Strategy: Innovation

Remember how cool the Polaroid camera was?

I fondly remember my first – oh how vivid the memories. With each fresh box of ten opportunities, I loaded that behemoth with confidence. Hordes of onlookers marveled at my ability to forego the darkroom, reviewing and enjoying the results of my framing within mere minutes of taking the picture itself. In essence, I held in my hands the future and by extension, I was the future. I had found the coolest thing – the newest, most innovative thing to hit the music photography industry for years. I was maybe nine years old at the time, but I’d say I recall quite confidently that all of my friends were after my camera!


So what happened? To where went the magic I’d once held in my hands? My friends all of who gravitated towards me for the machine I had – for what sudden reason had I none?

Long story short – the digital camera robbed me of my friends. Grr. The leather-jacket, slicked-hair, greased-lightning cool technology of the Polaroid didn’t sustain itself. It’s complacency as the most innovative camera at the time was the nail in its own coffin. Yes, it figured it out once. But it didn’t stay on board. Instead, the digital camera saw past the buzz of in-camera chemical processes and took a step in a new direction.

Don’t let that happen to you.

You’ve figured out how to stay afloat – but things are changing faster than ever. The way I see it, all of the technology, start-ups, ideas, consensuses, consumer moods, are drifting towards the artists – people are instinctively shortening the distance between themselves and the actual creators of the content they value. These days, the utility belt of tools you wear as an artist holds batarangs of options. But, these options won’t be the answer forever. In order to avoid becoming another polaroid camera amidst the vacillating unpredictability of the music industry, it’s imperative to be responsive and on the forefront of the doing things differently grind.

You just doubled your social media engagement by implementing an if/then trigger system, which aggregated and reposted fans’ instagram photos to Facebook based on your custom concert hashtag – effectively creating a fan-generating, artist-hosted stream of visual content effortlessly? Ballin’.


What’s next?


Buzz words are pervasive in the entertainment industry, but chances are if what you’re doing is buzzing too much, it’s not a very stable strategy. Being creative is what got us into this mess; it’s truthfully going to be the only thing keeping us in it.

Amanda Palmer earned over a million dollars on Kickstarter. That’s probably not going to ever happen again and should not be a fundamental goal in your indie-approach model. Instead, take a look at some of the newest services available to you and think about how your following might react. Compile an RSS feed and stay on top of some news sources that you find interesting. Don’t stop learning about new artists, businesses, and ideas. Filling the shoes of those who have succeeded before you is a nearly surefire way to guarantee career stagnancy.

I was devoted to my Polaroid. I showed it to all my followers on the playground. As a fan, I was committed to nurturing a viral spread through social. But if the product ceased to say anything remarkable, my friends would stop listening. You know how this metaphor relates to what you do. Best of luck!

Ya Está.

Thanks to those of you who actually do read these, I had a good time writing this semester (even if my topic of choice lends itself to being a bit vague.) I hope to keep blogging, whether it’s here or on a personal site. Feel free to send me thoughts, si quieres.

Most Cordially,

Kyle Billings


Strategy: Inbound



I’ve known this character since high school – he’s been one of my best friends of all time. We’ve been through a lot; we’ve spent entire weeks in beach cottages, occasionally leaving the brightly painted, two-room shack to go mini-golfing dressed as formally as our resources would allow. At one point in high school, we spent an entire day excused from classes with school administration defending our actions in fear of impending suspension and a noticeable blemish on our otherwise faultless school behavioral records. Patrick – like all the best artists – kept me on my toes, entertained me, and made every ounce of my participation in the friendship worth each successive moment of time spent.

(thanks buddy. this one goes out to you)

AHEM! There’s a big lesson to take in here! As an artist, you need to be like my good friend Patrick.


I’ve said it before. Seth Godin has said it before. We know it by now – you’ve got to be something special! You’ve got to have that charm and that little something that can’t be found anywhere else. Patrick has that. He’s incontrovertibly been and will always be that guy. In addition to his unmistakably characteristic personality, he has yet another integral factor of success. He’s got the right kind of actual, physical, not-even-figurative presence.

