2014: Writing Roundup

With the new year started, I wanted to take the opportunity to round up my writing over 2014, and to update you on what’s been going on – and what’s coming.

The last quarter was exciting for us over at Heroic. We released our first album, the debut of Ark Patrol, titled Voyager. A true passion project that took months to make. It was ambitious and a first for us, however we were happy to see it well received. The single ‘Never’ hit #29 in the iTunes charts US.

Writing wise, the year could have been more fruitful. I tackled major topics such as copyright, publishing, streaming and our label’s business model – but in terms of quantity, I’m not satisfied. I need to write more.

2015 will be the year to make this happen. The most productive year to date. Many projects are in the works, including a new updated version of The Soundcloud Bible. More details soon.

 

Digital Music News

The Indie Guide to Music Copyright and Publishing (February 28, 2014)

Soundcloud is Adapting… Are You? (May 25, 2014)

Monetized Streaming is the Future (September 8, 2014)

The Unsigned Guide

Get Fans By Giving Away Content (January 28, 2014)

Dotted Music

Untapped Potential: Alternative Income Streams for Musicians (April 12, 2014)

ReverbNation

Musicians: Work Like A Pro To Become A Pro (April 19, 2014)

EDM.com

An interview with Matt Handley, A&R of Sweat It Out and half of Yolanda Be Cool (July 7th, 2014)

BudiVoogt.com

Running An Independent Label: A Year In Review (October 28, 2014)

Books That Changed My View On The Music Industry (December 17, 2014)

 

 

Books that changed my view on the music industry

books

I love to read.

Really, I love it.

It hasn’t always been like this though. Like most people, I used to be reluctant to pick up a book and read… I considered it boring, plus, there’s the internet.

Yet I have always been a voracious consumer of information. About two years ago my reading habit started, when a number of bloggers that I follow collectively recommended the same books. I had to give it a shot – and to my surprise was immediately sold. What stuck with me was the depth of information of a good book, and that when it related to a subject that I was truly interested in, the applicability of it was a goldmine. Since then I’ve been reading increasingly more, now averaging about 3-4 books a month.

There’s something magical about paper books. They’re tangible, making it’s contents feel so much more real than if you read it on the web. For me at least, that’s how it works. And if you purchase books to own, then you can make notes, highlight and draw in them – turning it into personalized copies, emphasizing in whatever volume what is most essential to you. Over time, if you’re consistent, you’ll build your own library, a catalog of knowledge and inspiration.

Reading has been crucial to my development and learning. I can safely say that I’ve learned more from all the books I’ve purchased myself over the course of these two years, than from the whole of my business administration bachelor at university. The big difference here is in the field of scope of the content; all the books I read are about subjects I am highly interested in, often recommended, and always thoroughly researched – which makes me motivated to actually sit down and read, yet also makes most of it very actionable. A prescribed university curriculum not so much.

 

I’m a firm believer that anyone can master almost any subject, if enough time is put in. Studying the right resources and books can greatly speed up this process. That brings us to the music industry.

There’s a number of books that have really shifted my perspective on the music industry and my role as an artist manager. In this article I outline the key lessons from a number of these, hopefully leaving you with actionable advice – and a trigger to start reading yourself.

You know what they say… knowledge is power.

 

When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead – Jerry Weintraub

A memoir by the legendary agent, movie producer and old school hustler – Jerry Weintraub. He managed and promoted acts including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Led Zeppelin. Later in his life he started his own Hollywood movie studio, which failed, however recovered by becoming an esteemed movie producer – creating classics such as The Karate Kid, Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12.

He starts his book by telling about his roots, being a young boy of Jewish descent living in the Bronx. At fourteen he had started his first business, delivering dry cleaned clothes from the dry cleaner to the client and back. He tells of his father, who was a gem dealer, and how he had taught him the skill of selling.

This is illustrated by the most powerful story:

Jerry’s father, Sam, was a hardworking Jewish gem dealer. He bought his gems from newly arriving Irish immigrants that needed money, and traveled to places like India to purchase them for a cheaper price. Back in the US, he would travel from small town to small town, trying to sell the stones to jewelers. This was a tough job and often he struggled making a living.

