The 3 timeless steps to guaranteed music business success

Timeless truth about musicThe music business has radically changed as a result of the internet. This site is testament to that fact. We could all do with a little time to sit and reflect upon what that means for music business professionals, independent artists, music entrepreneurs and potential music careerists.

And there are important things to discuss. We can talk about how to promote your website. We can talk about how to pimp your MySpace page. We could spend time discussing the collapse of copyright in an online world, or the rise of the Long Tail. We might wish to discuss Microsoft’s Zune, and how it plans to be yet another Goliath to Apple’s iDavid.

But in doing so, we might forget to reflect upon the simple truth that is the heart of music business. It is the key to success in music marketing and retail as well as to gig promotion, media coverage, buzz and, most importantly, the sale of music online and off. It has been true since the beginning of the music business and it is still true today. It stands, unscathed by the world wide web, impervious to the sands of time.

It is this simple 3-step principle, and it is at the heart of all music business success:

People hear music — People like music — People buy music

It’s as simple as that.

1. People hear music
This is why radio is such a successful driver of music sales. People need to hear whole songs. They need to hear them more than once. They need them to get under their skin and into their subconscious. The lesson here? Don’t muck about with 30 second samples. Don’t bother with streaming. Let people download your music and integrate it into their daily lives. Let them take it with them where they go. Let them put it on shuffle and have your music come up from time to time as part of their personal musical identity.

2. People like music
Having heard the song a number of times, they become far more than people who happen to like a particular tune and are prepared to pay some pennies in order to be allowed to listen to it. They become your fans: people who say ‘Oh yeah – I love that band’… rather than people who simply hear 30 seconds, think ‘that sounds cool’ and then move on elsewhere completely disinterested in anything else you may have to offer them.

3. People buy music
Fans of an artist will willingly and happily engage in an economic relationship with that artist. I’m not just saying ‘give the music away and make money on the t-shirts’ (though that can work too) — this goes deeper and is a more nuanced relationship. Fans buy music. They buy associated products. They buy concert tickets. You can’t convert a browser into a fan in a matter of seconds. Best case scenario, you’re looking at an impulse purchase.

Nobody buys a movie ticket because they enjoyed the film so much. Nobody rushes to the bookshop to pick up a copy of the novel they read over and over again the previous weekend. But — online or off — people get to hear a piece of music, grow to love it over time, and then wave their cash at whoever will take it from them so that they can own a part of that experience that has given them so much joy.

Naturally, there’s a fourth bonus timeless step:

4) People share music
You hear a song on the radio. You hear it again. You love the song. You buy the record. You bring it home. You play it and play it over and over. And then your next impulse? Tell a friend: “you’ve got to hear this record — it’s so great. LISTEN!” — and you play it to them. You might even let them tape it, or let them take your copy home for a bit.

And then the process starts again. They hear. They like. They buy.

Of course, the ways and means by which that happens changes over time. But the fact that it works like this can’t change. You can’t get them to buy, then hear, then like… any more than you can get them to like then buy then hear.

HEAR music, LIKE music, BUY music.

It’s so simple and obvious. It’s always been true. It only happens that way, and it only happens in that order. If your online music strategy doesn’t follow that universal truth, then you’re only making it hard for yourself.

12 thoughts on “The 3 timeless steps to guaranteed music business success

  1. The trouble is that people have got so hung up on recorded music that they can’t see how you can give away your “music” (by which they mean recording) and still make money. But as you hint, there are various ways.

    If anyone’s got any novel ideas, maybe you could share them in this thread?

  2. Gary says:

    I’m not sure about this.

    My wife is a musician, and will be recording an album in November. The site/label she is a part of, currently have 3 free downloads from their recorded artists. The rest of the tracks are available to buy (download or cd).
    Right now, though, they are thinking of making ALL the songs from recorded cd’s be free downloads.
    On the one hand, that could bring alot more visitors to the site (possibly), to download the free tracks… but would it be considerably more than already download the 3 free tracks?
    Would it really kill off any potential cd sales? I think so, and devalue the music.
    If people downloaded, loved and bought the cd, then great, but I really don’t think people who get things for free, actually value them as much, and wouldn’t buy the cd. They would be iPod fans, and burn their cd’s with the mp3′s (high quality 256kbps btw). Not many would buy the cd, when they already have all the songs at their disposal.

