Success in the Music Industry
The following is Part 2 of an interview that a client and friend Ivan David Amaya conducted in order to support research for his dissertation on the topic of entrepreneurial careers in the music industry. Ivan is a musician and recently got his MBA at Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, University of Wales.
In this part of the interview, we talked about different marketing tools and strategies that are valuable to musicians. We also talked about what “success” means in the music industry and how artists can strengthen their revenue streams.
In your opinion, what marketing tools are the most useful to musicians?
Having a professional website and a presence on social media sites are key. In my opinion, the three essential social media sites are Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but there are other platforms that work for certain artists. Instagram and Tumblr are definitely worth exploring. I think having a video of any kind is an invaluable marketing tool. And people have to think of their marketing efforts as long-term strategies.
Probably the most important strategy is building a mailing list. As an artist, you can live or die by your mailing list. Fan-funding campaigns are big right now, and when fan-funding platforms determine how much money they think people can raise, the first thing they look at is the size of their mailing list. Having a social media presence and engaging with fans via Facebook, Twitter, etc. is important, but the mailing list is gold, because email marketing has been proven to have a better conversion rate than social media.
A lot of people these days are just targeting fans, constantly thinking, “direct to fan, direct to fan,” but they forget that they should also be building relationships with other musicians. As an artist, it really helps to create or join a community- this allows you to market to the fan bases of other artists en masse and allows them to do the same thing with your crowd.
People also forget how easily they can get caught up in social media. I think it’s really important to be out in the world and to really shake people’s hands. I see a lot of bands playing onstage expecting people to know who they are just because their name was in the paper. They don’t even say who they are on stage (or have a banner or signage of any kind). I recommend that everyone grab a Google Voice number and have people text their email addresses to that number for some kind of free giveaway. This allows a band to market to people’s email but also you can send texts to mobile phones. This can be really powerful too.
Going back to the topic of pursuing other musicians, I think people really believe there is this one music business person that can really help them. But the developing acts I know have really strong relationships with other artists, and those relationships are what get them the better slots on tour and collaboration opportunities. Even very successful artists continue to build relationships with new and younger artists by starting record labels, etc. It’s smart to realize that if you’re not reaching down to a younger generation of musicians you might become outdated very quickly. There is an older musician named Butch Walker, who was at one point struggling to remain relevant. Then he started producing all of these younger acts, and then these younger acts, in exchange, started bringing him out, putting him in their community and in front of their crowds. You can also extend how relevant you are based on your relationship with other artists, because if your friends become successful, you get a share in that to a certain point. Building relationships in person is really huge.
You read a million articles that talk about the importance of getting a new Facebook friend. That’s important, but I think people often get too caught up in online activities and forget they need to go out and meet people. I’ve discovered that people I contact are really taken aback when I call them unless I already have an on-going relationship with them, whereas, if I have already established some sort of a relationship with them, they are happy to hear from me when I reach out to have a more significant conversation.
On a similar note, many people believe that blasting an impersonal message into the world is going to get them a response. People don’t respond to obviously cut-and-paste emails. Sometimes you have to reach out to people you don’t know in order to be successful. But when you do that with a form letter, those people will not care. There are all these tastemakers and other people in a position to help you out: the booker of a local club, etc. And they’re getting a lot of emails saying, “Hey, this is my band. We want to play” with no more reasoning other than “We’re great. We’re going to make it big.” Everyone thinks they’re really great, so this statement means nothing.
When you approach somebody cold, the important things to mention are why you are approaching them, what you want and why that should be of value to them. I think a lot of people run head first into saying, “I want you. You should manage us”. People email other people basically proposing marriage on the first date or even before: “Hi. You’re pretty. Marry me.” As an artist, you need to relax, provide information and try to get to know someone: “Hey, this is who I am. I am approaching you for this reason. I think you should care because X, Y, Z.” And that “X, Y, Z” can be the number of records you’ve sold or an ancillary business you’ve done really well in. There should be facts that are relevant above and beyond “I play the same twelve notes as everybody else, and I think I’m great.” A big part of marketing is being personable whether in person or not.
So, creating a community is key.
I think so. I am not saying it doesn’t happen without communities, but I think artists with communities have a much better shot at a long-term career.
I am also a fan of creating what I call “jointly-branded experiences” or “jointly-branded products.” This could mean touring with a series of bands or even playing shows with the same kind of bands and making sure the fan base is intermixed, because when you’re selling a show you’re not only selling what you’re playing; you’re also selling other members of your audience to each other; you’re selling a good time. For example, I don’t think anybody goes to see Phish anymore just so see Phish; they go to see the other people that go to see Phish. They think, “That cute girl from Colorado is going to be there.” People are looking for a good time, and music is just a part of that. If you can encourage a community, you know you’re not just selling your band, you’re also selling a great night.
The jointly-branded experience doesn’t just have to be with another artist. I put together a show with an artist I work with, and there was a guy at the show painting, live. He hung his artwork on the walls and did a gallery show. Every show has to be an event. And the most important part about events is the sense of community. And if you’re co-writing or collaborating with other people in any form, you are incentivising them to promote your work, because they have skin in the game. It’s about teamwork vs. a solo effort.