Keep in mind; I’m not necessarily saying he was always around. That’s actually a mistake many artists make – overdoing it (Yes, there’s a possibility that posting a link to your latest “Work In Progress” on Soundcloud and urging me to forward it to my entire network more than once in an hour could be considered too much.) In fact, Patrick was usually late to arrive and would consistently get himself lost during group outings – requiring that my friends and I take the time to find him whenever he got distracted and wandered off. Instead, he had presence in that I always knew where to find him, he was always there when I needed him, and he was always wholeheartedly down for whatever adventure happened to be on the agenda for the day.

You see; Patrick remains (to this day) rather conveniently unlicensed and thus legally precluded from operating a motor vehicle. This means that whenever a friend or I wanted to see him, we knew where we could find him – his house.

Here’s where some of the teachings lie. As an artist, you should be just like him; be consistently available, always be energetic and excited for even the most mundane trips to CVS for allergy medication, and bring that characteristic personality only when I come to you – when you know it’s what I know I’m getting myself into.


In marketing terms, this is called your inbound strategy. It’s to be coordinated with your outbound efforts (which include your overt, publicly promotional actions – more on this some day) to contribute to something called Integrated Marketing Communications, or IMC. Successfully integrated one’s inbound and outbound communications is like giving a body to a voice. It’s means that behind the shouts of publicity, there’s a stable foundation to back it up. It (most concretely) means that when people are looking for your music, your bio, your pictures, for you, they can do so easily. Seeing as we’re all living and breathing the Internet – yup – this pretty much means social media.

You’ll hear from some people these days how important it is to be “on social media.” Some of these will stress how you should be ubiquitous (everywhere) online so people can find you; I don’t really consider that true. You just need to be where you’re expected to be. This depends a lot on your particular situation, but your portfolio of online personas could include anything from an instagram account to a reddit account. I don’t doubt that you have the clarity to know your fans well enough to know where they hang out online!

While you’re racking your brain – here’s a few tips.

Buy the Domain Name Already.

If you haven’t already…

Even if it’s just for posting songs with a nice Ken Burns slideshow of pictures, YouTube is great to be available on.

Do you have a nice e-mail address?

Do your fans use Pinterest? Be on Pinterest.

Learn to use hootsuite.

MySpace integrates well with a lot of other services these days – give it a thought, but it’s not too necessary. 


What you say about yourself isn’t nearly as important as what people say about you. Sometimes it’s a good idea to keep quiet and let the dialogue flow. Although content is king, your posts are mini forums for conversation – not a dumping ground or an obligation.


One last thing. Respond to people.



Seth Godin is considered by many to be a sort of marketing guru. To his credit, he’s certainly positioned himself in that light rather successfully, which, I do suppose, earns him the title to some degree.

Through his quirky efforts, Godin connects himself as a marketer with an idea – it’s good to be weird. In fact, it’s strategic to live in a strange niche. This idea carries enough ambiguity to benefit from some discussion; let’s steal it talk about it.


Yes. As an artist, step one is to speak your own, quirky voice – to most genuinely and outwardly project your idiosyncratic ramblings as a rallying call to your people. Unique music is integral to becoming and remaining important in somebody’s life. Step two is to continue being quirky with everything that you do; don’t be content with being yourself musically. It may to safe to say you’re a bit of a geek. Seth Godin would say to embrace that fully. You’re doing a great job being yourself with your songs, now carry on that IDGAF creativity to how you share it, how you sell it, how you perform it. The conventions need not apply to you.

To me, the most inspirational thing about the new music business is the ever-expanding range of tools that empower both the creators of content and those who crave the creative creations. There’s a compounding volume of options – startups, gadgets, opportunities. With this variety, there’s a similar growth in the number, size, individuality, and solidarity of countless communities, each interacting with one another in their own ways. Whether it be EDM fanatics endlessly promoting themselves through Soundcloud comments, or local rappers frequently ReverbNation, there’s a channel for all expression – for all art.

Now what?

