The four ingredients of a great music business conference panel.
Experience, knowledge, familiarity and a timely topic make for great conversation.
“A playlist is not a marketing plan.” It’s a catchy phrase and an intuitive axiom of the record business. But people may, from time to time, need to be reminded that something as small as a single playlist cannot be the focal point of marketing campaigns. And so this year’s Music Biz conference had a panel called “A Playlist is Not a Marketing Plan.”
“The first thing they say to us is, ‘Oh my god, I need your help getting onto these playlists.” Jeff Moskow of Label Logic explained a frequent conversation he and his partner, Jay Gilbert, have with clients and potential clients. “Our answer is, ‘Wait, time out. You have a lot of work to do. We have to look at your business.”
I wanted to write about “A Playlist is NOT a Marketing Plan” because I thought it was one of the best conference panels I’ve ever seen. Jay and Jeff put the group together and they were kind enough to give me a transcript.
“We have to understand your goals,” Jeff continued. “We have to build a marketing strategy. We have to make sure you’re properly represented as an artist brand in the marketplace. That you’re connected to your fans and growing new fans. And if all that is in place, then we’re prepared, either directly or through our distribution, to have a conversation with the digital service providers, respectively, armed with the material they want.’ The first things a DSP will say is ‘Tell me more. What’s the narrative? Why should anybody care?’”
Same problem, different format. A decade ago, the “get me on a playlist” directive was heard as “make me a viral video.” Dozens of tracks can land on just the single, most-popular playlist. How many videos go viral? It depends on your definition of viral, but I would guess a couple a week at best? Dozens of tracks make a DSPs most-popular playlist in a given week. Even so, a playlist slot is both empty lottery tickets without putting in the deliberate, hard work to capitalize on the sudden surge in listeners.
Most conference panels are uninformative and border on the unbearable. I estimate — I don’t keep detailed notes on conferences — I could count on two or three hands the number of panels over the last 15 years I would rate as excellent. A minority of panels at least have stimulating conversation. Many aren’t worth the time.
I’d argue marquee names are attractive but usually offer little more than anecdotes. Attendees typically want to learn something that helps them perform their job better (their careers are what’s aided by hobnobbing and business charge exchanges). Panels with lawyers are popular — especially if the topic is something practical like “Good and Bad Recording Contract Deals.” People practically fight for the mic during a Q&A at those kinds of panels; a few words from a lawyer can save a musician a great deal of money and heartache.
For panels I’ve moderated, I always attempt to turn the conversation into practical insights and advice. I don’t like giving them questions ahead of time, but I request ahead of time that they provide the audience some advice. If social media is the topic, tell people how they can best use social media platforms. Give them a few tricks or ways to avoid pitfalls.
What makes a panel stand out? Four things: having years of expertise; deep knowledge of the business; familiarity with the people on the panel; and a timely topic. Remove any of factor and it’s like removing a key ingredient from a pie. An apple pie without apple isn’t an apple pie.
A Playlist is NOT a Marketing Plan stood out for a few reasons. First, the panel had a rare collection of executives; one of them rarely takes part in conference panels. Typically a company offers a lower-level executive. Top executives don’t always have time to attend conferences. Even if they attend one, they probably stack their days with meetings and lunches and dinners with clients, customers, etc.
The stature of the panelists was unusually large. Conferences are long on experts but short on expertise. What usually happens is a panel’s organizer secures executives — often lower level VPs — who are well coached by their communications team. In some cases, the panel was put together by a publicist to give a client a chance to deliver a message. Well-coached executives stick to talking points. As a general rule, the higher up the organization chart, the better the coaching — a CEO usually talks extensively but ends up saying nothing outside of well-scripted parameters. It’s almost always a let-down.
An old television for the investment brokerage E.F. Hutton was famous for its tag line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” A couple of guys would be having lunch in a crowded, noisy restaurant and one would say something like, “Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and he says,” and he pauses as the room goes silent and people lean into them in hopes of overhearing a nugget of financial wisdom. (See video here.) Along with “Don’t leave home without it” and “Less filling, tastes great,” those E.F. Hutton ads were legends of their time. Well, this conversation was free-flowing, expansive, and worth hearing. These leaders in their fields spoke seemingly without constraints and talking points. Instead, the panelists gave insights and perspectives on their experiences with streaming and playlists.
To be sure, not every insight and bit of advice was original. But at the very least, any tidbit carries more weight when it comes from a top executive or record business veteran. They have a broad perspective gained from the analysis, reporting, and advice of their direct reports. And the panelists provided some metrics I hadn’t heard before. (This goes back to coaching: executives usually say little because they have been well-coached beforehand.)
The conversation sounded like friends having a casual conversation at a restaurant or bar and just sharing ideas and experiences. They weren’t selling anything. That’s incredibly rare for top executives to speak this way at a conference panel. I think the panelists were relaxed because they had good relationships with Jay and Jeff. A journalist can have similar experiences without having a relationship with an executive. After a while, though, the person will realize you’re not going to take their words out of context or try to screw them over. A better relationship leads to better interviews.
