Michael Molenda: No Love From the Multitudes? Maybe Your Marketing Sucks

12th May 2021

If you’re not hip to this already, COVID-19 lobbed a nuclear grenade into the musician’s toolbox. It’s not just about gigs disappearing and revenue streams getting disrupted, the virus also tanked quite a few traditional methods for promoting your music, your merch, and your brand.

But you haven’t been paying attention, have you?

Don’t beat yourself up too much for your ignorance. You are part of an immense legion of conceptual cattle—all lumbering up a jam-packed ramp to a virtual “career slaughterhouse.” In fact, even driven and ambitious types who constantly seek counsel are being tripped up by moldy data rehashed by industry insiders who should know better.

Marketing and promotional gurus, music-business seminars, songwriting roundtables, sell-your-music strategies, and other such tutorials continue to parse out so-called knowledge as if the global pandemic never happened, as if streaming didn’t pay less-than-peanuts, as if social-network algorithms weren’t constantly kneecapping audience reach, as if technology wasn’t perpetually rewiring consumer expectations, and on and on and on.

These forces (and others) have drastically changed how the music industry operates, and COVID-19 may be the final nail in the coffin of conventional wisdom. Revolutionary thought would seem to be the order of today.

But it’s not.

Instead, some music-career evangelists continue to promote a kind of jazz-age “Win one for the Gipper” enthusiasm as a compelling, but ultimately limp strategy. Identify your audience! Work your socials! Upgrade your promo! Offer a great product! Blather, blather, blah, blah, blah.

So, you can follow comfortable counsel that seems smart but is mired in the beautiful fantasyland of the past, or you can viciously kick your own ass and start paying attention to the world as it is now. Want some suggestions?

Old-School Action Ain’t Dumb, But It Isn’t Always Smart

Knowledge is never truly wasted. If you want to adhere to old-school views on “making it in the music industry,” I’m sure you’ll find some itty bitty morsels of value. But be vigilant about music-business counsel that merely updates ’70s wisdom.

Yes. Getting your music in a tangible form (a recording, a video, etc.) is necessary. Finding distribution is key. Developing nurturing creative and business teams is essential. Building a community is what points you towards success. All of this was pounded into hopeful artists’ heads back in the ’60s and ’70s. It was a different business model then, as record labels and artist management held most of the cards (and the power). But the methodology is eerily similar to what is often advised today.

Too bad it’s not 1973.

Puttering along with intel from decades ago isn’t the most brilliant way to achieve success in 2021. Don’t feel like you have to jettison everything the past has taught ambitious musicians, but do not remain solely on a path that’s no longer relevant to success in the now.

Question Achievement

If the “expert” hasn’t become a fabulously rich celebrity by selling his or her music, then how much is their counsel really worth to you? Find people far more successful at doing what you want to do. For example, an industry executive might be a great person to network with, but if that executive isn’t also a musician with a significant following, their counsel likely won’t help you expand your audience and put money in your pocket. Seek guidance from people who have traveled the same road as you, and slayed it.

Research the Now

Are you truly aware of all the music-industry pitfalls foisted upon creators by the pandemic? Are you up-to-date on social advertising, marketing, audience development, and engagement? Don’t fool yourself, and don’t look for an easy way to play. Unless you’re win-the-lottery lucky, building a music career is painful and tremendously difficult. Do your homework and gain explicit knowledge of how the music business works today, and how it might look tomorrow. Be smart.

Cheerleaders Can Be Dangerous

Everyone appreciates positive reinforcement. But don’t mistake cheery, upbeat psychobabble for actual business strategy. Hey, we all love to hear, “You can do it!” We all dig encouraging people and being encouraged. But if smiles take the place of tangible action plans, then you may be doing your marketing plans and career goals a disservice by absorbing hugs, unicorns, and rainbows.

Go Where Futurists and Brainiacs Hang Out

The current revolution in networking is the “drop-in audio” app, Clubhouse (joinclubhouse.com). As I write this, it’s still in beta and presently only for iOS, but if you know someone who is already in the community, you may be able ask them for an invite. Clubhouse is the shiny jewel of the moment, so there’s a bit of an annoying exclusivity going on, but it’s also a world-changing opportunity for marketing yourself to really famous people, industry icons, tech geniuses, and even venture capitalists. Yes. They are all there. Everybody is talking about it. And most of the people you want to meet are accessible in the extreme. It’s a party you don’t want to miss.

