Amber Horsburgh writes about music strategy via her fantastic fortnightly newsletter, Deep Cuts. Subscribe here.
We’re observing a cool time in a music where the good ol’ album cycle has been shot to shite. This is excellent because it breeds creativity through new platforms and ideas.
Thing is though, most managers/labels still rely on that traditional album cycle to build an artists’ career. In doing so they risk rendering an artist irrelevant between cycles placing more pressure on every album to level the artist up. Managers/labels need to build strong artist brands to sustain any release – singles, videos, tours, collabs, merch and partnerships.
Here is the A-Z dictionary of artist brand strategy principles.
A = Applied Science
The new wave of scientific rigor in marketing that brings structured thinking and rules for promoting albums/singles/tours and building fanbases.
For a more comprehensive reading list for strategists, check out this mega post.
B = Big Ideas
One central theme/thought that runs through all executions of the work. The consistency in themes helps build recognition of the artist.
The idea behind Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ single is to criticize USA’s gun violence problem, high rate of mass shootings and longstanding racism and discrimination against African Americans. The theme runs through multiple channels. E.g.: the video laced with references was the most talked about video in recent history, spawning hundreds of think pieces and propelled the song to debut at #1 (the first for Gambino), the tour and SNL TV performance.
C = Campaign Rollout
E.g.: BROCKHAMPTON ‘SATURATION’ Trilogy. The self-professed hardest working boyband on the internet used a 3-act campaign approach to introduce characters, set tensions and create cliffhangers through videos, images, and 3 albums that built a huge cult following (and earned $15 million RCA advance).
D = Distinctive Assets
The artist’s ability to stand out so fans/potential fans can easily identify them. Distinctive assets are shortcuts so people can quickly notice, recognize and recall the artist over others.
Distinctive assets include specific color like 6ix9ine’s use of rainbow in his hair, grill, and graphics, costumes like Sia’s white and black bang wig, or taglines like DJ Mustard’s ‘Mustard on the Beat’.
E = Ecosystem
The sum of all touchpoints surrounding an artist across their owned, paid and earned media. The ecosystem is a map of seeds that pull people into their story and keep them hooked.
The world Gorillaz created around the ‘Humanz’ release is an excellent example. Fans found the music through mixed reality VR app, real life pop-ups in a Sonos partnership and the characters created through media. The many digital and real life campaign elements left breadcrumbs for fans to discover the new music and uncover new layers about the characters, which keeps them listening longer.
F = Fan Archetypes
Fictitious representations of audience segments to help visualize the typical characters in an artist’s audience base. Fan archetypes are created by distilling data and qualitative research.
E.g.: Usually personas stay in the strategy room but Mailchimp did a whole campaign publishing their personas in public. By humanizing their many different users, designers and engineers could keep an idea of the end user in their minds throughout their creative processes to prioritize product updates. They were developed through user interviews and pooling by industry.
G = Goal Setting
A roadmap for success over time. Goals should be SMART – specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, timely.
H = Hero, Hub, Help Content
A video programming strategy developed by Google/YouTube that advocates for 3 layers of content.
Hero: pushes to big, broad audiences a few times a year around new music launches.
Hub: Episodic series to give fresh perspective on your audience’s interests, which are staggered throughout the year.
Help: answers to common questions and fan/industry observations that keep you relevant throughout the year.
Rimas Entertainment is a great case study for video programming. The label/entertainment collective bumped their YouTube presence from 35 channels to 100, which now generates 1 billion views every 30 days. They joined YouTube just 3 years ago. ?????
I = Insights
Human behavior that can be leveraged to drive an action (sale, stream, follow, share, view)
J = Just In Time Research
A minimalist research approach about acting fast. JIT research is about observing trends, forming a hypothesis and answering that without doing anything extra. This helps to avoid unproductive research black holes.
E.g.: 21 Savage’s team observed a meme that went viral characterizing the rapper as a super villain. He partnered with We Buy Gold to create a 6-part animated web series inspired by it for his album campaign rollout.
The analytics system his team had in place allowed them to identify a trend and act quickly. Other analytics practices have you generating weekly or monthly reports, which by the time are read cannot be used to action any marketing initiatives.
K = KPIs
Stands for Key performance indicators that form the analytical framework for creative decisions to exist in. KPI frameworks define what success and failure look like helping move past “gut decision” marketing.
E.g.: Shelita Burke used data science to find her bliss point of 90 days – the optimal frequency at which she released new music to keep fans engaged. In “gut decision” marketing departments, the most senior person in the room decides a release date based on what feels good, has worked for other artists or what their roster schedule best allows.
Burke’s scientific approach helped her grow 300k Twitter followers and drive 15MM streams in 6 months of a 5 track debut EP.
L = Leverage
The leverage an artist has over a brand in securing partnerships. Generally, an artist’s fanbase is more engaged than a brand’s. Brands look for owned media platforms that can be influenced so growing these will help court brand interest.
