Getting Noticed

May 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY MAUREEN DRONEY

Polls


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Fresh talent is what keeps the music industry vital and, ultimately, profitable. The paradox? There's more and more music being made, but fewer and fewer traditional ways for it to gain attention. Narrow radio formats, shrinking A&R departments, scarce label deals but lopsided label support in favor of “name” artists, limited tour support, less music on MTV, even a shortage of 'zines — it all adds up to the fact that today's artists have to work harder to get the word out about what they do.

A strong, creative vision is essential. Beyond that, a savvy understanding of new media and markets provides a leg up. Here, Mix checks in with some artists and music business entrepreneurs who are honing their vision, reaching the public and reaping the rewards.

BACK TO BASICS

Texas-based singer/songwriter Pat Green has been doing pretty well for himself. Literally. Although Green is now signed to Republic/Universal Records, he previously released six albums — self-produced and independently distributed — on his own Greenhorse imprint, and combined, they've sold over a quarter-million copies. At $8 to $15 a CD, coupled with touring, merchandising and sponsorships from Miller Beer and Justin Boots, Green was making a nice living for himself, his band and his family — without a major-label deal. In 2000, he grossed upward of $1 million. He was offered record deals in Nashville, but, as he says, “with a standard Nashville contract, I was going to lose money.”

It wasn't just about the money. As Green, who's been called a Texas version of Jimmy Buffett, told Pollstar in December 2002, “I wanted to be able to have autonomy over the creative side. With six records out before I ever signed, I had time to develop myself. We'd sold a lot of records on our own and were making plenty of money…I didn't want to have to change. When Republic came in and offered us everything that we wanted, I was overjoyed. It was a perfect situation for me.”

Although rooted in country, Green's music is, as he describes, “a fusion of all the things I grew up with, from The Doors to Stevie Wonder to Willie Nelson.” His independent streak and his reluctance to go the typical Nashville route meant borrowing $12,000 from family and friends to record his first album. After album two, he was still working for his stepfather's wholesale gasoline business, playing nightclubs and college parties on weekends. Students began buying the albums and word got out. It was on to college town bar gigs, and the long road up from there, until in 2002, between February and April, 180,000 fans showed up in concerts to see him headline, including a show at Billy Bob's, in Fort Worth, where 5,800 tickets sold out in 35 minutes.

We caught up with Green on his tour bus outside of Richmond, Va., in March, and asked if he'd always had a game plan. “We've just been in the right place at the right time,” he says, “to take what we've learned and expand and capitalize on it. When we were starting out, I couldn't get anybody from a label to look at me. Honestly, I'm glad about that. I was too young, and my songwriting wasn't up to snuff. It made me, and the people around me, figure out how to sell ourselves: how to get on radio, get a marketing plan and spend our own money to promote the records. We started selling so many records that when we finally signed a label deal, we had enough autonomy that, pretty much, nobody was going to be able to say, ‘This is what we expect out of your record,’ or, ‘These guys need to be in your band,’ or even, ‘This is how it needs to look.’” Taking his music from Texas, where he'd become a star, to a national market meant taking steps back, including playing to much smaller crowds. “You take your medicine,” he comments. “You want it so bad, you just keep working harder. In those smaller venues, you do better shows than you do in the big ones. And you make sure you get down in the crowd and shake their hands, buy them a beer, and say, ‘Come back and see us next time.’”

OUT OF NOWHERE

In March, the band Trapt topped Billboard's Heat Seeker charts, selling 12,000 CDs in a week. Their manager, Drake Sutton-Shearer of Zig Zag Communications, offered insight into the process that had gotten the band, described as “four guys who hang out and play music,” to a place where their eponymous Warner Bros. album generated a buzz.

“There were two years of marketing themselves [and two self-released albums] before they were signed,” Shearer explains, “then continuing to market themselves with the help of Warner Bros. Trapt was incredibly motivated, playing live in the San Jose [Calif.] area and creating hardcore fans via the Internet. They put up a site on iuma.com, where kids go to look for bands. Every night, [vocalist] Chris [Brown] was e-mailing back and forth with hundreds of kids from all over.”

Ultimately, it was on the strength of a four-song demo that Trapt, who has been called “compulsively original,” was signed. All involved were well aware of the commitment still required. “In this climate,” Shearer observes, “a baby band has to prove that it has a really reactive record before you're going to get the kind of investment you want from the record company. We had to make this record react any way we could: shows, the Internet, talking to people and, of course, radio.

