Advice from E-Music Editor-in-Chief

Advice from E-Music Editor-in-Chief

eMusic Editor-in-Chief J. Edward Keyes has been writing about music since 1997 for publications including RollingStone.com, Newsday, the Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. His piece “Where’s The Party? 13 Hours with the Next Franz Ferdinand” was selected for inclusion in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2006.

 

 

Recently Joe took some time to talk to me about how he got his start writing about music, how eMusic is helping new and emerging artists and what bands can do to get noticed by journalists, editors and other music industry decision makers.

 

 

Musician Coaching:

How did you get your start in the music industry?

JEK:

I started writing about music on the print side of things about 15 years ago. I wrote for some publications in Philadelphia, including Philadelphia Weekly and the Philadelphia Inquirer and steadily pushed my way along. Then I moved to New York and started working for places like Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice and then Rolling Stone after that. I was fortunate enough to end up here at eMusic. I started as a production manager, and then slowly over the course of six years I worked my way up to Editor in Chief.

 

It’s been really exciting to be with a publication for that amount of time, and to see it really carve out its identity and figure out who we’re supposed to be and who we are supposed to be serving. Getting to be a part of that editorially and being able to lead that charge has really been one of the more exciting moments of my career as a writer and an editor. I feel like working at eMusic dovetails really well with my personal taste and the kinds of bands I’ve covered over the last 15 years. We’re coming up with really exciting consumer research to help us figure out who our ideal member is. As we’ve long suspected, it’s the customers who are really independent minded and have independent tastes and want to set themselves apart from the Top 40. They really want to dig deep and learn more about independent artists and artists with a singular voice and idiosyncratic point of view. For me as a writer, that’s perfect. Those are the bands that have always excited me over the past 15 years. To be able to focus on them and have a platform to expose independent and just starting artists out to an audience that is eager to learn about just those kinds of artists is a really exciting place to be.

 

Musician Coaching:

I would imagine running a digital service provider like eMusic really does come down to magazine real estate in terms of people getting written about and placed. I’m guessing you have a  lot of people vying for your time trying to get a featured spot. You’ve all of a sudden combined journalism with what was once a record company sales role, where people would be trying to get your attention to get prime positioning at retail. Is that a somewhat accurate description of what your position as an Editor in Chief entails?

 

JEK:

In a way. But one of the things I’ve been proudest of is that we’ve been  able to keep a wall around the editorial department and stay true to our indie music roots. I can honestly say that in the time I’ve been here, while we’ve been constantly getting pitches from labels about their priorities and what they think we should be covering, if it doesn’t feel right to us and we don’t believe in it, we don’t cover it. We really do have the latitude to do that and continue to cater to the independent-minded consumer. One of the things for me is that it’s not just about dictating the written editorial on the site, but also guiding the whole direction of the voice of the site in general:  What kind of partnerships should be doing, and which artists should we be featuring across the site?

 

A good example of something we did recently that I was pretty proud of is what happened was surrounding the latest Lady Gaga record. It came out, and it was going to be a huge record and obviously something that people were going to be talking  about. As an editor, I thought there was a value in talking about it, but we didn’t want to talk about it the way everyone else talked about it. So we had had Michaelangelo Matos – a long-time music critic for places like Rolling Stone and someone that wrote a book on Prince – write a feature on the site called “Six Degrees,” which basically connected Lady Gaga to people like Grace Jones and Lower East Side New Wave artist Christina. It’s really about thinking differently about even the really poppy stuff and trying to present it in a way that will be interesting to even the consumer that is interested in off-the-beaten-path music.

 

Musician Coaching:

I’m glad you circled back that way. I definitely want to know more about the process of searching for your ideal customer, the person who is independent minded. In your research, have you discovered that there still a thriving, vibrant community of people who are shunning the Top 40?

