ZeroPaid Interviews a Music Marketer

The ASCAP and NMPA story has generated quite a lot of attention and feedback here at ZeroPaid and one music marketer has decided to have a discussion with ZeroPaid about music and the internet in the wake of this story. We were happy to talk with him on the issue.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

[Author’s side note: In the wake of the NMPA escalating ASCAPs war on free culture, we’ve contacted two of the organizations targeted by the NMPA, the Consumer Electronics Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, but they did not return our requests for comment.]

While our in-depth coverage on the war on free culture has generated significant feedback both directly to us or elsewhere around the web, that does leave one interesting question: where does that leave artists anyway? If ASCAP and record labels aren’t actually acting in the best interests of artists these days, how do artists actually make a living anyway in an atmosphere where music is downloaded for free so commonly?

Chris Cox, an artist marketer of Make Your Band Famous has been tackling these sorts of questions already. Cox passed along a video on his site where he discussed the current climate for music and how artists can still thrive in the era we live in today. While not exactly a 2 minute video, it does offer some interesting commentary in the way things are today and some possible solutions for artists.

We caught up with Cox for an interview: (ZP): What is it that you do for musicians and what has drawn you to this field?

Chris Cox (CC): I help musicians market their music online, I like to think of myself as a marketing coach, I guess – give them the big picture (we’re often so bogged down in the business of making music we can’t see the wood for the trees), and give them hope. And then, for those who are still serious about it all once we’ve talked about that, go into the how-to’s of it all – where to start marketing yourself, all the tricks and the right ways to do it all (without spending 10 years lost in the digital jungle), and how to do it time-effectively, because I know most artists at the level I’m most interested in helping work full-time jobs, or part-time jobs completely unrelated to their music careers, and we’ve got to find mobile ways to do this that don’t involve massive chunks of time.

I come from an internet marketing background. I started out a while back, and for a long time I helped small businesses market themselves online, I worked with some really great guys like Peter Carruthers (He runs “Business Warriors”), and got to learn a little. I like those guys as people, and I really identify with them and their problems, but in business relationships most small business owners are painful, at least as a marketing contractor. So then I started marketing some of my own websites. I have a couple of various sites (everything from African Art to random hobbies – at one stage we were even an affiliate for a site selling bongs – to one that worked out pretty well in the dating market).

I’m from South Africa originally, and when I was in University there I had a lot of friends in bands and really into the music scene. When I went back last year I hung out with a lot of them again. And I couldn’t believe some of the things I was hearing. For me, in my businesses if I have 10 000, 20 000 names on my email list, it’s a pretty profitable business. But some of these guys had that – and more – and they were making a couple of hundred rand a month from that (double figures in US$’s). So immediately I thought, “holy crap, these guys have it all made, they have massive mailing lists, great relationships with fans – there’s a massive opportunity here!”. So we started chatting and exchanging ideas, I set some things up with them while I was there, and when I left I made them some dodgy videos telling them about ideas, things I do in my businesses and seeing if they’d apply there. And they told me a little about the music industry and we learnt from each other. And it’s all just sort of spiralled from there. I never imagined so many people would be interested in what we’re talking about.

(Side note, in case you were wondering: I do play an instrument – very badly! – I play bass, but it’s really just a hobby for me, marketing is my passion.)

[Authors note: Rand is the currency of South Africa, so it’s not a typo meant to say “Grand”]

ZP: One thing that struck me about the video was that it seems to paint a rather bleak picture for artists, yet it’s still rather hopeful for artists in terms of making money at the same time. Would you say the internet has been a positive or negative development for artists?

CC: Well, that video has to give a bleak picture. Unfortunately it’s long as it is – I would’ve loved to have made a 2hour documentary on all my thoughts, but nobody’d watch it! ?? So I tried to get my main point across (perhaps less successfully than I would have liked – and I’m sure there’ll be revisions on that video), which was that although things look similar to they’ve always looked, the record stores haven’t closed yet, we still sell singles and albums at gigs, things have changed. The internet – in two ways has completely ripped apart the reality of the music industry.

