Working with Digital Music Distributors
This interview was first published in December, 2013.
Chris Mooney is the Director of Artist Promotions of the one of online music distribution service TuneCore. Chris got his start in the music business at his college radio station. After graduation, he moved to New York City and began to work at record stores, then interning at record labels. Throughout his career, he has worked at music marketing companies and labels including Rhino Records and spinART. TuneCore was founded in 2005 and offers musicians and other rights-holders the ability to place music with online retailers. At TuneCore, Chris communicates with online stores and music services like iTunes, Amazon and Spotify to follow up on artists’ material, payments, trends, etc. He also works directly with artists to analyze their sales performance and store trends and offer insight on marketing campaigns and materials. Additionally, he works with TuneCore’s marketing and social media teams to identify trends in the market and how TuneCore can adjust its own strategies to best serve its clients.
Chris spoke to me about the work he does with TuneCore and the services and benefits artists should expect from music distribution companies. He also provided some valuable examples of indie artists working with TuneCore that have built successful careers in music and what they have done to get their music out there and build a loyal fan base.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Chris. How did you get into the music business?
I moved to New York City after college with the goal of getting into the music industry. By the end of my time in school, I realized I was basically majoring in the school’s radio station, as I was spending almost all my time there. After graduating, I had to make the decision to move to either New York City or L.A. Since I was from the Washington, D.C. area, I decided I was going to go to New York. I started out working at record stores, but eventually moved onto internships. And from internships I got a position at Rhino Records. It started out as a part-time position, and I eventually worked my way up to full time.
I became head of national sales support, and that position had a glass ceiling of sorts, because Rhino Records was based in L.A., and there was only one position aside from my boss’ position in New York City. There was nowhere to go but to jump.
Since then, I’ve worked at a few other labels. I worked at spinART Records and as a general manager of Ad Vice, which was a music marketing company. I’ve also worked in PR at Goldman, Sachs & Co. I went from a love of music, to getting a little bit of an understanding of the music industry by taking calls at my college radio station, to moving to New York City and see if I could find a position in the music business. I lived out the old adage of “Do what you love” and have been at it for a number of years now.
And what does your position at TuneCore entail?
I am Senior Director of Artist Promotions and Strategic Relationships at TuneCore, which means I am often dealing directly with artists and with stores/services like iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and any one of our other partners. We often get calls from management, labels or directly from artists asking how to use TuneCore. And while using TuneCore may be easy, often people still want to be walked through the process so they can have a better understanding of how it works. Other times stores/services will direct people to us when they are trying to figure out how to get their music onto iTunes, Amazon, etc., because they know we have great quality control and customer service. A lot of times I’m talking to both digital stores and artists. For example, iTunes will want to feature an artist, or we will have a suggestion for a big release that we think deserves to be featured, so we will send this information through to them.
I also work closely with our marketing team. I know a lot of the artists that are coming through and their stories, so I give our team information about what TuneCore artists are doing. For instance, seven of the YouTube Music Awards nominees all used TuneCore. And ten nominees for the Dove Awards – the Christian version of the Grammys – all used TuneCore as well as some artists on The Voice television show. I provide the marketing team with what’s happening with TuneCore in the real world.
As an additional example, last year at SXSW, we ran a query and realized that one in three artists playing at the SXSW music conference uses TuneCore. We did the same thing for CMJ, and it turned out there was a similar ratio. We’re really just trying to promote the fact that TuneCore isn’t just about catalogue artists that people have heard of – such as Chicago, who has a bunch of stuff through us – or an artist you’ve never heard of, because they are brand new; there are a lot of artists you hear every day that are being talked about in music blogs and magazines and using TuneCore.
Then, your job now seems to be part artist relations and part sales. In other words, your job would be to find a band that would be a good fit for a specific promotion that Amazon is doing. And as you were a guy that was working at record companies, you could probably speak to about how sales have changed in the Digital Age. What you’re dealing with now is online real estate on iTunes, Amazon and similar services.