  3. Atul Rana says:

    This is a really great article and confirms a belief that I’ve had…..you can’t force people to like your music and then buy it just from one listen!

    My band is currently not making any sales whatsover, even though we have a produced demo around with a printed cd. We simply give out copies of our 4 track EP free after every gig. I’ve even been growing a fanbase on Facebook esp in the US, but that’s mainly because I am quite social and befriend people easily on there. Once I do that I also tell them about the band and am happy to send them the cd for free. This works much better than randomly spamming people and I make friends at the same time too, bonus!

    And…once those people like our music and they have a cd, the cd will hopefully start doing rounds with their friends and they will want it too. Word of mouth is and always has been the most powerful means of marketing.

  4. Matt Bentley says:

    Mate, your points are valid, except for the third, which is patently untrue in the current climate. And the devaluation of music is rising exponentially. I don’t have or want merchandise, t-shirts, and I’m not in a position to play concerts. If someone can’t make a living making music, from music itself, then your article is patently false. People like Boards of Canada have almost ceased to bother already.
    It’s not about liking music.
    It’s about -valuing- it.
    In a capitalistic societal structure, the BIGGEST way we show appreciation is by giving money for it-
    and by devaluing musics monetary value, we are ensuring that in the collective consciousness, that money has -no- value.
    To hell with piracy. To hell with the consumer.
    It’s about ethics. Unless people have that, you will -never- get money from recording music. You might make money from playing a gig or from selling a t-shirt – but that’s not the same.

  5. Dubber says:

    I get what you’re saying, but I have to disagree.

    I think you’re missing the point of capitalism if you say ‘To hell with the consumer’ and ‘It’s about ethics’.

    Capitalism is not about the fair and equitable distribution of wealth proportionate to the creation of goods and services, and nor has the history of capitalism been kind to those who insist on doing the same old things on the basis of what consumers SHOULD do (but clearly don’t). You can spend time and energy getting angry about it, but that’s hardly a realistic or pragmatic approach.

    Surely if you want to make money from music, it’s better to factor in the environment as it is, rather than try and demand it be otherwise.

    But selling individual copies of individual recordings is only one way of making a living from music — even from recorded music. If Boards of Canada are smart (and everything I know about them leads me to suspect that they are) then they’re making far more money off synchronisation and licensing than they are from album sales.

    By singling out my point 3 above as one of contention, you seem to be suggesting that consumers should, in all instances, pay for the privelege of listening to music prior to being allowed to hear it. Surely you’re not serious?

    Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I don’t think people who can’t afford to buy music should be prevented from ever hearing it — and nor do I think that your access to music should be directly tied to your earning capacity.

    I absolutely believe that artists should make money for what they do. I don’t believe that income should be directly tied to numbers of copies of the recording in existence.

    And finally, I don’t think that music is being devalued. If anything, music is more important and more valuable than it’s ever been. But I don’t think the exponential rise in music listening needs necessarily to be tied to an equally exponential rise in music business revenue. It might be ‘fair’ in a simplistic and linear fashion, but people are engaging with and enjoying music far more than at any other time in history and that seems to me far more important than charging an entry fee in each individual instance.

    Generally when people are stamping their foot and saying ‘It’s not fair!’, what they really mean is ‘It’s no longer sufficiently unfair in my favour!’.

