It seems that the majority of musicians are ignoring the concept and practice of ‘direct to fan’, or ‘D2F’ as the vanguard like to call it.
D2F is the practice of identifying people with an interest in your music, creating a relationship with those fans, promoting and marketing your music to them and going direct to them to finance your career by monetising that relationship.
It is typified by engagement via your own website and social media outposts and by the sale of music, merchandise, tickets and more through that direct connection. This results in a return of the lion’s share of revenue (less only technology partner costs) to the artist.
Instead of adopting this approach to build a platform for their success, too many unsigned artists focus on just getting noticed and then rely on outmoded and directionless efforts (such as spamming on social media sites, overplaying a small local area or looking for management), all of which they do before they have developed any significant fanbase on the strength of their material and by their own efforts.
The belief appears to be that building a direct connection with your fanbase is something that is too hard or too much work, that can be left until you have a record deal (i.e. something ‘the label’ or a manager can do for you), or perhaps that it won’t work in a specific artist’s case as a way to build momentum or sustain a career.
All of these mindsets couldn’t be more wrong.
Understanding the vast advantage that the current generation of musicians have been granted by technology is hard for some but the slow decline of the old mass media / major label paradigm is, in fact, a great opportunity.
At the heart of the D2F apathy may be the conundrum that so many artists are still achieving success from the old model – and not just those who benefitted from a major label deal before the advent of file-sharing.
So many advocates of D2F and supporters of the DIY musician would have us all believe that the days of the major label are over and that mass media, specifically radio, no longer matters.
Yet we all see the evidence that this is a fallacy on a regular basis when a new artist receives a ‘push’ from the label and all of a sudden seems to be everywhere – recent examples might include Jessie J, Bruno Mars, Tinie Tempah, Nickie Minaj and lately Lana Del Rey.
I know that those are pop artists but they demonstrate that material that has mass appeal when married with the marketing muscle (cash) and skills of a major label (or large indie) will still bring success.
The reality is that every artist needs a team and that team takes money to hire and needs money to spend. For those pop artists and for many less commercially viable musicians, although the internet has made it possible for them to find some success, they have chosen not to go it alone all the way, but to have the support structure of a partner.
And, for the most part, that team is still a label.
The most recent survey shows that 75% of unsigned musicians still hope to secure a record deal of some sort.
And it’s no wonder, when the prospect for the unsigned artist is having to do it all and raise the cash to do it as well if you don’t get a deal. By securing a record deal the artist doesn’t have to create all the music and then also develop the skills to produce, package, market and promote it.
Today the artist partner is still most likely to be a label, but in the future it could be another part of the established industry (a promoter or perhaps a distributor) or some new entity emerging in the new model. In many cases it’s likely to be a powerful management company that puts together the services required piecemeal, as many are doing already.
In that future, the chain from artist to fan will be shortened and for many it will comprise solely a marketing partner and a technology partner – thereby removing the traditional label, distributor and retailer entirely.
And that means that D2F will be a part of every artist’s promotion, marketing and sales.
But the landscape has already truly changed for all artists. Even for most of the pop artists referred to above, they had to create a significant level of buzz before any partner came on board and helped them.
And the best way to do that is to build a fanbase that you can display to your suitors.
In fact, the best way to do it is to get your head down, create great music and then let that expression of your art build your fanbase. Properly harnessing the engagement that your fans want during that early phase of acquisition will only make that fanbase stronger, more supportive and more reliable in the long term.
If that attracts a partner or label, then you may choose to take them on, but if it doesn’t you are building your own army of fans who will sustain you.
The truth is that if you don’t embrace D2F, you are very unlikely today to succeed – DIY or signed.
The internet gave the musician MySpace and perhaps their own website as the first routes to put their art in front of a global audience. More recently technology partners (such as Topspin, Nimbit, ReverbNation and many more) have built the tools to make that online presence more effective and easier to administer. Other platforms with better direct communication and ready made eager audiences (Facebook, SoundCloud, Twitter etc) have made the reach much greater.
On top of that endless blogs, online and offline colleges and thought leaders have risen to prominence dishing out advice on how best a musician can build that direct to fan relationship.
So whether you want to sign to a label, find a team to partner with or whether you want to truly do it all yourself, D2F will be part of your career.
And it doesn’t matter whether you want a small hobbyist existence which fulfils your creative urge, a self funded and managed long-term niche career or the full blown superstardom.
In each case you will need to engage more directly with fans than ever before, let them closer and give them more.
The bottom line is that as you start out or seek to move your career on you must embrace the D2F mindset and learn the necessary skills. If you ignore it you lessen your chances of ever achieving the music success you deserve.
Ian Clifford is a music lawyer, a manager and runs Make It In Music, a respected music marketing blog.