Quick Cuts: The Gaslight Anthem – ‘Get Hurt’

Release dates have all but faded into music industry history, to my mind. 

There was a time, probably not so long ago as it now feels,when I’d scour the release schedule – particularly at the start of a new year – to make a mental note of the artists lined up to deliver new music. The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt

Between increased productivity from bands, and the battered barriers to entry so unceremoniously torn down by the move online, there’s now so much music coming out that a scheduled release feels more like a formality for the artist than a foundation for the marketing campaign.

Two established bands both proved and rejected that hypothesis for me this week, as I completely overlooked a new release from Mastodon, yet took to Google to find the drop date for the next album from The Gaslight Anthem.

It’s the latter I’ll take a quick look at here, as the two advance singles – ‘Rollin’ & Tumblin‘ and ‘Get Hurt‘ – caught my attention on Spotify and did their job of piquing interest for the main release.

 

The Gaslight Anthem – ‘Get Hurt’

It’s a song I can listen to repeatedly. There’s a quiet beauty… some distant, vague longing… that lends the song a subtle but deep impact.

The lyrics aren’t exactly challenging, but the universal application of Brian Fallon’s laments is perhaps what makes ‘Get Hurt’ resonate so quickly. There’s an inevitability to lines like “I came to get hurt. Might as well do your worst to me.” The refrain speaks to all those times you committed to some course of action in full knowledge that it would probably end in heartache. There’s both comfort and contempt in that unerring alignment of our decisions and fate.

“And maybe you needed change. And maybe I was in the way.” 

More than love, this relates to any important relationship. How often do we see the negative impact of our own selfishness too long after the fact? It’s a call to

And it brings us back to the music industry.

It has indeed changed, and our attachment to previous ways of working have been in the way for more than a decade. As much as I adore record stores and the memories of countless afternoons lost to browsing the bins, Millennials are largely confused by the concept. “But, I can get it all on my phone at home…?!” And there’s no argument against convenience.

When all’s said and done, even though my interest has been stoked by the pre-release activity, I’m still unlikely to buy the physical album. The game has changed. It’s an attention economy now and merely breaking through the noise to be spun and heard is an achievement.

Play the long game: attract ears, aim for spins on Spotify et al, and build lasting relationships with fans. We can still make memories with music, but it’s time to accept that far fewer of them will be through albums and physical releases.

On Spotify’s Train Wreck Recommendations

Back in secondary school, resting on one’s laurels would earn the dreaded “Must try harder!” remark from the teacher.Spotify recommends the Black Keys

Fast forward to 2014 and that’s exactly the treatment that hardcore music listeners should be giving to Spotify for its frankly appalling email artist recommendations.

I enter for the court’s consideration, exhibit A:

“Because you listened to: The Gaslight Anthem

…. drum roll…

The Black Keys!!

Hooray!”

 

Exaggerated for effect, sure, but a train wreck recommendation for a regular listener if ever I saw one.

And before I come off as some elitist nerd music buffoon (too late), here’s a raft of reasoning as to why this is just a boring, basic recommendation with no thought for user experience:

  •  The Gaslight Anthem are popular, but The Black Keys are another level entirely. They crossed into mainstream awareness a few years back and can sell out Madison Square Garden. If I know about The Gaslight Anthem, there’s very little chance I’ve never heard The Black Keys.
  • This isn’t an isolated incident. In every recommendation mail I give another chance, Spotify will send a handful of fairly well-known artists, most of whom I’ve listened to before. There is no discovery happening here.
  • There’s no way to adjust the recommendation settings to tell Spotify’s algorithm I’m okay with it getting a bit more adventurous. I get that users with less listening history than me may want popular recommendations, but this is a service dedicated to all kinds of listener and with 20 million tracks at its fingertips… we need some control!

Black Keys listens on my LastFM profile

  • Finally – and most importantly – Spotify has my listening history, so it knows exactly how many times I’ve used its service to listen to The Black Keys. I can’t access the exact number in their database, but most of my plays on Last.FM are sourced from Spotify, so a good proportion of those 331 spins are on Spotify’s books. How the hell are you recommending a band to me that’s almost at the top my listening count?!  This is the antithesis of discovery!

Getting Recommendations Right

I get it, this is a minor gripe in an otherwise excellent service, but it’s just because I’m rooting for you, Spotify.

Apple, Google and Amazon are all lining up for our streaming dollars as part of a much wider master plan, but I at least credit you guys with a passion for music… for satisfying listeners. With that in mind, I have the following suggestions to get music discovery right for every listener, every time:

  1. Cross-check recommendations with listening history and filter out artists with a significant number of spins. Better still, allow users to import listening history from services like Last.FM so that speccy nerdy music geeks can get a head start on discovering gems in your vast archives.
  2. Set up easy-to-use filters that let us customize the recommendations. Safe to adventurous. Similar styles to new genres. Closely related artists to loosely connected. Any of these and more would help users to tell you what they want to see.
  3. Have a clear recommendation notification sign up from the get-go. It’s been so long since I first signed up that I forgot what I agreed to, but guiding listeners to a variety of ways to receive suggested new music (recommended playlists, email notifications, app notifications etc.), combined with those filters we talked about, would make for a much better user experience.
  4. Make it easy to completely opt out of all recommendations and discovery. Some people like what they like and don’t want to be bothered with anything else. I don’t understand them in the slightest, but we should respect their desire for musical ignorance all the same.

What else would you add? Have you actually found an artist you’ve never heard of but now love, thanks to Spotify’s suggestion emails?

Let me know in the comments here or on Twitter/Facebook. Together, we can discover better music.

 

(And for anyone who truly hasn’t ever heard The Black Keys, here’s what the fuss is about…)

 

Change is Inevitable. Growth is Intentional. Songza is ?

Google Sharks

Will Google support Songza, or swallow it whole?

Just as I’m struggling to decide the best way to get the writing rolling again, up pops suggestive streaming app Songza with the required inspiration.

Unusually though, it isn’t the service’s music that’s inspiring this time, but its news: Google is swallowing… sorry, “joining with” Songza.

There goes the (Street View-scoured) neighbourhood.


Sic Transit Songza Mundi


I enjoy Songza.

It’s always been a reliable alternative to the tedious automation of other radio-style streaming services, or the sheer volume of music on Spotify (which is both blessing and curse to the Swedish streaming champ). I like the personal touch, the hand-crafted playlists, and the general feeling that the app’s team have built around their service.

So despite the reassurances that the service will remain in tact, I have my doubts. 

Google is operating on a much wider scale in the music industry than the niche that Songza currently occupies. Streaming radio is a viable business, as Pandora has proven, but it’s a field full of competition and limited in its potential as a standalone offering. Songza the independent company can be proud of its 5.5 million monthly active users. Google the international behemoth, meanwhile, would deem that figure a disappointing volume of hourly search queries.

Of course Google has deep pockets and the potential to vastly expand the service. I’m a paid up Google fan boy myself in some ways, with Nexus devices and plenty of business pushed through the Play Store in terms of movie rentals and app purchases, so I don’t decry the general trend for tech companies to improve their entertainment offerings.

What troubles me is their distance from the personal listening exprience, and the pleasant alternative provided by curated platforms like Songza.

 

Cutthroat Consolidation

The worry for listeners on any independent streaming service must now be that the big sharks are circling in their shallow waters.

It’s not so long ago that Beats swallowed up MOG, only to itself be acquired by Apple for an eye-watering sum last month. After several years of experimentation, the industry is in consolidation mode as the big boys see the potential of Spotify’s model and look to head it off at the pass.

But for the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon, this is about even more than all music, it’s about offering all content. 

These tech giants want to lock consumers into their ecosystem for years to come, most likely via mobile devices. Music is an important factor in attracting consumers to play in their respective sandpits, as are movies and television. The important decision for the wider game that they’re playing is which device you choose to consume this content on, rather than the individual listening or watching choices you make, hence the new Amazon Fire phone.

All this leaves music – and more generally entertainment – as a possible loss leader for Google and its rivals; a piece of a much larger puzzle that needs to be delivered en masse as audiovisual bait for more lucrative transactions in future. Today the new Black Keys album on Amazon Music, but what price a new bog roll subscription for life on Amazon Prime?

Songza Shark MascotAnd therein lies the antithesis of what Songza offers music fans, a carefully curated listening experience with a focus on the personal side of songs.

The algorithm-driven approach of Google in itself is cause for concern, but the wider worry must be that the company simply swallows up the Songza experience and bakes it into the more anonymous Google Play ecosystem.

