D2C panel at Sandbox Summit
Photo: Vitalij Sidorovic

Finding new and deeper ways to connect with fans, understand what they want and then providing it is the lifeblood of the modern music industry.

A panel on direct-to-consumer (D2C) strategies at Music Ally’s recent Sandbox Summit explored some of the trends.

“We need as an industry to own that direct relationship with a fan – ultimately other services are a point between artist and fans,” said Jason Rothery, senior director, e-commerce international at Warner Music Group.

He also said that D2C is ultimately about selling artists and artist brands. “The fan journey is more about satisfaction and service more than anything.”

Rothery talked about some of the innovations in merch that WMG has been exploring with its artists.

“Using Snapchat lenses for try-on or a gated/exclusive area is another good way to do it – everything we do is in the attention economy,” he said, before giving an example from his pre-WMG days working at Universal Music Group.

“The truly personalised shopping experience is what I’m interested in – we did ‘[YOUR NAME] and the Bottlemen t-shirts’ and that’s where we’re going. Using the social community via a poll to find out what they want.”

He also warned the industry against giving up on NFTs, despite the backlash that swiftly followed the initial wave of hype around digital collectibles.

“The NFT excitement was too early – a lot needs working out by the tech industry partners to create the mainstream demand,” he said. “If NFTs become more user friendly it may work out. Virtual merch is a much more exciting space.”

Dan Minchom, MD of Ochre, said that D2C is an area for artists and labels to invest in that pays off in the longer term.

“The way it provides a route to the audience is important,” he said. “Build your own platforms and relationships that can be taken across future campaigns. Control is important.”

Minchom also warned against the perils of thinking that one D2C platform will be your entire strategy when working for an artist: it’s more about creating a unique setup using various partners and platforms.

He praised Bandcamp – “a platform where there’s a huge amount of sales and interaction between fans and artists” – and said that recurring subscriptions are a model which may not yet have been fully exploited.

“Recurring subscriptions are interesting: building a really tight knit community of people that are receiving things every quarter,” he said. “The scarcity drives the whole thing.”

He also warned against short-term thinking that could see a D2C campaign backfire on an artist.

“Make sure everything you’re doing is respectful to the audience and fans and maintain the relationship rather than exploiting them for the big week one impact,” said Minchom.

He also still sees potential in NFTs, as long as they are deployed in a way that is genuinely useful and appealing to fans.

“Tokenisation as a way of linking physical and digital purchases, and linking that to virtual spaces, is an interesting part.”

Aileen Crowley, partner at Lark42, noted that “all music is funded by fans, and artists are the true platform”. When she looks at how to engage with those fans, direct-to-fan strategies are key.

“40% of Gen-Z wish that artists would offer more merch,” she said, adding that there may be a gap in the market to help provide this. “There’s a real opportunity to have a go-to direct-to-fan platform: a Spotify for direct-to-fan.”

Crowley said that fans should not be seen as merely passive buyers of products, but as co-creators. “Bringing fans into the creative process is important.”

However, on NFTs she suggested that there may be other priorities for many artists rather than jumping straight to non-fungibles.

“Get Web 1 and Web 2.0 right first for the artist – before you move onto web3!”

Finally Rachael Scarsbrook, general manager of e-commerce and marketing at BSI Merch, returned to the theme of D2C as a relationship between artists and fans.

“Hone in on the platforms that will add value to your campaign,” she advised. “It’s less about the platform and more about the journey from the artist to the fan.”

On that score, she advised the separation of e-commerce and social media – “so that you can nurture them in one place and sell in another” – and cited Fred again.. as an artist whose team is doing things well.

“You can only shop the special drops on the Fred again.. website if you’re part of the discord community, and you can only join the Discord when a membership window opens,” said Scarsbrook.

She also advised placing an equal focus on “items that have campaign longevity like a simple logo t-shirt” and on the needs of superfans, before delivering the final verdict on NFTs from this panel.

“I don’t think we’ve learned how NFTs are accessible to the everyperson,” she said. “A lot of bands don’t really know how they can work for them. I am still sceptical.”

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