Saturday, 21 July 2012

Fan Feedback

I often wonder how someone becomes a fan of a particular band or artist. What was their entry point, and what made them convert that first experience into something that can sometimes verge on obsession.

I recently bought a rather simple little gadget for my iPhone, the Gliff. It's merely a piece of plastic that acts as a kick-stand to prop up the phone at a similar angle to a laptop screen, meaning I can enjoy a movie or video podcast handsfree. During the purchase process, the site asked me where I'd heard about the product. That got me thinking.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with long time industry friend Chris Thompson, who started DA Recordings (later Digital Animal). Years ago, he very patiently explained to me what was getting lost when a fan buy's a record from iTunes, Amazon, eMusic (pick any retailer). His point was really quite simple, what get's lost is the relationship between the person who made the record and the person buying the record.

Changes At Retail
I wonder how much thought most record company bosses put into that; that disconnection with their artists' fans at the point of purchase. My guess is they understand it and are aware of it, but haven't worried too long and hard about it, as for certainly most of their career the established retail model has worked well enough for them. Purchase these days includes in my opinion, adding an album to your favourites if using a streaming service, as much as it is buying the record from a download store of physically from mail-order companies like Amazon or Some of this was discussed in an interview between Ian Rogers (Topspin) and my CEO, Robb McDaniels in Dec 2011:

Staying In Touch
Anyone running a record company today will certainly want to retain and develop that relationship if at all possible. The news is full of how things have changed in the record business today. Anyone these days can have their record racked in the same store as A-List artists, thanks to DIY distribution services like Fan engagement therefore has turned into the main focus for record companies rather than an additional thing to have to think about. Helping music fans cut through all that is available out there, making sure those fans pay attention to the artist they are promoting, means those record companies need to spend a lot more time understanding who these fans are, and making sure they don't lose track of them at the end of a project.

Fan Clubs
For as long as I can remember I've come into contact with artist fan clubs, I once belonged to the Feeder fan club when they released one of their first singles Stereo World in 1996. The CD came with a square postcard which I put my name and address on and posted back to The Echo Label (their Record Label):
That fan club knew who I was and where I lived, it sent me free posters and other paper based things in the mail like picture postcards of the band, or future release artwork. These were normally sent around the time when they wanted to tell me about a new release or a tour taking place. It was their direct to fan marketing. Consequently I went on to buy not just every single, but both versions of each single for about three years. They used to make a CD and a CDX with the same lead track, but different B-Sides. They are also the only band who got me to buy the same album twice. The reason? They added two extra tracks, and a video (although they also dropped a track). This double purchase was crazy enough, but to make it worse, I also owned nearly all these songs on the singles, meaning I had sometimes 3 or 4 copies of the same track on CD. But, at that time this was the band I was a huge fan of, and if memory serves me correctly, it was the video that was the main driver to buy it a second time. Music videos were a novelty for me, MTV in the UK only launched in 1997, not that we had Satellite in my house, so for me this was special and rare.

Post Purchase
I'm not suggesting that buying any old inanimate object from Amazon, Tesco or other major online retailer is likely to inspire a great deal of due thought and emotion from the buyer, but I wonder how much value the record industry would put on an answer to a question like 'where did you hear about this Album?'.

I realise that nearly all music download and streaming sites offer the opportunity for the fan to give the album a 'Star Rating' (or similar) as well as leave a review. This is great of course, and is widely noted as a key driver for later sales of an album to other 'possible' fans. I know personally I use reviews left by previous buyers all the time, they are enormously helpful.

Data Collection
Thinking for a moment from a music industry professional's perspective. The company I work for spends a lot of time trying to understand what is going on around an album in the build up to the release date. We look at current and past events. Past sales of an artist or band are very useful in gauging what we think it might sell this time round (gives an indication of active fan-base). We look at Facebook stats, and the number of twitter followers. YouTube provide very useful territory based data, and of course there are things like Google Trends and services like Big Champagne. Data mining is very important.

During the week of release some of the music services like Spotify provide very useful systems where you can log in to see how an album/track/artist is doing each day. Likewise iTunes provide daily trend reports of sales. Excellent and invaluable data. We actually collate and consolidate this information into a useful common format, allowing for deep searches for our clients via their Client Console. But what else could be offered to help the record companies and their artists understand their audience better? It strikes me that they could quite easily help aggregate certain purchase information. Why not adopt the same principle as so many boutique online stores and simply ask (in more words than this) 'why are you buying this album'. More likely 'Where did you first hear about this album', answers could include; Radio, Magazine, TV, Online, Live or Word Of Mouth/Friend. Maybe go further and list some key publications, or break out options of 'Online' to Blogs, Feature on the store, Facebook ads, etc.

Maybe I'm asking too much or forgetting that the inevitably present 'Other' option will always be selected. We've all done that I'm sure, leaving the comment section blank. However it strikes me that music fans have started their journey to mild or complete obsession with that purchase, and would likely want to offer some additional information. It is after all why they return to the site later to leave a review or make that star rating. Music fans like to talk about where they first heard an album, so why not give them that opportunity and pass that information back down the line.

I would suggest that the music service who enables this, is likely to start winning a few more '2 Week Exclusive's' of an album, or be used for the pre-order of an album. These buy links are then shared heavily by the various stakeholders (Distributors, Labels, Management Companies, Artists). If I was running a music service, this is the sort of attribute I'd add to help focus attention on my store.

Looking at the deal we, INgrooves Fontana, announced this week with Pledge Music, perhaps we're on the verge of seeing a shift away from the focus on a 'release date', and actually all this fan feedback will be given even before they have received the album, as the 'purchase' could happen even before an album is made.

The likelihood is we will see the two co-exist for many years to come. Record companies, artist managers and bands themselves will be able to go on nurturing those important fan relationships from the point of a campaign's inception, through week of official release and beyond. 

Fan feedback has never been more important.

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