I got an email recently from an MBA student at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business named Carl Petrillo, asking if he could interview me about my experience as a musician and an entrepreneur (a “musicpreneur”, as my friends Aaron Bethune and Tommy Darker call it.)
Carl is a musician, too, having worked as a pianist, singer, music director, and choral arranger. He also spent time on the cruise ship circuit before he decided to apply to business school. I suspect Carl has actually made more money in the music business than I have, but in an ironic reverse trajectory of my career path, Carl has decided to move from being a musician into the realm of MBA school. Carl remains active in music as the Vice President of Foster Talent, as well as on his own newly-created YouTube channel.
You can watch Carl perform his original song, Coming Along, on YouTube. Carl is a witty songwriter. [French Canadian saxophone players may not want to watch the music video, however.]
Carl interviewed me for a Foster School class called “Marketing 555: Entrepreneurial Marketing.” I kind of like that – Marketing 555. Sounds a bit like a band name. Anyway, I digress.
We met and Carl asked questions, I talked way too fast for an hour, and we did some follow-up by email, and now my thoughts on marketing my own music are enshrined on the Marketing 555 Blog. Ah, the internet. So here’s the first part of the interview and a link to the rest:
“For my interview of an entrepreneur this quarter, I decided to interview a local musician who, armed with an MBA and years of experience in the tech industry, is working to build her band’s brand from scratch. Today, Solveig Whittle is a music marketing consultant, teacher, and one half of the band Solveig & Stevie. I initially stumbled upon Solveig’s writing from an interview she did with musician Molly Lewis and was struck by the quality of the interview questions. Solveig was kind enough to sit down with me, and then follow up over email, to explain how she thinks about her own entrepreneurial venture as a musician.” – Carl Petrillo, MBA Candidate at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business
Last month I was fortunate enough to get a chance to visit the offices of my friend Omri Mor’s Seattle startup, ZIIBRA. What a great team of highly motivated and creative people (their office Halloween pumpkin-decorating contest was, how do I say this? Inspiringly Awesome).
While I was there visiting, I also did an interview with their charming community manager, Mia Myklebust, about one of my favorite subjects, music marketing.
Omri founded ZIIBRA in 2011 “with the goal of helping artists turn their creative projects into full-time gigs.” ZIIBRA is a crowd funding or online patronage service that strives to harness the internet to make creating art sustainable. It caters to various types of creative “makers”, from visual artists to musicians to herbalists, perfumers and artisan food producers.
Here’s the interview I did with Mia Mykelbust at ZIIBRA:
Solveig Whittle has had a number of different careers from Microsoft to Marketer to Musician. Her many interests and talents have given her a unique perspective on the artistic community and how they go about making a living from their passion.
“I started out as a programmer many years ago and worked at a big company,” Whittle said. “I worked at AT&T and then I kind of got into the business side and worked as a product manager in the high tech area.”
She has now found her way back into marketing, which is really where her heart lies, while at the same time pursing a career as a musician. Her diverse background has given her the tools to start her own successful music career as well as help musicians hoping to break into the industry.
“Think about it as starting a small business,” Whittle says.
“If you’re an artist and you don’t think about it as starting a small business – you can’t fathom that – it’s going to be difficult unless you partner with somebody who can do it.”
Particular early in their careers many musicians will inevitably be doing their own marketing and promotion. Whittle says that though it’s important for artists to have a broad understanding of what going on in these areas of their business, oftentimes artists are more successful when they partner with someone they trust to work on these sides of their career.
Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a blog post called 8 Things Indie Musicians Can Learn From Taylor Swift’s Red Release. That post has become one of the most popular on my blog, so I thought it appropriate to do a follow-up regarding the release of Swift’s newest album, 1989. Plus, analyzing and writing about the dynamic marketing duo of Taylor Swift and Scott Borchetta is downright fun. (If I were a graphic artist I would have a picture here of Borchetta in a Batman outfit and Swift as Robin).
The release of Swift’s 2012 Red album was a remarkable success from a marketing perspective. It propelled Swift from country into the mainstream pop market and made her one of the most powerful artists in the industry with a large and loyal fan base.
This year’s 1989 album also did not disappoint. Swift topped even her own record (no pun intended) with 1.29 million copies of 1989 sold in its first week (as compared to 1.21 million copies of Red in its first week after release). While selling 80,000 more units in Week 1 doesn’t seem like a huge accomplishment, remember that overall, the music industry has shown a significant decline in sales in recent years. Until the release of 1989, 2014 looked to be the first year no single artist album would go platinum (sell over a million copies). Sales of CDs for the first half of 2014 were down 19 percent from the year before, to 56 million, and even digital downloads declined by 14 percent in the first six months of 2014 (RIAA figures). 1989 comprised 22% of the entire US album sales the week of its release. In a declining industry, this was no small accomplishment.
As I did with my first article, it’s important to consider what the marketing goals were likely to have been for this release. In 2012, I proposed the marketing goals for Red were to expand Swift’s fan base beyond the country demographic into a broader demographic. I think the goals for 1989 were different: in this case, to maximize total net profits for the release. I mean, isn’t everyone already a Taylor Swift fan? Do we really need more Taylor Swift fans? (See Saturday night’s perceptive fake ad for Swiftamine for proof of her expanded demographic.) OK, just kidding. Sort of.
During a recent Twitter exchange regarding the Taylor Swift/Spotify/streaming debate, I was labeled as having “become a professional problem identifier.” I was exhorted to instead “Be a problem solver.”
— Steve Rennie (@renmanmb) November 12, 2014
Many more knowledgeable and successful than I have certainly already waded into the fray. Even Dave Grohl! Why bother to add my perspective? Because every time I hear the argument that musicians should just “get over it,” or “stop complaining about streaming” I realize that many of us are not on the same page. We don’t even agree what the problem really is. I subscribe to the philosophy that solutions are built on consensus and common understanding, not on forcing a solution that doesn’t fit, or a model that only benefits one or two key players in the industry at the expense of the others.
It seems to me that there are a lot of things that get all confused up in this debate, and the refrain I keep hearing that musicians should just shut up and “focus on making great music” ignores the reality of how screwed up the music industry is and how hard it is – even if you’re a great musician with great material – to make a living at music.
I’m not a famous musician, or a tech entrepreneur, or someone with years of experience managing bands or running a record label. I’m just a musician, an anonymous musician who, like most of the musicians I know, doesn’t make a fulltime living as a recording artist. Oh, and fifteen years ago I was the VP of marketing at a startup whose product was distributed software as a service, bringing Microsoft Office to corporate desktops as, essentially, a streaming product. I do care more about the long term future of musicians and the music industry than going public with my music tech company and cashing out (something I also know a bit about). And I am an engineer by training. I have a sensitive radar for arguments that don’t square with my version of reality.