Yesterday, I gave a talk to the marketing group of the Association of British Orchestras on marketing records. It went something like this.

There isn’t a well-established best practice for marketing a record. There’s a bit of accepted wisdom, but I’m not really sure about how wise it is, and it’s not even that widely accepted any more.

There’s no one right way to do it. There are lots of ways to do it. We need to keep coming up with new ways, looking in new directions for ways to reach receptive audiences.

This doesn’t mean, though, that there’s nothing to learn from what’s gone before. We can take a huge amount of useful information from the industry’s long and established history of screwing it up. Expensive mistakes have been made. We might as well learn from them, and we we know the common pitfalls, we’re much better equipped to go out an innovate. It is with this in mind that I present you with:

Marketing A Record – Ten Easy Ways To Fail

1) Doing it for the wrong reasons

Are you looking for a profit centre? Stop it. You’re a charity. This is not what you’re good at, and there are easier ways to make money. Get the players picking oakum during their bars rest. Have them wash the audiences’ cars during tacet movements. Put a Starbucks franchise in the lobby and a Wetherspoons franchise in the orchestra dressing room. These are all horrible ideas, but they’re more likely to balance this year’s budget than starting a label.

Other wrong reasons include “because everybody else is doing it”, and “to sell tickets for concerts”.

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to start a label: it gives you the chance to market the orchestra in a whole bunch of new places, it allows you to build an enduring artistic legacy, it gives you artistic and financial control over your own media activities, it helps build your national and international profile, it gives you a bunch of portable gifts for partners and donors, and it gives you something to sell in the venue gift shop that actually has something to do with the orchestra.

Releasing records can be a positive step, but we have to have realistic expectations as part of a long term plan, or we’re doomed to failure.

2) Making the wrong record

If you can’t explain why you’re making a record and why people need to hear it in one sentence, you are making the wrong record. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the charts.

Here’s what’s going to happen: your artistic leadership person will describe it to your marketing person who will describe it to your distributor who will describe it to their sales people and their PR people, who will describe it to retailers and journalists, who will describe it to their bosses in the hope they’ll be allowed to put it on a shelf or write about it.

It’s a massive game of Chinese Whispers in which several consecutive iterations of the message are communicated outside of your control. This is death for any complex proposition.

Facts are good. Narratives are better.

When I worked at iTunes, people would pitch me for promotion on new records every day. Depending on the time of year, there might be between 400 and 700 classical new releases each month. There are rarely fewer than 100 each week.

Let’s think about this for a moment: to a shop or weekly publication, your record is 1% of one week’s new releases. To a monthly magazine, it’s one of 400 problems they have to solve. Any time you ask for something special, remember it’s, at best, 0.02% or one 5,000th of the new music coming out in a year.

The kind of thing that works is “this is the first recording of this work using the original orchestration” or “the artist studied with the composer as a child” or “this is the girl who won that thing on the telly” even “the composer and the conductor are both Russian”.

You want some kind of semi-plausible claim that, unlike everybody else, this artist has made this repertoire their bitch.

The kind of thing that doesn’t work is “Maestro has felt a deep affinity for the music of blah blah blah since his early childhood when yawn yawn is he still talking?”

If the answer to the question “why did you make this record” is “because we felt like it” then  it’s gong to be very hard to sell.

3) Not thinking about marketing until the record is finished

Everybody screws this up – from major labels to artist-led indies. The bigger you are, the easier it is to mess this up, which gives the little labels an advantage. The time to start thinking about marketing is the time you start thinking about making the record.

Will anybody this at all? – We’ve already covered this in the last point.

Who will want this? – The time to start identifying your customers is before you press “record”

Why will they want this? – This is your narrative

How will we explain that to them? – This is where you deliver your narrative.

When will they most want this? How can we make the most of that demand? – If it’s a live recording, this is the time to get creative about communicating with your audience.

Are there opportunities to create marketing materials as we go along? – Let’s think about video.

What can the artists do to support this when we’ve got them all together? – The most important thing to do here is to keep them informed and involved.

What about the audience? How can they help us? – Have you ever asked them for help?

What about the press? As a general rule, the longer in advance I hear about a project, the bigger I think it is going to be. Find ways for key partners to participate in the making of the record. Help them to feel invested in the project.

4) Trying to do everything yourself

You are competing with big companies with the advantage of scale on their side. Just because big labels can make seemingly stupid decisions, doesn’t mean they’re not also making lots of good ones. They have buildings full of specialists and experts in every little corner of the business.

Big companies can spread the fixed costs of running a label across many releases. If something involves a high fixed setup cost, it’s something you should think seriously about outsourcing to somebody who already does it.

This doesn’t just apply to big expensive objects like distribution warehouses, mastering studios and pressing plants. It also applies to skills and relationships, which take time and effort to maintain.

There are technological and commercial aspects of music distribution that develop so quickly that, if you’re only going to release one album each year, you’ll have to learn a new process every single time you do it. The physical CD business is contracting and the digital marketplace is undergoing a period of rapid consolidation, so lots of people are changing jobs. Wherever possible, make staying on top of all of this somebody else’s problem.

