While virtually all industries under the umbrella of arts and culture have undergone seismic shifts in the past decade, it is the music industry, perhaps, that has undergone the most drastic transformation, beginning with one game-changing program: Napster. The emergence of online piracy and streaming services that have disrupted the traditional idea of “record sales” has meant that revenue streams in music have shifted to concert tickets, merchandising and licensing. Paradoxically, the very object at the center of all music projects has become difficult to monetize, while concert tickets and licensing have come to make up most of the pie.
For this reason, a musician’s brand needs to be developed as an aesthetic or an idea that goes beyond the basis of a physical record; as something that needs to be experienced live. If a record is successful, everyone will stream the songs on Spotify. The label, management and artist can squabble over the crumbs (a stream pays out a small fraction of a penny), or they can set their sights on the real prize: a sold-out tour and a well-stocked merch table. If the artist is just starting out, they can generate interest through guerrilla branding, in-house artwork and a lively social media feed (hopefully some good music as well). If a band has found some success on their own terms and wants to maintain and grow their audience, a well-executed, unconventional marketing campaign will have an immense impact.
Example: Sleep Well Beast
Last summer, indie mainstays The National launched a comprehensive marketing campaign ahead of their album Sleep Well Beast. The cryptic visual ads were adorned a slick barn-shaped logo resembling the Hudson Valley studio where the album was recorded. The band commissioned a huge mural in Shoreditch with lyrics from the record – the day I die where will we be? –and video billboards that ran in Times Square, London and Copenhagen leading up to the release. Aesthetically, every piece of the campaign was consistent, well-placed and immediately recognizable. Due to the campaign, many fans were familiar and infatuated with the designs on the merchandise before they even saw it. Good branding can sell a lot of hoodies and tote bags.
Hiring a small, flexible design studio along the lines of Cosmic Design to launch your project into the public eye and garner some interest might make the difference between juggling your day job and becoming a professional musician, just don’t watch the record sales, watch the ticket numbers. This approach may put an intense amount of pressure on the musicians to come up with a great live show, but in the end, there’s no better promotional tool than an incredible, real-life experience. Think about how much of a difference it makes when you see a band for the first time and they deliver something really special – you dive into the back catalogue, buy a shirt, tell your friends.
The music industry in 2018 is less reliant on the record as its primary revenue stream. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different. It can be a struggle for bands to make a living, and selling your songs to ads and TV shows has less of a stigma, the ecosystem of the musical economy is opening up and adapting, don’t let your passion wither; let it blossom.