n March 2006, the Arctic Monkeys were the biggest rock band in the Western world. Their debut release on Domino Records, released to glowing reviews in January, had sold more copies in England than any debut ever had, and the band were preparing to embark on a North American headlining tour, including a stop at “Saturday Night Live.” The Monkeys seemed poised to buck the trend of successful British bands arriving unnoticed in America. But Steve Savoca, Domino’s director of marketing, was still worried.
The Monkeys had built a massive online following on the other side of the Atlantic, and although they weren’t having any trouble selling out concerts, they still lacked what Savoca deemed a “firm American presence.” He elaborates: “Our challenge was that we had a band who built themselves online. We knew there was a massive fanbase on their site, but we didn't have access to it, and, as a result, to any US fans. Also, we knew that a lot of people who bought the album would not be able to see the band because all of the shows sold out. We wanted to create a way to share the excitement around the live shows with everyone.”
In an attempt to unify Monkeys fans and solidify them as an audience of consumers, Domino created a website called riotvan.com, where fans could connect to one another, review live appearances, and speculate as to future setlists. The idea, based on Matador Records’ earlier Mogwai tour site, mrbeastmap.com, took advantage of the most effective and widespread mode of online promotion: social networking.
Initially popularized by Friendster and Facebook, social networking highlights the root of the Web’s underlying architecture by charting, displaying, and ranking connections between like-minded users. The incredible success of MySpace has far outpaced any of its predecessors, and has cemented social networking as a promotional necessity, shifting the fan into a position of promotion as well as consumption. Or, as Savoca tells me with an unironic sense of pride, “the power is back in the hands of the consumer.” His job is merely to, as he phrases it, “prime the pump.”
Chris Anderson, in his recent book The Long Tail, summarizes the rise of “unlimited selection.” Not only do consumer tastes expand far beyond the ubiquitously promoted “hits,” Anderson writes, but the users also often influence others through these sites with personal product reviews. Perhaps more importantly, the incredible demand for “non-hits” (or, the long tail itself) is something online retailers can easily fill, but Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, and Virgin Records don’t find profitable in the slightest. Popular music is perhaps the form that has taken greatest advantage of this trend (indie rock in particular). A MySpace page is, of course, a necessity for any artist large or small, but fans are increasingly finding their favorites and forming their tastes through music blogs, online journals, and even illicit Bittorrent and p2p communities, the popularity of which boldly underscore music’s wide-ranging appeal beyond bricks and mortar and boardroom discussions.
In a time of unlimited information, ubiquitous customer-submitted record reviews, and, for those who seek it, free access to any (often unreleased) album, to offer that the realm of pop music promotion has changed is a massive understatement. Labels large and small, along with unsigned artists, are actively maximizing Web visibility while still retaining a measure of control in a marketplace that constantly assumes new forms and challenges expectations and assumptions.
The current logic goes: keep ahead of the curve, innovatively pitch your product, and reap the rewards; stubbornly maintain the traditional model of tight, vertically-integrated control and watch the listeners go elsewhere. Right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Even as the major labels are starting to embrace the efficacy of letting fans move units, the indies are doing the opposite—dispensing with pre-release marketing almost altogether, banding together to form alliances with more bargaining power, and, with increasing frequency, striking out against the underground pre-release pirates. The center is constantly moving, and the boundary between large indies and major labels is growing ever blurrier.
It’s common knowledge that the Internet has helped to usher in an era of exponentially increased options for music consumers, but what is much less understood is how exactly this process happens. When discussing “overnight” Internet successes, most press tends to elide any mention of the underlying promotional architecture involved; probably because it doesn’t make for very interesting press. But the truth is—for every unsigned Internet indie rock sensation—there are scores of bands and labels looking to gain an online foothold. Most small indie labels (and some bigger ones) are more concerned with daily operations than with digital licenses (getting on iTunes) or keeping track of and establishing relationships with online “tastemakers.”
That’s where the independent promotion industry enters the picture. Dozens, even hundreds, of companies with small staffs and low overheads are working to ensure independent music’s online visibility. Most of these companies are specialists in some way or another, whether that means working with a specific genre (hip-hop, electronic), outlet (radio, big sites like AOL Music or Yahoo! Music, blogs) or niche (digital licensing). Savoca, an industry vet, had the Rolodex and artist name-recognition to keep his project inside Domino, but many labels put their faith in the industry connections and promotional savvy of these behind-the-scenes string-pullers.
