advantages to employing it as a tactic in the battle for rock success. So let’s break down the above three steps from a musician’s point of view.

1. Getting found

Getting found boils down to what content is on your site, how it is presented from a search engine optimisation point of view, and how easy it is for readers to share it. Interesting content is key here – and by ‘interesting’ I don’t just mean your music. Yes, it is good to have a wide range of your tracks available on your site, in a variety of audio and video formats; and ideally you should present your visitors with images and text related to your music too (for example, free downloads of posters and lyrics). But if we are honest about it, only people who already know about you will be searching for you – and to make new fans, you obviously need to start attracting people to your site who have never heard of you. The key to this is to create content which is not related to you, but of interest to an audience who might like your music.

Say your music is reminiscent of David Bowie’s and your latest album is called something like ‘Ciggie Sawdust’. Obviously therefore, you are most likely to sell your music to Bowie fans. But if you make your site exclusively about you and your music, you are unlikely to attract your target audience via search engines (as there would be little or no Bowie keywords on it). But if, for example, you were to write a blog post about what Bowie means to you, and discuss various aspects of his career in depth…well, from a Bowie fan’s point of view you are now of interest; and when they search for Bowie and Bowie-related keywords, you (and more importantly your music) have a greater chance of being discovered. Even changing your site title can have an impact – instead of calling your site ‘Official website of Joe Bloggs’ it is much better from a search perspective to use a title like ‘Joe Bloggs – camp indie rock music influenced by early 70s era David Bowie when he wore a lot of tights’. (For more information on search engine optimisation for musicians, and why site titles in particular are important, I’d check out our Prescription article on SEO for musicians.) The point is that is that there are millions of searches going on every second and by creating strong, keyword-rich articles about stuff other than your good self on your site - be they to do with art, politics, music or underwear - you can grab a share of those searches. (A key part of this really is having a blog – you can read our musician’s guide to blogging here.)

It is also worth remembering that anything you post on your site should be very easy to share - if your site or blog doesn’t have sharing buttons, you really are missing a trick. Most blogs have these by default but if you are stuck, you can install Addthis on your site very easily. Regardless of how your sharing functionality is set up, it must be there – your content will travel much further if readers can just click a sharing icon and whack your content up on Facebook or Twitter easily. This generates more traffic back to the site, which is all part of the ‘getting found’ process.

2. Converting

Now that your Bowie fan is on your site, reading your lovely Bowie-related article, what should happen next? Well, you should do a bit of converting. There are two main sorts of conversions – from site visitor to lead, or from site visitor to sale.

A site visitor becomes a lead when they have handed over their email address – or, in this era of social media madness, has followed you on Facebook or Twitter. Personally, I think that having a fan’s email address is still the best outcome, as you are in 100% charge of the communication process after that – i.e., you can email a fan whenever you want and are not dependent on a social network’s algorithm or that person being logged into Twitter / Facebook at a particular time for your message to be seen; you can also use the email address to invite somebody to follow you on social media anyway. Regardless of how you ask a visitor to your site to subscribe to communications though, you generally need to offer him or her an incentive in exchange for doing so. This could be a free track; a free ticket to a gig; or the promise of more interesting, Bowie-related articles. The key thing is to make the proposition overt and attractive. Spell out what you are offering and make it extremely easy for visitors to avail of the offer (i.e., use a  prominent data capture form on every page of your site; have clear calls to actions; visible social media buttons and so on. If using Facebook, try to employ a ‘locked content’ approach where fans have to like a page in exchange for content – to see an example of this in action, you might like to check out Chris Helme’s Facebook page, which we worked on recently to add 'download in exchange for a like' functionality).