Whether it’s positively or it’s negatively, people respond to things that are out of the ordinary. We’re programmed as mammals to spot and assess these potential threats. (You probably remember taking a discerning look at that ham sandwich, don’t you?) Considering this, artists can create their own blue ocean, their own uninhabited niche, not just through distinct music, but also through the creative manipulation of the very business upon which music moves.

As always – an example to make my baseless ramblings look like something. Here we have Iggy Pop. In 2012, he released an album and approached the occasion from an interesting angle. Après, an album consisting predominantly of French cover songs, was announced through Vente Privee – a members-only shopping platform normally dedicated to fashion, jewelry, lifestyle, etc. The site functions as an exclusive community of designer brand enthusiasts, organizing its constituency around flash-sales. By releasing an album through a website commonly associated with high-end watches, sunglasses, and food processors, Iggy Pop through a bit of spice into the mix – he successfully bolstered the value-adding properties of his value-communication efforts!


Just taking a little risk and throwing even the slightest curve ball can have some interesting effects.

During the acclimatization process of my first semester of college in Boston, I encountered a couple creative people giving this concept a shot. Considering all the new music to which I was exposed through the simple contact effect of joining the Berklee community, I’d cultivated a massive list of artists and songs on my phone. To this day, I still check back now and again to familiarize myself with a new genre or artist. One CD, though, found a way to jump the line and hit my ears without waiting patiently as the rest. As the story goes, this CD was given out on the corner of Mass Ave and Boylston Street in connection with a book, which had been produced as a partner to the music. The intent was for the recipient to listen to the music while they read. Pretty. Cool. Idea. Right?

Unfortunately – both kind of sucked. There was value in the creative approach, but absolutely none in the product. I can’t even remember the name of the book at this point. Wow. It was pretty bad.


So! Lesson learned! Make cool things and don’t just tell me about it. I want to find out, I want to discover it and get a taste of what to expect in the process. Good luck!

Strategy: Something Below the Surface

One great benefit of being a musical artist is that it gives one the opportunity to become a very influential figure in people’s lives. It’s a fulfilling, emotionally driven approach to being a leader. As musicians, we’re in the business of scoring the soundtracks to the scenes of people’s lives – moments that are made so unforgettable thanks to their underscore. I can so vividly recall my first slow dance at my first Homecoming during high school, performed with a girl with whom I’d been infatuated (full disclosure, I’m not shy) – all to the undulating sway of I’ll Be by Edwin McCain. In parallel and contrast, I remember the energizing nature of Eminem’s poetry converting my anticipation to confidence before each lacrosse game; the dilapidated speaker system rattling the further abused green locker that housed it. The music both creates and captures the moment; it’s the ultimate third wheel and the perfect wingman.

Notwithstanding all of the preceding sappiness, I’m really just saying that our connection to musicians can be much more complex than our connections with other shared role models. It all comes down to how compellingly the message is delivered. There are some great opportunities for people who perhaps wouldn’t make it in the film industry or in professional sports – music is an environment for whoever has a voice and for whoever is able to throw it. 


For the sake of seeking a mainstream example, the below photograph is of the likeness of Ms. Susan Magdalane Boyle. This Scottish pop icon found her fame auditioning for the TV show Britain’s Got Talent. Regardless of any initial chuckles and jokes, there’s “something” about her performance that earned her a bit of attention, as these days she’s a Grammy nominated, platinum recording artist. Her story, however influenced by Syco Records’s marketing efforts, reveals in music the possibilities for a bit of quirk. If there’s passion and a voice, there’s a community of people with whom it’ll click!

I’ll continue along a different vein with one of my father’s personal favorites, Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. Another example of an unconventional celebrity, Brittany gives one of the most powerful performances around (despite delivering it in perhaps the same outfit she’d buy groceries in.) Though, if there’s anything to observe from Brittany and Susan, it’s that music, emotion, and message reign supreme in the grand scheme of finding an audience. The art itself enough to garner support. They give everything and lack nothing. There’s room in popular music for everyone – those whose careers depend on looks, and those who bring a bit more to the table. 