Greg Bresnitz, the head of new media for World’s Fair Label Group, Inc., couldn’t be more excited about the buzz surrounding Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther. I chatted with him in July, the week before the record dropped, and he was amazed at the amount of pre-release interest it had gathered. Back in January, the situation was far different. Bresnitz discovered that Midlake’s European label, Bella Union, had pressed the album’s first single, “Roscoe,” onto a sampler, which was mailed to a variety of online outlets. These included two of the most widely-read mp3 blogs, Gorilla vs. Bear and Stereogum, both of whom posted the mp3.
As a composite marketing force, multiple mp3 blogs posting the same song can form a powerful marketing tool, so Bresnitz decided to put them to work for World’s Fair and Midlake. He put the “Roscoe” mp3 onto his own server, and papered other music blogs with promotional materials and requests (and, importantly, tacit “permission”) to post the file. More crucially, Bresnitz also contacted entertainment sites AOL Music and Yahoo! Music (the traffic from which dwarfs even the largest music blog), and influential review sites Pitchfork, Stylus, and Pop Matters for reviews of the song and possible interviews with the band. Midlake played a few European dates with the Flaming Lips, and Bresnitz dutifully emailed pictures of the bands together.
After the seven-month promotional campaign, Bresnitz claimed more than 150,000 downloads of “Roscoe.” What that number exactly means is hard to quantify, a testament to the unique and often confusing realm of Internet promotion. An individual song download doesn’t equate to paying 13 bucks for a CD, and the download itself could well have been spurred by faith in the site rather than the quality of the song itself. But the fact remains: without radio and the expensive benefit of touring, Midlake had made something of a national impression.
Certain artists take a bit more work. News of an impending June release from rap space cadet Dr. Octagon, titled The Return of Dr. Octagon, offered Bresnitz a unique quandary. While Dr. Octagon is a somewhat recognizable name (much moreso than Midlake), it is also one that no doubt spurs dubious reactions from most who recognize it. Ten years had passed since the only official release under the Dr. Octagon moniker, the acclaimed Dr. Octagonycologist, and during that time, Keith Thornton had self-released Dr. Octagon, Pt. 2 in 2004, and the anagrammatic Mr. Nogatco in June of 2006. Bresnitz was thus tasked with wrangling the public persona of one of rap’s notorious flakes. So he simply decided to play the same game. After calling in Brooklyn-based PR firm Audible Treats to canvas online rap sites, Bresnitz sat down and started writing. Eight weeks later, he’d crafted a multi-part mythology about Dr. Octagon’s activities over the past decade, coinciding with remixes commissioned and hosted for download. The promotion reads like space-rap fan fiction:
Kid Loco lets his mind do the walking, through each of the tracks on the Dr. Octagon recording. It sounds almost as if the Dr. Octagon on this new recording is not quite the same man (creature?) that produced the perverted Dr. Octagynaecologist ten years ago. As the purple haze thickens, Loco realizes that “Trees” is clearly a warning on the dangers of pollution. We know the Earth’s environment generally disagreed with Dr. Octagon, turning his skin ‘green and silver, warhead lookin’ mean.’Each week leading up to the release, a new remix and chapter was posted, hundreds of websites contacted (CNet.com, Suicide Girls, a smattering of blogs), and word disseminated. Once the album dropped, the reviews were less than glowing, but Bresnitz’s goal is never to make people like records. He’s much more concerned with creating awareness. He told me, “The biggest problem with online marketing is that there are a million other things trying to grab your attention. So you need to create something…that brings people back.”
Conceptual pre-release marketing isn’t a new idea, nor is it limited to artists on small labels. With online promotions, however, the stakes are radically different, depending on the size of the label and the visibility of the artist. The general rule: the larger the label or more highly anticipated the release, the greater likelihood that online promotional efforts are geared toward a different, more preventative end. Whereas the smaller labels typically aim toward any recognition whatsoever, the bigger ones often assume a defensive posture, using the Web as a form of resistance.
The lead-up, earlier this year, to the release of Thom Yorke’s solo debut The Eraser was a study in secrecy and selective online marketing. Adam Farrell, the director of new media for the Beggars Group, dropped the same sorts of hints and clues around the Web that Bresnitz did for Dr. Octagon. Farrell, however, sought to exert a different type of “control.” With the strategic surreptitiousness of a detective leaking word to local crime bosses of a rival’s prison release, he started dropping Eraser knowledge to the info-hungry and leak-trumpeting online fansites. He tells me: “Instead of press releases, we worked directly with all the webmasters at all of the major Radiohead fansites. We let them know first and it blindsided them. No one had a clue.” After monitoring the lively ateaseweb.com Radiohead message board for a while, Farrell dropped a note to several webmasters on May 11th, exactly two months before Eraser’s official release. The message directed them to Radiohead’s official site, deadairspace.com. There, curious visitors would find only four typed exclamation points, linking to the official Eraser site.