Converting a site visitor to a sale immediately is extraordinarily difficult, particularly for musicians (as music is practically free now in this Spotify-era and people are even more reluctant than ever before to buy it!). It can happen though, and to 'give sales a chance' you need to ensure that your site is set up so that buying music is a very straightforward process – again, clear calls to action can help, as can prominent buttons, exclusive versions of products (i.e., signed CDs and merchandise) and a wide range of purchasing options (Paypal, iTunes etc.). But realistically most sales are going to come after somebody has been converted to a lead. The idea is that once the site visitor has become a lead, they receive a series of tasteful and useful email and social media communications from you, engage with you, and finally decide to part with cash.

3. Analysing

The final part of the process, the analysing bit, involves looking at what you are doing in the ‘getting found’ and ‘converting’ parts of the process, and continuously trying to improve them. In terms of analysing the ‘getting found’ aspect, you can use Google Analytics to look at what blog posts on your site are particularly popular – and create more of that kind of content; you can also use it to analyse the kind of searches that are delivering the most traffic to your site (or not) and optimise your site accordingly. You should also look at what sort of content from your site is being shared on social networks - tools like Addthis provide a lot of data on this.

As for analysing how you are capturing data, you can experiment with various propositions and see what works best. Is a download of a track a more attractive proposition than a stream? Does moving the mailing list form from the left-hand side of your website to the right-hand side generate more subscriptions? Does one type of social media icon work better than others in generating more follows? Does prioritising iTunes over Paypal mean more dosh? If you really want to go to the nth level, you could consider running some surveys via your email database about what made your site visitors take the plunge and subscribe to your mailing list – although I’m not sure how rock and roll that is.

Finally, since we’re talking inbound marketing, you could also use Hubspot’s free marketing grader tool. Hubspot coined the phrase 'inbound marketing' in the first place, and their tool looks at your site and makes simple recommendations as to how you can make it better from an inbound marketing perspective (it will score you on SEO issues, blogging frequency, social media activity and more, and then make a series of recommendations as to how you can improve things).

Whatever tools and methodology you use, the ultimate aim of the analysis is to make constant improvements to the ‘getting found’ and ‘converting’ parts of the inbound marketing process – to maximise the chances of somebody discovering your site and establishing an online relationship with you (ooh er, missus)...and eventually buying some music, gig tickets or a crappy t-shirt from you.

But…there’s a catch

Ok, so that is all great in theory isn’t it? And actually, for most of the business clients I work with when not wearing a Prescription hat, it works pretty well in practice too. There is a problem though: inbound marketing and the content creation that comes with it takes up a lot of your time – time that you could be using to write and record great music in the first place. Writing good blog posts can take ages; plodding through Google Analytics to work out if a blog post is attracting significant amount of traffic can also take a long time. But nothing in the music business is quick or easy, and as most of the music industry seems to be migrating online these days, I think it does make sense to devote some effort to understanding – and employing – this new-fangled inbound marketing stuff. It's a question of balance - making sure you are creating strong content for your site without it preventing you working on your music.

And finally...

Finally we'd just like to point out that if you're reading this Prescription article, our inbound marketing strategy is clearly working. Now may we suggest that you hire us to promote your music.

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A guide to blogging for musicians

'Blog' spelt out with Scrabble tiles

There’s a sense amongst a lot of musicians that I chat to that ‘blogging is important’, but not an understanding as to why. So in this article I thought I’d try to spell out what blogging can deliver for a musician or band, and how to go about it.

Why should I blog?

The main reason for blogging is because it delivers traffic to your site in a way that, as an independent artist, your music alone probably won’t.

If you write an interesting article about, say, the price of cabbage, it may get discovered in a search engine by a cabbage-lover, who then retweets it to the cabbage-loving community, generating thousands of visits by cabbage lovers to your site.

And, when the cabbage lovers arrive there, not only do they get to read an interesting article about cabbage, they get subtly (or not so subtly) exposed to your latest and greatest MP3.

If you had just posted this MP3 somewhere online without any references to cabbage, you wouldn’t get this traffic, because the web is full of bands posting MP3s online and frankly people are rather bored by that. A blog post about cabbage, however – now that’s interesting.