Start with Larry Mattera, GM, EVP Commerce & Marketing at Warner Bros. Records. Larry oversees a large operation for Warner Music Group’s largest record label. Gilbert was excited about getting Larry because he rarely does this type of thing — building relationships over many years has its payoffs. Gilbert also secured Lloyd Hummel, SVP of Global Sales Strategy at Ingrooves Music Group, a digital distributor now wholly owned by Universal Music Group.
What I remember about Larry is some of the statistics he shared. At Spotify, 20 percent of Warner Bros. plays are coming from Spotify-curated playlists (Rap Caviar and the like). Almost 50 percent come from a user’s library. The playlist-to-collection ratio that’s too high is “a problem because, at some point, that track is going to come out of the playlist, and you’ve got a house of cards there.” At Apple Music, playlists account for “less than 10 percent of plays,” he said, while “almost 70 percent” come from a user’s library.
“Apple Music is much more geared toward albums,” Lloyd said later in the panel. “One of the great things about Apple Music is their experience is designed to lead you into more content, lead you to an album, lead you to the catalog. In particular, if you’re an artist that has a wider catalog and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to drive your audience, you have to think about that.”
“Apple over-indexes in urban music,” said Larry. “I think 50 percent of what we see on the streaming side is coming from an urban audience and urban music consumption. Urban consumption is high at Spotify as well. Pandora, for instance, over-indexes in the middle of the country.” In fact, Larry would later say Warner Bros. “had to rebalance the roster” to more pop and urban titles because “they are the dominant genres in streaming.”
“If you’re in Latin content, for example, Spotify is out of control and doing incredibly well,” Larry continued. “Deezer’s in a lot of different markets. Just what it takes to be on those different platforms and the barriers to entry and economic challenges in some of those markets, but that all has to go into where you’re targeting.”
Phillip Bailey believes playlists play an essential role in artist development. “The DSPs are getting 40,000-plus tracks per week. How do you break through the noise there? Your best bet is going to be building a fanbase,” said Phillip, a co-founder of Artist Advocates, a self-described “artist development company.” Phillips has worked with top names in music like Kanye West, Katy Perry, Lil Yachty, the legendary Paul McCartney — who consistently releases new music — while at Capitol Records.
To Mattera, playlists create discovery. They’re vehicles for people to learn about new artists and catch up on new tracks by known artists. Appearing on a playlist like New Music Friday results in guaranteed streams, but what happens next is critical. “If you can get yourself onto
Today’s Top Hits or any of those massive flagship playlists, you’re going to drive volume.
Absolutely. So, that’s why people gravitate to it, but, in terms of where the source of your stream is coming from and how you ultimately generate plays over time, it cannot be all about playlists.”
An indie label is less likely to appear on the most popular playlists — it’s just a fact of life. In many cases, indies are “building from the group up,” explained Hummel. “it’s even more critical, more important, that they’ve got a good strategy from the beginning and that everyone is being very holistic about what they’re doing.”
Again, the content of this conversation isn’t exactly groundbreaking. The conversation is about the need to have a cohesive, thorough plan. Getting onto a playlist is merely one part of that plan. But this advice carries serious weight because of the panelists’ pedigrees. They all have experience working on campaigns for artists big and small. It’s worth listening to what they say.
Whether a spot on a playlist or an appearance on late-night television, each moment is simply an arc on a longer story, Phillip explained. “You want to make sure that moment means something and is leading you toward your next moment to keep your music in people’s consciousness.”
Jeff jumped in. “You’re using that moment and telling that moment over and over and over again.” He has worked on many campaigns over the decades and never marches forward without a coherent plan — he’s organized as hell. “So, there needs to be a strategy to drive traffic, and there needs to be a strategy to tell that story repeatedly to build the artist’s brand.”
“Blocking and tackling are hugely important, and a lot of labels and artists
don’t do a good job of it,” said Larry. “They’re concerned, as we’ve talked about, with playlisting and everything else. But just doing the basics so that the fan — however, they interact with you, whether it’s sync or any of the other things we’ve talked about.”
How music is “sold” hasn’t changed. In the CD era, a sales rep from a distributor, and probably someone from the record label pitch a title to a buyer. The distributor has a collection of one-sheets with information about the band’s album, if a single is doing well at radio, what magazines are going to cover the band, the upcoming tour dates, etc. The goal was not just a large order but a spot on an endcap or some other type of a finite number of places on the stores’ racks. For downloads, the reps would make a similar presentation to Apple, Amazon, or whoever, and vie for one of the finite numbers of spots on the homepage or a genre page.