One day, his father came up with an idea. He traveled to India and purchased the largest sapphire that he could find. A bold and beautiful blue gem, which he polished to perfection. A big investment, that he intended to recoup quickly. He also acquired a suitcase and set of handcuffs. The stone was to be the most reputed stone in the states, and he named it ‘The Star of Arbadan’. Starting then, whenever he would travel to a town to sell stones, he would arrange for a small security team to accompany him, and tip off the local press of the prized stone’s arrival.

This created demand. Suddenly, jewelers and gem dealers were lining up to see his goods – particularly The Star. He arranged for groups of them to come and observe the stone in his hotel room, where together with the star he displayed his other goods. Upon arrival, he would tell a magnificent tale about the star – creating mystique and an exotic aura around it. All his gems sold, except for the star, which was not for sale. He brought it along to the next town, to again create a story and sell his goods.

This taught young Jerry an important lesson. That the art of selling is in creating perceived value, in packaging, in the story. People don’t buy the object, they buy the story. The better the product or service you’re trying to sell, the stronger the story that you can create around it.

 

Trust Me, I’m Lying – Ryan Holiday

Ryan is absolutely among my favorite contemporary writers. He’s a growth hacker whom at 27 years old has published three books, was the apprentice of Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws Of Power, and marketing director for American Apparel. He runs a marketing firm and has masterminded many eccentric marketing and hype campaigns, helping books land on the NYT bestseller list and creating widespread acknowledgement of his clients.

In ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’, Ryan outlines the dynamics of the modern media landscape, explaining its flaws and the opportunities these present to media manipulators such as himself.

He explains the history of the newspaper, which came to rise at the beginning of the 19th century, in a format known as the ‘party press’. These were newspapers that were issued by political parties, on a mandatory monthly subscription that counted as a sort of patronage. The content was highly subjective and aligned to the party’s goals.

Later, with the rise of the printing press, more newspapers came to sprout, of which many were sold on the streets by newspaper boys. With the speed of this new manufacturing process and the soaring competition, the news really became what we now know as the news. It had to be information that was current, quickly gathered, and the papers that had the most revelatory and juiciest headlines were the one that sold the best on the street. Outcries of the newspaper boys were what drove sales – making the content sensationalist, not so much good objective journalism.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the famous New York Times newspaper became published by Adolph Ochs. He was the first to start selling newspaper subscriptions with the new technology of the telephone, creating a solid reader base that read the newspaper because it delivered good, objective news of high journalistic standards. The NYT thrived and many competitors followed, ushering a period where many newspapers competed on quality of content.

Today, the media landscape is very different. The internet is the fastest way to spread information, and news now travels up and down the chain from local blogs, to bigger blogs, online publications, and radio / TV stations. Everybody can participate. The standards for ‘what makes the news’ have lowered.

The reason for this is because the business model is different. Where newspapers used to generate revenues from single purchases and subscriptions, blogs and online publications work very differently. Their income results from advertisements which they place on their site. The price for these advertisements is determined by the amount of ‘impressions’ that the site can generate. The more an ad is seen, the higher the price. As a result, online publications are incentivized to generate as many page views and visitors as possible.

Now this sounds harmless, but in practice it poses huge problems. Because of the need for page views, many of the publishers and owners have gravitated to a certain ‘code of quality’ for content, that determines whether content is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on the amount of views an article can generate. This means that something outrageous such as ‘Barack Obama plays dubstep set’ would likely generate more views, and thus be considered a better article, than a true and insightful – but less sensationalist – article. It even leads to many bloggers and writers of these publications being paid by the amount of page views their posts generate, so they’re financially incentivized to water down their content.

The standards for referencing have also changed. In academic circles, you’d need to quote trustworthy scientific sources or research in order to make claims about facts. But on the internet, often a link to another site suffices to make something look ‘credible’. This leads to the ‘link culture’, where one site would base a story upon that of another, even though the journalistic standard for writing the original post could have been horrible. All this, together with the need to post very rapidly – as news spreads insanely fast over the net, and the outlet that gets the ‘scoop’ on a subject usually attracts the most views, leads to a culture where many writers are encouraged to drop high journalistic standards.

For a real life example of these dynamics, one doesn’t need to look further than the satirical and fictitious news site Wunderground. Those of you in the EDM scene likely know them. They thrive on posting funny, yet often slanderous articles about head-turning subjects such as world renowned DJs. Surely, you’ve seen some of your more ignorant friends post their articles on their Facebook feed, where they weren’t able to see through their obviously absurd claims. Funny – yes – but it has very real implications. The fact that these posts are being shared just proves how little is necessary to generate the spread of information, and the spread of these articles often reach real – ‘newsworthy’ – blogs and sites. The impact is real. So real that Steve Aoki actually sued Wunderground.

