Music

SXSW 2010: But Can It Be Monetized?

Jayson Harsin
Photo: Daniel Boczarski

After five days of sun, beer, panel discussions and performances from sun up 'til sun up, what have we learned? Brand yourself, exploit social media, and make some music once in a while.

I first attended SXSW in 1998, what some consider to be its heyday. However, even then my first trip was nearly soured ahead of time by criticisms that it was a corporate affair and not about independent music (and therefore not “authentic” at all). I found that to be only partly true then; and it's only partly true now. As long as bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Fucked Up are playing, it's still at least partly about music above all else, for artists and fans, and not completely about making money, for artists, labels, promoters and marketers. Besides, the conference side is arguably useful for people who see music as a business.

Digitize and Monetize Me, or The Battle of Digital Asskicking

I attended four industry panels during my four days in Austin. Though different in title, all shared the same industry obsession: getting consumers hooked into habits of encountering music, the label, third party marketers, sponsors and supposedly the artists that want to access them all via new social media. In other words, “How can I monetize that?” Monetization is the elusive panacea, or so it seems.

One panel was on the convergence of music and TV online, another was on music and social networking, a third was on the future of music videos, and the last was on whether artists were getting screwed by digitization. I previously blogged about the first three, so let me focus on the latter one, which mostly remixed themes of the first three.

On the last day of the conference I attended the “Artists: Are They Getting a Digital Asskicking?” panel. No one bothered addressing the question directly. Instead, they all obliquely answered by sharing anecdotes about digital tools, successes and failures.

As anyone following or listening to music is now aware, artists, labels and third party marketers have digital “tool kits” to manage their activities in their part of the industry. Almost all of them use Twitter and Facebook. Some frequently use YouTube. Artists, such as Suzanne Vega, in addition, use PingFM as well as their own websites and blogs. “Twitter is great for little bits of information,” Vega shared, “while I use my blog to go more in depth”.

Not using each new digital tool for every communication need should be obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to write a political editorial on Twitter or a letter to a friend in a Facebook comment. But I guess there are people who don’t understand this point.

New artists, and sometimes DIY-ish promoters, would ask how to get attention or how to “monetize” attention, and the refrain from the industry was always “there is no one size fits all”. You have to figure out who your audience is and tailor to them. While many of the marketers also repeat ad nauseum that you have to know who you are and be able to say it with confidence, some also insisted that you need to be flexible and remember that who you are is not always who you were and thus not what fan base/demographic you had. Furthermore, “Keep it simple, stupid,” was 5B Artist Management Jason John’s mantra. But also, “You should see what other artists similar to you have done, but determine what’s right for you”. At this point in the circumlocution I thought to myself, “and you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile….And you may ask yourself…Well, how did I get here?” Who am I?

The digital asskickers appeared divided about the role of branding in marketing and advertising. Third party marketers, such as bigMethod's Greg Cargill, emphasize the importance affiliating with a brand and its dynamics. “Paris Hilton says her brand is her face”, Suzanne Vega shared, “but in my case my voice is my brand, and then my name”. She elaborated that when people hear her they know it’s her, and when they see her name printed they know what music it’s associated with, but no one knows what she looks like.

Still, others cringe at the very word. Steve Yegelwel of S-Curve Records (think Fountains of Wayne) insisted that music can't be a brand, and if it is, something is wrong. “Products are all the same, and a brand distinguishes between them. Music is not like that. Music itself is what distinguishes itself” he argued. Branders would certainly smile when they hear that. Of course music distinguishes itself, but the question remains how do you get people to check out music that is somehow different? You have to transform it symbolically through branding, images and words. Or what, you just walk around blasting music at people and follow it by the band’s name?

Despite the occasional insistence that music is not like all other products, the digital asskickers’ chorus was representative of those I had heard from the industry, and those outside the industry, all week.

The conventional wisdom we’re told is that digital consumers are “prosumers”. They like to help produce parts of the commodity fetish they eventually consume. Is there an upcoming album release for a band potential consumers might very well like, eventually buy, or hear performed in concert? Get them to make their own video about it.

Yegelwel cited a band who was playing a post-Major League Baseball game concert in Tampa, Florida. To market it, they asked fans to create a video about their town and enter it into a contest before the concert. The ploy was very successful, he said, and attending the concert was like celebrating the home team.

Suzanne Vega mentioned how at a recent concert she asked before intermission for audience members to tweet her. After her set break she would choose one to read to the crowd. Once people started yelling,” what if we don’t have Twitter?” she invited them to do it the old fashioned way and throw wads of papers onstage. Though she only received three tweets at intermission, the next day she had lots of new Twitter followers.

I thought it was exceedingly telling -- or just troublingly ironic -- that the panel itself was provocatively entitled “Artists: Are They Getting a Digital Ass-Kicking?” but only featured one artist on the entire panel. (It was also only half-sincere since Vega is also a columnist for the New York Times now and seems to be the industry’s go-to artist-panelist). Perhaps that tells you where artists really stand on the issue.

Nonetheless all the panelists emphasized how important the internet and its analytics are today and the wonders of knowing much more about one’s audience and much faster. At the same time, all relentless monitoring, surveillance, number crunching, communication, marketing and branding leaves one to wonder when artists will have the time to create their music. At this point I was dying to hear Fugazi or Fucked Up discuss the delicate balance between advertising and marketing themselves, however haphazardly, and making a living without compromising their product. I mean art.

For those unsigned artists who want to make money, those fledgling promoters and marketers who want to learn how to produce attention and “monetize” it, and those in the industry and the legal professions, there is much to gain and appreciate from the conference side of things. But truth be told, I found myself easily getting queasy at the cocksure ramblings (even when they were trying to say something was unpredictable) of the people behind the theory and analysis of commoditizing music.

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