I’m now going to digress offer an example of a singer who’s really impressed me with just her commitment to her art. I met her during my first week at Berklee and I’ve been around for the past year and a half of her career. She has one of the most passionate devotions to a dream that I’ve ever seen in a performer, and I’m really happy with how things are going for her. Here’s a brief synopsis of her story. Here’s Kate Cameron.


By some unfortunate astral alignment, my friend Kate became subject to a bit of peer-on-peer denigration early on in our studies at Berklee. For the sake of brevity, she was picking the short straw regularly as the subject of quite a few joking remarks. Despite that vituperation, she’s stayed authentically focused on her music and her craft, and she’s turned the tables. Of all the singer-songwriters that I know, she’s really been the one to improve and to show signs of a very bright future. (For those of you in Boston this summer, she’s got  a 6 gig residency at the Boston Harbor Hotel!)


For everyone just starting, for anyone out there overly concerned with taking on the biz, consider the success of artists like these. It doesn’t matter how you look, what people think, or even what you’re saying (Jason Mraz’s Geek in the Pink is just uncensored hubris – but it’s great.) If you say something and you say it loud, there’s nothing to stop your crowd from hearing.

Strategy: Personality

It’s no surprise we’ve all heard of Justin Timberlake’s re-conquest to American pop-music market. Despite a six-year musical hiatus, his reentry release The 20/20 Experience has been distractingly seamless – all according to plan. Billboard recently published a timeline detailing the entirety of JT’s relevant moves since the start of his egress from music in 2008. Reading through the list, you’ll find entries ranging from Timberlake’s 2009 role in the movie “The Social Network” to his ownership investment in the new MySpace. All of these premeditations have been carried out to maintain one of the most engaging, effective tools an artist has at his disposal – a radiant, intriguing, commanding personality.

In Justin’s case, a six year absence proved to be a non sequitur simply because he never really left the public view. It’s clear that it hasn’t ever been completely about his music, but rather the compelling personality that flowed through it. If there’s anything we can learn from Justin’s years of build-up to The 20/20 Experience, it’s that an artist’s personality, however complex, is imperative to consider as a factor of any professional strategy.


Before a business begins developing its organization, its products, or its distribution and marketing, it’s imperative to analyze what core values the company intends to represent. It is this knowledge that provides the framework for day-to-day operations. [Oftentimes, you’ll find a hint at what these driving characteristics are in a firm’s mission statement – although you’ll equally as often find some bullshit about a promise to “provide the best value to customers” or “offer high quality _____ for the most affordable price.”] For artists, this step requires a bit of introspection. To really benefit from the eclectic and electric personality of creative people, one must really focus on the few distinct traits upon which the others are based. Just like a clever business hinges on real values, the actions artists take can be tailored to really focus on ‘what makes you, you.’ 


One of the most successful entrepreneurs in the entertainment industry – Sean “Puff Daddy/P-Diddy/etc.” Combs – has been quite successful in this respect. He’s targeted a few personal attributes upon which he’s guided his career in entertainment. For Combs, ever since his early 90’s success as a performer and music executive, he’s cultivated a diligent, clever and resultantly affluent disposition. In addition to successful music and clothing brand ventures, Combs has thrived as an actor, performing roles only conducive to his commanding, hard-working, achieving personality.

For budding artists, your early adopters are typically your friends, who tend to like you regardless of your music. What’s more, your personality is the first thing new fans will notice when seeing you perform so it’s important to continue showing your colors with anything you do. When considering your own unique attack plan on the music market, be sure to keep in mind – what makes you interesting as a person makes you interesting as an artist! 

Strategy: Artist Marketing Plan

Last week, I critiqued the “artists are businesses” mantra without mentioning the several business practices that musicians could benefit from by adopting. Artists are human, but they’re impresarios – entrepreneurs. As such, they’re central in an organization of efforts towards a certain goal. For this week, I’ll address Philip Kotler’s marketing equation – C-C-D-V-T-P – by applying the considerations to the development of an artist’s marketing plan and we’ll begin to see what makes a good value proposition in music and how straightforward it is when you don’t over think it.