Ryan’s book was a true eye-opener to me, as it shows the realities of the landscape we work in as music industry professionals. It presents a ton of opportunities, but also realities that you’d better be aware of. It’s helped us better work our media game, that’s for sure.

There’s a ton of other books which have inspired me, which I’ll share more of in a future post.

If you liked these strategies and would like to know more, you should check out my book ‘The Soundcloud Bible‘. It’s a guide for dominating the Soundcloud game, both from a practical perspective – but also teaching some killer grand strategies.

Running An Independent Label: A Year In Review

The label

More than a year and a half ago we started Heroic Recordings, our label slash artist agency.

It started as a way to release the music we loved and artists we worked with. I was managing a few acts back then, all of whom were experimental in sound and yet unestablished. We experienced a hard time getting them signed to bigger labels, specifically majors. They wanted them to conform their sound to what they saw as the commercially acceptable format – whereas we had signed these acts with the conviction that their unique sound and style was exactly what could make them successful. Launching our own label to prove this point was the logical step, and so Heroic Recordings was born.

From the launch till now, it’s progressed from being a side-project while finishing our studies, to a full-time endeavor. We’ve put out music of over 15 artists, issued over 30 releases (including singles and EPs), are doing management for a selected few that we truly believe in, and have just launched a division called Heroic Audio, where we source our creative talents to create audio for films, advertisements and other commercial purposes. Also, we’ve just acquired our first sublabel - Rockforce Records - to become our outlet for bass heavy music.

In the last few months, our growth has gone from steady to exponential. The cumulative effect of our latest successful releases by San Holo and Ducked Ape have resulted in a snowball effect of social growth. It’s been a thrill to experience, and beautiful to see how momentum converts into sales and fans, allowing one strong release to support another. The growth we’ve realized in the past two months would have literally taken us over a year when we just started out.

 

The stats

Our Soundcloud has just hit 10.000 followers, Facebook is approaching 3.000 and Twitter just surpassed the 1.000. These aren’t huge numbers, but are built fully organically, and with it is coming strong fan-interaction. We’re seeing bigger responses to our releases, more fan submissions, more demos and more brand recognition than ever, particularly locally. To give you some insight into these statistics, look at the graphs below.


ToneDen.IO extract of our social statistics over the past 12 months. Notice how our Soundcloud following has grown over 4.000 followers in this past months, almost doubling the size of our total. Twitter follower growth of the past month nearly over 15% of our total followers.

Facebook insights extract from our label page, from it’s inception to now. Notice the peaks of growth in the top graph, which coincide with events such as releases and remix competitions. Total page likes growing at increasing rate.

 

Soundcloud extract of our label page, covering the last 12 months. Notice the 60k plays in September, accounting for over 35% of the plays in the total year.

We are fully aware that these numbers bleak in comparison to what the superstar DJs and artists have. But this growth is convincing enough to solidify our belief that we can build this out into something that can last. A platform to establish artists, create opportunities and someday rank amongst the likes of Mad Decent, Fool’s Gold, Inspected, Soulection and the other indies we look up to.

I didn’t put these numbers here to brag, but rather as a segue into the core of this article. As over the course of bringing this label to life, we have discovered lessons and strategies that really worked in our favor. We took a moment to reflect upon these with our crew, and have distilled the essential ones out for you. Some are universal truths, others very specific findings, but the majority are insights that can be beneficial to not just label owners, artists and industry professionals – but almost everyone in a creative field.

 

Quality attracts quality

When listening to our earliest releases there is a huge difference to what we are putting out today. The quality is uncomparable. The tracks have improved, the mix has improved, the masters sound better – but most importantly, our artists are on a whole new level.

This transition is the result of a gradual process.

“How do we find great artists and music… and get them to release with us?

That was the question we were asking ourselves at launch, like most start-up labels. We begun with a single act, Ducked Ape. Everyone that later joined us, we had discovered on the net – browsing on Soundcloud and YouTube for music that stood out to us. Getting new quality acts was tough… almost impossible. So we started building a roster of talented but unestablished acts – that made great music.