A two month lead before a record release of Eraser’s magnitude would be unheard of in promotional circles even a year earlier. The typical lead time for a big album is three times longer, generally proceeding as follows: a finalized tracklisting and initial notice is issued to the big online outlets about six months out, then “long-lead press” (for hard copy magazines with print deadlines) goes out three to four months prior. About a month before the release selected mp3s (often in conjunction with iTunes) are offered, along with other digital promotional tie-ins. But Farrell knew that Thom Yorke’s first solo release, if not properly contained, was going to leak and spread through the Internet with the speed of thousands of broadband connections and possibly hurt first-week sales.
As predicted, the leak happened at the end of May, about two weeks after Farrell’s announcement (according to Farrell, the culprit is still at large). And while he was undoubtedly pleased when The Eraser debuted in July at #2, despite the leak and less-than-glowing reviews, there had to be a nagging doubt in the back of his mind: did the leak actually help the album debut so high? Or did it instead prevent it from debuting at #1? Was the span of time between the leak and the release a factor? Would an earlier leak have meant a lower debut position? Or did Beggars’ pre-release strategy generate the buzz?
These questions are unanswerable, of course; there are far too many influencing factors to create a simple cause/effect pattern. Yet Farrell and Beggars doesn’t see any reason to change their online strategies for artists of Yorke’s stature, and, well, why should they? Farrell explains: “Free music is not the key to promoting an artist—it's lazy marketing. We wish more labels would value their music more—then, there'd be some solidarity in the industry. Right now, it feels like we stand alone in how we value our music.”
“When I was a manager in the 90's, I would have killed for filesharing to expose the bands I was working with,” Dick Huey tells me. Huey is an independent music industry veteran and president of Toolshed Incorporated, a new media promotion, licensing, and strategy company designed to provide assistance to artists and labels looking to move into the digital terrain. Over the past fifteen years, Huey has had a unique vantage point to watch the indies work their way through the Web. He paid his dues in the early ‘90s—as a band manager, he remembers spending $30 BMI royalty checks on phone bills and sleeping in vans—and eventually worked his way toward starting Beggars’ new media department (the same one Farrell currently works for) toward the end of the decade.
Huey’s approach toward filesharing is uniquely practical: “As the artist moves up the totem pole, I think filesharing becomes more and more substitutional in terms of sales, although it's very hard to pin down where, exactly, that happens. I think if you're on the underside of it being substitutional—and many smaller indie artists are—you benefit. If you're on the overside—where I suspect many bigger artists are—you may not benefit.” Where bands and labels fall on Huey’s continuum is a matter of speculation, but it’s clear that labels like Domino and Beggars are clearly stationed toward the overside. (Ironically, without the power of downloading Domino might never have heard of the Arctic Monkeys—so it cuts both ways.)
Huey’s goes on: “Many young bands and young managers (like I was) spend an awful lot of time trying to get their band signed. I think some bands think they've ‘made it’ when they're signed—it's just the opposite—that's when they really have to start proving themselves. Today you don't have to sign to a label; there's time for that later. Today's act should be focusing on the Internet, focusing on touring, focusing on making their music truly interesting. Like in Field of Dreams: ‘if you build it, they will come.’”
But as most bands and label execs will affirm, getting noticed on the Web isn’t that simple. The axiom “good music sells itself” is hardly true: nothing sells without gaining notice in the market, and the Web is the most crowded market in history. There are thousands of hours of music competing for valuable and increasingly rare online attention right now. But if they’re not heard, do they even exist? And how can the band or label not only gain, but keep the attention of the consumer?
So, what’s next? If early trends are any indication, 2007 will usher in “the year of the pre-order,” according to Farrell. As long as the consumer locks into a purchase before the street date, the label “rewards” him or her with a myriad of incentives—full album streams, live show downloads, rare B-sides, and so forth. According to Farrell, it’s the label’s effort to acknowledge the reality that leaks occur, and digital copies of music will inevitably end up on hard drives well in advance of the actual release date. It’s also a bottom-line capitulation: “We need to give them more than just some music on a plastic disc; rather than fighting this phenomenon, we’re really trying to tap into it and use it to sell some records.” But is the move a concession to consumer desires, or simply another clever mode of offering “added value” with a purchase, a tactic that has been around since the earliest commercial transactions? During an era when they can express their opinions within the same venue that sells them their music, the time-worn cliché “the customer is always right” has been exponentially, perhaps infinitely, expanded; perhaps even to the extent that it actually gains meaning.
Eric Harvey blogs at marathonpacks.
By: Eric Harvey
Published on: 2007-01-22