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I made my start in the music business mainly working with social media; something I called “web presence management.” A fresh-faced university graduate, recently arrived in London from Nashville, with a BBA focused on the music business under my arm. I was ready to talk about revenue streams, royalty splits, performing rights, mechanicals and a whole host of other topics covered in business school. But when I started at my first position with Nettwerk Records I was asked the question, “That’s great, but what can you do?

I once again rattled off the list of music business courses and the knowledge I had gained about the industry. My boss at that time, Mike McNally, stopped me and asked again, “Right, but what can you do for us?” Puzzled I thought through my arsenal of knowledge and limited experience and landed on, “Well, I know some HTML, used to build websites, and I have a US Facebook account so I can book ads there.” (Bearing in mind that at this time you could book ads globally, but only if you had a US registered account.)

His eyes lit up, and we were off. I spent the next months customising MySpace pages, making digital banners of all shapes and sizes, and most importantly began using Facebook ads as a tool to find new fans for artists.

The idea was simple: a cohesive and well-designed web presence that quickly allowed any fan to dig deeper into an artist while encouraging new fans to take a journey of discovery. A “tiered interaction process” I called it, with clear calls to action throughout. One of the first steps in this journey was always connection. On MySpace there were friends, but it was difficult to communicate to them en masse, so we’d always be sure to install some kind of mailing list signup widget, sometimes for a free download, as front and centre as possible. The same was true for an artist’s website, and it was even my advice for bands on tour. “Get out there with a clipboard and sign people up!”

Facebook, however, was a new beast. With its self-serve ads platform, and the ability to target people based on the music they liked (which pretty much everyone gave up freely) we’d hit a communication gold mine. Hitting “like” had much less friction that typing in an email, and those likes were meaningful. Your fans on Facebook would then get pretty much all your updates, whether it be about an upcoming tour, new song or video, or just a general sharing of what was going on.

For the first time there was an easy way to find new fans based on similar interests, send them to a BandPage tab on Facebook, and offer them exclusive content for a like or an email signup.

Like all good things, of course, it didn’t last. As the platform matured, the amount of content multiplied, and soon we all found ourselves limited by “reach”. Now likes didn’t mean nearly as much, as you’d only ever reach a percentage of fans organically. It was a natural progression of course, with only so many posts a person could see per day, and more and more of those being taken up by friends and family alongside those willing and able to pay to reach an audience.

We found ourselves back to a place where email was gold, while tweets drift by and Facebook posts barely peek out of their pages into fans’ news feeds. But the long and short of it was “communication”. The ability for artists to communicate with fans who have put their hand up, so to speak, and said I want to be kept informed. Gmail did make this a bit more difficult with its promotions tab, losing many artist’s newsletters out of people’s main inbox, and yet it remains the most reliable tool for communication.

Of course, this artist-fan communication is not a new thing. The Grateful Dead communicated with their fans via mail, like many artists of the 60’s and 70’s. By signing up to the mailing list, fans got first access to tickets and news about the band. This direct communication allowed them to move away from their label, to their own imprint, and keep fans in the loop by simply posting them a letter. This “direct to fan” approach allowed them to sell out tours and release charting records with just the cost of some stamps.

The real lesson here is owning that communication. As new platforms open promising to streamline this connection, we must remember the Facebook conundrum: building an audience on someone else’s platform. The key is to own the relationship, so that no matter what happens to the social media and other connection platforms in the not so distant future, artists will maintain the ability to connect with fans.

Services like Hive.co allow you to connect all these dots, creating a fan profile across social networks, and even incorporating phone numbers and email address, as well as messaging services like Snapchat. (Which are a whole new area of communication themselves.) Facebook is not a lost cause either, although you do have to pay to reach people, and it can be money well spent (bear in mind that when you get beyond about 500 email addresses, you’ll have to pay to reach them too). There’s also the social features of Spotify, Apple Music and other digital music services that allow you to share playlists and releases with fans who follow you there. Even YouTube is rumored to be improving the ability for musicians and creators to communicate with fans. But the key to all of this is owning the conversation, and making it easy for fans to connect. Building a base of core fans, who want all the updates and news an artist has to share, is building a client base that can carry you through a long career.

I would even consider advertising as a fanbase communication tool these days, especially with technologies like retargeting. This allows you to build a list of people who visit your website, click on links you share, or interact with you on YouTube. It used to be a tool only available to the professionals, but with services like Found.ee and companies like Gupta Media, artists are able to take advantage of this and serve highly targeted ads to people who actually want to see them.

With so many avenues to chose from, which is right for you? Email is still of great importance, as we still see some of the highest conversion rates there. As for other platforms, it’s about being where your fans are and doing what’s comfortable to you as an artist. But always bear in mind that if you can own that relationship a bit more directly, then that’s the place to be. Beware of new platforms popping up that attempt to own the relationship, and always encourage fans to follow, like and connect where they can (sometimes you can even do this with incentives like free downloads, exclusive streams, or a chance to win some special merch).

As this connection and communication matures, it allows us to communicate smarter. And as new tools and technologies emerge, messaging can become more targeted, and the amount of noise is reduced. By segmenting your fans you’ll then be able to communicate with them more effectively. Targeting offers, releases, and live events to those most likely to respond.

Custom Audiences on Facebook are a great example of this, allowing you to segment fans based on their behaviour elsewhere. Have they been to your website in the past week? Then you probably don’t need to tell them about the release that came out 2 weeks ago. The same can be done on YouTube with AdWords retargeting lists, ensuring you promote your new video to all people who watched previous ones, but leaving out the folks that have already watched it. The combinations go on and on, but making use of clever communication not only saves in wasted spend but ensures you don’t wear your audience thin with untargeted messaging.

So keep your fans close, and keep the communication flowing. In music we have the unique position that fans generally want the content we have to offer, it’s just a case of effectively communicating that to them. As new tools come on the scene, like many that will be taking part in this year’s Midem, seek out the ones that are the best fit for you and your audience, allowing for low friction / high impact messaging to fan and super-fan alike.


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About Author

Patrick Ross

Patrick Ross is Head of Digital for Kobalt Music/AWAL, and one of Midem 2016's Label Ambassadors.

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