Artists are getting in early with their views on digital music innovation this MidemNet – the opening panel on day one features Amanda Palmer (centre, of Dresden Dolls and now solo fame) and Hal Ritson from The Young Punx (left). The MEF’s Ralph Simon (right) moderated. DJ Paul Van Dyk was billed to take part, but was unable to attend.
It also made history as the first ever MidemNet session to kick off with a ukulele cover of Radiohead’s Creep (Palmer), interpretive dance (Ritson) and a sock puppet (representing Van Dyk).
Then the talking began. Palmer kicked off by talking about her Dresden Dolls days. “I always have lots of album artwork, lots of offshooty little projects with any record”. The band’s first two albums came with books of artwork and sheet music, paid for by the band rather than its label.
Her first solo album last year was self-funded, but then released by Roadrunner. It became infamous for the controversy around Palmer’s midriff in a publicity shot – “the label thought my stomach looked fat, and I grumbled about this on my blog – this was before Twitter!” And with no prompting from Palmer, it became an online craze – ‘Rebellyon’ – with fans uploading photos of their own bellies in solidarity.
“My fanbase has always been very connected and community-minded from day one,” she said. “I try to foster community among them, with the forum being a big way of doing that, and now Twitter as well.” Over time, Palmer said she’s been focusing on constant connectivity with her fans, tweeting 24-7.
Palmer may now be completely independent as an artist – she said she can’t talk about whether she’s no longer under contract to Roadrunner (in other words, she’s not). At that point, Ritson chimed in pointing to Dizzee Rascal as the UK example – Ritson is the musical director of Dizzee’s live show.
After releasing several albums on XL, Rascal went it alone with his own label. “We’re in a different structure now: there’s definitely a place for major labels – some projects absolutely require it – but the labels are entrenched in a conservative ‘back catalogue sells’ mindset… But artists are going in a whole different direction. And they can now take that risk, and use digital tools available today to go direct to the fanbase.”
Ritson talked about his own online activities, saying an artist has to do three things nowadays: first, get people to listen to the music; second, get some emotional contact with them; and third, find a revenue stream from somewhere.
“We’ve totally embraced the point that writers of music blogs are totally taking over as the new tastemakers of music,” he said. So Ritson looks at blogs giving away free music not as a threat, but as the modern equivalent of radio promo. “You’re getting people to hear your music,” he said.
Ritson’s organisation has someone whose job is to monitor the music blogs, and maintain a relationship with the key sites. “We try to manage the release of material to the blogs pro-actively, so that on the same day, five of the key blogs might get our new track,” he said.
Palmer warned that it’s really important not to “over-strategise” this kind of thing – she prefers to put a constant flow of information out, and see what works.
“The only thing we have to offer as artists is our music and our personalities,” said Ritson, saying that the more of the latter that fans get to see, the more passionate the relationship becomes. Podcasts are an example – the Young Punx have been running a radio show for two years, that gets around 10,000 listeners for every episode.
“Around the world, when people tell us how they discovered our music, it’s often because a friend told them about our podcast,” he said, while pointing out that this can give the lie to the idea of making money from live gigs on the back of giving music away.
“You might have 100,000 fans, but in any one town there might only be two of them,” he said. “I think that we have to in the end move this entire thing to the Internet…”
There are challenges with that though. He cited the example of a hotly-tipped new artist with enormous online buzz, who’s only sold 300 units digitally. “We’re trying to look for alternative places for money to come from,” he said.
The Young Punx did a deal with a German beer company, for example, with the brand putting on music events, and the band integrating the brand into its podcasts. “So they were giving away our music, they were paying us to be associated with their brand – the revenue was coming from them, and everyone was happy.”
Through the course of last year, Germany became the third most important market for The Young Punx, as measured by Facebook fans. “That came from us not selling many records, but many many people hearing our music – and we got paid!… You don’t measure success by sales any more. How many people are enjoying what you have to offer, and then you have to ask whether my business is profitable.”
Ritson also gave what may prove to be the key tip for how to ‘use’ social media to connect with fans – “you have to do it passionately and personally. People are interested in the artists, not in somebody from the marketing department”.
And that was a wrap, other than Palmer’s announcement that she’s playing a gig for her Twitter followers at 6.30 tonight, outside the Palais.