After spending the past few years developing marketing strategy, I’ve recently gotten back into my original passion: making music. And ironically, being in a band again has reminded me of how I became interested in marketing strategy in the first place.
Marketing a band has always been a difficult thing. From thinking of a name that’s only a little terrible to actually getting your friends to pay money to come watch and hopefully bring some others along, it’s fraught with peril. There’s only so many times you can get your friends to come see you, so eventually you need to start catching on with others. This is a terribly difficult thing to do, because in order for people to become fans, they have to believe in a level of realness…your has to seem legit enough for people to want to grab a hold of it.
But a lot has happened in the past few years that has completely changed the way bands can bring their music to the masses. Using commonly available software and ever-cheaper computer equipment, it’s easier than ever to get professional quality recordings at home (though it still takes the patients of a zen master, and there’s still no replacing the skills and ear of a good producer/engineer). After the record is made, there are countless Websites that specialize in giving musicians a platform to get their music heard like Pandora and Myspace Music and Last.FM and Reverb Nation and Facebook and thousands upon thousands of other online services that musicians can promote themselves on.
While all of this is undoubtedly great for unsigned musicians, it has changed music marketing in strange, unforeseen ways, presenting new challenges as well as new twists on the challenges of years past.
- Fake it till you make it: If there was any industry where this mantra has been more widely embraced than in music, I haven’t found it. People need to believe that a musical act is good enough before they are willing to become a fan. The pursuit of this “real-bandness” has taken many forms as people have obsessed over seeming more legit. Stickers, t-shirts, going on tours, getting CDs pressed complete with artwork, stage shows, stage costumes, stage names, and trying to get on the radio. However, as it’s become easier and cheaper to do all of the above, does it even make sense to try to play this game anymore? What is necessary, and what is just left over from another time?
- Rethinking distribution: The modern music industry is what it is largely thanks to the logistics and costs behind distribution. However, as distribution has changed, shouldn’t the packaging and selling of music change as well? It used to make sense, from a distribution perspective, to package a dozen songs on a disc every couple of years, then tour to support the sales of that product. Unsigned bands saw this as a mark of “real-bandness,” and have spent what I’m sure amounts to billions of dollars on creating professional looking albums over the years, but is this still necessary? Apart from thematic albums, is there still a need to release large collections of songs at the same time, or can musicians get more bang for the buck by forgoing expensive CDs, and releasing songs under a different model? Would it make more sense for a local band to release one song a month on the Internet?
- Competing with Beethoven and The Beatles: The same technology that has opened up distribution options for unsigned bands has also opened up distribution for the pros. Essentially, when you put a song on the Internet now, you are competing with every single piece of music that has ever been recorded. George Clinton, Guns and Roses, The Big Bopper. Everything. Ever. How does one stand out in this environment?
- The musical blur: Now that we have everything that has ever been recorded at our fingertips, many people are listening to more music than they can actually pay attention to. There’s no longer the sense of commitment and personal investment in a band that used to come from buying an album. Record collections used to reveal a lot about their owners. Now people’s music collections are more likely to be a collection of favorites, passing fancies, and whatever else they happened to stumble across and have hard drive space for. As I’ve seen argued in countless places, music is no longer a thing. It’s a blur. How can bands that no one really wants to pay attention to in the first place grab attention once they are thrown into this sonic blur?
- Music is free: It doesn’t matter what your stance is on file sharing and music piracy, get on your soapbox and scream as loud as you can, but the simple fact of the matter is that music is free. Some people I’ve talked to don’t think it’s fair, but my point back to them is that it doesn’t matter what they think. Music is still free, and will be increasingly available for free. This means that the idea of recouping expenses for the creation of an album is going to increasingly not come from selling that album. Especially for unsigned bands. Most bands still don’t think like this though, and are selling 10 dollar CDs at their shows. Does this still make sense? Isn’t it better to have as many people as possible hearing your music than it is to sell it to 3 people for 30 bucks?
- Better things to do: It’s always been difficult to get people to come out to shows. but now bands are competing with everything that has ever been created, available for free, in the comfort of home. Are you sure that you would rather come to a filthy club, pay too much money to get in, buy over priced drinks, and rub elbows with drunks while having your ears blown out? Or would you rather stay at home and play guitar hero over a case of beer with your best friends? Bands are now competing with so much else out there that getting people to shows has become like getting people to do some kind of chore.
I have no solutions for the above. Only the thought that musicians are going to need to evolve the experience they are offering to entice people to pay attention again, or just become satisfied by playing every once in a while in front of 6 or 7 people.
As for my band, in an attempt to defeat musical blur and give people something to pay attention to, we made a video. At this point it has about 380 views on YouTube, which is far more than an audio version would’ve accumulated in such a short amount of time. And the bonus is that because it’s a video, it rises above the blur and becomes an event, so people are actively sitting down to watch.
Anyways, enough rambling. Here’s the video: