Hello friends of A Different Drum! I have had a few busy weeks with life, but the kids went back to school today and that means I finally have a few minutes to put together a little update, and the next installment of A Different Drum’s history.
As a reminder, if you’ve missed past “history” posts, you can find them all posted on A Different Drum’s blog page here:
First of all, some good friends of mine have released a new album that you should check out. The band is NULL DEVICE, and I’ve always been a fan of their unique synthpop style that blends ethnic influences into the instrumentation…
NULL DEVICE “Perihelion” $14 — This is a limited run of CD’s for the fans and collectors, and the inside of the booklet has been autographed. It’s too bad that these quality bands can’t sell more than a couple hundred CD’s in today’s rough market, especially when they have such musical talent. I’m sure there are many thousands who will have the music in the end (either legally or otherwise), but at least the band continues to make music…something that is hard for a true artist to give up. Order the new CD here:
A DIFFERENT DRUM HISTORY - PART 6 - THE MANY MYSTERIES OF PROMOTION
It is one thing to decide to start a label. It is another thing to actually keep it alive for any length of time, and much of that longevity depends on promotion. I’ve sometimes joked with people about releasing albums, or starting labels, or going out on any such venture when they have no idea what they’re going to do next. Even in my current job working as a manager in a media store, I have local bands come in and ask if they can sell their CD’s on consignment.
“Sure, we can put your CD on the shelves on consignment. But are you promoting it?”
“Well, we’re really good.”
“Are you playing shows?”
“Yeah, we’ve played at a couple of local parties.”
“That’s good, and you’ll have to keep doing that, a lot. Because putting the CD on the shelf isn’t going to do you any good unless you’re promoting it.”
“Sure. But we’re really good…”
The thing is, you can be the best band in the world, but if nobody hears you, then how do they know to pick up your album? It is what I call the “Field of Dreams” mentality. If you’ve ever seen the movie, “Field of Dreams”, a man is basically inspired to rip out some of his corn fields to build a baseball field. He is told, “if you build it, they will come.” Without going into details about the movie, I’ll just say that the philosophy doesn’t usually work in real life. “If you release it, they will buy it.” That doesn’t work…at all.
It felt a little bit like I was living the Field of Dreams when I put out my first compilation CD, since customers seemed to pop out of the woodwork to buy it. But in reality, the groundwork had been laid quite a while before the CD was released. That groundwork was promotion– maybe unintentional promotion– but promotion nonetheless. I’d been hanging out on internet newsgroups and email lists, etc. talking about the music, selling the bands, etc. So, when the “Rise!” CD came out, I already had a little network of people who heard about it, talked about it, and supported it. But that wasn’t going to happen for every band, and for every release unless I could build the fan base larger. The trick was this– what could I do?
I can’t tell you how many times I received emails from well meaning fans who wanted the music that they loved to become mainstream. They wanted A Different Drum to succeed, and they wanted to see these bands hitting the same kinds of sales as the old-timers like Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys. So, they’d send me emails saying things like, “Hey Todd. You know, you could sell a bazillion of these CD’s if you just played it on the radio.”
Let’s look at that suggestion. “Just play it on the radio.” There are basically two kinds of radio stations out there (at least in the USA). There are the commercial radio stations, which are by far the largest and most influential stations in the market. Then there are the non-commercial stations which are run non-profit by places like schools, universities, etc. They do not sell commercial airtime for a profit, and the DJ’s are all unpaid volunteers. The commercial stations are in the business of selling advertising so that they can pay their employees, cover their costs, and hopefully make a profit. The little, non-profit guys are more in the business of giving people experience with radio (educational purposes) or for simply sharing alternative information and programing with the public. Since the smaller, non-commercial stations don’t sell ads, they have to do fund-raising to pay the operational costs.
That is a simplified explanation, but it suffices to make my point. The non-commercial stations often have volunteers who play whatever they want, so they are the easier target when trying to introduce people to new, independently released music. Sometimes there is a super-great DJ who loves synthpop and says, “Yeah, I’ll play whatever you send me!” (Hello Eric O. in Santa Clara). So, I give up copies of the label CD’s and pay to mail them out for free to these DJ’s who play them on the air. The downside… the number of stations is huge, so you can’t do a sweeping promotion without mailing hundreds or thousands of copies, and unless you actually know the DJ who is willing to play the music, your promo copy is going to end up in A) a box which the station is going to auction off or give away in trade for donations because they need money during fundraising, or B) part of a DJ’s huge music collection of thousands of free promos they’ve been soaking up for whatever reason. So, what you really have to do is find those DJ’s who really play the stuff and who aren’t just in it for freebies. Happily, those guys often seek you out as a label, talking about how they like what you’re doing in specific terms, rather than sending a form letter, begging for promos.
