Music

Modern music marketing: is what you don’t do more important than doing everything?

My evolution as a music lover over the years has basically gone something like this:

1. Buy everything I like on CD
2. Listen to everything on Spotify instead

Since discovering Spotify two years ago, shortly after it came out in the UK, I have stopped buying CDs. I don’t need them anymore. I’ve also run out of space for them in my house, but that’s just an aside…

These days, the majority of my music-listening takes place on a computer, so Spotify is fine for that need. 90% of the music I like is on there. I’m a proud premium user: I hate the ads and I am an iPhone user, plus I used to spend £10+ per month buying CDs (that’s about one CD per month), so I’d actually argue that the Premium is a bargain in comparison.

Even so, there’s just two albums I really, really want to buy on CD at the moment:

1. Adele’s 21
2. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs

Why?

Because they’re not on Spotify.

As I said, “90% of the music I like is on there.” Whatever the reason for that other 10% not being on there, I’d argue that it’s potentially a good move on their part.

The musician’s mission is the musician’s dilemma

As a musician myself (from way back when), I can personally vouch for the two words that describe the goal of the little-known, unsigned musician: maximum exposure.

If/when we can afford the time and money, we market ourselves in a particular way because it’s the norm in the industry: we have to record demos or a proper album; we have to get a website made; we have to get on MySpace (once upon a time), Facebook, Spotify and various other social/music sites. The more you do, the better chance you stand. The goal is to maximise exposure, and by doing some or all of the above, you are attempting just that. I know because I did it. I even got myself onto Spotify, even though I’d stopped playing live by that point (note: for the curious among you who want to have a listen via that link, it’s the two EPs – the albums are by a different Steve Morgan).

Of course, fully-fledged signed musicians can be more selective, which their label/agents/managers/etc. will be responsible for, and yet Universal, Sony, EMI, Warner and more are all working with Spotify, according to Spotify’s Labels page.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no, depending on how you look at it. No because it’s maximising exposure. Yes because it’s not profitable.

Spotify is not profitable to musicians. David McCandless’ infographic highlights the differences between Spotify’s royalties (£0.0012 per stream) and other ways a musician can earn money by selling their music. When Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” reached 1 million streams, the biggest news about it was the fact that she only earned £108 in royalties from it.

Pirates gonna pirate, but…

Arguably, tenths of pennies is better than nothing at all, say if someone were to download music illegally. Of course, if people are that way inclined, it’s likely that they’ll always download the stuff for free, regardless of whether it’s on Spotify or only available on CD.

However, what about those who don’t download illegally? Whether it’s a case of ethics, wanting to own ‘the real thing’ or they’re simply scared of ever getting caught, those who choose the non-piracy route (myself included) will want to hear the music by legitimate means. A CD might cost about £10, but Spotify membership is £10 monthly and I can listen to numerous albums without any ads interrupting. I know I’m basing a lot of this on my own experiences, but I’m sure I’m not the only one, and that a lot of Spotify users are in the same (or similar) boat at the moment.

So why wouldn’t a musician be on Spotify? It could be that their label hasn’t yet negotiated terms with Spotify, or maybe they simply don’t want to be on there. Adele’s latest album and Arcade Fire aren’t on there, so what’s the alternative? To buy the CDs or MP3s. If they were on there, I’d probably listen to them on there, without the need to buy the CDs.

Time for some quick maths: if I were to listen to the Arcade Fire’s album in full five times…

– It contains 16 tracks. 16 x 5 = 80. 80 x £0.0012 = £0.096, or £0.10 rounded up. 10p. Wow.

– Meanwhile, it’s £8.99 on Play.com.

Now there is the assumption that someone could listen on Spotify and then buy on CD as well, but that will still depend on a person’s needs. Someone might buy the CD so that they can listen to it on a proper stereo, in the car or so that they have the physical copy, but if someone can listen to an album for cheaper or for ‘free’ (depending on their type of Spotify membership), they probably will. Fair enough if you do, but why buy the CD if you don’t need to?

Profit comes from demand, demand comes from desire

I’m not saying that musicians have to become capitalists, plus there are other ways musicians can support themselves (e.g. touring and merchandise), but let’s be fair… The way the music industry is heading at the moment is ridiculous, with musicians expecting to pay money to record and release music that people will then listen to free or for a pittance – Spotify’s low royalty fees are reflective of that. That said, it can be argued that that’s a result of there being too much ‘supply’ and not enough demand: i.e. lots of people playing and recording music, with listeners only being able to invest so much of their time and money into a finite amount of music. Even if they are a fan of dozens or hundreds of different artists.

So what’s a musician to do? In the case of Adele and Arcade Fire, people who’d usually do all their listening via Spotify will be more inclined to buy a CD. For once, not achieving maximum exposure via every possible outlet might actually be beneficial to them, in that it forces people down a particular route, which might require spending more money than listening via a cheap or free alternative.

Of course, Adele and Arcade Fire have done really well in making themselves in demand. The former has appeared on everything recently, from about every radio station ever to the first episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who. The latter won a Grammy.

But then that’s easy for big artists like them, who are supported by big record labels. What about the small fry – the little guys – the unsigned? Well if you make all of your music available via Spotify and similar services, then less people will want to buy your CD. So give them a reason to want to buy: maybe only make your music only available via CD and at gigs. Create excitement. Create demand. After all, if you offer everything, people will gladly take everything.

Easier said than done maybe, but at the end of the day, if people want something that they can’t have for free, they’ll pay.

[Guitar case & money image credit: Brave Heart]

The future of music and search?