For every release we set out to raise the bar. Both for ourselves and our artists, on a musical and strategical level. We are very involved in the artistic process, as early as during the creation of tracks; we feedback compositions, arrangements and mixes. All of our mastering is done in-house, by our engineer Tim. In turn, we involve our artists in the creation of marketing strategies and outreach – communicating with them to figure out exactly which tastemakers, DJs, promoters and blogs they want their release to get out to.

This leads to a stronger catalog, which provides a stronger pitch to new talents we want to bring aboard. Quality attracts quality. Yet what we considered quality a year ago, isn’t even close to what we consider quality today.

 

The best is taken, not given

With the exposure of our latest releases, comes an influx of demo submissions.

We have an email address and demo form on our website, and we check everything that comes in. Sure – not every track gets an attentive four minute listen, but we flip through it all in the search for something that stands out.

On an average week about 30 demos come in, yet:

We have never released an original that was received by demo submission.

Not a single one. The only submissions we’ve accepted have been the winners of remix competitions that we hosted.

Every original that we put out, every artist that we do management for, we are involved with because we reached out to them ourselves. Only recently have we received a demo submission that was up to our standards, but up till then every artist that we worked with, we found by prowling the web, looking in our close environment or via friend recommendation.

The universal lesson here is that until you reach a certain threshold, you will have to actively reach out and fight to work with the people you want to work with. If you’re starting out, the best aren’t going to come to you – no, you need to be eager, show them you want to do business, whether those are labels, artists, or whomever else. Then once that threshold is reached – you’ll see that better qualified parties start coming to you out of their own initiative.

 

Working with artists that have a clear vision

Our business model goes beyond that of a regular record label. We release music, but then exceed that by offering management, booking and publishing services to the artists that stand out to us.

I have been managing artists for four years, some of whom I still work with, like Ducked Ape, however other relationships have failed. For a plethora of reasons, such as a disconnect between their goals as artists and mine as a manager, developing different musical tastes, and levels of ambition just not matching up. I have worked with big egos, small egos, the talented but lazy and the talented and driven. Ducked Ape, my initial act, are the reason i got started in the music industry. They, just like myself, have gone from loving music – but being clueless about the business, to driven and goal oriented individuals.

Finding the right artists to work with has been quite the journey.

Three years ago, I was happy to expand, bringing artists under my umbrella that stood out to me musically. I was eager to learn, eager to work, and eager to lose the dependency on my then only act – Ducked Ape. Those were the conditions on which I signed and work with acts… of course, screening for a fit in personalities, but never in the way that I do now. Four acts that I worked with turned out to not be the right match. All of these people have become good friends of mine, many still are, and I owe a lot to them – yet in retrospect, I would not have signed them today.

What my team and I found is this:

Great artists stand out with exceptional music and work ethic, but most of all – with vision.

Our artists that are experiencing most success, but also those around me in the industry, and that friends of mine work with, all have that one thing in common: VISION.

From knowing exactly how their music has to sound, to who should play it, to which artists to remix, what parties to play, how all visuals should look, all of it – is subject to that vision. For these artists, it serves as a filter and standard of quality control, for both themselves and everyone else.

This works, because once you have figured out exactly what you want, achieving it is a matter of moving towards that goal. For me, this trait in an artist, changes my job from ‘being the bad guy that forces you to do what you don’t want to do – and takes care of business’ to ‘facilitating and creating whatever opportunity to realize that vision’. The distinction here, is that in the first scenario, as has happened in the past, I am typically the one with the vision – not the artist. And that’s no recipe for success.

Regardless of whatever you do… producing music, running a label, or whatever else… ask yourself: Do you have a clear vision of what you want, how you want to get there, and what it will take? If not – go back to the drawing board.

 

Building a team – and the art of letting go

Much of the things that we’ve created, from the visual branding to our label, to the consistency in mastering, wouldn’t have been possible without the great team that we have.

Up till half a year ago, this consisted of Tim (our engineer, and one half of Ducked Ape), Frederik (our designer) and myself. Tim taking care for how everything sounds, Fred for how everything looks, and myself for strategy and marketing. Yet between managing multiple acts, running the label, writing this blog and rounding off university – I found all of my time taxed. We needed help.

