If you want an opinion or ten on digital music marketing, you could do worse than start with Sammy Andrews or Darren Hemmings.
Head of digital at label Cooking Vinyl and founder of digital agency Motive Unknown respectively, they’re two of the more knowledgable and opinionated people working in this space.
So when they shared a stage at last week’s Music Futures conference in Gateshead, Music Ally went along for the ride. Starting with Andrews’ views on the challenges for new artists in 2015.
“There’s definitely less investment around for sure. Bands are expected to do a lot more than they used to before they’re ready to break. Bands have to be a lot more active, and a lot more engaged, and work a lot harder,” she said.
“They’re expected to know social media before they get any management involvement whatsoever. But the amount of data they have access to even just on the social networks – geodata, how old they are, male/female splits – they can communicate with fans in a way that’s never been easier.”
Andrews suggested that cutting through the musical clutter is more difficult than ever, though.
“It’s saturated. There’s never been a time when there’s more music made or more music consumed, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the market is saturated,” she said. “Being able to talk above that noise is a skill. But a good band is still a good band – and there are a lot of crap bands!”
Andrews renewed her call for streaming services like Spotify to share even more data with artists, managers and labels – including making it more possible for them to contact the keenest fans of an artist.
“If I can see one individual that’s listened to my artist’s album 10, 20 or 30 times… It frustrated me that if we announced a tour we weren’t able to send an email to them or some form of notification: ‘This band you really fucking like is touring!’. But we’re at a tipping point where people are starting to join the dots.”
Andrews pointed to Spotify sending emails to fans with ticket offers for Foo Fighters, Disclosure and Guy Garvey as evidence of progress, and criticised cynics who think the traditional music industry is incapable of being nimble and innovative with digital opportunities.
“This could be the start of a new phase of the industry, genuinely. Anyone that says it’s dead is a liar or stupid,” she said. “But we do keep trying to play a new game by old rules. It’s not the same game any more, so stop trying to apply the old bloody rules to a completely new model.”
When Hemmings joined Andrews on-stage, he agreed that there are plenty of opportunities for artists and managers, although he suggested that the demands of rising “above the noise” (as Andrews put it) may be passing some labels by.
“Increasingly I’m just feeling there’s a palpable sense of panic coming across. There’s a signing bonanza going on: people are signing loads of acts, and they’re churning them and desperately trying to find a success rate,” said Hemmings.
“Within that, people are misunderstanding the whole process, and they’re not putting time in to build a story: to think ‘where does this person fit in popular culture?’. That’s all there is now: popular culture and where you sit in it,” he continued.
“It’s all about how you capture that moment in popular culture. The problem is that labels don’t – or will not – put that time in, or don’t understand they need to put that time into developing those stories. But at a management level, they fully get that.”
Hemmings cited rap duo Run The Jewels, who Motive Unknown work with, as a good example: they have music constantly trickling out, whether it be albums, singles or cat-remix projects, but they’re constantly working on other creative projects that keep their name out there.
Hemmings also cited another client, Metric and their manager Matt Drouin, as an example. “They’re just very tapped in to what works, and the pace is slower. There’s not that palpable sense of panic: Matt wants to pick this apart and understand it,” he said.
Andrews agreed. “Management have upped their game over recent years for sure. For a long time a lot of managers didn’t get it – they let things go and let the labels go away and do [digital] things. Now they understand they can do things directly.”
The conversation turned to what more the streaming services can do to help managers and artists, with Andrews saying that while she’s been a constructive critic of Spotify’s approach, it remains ahead of many rivals.
“Some services are still really crap at delivering us data. They need to up their game too. Some services have stripped out some of the geodata that we used to get from them. What the fuck use is that to me?” she said.
“They need to put thought into what they need to give back to the artists, the managers and the labels, so we can make their businesses and our businesses better. We need a level playing field: if you are selling or streaming my song, this is the level of data I expect in return.”
Hemmings talked about the kind of data managers are able to get for themselves by running online advertising campaigns – an increasingly important part of Motive Unknown’s business – not just to drive sales or streams, but to better understand their fans.
“I’m fascinated by the world of hip-hop: they’ll make a mixtape which is free, but spend $3k promoting it to get people to DatPiff. And running the ads allows them to understand who’s responding: where they are and which interests drive the most responses,” he said, before returning to Run The Jewels.
“Their management have only one intention: to connect fans to the band and to the music. After that, the money will come in. That’s why they’ve given away all their music to date, but have still sold many records… Culturally, they carry a lot of weight, which is why Apple got them to do the Beats 1 thing. Like I said, there’s only popular culture and your place within it.”
The conversation turned to streaming payouts, metadata and the currently-topical challenge of ensuring digital services know which rightsholders to pay. Andrews suggested that “it’s the industry’s fault as much as anyone”, pointing to the collapse of the Global Repertoire Database project, leaving companies like Kobalt trying to fill the gap.
Hemmings noted Google’s decision to lead a $60m funding round in Kobalt earlier this year, and Kobalt’s acquisition and relaunch of collecting society AMRA in June.
“Kobalt are building a global rights database by the back door, which is one for the tin-foil hat brigade to contemplate, given that Google are big investors in Kobalt,” he said.
“I like Kobalt: they’re smart people. There was an attempt to build a global database and it failed. The fact that Kobalt are diligently trying to achieve similar ends is to be applauded. If they weren’t doing it, no one else would be,” he continued.
“But it’s like when Google released the Chrome browser saying ‘we want to push the advancement of browsers’ – but the end result has been that Chrome is the most-used browser in the world. That’s similar to what they’re doing with Kobalt and the collection stuff. Their argument may be that they’re trying to drive an agenda of making this happen, but the net result may be they get there first and dominate the space.”
Finally, Hemmings and Andrews were asked what marketing-related trends or technologies they think are overhyped. Hemmings trained his sights on a surprising area: social media.
“On the one hand, I like social media, but what I don’t like is the blind obsession with it that labels have. ‘We have to be on as many things as possible’ and they don’t own any of the data. It’s one of the travesties of modern marketing that websites and email lists have become terribly uncool and not the done thing, despite them being by far the most empowering thing you could do,” he said.
“I’ve been in label meetings where I’ve said ‘why don’t we base this on a website and do a mailout?’ and you can see everyone rolling their eyes like I’ve just beamed in from 1998. Yet with Run the Jewels, it’s a website: every single thing they do is debuted on their website. Even on social, when they have a new video they’ll post a photo and a link back to the website.”
Hemmings qualified his views by noting that social media can be a great communications platform, if that “blind obsession” is removed. But both he and Andrews warned that when artists are on social networks, their authentic voice is key.
“It needs to be their voice and them doing it. It’s no good us saying ‘here’s a load of buy links for the tenth time this week’,” said Andrews. Hemmings agreed, saying that Motive Unknown doesn’t run social media accounts for its clients any more.
“If you want to get anywhere with that, the artist has to be running it. I don’t believe you can substitute that with me and Lucy [Blair, his Motive Unknown partner]. I’m 40 for fuck’s sake! When these new artists come onto the block, I haven’t even got the vernacular down!”