Love music

Two of my biggest passions in life are music and search engine optimisation. However, one thing that’s always left me a little gutted is the fact that the two really aren’t compatible. People may use Google to look for merchandise, instruments, gig tickets or info on bands they already know and love, but they don’t really tend to put “acoustic music cardiff” into Google to find new local music to check out (at least not many anyway, and certainly no one I’ve ever talked to about it). When I first got into SEO, I experimented with my own music site, the now defunct morgasmic.co.uk (which currently redirects to my MySpace page, until MySpace inevitably goes under, in which case I’ll probably then redirect it here). But of course nothing really came out of that work, except for the realisation that SEO is utterly no good at all for people trying to find new music online.

Well why is that? It’s no mystery how people find new music, and there’s plenty of ways to do so: word of mouth, recommendations from family, friends and colleagues, the radio, TV, magazines, support acts at gigs, all-day gigs/festivals, open mic nights and other showcases, film and video game soundtracks… and that’s just offline. Musicians can certainly optimise their presence online via other alternatives to search: music forums for chatter or Twitter and Facebook (and MySpace, once upon a time…) to broadcast news and attempt to win new fans. But a few things recently have got me thinking. Is there a future for music and online search? Is there a way musicians can optimise themselves in order to be found by searchers? I certainly don’t condone or recommend any of them, but here are a few thoughts I had…

Track/band/album/label name optimisation?

Recently, I’ve been trying to get my music onto Spotify. Supposedly it’s in the process of getting added within the next few weeks, so every few days I do a vanity search to see if it’s on there. There’s already another Steve Morgan on there, whose most popular song on there by quite some margin is called “Ballad for Forest Gump,” which I’m assuming most people have come across when searching for “Forest Gump.” Notice the misspelling as well: a search for “Forrest Gump” brings up a much bigger list, including the official soundtrack, but drop an “r” and the searcher is only presented with a total of eight tracks. Incidentally, I have no idea if Steve #2 has intentionally misspelt the name, or whether it was a typo when it was uploaded, but I bet it’s been found more as “Forest” than it would’ve done as “Forrest.”

Forrest vs. Forest Gump

Admittedly, the searcher was looking for something else, but who hasn’t fallen in love with a band or musician they’ve stumbled across by complete accident? Who knows, maybe my namesake has won a fan or two this way, people who have listened to that one track and then the rest of the album.

Alternatively, what about those who don’t optimise enough? I’m guilty of this firsthand. When I released my second EP, I included a live cover of the traditional Irish song “Whiskey In The Jar.” What did I label the song as? “Whiskey (Live).” I’m a big Jane’s Addiction fan, who once covered “Sympathy For The Devil” but just called their version “Sympathy,” so I did something similar. Of course this wasn’t a particularly smart move on my part, because people looking for “Whiskey In The Jar” would never find my version, even though it is that song. The interesting thing as well is the spelling of “Whiskey,” as it can be spelt with or without the “e.” The spellings generally differ depending on where you live, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have considered one variation over the other depending on its accessibility and popularity more than its geographical preference. They’d certainly think about it in the business world, so why not in the music industry?

It doesn’t just end with track names, either. What’s stopping someone calling their band something that somebody might be looking for? Or their albums? Have any record labels ever tried it?

Lyrics “optimisation”?

Lyrics pages are like weird word goldmines, where a random mixture of usual and unusual words can trigger all sorts of off-topic long tail search terms. Like the “Forest” example above, it can be another way a musician is found completely by accident.

I saw absolute strangers land on my music site via the lyrics page for all sorts of crazy search terms (I didn’t have Google Analytics installed but Alexa has its own Top Search Queries list). My site once had a few people coming in who were asking Google: “can i go on holiday on parole,” because one of my songs had the word “holiday” in it a few times and another song had “parole” in one line. Aside from alerting me to the fact that travel-loving convicts were finding my website and probably leaving confused, disappointed and with their question unanswered, it highlights the fact that lyrics pages – particularly when lots of songs are all listed on one page – are like goldmines for the accidental long tail.

Length optimisation – shorter songs (but longer albums)?

Not strictly search related, but looking beyond the usual means of getting noticed would be appealing to the likes of Last.fm, which documents the tracks people listen to on their computer, and auto-tweet charts such as Tweekly.fm, which tweets a listener’s Top 3 most listened-to artists on a weekly basis. They work on the basis of number of songs listened to, not the length of time listened, so short pop and punk songs are going to be counted in more volume than 10+ minute progressive rock and post-rock songs.

In other words, if a band decides to write 60 minutes of material, the twenty 3-minute tracks are going to fare better in this instance than six 10-minute epics. It’d be a bit ridiculous if a band decided to base their “strategy,” style and way of songwriting on the off-chance that they’ll be on Last.fm, Tweekly.fm et al more often, but it could work to generating more notice.

Optimisation for the listener – the killer of creativity?

Music is about creativity, emotion, feeling. You give a song a name because it means something to you or your listeners, not because it has more chance of being found. At least that’s what I think, and I bet I’m not alone. But then I was hardly a Gaga or a Bieber in my more regular gigging days (then again, maybe that’s a good thing).

However, in a day and age where thousands upon thousands of bands and musicians try so hard to get themselves heard (pun possibly intended), I wouldn’t be surprised if some budding musicians cotton on to a few of the ideas mentioned above, perhaps come up with a few new ones, and try to get fans by tailoring their music and lyrics to maximise exposure more than through the music itself. Anything to stand out and get noticed.

…Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to form a band called The Lolcat Funny Picture Orchestra and release an album called “Whisky Or Whiskey?,” containing thirty 2-minute songs including “Winning Tiger Blood From Mr. Sheen,” “Lady Gaga’s Latest Crazy Dress” and “(Rebecca) Black Friday.” Keep an eye out for us…

[iPod/keyboard image credit: billaday]