Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Random Facts On The Future Of Music (Unconference)

I went to The Unconference for the first time this year. It is part of Live At Leeds and brings industry type people from all levels together to tell yocals like you and I what is really going on. It was a very well organised day, with some genuinely interesting insights across the board.

There were parts on the state of the music industry as one gigantic monolith, looking at sales and trends. Some were very direct suggestions to bands starting out and how to attract the attention of labels, radio and fans.

I came out of it feeling naïve, if anything. I guess, because I’ve been so immersed in DIY, I had almost forgotten what a huge business music still is. The absolute bottom line for bands out there is that you have to work incredibly hard, more so than ever. And you need to be smart – the future isn’t just playing chords on a guitar, not if you want to make this your living. I highly recommend going next year.

Anyway, I didn’t take a notepad and there was free beer too, so my memory isn’t excellent. But here are a random selection of points that stuck in my head for you to digest as you see fit.

- In the last ten years, globally, physical sales have halved. The rise of digital sales has gone someway to covering that shortfall, but not completely. In real terms, that means that in the last ten years five million people have effectively stopped buying music.

- CD sales still account for 57% of all music sales in the UK.

- Although it may seem like a complete nonsense, Facebook likes and Twitter followers are important to record labels and radio pluggers. Although people like Alan Raw at BBC Introducing plays what he likes, when those he champions are passed onto the likes of Radio 1 & 6, they use social networks to make a snap judgement on your popularity. Is it worth them playing you if you have 69 followers and no Twitter account? Although you may see it as a necessary evil, the industry sees it as a legitimate measurement of your popularity.

- However, do not for a second consider buying friends or followers. The worth of having them is that they are true fans - that is the whole point, if you are then to exploit / use those likes to develop your career further.

- The physical package is no longer the product. It is the experience of being a fan, and this is why social media is seen as so important.

- Couple of social media tips. 1) It is the best way to interact with and grow your fan base. Give it as much time as you can. Consider it part of your ‘job’ 2) Interact, don't just preach. If all you say is "Buy my record" it won't work. 3) Reward loyalty 4) Don't talk about music all the time. As in, the technical aspects. Most people don't care about the make of guitar, or the EQ on a recording, or some fancy chord. Talk about things people can relate to; influences, the meaning behind songs etc. 5) the official stat is that any post you do on Facebook, 10-15% of your followers will see it. At the most. So if you want 50 people at your gig, a guide would be to have 500 fans.

- If you dream of being a completely self sufficient band that can tour the UK in a van, the suggested guideline would be 50,000 Facebook likes, according to the label experts. So clearly just getting your friends to like your page is not going to work. How do you get more followers? At the most basic level, you have to be interesting - in what you post and what you do as a band. If you are always gigging, it will come naturally. If you play gigs in new places, if you get press off the back of it, they will grow. You need to be creative in your content creation.

- Do not pay radio pluggers to promote a release, unless part of a larger plan. Radio comes towards the end of a promotional campaign. It won’t work as a short cut.

- Some suggested that releasing records was a bad idea. It is akin to putting all your eggs in one basket. If you self release, or use a small label to, then that is a definitive statement. In May 2013 you released an EP. That sounds good now, but that has a finite lifetime. If you are releasing an EP the following year in the exact same way, does that suggest the first was a failure? If you are a band that is five years old and has released three albums and is still playing the local toilet venue circuit, does that tell the industry something it could otherwise waste thousands of pounds finding out - that you haven't got what it takes?

- There are loads of rubbish bands. There are loads of good bands. There are plenty of very good bands. The industry doesn't care about them. They only want great bands. Are you great?

- There was a listening panel that rated bands demos (bands that were in the audience). The majority of the advice seemed to be; you sound like so and so band. Get in touch with their manager, press agency etc Be like them as much as you can.

- More than ever, an audience can see through bullshit. You should bare this in mind when conducting your publicity. Of course, don't be boring, but do not have your photo taken in a moodily lit warehouse, or industrial landscape. Unless you happen to live there. If you think how much of an obvious cliché that is to you and I, imagine how many of those photos label bosses see. But above all, be honest and 'real'. Then your audience will connect with you (see social networking again).

- Spotify may seem huge now but it's not. Streaming is the future though. In ten years, downloads will seem pointless - they are a middle ground between physical and digital that will disappear. Quality physical products will survive though.

- World wide, of the top 10% of music buyers, the average spend is just £10 (or it might have been dollars). So if you spend more than £10 a month you are a big time music fan. The reason streaming subscriptions have not gone through the roof is clear from this stat. If you don’t spend more than £10 anyway, why would you sign up for free music for that fee? (the cost of Spotify)

- Spotify has a large turnover of users. A surprisingly large amount of people given free music, walk away. 22 million songs for free and they still go elsewhere... A good analogy for Spotify was that they are like a Trawler with their nets out, trying to grab every piece of music they can. They throw back anything that isn’t big enough. They aren’t bothered about over-fishing either, and the long term damage. Remember, the goal of Spotify is to get as big as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to sell their business to a major player (iTunes / Amazon) for a vast fee. That is their only endgame.

- Despite this, artists and record labels need to accept the streaming future and their main consideration should be how to be better than free.

- There is a large hole in the middle of the record industry. Due to accessibility improvements, small record labels are able to survive and adapt well. Large scale players still make money from physical sales and unlike most, are able to make money from streaming. The hole is the mid-level sized labels. Those that previously existed have either been swallowed up by the majors, or failed to adapt to the new industry. New ones don't emerge because small labels no longer make enough money to grow, and it is so apparent there is no money in the industry that very few are willing to fork out 100k as a start up. The net result is a greater gulf between small and large, one that is becoming harder and harder to jump - and often only possible with the helping hand of a major. So they still have the control, despite the digital revolution.

- Creating / selling an experience should also figure in your live shows. Hope & Social talked about creating a mythology. Part of this is making every gig an event. It can be highly detrimental to your career prospects to play the same venues, or type of venues, over and over again. The likelihood of getting new fans is low and the chances are you will lose fans through tedium. There has never been a better time to put on DIY gigs and experiment. As they said, if you do an exciting gig in an unusual place, you won't need to promote yourself endlessly on social media. People will talk about you without you trying. That is the ultimate goal.

- Record labels of the future will be more like production houses. The future of albums as one-off statements is supposedly in the past. In the digital age, an album will be a living thing, probably closest to what we now see as an app. It will still have a release date, but things will be added to it later on. Press cuttings, extra tracks, demos, session, photos, live videos. The technology exists to do that now, but the slow take up is down to the structure of larger labels. They likely don’t own the lyrics - the publishers have that. And the photos are copyright to someone else. It's all separate. A smart label starting up now will sign an artist not just to release their music, but to do everything; tours, merch, promotional photos and videos, side projects, lyrics etc. This likely happens with smaller labels already, albeit in an unofficial capacity. This is a way that smaller setups can get the jump on the majors, but you really want to get good mates with someone hot with coding and web design.

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