In the past my experiences with interns had been bad. In the first year, two people had come aboard. They started out driven and enthusiastically, but over time this diminished – to the point where it made no sense to have them in the team. Part of this will have come because they wanted to work with us, mostly because they thought being with a label was cool, more so than an internal drive to develop themselves in the music industry. Another part will be because of my difficulty with delegating work to people, and giving them autonomy.

I remember clearly a dinner with an entrepreneurial group I’m a part of, and expressing how the scalability of our company was limited by our time. Upon which my friends stressed that I hire an intern – a good one. As part of the start-up culture, they had all been building businesses largely reliant on legions of interns, and thought that I should do the same. They were right. Within that week we put out an ad, and to our surprised received over 15 submissions – some from abroad, some local. One of them was a great match, Yiannis, who has now become a full-time part of our team – moving out to our city to work with us.

In that time we have changed the way we collaborate. Tim and Yiannis have become crucially involved in day to day operations, with each of us focusing on a separate aspect of the business; Yiannis covering bass sublabel Rockforce, Tim overseeing production house Heroic Audio and myself doing management, strategy and marketing. For every big project, we pull together and combine efforts – particularly for releases. This division of work has allowed me to gradually become better at delegating – particularly as we’re educating Yiannis, and what better way to learn, than by having him try and experience things himself? This realization really set this process in motion for me.

Finding a group of people with aligned visions, letting go of any conception that I could better do everything myself, and transparently working together to best use each other’s strengths, has changed our game.

 

Monetized streaming is the future

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

Monetized streaming is the future.

As we are largely focused on electronic music, we are likely ahead of this curve, but without any doubt, I can safely say that streaming will overtake downloading – shortly. When rounding off our latest quarter’s royalty statements, we found the following; 42% of income came in via Bandcamp, 29% via iTunes, 14% via Beatport and 13% via Spotify. This quarter, our Spotify income has already surpassed that of Beatport.

In terms of rates, with our current distribution deal, 170 Spotify streams bring in a $1 net royalty. And then there’s the YouTube monetization, which via our EdmDistrict network link amounts to 800 plays for a $1 net royalty. Soon, Soundcloud will also be added to that equation. Rates for that aren’t yet disclosed, but they’re rumored to become around that of the better YouTube networks – allowing us to both monetize the content on our channel, and use of it across the whole platform.

 

Free versus Paid

The ever lasting debate;

Whether to give music away for free, in exchange for social currency (followers and likes), or to sell it?

We’re always trying to find the right balance here.

There’s a lot to be said for exchanging free downloads for social currency, using content lockers. Tools like ToneDen.IO and Click.DJ now facilitate this for YouTube, Soundcloud, Twitter and Instagram, which in turn makes up for the loss of Facebook like-to-download apps. It helps content go viral, makes building social status easier, and expands reach.

But there’s value in music – and we have to make a living off running Heroic. As I explained in an earlier article, we typically distribute every release to all major online outlets, but also offer it for sale via our own Bandcamp. Here we don’t have to charge a ridiculous $2 for a track, but place a floor of $0,50 for every single – allowing our fans to pay more if they want.

With our latest releases, we’ve managed to find a nice equilibrium. The San Holo – COSMOS EP dropped with us two months ago, consisting of four tracks – two of which with single potential. A month before the release of the EP, we put out the single ‘Hiding (ft. The Nicholas)’ as a free download, which gathered a lot of traction and helped prime fans and targets for the upcoming EP. Later, when dropping the EP, we also gave out the remaining single ‘Fly’ as a free download. These helped spread the word about the release and were the prime drivers of it’s virality – yet the full EP was only for purchase via online retailers and our Bandcamp. In every upload description, we stated that the two singles were available for free download, but that people could support the artist by ‘paying what they wanted’ for the full EP.

The result?

Our highest grossing release to date. And simultaneously our most played.

This is a strategy we’re going to continue using in the future. People have said that the album is dead, and it’s true – but by spreading out the content, and finding a balance between free and paid, EPs and albums still make sense.

——

I hope these reflections are of use to you. For sure, they are to us.

And perhaps that’s the last thing I’ll add. Reflect, often, on whatever you do. Have a meeting? An important gig? Just put out your latest release? Reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and figure out how you can improve.

We are still amazed every day at how much there is still to learn. We’re better than yesterday, but nowhere near where we want to be.

If you are interested in learning many of the strategies that we used to grow our label and artists to this size, you should check out my book – The Soundcloud Bible.