Yes, except TuneCore doesn’t participate in the revenue of the artist. So, it’s not your traditional sales role. I’m not trying to figure out how to go from 100 sales to 200 sales to increase TuneCore’s revenue. This is really in part because we have such a volume of customers. We want to provide some label services, but it’s just too hard to do it for every individual artist, because we have so many artists. We do provide an online feature submission form, so artists can send in their details and build priority sheets for stores for their editorial consideration. I’m not necessarily jumping behind any one specific artist. But on a weekly basis, I’m rallying around new releases and making stores aware of what is coming through TuneCore.
It’s great to build relationships with as many artists as possible, because we want them to be aware that TuneCore is a viable option. If they get a label deal and leave us, that’s fine. There are no strings attached. But as long as artists are with us, we want to give them the support a lot of people need now that they don’t have label deals.
I’m going to ask the tough question: The criticism of TuneCore I’ve heard is that because it’s such a big company, it’s easy for an artist to get lost. How do you put that into perspective for artists that might feel they should go with a smaller company in order to get their hands held?
I guess I would wonder where those places are that will hold their hand. If they get label deals, that might happen. But for independent artists that want to be supported, I don’t know if there are many better options aside from TuneCore. I don’t know whether my role exists at companies that compete with ours. And if it does exist, it’s likely because artists are giving up a portion of their revenue to pay for some marketing.
Having been at labels and even having worked with a distributor that takes a large percentage of an artist’s net revenue, I’ve never felt like they marketed every single one of the records, because they have to look at their entire release schedule and are working with dozens and sometimes even hundreds of releases. They can only talk to their editorial team at iTunes about a few of them. They have to pick and choose on that end as well.
Can you address a lot of the misunderstandings artists have about distribution companies? What should people expect from a distributor?
I think TuneCore tries to be very up front. TuneCore is a digital distribution company. People sometimes call us want marketing services. We provide a lot of educational blog posts for artists on subjects such as, “how to shoot a video on the cheap” or “how to get press without a PR company.” We offer educational content on our blog, in our newsletters and emails. But distributors need to do the job that is asked of them: take an artist’s music, send it to a store, provide customer support in case pricing changes or there are spelling errors and then do an excellent job of providing accounting and data. TuneCore has really upped its game the past year. We used to have weekly trend reports, so you can look at how your releases did on a weekly basis in advance of accounting. But now, we offer daily trend reports, so you can see roughly what you sold in iTunes and on Spotify and Amazon and if the marketing you did worked, if the tour, or that interview you did increased sales. Providing that back-end information is key to what a distributor should be doing. That’s something we’re still trying to expand upon.
I don’t think you can rely on your distributor to do marketing for you. If you are in a situation where the distributor has promised marketing, I would hold them to that. But if you’re working with TuneCore, you’re getting to keep a lot of your money because we ask for a low fee for distribution, so invest in yourself. If you feel like you are at the point in your career where you can hire a publicist or an online marketing company, you should do that and just rely on TuneCore to get your music into the stores in a timely fashion, offer you some customer support and provide you with some quality accounting services.
Heritage artists and other groups that have cut their teeth in an older industry notwithstanding, what are artists doing that are helping them succeed with TuneCore?
I think the artists you are talking about that not a lot of people have necessarily heard of but are extremely successful play out live often and create a consistent release schedule, so it’s not just one album every three years. Because, you don’t just have to release albums anymore; you can release a single, an album or a YouTube video. And not only are these successful artists releasing music consistently, but they are participating in a consistent conversation with fans on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other places online. People talk about a “heavy social media presence.” But that idea is not just about number of followers: It’s about having a conversation so you can excite people about the music you are releasing and the music you will be releasing.
