Some comments made in this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
South By Southwest, best known by the abbreviated SXSW, is a premier conglomeration of media festivals that plays host to some of music’s most talented acts. SXSW also brought together two entrepreneurial luminaries, gifted with mindsets for spreading music to massive audiences, for insightful dialogue on the path ahead for artists yearning to make a living in our ever-changing digital landscape.
The discussion is held between Marc Geiger and Tim Westergren. Westergren is co-founder and former CEO of Pandora, one of the leading music streaming platforms of our time, and co-founder of the innovative Sessions, a platform dedicated to music live-streaming. Geiger is co-founder of the pioneering Lollapalooza music festival, former global head of music at William Morris, and founder of SAVELIVE, an initiative for supporting venues hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The thesis of the dialogue hinges upon Tim’s sobering interpretation of what musicians face in an age fraught with acquisitive social media and streaming platforms.
“The music industry is headed in a very unhealthy direction for musicians. And I think there are two real hazards that I see them confronting…”
Westergren states the first component of this worrying trend: “Fans, online, do not belong to artists.” He elaborates that artists only have access to roughly 4 to 5% of their followers on social media, and for their reach to be extended, artists must pay social media platforms [to advertise].
The second component Tim highlights are that artists make a “second-hand income.” Tim continues:
“They earn money as a share of someone else’s business, primarily advertising but also subscription, and it tends to be not very much and it’s not very much for the vast majority of artists.”
Westergren is concerned that artists are in a “precarious position” through which they’ve “given over their industry to platforms.” It’s a reality that a growing number of artists are becoming aware of, and whom a growing number still are increasingly vocal about. Westergren sees a need for change to improve the outlook.
Over the course of the discussion, Marc takes Tim’s questions head-on. Yet rather than being sympathetic to the plight of musicians caught in the folds of the digital system, Marc provides a pragmatic lens. And his ideas can be converted into strategic pieces of a game-plan for navigating our evolving digital ecosystem.
Geiger identifies Westergren’s first point as one incumbent upon a “rent-versus-own” dynamic. He proceeds to weigh the benefits of social media platforms for artists: contexts and rules for users; zero costs for artists (at least upfront); and high-traffic areas where artists can acquire listeners. With these benefits, Geiger indicates that artists can scale followings more rapidly than ever before.
Understood between Tim and Marc is the notion that a database containing pertinent information to reach the audience is of critical importance. In our current climate, platforms generate databases as a result of collecting data.
Geiger maintains that if an artist lacks the tools or support to manage such an audience database independently, then leveraging available platforms is the optimal route.
“…being knowledgeable and sophisticated about all the platforms, what you can and can’t do, privacy regulations, and how to scrape, and what you would do if you have that database is critical.”
Tim and Marc shift to briefly discussing how streaming has changed the frequency in which many artists are releasing music. Deconstructing what’s been said of this phenomenon, Marc speaks to approaching this change: “…you need more hits to the system because it’s a big library that the music’s going into.” The point of posting music more frequently is transposed to the greater matter of platforms, where Marc suggests an example for strategically coordinating the use of platforms to help artists monetize:
“…artists…can window content. They can put two songs on Spotify…put five songs on Bandcamp, put it on Patreon, and…release the rest of the music to Spotify after they’ve monetized it for a certain set of windows. We’re at the very beginning of learning how to, for artists, make money.”
So what are the key areas that artists should focus on as we look forward? Marc prioritizes great music, synergy within the artist’s team, and, particularly noteworthy, awareness of the digital ecosystem and open-mindedness.
“The ground went from physical to files to streams to now exploding into a hundred different things that have to be done. So the digital awareness has to be high, and the digital open-mindedness has to be high.”
When Tim asks what it takes for an artist to be “hyper-exposed,” Marc stresses strategy. Time invested into each platform, the artist’s tone, the artistry itself, the image, and the content tailored around these elements should all be taken into account. And as artists explore the elements of their brand, they’ll find opportunities for monetization.
“Access and communication…is how a lot of people make money.”
The tacit resolution to artists taking back their industry is in monetizing.
Geiger describes how people are learning of multiple segments within music audiences, including people who attend concerts, people who pay to chat with artists, and people who simply listen. Marc analogizes the evolving relationship between artists and listeners as a dance.
“There’s been an increasing toolset, and you got (sic) massive consumers digitally…It’s a dance, and they dance with each other based on what products are available [and what] consumers want.”
To Marc, however, this dance may soon shock people because of many methods for making money—some may be viewed as “distasteful” or “off-brand.” Regardless, the future Geiger sees is a “post-Spotify earning era,” reflected by the existence of platforms such as Patreon and Twitch that employ “user-centric pay models” for selling non-music products.
Marc believes artists looking to profit must become “a little more sophisticated and open-minded about what their store looks like…and think about it from a fan’s point of view.” Artists can capitalize upon digital, physical, or communication products to reach their audience, and Marc encourages artists to learn from other artists.
Continuing to guide the discussion, Tim asks Marc to clarify how artists can look toward planning for monetization down the road. Marc reiterates the necessity of quality music, having a team, and the like, as to stress their significance. Furthermore, he asserts that the establishment of channels on all platforms, and knowing your communities there, is critical to developing a strategy for scaling and monetizing.
It’s great to see two of the industry’s leading minds share a constructive dialogue on the future as it pertains directly to music artists. Although musicians must remain wary of potential challenges, this discussion offers a bright look into a future brimming with opportunities for musicians to support themselves.