On Gaining Visibility Through Grooveshark: Mike Masnick vs. Bruce Houghton
Mike Masnick of Techdirt examines a case study of a band building it's fanbase in collaboration with Grooveshark; and Bruce Houghton of Hypebot question's the ethical quagmire of taking that path to success.
MIKE MASNICK: One of the things that we've found odd about the decade and a half history of the legacy entertainment industry seeking (often successfully) to shut down a variety of new platforms, is that if you actually looked at the artists who didn't completely freak out at these new services and who recognized what the new services were (better platforms for distribution and promotion, rather than the end of all civilization and culture as we know it), you quickly find that, if done right, the platforms could be used to those artists' advantage. We saw artists use the original Napster to their advantage, only to see it shut down. Ditto for MP3.com, Grokster, Kazaa, Limewire, Megaupload and more. Plenty of artists have discussed how incredibly useful The Pirate Bay has been as a platform for distribution and promotion.
Now, admittedly, many of these companies and services were shut down for some form of copyright infringement or inducement to infringement. So, you can argue that they were illegal. But if we went back even further, we saw the same complaints against many other platforms including the radio, cable TV, the VCR, the DVR, the MP3 player and online video services like YouTube. And yet, every one of those has survived, and they have turned out to be very important parts of the market. In fact, you can look and see how each of those helped expand and grow markets, even as they were decried as being tools of infringement when they first came on the scene.
This is why I'm so fascinated by the artists who are the early adopters — who jump onto these platforms in the early days and show how they can be used to the artist's own advantage. Because it's through those people that we learn how these platforms, be they tools of infringement or not, can quite possibly help artists much more than hurt them — if those artists learn to use the tools correctly.
All of that is prelude to this case study, concerning a band called Quiet Company that teamed up to take part in Grooveshark's new Artist Development project, in which Grooveshark would see if it could help "break a band" via the internet. Grooveshark, of course, is a company that is currently being sued by a large chunk of the recording industry for its music player. In talking to various artists about it– even those who often are more willing to experiment with new platforms — I've seen many artists really dislike Grooveshark. But, clearly, it has built up a giant, loyal and engaged user-base. And, as always, it seems that, if done right, artists could embrace that to a positive effect, which is appears to be what happened with Quiet Company. First up, if you'd like to hear some of their music, you can click the widget below:
I spoke to Quiet Company's manager, who told me that the band was being courted by various record labels, but they quickly realized that they were getting offered deals that weren't the most "artist friendly," and that they had no desire to work with a record label unless they knew that the band was the one with the leverage. So, when Grooveshark approached them, noting that Quiet Company seemed to be doing quite well on Grooveshark, and that they wanted to try to help "break" the band online, the band thought it was a great idea. In terms of what Grooveshark did for the band, it included promoting the band more heavily within Grooveshark and in other places, promoting YouTube videos (more on that below), promoting tours with "tour skins" in locations where the band was heading, highlighting releases, doing promos, contests and the like. They also did some more traditional promotions work, including pushing college radio and festivals, while also finding brand sponsors.
There are a number of interesting tidbits in the case study looking at an entire year or so in which Grooveshark worked to help Quiet Company. One thing that's important to note, of course, is that the band didn't just rely on Grooveshark, but worked to use Grooveshark in combination with other platforms to get attention. Grooveshark seemed to drive steady growth in part by using its own tools to help drive growth elsewhere, such as YouTube. Take a look, for example, at the following timeline:
You can see that there's a massive spike coming when YouTube engagement ads ran. Those ads are something that Grooveshark launched last year, to help promote artists, and it looks like that clearly had a pretty big impact. The "ads" ask Grooveshark users to view a portion of a music video to get to use the rest of the site ad free for a period of time, and that massively increased the YouTube views for the band. The timing did also coincide with last year's SXSW Music, where the band played (and got significant press attention — Time, NPR Music, Billboard — which certainly helped), but the band says that Grooveshark was instrumental in getting the necessary exposure.