  6. Matt Bentley says:

    You’ve got me wrong there Dubber-
    I’m not stamping my foot, I’m pointing out the base situation as it stands, which is, people are not making as much money from recording music. Ie. People will not pay for music, which you’ve stated as ‘fact’ here.
    The majority of people I know (a broad spectrum) purchase music infrequently, 90% of the time listening to whatever they’ve downloaded from p2p. I’m not against giving away music for free in a lower quality format (ie 128kbps) and being able to listen to it in entirety with a reasonable level of quality (ie. radio or in this day & age 128kbps), but your argument that they will pay for music is false.
    They don’t.
    FYI, Boards of Canada have only done one piece of licensing for a tv ad (a cellphone ad) to date. They’re smart. They know that the most important thing to themselves, and their fanbase, incindentally- is integrity. You’re not going to see a lot of licensing happening with them.
    Now, before you go off on another rant about how what -you want- capitalism to be, I’ll remind you that capitalism is based on people being paid for their goods and services, and the money going proportionally to those goods and services which’re seen to have the most value.
    You may not be able to construct a valid argument against it, but when people have twenty gigs of albums sitting on their hard drives and don’t go out and buy them (as is the case with so many computer users) legally, then yes, music is and has been being devalued since the mp3 came into existence.

  7. Matt Bentley says:

    BTW – you are also making an uneasy alliance between ‘enjoying music’ and ‘appreciating music’, which’re not the same thing even remotely. When my brother comes to town to visit, he enjoys the things my family does for him, but it takes a slap upside the head (metaphorically) for him to actually understand that people don’t have to go out of their way for him, and therefore, to appreciate it. Don’t try and twist that into a personal thing, it’s only an example-
    but the fact is, people may be enjoying music more often and in greater quantities than before – but they sure as hell ain’t appreciating it as much as they would if they had to pay for it (see argument above regards valuation in capitalism), nor are they appreciating it as much as they would were there a smaller amount of it (scarcity). It’s just -more music- now – they can have as much of it as they like, with no need to thank, pay or appreciate the artists, sound engineers, mastering agencies etc.
    That kind of snowballs on a societal level until you get a spoiled economy- why the hell -should- someone pay for music if they can download it illegally, without consequences? Ethics is the only answer to that, not placating the consumer by encouraging more music devaluation, or judicious enforcement of the law on a few unfortunate individuals to scare the hell out of the rest.
    If you want people to sell t-shirts, go for it. If you want people to sell music, to make money from music, you need to be encouraging ethics, not piracy. Just don’t try and pretend they’re the same thing.
    BTW, The idea that access to music -shouldn’t- scale to income is frankly anti-capitalist (not that I actually have a problem with that sentiment, but we -do- live in capitalist times) – radio, which’s a free format, is not on-demand or easily recordable, equates to low quality streaming, which (for some reason) you are against. People across all spectrums have had access to this level of quality for a long time (and still do with streaming), and those with money have been able to pay for retainable copies. There’s no reason why that system should not continue to exist, other than the fact that people would rather obtain their music without paying the makers of it, illegally and unethically.

  8. sir dorian says:

    this sounds a lil bit to…hm…easy, nowdays. i really agree that things wich are for free, didn´t value. music lose a lot of value over the last years because you can get it for free.

    fans didn´t become fans ´cause of the songs and music. they become fans if a huge PR and media campagin happend and a story get transported. thats the reason why they love artists. i mean..ok..music is important…but look around how many crap artists out there with a huge fan base etc.
    if a song hits airplay on radio stations, people hear it 8 times or more a day. but before a song set up on airplay, it needs a lot of money and even a good PR.

    i think that it is all about a good story to tell in a era where so much bands produce there songs with a cheap computer software and everyone sounds like each other.
    bands or artists who have also a good story, know that tastemaker, influential people and the familiar thing of the music biz, are more important than send thousands of demos around the world to every record label…and having also personalities in there band and a unique style…then they can achieve what they want.

  9. Andrew, I’ve been a reader for some time now and I greatly appreciate the work you’re doing. Your line of argument here makes perfect sense, but – to be honest – I’m not at all sure that the conclusions you have reached are correct.

    The main problem I see is with point 3. (as people do). It seems only natural that people will be more inclined to buy music that they already know and like – so the three-step argument has some merit – but the question is: will they?

