indie-panel

Marketing budgets aren’t what they were across the music industry, but indie labels have often thrived on squeezing the most out of their resources to help emerging bands break through.

A session at AIM’s Music Connected conference in London today explored this in depth, setting a budget – £1,000 – and challenging a panel of indie experts to say what digital marketing tools they’d use to extract maximum bang for those bucks. Well, pounds.

The panel included Adam Cardew of Absolute Marketing & Distribution; Sophie Hall of MTA Records; Hannah Overton of Secretly Label Group; Charlie Biles of Play It Again Sam; Lisa Cope of Nuclear Blast; and Adam Brooks of Modular. Music Ally’s very own Eamonn Forde chaired the session.

Forde started by asking whether artists will have got off to a start themselves – building a community of fans online through sites like Facebook and SoundCloud, for example. “We might sign a band that is very very under the radar who we found just because we found some studio recordings, and in that case their social media stats might be very low, but on the other end of the scale, we might sign a band that have already had 18m plays on YouTube. No campaign is the same,” said Overton.

Brooks suggested that it’s buzz on social networks that often brings artists to the attention of labels in the first place. “Even if you’re an incredible band, if that hasn’t translated into any kind of profile online or elsewhere, that’s quite an anomaly. Bands that have great music will usually find an audience.”

Brooks added that while some artists are very “social media phobic” and want the label to do everything, while others are much more hands on. The important thing is to not pressure them into using a particular service – Twitter for example – although it is important that they have a presence managed by someone they trust, if they’re not doing it themselves.

Hall said that labels have to understand who the audience is they’re trying to market an artist to. “If there’s organic growth already, it’s that you want to tap into. If you have an artist that’s very savvy on social media, it’s probably because they already have an audience that’s listening. It’s not about pushing a particular message… It’s about tapping into who they are and how they’re already talking to them.”

Cope agreed: “It’s about understanding who you’re selling your album or product to,” she said. Campaigns are driven by their audience, in other words. “It’s about creating content that will hit fans and that they’ll identify with, but also about new fans.”

Is £1,000 high or low as a marketing budget for an indie? It depends what you’re trying to do, said Overton. “You need to know what you’re doing with that and how you’re spending it. It’s very easy to just spend that and not have it impact on sales.” She said video provides good bang for your buck in this respect, and Cardew agreed – because videos can run across various digital services.

You can make a great video on an iPhone or an iPad. A great video is about being creative and having a vision. It’s not about using the latest camera and editing suite. I’m sure you can pull favours and talk to friends and make something great,” said Overton. “Really you want something that people are going to enjoy and share on YouTube and those kind of platforms,” said Biles.

Forde wondered whether videos are good because a label can earn back royalties from streams, although Overton shot down the expectation that this will be lucrative for the majority of music videos. “I don’t think you should ever make a video and expect to make your money back through streaming on YouTube,” she said, while being much more positive about the knock-on effects that videos can have in terms of driving download and ticket sales, for example.

“If you’re just marketing a single or an EP, there’s probably not much point in doing digital advertising, unless you’re trying to chart. But for an album, you could spend the money doing YouTube prerolls, Google network advertising… you’ve got to have a decent budget for that. Spending £200 within a week on that sort of thing isn’t enough… you probably need to be spending £500, £1,000 or more a week on that,” said Overton.

Biles noted that digital advertising is at least quantifiable: its impact can be tracked in real-time in terms of views and clickthroughs. Brooks claimed that Twitter and Facebook ads can pay off for independent labels too, because there’s a low minimum spend, and less costs in terms of the creative.

Back to YouTube: “These days, especially with YouTube there’s so many creative things you can do with video content,” said Hall, referring to a recent video made by MTA for £200 that was then taken to a YouTuber with hundreds of thousands of subscribers to promote to their audience.

Overton talked about the importance of spreading out assets: a single track might be taken to radio, uploaded to SoundCloud and put on YouTube with static artwork, with a full video following at a later date. “I don’t get given a budget: I get given a release date,” said Cope. “You can create an amazing video for £5,000, but if you create one for £200 and the message is right, that’s going to be a successful video.”

Forde asked the panellists how they prioritise which tools to use. Biles says he tends to stick to Facebook, SoundCloud and YouTube, working hard to understand how their different analytics systems work, rather than spreading his time and energy too thinly among lots of services.