Furthermore, a closer look at Grooveshark promotions, shows that they also impacted things like visits to the website and Facebook likes.
But, perhaps more importantly, the end result of this experiment was that the band started making more money with a much broader, international fanbase. The band had a popular following, locally in Texas, where it was from, but had much less support as they got further from home. On Facebook and YouTube, the "top cities" were all in Texas. However, that changed drastically, leading to the ability to tour more widely. After the partnership, rather than just cities in Texas, they had big followings (via Facebook) in Bogota, Sao Paulo and Barcelona, among many other places. The top countries for followers if you looked at YouTube and Facebook included not just the US, but the UK, Canada, Germany, Brazil and Spain. The band is getting ready to perform outside the US for the first time.
And, not surprisingly, with a broader fan base, their touring revenue shot up as well.
All in all, it's an interesting case study of a band that had a loyal local following, but hadn't "broken." Then it embraced a platform like Grooveshark and to see if it helped or hurt the band. It certainly seems like the band is in a much better position after working with Grooveshark than before. Even if you make the case that their success had nothing to do with Grooveshark, but was due to other factors, it certainly doesn't look like working with Grooveshark harmed the band, as some would imply.
In talking to the band's manager, he repeatedly pointed out that the exposure from Grooveshark made all the difference in the world, and took the band from having a loyal and devoted local following to a band that really had a big following in many places around the globe. He pointed out that the key, in his mind, was that this was a promotional platform, with the focus being on building up a fanbase who loved the music, and to then tour to make money to support that. When asked if there were any "lessons learned" or regrets, the one thing he noted is that they should have been better prepared to go out on tour as soon as things started to break. He felt that they could have done a bit more if they were ready to tour more widely earlier last year.
Something else really interesting came out of the case study and the discussion: after all of this, Quiet Company actually got a private investment from a group of fans to continue what they're doing. That is, rather than signing with a record label, a huge fan actually approached the band and asked them about investing in them, and set up a deal (with a few other fans) that is better than a record deal in that it's very artist friendly. Quiet Company's manager told me that this fan has been a big supporter of the band for a long time — often buying a bunch of tickets to their shows and just giving them out to a bunch of her friends, and they were pleasantly surprised when that turned into her investing directly in the band.
Separately, he notes that the band believes strongly that this kind of thing was a result of the band really working hard to connect closely with their fans, and that with this greater exposure, it lets them try to do that on a larger scale.
This isn't, of course, to say that every artist should automatically jump on board with Grooveshark. It's just yet another case study in a growing list that shows that where artists carefully and smartly construct a broad strategy that leverages various tools to help promote and distribute their works, combined with connecting with the fans, they can have really compelling success stories. Even as some decry those platforms for claimed copyright infringement, it seems like these platforms can be helpful in doing the most important thing: building a fanbase. And, from there, the band needs to work to connect with that fanbase, and give them ways to support the band. It would be great if, rather than attacking such platforms over and over again, we spent more time like this, looking at ways that artists can use various platforms to their own advantage to succeed.
BRUCE HOUGHTON: As Mike correctly points out, musicians can benefit from early involvement with technology companies. Zoe Keating grew her fanbase and became a tech media star during the early days of Twitter. Amanda Palmer validated her direct to fan strategy with a $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign, and the media frenzy that followed carried her all the way to the TED stage with global thought leaders hanging on every word.
But, what Mike failed to emphasize is that tech startup that indie band Quiet Company embraced is quite different from Twitter or Kickstarter. For more than two years, Grooveshark has used the courts to effectively shield itself from properly compensating most of the artists, labels and other rightsholders for the music it streams. As part if it's legal campaign, Grooveshark even filed suit against a blogger who published unflattering comments about the company.
I also agree with Mike's assertion that that the music industry should embrace rather fight new technologies. It's also clear that current laws often make innovation difficult, and that rightsholders often place unreasonable financial burdens on music startups.
Crossing The Line
But there has to be a line that we don't cross. If I told Quiet Company that they could build their fanbase by working with a company that stole musical instruments from working musicians, would that be an acceptable path to success?