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The final day of Music Ally’s Sandbox Summit Global online conference had a practical focus on music marketing, with two panels of experts offering their advice.

First was a ‘tips from the top’ session picking the brains of Sarah Ismail (regional marketing director, Greater China and South East Asia, Warner Music Group), Negla Abdela (head of digital marketing, Ministry of Sound Recordings) and Jordan Moran (director, digital marketing, Primary Wave).

sarah ismail

Sarah Ismail

– Before you create, consume. “Every other week, we find out and discover new platforms, new advertising channels, new apps that are gaining traction or just super-cool,” she said. “Before you create a campaign around a new platform, get in there, try everything. Familiarise yourself with the platform… get to know its kinks, get to know its risks before trying to exploit it.”

– Be mindful of knowledge crossover. “It’s enough to run things by your colleagues: they may know the same thing you do. Run it by people who are likely able to spot different things, and look at things from a generally different perspective.” For example tapping your network of friends outside the music industry.

– Know more than just the artist. “Knowing everything about the artist or the product is still not enough. Knowledge of current affairs, culture, language, must inform our work,” she said. “Having a greater understand of the market or the region you want to focus on… will be very helpful in what you do.”

– Emails don’t sell. “When you pitch your ideas to your boss, your colleagues, your client, always know that emails don’t sell great ideas. We are all not blessed with the ability to convey our enthusiasm in something of a gloriously lucid prose… Your best ideas need the best of you to get traction. Bring on the colourful decks, bring on the dramatic pauses, the whole nine yards basically!”

– Know when to quit and move on. “One of the most destructive ways that we let our emotions override logic is the sunk cost fallacy,” said Ismail. “When we continue a behaviour or a project as a result of previously invested resources… time, money, effort. For some reason, we are eager to go down with the sinking ship… Never be afraid to change your mind, admit that a campaign is not working – because it happens, and it happens a lot of times! – and scrap it, reset, restart. Quit and move on!”

negla abdela

Negla Abdela

– Be inquisitive. “Digital marketing is definitely the kind of role where you’re constantly learning, and the digital landscape is constantly evolving and changing,” said Abdela. So, research trends, look at what other industries are doing besides music “and then you can figure out how or what are relevant to your campaigns”.

– Look for ways to do things differently. “It’s easy to just copy and paste campaign ideas that have been successful in the past for other artists, but try to be more bespoke in your campaigns,” she said. “Going with your gut and listening to your instincts. Go with what you feel more than what you think… your instincts sometimes know best.”

– Read the data. “Analytics are your best friend,” she said. “Use the data to track your social media audience growth, see how many followers you’re gaining over a period of time, and more importantly where those followers are coming from.” Also track how your content is performing, and the engagement (or lack of it). “Use the data to try to figure out why!”

– Be flexible. “Especially during lockdown!” she said. “It’s being able to use the data and the information available to you to adapt your strategy as and when needed. And be ready to pivot… during lockdown it was something we had to be quite open to doing, especially in the first month or so of working from home.” So be prepared to change your strategy when needed, and “even when things are going well, I always have a Plan B.”

– Take a break. “Try to use some time to rest and recharge, because the more energised you are the better you are going to be at campaign planning,” said Abdela. Fuel your creativity offline too: “Get out of the house, get off of the laptop,” she advised. “If you leave your surroundings you can find a lot of inspiration outside music.” She also recommended connecting with other creatives to bounce ideas off. “And be playful. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the day to day work of it, we forget the fun in being playful,” she said. “It helps put yourself in the mind of the user as well.”

jordan moran

Jordan Moran

– Remember that Rome was not built in a day. “To me, that means that you have to go brick by brick by brick to build your empire. That can be confusing in a world where surprise album drops or limited edition merch or TikTok challenges are spiralling all over the place,” said Moran. “I still have to tell myself, Rome wasn’t built in a day, you have to just do what you can, and build and build and build, and then you’ll have your empire!”

– Do nothing alone, advised Moran, who as a twin has plenty of life experience on this front. “There’s power in numbers! Two are better than one,” he said. “Do nothing alone. If there’s someone else who can bring an expertise to the table that I don’t have, why not embrace it? It’s just going to make my job and my project better.”

