indie-panel

Engagement. It’s a word we’ll be hearing again and again at the Midem music industry conference this week. And while it’s a too-easily-spouted buzzword, there’s something important here too.

As a musician, you can have x followers on Twitter or Likes on Facebook or even streams on Spotify, but what does that mean? Making those people fans in a way that involves properly connecting with them, rather than just trying to sell to them, is one of the most interesting challenges of the new music industry.

It was also the focus for one of the first panel sessions at this year’s show: How Labels Reinvent Fan Engagement, organised with independent label bodies IMPALA and WIN.

That meant an indie-packed panel comprising Ronny Krieger of Monkeytown Records in Germany; Nuria Muntaner of Sones in Spain; Robin Van Beek of 8ball Music in the Netherlands, and Alain Verhave of Epitaph Records’ Dutch division. City Slang’s Christof Ellinghaus took on the moderation role.

Muntaner kicked off by talking about educational project minimúsica, which aimed to introduce children in her label’s home city to its roster of its artists. “We started doing family shows, but with something else, because when you talk about fans you normally think that young people just wanna have fun, but for families it’s completely different,” she said. “Parents need to feel that their kids are learning and growing at the same time they are having fun.”

She noted that the music itself wasn’t changed – “We think that kids are really open… they can listen to different kinds of music, and say if they like this kind or prefer the other one. I think that when you’re young you have to have a lot of experience, and then when you get older you can decide ‘THAT music, you’re going to be a fan’.”

minimúsica is now a collection of CDs, but also a website and a community of families, with a festival bringing it all together with workshops and performances. “Families like us because it’s something real. Adults have fun because they are watching the same fans that they used to do before they were parents. Just normal music! The music is the same, it’s only the lyrics that are different, because they are talking about animals or other things. It’s very important that families have something to do together.”

Next to speak was Robin Van Beek, business director of 8ball Music, a pop label perhaps best known for its work with TV talent show The Voice. “I don’t think we have reinvented fan engagement!” he said, before talking about what 8ball does for fans and artists.

That includes lots of market research: asking fans what they want to see from their favourite artists, as well as working on deals between musicians and brands – something that’s given him an insight into the role such research plays for those brands. “Brands are really a step ahead of our industry: most brands have a good idea of what their brand stands for and who they’re selling to. I think in music that’s a bit underdeveloped at the moment,” he said.

8ball Music is also building apps for its artists, but Van Beek was very firm on the point that true engagement isn’t something that artists should be handing over to their label.

The real problem is that true engagement can only come out of the artist. It can never be done by a label. If an artist is not interacting with his fans, and lets his label do that, this is not the way forward,” he said. 8ball is working hard to convince artists who aren’t so interested of the benefits if they do open up.

Verhave agreed that artists are very important, noting that “we use our bands to send out the messaging. We tell them ‘here’s a new video, it’s better you start with the messaging Twitter fans that you have a new video, instead of us saying it’,” he said. “The response is a lot bigger on the engagement side than we used to have… We’ll have 100,000 views in 24 hours! So the bands are important for fan engagement.”

Over to Krieger from Monkeytown Records. “It’s owned by artists. The other aspect is when we sat together and decided this is going to be the label, we decided the focus is going to be primarily on the artists,” he said, before suggesting that discussions about whether artists or labels are best to connect to fans are leading up a blind alley.

“We hope to use every channel that’s available to us. It’s not ‘the label is less important than the artist’ – we try to think of as many channels as we have available to post something,” he said, before suggesting that the starting point for artist-fan engagement doesn’t always have to be what you’d think.

“It doesn’t have to be talent. It can be hate!.. I wouldn’t want to start a label with an untalented musician who everybody hates, but in terms of fan engagement, that might work quite well!… If you polarise, if you have a comment where you know it may not be very popular, but you’ll put it out there, that’s how you feed interaction… Instead of just posting ‘this is what we do’.”

As far as social media is concerned, he noted that Monkeytown Records have a lot of artists who “absolutely hate it, they don’t want to be part of it… they do know all the benefits of it, and they still don’t want to.” And Monkeytown Records’ ethos means the label respects those views: it doesn’t insist on running social media for those artists, let alone forcing them to do it.