“You sometimes, in this day and age, have to choose between the cost of touring and the cost of promoting to radio,” he continues. “We knew we had to get to radio, because Trapt isn't an ‘image’ band. The basis of this band is that they have great songs. We'd signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell. For touring, we initially turned to them, as well as to Warner Bros., to assist us. We also invested a significant portion of our own funds into the road. We decided to tour sporadically, to keep the band on their toes live, while, with Warner Bros., we put together a plan on the Internet that would create an awareness of the songs and the band's identity before going to radio.”

Trapt's Internet campaign included blasts to a weekly e-mail list of 10,000 fans, hundreds of Webzine reviews and interviews, winning a vote-for-your-favorite-artist promotion on Coke.com, an AOL/Sessions appearance, servicing the single “Headstrong” to AOL radio for worldwide streaming, 300,000 downloads of Trapt's Winamp “skin,” and the creation of Internet fan “E Teams” who helped spread the word. Also on the Website was a pop-up player, which fans could IM or e-mail to friends, containing songs and the band's live-at-the-Roxy video.

“We've had over 1.7 million unique visits to our player,” Drake asserts. “If all kids wanted was free music, I don't think we would have sold any records. Prior to the album release, we decided to offer for sale, online only, 2,000 signed CDs. That helped sell over 1,000 copies in a month — huge for a new artist with no retail presence. We also decided to offer the full album as a download at $7.99, something no one else was doing at the time.

“This whole Napster/KaZaA thing, people are fighting it, trying to protect their investment. But I think — more even than free music — kids like the convenience of being able to audition a song. In a matter of minutes, they can decide if they want to discover more about the artist. In a record store, they can't go to the counter and say, ‘Can you open these 50 CDs so I can listen to them?’

On the non-Internet fronts, there were retail in-stores, almost daily radio station acoustic visits and a focus on sports. Trapt performed at the Gravity Games, “Headstrong” was played on NHL broadcasts and at ESPN's Winter X Games (and also featured in the trailer for the Bruce Willis movie Tears of the Sun). “Street team” marketing was ongoing, including distribution of posters, stickers and song samplers, along with Red Bull-promoted student listening parties.

As the album was climbing Heat Seekers, touring attendance was up 400% from December, “Headstrong” was set to spin on both MTV 2 and MTV, and Trapt was booked to headline the Under the Radar tour. Momentum was building, and the band was working harder than ever.

“There's a lot of bad press about labels at the moment,” Shearer concludes. “I'd like to take a more positive position. We feel very fortunate to have, at Warner Bros., a passionate group of people who believed in this record from the start and who, from day one, have kept all of their promises. There's a lot right with the music industry, but bands today have to be willing to invest in themselves, even after they reach an agreement with a label.”

THE INTERNET'S WIDE REACH

It's not only AOL/TimeWarner artists who are featured in promotions on the online behemoth; AOL now has promotional agreements with approximately 90 record labels. According to Evan Harrison, executive director of music industry relations for AOL Music, his job is to “go out and acquire great content by working with labels, artist managers, lawyers and every facet of the business.”

“We want to make it easy for people to discover, experience and, ultimately, own music, regardless of the format they own it in,” he explains. “AOL is in 28 million households in America. A key factor is that these households pay a monthly bill, so they already have their credit card on file. With an audience that large, it didn't seem like a tough sell to convince record companies that we could create great programming. Where this is going… is to connect the dots to sales.”

Harrison's department has a team of four who work closely with labels to keep in touch with new music. “We sit down with the label and listen,” he continues. “We pick what we think will really resonate with our audience, starting up to six months before a record comes out. We write a complete marketing plan. For a group nobody's heard of yet, we have a program called AOL Breakers, where we take an interest very early on. We've done this for Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Carlton, The Used, Tattoo, Lucy Woodward, Miss Dynamite…

“One of the biggest challenges in the music business is to cut through the clutter. Not only are we very involved in the biggest records — like Britney Spears and Bruce Springsteen — but we can make a huge impact early on in an artist's career. We ask the label for access to the artist before anybody else at radio, TV or any other media. With Avril, for instance, we were playing the single on AOL with just a photo of her, before even some of the people at Arista had heard the song.”

An AOL Music marketing plan could include “First Listen” for new singles, “First View” for new videos and Sessions@AOL for live performances and interviews. Features on the AOL music channel include Artist Discovery Network, an area devoted to new music from major and independent labels, and “News, Tours and Ticketing,” which offers easy access to purchase concert tickets, merchandise and lyrics.