In the end, you have maybe a couple dozen college stations that will actually give your music a spin or two. The result? You have a station with a couple dozen regular listeners (impossible to know…maybe a hundred…maybe three people), hearing a song played during a show that lasts two hours on a designated day once per week. So, the chances of the right people hearing it are, needless to say, pretty slim. But we take what we can get.
So, why not just send out the CD’s to commercial stations? That is an entirely different ballgame. Since commercial stations exist to sell advertising time, they rarely have anything to do with the musical programing. There are not DJ’s sitting there, selecting their favorite tunes and “promising newcomers” to present to the audience. They can only sell ads by saying, “we play the biggest hits by the biggest artists in category X.” If it’s a pop-rock station, they play the hits by the biggest bands, and they have to, because they can only convince Coca-Cola and Budweiser to pay them the big bucks if they capture the largest audience. So, why couldn’t I get a band like Brave New World, or Cosmicity, or Neuropa played so that they become the biggest bands with the biggest hits? Well, because I’m a small label with a very small budget. To play that “big boy” game, you have to fly reps to the stations that own all the other stations, schmooze the guys who call the shots, taking them to dinners, taking them skiing, taking them to concerts,etc. until they decide that maybe they can give you a little break. They all have their own networks already, and they are networks that are controlled by money. Maybe it sounds like I’m making excuses, but when did you see any label with a couple thousand dollars break into a major market? Usually it is somebody controlled by the likes of Capital EMI, Sony, BMG, etc. If was a little guy that made it big, it was most likely a Cinderella story where the unlikely girl gets the Prince. But what about the thousand of beautiful girls out there that didn’t get to marry the Prince?
So, if you take away the radio angle, which was not a tool accessible to such a small, boutique label, then what do you have left to get the bands heard? The internet is a wonderful thing. It opened the doors for new bands to be heard without having to be filtered through those who control the airwaves. New internet stations were popping up all over the place. People were streaming. It grew fast, and I think that fans were able to narrow their searches and find new music easier than ever before. It was a revolution of sorts in the late 90’s that opened up the doors for small labels and bands to be discovered. In that way, it was a blessing. But in another way, it created a lot of noise. If anybody can start a station on the internet, then you’ve got thousands upon thousands of internet stations popping up. That means fewer and fewer listeners per station. If you thought the college radio stations had a hard time getting a large audience, imagine an internet station among tens of thousands trying to get a few people to listen. So the impact was again hard to measure. If I sent out freebies to internet DJ’s, then there was no real way to know if the promotion was doing any good. I could just end up a couple hundred CD’s short and two extra copies sold. The real internet DJ’s who loved the music often bought their own music anyway, which meant that they were dedicated and serious, and I think it showed in their programming. But in the end…what about promotion?
The music was out there with samples, easy to hear if you could channel the searchers to the right places. That became the challenge. You had to tell people where to look so that they could discover the samples and the streams and become fans. That meant more online networking, and more use of certain tools. Amazon.com had some of the best tools, including ways to share lists and suggestions with other shoppers. I created a bunch of “Listmania” lists which actually got a lot of hits, comparing old synthpop bands with newer ones. Amazon became one of my best vendors. The label was making more on the monthly Amazon payments than it was through A Different Drum’s online store for a couple of years. After all, people browsing Amazon were there because they were looking for things to buy. They welcomed recommendations.
