I’ve had a number of conversations over the past few weeks with established and emergent talent in the music management business. Most of them started with thinking about how people discover new bands or new types of music, and how those processes relate to the more abstract notions of brand. All of this was made more front and center by my work over the summer on the Let Us In campaign tying music – the original social media platform – to a social action agenda and in reading Zero History, the latest William Gibson book in his anti-brand yet anti-hipster trilogy.
Here’s a revenue model for an established band with an RIAA gold-certified single. I based some of these numbers on discussions and business models put together with someone who has done music distribution in a previous life; the others are based on estimates of average artist royalty share for physical goods sold through the big box stores and discounters like Wal-Mart. Even if the numbers are off by a bit, the rough orders of magnitude indicate that whole-album sales and touring put the most money in the bank. The extremes of the spectrum: single downloads from iTunes (and its degnerate cousin, people who share music “for free” and violate the copyright) and high-end, limited edition items, are important but not funding the retirement account.
So why play at the ends? Because that’s what drives volume back into the middle.
The lack of a solid middle is what’s killing the music business today. To quote Cory Doctorow, it’s not piracy, it’s obscurity. Any garage band can use Garage Band and CDBaby to get a song into iTunes. The music business and listener’s ears aren’t necessarily the better for it until that band develops a following, a sound, an album or three, and a business model. The good news is that music doesn’t need to be dominated by bands jamming the distribution channels terminating in Wal-Mart and Best Buy; there’s aural room for an order of magnitude more small, variegated acts. Just not a song at a time. Want the evidence? Harvard Business Review’s quick note that while downloads are up, album sales are down. Artists are losing money on a song-by-song basis but making it up in volume, as the old anti-business adage goes.
The numbers above are what I’d expect a band like Coheed and Cambria to do in support of an album (consider Year of the Black Rainbow, their latest; CoCa had two gold albums previously). They derive benefit from airplay and some promotion by the distribution companies, but for a smaller act (think Five Finger Death Punch, who opened for Godsmack on their latest tour), the volume is created by personal recommendation out of word of mouth, a shared car ride, a social networking site link or direct band outreach to fan clubs and street teams. There’s immense value in getting your one-song fans to listen to an entire album, or attend a live show and decide they want to buy the rest of your catalog; there’s even more value in getting a non-consumer to enjoy his or her first song and become a paying fan.
The ends of the spectrum are important because at a dollar a song, the barrier to new listener entry is very low; people will spend a buck if they think they like a song. Shazam and shared playlists like those from my yoga teacher drive volume on the low end. At the high end you have your strong affinity super-fans; the people who are the first to update their Facebook status to “Got tickets for Denver show” and to take a dozen pictures at the show. You strengthen that affinity with exclusive offers, direct outreach, and implicit permission to share your passion for the band. Coheed and Cambria, to extend the example, most definitely get this – from the limited edition versions of the graphic novels used as album backstory to the green vinyl re-release of Second Stage Turbine Blade in support of this spring’s tour. They don’t need non-stop airplay, heavy advertising, and direct promotion because their hardest core fans do it for them. That’s what musical passion incites in fans: a desire to share the music and the passion for it.
The price-versus-consumption spectrum reflects a nearly 1:1 mapping of a brand sub-spectrum. Brands are created and curated; they are imagined and then distributed to the public to varying degrees. On one extreme you have “forced inclusion” brands, where you simply can’t get away from them. Think Disney in Times Square, or on Saturday morning TV. This hasn’t changed in 40 years – it was the Wonderful World of Disney and a re-release of an animated movie and the Mickey Mouse Club before Simba chased the hookers off of 42nd Street. The musical equivalents are Miley Cyrus, Miranda Cosgrove and Justin Bieber. This hit me while sitting at a Miranda Cosgrove concert (with my outstanding young rocker nieces) when the tween behind me exclaimed (in reference to opener Grayson Chance) “He’s my new Jonas Brothers.” I hope that in the next few years, she develops her own tastes in music, and not just what the mass media tell her is appropriately hip.
At the other extreme are things so rarefied that they don’t need any media support: Lamborghinis, country clubs, Indie Rock Pete and his musical elitism, high-end oenophiles, the American Express Black card and the secret level of the affinity club. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it doesn’t even scratch the surface. If you have to ask, you don’t belong, and that’s the root of the exclusivity. It’s driving in Boston. Taken to an extreme, it’s the elitist fascination and brand allergies as central themes in William Gibson’s Zero History, Spook Country and Pattern Recognition.
Neither extreme holds much promise for the music business. While you can buy a guitar played by Sully Erna on tour, your ownership of an item with a cardinality measured in tens doesn’t make Godsmack more popular; and just because anyone with a piano and a flip camera can make music and a video doesn’t mean that they will turn it into a community with fans (Hoku anyone?). It’s the middle ground that matters: reaching out through selective inclusivity (Twitter, Facebook, email opt-in) and attraction of the super-fans through selective exclusivity that build a brand outside of the physical goods distribution networks.
Selective exclusivity relies on first followers: brand spotters, trend setters, whatever you want to call them. In the music world, though, the spotting and rebroadcast is many to many; it’s not one skirt length or one set of colors but Seattle grunge and sadly (for me) Autotune. It’s how Rush has managed to be the fourth best-selling band of all time despite only a handful of Top 100 songs. You either know the Lerxst in Wonderland, or you’re on the outside. It’s Jac Vanek bracelets (disclosure: Jac Vanek is a partner in the Let Us In Campaign; she makes our bracelets).
I think the selective exclusive domain is the savior of album sales and the breeding ground for successful tours. It has to be carefully cultivated (there is a measure of exclusivity); but it also has to be given the ability to participate and share and promote. This is the fundamental shift awaiting the music industry – to move away from a hierarchical, top-down controlled distribution of music to a bottom-up, empowered and infinitely broader set of networks. It’s Tim O’Reilly’s architecture for participation and I’m counting on it to make more music accessible more broadly. I’m counting on it, because I can’t afford that Godsmack guitar and I definitely can’t do another Miranda Cosgrove gig.
[note: Thanks to Jonathan Kriner, Stu Hinds, David Ross, Ben Stern and Cory Doctorow’s interview with William Gibson for thoughts that went into this rant]