It’s hard to imagine a time when the internet wasn’t in common everyday use, but you don’t have to go back much further than 15 to 20 years in the mid-to-late 90s to discover just such a time.
In the 90s, streaming audio or video over the internet was generally a pain in the butt, and took more time than it was worth. Even downloading pictures was sometimes more wasteful than we sometimes like to admit. This was due in part to our dial-up modems, which made funny noises and were extremely slow; especially compared to the high-speed technology that’s available today.
If it seems like I’m speaking from personal experience, I am. I published my first website in 97/98, when I was just barely a teen. People didn’t have an inordinate obsession with great design and best practices just yet, so anyone could launch a website and get it seen by a lot of people – literally. Having a website was kind of a novel thing.
Fast-forward to today, and the tools have gotten so good that anyone can launch a website in an hour or two. There can still be technical hiccups along the way, but with the help of the many resources that can easily be found on Google, most people can walk through the steps to get up and running fairly quickly.
Having said this much, I think you can already put together some theories regarding how the internet age has affected music marketing.
Let’s take a look at several key advancements and components that have made a huge difference to modern music marketing.
In the early days, it wasn’t exactly easy to sell things over the internet. There was no PayPal, and going through the rigmarole of setting up a merchant account and taking credit card payments was neither a cheap nor straightforward process. You can check out my interview with Derek Sivers to get a sense of what that was like.
You get the sense that big companies weren’t terribly interested in helping the small guy, and things may have stayed that way if it weren’t for entrepreneurs like Sivers that blazed a trail for us musicians. Thanks to him, CD Baby was born, and musicians could begin to sell their CDs online.
While music sales may not be directly connected to marketing, if music could not be purchased online, there wouldn’t be as much of a reason to promote one’s music on the internet. I wouldn’t say that there wouldn’t be any purpose, but cash is a pretty strong incentive overall.
The internet led to some even bigger changes for music. Without getting too heavy into the details, Napster – now an app or streaming service – was once a peer-to-peer network where independent or hard-to-find music was shared among friends. However, it grew in popularity, and its growing user base started swapping all manner of music; rare and popular. Some bands like Metallica got pretty upset over this. Napster remained, but its P2P network was eventually shut down.
Many consumers used to feel that music was too expensive (in fact, some people still feel that way). Buying an entire album – they said – and getting only “a couple of good songs” in return for $15 to $30 was a losing transaction. However, to a large degree, the free debate has a lot to do with what went down with Napster and P2P networks in general.
This isn’t to say that there wasn’t a lot of grumbling that took place prior to file sharing , but the internet seemed to amplify the notion that consumers were on the losing side of the cash-to-music value exchange.
Thus, the propagation of online music stores and apps began. With iTunes, fans could finally purchase a single without having to buy an entire album. There are more options for distribution today than ever before, with the Amazons, Bandcamps, and various streaming sites of the world.
What did we even do before websites? At a most basic level, we can’t underestimate the impact of being able to publish your own online pamphlet.
In the early days of the internet, when you launched a website, that’s exactly what you got. Dynamic components like scripts, Flash, blogs, YouTube videos, social networks… all that stuff was still in the making. At first, textual content was all there was. Then came graphics. Then, over time, the technology continued to evolve to the point where it’s at today.
It’s hard to fully appreciate how far things have come. However, there is no denying that websites have altered the face of music marketing. Being able to direct all of your fans to a central place on the internet is kind of a big deal. Being able to build your own community, share photos, audio and video files, sell music directly through your website… all of that did not exist prior to the World Wide Web. And being able to cultivate a global audience… that’s a whole other point.
It’s one thing to have a website, but then to be able to push it and promote it through all of the traditional media channels – the papers, TV commercials, radio and so on – that is hugely powerful. Of course, this is where some independents are still at a bit of a disadvantage, because they may not necessarily have big advertising budgets (like the major labels) to get their ads in the papers or on mainstream TV.
As far as technology goes, email isn’t exactly new. However, this tried-and-true medium continues to remain relevant (especially in marketing), and would mostly be a moot point if not for the internet.
For most artists, their mailing list is their retirement plan. Fans that opt in to receive communication from their favorite artists are more likely to pay attention, purchase music or merchandise, answer call to actions, contribute to crowdfunding campaigns, and so on.
Email is also the only direct form of communication available to artists, unless they’re in the habit of collecting addresses and phone numbers. Moreover, addresses can change. Phone numbers can change. Even email addresses can change over time, but for the most part, people either hold onto their inbox, or at least have the messages from their old email forwarded on to their new email.
Granted, there is a lot more noise than before, even in people’s inboxes. Even so, it is still possible for artists to build a loyal fan base that they can constantly be in communication with using email. Try doing the same with social media. It’s just not going to happen, especially with the new pay-for-exposure model.
Social networks have actually been around for quite a while, but there are few sites as pivotal as MySpace if talking about music marketing.
At the height of its popularity, if you weren’t on MySpace as a band, you weren’t relevant. Many bands eagerly flocked to the platform, built their online press kit (MySpace allowed artists to post their music, pictures, blog posts, biographical information, and so on), shared way too many bulletins (community-wide announcements), and courted as many followers as they possibly could.