The above cabbage-related example may sound daft, but it explains pretty well how something important called ‘inbound marketing’ works. You write something interesting on your blog, it gets indexed by a search engine, and people interested in that topic discover it when they type a search phrase about it into Google.

If the article is very good, the user may well post a link to it on Twitter, Facebook etc., creating the potential for a lot of traffic to your site. It’s a ‘pull’ marketing tactic rather than a ‘push’ effort, because the quality of the blog content will drive the visits and shares (meaning you don’t have to spend money on online ads, or subject your Facebook followers to the same post about a music video involving your cat over and over again).

What should I blog about?

The simple answer usually is: not you.

If you’re blogging about how great your music is all the time, or detailing the minutiae of your latest creative project every five minutes, you are unlikely to get much in the way of traffic to your site (unless you are already a genuinely huge star, in which case I’m not sure why you are reading this advice).

Whilst it’s okay to post news of what you’re doing musically periodically into your blog, the focus of your blogging efforts should generally be on other issues. Stuff that’s topical; stuff that you’re really interested in; other bands you like and so on.

For me, the crucial thing about blogging is to write about stuff that you are genuinely fascinated by, because it will inspire you to write interesting posts, which are of course more likely to get shared and discovered than navel-gazing dissertations about your deep and meaningful lyrics.

How do I blog?

There are a host of free services out there that let you blog – the list seems to be growing endlessly, but big hitters include Blogger, Tumblr, Wordpress, Squarespace and Posterous. If you are completely new to blogging, I’d probably suggest starting off on Blogger, because it is a free service which is very easy to set up and use.

If possible though, the best thing to do is to get your music site’s web designer to include blogging functionality on your site – this is usually the ideal place to host a blog because it means that all your musical content is on display when visitors arrive at it.

How often should I blog?

SEO experts generally believe that Google and other search engines prioritise quantity over quality, so my advice is to aim to blog reasonably frequently, but only when you have a decent post to publish. That said, avid readers of your blog might appreciate regular updates — so don’t leave huge gaps between posts.

Ultimately though, it’s better to publish a high-quality, long-form post once a month than to post inconsequential blogs every 5 minutes.

How do I get people to read my blog?

The golden rule is: write interesting, topical stuff. Your blog will get indexed by search engines and if the content is strong, you will get traffic via ‘organic’ searches. However, there are some tactics beyond that which can help boost readership:

  • After writing a new post, make sure you post a link to it on Twitter and Facebook, encouraging readers to share the article. The accompanying tweet or status update should contain a short but accurate summary of what the blog post is about.

  • Add an email subscription form to your blog so that readers have the opportunity to receive new posts in their inbox when you post them. If you use an email marketing tool such as Aweber or Mailchimp, you’ll often be able to edit various settings so that the tools convert your blog posts into emails automatically and broadcast them to your subscribers.

  • Always add relevant tags to your blog posts. Tags are keywords that summarise your content and help readers and search engines to find it easily. For example, when you do get round to that ‘price of cabbage’ article, you should tag it with things like ‘cabbage’, ‘economics’, ‘vegetables’ and ‘Brassica oleracea’.

  • Keep your blog post titles engaging and keyword-rich.

  • At the bottom of every blog post, list the ways that people can follow you – mention your Twitter profile, Facebook page etc. And promote the email subscription option again. The more followers / subscribers you get, the greater the chance that your content will be regularly read and shared. It's a virtuous circle.

  • Use pictures in your blogs. Not only will these make your posts look more attractive, but any time somebody shares your posts on Facebook, the pictures will be displayed in the article preview. These will make the articles jump out of a user’s news feed much more than a boring text link.

And finally…

Finally, having gone to all that effort to create a well-crafted blog, do make sure that information about your musical activities is clearly visible on it – make sure a link to a free download is available, or that some tracks are available to stream on Soundcloud.

See also

You may find my Style Factory article on how to increase blog traffic helpful.

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An important new Youtube feature for musicians

InVideo Programming

InVideo Programming

I just came across a bit of news on the interweb which I think is worthy of sharing with you, dear Prescription reader.