(1) P2P file sharing. And (2) Social networking. P2P is much demonised, and yes, it does hurt some big artists a lot, it’s actually (I believe) facilitated a fantastic change that is all for the best for artists out there. For the first time, people we’ve never met are listening to and loving our music – and telling their friends about it. Considering most people fall in love with new artists because their friends introduce them to it, that’s a pretty big deal! Suddenly we’ve let loose a billion evangelists bent on sharing messages. The job of the artist isn’t to stop that – nobody can stop that now, I believe not even the RIAA and the big money of the record industry – the job of the artist is to harness that, and give those fans soundbites that spread especially well, stuff that tells their story and gets people interested, but also makes the “spreaders” look/feel good. So instead of driving the process, top-down, we’re moving to a place where we harness the flat power that’s already out there.

ZP: You’ve suggested that there’s a paradigm shift in terms of a business model for music creation, in your view, what has been this paradigm shift specifically? Are there things in this shift that some don’t understand?

CC: I think my previous answer actually touches on this a bit, and I’m in no way an expert on music creation, but here’s my thoughts on two parts of the shift:

1- The power of free. I believe we’re seeing that music isn’t holding its value. That value is dropping in the marketplace. Partly because of illegal downloads, and partly because of the ever-increasing competition and supply. But, people still like your music and want to listen to it. But unless they know it and love it already, they’re not going to buy it.

There’s just too many other options out there, and if the other guy is giving his music away free and there’s no other way to tell yours is amazingly better, they’re going to go get his. Then they’ll put their names on his email list in exchange for some free songs. They’ll get to know him, and love him over time, and eventually they probably will buy his music. But you know what — if he’s smart he can sell them other things in addition to music, and make a lot more money from that relationship. I’m not saying “never try sell your music”, I’m saying “treat music sales income as a cherry on top” — it’s not the most profitable way to earn income from your fans, although it is a valid one. Just don’t rely on music alone unless you’ve already got 700 000 fans and you can afford not to be creative!

The fact that “Free” is the de facto standard means we can fight the uphill battle and try draw blood from stone — or we can embrace it, and try to make the most of it. I think embracing it is far more productive and optimistic.

So, our job then becomes creating “soundbite”-worthy marketing materials. (Which is easier than it sounds, especially when we realise part 2-lifestyle content is king, polished is good veneer, but too much will keep our real charm hidden)

2- We’re not on a pedestal anymore. In surreptitious ways our world has become flatter. Media, and specifically social media, I think have pushed it that way. Sure, we see all of our idols polished marketing goodies. It’s nice. But what we really connect with is seeing them in the gossip magazines and reality channels – seeing them as real people, who they are when they’re not dressed to the nines or acting out a part. Hearing what their lives are actually like on twitter and their real views are on facebook.

A lot of artists and music coaches are frightened of this. They have that old-fashioned view of “don’t show weakness, they’ll lose their respect for you.” I don’t want to tell anyone what to do on a personal level, but I do want to say that social media is all about friends and relationships. And we all have those friends and relations where we go out and everything is fine and we smile and it’s all well mannered – those are acquaintances. Our real, deep, best-friends usually arise because we’ve been through some crap together.

You can really build fantastic relationships with people on twitter and facebook and even myspace and all those social media — but only if you’re willing to relate a little bit of who you really are (and conversely take a little interest in who other people really are). It’s a touch scary at first, but whenever I’ve seen it I’ve seen relationships grow and communities develop, and people rally around you when you’re hurting and they shout with you when you’re on top. And we do the same for them. It’s quite a beautiful thing actually. It just involves getting over the idea that we have to be these distant demigods, and get our nails dirty down with the “common folk”.

ZP: The theme that I gleaned from your video is that artists need to focus on selling a lifestyle rather than simply music. Gene Simmons and Britney Spears certainly have been able to sell their lifestyle to the public (many artists sell T-shirts and other fan merchandise as well as make money through exclusive memberships), but is it possible for smaller non-A list artists to do the same?