There are a number of YouTube stars that use TuneCore. And that’s an interesting example of the model really flipping, because they were online without the intention of being known for their music and then started releasing and promoting their music there. There was an article recently in The New York Times about a duo called Epic Rap Battles. They do these incredible YouTube videos where they will write different raps, such as “Darth Vader vs. Hitler” or “Chuck Norris vs. Bruce Lee.” They put a lot of effort and money behind it, with good costuming and production values. They have 7.7 million subscribers. Their driving factor initially was to be big on YouTube. But now they release their music through TuneCore as singles and make a secondary income as musicians.
I think the question of what it takes to be successful either with your company, another company or online is one of those open-ended questions that never get fully answered. Some people get found online and become Justin Bieber. Other people grind on the road for 20 years and don’t have that big moment of getting “discovered.”
Consistent conversation, whether it be surrounding releases or other content, is really important. And I also think the best-selling artists are those that play live. They may not have an audience ready for them, but they work to build that audience either through national touring and regional touring.
Can you point to a few artists in the TuneCore system that are doing this successfully?
There’s an artist named Ron Pope. A couple months ago, we went to his show in Irving Plaza and gave him an award for his 1.5 millionth song download. That number does not include streams. He is an artist from New York who has been with TuneCore for years and has a dozen-plus releases with us, both singles and albums. He played New York, then built up to tours of the Northeast, then went on to do regional tours. His music has become more and more popular, and he now tours overseas as well. Unlike a lot of musicians, he is extremely grateful for Spotify. He played Sweden and had a large audience singing along to him, and he said looking at his sales, the only way he could’ve built that audience up was through Spotify streams. He made sure he was distributed into these areas where he had goals of touring.
And there’s Ben Rector, who came out of the gate with a #1 record on iTunes using TuneCore. He also just played Irving Plaza, and we gave him an award for two million downloads.
And then there are the Boyce Avenues of the world. Boyce Avenue has a billion YouTube views and is one of the biggest unknown huge stars in the world. In many senses, they’ve gained their popularity by performing other people’s music, but their fan base has a direct relationship with them. They get excited about the Boyce Avenue versions of songs. The band recently released its first new song in a while through TuneCore.
Then there are artists that probably haven’t played live very much, like the hip-hop artist Hoodie Allen. He’s performed live, but his success has mostly come through online and getting his music through the right people. He was #1 on iTunes and in the top 10 for weeks after his release. It’s pretty amazing. I look at trend reports a few times per week, and I love seeing all these amazing sales stories that are emerging.
There are definitely some country artists that have used Sirius to build their careers and are also with TuneCore: Florida Georgia Line; Cole Swindell and Blackjack Billy. Through management or by hiring a radio person, they’ve been able to get their music out to Sirius. And Sirius Country does seem to drive sales again and again. Cole Swindell is selling music every week consistently. I think he has a little bit of a team behind him, but if you look at why he is doing so well, it seems like it’s very attached to his performance on Sirius. However, I don’t necessarily see the same sales results attached to someone getting radio play on the alternative station. Country seems to be a good match.
I have also noticed that some audiences are just more receptive to that medium.
Obviously, the retail giants for music are iTunes and Amazon, even though I know you were talking about Spotify contributing successfully to Ron Pope’s success, so that is obviously growing. Are there any more places you distribute that you think artists aren’t paying enough attention to but should?
I think Google Music should be involved with every release. eMusic is also still very strong for the indie music fan, whether indie rock, hip-hop or country. They have a good, strong buying audience, even though that audience isn’t buying music from artists like Rihanna or others in the Top 10 of the world.
We also have a lot of overseas musicians that use TuneCore, so Deezer might be important to them, as it’s strong in the EU market. And we have Scandinavian artists who might be interested in WiMP, which is a streaming service based in Scandinavia and Poland. Sometimes it’s not necessarily applicable to every artist, but there are definitely some overseas artist I see get coverage and enjoy success thanks to services that are not necessarily in the front of other people’s minds.
You can learn more about the work Chris Mooney is doing with artists on the official TuneCore website and follow the company on Twitter.