Big Champagne – cold hard numbers.

Big Champagne – cold hard numbers.

Eric Garland is the CEO and Founder of Big Champagne LLC.  For those unfamiliar with Big Champagne it is an online media measurement company.  It is a gross oversimplification of what they do but basically they monitor what content moves where online and how often.  How many times is apiece of content (a song, a movie, a video) purchased, traded, streamed or stolen online?  Big Champagne can tell you.

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Musician Coaching:

I first met you in 2003, and you were really just starting the company off. Tell me what the impetus was for tracking media and what you did and what you do now.

EG:

The company started as most creative ideas do with an artist. I’ve tried for many years to take credit for the original brainstorm, but it was my friend Glen Phillips – who I’m sure you know of, and if you don’t, his band was Toad the Wet Sprocket. In the late 90’s he had broken up the band to become an independent artist and do a solo album. And Napster happened, and we were friends, and he knew I was into the sort of tech end of the digital music space.

Musician Coaching:

What were you doing at the time?

EG:

I had been a career management consultant straight out of school and had been working for a big HR consulting firm called Towers Perrin. We did a lot of work in the mid 90’s for Anderson and for Enron. I got out of that business at the right time. But I’d always been involved in what was called at that time, the CM^2 Practice of that business – Communications and Measurement. So Glen and I were talking about the original Napster, and it was at that moment when Lars from Metallica was giving press conferences about suing every last Metallica downloader, and Hilary Rosen and the RIAA were making a lot of noise in the initial litigation. I remember Glen saying one night after a little showcase when we were sitting at the bar in L.A. at Largo, “I just want to sell those people a t-shirt and let them know I’m still alive, and if they were a fan of what I did with the band in my major label incarnation that I’m still here and I’m still writing songs, and I’d love to get an opportunity to play those songs for them.” It was just this very human moment where he said, “I don’t want to sue anyone, I just want to find an audience.” Following that, we had some really directive conversations about how to take – not Napster specifically, I think we were already talking about all these Napster-like things that were popping up on the internet – all these internet communities that were growing up around what the industry viewed as wholesale theft of the music and turn it into a community that an artist could leverage.

The early conversations about Big Champagne were very much about social networking before we even had that term. We did a lot of work with Glen and ultimately a lot of artists in the early part of this decade doing things like marketing to Napster users and Audio Galaxy users. There were a lot of p2p’s popping up that had reasonably good community features – things like artist subscription list. Audio Galaxy had these great things you could sign up for saying, “I’m a fan of Elvis Costello, and if there’s any news about Elvis Costello or new music, you have permission to let me know.” We were doing that very nascent early internet marketing stuff, mostly on behalf of bands and artists because labels wouldn’t touch p2p. And then because of litigation, most of those great social features of early file-sharing networks were taken away. They created obvious targets for the music industry’s lawyers. The p2p operators had to adopt this “See no evil, hear no evil” stance. So we looked at what we were doing and said, “Look, if this becomes really anti-social and about anonymous people hunkered over their glowing streams, uploading and downloading music in their solitude. What’s the opportunity? Is it all just lost?”

We looked at what we were doing and said, “The only part of this business that would translate in that world would be broad metrics and essentially trying to do for what internet music what the Nielsen Company did for early television audiences – quantify activity and assign it geographically and start to do audience measurement.” We said, “We’ll push in that direction, and the rest in our small way is history.” We did that and got a lot of attention doing that because it was during the period when the media was fascinated and consumed with internet and music piracy – up, down or sideways. We became a frequent source for information and by the time things like iTunes and Rhapsody and the earlier legit places for digital music plays came along, we were considered an authoritative source for information about digital music. And we ended up going on to do deals with retailers and portals and social networks.

Musician Coaching:

It started off as Napster and the offshoots – all your p2ps. And now you track all the digital download stores and all the sales for the aggregators.

EG:

We do, yes. And broadcasters. We’ve had a deal for several years with Clear Channel. We work with MTV/Viacom. We’re trying now to incorporate information about – and I say this smiling a little bit – “all of it.” I don’t know if “all of it” really exists anymore, but we’re trying to map as much of the measurable consumption of music as one can. As a result of that, people I knew when you and I knew each other will see me and say,  “Hey, Garland, congratulations! You went legit! You came on over from the dark side.” That always sticks with me a little bit. I always want to respond with, “No, we didn’t. We really just followed the marketplace. When people were consuming music on the internet with the original Napster, we paid attention to that. And when they started to consume music on Myspace, before most of the people in the business knew what that was, we paid attention to that … and YouTube and iTunes and all the rest. Our business didn’t change. The ways people consumed music changed, and it’s always been our business to follow them. So that’s what we do.”