Unfortunately, this is where some of the check-us-out, check-this-out, buy-our-album, come-to-our-show, vote-for-us type self-indulgent marketing has its roots. After all, bands are just made up of creative people, right? They’re not marketing geniuses for crying out loud. How the heck are they supposed to know how to capture the attention of audiences everywhere?
Pretty soon, with the increasingly affordable studio gear (it’s not an exaggeration to say that you can record an entire album with little more than a laptop and a preamp) and the prospect of becoming an overnight sensation (thanks for that lie, music journalism), everybody and their dog started posting their music on the internet, hoping to become an overnight star in the process.
As we all know, MySpace experienced a bit of a demise when everybody started assembling at the doors of the then new Facebook. It’s hard to imagine life before Facebook, isn’t it? Though it isn’t – nor was it ever – a social network focused on music, bands and artists still had to find a way to use the platform to their advantage.
I believe that this occurrence is somewhat responsible for proliferating the erroneous idea that bands and artists must run with the trends to be successful, from Facebook to YouTube, from YouTube to Kickstarter, from Kickstarter to Bandcamp, and so on.
In any case, there’s little denying that music belongs on social media. Many people – especially younger generations – equate their identity with the music they listen to; even if their tastes range from Skrillex to Katy Perry to Korn.
Social networks aren’t merely marketing engines – at least in my opinion – but they have clearly had a huge impact on music marketing.
Arguably, YouTube is a social network of sorts. However, the effect that video has had on music marketing has been so instrumental that it’s deserving of its own heading.
Online video was already beginning to gain in popularity leading up to the launch of YouTube, but it finally gave content creators a place to share their creations with the world. At the time, there weren’t many great quality videos, but today you can watch HD videos – for free – on a community-based video sharing site. That should blow your mind.
In today’s age, the effectiveness of a music video is somewhat suspect. We know from the popularity of TV channels like MTV or MuchMusic that video killed the radio star, but today it’s pretty clear that reality shows and celebrity gossip killed the video (not to mention the music). Video was once a powerful medium for music, and it still is (just look at J-Lo’s A.K.A. album teaser video with nearly 9 million views), but it’s unlikely that it will ever capture the attention of fans the way it once did.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to look far to find artists that are doing novel, interesting, and innovative things. Just look at Walk off the Earth, Igor Presnyakov or Pomplamoose. There are still plenty of wonderful ways to engage with video and promote your music in the process. However, it is a rather huge gamble that many artists are taking, offering their product for free without any guarantee for remuneration.
Speaking of video, there is also something to be said for video streaming, be it Livestream, Usteam, or Google+ Hangouts. Some artists have successfully leveraged these mediums to create a side income, or become internationally known.
Certainly, patronage has been around for a long, long time. However, crowdfuning, at least the form in which we know it by today, did not exist – nor was it logistically possible – before the internet.
Recording and pressing an album is a much more affordable proposition than it ever was in the past. The problem is that artists don’t necessarily see as much of a return on album sales or royalties. Then we also have to face the fact that marketing in this day and age is much harder than it was in the past. There is so much more noise to compete with; especially online. The long of the short of it is that if you subtract the amount artists used to make in album sales, it’s just as expensive to record today than it ever was.
For artists, crowdfunding helps to alleviate this problem. Sure, an album can be recorded on the cheap, but if artists want to do it right, they still have to put in the sweat and the hours. They may even have to buy new gear, rent out an expensive studio, hire a skilled engineer, or get their album mixed by a third party. Replication and printing costs also can’t be avoided; unless an artist has no intention of getting on the radio or getting their album reviewed. Yes, artists still have to get physical CDs made up for promotional purposes a lot of the time, even if very few people actually buy them.
There are certainly other reasons to turn to crowdfunding, but in order to make a crowdfunding campaign a success, artists have to engage all of their fans, be persistent in their marketing efforts, and be highly organized. Though crowdfunding isn’t a form of marketing unto itself, it necessitates it.
Conclusion: Music Marketing in the Internet Age
These are just some of the ways in which the internet age has changed music marketing. This article isn’t meant to be exhaustive by any means, but I think you can see that marketing – even music marketing – has more to do with the internet than it ever did before.
To some extent, the music industry has lagged behind, and it may take some time for it to catch up to where other creative industries have long since gone. Some would speculate that the Napster incident would never have happened if the major labels were ready to take things online, offering music in a more convenient and affordable format.
Major labels are taking fewer risks now than ever before, and it’s generally up to the artists to prove themselves and offer up a lot of the funding (and sometimes even marketing) for their projects. The profit model must evolve, as product is not in scarce supply. Scarcity is merely the availability of an artist, how often they can tour or connect with their fans, how often they can record and distribute music, and so on.
Supply and demand seems to be less of a factor in the world of music in this age. What’s important is the experience, and the connection people feel when they hear their favorite song on the radio or go to a concert. The currency of today’s music is engagement, connection, experience, feeling, emotion, belonging, community, and interaction.
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