Updated: Jan 11
In this article, Major Labl founder, Mark Knight considers the parallels between brands and bands and asks what can independent musicians learn about growth from established and proven marketing theory.
One of the biggest challenges associated with promoting independent musicians is managing expectations. There is an assumption that one campaign, or in some cases, one ad is going to be enough to transform their fortunes.
We recently worked with an artist who had spent £20 on an Instagram ad and before less than half of the budget had been spent, he declared… “It’s not working!” What did the artist expect to happen? The answer: Miraculous overnight growth in fanbase, engagement and Spotify streams.
In reality, the engagement ad in question, optimised to drive video views had successfully driven 6x more views than the standard post on the artist’s wall. A great start point for retargeting when the new EP came out.
What’s driving these unrealistic expectations? It could be that we’ve grown up believing all music careers start with a game-changing, X-Factor style audition moment! The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Success takes time, and only a few will actually succeed.
A few years ago I took part in a challenge to try and ‘break’ an unsigned band in just 10 weeks without any form of radio or traditional press. As part of our preparation for this project, a data wizard from our team studied BBC Sounds Short-listed artists on social media to try and identify a tipping point. After all, If he could find one, maybe we could replicate that moment with our own band? What he found, while frustrating, was also very insightful. Consistently he concluded, there was never one moment fueling their rise. Success came from sustained micro-moments of momentum, built over time.
The problem is most artists don’t have a plan in place to deliver these sustained micro-moments on the road to growth. Many artists lurch from everything (when they have a single coming out) to nothing (two weeks after the single is out).
Independent Musicians as Start-ups
How do we change this? One approach is to step out of music and look to see how other business categories look to deliver growth. The start-up business feels like a good place to start, after all, a new band and a new business share many of the same challenges.
Finding an audience
Establishing product-market fit
Delivering a scalable income
Sadly, not all the parallels are positive. Data from the BLS shows that approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. Yes, it’s fair to say many incredible musicians, just like many incredible businesses won’t succeed.
Six brand strategies for growth that can be applied to music
1. Be meaningfully different: Research from Kantar and BAV (Brand Asset Valuator) highlight the importance of 1) meaningful 2) difference. If you can build a business that combines these two behaviours you stand a greater chance of success. A good example of a business that combines both meaning and difference is Airb&b, they disrupted the hotel industry and gave people a way to unlock the value of their spare room or empty home. Thinking about how you can deliver a meaningful difference in your music project is certainly a challenge, remember it’s relatively easy to be different, but meaningfully different is a tougher nut to crack. But that shouldn’t deter you, often one can lead to the other. Start by thinking of the simple ways you could stand out in social media news feeds. For example.
We will never take a band bio photo in front of a brick wall
All of our content will be shot in black & white
We will only ever post videos
We will number our social posts
We will replace full-length music videos with 15 & 20-second clips
2. Create visual desire: Just because we listen with our ears, doesn’t mean we choose with our ears. In the world of Instagram and Facebook, around 80% of the content is viewed with the sound off. The first job is to engage the eyes not the ears. There are parallels in the business world. Think about food or drink… once again the first job is to engage the senses of sight or smell. Taste only comes into play later in the purchase journey. A big part of the success story of Aperol Spritz in the UK is the distinctive Orange colour. People see it before they taste it and say “I want one of those.”
3. Behave like a bigger band. In the advertising world, there is a phrase ‘fake it to make it’ which basically means if you behave like you are successful, people will start to believe you are a successful business. In this world, there is no mention of struggle only success. That could mean replacing tube carriage advertising with big billboards or TV… Nothing screams success like the big screen. Admittedly as a new band, you can’t just spend your way to success, but there are subtle things you can do. Your job is to generate hype and desire around your music. Think about your next press release, can you replace the reality of the everyday grind with a little glamour by including a quote from a taste-maker? Or get a semi-famous influencer, actor or model to appear in your next video? It’s time to call in the favours! The next time you get radio play, thank the DJ by email, but realise that the very point of radio is they bring the audience, so you don’t have to celebrate every radio play and urge fans to tune in. This is not the behaviour of a big successful band. Think about your social media feed, and behave like an influencer, consider how each post conveys success over struggle, and grows your musician brand.
4. Balance acquisition with retention. CRM or customer relationship management is big business, globally this category is predicted to be worth $81.9bn by 2025. The recent GDPR and Apple privacy changes have put consumers back in control of their data. Lazy email spam is no longer tolerated. The moment consumers fail to see the value they reach for the unsubscribe button. Online design company Canva use their email CRM to share new product features and tips with their customers. It’s a great way to encourage their customers to use the service more often. The Pareto principle states that 80% of business will come from 20% of your customers, and while those numbers may be overstated it stands to reason that the people with the closest relationship to you will be easier to convert than someone that is hearing from you for the first time.
So what does this mean for you as a musician brand? Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans theory suggests if you can build true personal relationships with 1,000 of your fans that is enough for a successful career. Imagine if you had 1,000 people who bought everything you released, bought tickets for every show and told everyone they knew how amazing you are, that would be powerful. As a musician, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that new Likes and new Followers equal new fans. In reality, the Like or Follow is like a First date, they are initially attracted to you and you have a chance to impress them. However, unless you engage them in conversation they will ghost you forever, and be little more than an un-used and forgotten number in your phone.
The reality is most musicians use social media in the wrong way, they have been wrongly conditioned to think the follower count is the key to success when in reality the focus should be on the engagement rate. To grow engagement you need engaging content and a plan to reengage fans that goes beyond blindly posting on your wall and hoping. At the early stage of your career, you have the opportunity to interact with fans on a one to one basis through direct messaging and this is essential to creating those bonds. But that is not enough, continue to use the Facebook Pixel to continue to retarget anyone that has previously engaged with your content and pages. Unless your new followers continue to see and engage with your content, you will fall out of their feeds. Study your analytics to understand what content works best for you and what times of day are more likely to yield the best results. For every pound or dollar you spend on reaching new audiences, spend the same if not more on re-engaging existing followers
5. Create a movement. When Elaine Welteroth joined Teen Vogue as Editor she came with a vision. She didn’t want a magazine she wanted a movement. After all, there were lots of things teens could read, but how many things could they really believe in and get behind. Elaine aimed to create a meaningful difference between Teen Vogue and other publications by replacing light celebrity and beauty news with hard-hitting opinion pieces on Ohio’s abortion ban or Trump’s America. Elaine Welteroth was credited with turning Teen Vogue around. The history of music is synonymous with subcultures and movements from Goths, Punks, Mods and Rockers. What’s the next one and could be the band or artists that start it? If you can’t start one, think about how you could attach yourself to an existing community to reach and engage like-minded fans. Hashtags can provide a simple way to connect your content to an existing movement or community.
6. Give me a reason to share. Product Led Growth is powerful, this concept removes the salesperson or the ad campaign. If the product/service is good enough it will inspire users to share it organically, because the users recognise their experience with the product or service will be improved by inviting others to join them. Facebook is an obvious example. The service is better when your friends are on the platform, this principle allowed Facebook to grow largely by word of mouth marketing. As a musician imagine if all of your fans shared your new video on Instagram tomorrow, not only would the reach be incredible, but the shared endorsement would be a game-changer. The next time you are creating content, consider what you could do to encourage people to share, what could you do that would directly benefit them as well as you?
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Words Mark Knight