“Create, Communicate, and Deliver Value to a Target at a Profit.” It’s quite stunningly vague. The idiosyncrasy of studying marketing is that you know it all already – you’ve been a target since you developed the capacity to express preference. What you may not know are the steps to take to be effective. So let’s break this down.



Philip Kotler offers that the first stage of marketing introduces the business of Product Management. The Create step requires an analysis and capture of core, driving values through building a specific product [or a service.] These fundamental characteristics are different to each consumer and depend on individual responses to objective product features. For example, a metal detector, objectively, is nothing more than the components that comprise its design and functionality just like a song is no more than the words and music that form its composition. However, to own a metal detector may be a bold first step to incalculable riches, an Indiana Jonesian sense of adventure, or simply a surefire conversation starter. The painstaking development of this product allows for a variety of interpretations – it allows for customers to design their own value from an offering. How empowering! In this same way, a well crafted song maintains the potential to appeal differently to multiple people through a memorable guitar fill, subtle background vocals, spellbindingly metaphoric lyricism, groove, etc.  What you offer creatively as an artist is central; it fits that Create is step one. Before distracting yourself with anything else, be the creative, fanatical mad scientist you are.



Kotler continues by offering Brand Management as the business created during the second step of the marketing chain. In one way or another, you have to prove your worth. Enter: artist brand. An artist’s brand is not a hair style, a drink, or a car; these are simply some possible external manifestations. A modern brand is a personality and a devotion to it. Remaining authentic to your own artist persona creates a history and equity of music that fans hold on to and bring with them to friends. When a family decides on a restaurant, they’re considering past experiences and recommendations in the same way a music fan chooses a concert. I’ve talked quite a bit about branding in the past, so I’ll spare the excessive gospel now – make a statement and make sure it’s true. If there’s anything you need to be sure of, it’s who you are. 



According to Kotler, targeting isn’t so much about targeting anymore. That is to say consumers have gotten a lot more bargaining power than they had in the past and don’t necessarily fancy being pointed at and categorized. It’s no longer about who shouts the loudest, but who communicates. The business of Customer Management is now based on creating an open environment for people to share their opinions and it’s up to an artist to facilitate the conversation. Being available and receptive benefits R&D teams at Proctor and Gamble just as much as it benefits Chunk! No Captain Chunk’s Bertrand Poncet. 



“At a profit.” Seems a little chilly, doesn’t it? Implies that everything we do is designed to, when all is said and done, earn more than what was lost. I’d say this is pretty true when you loosen the interpretation of profit to include a few alternative payments – fulfillment, release, satisfaction, etc. Finding one of these in return is specifically part of the equation. Create music, be an icon, be one with your fans – but remember to love what it is that you do! 

Strategy: Authenticity

Dangers in product partnerships 

The Chill

Without providing any specifics, there has recently been a growing trend of misuse surrounding the word authenticity and its applicability to artist branding. Increasingly often, music business professionals are throwing this word around without feeling the substance of its meaning.

I’m mainly talking about people taking the concept of an artist is a business too far, pairing them up with brands as if they were no different from a car manufacturer or software developer. Art – arguably the core of our business – is exceptionally human in its nature. It’s effectiveness [and thus, it’s profitability] hinges the intangible responses of real people. There’s a remarkable intangibility present in the biz since people all have distinct emotions; music is particularly non-categorical. 

Nevertheless, the cold grip of business has seeped its way invasively into the personal space of artistic expression. Continuing, most people have the capacity to see this contaminant immediately. This is the chill. It’s easy to feel and nearly impossible to avoid unless you take a second look at how you approach artistry and branding.

Please test yourself – watch this.

This is Taylor Swift’s particularly cumbersome attempt to appear excited about her brand partnership with Diet Coke. A board room of suits spent some amount of time with a whiteboard and some coffee mixing and matching target markets and brainstorming where more logos could possibly be squeezed. Draw a few conclusions for yourself – what did this accomplish for either Coca-Cola or Swift?