And it's this: Youtube have recently launched a new feature which could potentially come in very handy for musicians: 'InVideo Programming'. 

In a nutshell, it allows you to insert two clickable thumbnails in a video which point to 

  • your Youtube channel
  • one of your other videos

You can insert one or the other, or both.

It means that if somebody stumbles across one of your music videos, it's now much easier for them to click through to (and hopefully subscribe to) your Youtube channel, or watch a video that you particularly want them to see. It also allows you to add a degree of branding to each of your Youtube videos, as the thumbnail image used to point people back to your channel is your channel's profile pic (or you can add a JPG of your choice).

Personally I hope that Youtube improve the features a bit so that when a user hovers over either the channel or the featured video thumbnail, text is displayed which clearly identifies where they will go if they click on the link; right now users just see a not-very-informative Youtube URL, which isn't madly helpful. Additionally it would be nice to be able to promote different things within different videos - right now the thumbnails are applied across all your videos, and you can only promote one of your other videos.

I've had a play with the new functionality on one of my videos, so you can see InVideo in action here.

For more information about InVideo programming, you might want to read Youtube's own blog post on the topic here.

About The Prescription

'The Prescription' is written by independent musician and Head of Digital Communications and Irish PR at Prescription PR, Chris Singleton.  

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Using Twitter: top tips for musicians and bands

Twitter logo

Twitter logo

Although Twitter’s been around for quite a while now (since 2006, if my memory serves me correctly), it’s still not fully understood – or used to maximum effect – by a lot of bands and musicians. But many do seem to have a sense of its importance, and “can you get me a bigger Twitter following?” is one of the most common questions posed by bands to Prescription PR, making us feel as though we are the musical equivalent of plastic surgeons. “For a price,” is a common answer, as we reach for some strange-looking implements. But today, dear reader, we’re giving you some free advice on using the medium – and as you’ll find out, size isn’t everything. Here’s our survival guide…

1. Pick the right username

A very obvious point this, but if your little four-piece is called, say, “The Beatles”, then don’t try to be all clever about things and pick “@YokoOno” as your Twitter handle. Pick a username that is as close as possible to your band’s, because the people who want to follow you on Twitter after seeing you play that gig at the Cavern in Liverpool are as just as likely to whack “www.twitter.com/thebeatles” into an address bar of a browser as they are to search for “The Beatles Twitter” in Google. Or at least that would have been the case had Twitter been around in 1961. It wasn't, which is why the Beatles didn't 'make it' on Twitter. They actually played a few gigs and wrote decent songs - worth doing that too, by the way.

2. You’ve got a biography: use it

Alright, a biography comprising a mere 160 characters is not nearly enough to describe the incredible things you’ve been through as an artist and to impart your views on the price of cabbage – but it is what will come up in Google when somebody searches for your band’s Twitter page (see example below).

So get to the point – put decent, concise content in your bio that enables people to spot your profile easily in search results, and distinguishes you from the American sports hero who happens to share your name.

3. Look professional

Twitter gives you the option to brand your profile nicely – you can upload a dinky profile picture and a background of your choice. Use these tools to make your Twitter profile appear consistent with your band’s general online presence. In short, don’t rely on one of Twitter’s default backgrounds and a blank profile pic – be professional about things. Otherwise you will look like the Twitter novice that you are. Pay particular attention to the profile pic, because this is what pops up in other users’ news feed when you post your latest inanity about a gig down in the Dog and Duck.

4. Follow the right people

Don’t be tempted to use automated ‘adders’ or dodgy sites to grow a Twitter following. The 10,000 followers you get from such services may a) not exactly be real people and b) simply won’t be interested in your latest double album. They will however, be interested in regularly offering you an oil inheritance from Nigeria or shoving a pair of fake breasts in your face (sadly these offers rarely translate into reality, believe me). Instead, try to follow bloggers, journalists, writers and musicians that you respect and that are relevant to you – for example, bloggers that write really interesting stuff about the nu-metal-cum-chillwave-shoegazing scene that your band is trying to break into. A proportion of these hip bloggers and journalists will follow you back, meaning (as we’ll see below) that Twitter will inform other similarly hip bloggers and journalists that you are an interesting person worth following, generating more hip followers for you.

