Connecting with Fans in Real Time

Connecting with Fans in Real Time

Josh Hubball is the head of business development at App.net, home of Broadcast, a free “mobile newsletter” for artists that allows them to create their own channels and send out push notifications about music, shows and more directly to their fans. Josh got involved in the music industry in 2001 when he started a music production company focused on creating original music for television and commercials that turned into a record label called Dualsix Records. In 2004, he joined Universal Music Group in their strategy and licensing department, eLabs, which was was tasked with growing the label’s digital business through the creation of new business models such as downloads, subscription services, streaming video and mobile products. And in 2008 he moved to Conduit Labs, a startup building online social music games that was acquired by Zynga in 2010. He has been with App.net since 2011. App.net recently launched Broadcast as a way to subscribe to and send push notifications that alert users instantly when their favorite podcast has a new episode, their favorite blog has a new post, their favorite band has a new show and more.

 

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I talked to Josh about how the Digital Age has changed the online landscape and how technology has developed around selling music and music-related products since the early 2000s. He also talked about why establishing personal relationships with fans is so important for bands and artists and about how App.net’s Broadcast tool can help ensure that their important news and updates reach a large audience.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Josh. How did you get started in the music business?

 

JH:

 

In 2001, I started a music production company. At first we were focusing on creating original music for television and commercials. That quickly turned into a record label called Dualsix Records. We had a number of artists and producers we worked with and started to put out records in about 2002-2003 – before the industry shifted its focus from CD production to online, social-media and Internet-platform-centric digital music production. We followed the traditional record label formula of pressing CDs.

 

We put out about three records that charted on the CMJ charts, but didn’t have a lot of success, even though we had a lot of fun. We started to notice the switch to digital, and at the time, Myspace was the big story, because iTunes hadn’t been fully developed yet. From there, I wanted to get experience and see what was happening at a higher level. So, I joined Universal Music Group in their strategy and digital music department (eLabs) in 2004.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And you were tasked with figuring out how technology was going to sell music and music-related products?

 

JH:

 

Yes. At the time it was the label’s only digital group. I worked on many of the initial deals involving download sales, subscription services, video streaming, mastertones, etc. There were a couple attempts at Universal to build direct-to-consumer platforms as well.

 

By around 2006-2007, I was focusing on the Web 2.0 companies. Myspace was still growing, and YouTube was emerging as a big destination for music video. Some of the first social media sites like imeem and Buzznet were looking to license music and find ways to package and market it online. As a label, we were figuring out what made sense and how to enable those partners, sites and services to build something around music. I spent about four years working on projects like that. And the last couple years were heavily-focused on the new social media companies. And of course, I saw a lot of activity and interest around music. The overall goal at the time was how to transition the label business – which, prior to 2000 had one or two streams of revenue:  CDs/physical product; licensing to film and television – into the Digital Age. We wanted to turn those two revenue streams into multiple streams such as ringtones/mobile, downloads, subscription services, etc. We had to figure out how to diversify the existing revenue streams and create a sustainable business going forward so music could continue to be created and to thrive on these new platforms.  

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It sounds like you had a gig that was “artist and repertoire” for new technologies.

 

JH:

 

We saw hundreds and hundreds of deals and services, many of which have since been long forgotten. There was no shortage of entrepreneurs looking to build something around music, because there was so much interest online around music, lyrics and any type of artist content. It was really fun to see all the ideas that came in the door and see what people were doing to create new experiences.

 

In 2008, I joined a company called Conduit Labs. We were building social music games in the early days of Zynga, Facebook and other online social media games. Our angle was to create a new experience around music and gaming. We built a number of games and licensed a lot of independent label music and some major label music to be used in these games as virtual goods, or as items you could earn or interact with. I was at Conduit for a couple years, until it got purchased by Zynga in 2010 and became the Zynga Boston studio.

 

I ended up at App.net in 2011.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Tell me a little bit about the philosophy behind App.net. My understanding is that it is a reaction to the social media sites that are taking so many liberties with your personal information.

 

JH:

 

App.net is a social platform that has both a free and a paid tier.  So the majority of people do not pay, but a segment of uses who want even more functionality pay a monthly or annual subcription fee. The underlying philosophy of App.net is that by building a service that is not ad supported, we can actually treat the user as the user and not as a product being sold to advertisers. In many ad-supported businesses, once the service gets to a certain size, the real customer becomes the advertiser. The business, service or platform then has to focus on getting more information from the user that they can use for selling and targeting advertising. And they also have to focus on getting the user to click on more ads.

 

At App.net, we build an API and infrastructure so anyone can build a social app – whether it’s a micro-blogging site or a photo-sharing site – on top of the API. And then, because we’re not an ad-supported service, the user doesn’t have to be worried about being targeted or having their personal information sold anywhere else or in strange ways. Users can have confidence that the way the product is getting developed is going to be aligned with their interests. The creator of the app doesn’t have to build up a big audience and then start shoving a lot of ads into the feed or monetizing it in unexpected ways.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I think we’re seeing Facebook collapse under its own weight right now because of what you’ve just described. When you’re talking about less than 10% of organic posts made by people that own pages getting viewed, it presents a real challenge.