Branding doesn’t need to be cold; it doesn’t need to be unnatural. In fact, the objective of a brand alliance [a cross-collateralization of constituencies, resources, etc.] is within reach without the need of a focus group or a contract. 

Not All Is Lost
Sigur Ros 

This documentary Heima [an Icelandic word meaning “Home”] chronicles the story of Sigur Ros’s return to Iceland, their home country, to perform a series of free surprise concerts. The film clearly convey’s the source of the band’s success both domestically and as an internationally renowned indie act. Internally, Sigur Ros truly is authentic in their approach to creating music. None of the four members concerns himself with fame or money, instead they collectively form a band driven by creativity and a love for music. They’ve developed a position based on their pride and connection with the culture of their country, refusing to alter their actions to appeal to target marketsIn doing so, they’ve achieved one of the greatest brand partnerships imaginable; one with the entire nation of Iceland

The main objective of a brand partnership – a symbiotic win-win – is present here, minus the chill.

The Lesson Here Being…

False authenticity  [much like that originating from the more outdated, misguided conference rooms across the music industry] creates awkwardness and chill while simply staying devoted to natural human passions creates much more desirable outcomes. An artist that ignores the temptation to treat him or herself as a business instead of, perhaps, a commercially conscientious artist will maintain a certain competitive edge in the days to come as people become more and more fed up with corporate conjecture. It’s clear to me to which artists I resonate most – with which artists I feel most connected. Conclusively, I can say that Drake doesn’t make me want to drink Sprite, and The Dropkick Murphy’s do make me miss Boston.

I suppose I can also say that Run DMC makes Adidas look pretty cool.

Artist Strategy: Growing Up

Artist Growth

As a musician, I’m familiar with the mindset. Over the years my own musical tastes have shifted, developed, and broadened with the advent of new influences from particular players or entire genres of music. These influences have shaped my creative capabilities into something more eclectic, more expressive, and more-so me. But as artists, we aren’t ever quite satisfied with who we are creatively; there’s always room to grow.

Growth from the perspective of an artist commercially is more complicated. There are a few additional barriers between point A and point B when a musician, or painter, or filmmaker attempts to expand as a service. Without getting into Porters Five Forces, Clustering, or SWOT analyses, we can agree that, generally, making it isn’t as simple as locking oneself away in a shed and repping real book charts until your chops melt.


One of the most difficult challenges to overcome – the one that most clearly separates professionals and novices in the industry – is the continued expansion of one’s fanbase. The first hundred ‘likes’ may be easy, as they’re often sourced by facebook friends and family out of complicity. The subsequent hundred or two can be earned by playing shows, but the growth regularly stops here. It stops when the same people are coming to your shows and you’ve no more facebook friends to hound. This is the wall that condemned your ska band to high school battle of the bands performances. This is the wall that’s keeping 99% of singer-songwriters off the playlist of my younger sister.

This first few hundred cooperating individuals are what I call an artist’s first sphere of fans – those with whom the artist has personally interacted with in exchange for support. The exponential growth beyond this point and the concept of “blowing up” all come down to an artist’s ability to mobilize these fans to help out. Once the members of an artist’s initial sphere reach out and share to their own personal spheres, that initial hundred becomes a thousand and, with any luck (or talent… right?), more.


I’m going to ask you to really dig deep to remember this next artist. While he’s phased out of the nation’s musical lexicon since his prime, he’s a perfect example of the difference between Nicki Minaj  and Laybelle.


His name is Psy and he used to be a pretty big deal.

Psy’s initial following – his fans in South Korea or the savvy goldminers of YouTube who stumbled across his video for Gangnam Style – were quick to relay his work to their own personal networks. His first sphere expanded to a second sphere, which expanded to a third, etc. – outwards to over a billion YouTube views. It helps that his video was optimized for virality, since without something so damn endearing like a round man dancing like a horse it wouldn’t have merited the share in the first place. Nevertheless, from this example we can learn that without something a bit more tangible than a piece of music, it’s quite hard to turn your ‘likes’ into passionate foot-soldiers.

