Reflections From Youbloom: Part I : Artists Are Startups

This past weekend, Rupert Hine and I participated as panel members/advisors at the Youbloom conference in Dublin. We were of course joined by some great music industry vets like Dave Robinson, Nigel Grainge, Donal Scannell, Stuart Bailey, Alex Von Soos, Ralph Simon, and many more. Billed partially as...

A part of this youbloom@Dublin weekend is also to nurture this emerging new talent. With this in mind youbloom is hosting a music conference to be held in the College of Surgeons on Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th which is open to any musicians and members of the public wishing to attend. The conference will include panels, speed sessions and rountables with panelists. Roundtables will focus on songwriting, performance, social media, demo creation, and international marketplaces.

...there was a pretty good showing, but not good enough. *This conference should have been packed, because there is absolutely a need for this type of meet and greet in the music industry.  It became apparent to me, during my marketing one-on-one sessions and discussion panel, that many artists are feeling stuck, sometimes lost. All of them seem to be hung up in just about the same place, and almost all of them are having issues reaching their next level of success.

To put this in perspective, I was one of the founders of a successful Tech mixer in San Francisco, called SFWIN. It was a great opportunity to once a month hook up with other startup founders, tech professionals, VC/Angel investors, etc. One thing that we tech people kill at is networking. I've been going to tech mixers and conferences for almost 20 years, and I'm always amazed at the amount of connections and ideas built out of these events.

Since I came into the music business, I've found that musicians and other music professionals I've met often operate as if they were an island unto themselves. They all share the same issues and problems, and yet they don't do a very good job of connecting and sharing with each other. There's a serious lack of cooperation and collaboration on the business side of things. I had never really thought of it before Youbloom, but it dawned on me, as someone who has spent 20 years in emerging tech -  emerging artists are really just startups.

They have the same problems. 

I have a product (music), I struggle funding it (investors), I don't know where my revenue is going to come from (business model), I can't seem to find my fans/get more fans (users/customers) , I have trouble communicating/marketing my product (music), I don't want to go back to a real job (clock is ticking). 

It was remarkable to meet artist after artist, who almost always told me the exact same story about their career. As I asked similar questions of each band member or manager, I found that I almost always got the same answers, which to me was astonishing. Here's some of what I discovered. 

Artists Struggle With Communicating Their Identity 

One of the first things I asked each artist was to describe to me their music. You'd be amazed at how many artists struggled with this. Perhaps two or three answered me immediately, while others just kind of danced around the subject. I'd then ask, who do you sound like? Many artists don't want to be compared to anyone else, because of course they are all unique unto themselves. In some cases, when I asked this, it was as if I committed some artistic social faux pas and insulted them. While I understand that you feel you are unique unto the world, there are a number of issues I have: 

1. There's no one on the planet who hasn't put on a pair of headphones, closed their eyes, and been transported by a piece of music. Music's inherent intimacy is magical, and we often not only feel things when we hear it, we see things in our minds. It's that same emotional connection in hearing music that is creating music. You are trying to create something that connects with someone else. If you can't imagine that in your minds eye, you can't effectively build a fan base or a business around your music. 

You need to know who you are and what you are trying to express and then visualize how to bring that to your audience. Every step you make, from building a website to making T-shirts, has to stem from this visualization. Every word you verbalize comes from this. It's your narrative...your story. An author may not know where his story will take him, but sure as shit knows the core of the story, the germination from which it grows. Without this a writer has no path from which to begin the journey.

If you don't do this first and foremost, you aren't going to be able to connect with fans of your work. Fans want to be a part of what you are doing, they want a shared experience. If you can't communicate this, you will not succeed. 

2. If you can't describe your sound then you can't market your sound. You may believe your sound is like no other, but most music lovers aren't going to give you a listen if you can't intrigue them with a point of reference they understand. The best answer I got was one band member who without batting an eye said: "We're like Wilco meets Willie Nelson." Fucking A...that's a sound I can imagine and something I want to hear. 

The other reason this is so critical in today's music industry is that many of the new artists people discover is completely by chance. While I don't have the statistics for it I'm relatively certain that (judging from my own experiences), people are often looking for something else, and then stumble upon an artist by accident. But that "accident" isn't necessarily accidental. If you don't take the opportunity to get media like videos online and properly tag them or describe them well, you won't get discovered. You're simply posting things for your own echo chamber. 

BTW, if you want a great example of a guy doing the above right, knows who he is and everything comes from that wellspring, check out The White Buffalo

Most Artists Don't Understand How The Internet Works

1. Don't put all your eggs in one platform. I heard from a lot of artists who were predominantly using Facebook to build a fan base (because everyone else is), and quite often didn't have an effective website.

A website might seem "old school" in this day and age, but the importance of them cannot be overstated. Your website is your opportunity to help visually reflect who you are. It's your base of operations. It defines your brand. You control every aspect of it, not someone at Facebook. Also, platforms like Facebook are often walled gardens. They aren't indexed properly by outside sources, and they don't give you all the SEO (search engine optimization) control you need to get discovered. 

If I go to google and search for you and I find a link to Soundcloud, myspace, Facebook, etc., I'm not sure where to click first and I may be dissatisfied with what I find at the first link. If that happens, I may not go any further. Your website should be the first search return and the best source of what you are up to, or at least where to find that info.

A website also allows you to present who you are in a way that's not only familiar, but personable. It's your opportunity to invite people to explore all of the facets of who you are, not simply visiting a wall where you espouse on what you had for lunch on tour. Do not underestimate the power of having a well designed site, with social media aspects plugged into it.  

2. The above leads to understanding how to use online tools and strategies. Most artists I spoke with know how to do a web search, but they certainly don't understand the mechanics behind how it works. For example analytics, or knowing how to make sense of what's happening in your world. If you don't have a website, you likely don't have great analytics to understand how people are finding you, why they are finding you, and where they are coming from. If you don't use these tools or understand how they work, you won't likely spot trends that are affecting your career, nor will you be able to act on potential opportunities. There's a tremendous amount available to you in useful information and control over your career if you understand the basics of SEO, inbound links, bounce rates, trends, patterns, etc. 

3. Step outside the box. Not every video you post need be a musical one. Try posting things of a personable nature or some type of tip or trick. I've worked with people who like to throw the "viral" word around, as if everyone was able to do Gangham Style. In one instance I was able to show someone how a simple "Tip/Trick" post was able to generate more traffic (400,000+ uniques in 3 days), than they typically received in almost a year of organic traffic. Stop assuming your only value to a potential fan is your music. Last time I checked you were all people with your own perspectives and views on issues or ideas about how to do something. There are tons of videos with hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube on guitar tuning. I'm sure every artist has some tip on how to do something that people would love to discover and share. Stop being boring and start kicking some ass.      

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While I have other nuggets to dispense from my time in Dublin (Part II tomorrow), it's obvious that artists could stand to play fewer mixers and attend some. There is an absolute need for networking with their peers as well as industry vets, tech folks, and marketing people. This is something that's simply not as effective online as it is in person. Nothing can really replace those "in person" connections.  If I were Youbloom I'd double down on this next year, but before that I think many artists would be well served here in London by having a monthly mixer to exchange ideas as well as business cards. Stop thinking of yourselves as simply musicians, and start thinking of yourselves as startups. 

*Major props to every artists that showed up for the conference and stuck through it. It's obvious you were all very passionate about what you are doing and give a shit about making it. You show you care about not only your craft, but learning from others and that's a great sign! Keep at this and it will pay off.