 

JEK:

Absolutely. We believe it’s a really strong market. I think in general you can see it anecdotally if you look at the kinds of bands that are in the news. Look at this week’s pop charts in general and who is at the top. It’s bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Adele and My Morning Jacket. Those are artists that you could broadly call “indie bands.” We’re coming off the back of some really interesting research in general that shows that the independently-minded consumer does exist in the market, and that it’s hungry for something different from the “big box digital stores.”

 

Musician Coaching:

Is there anything about those demographics you can share?

 

JEK:

Nothing beyond the fact that we know some of the characteristics of their personalities. They tend to be the types of people that like to turn their friends onto bands. They take a certain level of pride in their individuality and in stepping outside the mainstream. They have a really close, personal relationship with their music; what they listen to defines them. So, there is an even greater incentive for them to step outside the mainstream. It’s really more about personality than hard demographic. It can span a bunch of things, but it’s really more about their personalities and their tastes.

 

Musician Coaching:

Malcolm Gladwell would probably refer to them as “mavens.”

 

JEK:

Yes indeed.

 

Musician Coaching:

It’s interesting to know that scene is still vibrant. Personally, I know when I saw Zeppelin end up in a Cadillac commercial, I don’t know what happened to me, but something shifted.

 

One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is because I want to know how artists can use your site to their benefit. Clearly there’s a benefit to being on a site that’s catered towards the long tail. Are there ways artists can get in and customize the profiles when their music gets picked up by your site through TuneCore or some similar service? Are there things artists should be doing to make the most of their music being on eMusic?

 

 

JEK:

We have a couple things that are designed to work with artists just like the ones you described. First and foremost – and something I’m really proud of on the site – is a program called eMusic Selects. We’ve been doing this since 2008. The simplest way to describe it is that we scour the internet and go to tons of shows to find unsigned bands we like. And then we exclusively put out their records digitally for two months to our members. We give them the full eMusic platform. So they get full homepage coverage, a newsletter that goes out to all our members telling them about the record and some other tools. We have really designed it to be a stepping stone for artists who are just starting out and really need a leg up, but don’t have a label and just need broader exposure. I’m proud to say that there are artists who have been Select artists in the past who have then gone onto sign with proper labels:  Best Coast; The Rural Alberta Advantage; Crystal Stilts. Next week we have a band coming out we’re really excited about called Army Navy, which is the next artist in the eMusic Selects program. Once every two months we try to find a band that we love and a band we think more people should be hearing and use all our resources to break them in the consciousness of our members.

 

I would say that one thing independent artists can do is let us know about their music and come up with a compelling pitch to get us to notice them or listen to them. It could be a viral video they make or a press release they send out – something that gets us excited about them. As I said, in addition, we’re constantly going out to shows and constantly scouring Myspace pages to find new bands that are good fits for our Select program. That’s one of the big ways we have to really boost independent artists and artists that are looking to get broader exposure on eMusic.

 

Another thing in general that goes hand in hand with that is, there are literally millions of artists – and especially unsigned artists – who are competing for a finite amount of space. I’m happy to say that eMusic has a more unique editorial department than a lot of the other editorial departments I’ve ever worked in. Everyone in the department really does listen to most of the things that are sent; they all go out of their way to find new bands. But the more compelling the pitch, the more interesting the thing surrounding the pitch – whether it’s a viral video or some kind of clever campaign —  the more we’re going to pay attention to it. Sometimes it’s really helpful to put your music in a framework that will catch an editor’s eye and make them want to listen to it.

 

I know a lot of young bands shy away from comparing their music to other things that are out there. But it’s helpful for me when I get a press release if one of the first things I see in the first couple sentences is giving me an idea of what this is going to sound like and making it compelling to me and like something I want to click through. That’s something I respond to very well. And I do read those press releases and listen to them. A lot of it is about the presentation and how you present yourself, so any interesting things you can come up with to accompany that are helpful. You can make a video, a Twitter campaign or a creative Tumblr that is a spin on something you’re doing on your site. Interesting approaches tend to get the greatest amount of attention and make me want to listen even more.