There are no explicit rules to accomplishing this, though there are a few pre-requisites. Firstly, be very sure of what is it you’re trying to say. Be able to say it without needing to take a breath in the middle. One of my favorite examples comes from a songwriter I worked with back in Boston – Dylan Ewen. He said this about his album:

It’s about real life being a bummer, girls that suck, and porn.  I hope you enjoy it.  I really like Bob Dylan.”

Truly beautiful.

From there, you can set out to create something tangible, whether it be a story, a video, a logo, a t-shirt, anything you can achieve. The second imperative is creativity! Keep in mind, when you give someone a cool thing, chances are they want people to know they have it. If it’s something that they can give away without losing their own, they want to be known as the one who found it and the one who gave it away.

It’s something to consider – while a truly great song can be your ticket, sometimes it takes a little something provocative to get things rolling. Be inspired, be creative, and consider how you can add something tangible to what you do.

Artist Strategy: “Story Time”


What separates Deadmau5 from Dyro, or Rihanna from Rox? Why do we recognize certain names – certain brands – so well and others maybe not so much? It’s safe to say that talent wise, these artists are comparable; their production or vocal chops alone aren’t enough to propel them to the front of the minds of music consumers. So what is it? What makes Joel and Robyn different and what leads listeners to go to them first for a music fix? If it’s not all about the final product, then why do we as independent artists tend to lock ourselves away in dark bedrooms, littered with discarded bags of Doritos, painstakingly self-producing an EP that embodies months or even years of deliberation and practice, only to post it online to a tepid-at-best response from friends and family? What can we do differently?

We can strategize, of course!

Artists are quick to consider independent and major label business practices decidedly incompatible – but there’s a lot to be learned from the success of the stars and it doesn’t mean lip-syncing or dressing up in a space suit [unless you’re into that].


Intro To Consumer Choice 

The kind academic community of marketing scholars offers an analysis of consumer decision-making that we can apply to the music business. It’s a series of educated guesses regarding why buyers buy what they buy. They have identified a “need,” either functional [serving a practical issue] or psychological [satisfying a perceived desire], as the origin of purchase decisions. These needs include anything from hunger to clothing, sleep to self-actualization and the majority of which can be satisfied quite easily and simply. That is hardly ever the case; what’s known as a ‘want’ complicates the equation and it is that ‘want’ position that music competes for. Since, statistically speaking, the reclusive approach to professional artistry doesn’t tend to achieve that position, it takes strategy.


The main problem lies in artists’ product-centric vs. buyer-centric approaches towards strategy. Ever since Henry Ford’s mantra of ‘any color, so long as it’s black’ dissolved into a sea of possibilities and customizable options, consumers have had the final say. Competition between businesses [or in our case, between artists] encouraged the development of ‘different’, of ‘unique’. The pool of options grew and grew and correlated with a growing importance of consumer choice considerations. Consumers are more empowered than ever. As a result, a savvy business [and a savvy artist] looks just as much to what consumers want as to why they want it.

Strategists that understand this are able to do some very interesting and effective things. For now, I’ll discuss a creative approach to pro-consumer strategy that’s been quite successful for those who have pulled it off.

So, relax. It’s story time.

Trent Reznor

In 2007, Trent Reznor began an incredible promotional campaign for the Nine Inch Nails album, Zero. To begin, he circulated a concert t-shirt [seen below] with a hidden URL included in the shirt’s lettering; his clever fans quickly found the website – “”.


The dilapidated looking site, which portrays a world in which the government sedates and controls the population by invading the water supply with a psychoactive drug called “Parepin”, initiated an extensive network of “eerie voice mail, Web sites, Morse code clues hidden in MP3s and messages buried deep within music videos” all leading up to the release of the band’s record. The promotion brought together fans, created an entirely alternative reality, garnered a massive amount of “earned media”, and made Year Zero one of the most memorable experiences a Nine Inch Nails fan could have.



