Before we begin, a quick confession. Like many journalists (for that’s what I was before I was drawn into branded content), I began life as a wannabe rock star. I played in countless bands and even managed the occasional low-budget tour. As the years flew by, however, I realised that I’d probably need one of those ‘real jobs’ that I’d shirked from for so long, and I gradually found my way into music journalism.
It’s a story common to plenty of music journalists. Many are called but few are chosen, and deciding that you’re not going to pursue the rock star dream is quite a mental leap to make. Having a natural gift for music is a wonderful thing, but it can also be an itch that you spend your life trying to scratch, so it’s inevitable that those of us left on the sidelines seek alternative methods of exercising our creativity. Newsfloors and creative agencies are packed with those that failed to ‘grow up’ and still scratch that itch whenever they can.
But how about those going in the other direction? Do many rock stars start life as journalists and move into music? Bob Geldof, Neil Tennant and Morrissey (sort of – he was a published writer) spring to mind, all from the pre-internet days. However, in the modern world of instant mass publication, examples of musicians creating content for themselves that goes beyond the song itself are everywhere. Some of them can teach content marketers a huge amount about content strategy, too. Here are a few that I think deserve a mention.
I’m going to start with the least well-known and the least obvious, and with good reason, too. Fans of the San Francisco indie four-piece will know that they have never rested on their laurels when it comes to creativity (few bands get 20 years into their career and continue to make albums that are heralded for breaking new ground every time). That creativity can be found in the way they market themselves digitally, too.
Never the kind of band to attract a big label’s marketing budget, they’ve used the internet to their advantage for the best part of a decade. Remember when Beck released an album on sheet music before he put his own version out? That was 2012. Deerhoof did it in 2008 with their single ‘Fresh Born’. The sheet music was distributed, fans uploaded their own mp3s, Deerhoof shared their favourites through their site, and then their version of the single came out. Without knowing it, they were pioneering a ‘hero, hub, hygiene’ digital marketing strategy – the hero piece being the single at the end, the hub piece being the the sheet music and subsequent curation of mp3s, and the hygiene piece being the interaction with fans via the website and various blogs. Brilliant.
They’ve since continued to experiment with this kind of promotion, most impressively with their distribution of 2011’s Deerhoof Vs Evil album, which was first leaked to fans, song by song, across different international blogs and music sites in various languages. It was a truly global concept that had fans chasing around the internet, hitting sites in languages they had to Google translate, just to grab themselves some new Deerhoof music. As someone interested in content distribution, I look forward to their next marketing move almost as eagerly as I do their album releases.
2. OK Go
Impossible to ignore in the early days of Youtube, OK Go were the among the first bands to feel the full effects of ‘going viral’ on the web. Best known for their choreographed, low-budget, wonderfully creative videos, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the group are actually a group of marketing geniuses who happen to make music on the side, but frontman Damian Kulash was quick to dismiss any such notion. “[We didn’t think] ‘A ha! This will get people to buy our records’. It has always been our position that the reason you wind up in a rock band is you want to make stuff. You want to do creative things for a living.”
The romantic in me would like to believe him, but I think he’s being a tad disingenuous. Witness the homemade promotion of their 2005 single, ‘A Million Ways’, featuring a website and application designed by one of the band themselves that allowed followers (and remember, we’re talking about the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era) to listen to the song and share it with friends in exchange for download codes. If that’s not an incentive-driven marketing campaign, then I don’t know what is, but it doesn’t take from the fact that the band themselves were in their, driving their own digital promotion. Small budgets demand focus. OK Go’s early YouTube successes represent constrained creativity at its finest.
3. Bowie and Beyonce
Silence is golden records (and all the other precious metals) if you’re David Bowie or Beyonce, both of whom benefited from massive sales by saying very little (nothing at all in Bowie’s case). OK, so these guys have vast followings and huge marketing budgets behind them, but I think there’s something to be learnt from that – especially if you’re a nervous client holding the purse strings.
Very simply, the lesson is to be brave. It was never going to be a massive risk for David Bowie to release an album without telling anyone, but there must’ve been a few sweaty palms and palpitations on the morning that the record company marketing department received the memo.
“Bowie’s releasing a new single.”
“Amazing! What’s the promo budget?”
“So, what are we doing to get behind it?”
Big companies have risk departments. The likes of Bowie and Beyonce must keep them up all night. Long live the likes of Bowie and Beyonce.
4. Weird Al Yankovic
Everyone’s attempting to ‘break the internet’ these days, but we’re not all doing it with our bare arses. American comedy singer, Weird Al Yankovic, has been making popular videos since the 1980s – the visual aspect is as important to his work as his parody songs themselves – and this summer he had a bash at withering the world wide web.
His method was simple, and – again – not a million miles away from the hero, hub and hygiene strategy. He released eight videos in eight days, and then popped out an album. The videos, which would traditionally have been the ‘hub content’, did the business (over 20 million views in the first three days) and propelled the album (traditionally the ‘hero content’), Mandatory Fun, to number 1 in the US charts.
I’m only confused by the positioning of hero or hub in Weird Al’s equation because of the artist in question. Given his influence on the MTV generation, and given the decline in sales across the music industry in general, I’m not sure which he would consider the most important. He has since said himself that he’ll probably just make singles and videos from now on, so I think we have our answer, but it’s an interesting example of those separate strands becoming blurred.
The ‘hygiene content’ angle was also neatly covered off in the same interview. Having made videos for eight songs, would he be making any for the remaining four on the album? “No,” came the reply. “I’m sure fans will start creating their own.”
Jon Wilks also blogs regularly on traditional folk music at the Grizzly Folk website.