The role of record labels has been questioned for some time. With a heritage in producing records, it’s been hard for labels to adapt to the double whammy of diminishing production costs and recorded music revenues. In my opinion, the solution lies in marketing.
The problem is monetisation, the solution is marketing.
Here’s the situation – there is more music being created than ever before. There is more music being listened to than ever before. Supply and demand are high, and neither will change any time soon.
The change in technology has meant that there’s now a massive disparity between who gets paid and who doesn’t. The artists and labels who’ve harnessed large audiences have no problem monetising their music, the rest do struggle.
I have faith that the technology will eventually change and even out the disparity somewhat, but until then it seems clear that the big opportunity for savvy record labels right now is to become exceptional digital marketers.
When the gap was high production costs, labels built the bridge that enabled artists to get to the other side. Now the gap is building a monetisable audience. If labels can become the bridge for that gap, they will become incredibly valuable to the artist.
What labels need to focus on with their digital marketing strategy
Having spent time on the various sides of music marketing (as a signed artist, an indie label owner, and now consulting to numerous labels & music platforms), below are what I believe to be the factors separating those who are currently leading the way in digital marketing in the music industry, from those who are lagging behind.
The record labels who will win:
- Make it simple & accessible for their artists to create and share great content.
- Measure the right things, and improve them daily.
- Cross promote their artists effectively.
- Innovative without being distracted by novelty.
- Build the brand of the label, not just their artists.
- Are not afraid of giving content away for free, especially for unknown artists.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
To maintain voice, it’s important that the artist is at the helm of their social media strategy, but there’s a challenge. As described by Atlantic Record’s Eric Snowden, “artists are imperfect marketers”, and often need to have their social strategy tailored to them in a way that is simple.
Install apps on the artist’s phones that make it easy for them to take pictures on the road or in the studio and upload directly to their social accounts.
Don’t get caught up in what is technically the best – focus on what will generate the best result. Despite having a preference for WordPress, I usually recommend that labels use Tumblr as an app for artists to upload blog content, as it’s more intuitive and has virtually no learning curve. In other words, it’s not the best – but it gets the best result.
Measure the right things, and improve them daily
Why do athletes have an unfair advantage on TV competition shows like Strictly Come Dancing? The answer: they have a mindset of measuring performance and making incremental improvements.
While measuring performance is hopefully a given to most marketers, the key is to measure the right things. With so many flashy analytics tools, it’s easy to get carried away with the vanity metrics and tick off ‘measurement’ – but can you honestly answer these three questions with confidence?
- What did you do today that you shouldn’t do tomorrow?
- What did you do today that you should do more of tomorrow?
- What could you try tomorrow that might produce better results than today?
What’s also important to consider is that not all artists should be measured in the same way. An unknown artist may need to give away a significant amount of content for free to build their audience and mailing list (i.e. measure downloads / signups), while an established artist may need to measure pre-release sales or tour date sell outs.
Cross promote artists effectively
This is a bit of a grey area as it depends largely on the genre and artist. One of the reasons why Spinnin Records have been able to create such a huge empire of engaged social media accounts is because their artists collaborate and cross promote each other heavily. But it’s typical for trance and house artists to collaborate and share each other’s work – it might not work so well if XL started promoting Adele on The Prodigy’s channels!
The trick with cross promotion is for it to feel natural. Is there a legitimate collaboration opportunity between two of your artists? Are their audiences likely to be similar in taste? If yes, make it happen.
Innovate without getting distracted
There is a lot of amazing innovation happening in music tech at the moment, particularly around developing new marketing tools for artists and labels. Despite this, there is a lot of noise too. The smart labels will stay curious, testing and experimenting with new technologies, while making sure that they don’t get carried away by the novelty of shiny new things. Ultimately, this all comes down to have a clear goal that you can measure any piece of technology up to.
Build the brand of the label, not just the artist
While some may disagree, I believe that labels are brands, and should invest in the value of their brand – as well as their artist’s brands.
Cash Money, Spinnin, and Roc Nation are all great modern examples of labels that have built strong and valuable brands. Not only do fans trust these labels as curators of good music, artist also aspire be signed to these labels because of their reputation.
As a DJ I used to listen to the Doorn Records (Spinnin) weekly podcast, because I trusted that the material they release is high quality and similar to the artists I enjoyed. I think more niche labels will follow this pattern of building their brand as an expert in their niche.
Giving content away for free
It may seem counterintuitive for an industry with declining revenues to give content away for free, but there’s a simple reason for doing so. We know that artists with a large loyal fan base generate significant revenues. The fastest way to build a large fan base is to produce exceptional music and expose it to a large audience. Today, the path of least resistance is to offer music for free in return for something small (usually an email address), and to let that piece of music work its way through the ether.
Did you know that Taylor Swift gave away over one million songs for free before she became a mainstream artist? She now earns $55 million per year, according to Forbes. Lady Gaga has taken the same approach. Build the audience, then monetise it through touring, brand partnerships, and products.
There is no single right answer for what artists or labels should do right now. We’re in a situation of sink or swim – and many labels are indeed swimming. If I had to make a decision to build a label that will thrive in 2014 and beyond, this is the direction I’d swim in.