– Don’t shy away from new innovations. “If we go with the same marketing strategy, the same canned campaigns for every release, things get stale, right?” he said. “You shoud be open to new innovations, new apps, new technologies, new digital partners, whoever it is. Be open to what’s out here, and be ready for what’s out there that you’re used to to maybe go away! TikTok can be here today, it can be gone tomorrow…”

– Go with your gut. “I’m someone who loves a good rabbit trail, and it is very important to go down those rabbit trails, explore, but sometimes you could have the answer right under your nose. So just remember to listen to your heart, listen to your gut. You know which way to go: the right decision to make!”

– Have fun. “We’re marketers, guys! We’re not brain surgeons, although I’m sure brain surgeons really enjoy their jobs and have a great time doing it,” said Moran. “We’re marketers: it’s supposed to be fun! I think we should breath really positive energy and fun energy into our work, and I think that comes across to that customer on the other side who’s receiving what we’re giving them… If you’re cooking dinner and you’re angry, the food’s not going to taste good! Put some love into it…”

final panel

The second session was an ‘Ask the Experts’ panel chaired by Music Ally’s Patrick Ross featuring Margaret Jacobi Lee (director of marketing, AMFM); Adel Hattem (CEO, D Music Marketing); and Johannes Scholz (marketing manager, IRRSINN).

They were answering questions submitted by Music Ally readers and Sandbox Summit Global attendees about music marketing in 2020, and some of the dilemmas they face. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

Authenticity and niche marketing

“The long term effect of the [Covid-19] pandemic in this digital space is a shift that we’ve already started to see with younger generations, leaning more towards authenticity, and artists being more creative in terms of sharing their brand, and niche marketing,” said Lee.

Platforms like TikTok “really highlight niche marketing opportunities, and there’s all these little sub-groups and communities of people that might resonate with your artist”.

Hattem agreed, and suggested that the lockdown livestreaming boom has played to the strengths of some artists. “Definitely artists have become more personable. The ones that have shared footage and done interviews form their homes, and people have been able to look a little bit inside their words: it’s brought the audience closer to the artists,” she said.

Lee added that the lockdown has meant “artists have started to think of their overall brand more… the fact that they love nature or they promote peace, or they have these other brand aspects to their personality that are really sticky for their audience”.

Artists can’t do it all themselves

It’s true that an artist can go live on Instagram to chat and/or perform to fans from their home, and that this raw connection can be powerful. But it doesn’t mean traditional marketing is unnecessary.

“The thing that we have to do is try to make it look good! Because it’s not just about ‘okay, I’ll go live’… you have to come up with the story, and this is probably still up to the marketer,” said Scholz.

“They can tell their own story, but we are using local channels to expand that story, and we’re combining traditional marketing with non-traditional marketing,” said Hattem.

“The role that we play in telling this and expanding this message is really about an extension of their message to go wider. I feel they need us to elaborate that message, or perhaps to reach people they haven’t reached organically. To find those new audiences and connect those dots.”

“Marketing is storytelling, planning, and looking at the audience,” agreed Lee. “Artists have these particular channels where they might easily communicate, but that’s just one avenue. What we want to do is amplify that story across channels… the role of marketers in this economy is really finding ways to amplify that story and create new channels of connecting with it for the audience.”

Marketing isn’t just about the successful elements

“Marketing is just really hard to quantify… there are so many things that you need to tee up for a successful marketing campaign and a marketing strategy, and oftentimes you’ll maybe send through 10 ideas and two of them will actually happen,” said Lee.

“That doesn’t change the fact that those 10 ideas you dedicate the same amount of work for, whether it’s pitching in front of the artist or trying to figure out if it would be successful.”

“All you hear about is the one campaign that did so great. But what about the 20 things behind that campaign that were supporting it, or the 50 ideas that got canned because they didn’t make sense for X, Y or Z reason?”

Don’t let your experience be underestimated

Music marketers can be at the sharp end of work crunches, with (as Lee pointed out) “this sense that there’s three people behind you who would happily have your job”. But she counselled against underestimating the value of experience.

“In a lot of situations you’re paying the person for their experience. They can do something in 30 minutes because they’ve worked for five years to be effective in 30 minutes!”