Musician Coaching:

I’m not going to dwell on it because I know these questions have been beaten to death – but are we still looking at piracy being 19/20 downloads basically? Are we looking at 95% of all music downloaded is being done without compensating the artist?

EG:

Downloads remain overwhelmingly free and unauthorized, yes. It varies a lot by artist and title. For some artists, 95% is a fair and in some cases conservative estimate to give piracy for certain types of artists.

Musician Coaching:

I didn’t realize. Is there a genre difference or some type of artist that is suffering more from theft?

EG:

Absolutely, and statistically it’s very easy to plot. A big urban crossover or pop smash – a single song that’s dominating the top of the rhythmic or the pop charts – is going to be overwhelmingly downloaded for free and illegally. And you look at the number of records sold compared to those downloads, and it will make you cry. But then you look at Susan Boyle, and not only is there relatively little internet piracy, but you look at her MySpace plays – legitimate, but internet access as opposed to paid traditional retail access – and it’s overwhelmingly traditional bricks and mortar. An upper demo – old folks – love buying records, and a lot of kids don’t even know habitually what that means. It’s rare for them to buy a record at all. As a genre, Nashville, country held out far longer. The big urban records got hit the hardest and fastest and remain by the numbers the most pirated.

Musician Coaching:

Is that because they are more likely to be online in torrent form or for exchange, or is that statistically?

EG:

It’s never about supply. Everything is readily available. You can never say, “Well, Susan Boyle doesn’t get downloaded a lot because it’s hard to find her, and it’s not quite one click away.”

Musician Coaching:

Well sure, at that level. I guess I meant somebody on an obscure indie put out something, and there just weren’t a lot of peers or files out there.

EG:

I think especially in recent years with the rise of one-click hosting sites, which include everything from Rapid Share to Mega Upload and Storage-Dot-O, you’d be dismayed and cry your eyes out if you just Googled “name of indie record” and the word “.rar” or the word “torrent” and “rapid share” just using the Google search engine, without having to fire up any file sharing software at all. It really isn’t about supply, because the internet continues to get better and better about making it all available. It really has to do with two things. The obvious and less interesting thing of the two is age; somebody who is 40 or 50 or 60 is more likely not only to like that Susan Boyle record but to buy it as opposed to grabbing it on Bit Torrent, and somebody who is fifteen is more likely to love the Rihanna record, but is more likely to grab a song – even if they pay for it – for a buck than to spend $15 or $17. That’s the less interesting thing because I think it’s so obvious we can all intuit that.

I think the more nuanced, more interesting thing to me is that it’s not just the demo,  it’s also the nature of the relationship between the artist and the fan; meaning, as the nature or the impression of downloads or listens, Lady Gaga’s piracy rate is much lower than a lot of big urban crossover or pop one-hit wonders. Why? Because even though it’s the same kids and even though God knows the material is easily accessible for free online as it is with Taylor Swift, there seems to be more connective tissue and more expectation on the part of fans that, “Hey, this is more than a song, and may even be worth a couple bucks; and it’s definitely an album experience and not just about grabbing the single.”

Musician Coaching:

There’s definitely always been the sense that a nameless, faceless band that came along with one single was much different from somebody who was a press darling and a fashionista and engaged on more fronts.

I guess what I am driving at is – is there something artists are doing online that correlates to more or less piracy?

EG:

Unfortunately I think the clearest correlation there is, the more digitally-savvy you are – because you are usually a reflection or a mirror of your own fan base – and digitally positioned you are as an artist, the more widely pirated you are going to be. That seems to be the overwhelming correlation. If you are selling vinyl records and CD’s off a website and collecting check by P.O. box only, chances are the rate of piracy will be lower.

Musician Coaching:

Wow. That’s almost a slap in some ways. Be online, be everywhere and get your music ripped off. (I’m shaking my head and laughing bitterly and without joy at this point as is Eric)

EG:

We’re laughing, but it’s so abundantly clear that I don’t want to shy away from it. Digital is dual edged. I don’t use that to recommend against leading and making use of all the digital platforms and being an overwhelmingly 21st Century artist. I don’t think you have the option to just say no to that, even though it comes with an extremely high rate of piracy, because that’s where the entire business is going. You’re going to have to be able to win in that environment.

Musician Coaching: Let’s get off the happy track of piracy soon… I was at a Christmas party the other night, and I was talking to a music manager who has huge clients and he said, “Yeah, there’s no money in this business anymore.” And clearly he has different standards than I do, but it’s like, “really?”

