The Future of Artist Marketing Is Multivariate Testing via Playlists

Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

Artist marketing remains a costly and often thankless endeavour. Inclusive of artists and repertoire, record labels spent approximately $1.6 billion on marketing in 2017 with 73% of that ($1.2 billion) being spent by majors. This expense, of course, is in the elusive search for breaking new acts, the vast majority of which prove fruitless in finding that one artist who through a combination of talent and timing makes a meaningful connection with the wider public.

Few know this process better than Howard Bloom. While his name may not be instantly recognisable, Bloom was one of the most influential publicists in the 1970’s music industry. Unlike many of his fellow impresarios, however, Bloom’s background was not in club promotion or running errands in recording studios. Rather, he was a micro-biologist who in the late 60’s was pursuing postgraduate work having worked as a research assistant on immune system diseases. Retiring from the music business in the 80’s to write full time, his book The Lucifer Principle discusses his life as a PHD biologist turned rock n’ roll PR guru. Peppered with his observations on human nature, the forces of history and molecular biology are various anecdotes from his career, during which he became head of publicity at ABC records and worked with everyone from Bob Marley to Billy Joel.

One notable story discusses how Bloom was assigned to work with a fledging R&B artist who had recovered from a poorly-received first album but was yet to meaningfully break through to the mainstream. The artist was Prince, and Bloom was invited by his management to discuss how to approach the impending release of what is widely regarded as Prince’s first great album, 1982’s ‘Dirty Mind’. Bloom suggested to Prince and his management that he "aggressively pursue the rock and new wave audience ... Consequently, Prince's management put together a series of performances designed with racially mixed audiences in mind".

A radical idea at the time, Bloom’s knowledge of biology suggested to him that finding new emerging genres and hitchhiking on their ascent was key to breaking new acts. In many ways, little has changed. Artists are still often marketed on their similarity to others, and in hip hop there is an entire micro-industry around co-signs, with ad-hoc cash-in-hand charges for features on certain tracks. What has changed is that unlike Prince, artists rarely get that second chance. In an attention-poor economy, one misstep in audience marketing proves detrimental to an artist’s future prospects. If a listener does not like what they hear and creates an association with the name, it is unlikely they will give that artist a second listen. Ruthless? Of course – but completely understandable given the content oversaturation and paucity of real fandom available to artists. Back in the era of content scarcity, artists could perhaps have more opportunity to build an audience. Many of the most successful acts from the 70’s onwards (Springsteen, U2, Nirvana) did not break through on their first records. Would streaming be more unforgiving?

The future of artist marketing could therefore involve something more akin to multivariate testing, where certain tracks by the same act are released under different names to test which have the best response rate. This is certainly not the most romantic way to break an act, but in an era where one wrong impression can put an audience off listening to an artist altogether, it may well be the most effective in building that crucial early audience that allows an act to viably tour and thereafter build a meaningful career – something that could easily be scuppered by a few careless playlist placements.

Additionally, far from being cynical marketing ploy, this strategy is far more amenable to artists than it may seem. Given autonomy over streaming profiles with pseudonyms that can be swiftly deleted once the formula is cracked, artists have the chance to fail early as they perfect their musical personae. Such a strategy is also far more cost effective than sending artists to radios and on nationwide tours, by which point the sunk-cost fallacy impacts label thinking and artists may not get a second chance to start again should the label feel they have already invested too heavily in this incarnation of the artist’s sound.

'You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow’. Perhaps streaming means this all or nothing or approach to artist marketing has passed.

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