Another way to reach people was through magazines. Again, there were the physical, print magazines, and then there were the internet “webzines” which started to pop up everywhere, just as the internet radio stations had. Originally, I sent dozens of CD’s of each release out to print magazines, mostly in Europe. There were only a couple in the USA that even covered independent synthpop, but there were several in Europe. The point of sending out the CD’s was to obtain reviews, thus getting the attention of the readers and hopefully attracting them to the internet to listen to the band. So, the review didn’t need to be entirely positive to help sell CD’s. Just the awareness of the band name and album was enough to plant a seed attention. Those European print magazines had reviewers who obviously had specific tastes. As long a as a band’s release fit that reviewer’s taste, they were going to get a high rating. If the CD didn’t fit within their tastes, then they struggled to find anything positive to say, and the rating was mediocre. You don’t send a light, bubbly, catchy synthpop release to a primarily industrial magazine and expect a glowing review. Usually the album was described as “weak”, or “too retro”, or “lacking intensity.” In my opinion, the intensity may have been there, but it was more displayed in the melodic structure and lyrical content rather than through pounding drum machines, stabbing synthesizers, and gritty, half-yelled vocals. I’m not criticizing industrial music, but you can see the difference in the two styles when you put Wumpscut next to Neuropa and expect the reviewer to consider each on their own merits, when they are obviously fans of one style more than another. I remember one of my favorite lines printed in a UK magazine, reviewing one of my label releases. By “favorite” I mean that it proves my point exactly. They first said how boring the release was, and how “weak” (of course) and then said that such-and-such track was better than such-and-such track, but only like stepping in a puddle of piss is better than stepping in a pile of poop. Classy…
But I sent out those review copies regularly, until the requests for promos from all of the webzines started flowing in. Once again, any Tom, Dick, or Stanley can make a webzine (the predecessor to blogs) and then start emailing hundreds of labels, asking for promos. But does it mean anybody is reading their reviews? I had to focus on the webzines that were created by people like myself who had been working inside the scene for years, and who were recognized by their peers and respected by their readers. For every twenty or so promo requests, there was maybe one even worth the postage cost to send a promo. The rest were just background noise. Eventually, nearly all of the print magazines gave up the expensive costs of printing and went online, marking the death of independent music magazines. Only the big magazines were left, and do you think a CD from a band like The Echoing Green was going to get reviewed by Rolling Stone magazine when thousands of CD’s were probably hitting their office every single week? Well…the odds are few.
Looking back at the struggle of independent magazines, I have considered the tightrope the publishers had to walk to stay alive. It was probably every bit as touchy as the labels. When you consider that A Different Drum wasn’t willing to spend $1000 for a large ad in a magazine, while apparently other labels were, then why would the magazine worry too much about lesser reviews of A Different Drum’s releases? They could say what they want without hurting their income. I’m not saying that reviews are undoubtedly influenced by such business transactions, but it is worth consideration. You know what they say about “biting the hand that feeds”, and I didn’t often see negative reviews about releases by labels that consistently paid for advertising space. Maybe they just put out very good releases, all of the time?
There is another group of DJ’s who I believe had the biggest power to influence listeners. Those are the club DJ’s. Any DJ with a regular club gig and a steady crowd has great power to create a “hit” within their particular audience. A club DJ can play what they want, and they rise in the ranks based on their ability to get the dancers moving– not whether they can sell advertising spots to Pepsi. They have freedom to form their own style and their own approach, and if they choose to put something into rotation, they can do it. My biggest promo list was to club DJ’s who I knew were active by verifying that they had an audience. My own customer pool was big enough that I could check on clubs in certain areas and verify what the DJ was playing. Surprisingly, it was easier to find out about what was happening in the clubs than what was happening on the radio stations. Club-goers love to talk about where they go, and what they listen to, and they love to keep up on what is fresh. They were the ones who often ended up buying CD’s. The club was the best way to reach people that I could find– at least in terms of pulling them into a mindset where they cared about the music enough to seek it online and possibly even buy it.
As a result, much of my promotional efforts turned to the clubs. I traveled to clubs sometimes, even when it wasn’t for a live show. I encouraged the bands to talk to the clubs and get to know the DJ’s and schedule live shows in their venues. This was their lifeblood when it came to promotion. Whenever I showed up in a club and set up a table full of CD’s to sell, I would have a great success. People would crowd the table in search of new music to buy. They’d hear it play, walk to the table and ask what they’d just heard, and I’d sell it to them.
Luckily, this kind of promotion didn’t cost a lot of money. I sometimes got a lot of pressure from bands to pay for magazine ads and “promote them properly”. They figured that if I announced that a new album was out by a band nobody had heard of, thus printing some expensive, half-page ad in a print magazine, then people would flood to the stores to buy it. But that’s not how it works, and I knew it. I’d even read an article once that explained how print advertising only worked if you had already done your branding and you were announcing a product that was already recognized. So, for music, it made sense to pay for a magazine ad that announced a new release by a band that the readers already knew, because that simply served as information upon which the reader could act– thus seeking the album. But a print ad about a band that nobody knew (which was the case with most bands I introduced to the market), then it was a quick way to lose money. Readers understand enough about advertising to recognize that an ad telling them that something is the best thing on planet earth– that it’s just hype. So, they skip over it.
