With all due respect to sports and movie aficionados, music fans have flocked to the Internet in greater numbers than devotees of just about any other pastime. They chat. They advocate (and they pan). They download ("legally," of course). They do more with their browsing and bandwidth than many programmers.
And yet with the exception of a handful of savvy tie-ins, marketers - of big brands and big bands alike - really haven't gotten a handle on what makes music fans tick. The affinity that Web surfers feel toward their favorite performers makes them prime targets for well-executed music/marketing mash-ups. Yet beyond stamping a sponsor's name on a program and hoping for the best, few entities have come up with a consistent plan of attack.
"Brands in general have not been as daring in their use of music as they've been in their use of, say, sports," notes Gogi Gupta, founder of online marketing firm Gupta Media. Adds Lucas Mann, chief marketing officer of music-video competition Music Nation: "All brands want to be involved with music, but they're taking a wait-and-see approach. So many people are trying to figure out how to harness the enthusiasm."
Same Old, Same Old
To do so, brands should be paying attention to what record labels and artists themselves are up to. But to date, brands have mostly applied the same fan-baiting strategies (contests! meet-and-greets!) used in other media to the Internet. They traipse onto the scene with the grace of a tipsy elephant. Predictably, fans quickly scatter.
What's holding back big brands? They "tend to react to trends that are no longer trends," Mann shrugs.
Making the Connection
Artists, labels and the savvy agencies and online publishers that work with them, however, have consistently found novel ways to market themselves to music lovers. They've connected on a range of levels, from the obvious (getting the music in front of fans via online audio and video jukeboxes) to the less so (offering games, clips and interactions unavailable elsewhere).
Prior to the release of Janet Jackson's 20 Y.O. CD, multi-platform design and branding shop Visual Intelligence Agency (via) made make-your-own-cover-art-tools available to fans, promising to put the most outstanding fan designs on the first million copies of the CD packaging. For singer Brooke Valentine, described by via founder Darryl Ohrt as "a pop artist with a street edge," the agency devised a celebrity-girl-fight game in which players, as Brooke, could knock heads against the likes of Paris Hilton.
"You hear people say that 'fans becoming part of the process is the future.' I'd say we're already there," notes Ohrt, himself a former musician.
Even old-school acts are getting in on the action. For years, the Bruce Springsteen fan community (raising hand) has bemoaned his reluctance to take advantage of the Web's interactivity and its potential as a communication medium.
That changed last summer, when the singer made exclusive video available on AOL Music for each performance on his five-week tour. The clips were supplemented by set lists, commentary from the fans at Backstreets.com and more.
"The question was whether we could pull it off from a production standpoint," recalls Samantha Saturn, vice president for digital media marketing at Columbia Records. "It was for fans as well as people who didn't know Bruce had this record out," she says, referring to We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. As soon as the AOL program launched, Columbia saw a spike in online sales of the record.
Getting Pitch Perfect
So what can big-brand marketers learn from this about cozying up to music fans? Perhaps it's most instructive to look at what they shouldn't be doing. Preaching brand messages in a music-intense online environment will fall on deaf ears, as will all pitches that assume anything less than complete technological and musical sophistication on the audience's part. "They consider themselves very savvy, not just about music but also about the way people use it to sell other things," Gupta notes.
Attempting the same type of program more than once will relegate a brand to the marketing equivalent of the discount bin. Similarly, simply adding music to a brand- or product-centric community won't fool anyone and will likely erode credibility. "[Brands] come into a space and just try to market to it, without trying to build their own neighborhood in those communities for existing customers," says Tom Gerace, CEO of Gather.com, a sort of MySpace for grownups.
Of course, publishers of sites appealing to music fans should know where to draw the line as well. "Look, we all have to make money, but you have to make decisions based on what makes sense and what's respectful to the audience," says Dave Uosikkinen, director of music and community at vMix.com. Uosikkinen knows that of which he speaks: As the drummer for The Hooters, he witnessed the art vs. commerce debate from up close. "What fans won't stand for is the intrusion thing - a huge ad, a pop-up or whatever. I was on the Hooters site recently and got a pop-up. I was pissed! I made some calls to get it off."
Consider the Site
As for the best places to find fans online, music-savvy marketers caution brands not to settle for the easy buy. A banner ad on RollingStone.com might reach a lot of fans, but the message might resonate more strongly on a smaller niche site. "Especially with music, I've seen $40 media buys that are more effective than $40,000 ones," Music Nation's Mann says. Marketers need to do a little homework, instead of ringing up PitchforkMedia.com and calling it a day.
Gawker Media's music site, Idolator.com, gets high marks, as does rock blog Stereogum.com.
And though it should go without saying, marketers should pursue The Next Big Technology Thing as if it were one of the primary focuses of their businesses. The music industry was late to both the file-sharing and user-generated-content games.
"Technology will eventually drag this industry forward," Gupta says. "It's been doing that for the last 10 years; it will be doing it for the next 50."