5. Take Twitter’s advice

When you log into Twitter, you’ll see a ‘Who to follow’ panel, with suggestions from Twitter's algorithms regarding people that you might find interesting. These recommendations are based on who you are already following on the network (and who's following you), and assuming you’ve taken my words of wisdom above on board, Twitter will be suggesting interesting, relevant and (shock!) “useful” people to follow. (If not, it’ll be prompting you to follow more oil barons and big-but-pretend-bosomed ladies. Nice and all as they are, these individuals might not be all that much use to your music career). So take a careful look at the suggestions, check out each profile suggested, and if you think the algorithm has sussed you out correctly, start taking Twitter’s advice on who to follow.

6. Follow back – where appropriate

When somebody follows you, take a look at what they do / write about, and if they seem like a "fit" for your band, then by all means follow back. I’d suggest not following everybody back – otherwise it makes it harder for Twitter to make accurate recommendations about who you should be following and who should follow you. As with points 4 and 5 above, the “quality” or relevance of follower / following is everything here.

7. Remember: content is king…

…but not necessarily your content. By all means post links to your band's new videos and MP3s from time to time, but do not get too fond of doing so; otherwise you’ll just look like a jerk. Believe me, when it comes to overcommunicating about my own music projects, I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt…and despite waxing endlessly about the importance of musicians keeping schtum for five minutes, I still see artists (who should know better) bore their friends, family and remaining fan to tears with hourly Facebook updates about their latest creative endeavours. Nobody cares after a while (if they ever did in the first place). Instead, post links to great content from other sources – whack links up on Twitter to scintillating articles which don’t happen to be about your music (and rest assured, there are a lot of them). Or make witty observations about cheese. In short, get a reputation for being an interesting dude, not a self-obsessed bore. If you post a lot of fantastic content on Twitter, guess what? It’ll get retweeted, meaning your lovely face will potentially pop up in thousands of Twitter feeds. Meaning you’ll get more followers, which you can then eventually bore with stuff about your band (which, after all, is why you’re reading this post in the first place).

8. Interact

Although it’s great for broadcasting news to millions of people, starting revolutions in dodgy regimes and so on, Twitter isn’t a one-way medium and by using the ‘reply’ or “@username” options provided you can interact with people and engage your followers (whatever the hell that means; writing the words ‘engage your followers’ is obligatory in any article about Twitter, so I had to include it somewhere). In a nutshell, if you take the time to respond to enquiries from fans or comment on tweets from the hip bloggers you follow, you will build up a rapport with both groups; this can lead to goodwill for you being generated amongst your two key audiences – fans and tastemakers – resulting, hopefully, in more sales and coverage for your band.

9. Ask for retweets – but only when it’s REALLY important

You can ask your followers to “retweet” stuff –  for example, share posts about your latest video, or a big showcase gig. However, don’t prefix absolutely every tweet with “Please RT!” – only do so for posts that are really important. Otherwise you will become the boy who cried “retweet!” and so jaded will your followers be with this carry-on that nobody will ever retweet anything you post. So there.

10. Be regular

Don’t set up a profile on Twitter and then forget all about it. Doing this will a) guarantee that you don’t have much of a following or b) make you look like you don’t give a monkeys about social media or c) don’t know how to use it. None of these inconvenient truths will impress those skinny-jean wearing A&R guys from Shoreditch who are all queuing up to view your Twitter profile right now.

11. Be visible

Remember to promote your Twitter address outside of Twitter. Put it on your album art, your website, your posters, your drumkit, your head – anywhere people can see it. This will help increase your following.