I did pay for a handful of print ads, but they were usually advertising A Different Drum more than any single band, because telling people that there is a store where they can buy a whole bunch of different CD’s was more financially rewarding than convincing readers that they had to shop for one particular item. Generally, I found that advertising A Different Drum in any way ended up doing more good than advertising each band independently. Maybe that means that certain bands didn’t get as much attention as they “deserved”, or that others got more than they should have? But it created a single entity that fans generally trusted. If A Different Drum was putting out a new CD by somebody, it was often given the benefit of the doubt by those who had come to respect and enjoy the music released by the label in the past. “See what is new at A Different Drum” was more effective than “See what is new by Band X.”
I remember once promotional campaign that was more expensive, yet more rewarding that many others I’d tried. If getting people to hear the music was the best promotion, I found a way to introduce a lot of people who had a particular taste to a lot of new music, all at once. I printed a couple thousand copies of a sampler CD with inexpensive packaging. Then I got permission from a concert promoter to give away CD’s to all the attendees of an Erasure concert in Salt Lake City. I stood in the lobby of the venue and handed CD’s to everybody who wanted once, thus distributing more than a thousand CD’s in a single night. True…some of those CD’s were swept off the floor of the venue when the night was done. But many of them made it to homes. I was told by individuals months and even years later that they turned to Amazon.com or to ADifferentDrum.com initially because they’d liked some music on a sampler CD that was given to them at an Erasure concert. Was it worth the cost of manufacturing a couple thousand CD’s just to give away? Maybe. That’s still hard to tell, but if those customers kept coming back for years, then it must have been a good idea. I also printed other sampler CD’s (sometimes in partnership with other labels) which were given away as freebies to customers who ordered through A Different Drum’s website. Since those were people who already ordered music, then they were a prime target for introducing new material. Some of the best promotion efforts any retail business can make is directly to the customers that they already have. Those are your most valuable customers in the long-term, so you have to treat them right.
With all of this said, I still have to look back and figure that I must have missed some big opportunities. I must not have understood everything clearly, because eventually, all of the attempts to promote didn’t stop the label from suffering losses. The CD’s stopped selling as downloads became cheap and easy (not to mention free to most would-be customers in the world). No matter how much I pushed to introduce new music, the sales stopped coming as they had. The good reputation and branding may have been there, but the financials failed to add up. The emergence of downloads didn’t kill all labels, but it took down a lot of us, including A Different Drum to a large degree. The very things that had changed the promotion game for the small guys also took everything away from those same small guys in the end. So it goes– if you don’t adapt and change as fast as the market, you lose.
I could promote all I wanted, but if it was only introducing new material to steal, then it wasn’t helping in the end. I remember receiving a phone call once from a guy who had called and talked to me regularly over the years. He said that he simply wanted to tap me for some suggestions. What was good? What was new? What should he try? He had absolutely no intention of ordering anything, which I discovered after a few long conversations which were probably initiated on my toll-free phone number at my expense. He eventually explained that he only wanted to know what he should download so he didn’t waste so much time trying to find the good stuff. Was he buying the downloads? No. He even admitted that he always downloaded the music for free because he couldn’t afford music at the time. If he really liked it, then someday he would purchase the CD. I avoided any call from him from then on. He had no idea what kind of damage he was doing with his “Disney - Aladdin” attitude—“If I can’t afford it, then it’s OK for me to steal it.” The true problem is that he merely represented what was becoming a huge majority of music listeners around the world. He was simply one person brazen enough to call me and admit that he wasn’t buying anything. I guess everybody else had the tact to keep that information to themselves.
There are other fun stories about promotion that I’ll share later– like a couple of years venturing with some success into the anime market, and going on little club tours (always a big adventure) and setting up festivals. Those were fun times, and I’ll be sure to share plenty of stories which will ultimately be a lot more fun that this little run-down of the mysteries of promotion. Talking business is boring. I know you’d rather hear stories.
Next time…I may actually post a gallery of photos that my wife pulled out. It turns out I do have about a half-dozen photos from the earliest shows I promoted. Nice! I’d forgotten about them! But I have to scan them and put them online somewhere. Then, I’ll move onto…
PART 7 – LET’S HAVE A PARTY