September 14, 2012 at 11:41 am

A Changing Music Industry Calls for Unconventional Marketing and Promotion

The music industry’s troubles are well documented, hinging on contradictory realities: Music is too free to be expensive and too expensive to be free.

People no longer spend money on music automatically, so promoting it is arguably more important than ever. One approach is to try to “turn your band into a virus.” Let’s take a look at three other proven ways to promote music: merchandise, apps, and location.

Functional Merchandise

Some artists find that fans are more keen to buy “merch” than music. Solution? Pair the music content. I wrote previously about the Playbutton wearable pin, which contains an entire album, but the T-shirt you might pin one of those to has also become a music delivery platform of sorts.

Inspired by its musician founder running out of T-shirts but still having CDs left over after a tour, R-Evolution makes QR-coded shirts that bundle a digital album along with the apparel, and it’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter.

The Music Tee

Then there’s the Music Tee, already sold by artists like The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, Mos Def, Santigold and Miike Snow. This one features artwork on the front, track names on the back, and a download code for the complete album on the hang tag. Any branded T-shirt is always already promoting something — indeed, it’s amazing, the number of unpaid walking billboards that can be found on any city street, and in this case, the product is the promotion. After they use the code from the label and download the album, T-shirt clad fans are effectively promoting the artist just by getting dressed in the morning.

Meanwhile, Beck made waves by releasing his album as a collection of sheet music called Song Reader, which can’t be pirated as something audible. These songs won’t be released until December anyway, but when they are, various renditions of them will be posted on Beck’s site. The point isn’t so much that Beck has invented a new method that will apply to other artist, but he’s certainly getting a lot of press for this stunt, and it’s also interesting from an artistic standpoint.

Apps

the wombats turntable

This Turntable.fm room is pretty empty now, but it was teeming with fans on September 11 when The Wombats had their listneing party.

Countless artists have released artist apps ranging from cookie cutter ones to truly unique ones, including albums that are apps in and of themselves. The most famous of these was Björk’s Biophilia, which housed ten song apps. Passion Pit also created a beautiful album app with an interactive mode. And now Lady Gaga, who also jumped on the Playbutton bandwagon, is planning an album app for her new album ARTPOP that also looks to be a cut above, from early reporting.

One criticism of digital music has been that the visual element that was once key to the album (think back to those dusty records and the elegant album artwork that accompanied them) has been lost. But as this approach becomes more widespread, artist and album apps could make those old record sleeves pale by comparison. Furthermore, these apps can function as promotional platforms to sell even more stuff.

Then, there’s The Wombats. This UK-based band held a listening party not on their site, or via NPR, which has premiered new albums from bigger names like Wilco, R.E.M., and St. Vincent. Instead, the Wombats went with Turntable.fm, which puts group listening rooms on the web, iOS, and Android. It may not be as cool as it was last year, but people still use it — and it is capable of pulling off a group-listening party like the one The Wombats were after. It would be interesting to see the effects of hosting online listening parties on more popular social media platforms, like Spotify, which could potentially attract non-fans too.

Location, Location, Location

the xx coexist sharingYou can’t download a T-shirt (yet?). You also can’t download a physical location, offering a different set of promotional opportunities. The xx generated plenty of buzz for its latest album, Coexist, by releasing a free stream to one single fan in London. Just one person.

From there, the fan shared the site with others, eventually crashing the site with millions of streams. This would have been impressive enough, but the band also tracked streamers by location, so we could watch as the site spread across the world (screenshot to the left). An old-school promotional tactic, word-of-mouth, takes on new resonance with the incredible speeds in today’s world of instant communication, and people paid attention — lots of it.

Bluebrain's CentralPark App

Even Bob Dylan has been getting in on this action. As the popularity of Foursquare and geo-caching shows, millions of people are willing to be in certain spots to activate rewards and “own” places. The same can work with music promotion. Bob Dylan’s Sound Graffiti allowed fans to unlock prelease songs from his upcoming album by standing in specific spots on the globe. Meanwhile, Bluebrain’s National Mall and Central Park apps drew lots of attention by changing the music itself based on where the listener was standing within those locations.

What To Do?

So if you’re in a band, or are trying to promote one, especially one nobody’s heard of, what are you supposed to do with this information? Perhaps the most important lesson here is that a crazy breadth of options exists for promoting music with physical stuff, interactive apps, and locations, to name just a few new angles. If we knew one answer that would apply to every band, we’d probably go into business selling it, but from what we can tell, no such answer exists. There are probably as many ideas for promoting music as there are bands.

The point is to try something new. At the very least, the technology press will write about it (in what might be called the “Radiohead” effect), which should at least get people talking about your band. Regardless of what newfangled promotional technique is used, it’s up to the music to seal the deal, as always.