Remember that outsourcing doesn’t necessarily mean selling your soul to the devil, signing up with a major or letting somebody else control your label. If you can partner with a similar-sized organisation to share some of the work, you can might halve a fixed cost.

5) Screwing up the branding

Your brand is partly about what you do and what you stand for, but it’s also partly about what you’re not. It’s easy to paint yourself into a corner with your brand.

The simplest example of this is LSO Live: in many ways a huge branding success, they’ve got a lovely logo, a clear visual identity and a great reputation for quality. It’s all good news, but they’ve also created a brand any orchestra can emulate. It doesn’t seem to have done them much harm, but it’s a risk.

Your CDs will outlast the current season. You have to commit to your branding, so keep it flexible. Use it to rule out things you know you’ll never want to do. Think carefully before you make up a name or create a new logo. Ask yourself if you really need it.

The Chicago Symphony called its label “CSO Resound”. It’s perfectly nice and nobody can copy it, but does that actually mean anything? Does it add anything at all? It often makes sense to create a separate legal entity to handle recordings, but you don’t necessarily have to wave the name of that entity about in public.

Remember that record companies had to be called something because they weren’t the artists. If you’re the artists and the record company, maybe you don’t need two names at all.

6) Forgetting about the artists

Unless you’re only releasing world premieres, probably the biggest advantage your albums have over the 100,000 or so already in the catalogue is that your artists are still alive. If you don’t take advantage of this, you’re letting your artists act like dead people and you’re making instant catalogue.

Think about how many friends your organisation has on Facebook. Those people care enough about you to click “like”.

Now imagine every member of your orchestra has 150 friends on Facebook. If there are 60 people in the orchestra, that’s 9,000 people who personally know somebody playing on your next record. Soloists and conductors have a big following, they have email lists, they have other gigs, they have students and disciples. This isn’t just about social media. These are the networks you need to reach.

7) Forgetting about the audience

Every time you do a concert, you have a thousand people who like you enough to venture out after dark and sit in silence to hear you do your thing. They’re a good bunch of people. The invention of the mobile phone has given us an excuse to talk to them:

“Ladies and gentlemen. We’re recording tonight’s concert, so please turn off your mobile phones. Alan Gilbert is in the front row, he has a taser, and he’s not afraid to use it. Before the concert begins, we’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that our conductor will be signing copies of our new CD in the lobby after the performance, and we’ll have coffee and cake for everybody in the queue.”

8) Forgetting the composers

When I was at Naxos, we got a rather snotty email from a composer who complained that we had rudely failed to send him a copy of a new CD of his music.

Was it rude? Maybe.

Was it stupid? Absolutely.

You have to pay these people money. They want you to succeed. Why not let them help you?

I’ve heard it said that the only good composer is a dead composer. In my experience of composers, this is mostly unfair. I don’t know any dead ones, but most of the living ones are more interested in getting their music heard than anything else. That’s why they wrote it.

There are several commercial downsides to recording new music, so it would be a shame not to take advantage of the upsides. If they were worth recording in the first place, they probably have a friendly press connection or two. If they have a following, they probably know how to reach those people people more effectively than you do.

In the event that you find yourself dealing with a genuinely dead composer, there are still people you can talk to. Some countries are very keen to promote their musical exports. Reach out to the embassy. See what support they can give you.

9) Releasing it and forgetting about it

A big difference between selling tickets and selling records is that you can’t sell tickets to last night’s concert.

Record labels are notorious for releasing things and then forgetting about them, and it costs us a lot of money. The trouble is, every month, we have a new bunch of releases and they’ll get no marketing at all unless we focus on them instead. We’re really bad at it.

In fact the only people who might be worse at this than us are orchestras. It takes commitment to build a label’s catalogue. It can be disheartening to watch your sales slide from 100 a day down to three a day, but those three sales every day are the long term reality of running a label, and if you can turn three into five across a catalogue of 50 titles, you’re selling an extra 36,500 albums a year. That’s about a truck full.

If it isn’t three records a day, if it’s one record a week, this isn’t the time to give up. This is the time to test things. Even crazy things. It’s the time when even a small advertising budget or modest promotion will reveal a significant change.

When your album was new, you threw a big chunk of your budget at it, but with so much going on, it was hard to see what worked. Once you’ve made it to the long tail, you can do the same productive marketing, but learn something from it.

If you’re stuck with 5,000 unsold copies of the album, think of ways you can give a few away to create publicity. Offer them up as competition prizes. Give them to subscribers. Generate some word-of-mouth. See what works, and do it for your next release.

10) Thinking you’re done

You’re not done. You’re never done. There’s no such thing as done.

If you’re stuck for ideas, take a look at some people who do stuff well:

LSO Live – Coherent visual identity. Successful orchestra-run label.

Coro – The label of The Sixteen has enviable branding.

Soli Deo Gloria – They make lovely things and inspire long-term customer loyalty.

Naive’s Vivaldi Edition – Sometimes it’s best not to put early music specialists on the cover.

Eric Whitacre – A composer who works hard to stay in touch with his fans.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – Outsource the management of their label.

Philip Glass – Takes ownership of his recordings to ensure his music is all available.


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