Van Beek chimed in at this point, noting that the answer to this may be the label working with fans to spread the word on what artists are up to: a street team, rather than an official social media presence for the artist. Krieger noted that often, fans will do this on their own initiative anyway – they’ll set up unofficial websites, Twitter accounts and so on.

He talked about an initiative Monkeytown Records ran, to let fans choose songs for a compilation album. crediting their names in its bundled booklet. “To be honest, this compilation sold a lot more than any other compilation we’ve ever done!” he said. Which turned the conversation to crowdfunding and companies like PledgeMusic, which helps artists and labels do this kind of thing.

“I think it’s not a bad idea at all,” said Muntaner. “If your fans can make things easier, it’s always nice to do something all together.” Van Beek suggested that it means a loss of control, and said he wouldn’t do it. Krieger said this allows for a lot of projects that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. However, from his company’s perspective, he said it’s currently a no-go.

As an established label, it always has the little effect of it looks a bit desperate,” he said, referring to a couple of possible campaigns that didn’t go ahead. for this reason, although Monkeytown Records is supportive when individual artists choose to crowdfund, as happened in the recent past with one project.

“Working with these fundraising campaigns would make us look a bit desperate… We’re quite open, quite artistic, but we didn’t want to be involved in technology and fundraising… We stayed out of it, because we didn’t think it would look great if an established label did it.” Ellinghaus was more positive though. “Now in 2014 it doesn’t necessarily have that stigma any more that you look desperate. I think it’s fine.”

The conversation turned to the idea of labels as brands, although Van Been wasn’t keen on the idea. “I think the label shouldn’t be a brand. My artists are the brands,” he said. That said, Krieger noted that label branding in the dance music sector is much more common, suggesting that this is because dance music itself is a younger genre.

“Monkeytown probably has the same kind of value for the fans of the artists as City Slang or Epitaph. If you look at Warp Records or whatever there are certain labels in any type of music that have a following,” he said.

The next topic was on how best to target different types of fans, from casual listeners, through slightly keener fans to the real hardcore fans. “We always urge our more established bands to create formats for all these different levels of fan,” said Ellinghaus.

“If the bands are too busy to come up with these things, we do this for them. We film shows and turn them into DVDs, and we make very nice beautiful packagings. Or or the very top of the pyramid we make these beautiful box sets. We hardly ever make money on these things, but they are just beautiful items.”

What can streaming services do to help labels and artists with fan engagement – more than simply discovering the music and listening to it? Verhave said that Epitaph’s artists are using the likes of Spotify and Deezer to create playlists and collect followers. “It’s also important for the streaming services to see what kind of fanbase the artist has to, in the long run, do some campaigning with them,” he said.

However, Krieger provided a warning: “It’s also very important that you don’t put all your efforts into just external channels. Spotify is no different to Facebook in that respect. If you go in five years and say ‘can you send me the contact details for those 500,000 people I sent to you?’, they’re not going to do it!

Van Beek did praise Spotify though. “They’re more open than iTunes. iTunes doesn’t give you any information on who’s buying your music, but Spotify does at least give you some numbers.” Referring to that company’s analytics partnerships with MusicMetric and Next Big Sound, presumably.

A question came from the audience about YouTube, and how to make more money from the massive amounts of streams on Google’s video service. “They’re young users, they have no credit cards, they have no iTunes accounts or Spotify accounts, so you have to think of another way of doing business with them,” said Van Beek, who after establishing that the questioner runs a rap label, suggested brand partnerships as another fertile opportunity.

You have to link them to some other place where you engage them with more than just watching a video. To pull them into the world of your artist a little more,” added Ellinghaus.

The panel concluded on a positive note. “I think it’s really exciting times, we can get to identify those people who are really into our music, and contact them directly,” said Van Beek. “It’s up to the labels now to start collecting the data and to use it in a proper way. It’s bringing new opportunities into the business, and we’re professionalising it now.”