EG:

I get that at every gathering, especially at Christmas. It’s a Dickensian Christmas in the music industry, because in part, the harder they come. It is I think in some ways most painful in those upper ranks. I’ll certainly put your friend who represents big artists in that category. Because there is so much to lose, and it’s so immediately visible when the bottom starts to drop out. If you are a struggling artist, or a lower/middle-class artist – someone who has quit the day job or barely – I’m not sure all these macroeconomic forces and things like the global piracy epidemic actually affect you as immediately. Your business is a very different business, and you’re actually still just trying to get heard and make connections with a relatively few number of people, some few numbers of thousands or tens of thousands of people who are together going to help you eke out a living. And at that level, I don’t know that you can point to the sea change in the industry from 2000-2010 and say, “It killed me.” In balance, you’re probably about where you would have been or a little bit north of where you would have been. Because with that sea change have come some advantages to the little guy. But if you’re Aerosmith or the Eagles, of course you have some sob stories to tell, because those big checks are still big by your standards or mine, but they’re not as big. And they never will be again.

Musician Coaching:

Do you think there will ever be a diamond album?

***(RIAA classifies an album as diamond when it has shipped ten million copies)

EG:

I read something that suggested that a couple of albums over the last ten years sort of crept into the diamond. I think the Beatles’ Number One is now diamond.

Musician Coaching:

I’m not sure that counts.

EG:

That was the point I was going to make. Some catalogue records may still continue to creep into the diamond category typically; but will there ever be another new artist who genuinely sells ten million copies, an artist that is not already known to all of us.

Musician Coaching:

And you can say that with absolute certainty with all the numbers you have flying around you daily?

EG:

Oh, with great confidence. I tried to dramatize it during the MJ news cycle. We got a lot of calls for number when Michael died and the pile-on of digital sales of his catalogue started; and somebody made the mistake of asking me the question, “Will there ever be another Michael Jackson.” And I said, “No.” And the person said, “What do you mean? You didn’t even take a pause!” And I said, “Well, I’m not saying there will never be another quadruple threat talent or that there won’t ever be someone who captivates the bizarre imaginings of the world the way he did. I’m just saying that we will never again live in a world where so few media channels allowed one artist to dominate the attention of the world n the way that Michael did.” The ascent of Michael Jackson correlates beautifully to the ascent of a monolithic global media structure, and our world will never again see that. You’ll never again have just three channels on television with Michael Jackson on two of them. So when I say with confidence, “No- We’ll never again have a diamond album,” it’s not because we won’t have great artists or very popular artists. It’s just that the world will never be captive to so few signals ever again, so the marketplace will always be more fractured than that.

Musician Coaching:

I definitely want to change subjects and talk about the fact that you’re tracking the evolution of how records begin to creep and sell both indie and major and across the board. Where do these things that go viral start usually? And are there any such places that are not as obvious, or are there channels you believe are underserved where a lot more files are propagating?

EG:

It’s funny, and it’s kind of reductive to say, “Internet viral is just in some ways a new expression of nomenclature for word of mouth.” Because it is really all the same thing it’s always been, only with increasingly powerful tools. You remember in the early days of internet – mid 90’s to late 90’s – there would be these e-mail forward viral phenomena:  “Dog Bites Man’s Crotch” or something. There were these horrible little QuickTime videos, and those things at that point no one was tracking them, because it was just going Outlook to Outlook or inbox to inbox. But we know because we would go to lunch and talk about it that they were viewed tens of thousands of millions of times. In the same way, e-mail is still a key driver of word of mouth. We’re typically not e-mailing Quick Time videos around anymore, we’re e-mailing YouTube links. But e-mail is a huge driver and obviously Twitter and all the various messaging clients of all the social nets – Facebook, etc. – but it’s still fundamentally comes down to a lot of people simultaneously deciding that something is worthy of a few seconds of attention for fill-in-the-blank-reason. “This is curious, this is funny, this is outrageous, this is sad, this is impossible.” When I think about the OK Go treadmill video, I think mostly, while it certainly got a lot of attention for the band, it was not about a pop rock band, that was about nerds on treadmills and executing what I think people thought was an outrageously accomplished and choreographed routine in one take:  an impressive feat of humanity. That’s one of the good ones, because I think people wanted to watch it for the right reason.

Musician Coaching:

So the music was a backdrop for a stupid human trick in your estimation?

EG:

Yeah, but a friendly, empathetic stupid human trick in a sense that I think people were genuinely impressed and cheering these funny guys. It wasn’t, as so many of these things are, strictly Schadenfreude or mean-spirited. There are a handful of things that appeal to some aspect of our humanity, and that just drives us to tell a friend, and we have so many tools that make it “viral internet phenomena.” But I’m not convinced that the hit rate is very high in terms of there being something really additive or it building some asset that an artist can use and capitalize on and realize long term. Sometimes it vaults an artist into a level of recognition or consciousness that they can really benefit from, but I’m not convinced that’s eight out of ten; it may be two out of ten times.