If there’s to take away from Reznor’s creativity, it’s a lesson in creating value through telling a story. As an independent artist, one may not be in a position to stage an extravagant movement, she can work to engage her fans and involve them in what he or she does whether it be consistently live streaming rehearsals or sharing updates on recording projects. There needs to be something to carry the music – a story, a mindset, a video [ahem… Psy/Baauer] – and augmenting the hard work of a self-produced EP with something more tangible can be the difference between two choices. It can be the difference between Deadmau5 and Dyro.

Recognizing The Value of Community

Artists in today’s music industry are a brand.

It seems we in the industry are hearing that phrase thrown around on a daily basis. It’s clear this knowledge is becoming increasingly widespread as case studies on Lady Gaga’s success are as trending as she herself. But while brands are worth developing, it is important to understand how they can be effective – only as part of a larger initiative. The most impressive examples of commercial entertainers are not successful because they are a good brand, but rather because they are leaders of a lifestyle and most importantly – of a community. Gaga’s success is attributable to her faultless positioning and unwavering commitment to her ideals of originality, expression, and confidence. But only by embodying these qualities and establishing her brand with authenticity has she become the industry’s most effective example of a leader of a community.



Branding is only a part of the picture. 

Ever since its origins on cattle farms, branding has encompassed anything and everything done to clearly and quickly differentiate one thing from another. In the frozen pizza industry, branding efforts allow us consumers to make decisions based on expectation. In the music industry, however, it’s how we convey the most information about an artist in the shortest amount of time through coordinating every aspect of his or her presence in hopes that we’ll get a listen [and hopefully, a second listen.] Effective branding is imperative in our attempts to stand out amongst endless competition – but is only a part of what needs to be done to flourish as an artist. In order to effectively construct our own strategies or those of the artists with which we work, we have to consider our branding in terms of how it can establish community. As we understand, a brand means nothing without a loyal following and the most effective means of creating a following is to adopt a position that resonates with a group of people. When this group of people is able to rise through social ranks, whether through size or passion, the artist grows as well. To lead these supporters, an artist needs to be as much a member as she is a leader. As such, her ideals are understandable, communal, and inherently authentic. In terms of brand partnerships, which are quickly becoming more and more prevalent to combat dwindling record sales, there are only a handful of thinkers getting it right. More often than not, overt brand sponsorship agreements do not promote idealistic resonance with the increasingly discerning marketplace. We, as those responsible for marketing these values, need to pay attention to the potential effects of brand affiliation before accepting such deals.

Communities & Music

Community must not be considered only an artist-centric phenomenon. If the industry was really based entirely on artist branding efforts, there would be little explanation for the rise and fall of genres such as Electronic Dance Music or Indie Rock, which have far too much depth and complexity to be effectively branded. The surging popularity of both genres have coincided with a growing and developing family of fans. Forums for aspiring producers and illustrious electronic festivals have spread throughout the United States, establishing the required network of support for the EDM genre to creep its way into pop music and the country’s aural lexicon. Similarly, were it not for the a growing awareness of and interest in the quirky lives of hipsters, their lo-fi soundtrack of indie music could not have become a genre of choice for our nation’s youth and the speciality of 2013’s best new artist, fun.

Wait - I'm pretty sure we were making fun of those glasses last year. Why do I now own a pair?

Wait – I’m pretty sure we were making fun of those glasses last year. Why do I now own a pair?

Communities are powerful.

While Lady Gaga commands one of the most extensive and passionate families of little monsters, Justin Bieber’s legion of beliebers just may be the most devoted. Despite one of the most vehement slander campaigns from a horde of naysayers a million strong, Bieber’s fan-base has thrived and grown. The adversity has only served to create a tighter, more exclusive community of fans – one that new members are excited and proud to join.

The passion and support of a community is the driving force of success in our modern music industry. From local artists to the superstars, an artist’s family is a source of inspiration, creativity, sanity, happiness, and, of course, the money to continue creating. Thus, it is not the branding we need to focus on, but how the branding relates to and serves our over-arching efforts to lead a population of friends and fans. If we can succeed at that task, we can survive in the volatility of the music business.