He also talked about blog strategy: identifying music blogs with good weight on influential aggregator Hype Machine, and feeding them a track at a particular time to help it make a strong appearance in Hype Machine’s chart.

Forde asked about how tough it is working with artists who don’t like to engage with social media. “It’s tough in the modern music industry: when you’re forcing through content that doesn’t have anything to do with the artist,” said Overton. “The music has to be absolutely incredible,” said Cardew – as in that’s the only real solution for an artist who doesn’t want to engage with fans in other ways.

“I’ve had some experience with artists who felt they weren’t interested in doing anything other than recording the music, but there were ways of making it interesting for them,” said Brooks. For example, taking a hobby or natural interest of an artist – photography being one example – and building something around that.

He also said there can be a virtue in making social scarcity a virtue: an artist like Boards of Canada’s lack of tweets or interviews is understood and respected by their fans, rather than holding them back. “Those cases are few and far between, though,” he admitted.

If you were trying to market One Direction and they aren’t interested in being on Twitter, you’d struggle, but it works for Burial,” agreed Hall. “If you’re trying to do something mainstream or break an act that have a lot of contemporaries in their field, you’ll struggle.”

Brooks also talked about a band’s mailing list being the most important thing – more important than Twitter or Facebook. “It’s an outlet where you can control the wording exactly, you can control when it goes, people choose to open it at their own speed, and for the people you’ve amassed on that mailing list, you’re in control of that data unlike on Facebook,” he said.

“If someone signs up to a mailing list, that’s a much more valuable fan. You can Like a page on Facebook really easily but if you’re signing up to a mailing list you’re a dedicated fan,” said Cope.

The conversation turned to big data, with Overton warning labels not to get too bogged down in numbers. She also suggested that YouTube and Facebook stats are starting to be more distrusted by radio playlisters. What are they trusting instead? Shazam, apparently.

It’s all about Shazam now really. It’s the main factor they look at over all other factors: where something is Shazamming in the pre-release chart,” said Hall. Cardew, Hall and Biles all said that it’s important to ensure tracks are available on Shazam as quickly as possible.

“That’s something you should speak to a digital distributor about, to make sure they are delivering it to Shazam,” Overton advised indie labels sitting in the audience. “We as a label do deliver to Shazam literally as soon as we have the master. Our DJs and artists and producers will send the music out as soon as it’s finished in the studio,” said Hall.

“If someone’s playing something at Fabric on a Friday night and 3,000 people are Shazamming it, that will get into the Top 200 chart immediately.”

More priorities. Hall said if she was literally starting from nothing, she’d make sure music was available on SoundCloud and YouTube, well labelled and with links back to other social networks and the artist’s website. She’d spend a little on Facebook and Twitter ads, targeting the artist’s profile and SoundCloud link to fans of other likeminded artists.

Brooks agreed: “YouTube and SoundCloud make the most sense… you need to put it in the places where they already go to and literally have no barriers to entry,” he said. “Everybody has access to YouTube, where to a lesser extent people have access to Spotify.” He also suggested hiring someone to do online PR for a fledgling artist may be worth investing in.

Cardew agreed that having music available is the most important thing, and said he’d use Facebook ads – for example targeting fans of bands that the artist has supported in live gigs. And he reiterated that he’d start a mailing list as early as possible to start signing fans up, in case Facebook makes more sudden changes to its algorithms that reduce the effectiveness of campaigns on that social network.

Would anyone put their entire catalogue on YouTube for discovery purposes? “Yeah, I think it’s a wise thing to do: it’s another streaming platform, although I know the rates aren’t as good,” said Biles. Cardew said Absolute tries to ensure as many YouTube views as possible convert into signups to mailing lists or purchases of songs, using the annotations feature.

“I may not put up an entire back catalogue or entire albums on YouTube, but I’d certainly make sure each album was represented,” said Brooks.

What about young people who – if ongoing speculation is right – are perhaps less engaged with Facebook than older generations, or even moving away from it altogether onto messaging and photo-sharing apps? “We are seeing a trend of older people moving onto Facebook and younger kids moving onto Instagram,” said Cope.

Overton nodded her agreement, suggesting that under-21s “aren’t really engaging in Facebook in the same way that the older generation are”. And so? “I think there’s probably going to be a new social platform emerging at some point that will be more engaging for the younger generation, and which will replace Facebook,” she said.