12. Use hashtags to increase the visibility of your tweets

If you're tweeting about something topical - for example, Louise Mensch - use a hash ('#') followed by a relevant tag - i.e., '#louisemensch'. This increases the visibility of your tweet, because people often search for popular hashtags on Twitter to see what the latest news on a subject is, or simply to steal a funny tweet and pass it off as their own. So with the example given, people who are searching for '#louisemensch' (and there are a lot of them) may encounter your witty, and quite possibly rude, tweet about her. This may result in more people, particularly those of a non-Louise-Mensch bent (and there are a lot of them) retweeting your witticism or following you (or both).

13. But size isn’t everything…

Finally, another reminder that like your girlfriend said, SIZE IS NOT EVERYTHING. Having thousands of dodgy followers you never communicate with is less important than having a smaller group of influential followers who hang on and retweet your every regular, interesting 140-character utterance. Think about it: if 200 tastemakers with audiences of 10,000 each are following you, and 50 of them dig you to the extent that they retweet your post about your latest video, you’ve just hit 50 x 10,000 people…that’s your video broadcast to a potential audience of 500,000 (many of whom may retweet it again). And crucially, those 500,000 Twitter users you’ve been exposed to are more likely to take you seriously, because they heard about you from a credible source, not the oil baron with the big boobies.

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The end of the download is nigh

MP3 Player

If internet rumours are to be believed, June 6 2011 may possibly be the music industry’s equivalent of “The Rapture” (for those of you who haven’t been on Facebook recently, or have been living in a hole in the New Forest, The Rapture was the end of the world, and was supposed to happen on May 21. It didn’t, unless you are reading this on a cloud with Jesus or you are feeling rather hot and can’t concentrate on this article because a devilish imp is poking your bottom with a pitchfork). Of course “The Rapture” turned out to be a damp squib, but June 6 is more likely to live up to its reputation as being a day on which the music industry will change forever.

So what’s happening on June 6? Well, according to a multitude of newspaper articles and blog posts, it’s the date that Apple may unveil their ‘cloud service’ – a system that lets listeners stream music from the web. Now, as the cloud service in question hasn’t been unveiled yet, it’s not clear what form this is initially going to take. It could be that Apple are simply going to offer something similar to Amazon and Google’s new cloud systems, which allow you to upload and stream your music collection on the web, wherever you are.

But frankly, that’s a pretty boring approach, and unlikely to be what Apple’s “cloud offer” will be. If rumours are to believed, Apple have been working hard to secure licensing agreements with the “big four” record companies – Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, EMI Group and Universal Music Group – which means all this is heading in one direction: a streaming service similar to Spotify’s, where listeners will eventually be able to stream whatever music they like (for a fee, of course).

If Apple does go down this route, it means that an en-mass switch from paid-for downloads to on-demand music streaming is now just around the corner – the rise of 3G web connections, increasing use of smartphones and Apple’s 75%-85% share of the download market would more or less guarantee that streaming becomes the de facto way that music is consumed. If Apple release a software update for iTunes containing streaming functionality, millions of iPod, iPhone and computer users in general all around the world would suddenly be able to stream music instead of paying to download files. The choice of tracks would be vast – significantly bigger than Spotify’s library, due to full music industry buy-in – and the reach of the service would be enormous too, thanks to Apple’s strong global position in both the download and mobile device markets. All this would arguably result in death of the download, and pretty quickly too.

What would be the impact of this on musicians? Well, for bands who are signed to a label and getting a significant marketing push, it would be fairly good news – it makes their music even easier to access. For musicians without a budget however, it would represent more of a headache. This is because streaming removes the attractiveness of a key tool used by musicians to entice people to sign up to email updates: the free download. For several years now, indie musicians with any clue whatsoever have been giving away downloads in exchange for the ability to communicate with fans online – with individual tracks, EPs or even albums being swapped for email addresses or Facebook ‘likes’. However, there is not much of an incentive for a potential fan to grab a free download from a band if a) they don’t really download music anymore and b) the track can be streamed anyway on iTunes.  