Be honest when a campaign isn’t working

If a marketing campaign is sinking, the panel agreed that it’s important to be honest and if necessary blunt with artists and managers about any decision to cut it off or change tack.

Scholz said that explaining as much about what’s happening as possible, right from the start of a campaign, is helpful if things run into the mud later. And in that situation: “It’s also super important to be 100% clear that it’s not about the belief in general, it’s just about this situation or this single release.”

Lee agreed. “In this situation, you just have to be clear about the goals, what is your goal in continuing to push this campaign? Do you realistically think that’s going to move the needle?” she said.

“If you want to dump some YouTube ad spends to boost the view-count on the video and sell cheap views in certain territories [you can] but is the goal just to get view-count up and have numbers that seemingly look good? Or is the goal to continue a narrative that’s going to get fans behind your artist and continuing to engage? And if that’s the case, you need to think about new content or ways to reformat the story and move on.”

“If your goal is just to create numbers, well, everybody can buy those, but how real are they?” added Hattem.

Labels don’t want to run an artist’s socials

To a question about whether a label should ever be in charge of an artist’s social media profiles, the panel turned it around, and suggested that labels would push back on the idea rather than request it.

“If the label’s trying to run the artist’s socials, it’s not going to work from my opinion. It gets super-stiff and it doesn’t feel organic to the fans,” said Scholz. [As a label] “I would rather focus on talking to the artist or the management and talking about how important it is. And if the artist is not willing to do so, I would basically say it is up to the management to do that.”

“I don’t know many labels that actually want to run artists’ social media channels! It feels like a lot of extra work for them, and not necessarily at the service of the artist,” said Lee.

“I feel like if I was at a label and management came to me saying ‘will you make our social media for us?’ I would say: Well, what is your story? That is a very base foundational point, so I would be very concerned as a label if somebody was coming to me like that.”

Don’t go global too quickly with a new artist

How soon should the marketing around an emerging artist spread into other territories, and how should you pick which ones to target? In this case, the panel suggested caution.

“They should really start where they are physically, or try and gauge where their genre fits in as well,” said Hattem, although she also recommended thinking about the ‘trigger cities‘ of the world where popularity can “help move algorithms” on streaming services.

“But if there’s limited budget, a limited timespan of investment, growing one market well will help the real growth later elsewhere,” she said.

“You need to develop where you are, look for the patterns, for what’s working with your core audience and how do you expand that core audience?” agreed Lee.

“That’s when it’s realty good to get deeper into analytics to see who are they, where are they, what ages are they, and how do we find audiences that are similar to that audience to promote discovery to them?” she added.

“If you are over-indexing on Spotify in Brazil maybe you think about serving some ads there specifically to cater to that audience. But if you don’t have that data, I would focus on your core audience.”

You probably can’t polish a turd

The panel were asked for their tips on running marketing for something that is low quality (or a “turd” as Ross put it). Scholz pointed out that turd-dom is in the eye of the beholder.

“What is actually a turd? What I consider a turd could be a hit! You probably have to find out by releasing and then let the numbers speak for itself. But as soon as you realise it’s not going to work, almost all the money in the world will not help to polish that turd.”

Final tips

“Listen to the audience, and be curious. Being curious, being open minded, being flexible, all those things… We may have a lot of experience in years, but we’re always learning something new, and the world’s moving very fast,” said Hattem. “Don’t pretend you know everything, because you really don’t… and be humble.”

“Don’t spend too much money at the beginning of the campaign. It sounds super-easy, but it happens so often, and then you can’t do anything at the end when you need the money. Don’t spend too much money on your first video and stuff like that,” warned Scholz.

Lee agreed with that, and extended it. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t think that just this one thing that you’re doing is going to make it successful. Try to think of five things that you’re doing to back it up to make it successful,” she said.

“Focus on story, strategy and audience. Take time to look at your audience, what they might want and need. Plan your strategy around that. How are you reaching them? What are the contact points? What is the content you’re creating? And tell your story accordingly.”

Music Ally’s next Learn Live webinar will help you understand what’s required for artists to thrive in new international markets!

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Stuart Dredge

Music Ally's Head of Insight

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