So, Songza Sharky… sink or swim?

Led Zep, Beyoncé, and Why Neither’s News Matters to Independent Musicians

In short, they’re big news, yet old news.

They made their names at a time when the game was completely different and can trade off their superstar status until they’re gone. How many up and coming indie musicians can say the same?

Fanfare vs. No Fair

Jimmy Page playing guitar

Image Credit: Dina Regine

Led Zeppelin  unleashed their back catalog on Spotify, cue trumpets.

Finally, one of the biggest rock bands ever is available to the hundreds of thousands of fans who use the streaming service, love the band, but previously had to dig out some physical release to listen to them. No new music is required to make this announcement worthwhile, as the triumph of having Zeppelin’s entire discography at the click of a button, at home and on-the-go, is enough to release a wave of pent up frustration at that previously limited access.

This simply doesn’t exist for releases by newer independent artists, whose work is cast into the vast archives of the streaming services. There they compete for listening time with other new releases by better known artists, not to mention the inimitable discographies of music legends. No fair, indeed.

Note that there are only now a few holdouts in the streaming space. They generally fall into one of two camps; classic acts still wringing the last few quid from physical music formats, and more contemporary acts finding fault with the payment model of Spotify and its ilk. Both have valid arguments, but the former will dry up within the next few years, as CD revenues become negligible and vinyl continues to occupy the same specialist niche it has comfortably maintained for years (thank goodness). And when the likes of the Beatles, AC/DC, and Garth Brooks finally flip that switch, the fanfare will be there for them too, as will a significant royalty check from the burst of listeners pouring over their respective canons.

This will not – and may never – be the case for independent musicians on their way up.

Why would it? Even the most hotly anticipated new releases barely make a dent on mainstream media in the current climate of music, meaning there is no rush to listen. Release dates matter less and less, albums are increasingly difficult to market as an overall listening proposition, and it’s the individual tracks, more than ever, that drive a deeper dive into a new artist’s work. Having an unexpected hit, a la Lorde with ‘Royals’, is a more likely route to some form of wider recognition.

Now, on the subject of surprises…

Beyoncé Is the Exception, Not the Rule

Beyonce silhouette

Image Credit: José Goulão

The superstar dropped a surprise album last week, cue a flock of media attention.

Unlike Led Zep, a new release was indeed the draw here (except for Target, who have thrown their toys out of the pram). Add to that the masterful avoidance of leaked material, or any benefit from pre-release hype, and surely we have a marketing master class? Sure, but only for Beyoncé and, perhaps, others with her level of recognition and guaranteed media attention.

Again, there are few examples of this in the current ranks of rising artists and certainly none who could pull it off without a series of previous successes. Beyoncé built her reputation before the collapse of album sales and relied on plenty of long-term, expensive marketing campaigns for much of the discography that precedes her latest effort. Independent musicians struggle every day to get their releases, surprise or otherwise, noticed by even the smallest of music blogs.

What hope is there of attracting any sort of fervor to a release by a relatively unknown indie act? Next to none, unfortunately. Or perhaps it’s a good thing, as we’re forced back again to the crux of the matter; crafting a career in music based on longevity, rather than sudden hype or momentary gimmicks.

Where to Look for Lessons in Music Marketing

Not up, but around.

The superstars and classic acts have already built their base and have full marketing teams at their bidding to exploit it effectively. You, the independent musicians doing it on your own time, do not. But when you see those of a similar size and stature around you gaining attention and beginning to break out, ask yourself what it is they’re doing that you can replicate and improve upon by making it your own.

And while you’re looking around, don’t forget to think about how to distinguish yourself. What is everyone doing that causes them to blend together, to . As much as you want to eschew short term gimmicks, don’t overlook the value of having a hook. Something as simple as the way you look or the places you play may be enough to set you apart, if not on first impression then after listeners have multiple encounters with your music.

In the end, perhaps the one thing we can learn from the superstars is that independent acts can’t achieve that single, huge fanfare for attention. The good news is that a slower development of several smaller, noteworthy moments can build to a crescendo of similar proportions, while at the same time making  for a more sustainable career than any overnight superstardom would permit.

