When Apple Music launched last year, its creators heralded the Connect channel as a potential revolution in the world of direct artist-to-fan relationships.
That revolution is yet to come to pass, with Connect currently widely viewed as perhaps the least successful element of Apple’s fast-growing (in 113 countries, no less) platform.
The wider point, though, still stands: streaming naturally breaks down many barriers between artists and theirs fans, with less of a need for traditional media ‘gatekeepers’ to project a performer’s appeal.
So can we anticipate the world of direct-to-fan becoming increasingly important in the years to come? And if so, what can the music biz be doing to take full advantage?
They were the questions at the heart of the debate at a recent Cooking Vinyl Presents: The Future Of… Fan Engagement panel at London’s Hospital Club.
Dave Bianchi is founder of management company Various Artists, which looks after names such as Charli XCX, The Libertines, Killing Joke and Spiritualized.
“Spotify and Apple Music are going to change things,” he predicted, as you can see in the video of the debate below.
“Spotify, unlike Apple Music, is partially owned by the record business and Apple have never really cared about the content, they care about selling machinery… [But] I’ve seen what’s coming next with Apple Music and I think that’s going to be far more of a manager/band/label direct-to-consumer [platform].
“From what I understand, it’s going to be a little bit like MySpace – every person’s page on Apple Music is going to be a little bit like that.
“The technology companies are understanding that direct relationship has to be given back to the [artist].”
“I’ve seen what’s coming next with Apple Music and it’s going to be far more of a manager/band/label direct-to-consumer platform.”
Dave Bianchi, Various Artists
Exciting times may be ahead for artists, then, with Apple not giving up on burnishing a smoother and more direct link between acts and their fans through their music app.
One place that connection already exists, of course, is on social media.
Charli XCX has been particularly successful in this world, with 1.74m Twitter followers, 2.7m Facebook Likes and 1.6m followers on Instagram.
Bianchi said he was concerned that Facebook’s algorithm “has been over-tinkered with” – a reference to declining organic impact vs. paid advertising – and joked that younger fans are starting to use alternative social media platforms as they “have long since realised their gran and their mum and dad or uncle are on there”.
Bianchi noted that a streaming relationship with fans, combined with social media, helped to drive interest in the person behind the music – which itself could then be monetised.
Charli XCX, he noted, recently launched a 22-piece clothing range with Boohoo which sold out in a week, as well as a body spray with supermarket Asda now selling 50,000 cans a month.
“Don’t get confused: the music is still the most important thing,” he clarified. “That’s always the first thing fans buy into.
“Controversially there seems to be more money to be made doing what we’re doing now than [previous eras of the industry].
“I seem to run into lots of people who seem utterly depressed about the whole thing. But we’re finding that it’s actually really good.”
He later reiterated: “I know I’m deeply unfashionable on this. But I think streaming is going to make the music industry richer than it’s ever been before.”
Martin Heath, founder of Lizard King Media – which aims to directly monetise the link between fans and artists online – raised concerns over the amount of power the music business has already handed to third-party tech companies.
“The industry has relied on technology companies too much,” he said.
“The [labels have] basically surrendered all of their rights and their ability to market to technology businesses that are run by venture capitalists.
“Spotify will do its $11bn IPO and that’s great and record companies will make more money on the shares than they do selling records. But you have to ask yourself where the value actually lies.
“The labels have basically surrendered all of their rights – and their ability to market – to technology businesses.”
Martin Heath, Lizard King Media
‘It [should] lie with the artist and the fan… Why would you surrender your data to companies like Facebook or Twitter? They are not charities.
‘Technology is not the problem, but it should be owned by artists and the fans.”
Heath encouraged the business to “give the tools to the super fans who have a network [of people who can be influencers]… tracking all value to [the artist] and their network is key”.
Rob Collins, Director of Cooking Vinyl, whose acts include Marilyn Manson, The Prodigy and Billy Bragg, suggested it was already possible to break new artists without wooing the traditional media gatekeepers like radio or magazines – so long as your act had an authentic message.
“You don’t have to rely on [radio] 100% to have a successful record,” he said. “That’s if you talk to the fan in the right way… especially if the artist can be really engaging.”
He added: “You get found out if it’s a dry record company message coming all of them time. They know it’s rubbish, that they’re just being sold.”
“You’ll get found out if you’re pushing a dry record company message all of the time.”
Rob Collins, Cooking Vinyl
His point was backed by Pledge’s Music’s Paul Barton who said: “The worst thing an artist can do is continuously sell – through their own social media or their own stores.
“Fans want to feel rewarded. They want to feel part of the overall story.
“Artists have to find the right balance for the type of artist they are. And that includes not talking! You don’t want to be selling your soul, ramming yourself down fans’ throats.
“It’s difficult, but you have to maintain a bit of mystique.”
Marillion manager Lucy Jordache has long worked with the British rock band, who are widely seen as pioneers in the direct-to-fan sector.
“We wanted to get on mainstream radio, but even in the eighties when Marillion were playing Milton Keynes Bowl, [radio gatekeepers] weren’t interested,” she explained.
From there the band started formulating a very close relationship with their fans.
“Once [band member] Mark Kelly realised the internet was going to be huge – before anyone else did – it became very important to the band to forge a relationship that said: ‘Come to us, stay with us and we’ll reward you.'”
Jordache advised artists and managers to “learn the right language with which to talk to your fans, and you will keep them loving you”.
D2C product specialist and retailer Townsend Music has worked with the likes of Noel Gallagher, The Pixies, The Prodigy.
Founder Martin Townsend gave particular praise to Manchester band The Courteeners, who ‘wouldn’t walk onto a Radio 1 playlist’.
He said: “The Courteeners get the price [of special direct-to-fan items] right, because they’re that type of band – a band of the people.”
He called on the music business to acknowledge that some consumers will always want to be served through a traditional retailer – and weren’t ready, or interested, in D2C.
“The one thing that hasn’t really happened yet is an effective, well-priced, well-run subscription model.”
Martin Townsend, Townsend music
“Some people will always go to iTunes, Amazon or the High Street – God bless ’em. Accepting that from our point of view [is important].”
He added” “The one thing that hasn’t really happened yet that artists will have to get their head round is an effective, well-priced, well-run subscription model [specially for fans of a certain artist].
“Yes, lots of people will buy a boxset for £300. But there are also plenty of people who’d be happy to spend £20 or £30.”
And Ticketmaster’s Sarah Slater explained that direct-to-fan wasn’t a phenomenon exclusive to the record industry.
“Generally, we’re seen as having the ideals of the promoter or venue in mind, but we actually have a dedicated artist services team at Ticketmaster,” she said.
“Their job is to look after the managers, labels and artists and what their interests are.
“Their interests might not be selling a ticket. It might be generating record sales, so we work on a lot of pre-sales stuff – ‘buy the album, get access to the pre-sale’ or add an upsell on there with merch or boxsets.
“We have access to 13 million customers at Ticketmaster and we can use tools that let us look at customer purchase habits; if they’ve bought from one artist they might be more likely to buy from another.”
She added: “For us, it about how we use that data on behalf of managers, artists and labels to really target those groups, like high ticket spenders, to help them.”
The next Cooking Vinyl Presents The Future Of… event takes place tonight (Feb 9) in London. Sadly it’s full – no tickets remain.
However, the next event takes place on Monday, March 7 and delves into the complicated topic of streaming itself, and how it’s rewarding artists and the music business.
Look out for details soon.Music Business Worldwide