CC: Absolutely. As soon as you start getting fans who aren’t just fans because they’re you’re friends, but who actually really like your music and what you’re doing, you should be talking about and selling lifestyle. You can’t sell lifestyle to your friends, because most times they either share it, or they actively choose not to share it. But with strangers (even “semi-strangers”) you can – because you’re an unknown entity to them. The first step is to suck them in, get them interested in you and fascinated by you, so they want to know what you’re about. I’d suggest doing that with clever short segments, both music and message/lifestyle/personality based. Then when you’re mates, you unveil a bit more, and a bit more — and sure, you’ll get a lot of people who don’t get it, but the people that do, they will buy into everything you’re doing hook, line and sinker; they’ll want everything you produce on it.

And it can be more powerful for small artists. Big cultural trends always start small, and there’s something extremely powerful about an underground movement, something that “the mainstream” hasn’t got yet. It builds tight communities and, often, evangelistic participants. So, I definitely feel if you set it up right, small artists 100% can do it, as well or better than bigger artists. The key is creating a culture and community centred around your lifestyle.

ZP: The video you’ve passed along to us suggested that 95% of music is illegally downloaded. There’s been a significant amount of debate surrounding statistics such as this. Some of the criticism was that the numbers are so hard to track, it’s difficult to say for sure what the rate is outside of measuring a few public sites and maybe a few open protocols like Gnutella. A number of sources have suggested in the past that numbers like this is purely guesswork at best. Other critics like open source and open license critics say that independently produced content such as Creative Commons or GPL/GNU licensed material wind up counting as unauthorized downloads even though it’s actually authorized. How did you find the statistic that 95% of content is illegally downloaded?

CC: Well, you probably know more about this than I do. But I got my number from the IFPI, which has been likened to “the international equivalent of the RIAA”, who released a report on Digital Music last year with that number. I won’t lie to you, I’m not a statistician, and I can’t promise the reliability of that number any more than anyone else can – but in the context of that video, where the purpose was to shake artists awake, I think it serves its purpose. Whether the number is really 60% or 99.5% – the point is they abound, and its had rapid growth, even since the demise of Napster/etc. And more than that, most of us know how to do it ourselves, or we know who to ask to get it done for us. Its not an underground activity.

And that means, when people give you money for your music, they’re not doing it because they don’t have a choice about it. It isn’t like Walmart where you pay before you leave with the goods, it’s more like busking on the street. If they do choose to give you money it’s because they liked you and wanted to support what you’re doing. It’s already built on a relationship. What I’m saying is, “use that relationship, learn how to build it further, learn how to monetise it – because that’s the reality we’re already in.”

ZP: One point you made was that artists would have to sell a lot of singles in order to make a living because singles often sell for 99 cents, so it might not be worth it to rely strictly on music sales. At the same time, there’s a lot of research that would argue that digital music sales have been steadily increasing (not necessarily offsetting physical CD sales, but increasing nevertheless). Is the positive increase in digital music sales something positive artists shouldn’t forget or is the increase currently not enough for artists?

CC: I would never say “forget it”. It’s wonderful, and if I’m completely honest with you, some smaller artists are making more from their music than they might have made in a pre-digital era. But they’re not

ZP: Are you currently promoting any artists at this time? If so, which bands are you currently promoting?

CC: No. I correspond with a number and their management, and chat and exchange thoughts and advice, but I don’t actively promote artists personally.

ZP: What do you see in the future of music?

CC: I think it’ll be a long while before music stops getting sold, but I do think the actual selling of music is going to become less and less profitable, at least in its “direct” form as we see it now. I think it’ll end up becoming “premium” in various ways piracy can’t reproduce. Uniquely packaged/bundled music, unique merch, access to the artist, artists endorsing things in new ways. And I think it’ll become more and more niche. Instead of seeing gargantuan audiences like we have before, we’re going to see more and more music that just appeals to quirky cliques. Of course, though, there’ll always be a place for Lady Gaga and her ilk in our hearts when we’ve had 11 beers and we’re out at the club…

ZP: Do you have anything further to add?

CC: I think I may very well have added far too much already…

ZeroPaid would like to thank Cox for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us.

Update: If you are part of a business that has to do with promoting artists or otherwise have big ideas on how music can move forward in a digital era, feel free to contact us.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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