In 2011, PIAS Group’s head of digital marketing Darren Hemmings left to set up his own consultancy, Motive Unknown.
Originally conceived as a solo freelance affair, seven years on the company has expanded to six people, working with a range of artist, label and non-music clients.
Hemmings talked to Music Ally about how music marketing has changed; why owning your data is ever-more important; how merchandising is the new frontier for digital marketing; and his concerns about Spotify’s instincts to control.
“Everybody feels they’re time-compressed. Whether we’re working directly with artists or with labels, a recurring factor is that people don’t have time to explore the options and to really ask if what they’re doing is right,” says Hemmings, on one of the trends driving Motive Unknown’s business.
“Especially for labels, the digital teams often don’t have the time to stop and look up, and look around, and say ‘are we even going in the right direction with this?’ They could be barking up the wrong tree, but they’re so heads-down dealing with the influx of work, they don’t get to ask those questions.”
“Labels now have very good digital people in-house, but they’re just often really pushed for time, and don’t have the space to have that R&D innovation thing going on. Often we get hired to come in and look at those things.”
That’s a change from the early days of the agency, when Hemmings was mainly an outsourcing shop, running the mechanics of campaigns for labels. Over time, a bigger-picture strategic role has materialised for his company.
That touches on some of the themes that he has talked about on conference stages, and written about in the introductions to his daily news digest. For example, the question of labels and artists controlling their own data, often through investing time in their own mailing lists rather than simply relying on social networks for their communication to fans.
“My whole background is quite punk rock: Fugazi, DIY labels and so on: that sense that you can absolutely do it yourself. And that did bleed through slightly into a mentality that I still have, where I can see it a mile off when people are surrendering control,” he says.
“Not in a paranoid way! It’s why I’m quite a vocal critic of Spotify: there’s an attempt to wrestle control away so that Spotify has that control, which I think is a bad thing. And it’s the same for data. If you’ve solely built your businesses on third-party platforms and you don’t own that stuff, it’s really difficult.”
Hemmings has spoken out before about the inadvisability of, for example, paying several thousand pounds to an advertising agency to run campaigns for an artist if the agency then owns the remarketing data on that artist’s fans.
“It’s smarter and more cost-effective to use your marketing budget to drive people in to the channel that you own, such as email. The lifetime value of a person on your email list is significantly greater than what you spend on trying to drive a sale,” he says.
“If you acquire people at a slightly higher cost, but you’ve got them on your list and engage them well, you can maintain a very direct relationship that you control. I think we’ve had this period where people rely on social media and building their fanbase there. Now, everywhere I look, it feels like people are saying hang on, can we look at owning this again?”
“It’s a recurring narrative: a company that does something in social media will run a case study on how Band X did this thing on social media, then email becomes terribly unfashionable. But there’s a reason Facebook and Twitter email you to say someone commented on your post: they know you read the email! It’s an effective way of reaching people. Owned channels absolutely work, and the smartest artists are the ones who are the most empowered on that.”
Hip-hop duo Run The Jewels, who are one of Motive Unknown’s clients, are the epitome of this: using their mailing lists and well-honed remarketing campaigns to great effect whether they’re telling fans about music, merchandise or branded beers.
Hemmings says that lessons from those campaigns, as well as Motive Unknown’s work with brands outside the music world, has made him enthusiastic about the potential for digital marketing to help merch become an even-more significant revenue stream for artists.
He praises the established music-merch companies for building healthy, profitable businesses, but suggests that their primary focus remains selling products to fans in live venues.
“Name any merch company and they’re doing a terrific job of that, which is why they’ve been around a long time. But does that mean there’s a lot of free money left on the table because they don’t fully exploit the potential of e-commerce? Absolutely!” he says. “We’ve been exploring whether e-commerce around music merchandising can genuinely compete to drum out piracy.”
Motive Unknown has been working with some of its clients to try to dislodge entirely-unlicensed merch platforms – the kind that sell clothing “inspired by” artists without any revenue-sharing agreements in place – from the top of the Google search rankings.
“Talk to any merch company and mention this, and you’ll get a rolling of eyes and a big sigh. But we’re now doing a lot of work to see if we can push them out of those top search results,” he says.
“If someone searches for a band name plus ‘merch’ can the band’s own merchandise feature above those? It’s a massive problem to fix, but we’re getting there.”