Musician Coaching:

You have all this wealth of information, and clearly, if you release a video you should be on YouTube and if you release a song you should go to one of the many cheap to free distributors and be on all the most popular digital service providers. But are you finding that there are any platforms on the rise that people should be aware of, or any things bubbling up from places that are unexpected?

EG:

I’ll come back around and answer that specifically so I don’t bury your question, but what it makes me think first is, I’m not a big believer in short cuts, cheats, jumping to the front of the line. In other words, I think a lot of artists are thinking, “If I’m one of the first guys who’s using the next Twitter or the next Facebook, I’m going to have this huge advantage and going to have gotten one over or exploited the tools in a way that essentially let me jump the turnstile.” I’m not a huge believer in that, and I say that in part from the perspective of someone who like an aspiring artist is trying to build attention, a fan base and relationships in my case for a little company. We’re trying to do this too, and it’s certainly not a direct analog, but we’re certainly trying to maintain a profile and build meaningful connections and grow the scope of those connections. What we always say to ourselves and what I would say to any artist is, certainly, be everywhere to the extent that it costs you nothing to do that – not even time – to the extent that all the videos are uploaded to a single YouTube account that is clearly identified as being yours and not being even that clever but being diligent about things like managing your meta data, making sure your digital music is available everywhere that someone might meaningfully look for it. You can work with somebody like a TuneCore or a CDBaby to outsource that stuff for you.

But be everywhere not in the sense that you’re spending 40 hours a week as an artist doing things that artists don’t really do, but rather tick all the boxes. Fine. But then your real job is to use that flint rock and create some little sparks and from sparks a little kindling and from kindling a fire, and then fan that fire, and I don’t believe in a whole lot of short cuts when it comes to that. You have to be good, and then you have to focus on that first and second degree of separation and build your Kiss Army, one by one, by one.

Sometimes, without the benefit of the traditional media machine (radio promo and video ads)  an artist makes it through.  It’s so rare though and the circumstances always seem to be so specific to that artist that there seems to be nothing that can be learned from their example or replicated by others. There weren’t really a series of moves on the chessboard. For most artists success is something that has to be earned fan by fan.

Musician Coaching:

I was once told by Ahmet Ertegun  “A hit will find a way.” I guess that hasn’t changed.

EG:

Right. I think that’s true. To your question though about are there any new places, new venues?

Musician Coaching:

You would know if there are places online or tools to look out for. I would love to know your perspective on companies or platforms that would be of interest or are vastly underserved.

EG:

I actually think that one looming opportunity is in these one-click hosting sites, because I’ve never seen artists use those platforms at all. They’re free. You know what I’m talking about, this category of things that includes Mega Upload and Rapid Share. They’re free. You can be the one to create what could in effect be your EPK or content bundle that you want anyone to be the first thing to find or see. You could be the one to upload that and watch. It’s like this brilliant stroke of free SEO in the sense that anyone that searches for your relevant keyword – the name of your band or song – I guarantee you among the top results are going to be these one-click files. Google floats them all to the top. It’s in some ways really driving the piracy problem. But as an artist or manager or label distributor, you could take some control of that.

You can be the one to determine what the content is and how it’s distributed and whether it comes with a file on or an opportunity to get someone to opt in or have a relationship with you. It’s just something where strategically, in the same way artists were loath to use file sharing networks because they didn’t want to get their hands dirty – not so much artists, but management companies didn’t want to work with file sharing companies because they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. In the same way that it’s verboten to work with a bit torrent site, I think we don’t have that luxury with one-click hosting. These are not pirate businesses, these are legitimate businesses. They are sometimes U.S.-based, venture-based, really profitable businesses. And are they enabling infringement in the same way that Google and YouTube are? Sure, all day every day, but they’re not of the variety that they’re going to be easily reprimanded or knuckled under, so I don’t think we have the luxury of saying, “Oh, I don’t want to work with them.” I think there’s too much opportunity there.

Musician Coaching:

I didn’t even think about that, but with Google’s  music initiative anybody who would upload that on several of those sites could definitely drive what the first impression is or what one of the first impressions is…

EG:

To put a fine point on that one, if you are not making streaming music available now – we’re not even talking about giving something away for free – through Lala and what will now be Myspace Music, iMeme and iLike, you’re not even covering your bases fundamentally. And you probably don’t have time for that, nor should you make time for that; but CDBaby or TuneCore or one of the other aggregators will.

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