Today, digital service providers “[are] going to want your marketing plan,” said Jay. So get your PowerPoint ready and hone your pitch. “They’re going to want that timeline. They’re going to want these things in advance. They’re going to want great music, a compelling narrative. They’re going to want to know your goals. This is all [about] working with them.”
Around this time, I turned around and looked at the audience. I could see eyes darting up and down as people listened attentively and took notes. Note-taking is a sign of an effective panel.
It pays to purposefully take proper steps rather than release music as quickly as possible. Spotify has parameters, said Larry — without specifying what those parameters are. “If you can get somebody to follow you, you’re going to get in one of the most important algorithmic playlists that there are, which is New Music Radar. That Release Radar is going to give you access to all of your fans and that is your target audience.”
If you’re fortunate enough to have a good relationship with a DSP, there are ways to work together and piggyback on the DSPs marketing might. Larry gave the example of working with Spotify on Jenny Lewis’s latest album, On the Line. “There was a whole theme around tarot cards, and they came up, with us, with this incredible way to associate each song on the album with a tarot read. So, the canvases that we used for each track were based on the tarot cards. She did a bunch of content capture for them, which felt like something you’d watch on TV at 1 am with the astrology [services], and she was calling out the tarot cards, and she would take people’s questions tongue-in-cheek. They spent resources and dollars to help in the socials get out there. They spent a ton of money on it. We reached millions of people. We had incredible engagement. The click-throughs were higher than the norm.”
Remixes and alternate versions: Larry had the wonderful story of creating a piano version of a studio track to find a new audience through Spotify’s Peaceful Piano playlist, one of the DSP’s most popular. “We found that alternative versions and remixes driven anywhere from five to ten percent incremental gains on the original track and streaming overall for that remix track.”
Soon after, Larry discussed some nuts and bolts of marketing. “[M]arketing tends to be more product management, which is hugely important. You need timelines; you need coordination of assets; you need somebody who’s in the hub pulling all the other departments together. But what tends to get lost is the really important thing sometimes which is ‘who is the audience?’ And don’t tell me it’s 18 to 24-year-old females. That’s still very broad. A lot of times it’s going to shows, seeing who’s in the audience and amalgamating all that information, but we have all tool sets now that allow us to identify those audiences more easily.”
Indeed, artists and labels have a wealth of tools to analyze and track their streaming activity. Lloyd called Chartmetric, a platform that tracks music streaming data across platforms, “one of the better ones right now gathering a lot of different social stats.” He also looks at unique data using the now-standard analytics tools at Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and the like.
“That’s probably one of the greatest benefits of the DSPs,” said Phillip. “You have these things as independent artists that you never had access to before. All you really had was maybe seeing who was showing up to your shows.”
“We look at everything for our artists,” Jeff added. “Pretty much every available source of data we’re looking at. That’s really one of the big changes in the industry is that you, as an artist or a manager or as a label, have access to pretty much everything that’s going on.”
Something as “old fashioned” as Google Trends can be a useful tool, also, said Larry. Labels don’t put out an album every few years in bursts separated by months or radio silence. “Now, what we’re trying to do is to keep a constant flow of music and content coming so that your Google Trends is never really dipping down to lower levels than before.”
“It’s the consistency that’s important,” Lloyd noted later. “You can’t go away.”
Just as a playlist is not a marketing plan, streaming numbers aren’t the only metric worth watching. Lloyd told a story of a “folk-rock” band whose top track had nearly 40 million streams at Spotify in 14 months. In a silo, 40 million streams count as a success. But in spite of its streaming performance, the band’s Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube followings were “minimal.”
“They’re not engaging with their fan base,” he explained. The source of streams was another indication of the artist’s relationship with fans: “93 or 94 percent” of streams came from passive sources like radio stations or genre playlists. “I won’t say background music,” he added, “but in a lot of cases that may be the case.”
“That’s not enough to make the living you want to make,” quipped Jeff. Regardless of an artist’s goals — recording, touring, selling merch — you can’t overlook what Jeff called “scaffolding,” the hard work that underpins career development.
You also need to interpret data correctly. Phillip sees Instagram a powerful signal of fan engagement, especially in pop and hip hop. Don’t expect a double-digital number Instead, engagement — who’s reacting to posts — is going to fall in the single digits. “You take an artist that has 100,000 followers, and if your engagement is in the three to five percent range, that’s a success, right?” When an artist gets added to a playlist, Phillip will drive traffic to the artist by buying marketing at Instagram Stories. “Five dollars a day. Very effective.”
Through all the data and jargon and “inside baseball” talk, it’s possible to be optimistic and, well, downright romantic, about the opportunities at hand. “You have something inside of you that’s so powerful, you need to get out, and you need to share it with people. You need to refine that,” said Phillip. “Streaming allows you to focus more on that because if you do that and you make great art, you’re going to be okay. If you make that great art, and you build the team around you, and you build the marketing plan, you’re going to be okay.”