    Here we begin to address the fundamental problem of why should people pay for something that they already got for free? I can see only two potential reasons: good will towards the artist (wouldn’t count on it too much) or added value. I come from Poland, where even twenty years ago the only way to get most Western recordings was to tape them from the radio. Certain DJs actually played whole albums on the air. Hard times, as they say. Naturally, sound quality was terrible most of the time, so a privately imported LP had real added value.

    These days it is no more difficult or expensive to distribute high-quality sound than low-quality sound – why not just let people download everything for free? It’s possible, certainly, but I really don’t see most of those, who downloaded the music, paying for it later. However, I invite you to show all us skeptics that we are wrong.

  10. Jose says:

    Ok, so the value you pay when you buy a song is the value represented in the creativity and effort of the artist to create this thing we call music from thin air and make it sound good in a pair of speakers. The problem is that people generally don’t give a damn if the artist had to sell his ass to pay the studio sessions, it’s not even about the artist, it’s about the music itself because it is what at the end produces the pleasure. At the listener end of the equation, the relationship is between listener and music, technically the artist doesn’t really matter, it’s just natural to get the music for free if I can because it’s what I care for.

    I think the actual state of the music industry with all this sharing stuff is something that was going to happen sooner or later, it’s human nature to share things and to get the most out of something at the lowest cost possible. As we are the ones that create technology, we were going to advance in those aspects of human life and here we are now.

    Everything that can be represented as information (in this case music) can and will be pirated, and the particular problem with music is that it has to be spread to work, not like a private sex tape that is information for your own entertainment, and you see what happens when a sex tape finds a way to the internet. So you can either destroy all means of information processing and transferring -which is impossible because you can’t fight evolution- or assume that music is free from the beginning and develop your strategy from there.

    Now, the value of music should be based in quality, not illusion of quality (ie set prices). And as quality is subjective to people tastes, it’s relative. So it doesn’t matter if you give away the music for free or sell it, the value people find is if he or she likes your music or not.

  11. Alex Cortes says:

    This (the 3 steps) may be partially untrue in the context of selling recorded music -these days. But it’s most definitely true if we take a panoramic view. “Buy music” does not have to be “recorded music” necessarily…

    Attempting to change the ethics code of people seems absurd to me. You might scare them, but, deep down, people will remain the same:
    Don’t count on people to take care of your interests. Count of them to take care of themselves. Find a way of giving them something it is in their best interest to have, and a mechanism to ensure fair compensation… be creative!!!

    just my 2 cents

  12. *People DO hear Music~Consciously, subconsciously & unconsciously. From a marketing point of view People DO like Music if it either relieves pain or provides pleasure within it’s neural sense. From a promotional stance People WILL buy Music if the Artist is clever enough to incorporate both! Yes! I agree, ethics is important, along with integrity, but let’s not forget the ‘main’ principle here. From a spiritual outlook People LOVE Music if it gives them a necessary answer of wisdom to the question of the era, & it’s aligned with contacting them on a personal level. In an Artist’s own unique way with Auric-lyric ofcourse! They’ll listen to it once for free if it’s packaged with the promise to crack the code of indifference to the relationship ‘with’ it. So unconsciously they decide they need it, to be able to share this with others. They’ll come back for more if it’s promoted with the intelligence of connection ‘to’ it. So then they consciously choose to have it, for the same reason above. And they’ll certainly BUY IT if it’s produced with the genius of cultural enhancement, and directed through that metabolic rate! Why? Because then they feel MORE valuable than the Music itself, & they FEEL it already belongs ‘with’ them & ‘to’ them!! Yes! I agree, that people are more likely to take care of themselves first before others, but whether unconsciously, subconsciously, or consciously, People KNOW when LOVE is involved!!!*** ***T*ZeeNahimana~Spiritual/Music~Director/Teacher*~(Great-Grandcousin of Dame Nellie Melba~The Opera Singer, Great-Grand-daughter of Dutch Composer/Conductor e: Johannes Van Oldenbarnevelt (Not the statesman of a similar name))…