A brilliant marketing strategy would be to deploy all of your energies to getting into Clubhouse during its “honeymoon period,” before it launches to everyone on the planet (and, as a result, may get its luster and value sullied by too many people surging into the discussion rooms and virtual meet ups).

Once you join the club (so to speak), don’t solely hang out in the music-industry rooms. Remember what we said about researching the now and the future? Be sure to look for discussions on emerging markets for music and investment. Dip your toe into some of the venture-capital rooms to see what investors are most excited about. There are often somewhat-less-traveled opportunities for musicians in strange and exotic places, so don’t just listen to other musicians or music-industry icons. Which leads us into …

Don’t Be a Face in the Crowd

It has always been a tough go getting a vast audience interested in what you do. Don’t make the process even harder by doing exactly what the assembled multitudes are doing. Even a slight left or right turn might get you noticed. Also, you don’t have to stress out about coming up with a totally original idea, because all you are trying to do is diminish the crowd taking up space in your lane.

And yet, so many musicians dive right into conventional methods and choose to fight it out with colossal hordes of other predictable thinkers for listeners’ attention. They will stop at uploading their releases to streaming services or offering CDs on their websites, and think, “Hey, it’s out there. Time to see what happens.” That strategy is kind of like opening a winter coat store in a tiny space at the back of a mini mall in Palm Springs during the summer, and expecting customers to not only find you, but thank you very much indeed for providing them warm-clothing options in 107-degree weather.

Instead, why not deploy slightly sideways promo strategies that add value to your release and/or your brand. One thing is certain—if you don’t hover above the surging mass of musicians you’re competing with, you’ll likely become a sad “Where’s Waldo?” caricature that no one really wants to find. The takeaway here is if a music-business website or industry consultant is telling you to try “Strategy A,” it’s a forgone conclusion that vast herds of other people are taking the same advice. Proceed with caution …

Look Ahead

Let’s assume that streaming is done. Hey, most of us aren’t going to make huge paydays from streaming anyway, so what’s the harm in pretending it’s gone like the dinosaurs? What’s next, then?

Envisioning the future is where the rubber hits the road for savvy marketers. Yes, it’s a bloody pain in the ass attempting to get it even “almost right.” Few of us are prophets, so all we can do is study trends and hot business investments, and take a shot at what products are coming down the road that might present themselves as burgeoning markets for music content. Get there early, and you will be a shiny happy people—even if thousands have the same idea as you. (Competing with thousands, after all, is much nicer than competing with millions.)

Some potentially evolving spaces to consider are spatial audio (Apple’s AirPods Max headphones could be gamechangers and point the way for new means of serving audio to consumers), augmented reality (some forward-thinking artists are already developing virtual concerts where you can truly experience sound in innovative ways), and self-driving cars (automakers are developing cockpit environments for autonomous vehicles—what role will music take?).

Turn Disasters into Opportunities

Listen—I’ve been tough on old-school marketing plans, but let’s face it, traditional promotional activities can still work quite nicely. But if you’re frustrated with where you are in your career, or if everything “the experts” have told you hasn’t moved the needle on your aspirations even one micron, then STOP ABSORBING INFORMATION THAT AIN’T HELPING YOU.

Really. Just stop. Nothing is going to change. Don’t waste any more time embracing methods that have flopped. Muster the guts to kick bad habits and bad data to the curb. Free yourself to develop innovative and creative ideas that could bring rewards. Give it a shot. It’s not like what you’re doing now is working, so the only thing you have to lose is failure. Be bold. Seek new territories. Make mistakes. Think dumb-ass thoughts. You may discover something astounding.

Michael Molenda is the longest-serving Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Player (1997-2018) and founder of the content sites GuardiansofGuitar.com and NowGenDrums.com. He is also a frequent content contributor for Line 6 and Yamaha Guitar Development.