If you went out as a solo artist today completely on your own, it would be much harder because you wouldn’t have peers – other obsessive people who were invested in making what you’re doing great. A lot of people forget that it is not just a band that gets to see the world; it’s band/artist and their friends, their friends’ friends and the people they can collaborate with, work with and hang out with. You’re not just selling your music at a certain point. The really successful artists wind up selling culture. Lady Gaga has culture, although I don’t claim to identify with it. Jack Johnson has culture, if you’re a surfer. I am a surfer, and in every little surf town where I go, there is Jack Johnson playing. The guy scored videos for surf films. There is something about his music that resonated in that community and continues to do so. Another part of marketing is identifying some cultures that you are genuinely affiliated with. You can’t just say, “Hey, I think skaters are cool. Let’s go and play at skate parks.” That tends to fail, because fans can just sense when something is forced marketing vs. authentic.
Are you still playing hard rock/metal music?
Yes. And I remember you talking to me about this concept. My music has kind of a cinematic edge to it, and you told me I should get more in touch with indie film makers and try to connect with that aesthetic. It has been working so far.
It’s a gross generalization, but if I work with a metal band, I think, “All right, do they have lot of tattoos? Do they like to drink hard liquor? Do they like to ride motorcycles?” And if you are a metal band and can say, “Yes” to these questions, you pursue people who are in those communities and make sure there’s a reason that they show up to hear your music.
I had someone come to me and say, “Well, you know, I’m Christian. All my fans are Christian, but I don’t want to be a Christian artist.” My advice is to take what you have and then expand. Don’t run away from being liked. People are showing up to your shows, so you need to embrace that. Ultimately, who your fans are is not always up to you. The minute you decided to be in business, your job became to get people what they want. You need to get people showing up to hear your music what they need. If you want to expand it, that’s great, but you can’t alienate people who are already there.
A classic example of this concept is someone coming to me and saying, “Well, everybody loves this song live, but I don’t want to record it, because I don’t really like playing it.” You know what? If you’re trying to do this for a living, your vote goes out the window. There are a million stories of people hating their biggest hits. Artists have to remember that playing music is very self-indulgent, but if they decided to do it for a living, it is no longer just about them.
Is success quantifiable? What does “success” look like?
First of all, success is different for everyone.
Second of all, it’s never quite what it looks like on the outside. There are people very much in the public eye that are broke. I hear stories all the time about well-known hip-hop artists who are wearing $100,000 Rolexes. But if you get a little closer to the story you see that they had to sell their artists’ share of their publishing, because they were flat broke from living that lifestyle. I think people have to remember that appearances are almost never what they seem.
Success, to me, is making a living doing what you love, providing for you and your family and making sure that if you’re going to have a lengthy career like this, you have something stored away as insurance. If you want to be famous or rich, there are a lot of ways to do that. If you want to be rich, go be a banker. If you want to be famous, go get on a reality show and eat insects … or whatever people are doing now. If you want to play music, you have to accept that the average musician isn’t making more than about $40,000 per year. You can certainly do better than that. You can take all the ancillary skills you learn along the way (as we discussed earlier) and then translate those skills into additional skills. For example, if you discover that you’re good at production, you might wind up producing other people to fund your music career. And through that, you might find out that you are really good at mixing. You may also discover that you’re really good at booking your own band and pick up a few other bands to book and make some money that way. I ended up in a record company because I was trying to figure out how to get my band signed. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend diving head-first into the executive thing. Just because I decided that it was easier and safer than just being an artist doesn’t mean it is necessarily a good choice if you want to be in the business for life.
Success is a difficult concept to define. A lot of people say, “I’m really successful because I have 100,000 Twitter followers.” There’s a certain amount of wagging the dog and a certain amount of saying, “We’re going to inflate the public appearance of our success to gain success” going on. I’m not saying that these metrics don’t have some merit, because they do. But I think people can get too caught up in appearances, to the point where they will buy Twitter followers, fans and make sure they look really successful to anybody who sees them. And mere appearances are not “success.” Your happiness, your health and your ability to provide/make a living for you and for your family on a long-term basis is success.
You talk about musicians turning to live shows and merchandise. What other sources of income should artists pursue?
It comes back to the ancillary skills. If you’re a good guitar player, you should not treat your band like a monogamous romantic relationship; you should go be a session player. The other income streams basically involve making sure you are always playing music. The people I know who have become successful musicians were the people who were always playing. They always found a way and were not held back by other people because it was difficult. They were the people who say, “You know what? I want to gig all the time. I want to play all the time. I want to record all the time.”
You can also pursue licensing – although I think licensing is very difficult. But it is worth pursuing those types of relationships. I also think there are music-for-hire opportunities that people should consider. But I think making a living playing music has become about setting up multiple revenue streams and certainly, also about song writing. Every song you write is a virus, and the more you have out there – of quality – the better chance you have on having something that will sustain you. We are all looking for the “money button” and to not be in the service industry. We’re looking for having something that generates on-going income, and your best shot at finding this as a musician is the composition. Someone out there has to write the next “Happy Birthday.” Writing, publishing and diversifying are all critical.
You can learn more about the interviewer, Ivan David Amaya and his music by visiting the Opensight official website. Be sure to also check out Part 1 of this interview.