 

JH:

 

That’s one of the observations we made that led to the creation of our Broadcast tool.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And tell me about the problem for artists that Broadcast solves.

 

JH:

 

Artists are obviously trying to reach fans to give them news and updates on tickets that are on sale, new merch and new music being released. And there are a number of channels they use. There is a newsletter, then platforms like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. Going back to what I mentioned about the difference between subscription services and ad-supported networks, a lot of these platforms don’t necessarily allow all of the messages you send out to be seen. For example, on Facebook, only three-, to five-percent of your audience sees your posts now. And Twitter has such a fast-moving feed that there’s a really good chance your messages will get lost, or that someone will see them days or weeks later.

 

The idea behind Broadcast was to create a tool that would let people set up a push-notification subscription channel. A push relationship is really valuable, because push notifications come through and are seen in real time on your mobile phone, which is always with you. They don’t get lost and filtered out of your social feeds.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Sure. They are much more noticeable than a newsletter or other notification, because, as a user, I have to actually acknowledge them to get rid of them.

 

JH:

 

The issue with push notifications is that they require a mobile app. In the last few years, there have been a ton of bands that have entered the mobile app space. And I think a big reason for that has been so they can get those push notifications. But it turns out, it’s really costly to build and maintain those apps, especially when you’re talking about creating them across multiple platforms:  iOS; Android; etc. Not only do you have to create these different versions, but you also have to update them every time each mobile operating system is updated.

 

We’ve been talking to artists and labels, and the feedback has been the same across the board:  They’re not creating apps anymore, because it’s $20,000 – $50,000 just to enter the space, or they end up paying someone hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. But they all agree that the push notification is valuable to them.

 

Broadcast is a tool that allows artists and labels to push information to fans without the need to build their own apps. And it’s also really useful on the fan side, because, in the old paradigm, if you wanted to receive push notifications from five different bands, you’d have to download five different apps. Now it’s all in one place. Broadcast is an app that solves fans’ problems, because you can subscribe to push notifications from your favorite bands from one app, and you’re not getting 10 messages per day; you’re getting a few messages per week with information the bands really want to push out that you really don’t want to miss.   

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I know Broadcast just launched, but is there already anyone using this in a way that you think should be replicated by other aspiring artists?

 

JH:

 

There is a diverse bunch of bands and labels using Broadcast already. For example, Nas signed up recently and has a channel as well as Fall Out Boy and Toni Braxton. Warp Records, Dim Mak Records and some other labels are also sending out news and updates through Broadast. There’s a Pitchfork channel that alerts you when a new feature article is published. So, there is a good variety of major label and indie artists as well as record companies already using it.

 

One of the things you can do that is really effective is set up a RSS feed to trigger the updates. If a band has a good RSS feed or Tumblr feed that they update once or twice per day, they can use that to push out news through their Broadcast channel. Artists can also take a more hands-on approach and decide that once or twice per week they’re going to send fans the top news or information they want them to know. And when artists build up their channels and there’s something timely like a secret show or an appearance on a late-night show or a contest that requires fans’ votes, being able to message fans in real time becomes very powerful. Using that curated, manual approach when sending out messages to fans makes the messages much different from Facebook posts and tweets.

 

Of course, Broadcast is not meant to replace these other channels. It’s just meant to create a level on top that lets you reach people and deliver only the most important and timely updates. The idea is to deliver content once a day or less.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

So, it’s not a place to share that you ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

 

JH:

 

Exactly. Just to give you an artist example, Fall Out Boy released a couple apps. They created Fall Out Bird, which was a play on the Flappy Bird app. And when their apps were released in the App Store, they used their Broadcast channel to direct people there. When you send out a Broadcast, you can include a headline, a picture, text and a link. When the band sent out a Broadcast with a link to the app store, it hit people in real time. They opened it up on their phones and swiped directly into the App Store. So, Fall Out Boy created a low-friction way to let their fans know about the new app and get them to a place where they could download and play the games.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You are someone that has been helping build new music technologies and looking for new ways to monetize music that replace the old pre-digital model. Which avenues do you think aspiring artists should focus on now?

 

JH:

 

I think anything that creates a direct communication with fans and takes out all the middlemen is what you want to focus on. And there are now so many tools that help strengthen this one-on-one interaction and also help monetize the music you are creating. For instance, you can engage in crowdfunding campaigns and use push notifications that send people to your site or your store. The more you can build direct relationships with fans, the better. Those are the strong ties and the things you can work with as you grow your audience.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Almost all the social networks now are running into the original Myspace problem:  You have 100,000 fans because you reciprocally followed 100,000 people. And what does that really even mean?

 

JH:

 

Right. Gaining friends or followers can be important and useful on any platform, but you have to constantly reassess the value of those connections. If many of them are spambots, people you don’t have a strong connection with, or people who are just not seeing your messages or engaging with you in any meaningful way, that’s not going to help you build your fan base.

 

For more information, you can also contact the staff at App.net directly with any questions at inquiries@app.net. Learn more about Josh Hubball and the work he does by visiting the Broadcast website, or following him on Twitter.