 

Musician Coaching:

Wonderful. And you’ve sat behind the desk where dreams go to die – and I mean that in the best way possible – for a number of years.

JEK:

The one message I do want to get out is probably hard to believe for most artists:  We do listen to the greater percentage of the stuff hat cross our desk, because so much of what we do is focused on indie bands and young bands. We know what the big bands sound like. We’re looking for the next big band.

 

Musician Coaching:

You just mentioned a “to-do” for artists. Based on your experience as an editor, a journalist and someone that has been a bottleneck, can you tell me anything that artists should not do?

 

JEK:

I have a lot of funny, anecdotal stories. For example, I remember a couple years ago I got an unsolicited package from a band, which was great; I always open those packages. But I think the band thought to catch our attention they should load it with hundreds of tiny pieces of foil confetti, which proceeded to spill all over my desk and all over the carpet. That was a bad decision. Lately bands also have been filling up their promo envelopes with candy, which is also a bad decision. If I open that, and in addition to your CD, I’m getting candy or something like that, it doesn’t really tell me  about your music. And if anything, it feels like some sort of weird kind of confectionary payola. I would rather have an interesting spin on your record than goodies.

 

Also, bands should be really careful about how they select their band name. You would be really surprised at how many bands get dismissed from just having a corny or too obviously-jokey band name.

 

Musician Coaching:

So band name is important . Along similar lines, is there a value in a good elevator pitch or mission statement? My favorite story related to that is about a band out of Boston that I asked, “What do you sound like?” And the kid confidently replied, “We’re the music you would want to listen to if you were robbing a bank.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew I wanted to listen to it.

 

JEK:

That’s a perfect example; I would definitely listen to that. Here’s another example of that. We recently had a writer write about the band Tunes. And he described their music as “the sound of stopping a subway train with your face.” It was funny, witty and made me want to listen to the music. Anything like that is effective – something quick, and pithy and snappy. And it’s going to get my attention. If you come up with something funny or striking that makes me laugh, you will have earned my respect at that point. Its’ good to put a creative spin on it.

 

Musician Coaching:

Here’s the question I’m scratching my head about:  Has the advent of digital distribution, which has made the digital distribution model so accessible to everyone now made the eMusic offering any less unique? Do you feel like your catalogue is still deeper than other catalogues?

 

JEK:

I think with us, the key is the curation. If you go to some of the other major retailers and hit the main page of their music store, you’re going to see the same 10-15 records. With us – and largely because we have such a vast army of writers who are digging through the stacks – when you hit the main page, you’re going to be see things you’re not seeing in these other stores. We’re surfacing more of the deep stuff. So, sure, maybe in the age of digital distribution, TuneCore, iTunes and services like that will have a lot of the same records we have. But you’re going to see them in a more prominent place in our store. It doesn’t do much good for both of us to have the same records if on the larger retailer you don’t know they’re there. What we try to do is make you more aware of them and bring them out a little bit more. And we’ve seen sales that correspond to that:  albums that we’ve surfaced get bought.

 

Musician Coaching:

I was going to ask about that. By the sounds of it, you guys may very well have more impulse buys because you are a destination that is based on editorial.

 

JEK:

We do definitely see a correspondence between the things we put on the home page and the things that end up being on our charts. When we used to take an older record we liked or an older record from the catalogue and make it “Review of the Day” and check the charts the following day. Without fail, you would end up selling more.

 

I think people trust us. We’ve been around for a while now, and I’ve been here for 98% of that time. We’ve worked really hard to cultivate that trust and to curate a very idiosyncratic voice. I think especially with the eMusic Selects bands, people know that if we put our seal of approval on it, we’re not going to take that lightly. We relationships we value, and we’re not going to throw something out there that we don’t feel comfortable recommending.

 

For more information about J. Edward Keys and his company, you can visit the eMusic website.