Hemmings flies the flag for experimentation as part of all this, noting that the success of Run The Jewels’ online marketing campaigns created a challenge: the band’s team “had no sense of where the sides were” in terms of campaigns not working.
“We deliberately started running ads going more and more out-there in targeting, and eventually an ad campaign failed,” he says.
“It was a celebration! Finally we know where the limit is: ‘This audience does not respond’. We’ve defined a parameter of when to stop. So sometimes failure is more instructive than success: it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“If you’ve put tons of money and lost it all, of course it is a bad thing. But we test things in a limited capacity: a little A/B test to understand if there’s an appetite or profit for this, then go in. ‘We’ve spent £100, we’ve made you £1,500 back, clearly there’s extremely good ROI, so now we should spend another £1,000 and we can make you £10,000 back.”
Artist control of their marketing budgets is key to this, and it’s control that has fuelled Hemmings’ criticism of Spotify in recent years, although he is keen to stress that he wants to be a constructive critic, and that he likes and respects many of the people working at the streaming service – his former Motive Unknown colleague Lucy Blair is now part of Spotify’s artist and label services team, for example.
And yet: “But what I have a big problem with is the control. Mark Mulligan wrote it: Wall Street needs a narrative, and that narrative has to be ‘We don’t own the content, but we own the access to it, and the editorial stance we’ve taken nurtures that’. It’s just not good, is it?” he says.
As one example, Hemmings cites Spotify’s announcement recently that it had generated $40m in ticket sales in 2017 through its Fans First initiative, which offers pre-sales for concerts through targeted mailouts to the keenest fans of artists.
“It’s another example of Spotify doing something that, frankly, bands should be doing themselves. And then selling it back to the bands as a benefit, as if it’s something the band couldn’t achieve without a relatively-small effort themselves,” he says.
“There are platforms out there to help bands sell directly to their fans through their own websites. Spotify does it dressed up as ‘fans first’, but you’re still a platform inserting yourself between the band and its fans. And you’re not opening up that data.”
Hemmings compares Spotify to platforms like YouTube and Facebook, suggesting that the latter two make it far easier for music marketers to understand how their spending is paying off.
“I can see what the cost was to actually have a view of a video on YouTube. I can tell you how long people watched for. I can even tell you what they went on to watch afterwards. It’s a very crisp sense of how people have interacted with this whole thing,” he says.
“Spotify? I can’t tell you anything. It’s the equivalent of driving somebody up to the front door of a stranger’s house and dropping them off. I know I took them there, but I don’t know what they did. For the data that Spotify makes available, none of it is particularly actionable, and it doesn’t give us a true sense of value, in terms of activity.”
There’s more. Hemmings thinks Spotify feels more like the mainstream music retailers of yore – the HMVs and Tower Records – than the independent record shops he used to frequent.
“I’m aware of the monstrous irony of this statement, but if Spotify is like HMV, it’s YouTube Music that feels to me like your brilliant indie shop,” he says.
“There’s this article by Rolling Stone about 30 legendary hip-hop albums that you can’t find on Spotify. But every single one of them is on YouTube Music, because someone has taken it upon themselves to upload it.”
“Maybe that’s not a fair comparison: UGC versus Spotify. But when you tug at the thread, oh my god! Demos, live performances, mixtapes… Mixtape culture died when streaming music came in: the proper C90s you’d buy under the desk at Mr Bongo. But these things defined entire movements!”
“Mixtape culture in New York became so massive that it birthed stars. And these things live on YouTube Music. It’s got that chaotic democracy, and that’s what I wish Spotify still had. It had it at the start, where anyone could curate a playlist and people could find it. Those days are now gone, and it’s a very clear attempt to wrest control away.”
YouTube as a plucky independent record store to Spotify’s HMV? That’s something that’ll make a fair few people choke on their tea, but Hemmings thinks the culture of YouTube has something that Spotify is lacking.
“How limited a service is it, if everything is just curated by the people in-house? You don’t bring the variety or chaos in. YouTube is absolutely chaotic, and that’s why kids love it: anyone can rise up and be a figure on there,” he says.
“It’s become a primordial soup of popular culture, and as long as that’s absent from a platform like Spotify, we have a problem. It can’t be my service of choice.”