Why So Many Musicians Get Digital So Very Wrong

1Here Amber Horsburgh delves into the issues behind common industry misconceptions surrounding digital strategy, and the danger of simply treating digital as a communication channel, as well as the importance of understanding and taking full advantage the marketing opportunity digital provides.


Guest post by Amber HorsburghVP of Strategy at Downtown Records.

I get asked “what’s the digital plan?” a lot in my job doing strategy at a record label. It usually comes when a music video is finished and handed over to the label to promote it. Every time I hear the question, I’m reminded about how limited our approach to digital strategy can be in music marketing because “what’s the digital plan?” actually means “how will you get streams/views/downloads of this thing?” as in using digital as a communications channel.

In the instance of a music video, the video is created in the same way it would be for MTV, to play in retail stores, in the back of cabs, on an in-flight entertainment system, or on a billboard and when it is made for digital it is for YouTube or VEVO so the viewing experience is the same as the scenarios listed above only it’s shittier because the viewer is watching it on a much smaller mobile screen and probably with the sound off (in the case of Facebook).

When we treat digital as a communications channel then we miss the point entirely.

Digital is a set of listening and viewing expectations, user behaviors, purchasing habits, and trust threshold between an artist and fan/potential new fan. Technology gives artists and marketers tools to create art, entertain and educate people with music. There is a huge opportunity to use technology in the digital environment past just a communications channel to make really creative and effective work.

This is what I learned from a few campaigns where we looked at digital as an opportunity.

Digital tools

When we look beyond the core competency of a platform and play with how people use it, their expectations, what they don’t know about it, and see the platform as a sum of tools to build off of then magic happens. Here’s a few examples of what I mean.

Facebook Live as a loop pedal

Instead of using Facebook Live as a live video recording, we used the lag you get between the video picture and audio (the kind that makes conference calls really awkward) to create a looped version of a song. The band performs for a Facebook Live feed that’s then projected behind them. They manage to sync up and perform with the same delayed feed a few seconds later, and as the song progresses it gets more complex with instrumentation, rhythms, and melodies.

At the peak of the live stream there were 319 people watching (when you take out the label, management, publicist and other interested parties you can probs reduce that number to well under 300). Where the magic was in the video edit 4 days after the event, which hit 1 million views in 3 days.Uber surge pricing as a play button

We tied the release of a song to Uber surge prices in LA. Why? Because the song was about LA playing itself, so we aimed to get the entire city of LA to play the song, “LA Plays Itself”. The way we did it was made the song only available when traffic prices surged in LA building off Uber’s open API, turning a negative of heinous LA traffic to a positive with new music.

Chrome’s Incognito mode as a passcode

To hide tickets and vinyl on Goldroom’s site, we created a backstage version of the .com that could only be accessed through Incognito mode making two entirely different versions of the site thus surprising incognito lurkers with free goods.

Image1Source: AdWeek

In these scenarios, the technology of Facebook Live, Uber surge prices, and Google Chrome’s incognito mode are digital tools that bring a creative idea to life. The technology is used in novel ways that challenge people’s understanding of the platforms and when the technology and the idea are in sync it makes the execution all the more compelling for the end user.

Digital ideas

Digital ideas are no different from other ideas but the definition of an idea varies so greatly in music marketing. Ideas are almost always presented as an execution, i.e.: a music video, retargeting campaign, mini documentary, social unlock and email capture initiative. These are all mechanics, the container to which the idea lives in, not the actual idea. So when we go straight for the container then… it’s just a container. Profound, huh?! 

I won’t explain in this post what an idea is because much smarter people have done already like Mark Pollard who wrote an essay on explaining ideas or Ben Phillips who proposed a framework for building social ideas. I recommend bookmarking both.

But, I do think it’s important to build on their definitions for the music industry. This is what boxes need to be checked when building digital ideas. 

  • What is the listening experience? The product we’re selling is music, so the idea should leave the consumer eager to hear more.
  • How does it work with the sound off? 85% of people watch Facebook videos with the sound off. If you’re selling music to people not listening visuals need to make up the difference.
  • What’s the tweet? In order to travel, digital ideas need to be shareable.
  • How will consumers convert to fans? A plan to move people discovering the artist for the first time to the priority marketing message.
  • What channels are we using? The set of digital tools that contains the idea.

Back to the ‘LA Plays Itself’ example through the filter of a digital idea.

The idea was to get the city of LA to play the song “LA Plays Itself” from YACHT’s forthcoming album. Traffic, as something that binds all Los Angelenos together, was used as the metric for activity so when it was busy and there was more traffic the song would play. 

  • What is the listening experience? People access music videos for the original song when prices surge or a remix when prices hit 2x.
  • How does it work with the sound off? Link to the microsite that tracks surge prices and a tweetbot with traffic updates from band’s account.
  • What’s the tweet? Band hacks Uber’s API to release new song.
  • How will consumers convert to fans? Album pre-order call-to-action on the microsite.
  • What channels are we using? Uber API to track traffic in LA, YouTube for music video hosting, Twitter for bot that sends LA traffic updates from band account, and microsite to house the idea. 

Digital spread of information

“Share” is the single most important metric on digital because the news cycle relies on what’s trending. In many other scenarios, a killer publicist gets placement across media ahead of the story but online journalists look for social proof from user-generated communities like Reddit and YouTube charts before committing, especially when you’re working with emerging acts.

With the Live Looper video, we started by pitching publications the video premiere with the top target being Mashable (who quickly passed). The biggest breakthrough was when it trended on Reddit hitting #1 on r/videos and #10 on the homepage, which threw 300,000 views at the video in 6 hours. Here’s where it gets interesting. As it starts trending, a Mashable writer sees it and posts on the site, an article that has been shared 80,000 times now giving credit to Reddit… not the press release. From here, other publications jumped on the story like NME fueling the news cycle until we ended up on cable TV.

This is when we changed the press strategy and the excellent press team jumped on follow-ups to music sites to propel the momentum.

The spread of information is fast, there’s 24 hours to light a story on fire before it starts to die and social proof is the kindling. Put it online, get people sharing it, have publicists do follow-ups showing success to individual writers on social.

Digital gatekeepers

The set of gatekeepers to blow a track up widens online. The most influential sources were not who is traditionally considered ahead of a release. 

When 9gag posted the video it shot from #42 trending on YouTube to #6, when Philip Defranco posted the link on his daily show a bunch of new comments flooded in thanking him for helping them discover a great new band, when YouTube added it to New Music This Week and Indie Hotlist playlists another 100,000 views were added in an hour, and music press outlets posted once Mashable did.

Meaning YouTubers, meme sites, community forums, YouTube playlists, and non-music press outlets contributed most significantly to the artist discovery. Many of these sources rarely enter the media discussion in the planning phase however, community forums can be seeded, YouTube playlists can be pitched as with YouTubers and meme sites. This is exactly what I’ll be doing adding to the long list of widely known gatekeepers like Spotify and Apple playlist curators, radio, music supervisors, and music critics.

Digital speed

From an operations stance, you need your team to be set up for when digital ideas take off. We’re fortunate because project management, social media, and strategy sit in the same room but when you’re team is spread everywhere it is important to be ready pour gas on an idea.

I’ve written about how to configure a social media war room to optimize activity of real time events

Amber Horsburgh is the VP of Strategy at Downtown Records. Subscribe to her newsletter, Deep Cuts, for more music strategy.

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