Sunday, April 29, 2012

Designing a new roadmap for artists in the digital era

by Emmanuel Legrand
[This story was originally published in Record of the Day.]

“The superstar age is dead, we are in the digital age.” So said a Twitter feed during the ReThink Music conference. Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber may disagree with this assertion but one thing is certain: artists are back at the core of the music industry. The dire situation in the recorded music industry has created a vacuum which has put artists in the driving seat. And it is not necessarily an easy ride. Two recent music conferences have widely reflected this new state of play. 
In Los Angeles, first, the 2012 ASCAP ‘I Create Music’ Expo (April 19-21) celebrated songwriters like no other event, drawing over 2,500 aspiring or established musicians for three days of master classes, workshops, discussions and showcases. It felt sometimes like a summer camp, with a high density of long-haired guitar players trying to learn a few basic business facts, and tips from elders. 
On the other American coast, ReThink Music 2012 (the brainchild of the Berklee School of Music and Midem held in Boston April 23-24) was attempting to draw the new music industry map. Theirs is a more business-driven conference, with a mix of artist-centric sessions, business discussions and presentations by academics.
Lesson No.1: Time to connect
If you haven’t connected with your fanbase yet, you are certainly an artist from the 20th Century. The new cycle in the industry is now the following: connect with your audience, build a fanbase, feed the fans, they become your story, an asset (volatile) that you can try to monetise and eventually that can get you to be signed by a label, and a major one if you are lucky (yes, they do still exist).
But the starting point is to engage in a conversation with you fanbase. Actor and musician Jared Leto from the band 30 Seconds to Mars, who had been a pioneer in using social networks to connect with his fanbase said at ASCAP Expo that these new tools allow him to have “a deep and meaningful conversation with [our] community around the world. It is inspiring.”
Lesson No.2: Let them find you
Karmin are a new band signed to Epic US after a bidding war. But they did not go after a label, they let labels come after them. And they went there on their terms (or so it seems). They are now adjusting to label constraints as much as the label is learning to deal with them. “One of the first things for us that was good was that we did not get signed to a label. It allowed us to experiment. Trying to market ourselves was the right thing to do. We never feel detached with the fans,” explained Nick Noonan, one half of Karmin. 
Several industry executives at ASCAP Expo echoed the feeling that if artists have what it takes, they will be found. “You’ve got a little bit of a story to tell,” said Greg Sowders, SVP and head of A&R/USA at Warner/Chappell Music. “It may not be a huge story but you have to have one like having a song recorded, have a cowrite, etc.” Monti Olson, EVP/head of pop & rock music, Creative at Universal Music Publishing Group added, “If you are good we will find you. In the end you will get your opportunity to present your music and if you are good you will get signed.”
“As an artist, you have no shortcuts: you have to put the work: learn about the splits of royalties, learn about publishing, get your hands in the dirt,” said Rob Stone, founder and co-president of Cornerstone Agency and FADER Media at Rethink.
Lesson No.3: Use the tools
Musicians nowadays need to be as techno savvy as they are good songwriters. Ian Rogers, who founded and runs Topspin, a service company for artists said at ASCAP Expo that there are multiple tools for artists to chose from (and not only his!) and invited artists to use them. “We all have more choice than ever in terms of what we have access to but  the single biggest innovation is that you can build a direct relationship with fans. It is really powerful. And if people are interested, do not lose them,” he explained. Indeed, the number and variety of digital services unsigned artists (and also signed acts) can tap into are constantly growing and covering a wider range of sectors. 
It was refreshing to hear at ReThink about a new platform like NuevoStage, for example, which provide bookings for mostly unsigned bands. The twist is that the concerts will only happen if the band manages to mobilise enough fans. Its founder Max Wessell, who won the Rethink Music’s Business Plan Competition in 2011, explained that his idea was to create a service helps artists find stage space in venues, and through the web site, fans pledge to buying tickets and in turn venues agrees to book the show. Active in the Boston area for the past few months with success, NuevoStage could be a brilliant addition to any city with venues waiting to be filled.
Lesson No.4: Anything can be monetised
Ian Rogers (again) highlighted the new mathematics for artists: “If you sell a $0.99c track on iTunes, you may have lost the sale of a t-shirt. And you may have lost twice: you got $0.70c from iTunes instead of $17, and on top you’ve lost the data because the data
stays with iTunes or Amazon.”
Kristin Thomson, consultant for the Future of Music Coalition, unveiled at ReThink a study based on interviews with 80 musicians which showed that US-based musicians, performers and songwriters could tap into 42 different streams of revenues related to their compositions, recordings, performances, brand, or knowledge of craft. “It is clear that artists’ access to market has improved,” she said. She added that the tiny streams on the edges are the ones that are going to be important in future.
Lesson No.5: Videos are the new A&R
So said Pitbull manager Junior Goris at ReThink. “This has taken the role of A&R. It has become a visual business,” he added. It is a fact that more and more acts are focusing on videos as a means to deliver their music. Karmin was one the acts that used video as a calling card and as a way to get a following. “The music space is very crowded and we tried to do something unique that sets us apart,” said Amy Heidemann, the other half of Karmin. “Social media and video, that was everything for us. Video is one of our biggest platforms.”
They got following on YouTube with a string of covers, and clocked over 100 millions views on the service. Karmin exemplify the ethos of today’s new bands: their story is one of ingenuity, hard work, mixed with a dollop of talent and “eating lots of spaghettis” as Heidemann said.
Rio Caraeff, president & CEO of VEVO said at ReThink, that the new platform, which has the ambition to offer videos to consumers anywhere, anytime, has moved videos from the promotional sphere to become a profit centre in their own right. “We thought that our videos had value but advertisers did not perceive music video as valuable,” he said. That perception has changed and Vevo generated $150m in revenues last year, with traffic reaching 45 billion streams.
Lesson No.6: It’s still about the songs
“I don’t see content creators,” said Paul Williams, chairman/president of ASCAP, to an assembly of songwriters. “I see music creators. It’s a noble profession populated with the most optimistic species on the planet. Not usually described as realists,” mused Williams. The Expo was indeed a celebration of music creators, especially songwriters.
Among the celebrated were Carly Simon, Peter Frampton, The Smeezingtons (Bruno Mars and his production and songwriting partners), Max Martin, Stargate, Trent Reznor and many lesser known songwriters. What all these artists have in common is a body of work and mastering the art of songwriting.
It is also an art form that is going through transformations. A lot of music is now created collectively, with a combination of people in charge of the beats, others for the melody, lyricists, and a producer to glue it all. Bruno Mars and his colleagues exemplify this new generation of acts who find they muse through collective work. “We have three minutes to tell a story, we don’t have the luxury of two hours,” said Mars. “It needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Other similar stories you might be interested in reading:
ReThink Music 2012 -- Things seen and heard in Boston
ASCAP Expo 2012 -- Things seen and heard in Los Angeles


  1. I would love to see new faces of artist. And I would love to manage one. But I want to be an artist as well. Thanks for this info! :)
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