Most of AOL Music is barely two years old, yet its promotional value has already become equivalent to such traditional outlets as Saturday Night Live, with the model much the same. Labels pay for the logistics of providing the artist for interviews and shows, but don't pay AOL for the promotions, which are underwritten by sponsorships and by AOL as part of added value for its subscriptions.

Harrison, who prior to coming to AOL worked for BMG Entertainment, is highly optimistic about the AOL Music marketing formats. “Coming from the music side,” he states, “you could see a huge opportunity. Radio playlists have been shrinking and TV stations are playing fewer videos. There's a lot of music out there. The right medium can reach a lot of people and sell it.”

ADVERTISING: A DIRTY WORD?

The success of advertising campaigns featuring music by acts such as Moby and Death in Vegas have spawned a number of upstart businesses that help facilitate a meeting of the minds between musical artists and corporate advertising. SubZero, in Santa Monica, Calif., a division of HUM Music and Sound Design, is one that's given itself an edge by bringing onboard respected noncommercial radio DJ Tricia Halloran.

Halloran's own cutting-edge midnight show, as well as the contacts she's amassed, make her a natural for the job. About the process of pairing an artist with an ad campaign, she says, “Sometimes, it's completely random: Someone at an advertising agency is a fan of the band, they put a song up to the picture it works, and it's accessible price-wise. But, obviously, any single band's chance of having that happen are pretty small.

“The slightly more scientific way to go about it is to have someone who knows about every band that's out there — which is most of the DJs at [Los Angeles' NPR station] KCRW — studiously working on a project for an ad agency, going through everything that's in the ballpark of what the agency requires. That allows us to feed the bands that we think are really great and who deserve more attention into the ads.”

“Most agency people are pretty good with music,” Halloran adds. “They know a lot and are very hip about bands. But it's sort of exponential, the amount of knowledge you increase when you bring a DJ on to music supervise. I, myself, [laughs] live, eat and breathe bands. I don't even realize how much I know until somebody asks me a question and I start regurgitating information.”

For these breaking artists, such as Mexican band Kinky, who were hired by Halloran for a series of Honda motor car spots, commercials can provide not only exposure but credibility in the commercial pop music world. Just as important, it provides some cash to keep them going. “Sometimes, if a band can just stay out for another year, then their record might break,” Halloran comments. “Or they could get enough fans to make it on their own without commercial airplay. It's not necessarily a situation where people are going to run out and buy the record when they hear the commercial. That connection is still hard to make. People generally have to find out by word of mouth who the band is that they've heard.”

Still, like repeated radio airplay, repeated commercial play creates awareness of a song that can make it stand out and even be requested at record stores. “Most of these bands are never going to get played on commercial radio,” says Halloran, “and they're not going to get a hit record just out of a commercial. But if they can make a living doing this instead of painting houses, so much the better.”

The Music Complex Makes it Simple

Helping young bands and artists get their music to market is the aim of the Music Complex, a project management company founded by industry vet Bruce Benson. Focused on unsigned artists, the company assists in clarifying vision and goals, offering practical advice and project coordination for those in the process of developing a music career.

“Just because someone is a good musician, or even a great singer/songwriter, doesn't mean that they're able to create a product that makes sense,” Benson explains. “We can help in every part of the process, from initial consultations on goals, through selection of material and definition of audience, to the practical matters of production, such as choosing an arranger, producer and studio. We also advise on manufacturing, graphics and PR opportunities, etc. We are the ultimate ‘one stop’ for the unsigned.”

Drawing on his own background as a songwriter, producer and vocalist, Benson says, “Not that long ago, labels were picking up anybody they thought had talent, blanketing areas [of the country] and styles of music, hoping that they would hit with something. There were lots of development contracts. Now, there's been a paradigm shift. That money and support aren't there. Labels won't look at most bands until they've already generated their own regional buzz.

“The artist is expected to have all of the tools — marketing, arranging, booking, PR — that's asking a lot. It's too many skill sets for people to excel in on their own. We help to clarify their vision, and we'll give them specifics on how to tweak what they're doing. They can take that and do the legwork themselves, or we can implement the plan for them, including timelines and budgets. This is the music business, not the music game room. If you're in business, you have to define your market and your competition, and then you need an organized game plan.”
Maureen Droney
www.E-MusicComplex.com






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