On October 17th 2017 I gave a presentation at the SF MusicTech Summit in the morning, followed by an appearance on a panel in the afternoon. If you were able to attend the Summit, the following may not be as relevant to you, as it may be for those who heard my talks.
The Summit gave me two opportunities to share how North Music, a new startup that I’ve been working with since leaving Apple Music early this year, intends to create income for artists and their managers, by cultivating new markets and revenue streams through partnerships with brands and investors.
After leaving Apple, I took a month off until I joined North, a branding agency in Portland Oregon in April. I wasn’t idle during that month as I spent time alongside Steve Rauner, North’s Executive Producer, Managing Director Rebecca Armstrong, and President and Chief Creative Officer Mark Ray as we plotted the launch of North Music, a new business arm of the company. (I had previously worked at North prior to joining Beats Music.)
At Apple Music as a member of the Artist Relations team, I worked closely with artists and managers and as time went on I began to notice some sizable shifts in how those artists and managers were going about their business. Quite a few management companies were setting up their own in-house labels and in-house recording studios while picking up new, unsigned artists to add to their rosters. Obviously, those moves made good business sense, yet the bigger shift was on the artist side, with both sides gaining from the relationships in new ways.
Newly signed artists could create music in-house, post that music to platforms such as Soundcloud, or release a cut into all of the streaming music services and see what the reaction looked like. If things went well, then clearly the artists and their management would have created a decent amount of leverage in any label negotiations…
That is if the artists and their managers actually wanted to sign a contract with a label.
I see these shifts continuing. Those who follow the music industry are no doubt aware of the many instances of artists no longer signing to a label in the first place - Chance The Rapper, Joey Bada$, Heems, and others, and there are those artists who get to the end of their label contract terms and don’t re-sign to a label - most famously Radiohead who led the charge 10 years ago by going their own way after their label contract ended, and were ridiculed when they released In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want album. Regardless of some snarky criticism, it worked out well for the band. (Check the In Rainbows link above to see how well it did.)
Most recently Frank Ocean released his album, Blonde, through Stem a new digital distribution and royalty accounting system. In its first week of sales, according to Billboard, Ocean made $1.77 million from Blonde...just from its first week. If he had remained on his label, Def Jam, apparently he would have made $383,000 in royalties in those seven days.
The point here, regarding not signing label deals or publishing deals, is that the artists get to handle their own copyrights and Intellectual Properties. In 2017 this is a big deal, as you can see from the Frank Ocean numbers above.
This is not about the “future of music,’ an overused term if you ask me. Musicians will always create. Music from the past is still valid today - who doesn’t listen to The Beatles, or set out to rediscover Tom Petty’s entire back catalog after his untimely passing? Streaming music services provide Playlists that include many musicians back catalog cuts.
Humans believe they can predict the future but that is a fallacy. Sendhil Mullainathan, a Professor of economics at Harvard has written in regards to how we humans attempt to predict the future:
“Both history and psychology tell us that our capacity to predict the future is limited, while our capacity to believe in such predictions is unlimited. We have always been surprised.”
In the near-present, quite a few musicians have surprised us while creating new cultural experiences. For example, Beyoncé with the release of Lemonade - From Wikipedia: It is Beyoncé's second "visual album" following her previous eponymous 2013 album, as well as a concept album accompanied upon its release by a one-hour film aired on HBO.
Music, coupled with creative cultural experiences in the present is where we should be focusing at the moment while applying our minds to thinking forward on how the content and creative cultural experiences of today can extend into the future.
Musical artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, are changing the way we ‘experience’ live performance. Technology, of course, drives these changes, but it isn’t just about technology. In Frank Ocean’s case he promoted his album Blonde, by setting up pop-up stores where fans could get a free copy of his impeccably designed magazine, Boys Don’t Cry, that included a CD of the album. He also went with simple ideas, such as a T-shirt! His custom T-shirt pop-up store at the FYF festival created huge lines as fans waited to get a one-off shirt. As GQ posted - “Frank Ocean is quiet. His T-shirts are not.”
Ocean took it a step further at the Panorama Festival by wearing an anti-racist T-shirt that was designed by Green Box Shop an independent T-shirt maker that specializes in social justice T-shirts. It read: “WHY BE RACIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC, OR TRANSPHOBIC WHEN YOU COULD JUST BE QUIET?” Indeed. In the words of a fan: “It’s a Frank shirt, and his shirts, they don’t come by often. They don’t repeat!”
When it comes to cultural “experience” especially around music, the expectation from most artists and often the brands that sponsor events is that people want ‘more.’ At North Music, our response to that is - People do not want “MORE.” They want to participate in creative culture. They want to be a part of shared and shareable experiences. It is not just new technology. It is about moments and stories. It can be something as simple as a T-shirt done with the right intent, as I have outlined above. It can be as involved as an interactive installation.
As for interactive installations, one of our team members, Skylar Jessen, is in Brooklyn right now working on Manifest 1.0
“Manifest is a series of physical installations created to explore sonic and visual art through multi-sensory experiences. Join us for the debut event of the series, Manifest 1.0.
1.0 is set in a world envisioned by Sunni Colón in conjunction with his design agency, Tetsu. In close collaboration with Manifest’s team of new media engineers, designers, and architects, Tetsu fuels a rare, multi-sensory live music performance examining human presence in a virtualized world. Driven by Sunni Colon’s new album - mechanisms, physicality, emotions of the audience, and technology create a symbiotic space to manifest bliss.”
The 1.0 team also understands that the conversation and cultural moment an artist is trying to have with its audience may be best made with a t-shirt stand.
There is much, much more to discuss regarding artists, music and new cultural experiences, far too much to outline here.
In short, at North Music, we are working to achieve new revenue streams for artists, by cultivating moments, products, and experiences at the intersection of brand, artist, and audience to create new and impactful pieces of culture and cultivating new markets through partnerships with brands and investors.