The Future of Music Monetization: “Return on Attention”

It appears that we in America have finally grokked what business Facebook, YouTube and many other social media platforms are in: BIG DATA. This means every post with all its imbedded metadata becomes the property of the platform as soon as you upload it. If you choose to delete your posts, its anybody’s guess whether this material is kept longterm and who it belongs to. Even Mark Zuckerberg was cagey when answering a direct question about this when he testified in front of Congress recently.

That said, the collected data points are theirs — forever. They sell this data (mostly) to businesses and organizations who use it to target marketing (mostly), regional preferences (food, colors, styles), national trends and many other types of interpretation that can only happen with gigantic data sets. Because the data is collected over time based on use and preference, it has been said (by our own Government) that Facebook’s demographic data sets are far more accurate than the US Census Bureau’s in many parts of the United States. The point is that this data is sold and its incredibly valuable. As the #deletefacebook wave moves across the popular lexicon, I think we musicians need to understand that your data and especially your content is very, very valuable. In the streaming age, too many artists think their material is worthless because they don’t have the validation of sales to associate perceived value with actual value.

Time to think again, musicians…

Let’s start with a important shift in how you are currently thinking: you, your content and your data are yours, very valuable and its time for you to monetize it — not Facebook, not Google or any other social media platform. It will take bold revolutionary thinking and actions (that at this point in time) might seem crazy. But, no risk — no reward.

Data, Money & Music… on Facebook.

Facebook might respond to my assertion that the eyeballs on my artist page and the “user experience” they provide is the primary reason that I have 28,000+ people who follow me and my piano exploits on my “artist page”. This particular argument is what needs to be short-circuited: my music is my music with or without a social media platform. People who love it, stream it and share it do it because they want to. Facebook provides easy tools to do so. However, pandering to the lowest common dominator is costing us artists far more than we could ever imagine.

Let’s do a little mathematics: of the 28,000 followers I have, maybe 2% (or 560 people) are “real” Michael Whalen fans. They listen to my music, they share about it and they might even buy one of my recordings or start a Pandora station in my name. We like them… The key is that these fans would follow me on Facebook or any other platform I moved to because they’re real fans. Of those 560, maybe 100 are “super” fans that I could ask to be part of my social media team. They could create a content, share music, start conversations and drive other (less super) fans to up their level of engagement with my content. We LOVE them… With these 100 fans, I keep my career on track and the engagement I get on-line is real and organic because I am not controlling it or paying for it.

Here are some (leading) questions:

What if I could CHARGE Facebook for the eyeballs that are “mine” that I bring to their platforms? Do you think they would “mind”? :-)

Why is Facebook, Google, Spotify, Apple Music, Pledge Music, Kickstarter and others getting my “return on attention” when I could be monetizing these fans on my OWN platform?

How did these companies “brainwash” us into doing the hard part so they could seize on the opportunity by giving us easy-to-use interfaces and basically preying on the fact that so many of us are too lazy to go it alone?

The concept of “return on attention” actually goes back centuries. Roman Catholics used to chart how many of their congregants paid tithe to the churches of the middle ages. If they didn’t pay, they didn’t go to Heaven. Wow! However, social media marketing people have recontextualized the term “return on attention” for the 21st century as a way of measuring the attention you have versus the RETURN you get for the effort, cost and creativity it takes to create the critical mass that keeps people “liking”, “engaged” and “converting” on social media. Basically, what are you getting for having all those eyeballs glued to your social media pages?

The “Rock” flexes for the world…

If you are Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, experts estimate that he can have about 10% of his 100 million followers on Instagram buy, view or otherwise “convert” into whatever he wants them to. That’s social media power when you can point 10 million people at whatever project or product you are selling that day. What if Mr. Johnson charged Facebook (owner of Instagram) for all the eyeballs he brings to the party? Farfetched? No, not when artists and celebrities see that there’s another way to monetize. Again, many of these figures think that the process of creating your own monetization platform is “too much trouble.”

Grammy® winner Alicia Keys started an ingenious page on her webiste a few years ago called “The Vault”. On this mini site, Alicia’s team posts nearly EVERYTHING the woman touches: handwritten lyrics, rough mixes, unreleased b-sides, sound check recordings, rehearsal videos and much, much more. It’s genius because the attraction is so simple: if you want to explore, we got the stuff. There’s nothing “selling” you or giving you anxiety if you don’t sign-up. They empower people to choose or not. However, once you do sign-up… YOU STAY.


Alicia gets you addicted. She delivers. You’re happy. When you’re happy it’s much, much easier to promote stuff, opportunities and more to you. And guess where all this is happening? On her own website that she controls 100%. You can pay to get deeper dives into the vault. You get first shot at tickets and recordings and you are treated well. Why??? She cares. She cares about her fans and she knows that everything she does, posts and doesn’t do is a reflection on her and her brand. Maybe you don’t care about your fans. That’s OK… this conversation isn’t for you. Maybe you take all the “activity” on social media for granted? That’s OK too… please remember that most of the numbers aren’t real and your posts are screaming into the void. Depressing? Maybe.

Try this on…

Imagine your near-future website was a content rich environment that you control, monetize and curate as you want to and you keep 100% of the money that comes in. Imagine that you have taken off the training wheels put on by Facebook, Google and the rest and you are free to express yourself. Yes, you might lose 98% of the noise and virtual eyeballs that the big social media sites dose you with but imagine that the remaining 2% is your family and they will go into battle with you anywhere and anytime.

The answer to the question: “what the future of music monetization?” always was going to be: “do it yourself “without the hubbub of Silicon Valley bullshit. For those brave enough to build your audience on your own terms, your long-term career awaits.