E.g.: The North Face and White Denim partnered on the release of their Apex Flex GTX waterproof jacket and single ‘Rain Drop’, respectively. The brand activated through White Denim’s owned distribution and live channels via Spotify and FADER Fort SXSW 2017, as well as socials. The band performed in an internal rainstorm wearing the jacket, the song was made available on Spotify only when it rained, the entire campaign was promoted on both the brand and band’s social channels.
M = Mood Entry Points
Human feelings and global events that artists bolt themselves to so when people experience the particular mood or event they’re triggered to listen to their music.
Mood examples include Drake and Cuffing Season, breakups and Banks, and being sad and Adele.
Events examples are playing Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ on July 4th, Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ during solar eclipses, and Mariah Carey at Christmas.
N = Naming
Smart naming of track titles, albums, and campaigns to leverage SEO in streaming services and search engines. Good names are short, memorable and descriptive.
O = Owned Media
Communications channels that are in your control like websites, email and apps. Social media and music distribution channels are partially owned since you need to pay to reach fans and do not get access to consumer level data.
Advantages of using on your own media to carry your message include being able to speak more directly to fans, keep all data, and block out any influence of competitors. Plus it’s cheaper than paying for or partnering on media.
E.g.: The Swift Life app by Taylor Swift gives fans weekly news, events, exclusive pics and videos, while at the same time giving Swift’s team invaluable insight to what her die-hard core fans want through their browsing/purchasing behavior and demographic information. This helps them better plot tours, develop products and music release strategy.
P = Product Line
The range of assets under an artist’s business including music (EP, LP, singles), collaborations, merch, live, playlists/radio stations, lyrics, artwork.
Q = Quality Assurance
Standards that enforce excellence. QA ensures everything that goes out points in the same direction. A QA system is achieved by assigning a brand guardian and relevant reporting structure across press, marketing, A&R, production, and legal so nothing goes public under the bar of excellence.
R = Relationships
Connections with gatekeepers and fans that can push an artist forward. Important relationships must be struck with other artists, playlist curators, writers, creatives, distributors, radio programmers.
S = Social Causes
The moral stance an artist takes on issues affecting their communities, actions they take and charities they support.
E.g.: Logic ‘1-800-273-8255’. Using the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as a track title meant as the track gained momentum so too did awareness of the hotline. It was so effective that calls had increased 50% by the time he, Khalid and Alessia Cara performed it at 2017 VMAs.
T = Tone of Voice
The style of an artist’s persona in interviews, social media, and performances that is consistent and unique to the artist.
E.g.: Tommy Cash’s tone of surreal, post-soviet, art rap runs through all videos, images, interviews and tweets makes his products instantly recognizable and difficult to imitate by competitors.
U = Unique Selling Proposition
The factor(s) presented by the artist as why their product is different and better than that of a competitor.
E.g.: Metro Boomin’s unique production sound of heavy bass, rattling synthetic percussion and dark, gothic melodies means artists go to him for beats over other Atlanta producers.
V = Value Statement
Overarching set of beliefs, attitudes, ideals that make up the artist’s character. This should be top-of-mind whenever content is created or promoted in order to ensure marketing always contributes to the bigger picture.
E.g.: Chance the Rapper’s belief in being independent runs through everything he does. His lyrics tout being self made, his tour put down major labels with witty criticisms of their logos, award acceptance speeches become platforms to promote being single and his social causes revolve around empowering young artists with music education and tools to power their own careers.
W = Workshop
Structured brainstorming sessions that lead to creative ideas. Usually performed with the artist, label, management and agents.
E.g.: Hyper Island Toolkit lays out 50+ ways to run creative workshops.
X = X Over
Identifying and planning initiatives to expose the artist to new audiences with the goal of building a bigger fanbase.
E.g.: Gucci Mane’s cross over appeal to alternative white hipsters. This was achieved after Gucci Mane’s team observed a small niche audience of white hipsters after the rapper’s release of ‘Lemonade’ single, as well as Diplo remixing his music at festivals. They strategically sent Diplo a capellas from his ‘Cold War’ tapes, which Diplo used to create the ‘Free Gucci’ mixtape recruiting other electronic artists like Zomby, Brodinski, and Flying Lotus.
Y = Young vs. Mature Lifecycle
The point of an artist’s career as determined by brand awareness and profitability. Campaigns for albums/tours/special initiatives vary greatly depending on the lifecycle stage.
Z = Zag
The ability to experiment – when everyone zigs you zag. You do your own thing carving your own path.
E.g.: Beyoncé. When everyone was doing the standard 3 singles then album release, she drops an entire album. When everyone shoots videos to only the key singles, she makes an entire album film. When everyone puts music out on all retail/streaming services in fear of pissing off any distributor, she does an Apple exclusive deal. She’s the president of her own management company when everyone else has teams taking a % cut of what they make.