 

Rough Trade NYC: Branding, Fan Experience and the Polarisation of Music Sales

“The internet has polarised record stores,” says Rough Trade East’s store director Stephen Godfroy. “At one end of the spectrum you have the complete commoditisation of music, and at the other end the specialists that celebrate music as an artefact. The ones that fall inbetween fail – which is the reason HMV failed.”

Rough Trade Records London Storefront

Rough Trade London
(Image Credit: Trischung)

Rough Trade is opening a new store next week in Williamsburg, NYC’s former hipster haven. Clearly they missed the memo e-mail that record stores are dead and gone, savaged by the P2P wolf and slowly having their bones picked clean by the circling vultures of streaming music.

What the experts forget is that niches contain super fans. And super fans tend to spend a lot of money.

The Last Bastion of Bricks and Mortar Record Stores

Unlike the aforementioned HMV chain, which has died a slow, sterile death, Rough Trade has been anything but flat lining. Business is booming.

Though I can’t be certain, any time I visit Other Music in semi-swanky NoHo, where the rents must now be high enough to bankroll small African nations, it seems to be turning a decent trade as well.

Despite the major wave of closures, small pockets of resistance seem to be winning their individual battles, despite the war for music retail outlets long being lost.

What keeps them not just alive, but breathing rather healthily? Paradoxically, it seems to be the move to digital and the abundant music that it has wrought.

The Burden of Choice and Our Need for Curators

Even during the height of file-sharing disruption – digital music for free, pre-iTunes, teenagers being sued for millions of dollars for their illicit downloads – fans sought out curators. Magazines, blogs, blog aggregators, Pitchfork, Hype Machine… as the library of online music expanded, with everything available to us by a simple search, most music fans still looked to others for guidance.

When we’re overwhelmed by choice, we look to curators for assistance.

selection of beer choices

Too much choice? Ask an expert
(Image Credit: bumeister)

It makes complete sense. It’s actually why brands do what they do and spend billions every year just to prop up their name recognition. Why do so many people come to New York City, with its frankly exquisite independent coffee shops, and head straight to Starbucks?

We go to what we know and, by extension, what we trust. We want the same from music recommendations, be it a friend with similar taste or a site whose reviews we trust.

Bob Lefsetz tends towards the idea that we’ve only got time for great, the most outstanding artists. That’s not true. We also have time for what others tell us is great, even if it doesn’t click right away. That trust carries us through for some time, only eroding after several mistargeted recommendations. If you have one mediocre mocha, you’ll still go back to the ‘bucks. The effort to build a new familiar is much more work than giving them a second, third, perhaps fourth chance.

Which brings us back to Rough Trade… music fans love ‘em.

Better Branding Through Independence

Indie record labels are compelling brands. Sub Pop, Matador, Discord, etc. Any music geek will be able to reel off a number of their favorite indie labels, each of which will have guided them to new music on the basis of successful recommendations in the past. Great brands become a repository for emotions and ideas. Great labels do the same, becoming standard bearers for a style of music or a scene that develops. And niches of fans flock to them for that reason.

Rough Trade built its name on being extremely picky about the records it stocked in its early life as a music retailer, lending it a level of credibility that has now endured over three decades. Even through years of financial turmoil and bankruptcy, the label and retail locations have been able to bounce back thanks to its brand.

That name recognition has helped it make the jump across the Atlantic for next week’s big opening. Fans will flock to the new store to see what it has to offer, browse the recommendations, and perhaps find their new favorite act (or rekindle a love affair with an old one). Over the long term, Rough Trade has built a reputation, a name, and will now continue to develop the foundation it has built. In itself, this is something that a lot of musicians can learn from.

Make More Money by Providing an Experience

I’ll write much more on this in the weeks ahead, but the final point to make is that the remaining music stores understand their role as a hub for music discussion and live performances. Digital channels can give us all the music, almost literally, but rarely provide any of the personality.

Though we admittedly need them less now, music stores are still important as a place to gather when we want to be enveloped by the experience. Not all fans need this, but enough do down in the niches to justify supporting those that make an effort to give us that experience. There are disposable entertainment dollars in every music fan’s pocket, you just need to give them a space and a reason to spend them on music, as opposed to games, movies or any other competing experience.

Focusing more time and effort on fan experience is going to be a crucial element of the new music industry. How are you going to give your listeners a memory that is intrinsically linked to your songs? That’s something that will stay with them, and lead them to spend money with you again and again.

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