The free-download-for-email-address scenario that we’ve seen over the past few years has led to a situation where clued-up independent musicians have to a certain extent been able to bypass traditional gatekeepers – labels, journalists, distributors, promoters and radio stations – and still make (often quite decent) amounts of money from music via direct-to-fan sales. Perhaps it’s a negative way of looking at things, but with downloads diminished as an incentive for joining a mailing list, indie musicians will be able to communicate directly with fewer and fewer listeners online, and power will go back to being concentrated in the hands of the traditional music industry tastemakers: a label will decide what music to promote, and spend money encouraging people to stream it (rather than buy it). In effect, a technological advancement may lead us back full circle to a situation whereby only those with budgets can create demand.

But if you are an indie musician who has built a business model on free downloads, and all this does sound like the end of the world, don’t despair yet. Pretty much every technological development in the music industry has shut one door only to open another; and with all these developments, the trick is to stay ahead of the curve. The musicians who twigged that free downloads helped build databases first built the biggest databases (and sold the most music and merchandise); and it will be the musicians who twig how best to use streaming cleverly who will monetise the new landscape. The trick is to think fast. The end of the download is nigh – get ready.

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The Long Tail - and music PR

Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is a book that was published a few years ago, but it's one that we thought we'd flag it up in The Prescription, because it's still hugely relevant to musicians and those working in the music industry. Musician Chris Singleton is a fan of the book; you'll find some of his thoughts on it and the implications of 'the long tail' for musicians below.

In his fascinating tome The Long Tail, Chris Anderson highlights how in this new-fangled age of e-commerce, online retailers are actually making more money out of selling lots of individual niche products than they are from selling hits. The classic example given in the book is Amazon: in a given week they may sell thousands of copies of a particular Coldplay album, but during the same time they will sell far more albums by a variety of less-well known artists.

The Long Tail

The Long Tail

This creates the 'long tail effect', which is illustrated in the diagram on this page. On the left hand side of the graph you see the million-selling acts, seemingly way more popular than everybody else. On the right hand side you see the 'long tail' of all the other less popular niche artists that don’t sell as many copies of their albums. But because digital distribution has allowed literally anybody to sell albums online, there are now so many niche products available for sale that the tail goes on and on and on…until all the products that sell one or two copies a year actually generate more profit, when considered together, than the hits that might sell millions in a year. The little guys actually pack more of a sales punch.

This is great, obviously, for Amazon and other online retailers - all they have to do is stock as much stuff as possible. But what are the implications for all the niche artists? Well, to be honest, the long tail effect probably doesn't help niche artists that much in strict retailing terms. The best application of 'the tail' for generating music sales is probably to make as much of your music as possible available to buy – somebody’s going to want to buy that alternative nu-metal-emo-dance remix you did of some crappy B-side, so why not let them (the downside though is that putting ropey content out there may not be great for your artistic integrity or image). 

However, what may help musicians a bit more is another long tail effect: the long tail of media. If you look again at the chart above, and this time think of the left-hand side of the graph as containing the big publications – national newspapers and magazines – and the right hand side of the chart as containing the bloggers (or online content creators), it becomes clear that the bloggers actually have a bigger readership than the traditional media. A country may have 10 national broadsheets, which will be read by millions of people a day, but millions of people in that country will be creating content on blogs or social networks every day which is read by 10 or more people a day. 

Needless to say it’s fantastic for bands if they can get into conventional print publications – as this is brilliant for profile and will no doubt also influence what bloggers are writing about – but it’s bloody hard. In the absence of success in that area, the long tail of media points to an alternative strategy for musicians who need exposure. This is to convince a critical mass of bloggers and other content creators to advocate their music. This is not by any means an easy process – it requires a lot of targeted approaches, and a lot of email-writing, but if done properly, at least it offers some exposure instead of none. The digital revolution has created a situation whereby decent bands who had no hope of getting national press can now at least get their music written about and crucially, heard by a potentially large audience.

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