Finding out with three lines, a few dots, and a long-sleeved shirt
Note: I found this post in my drafts today as I was looking for the shirt diagram. This post originates from May 2015. Even though some of my thinking has evolved since then I’ve decided to publish it in its original form.
When I moved into my current flat, clothes storage became a hot topic of conversation (I’m of that age now…).
The bedroom’s long and fairly narrow shape meant we needed to utilise height. We didn’t want to default to Ikea, and a lovely hand-crafted wardrobe was a little out of budget.
After much deliberation, a shopfitters’ storage rack was purchased; floor to ceiling on castors, with three shelves and two rails for jackets, trousers and of course shirts.
Once assembly was complete (slightly quicker than an Ikea nightmare build, but only just), I loaded everything on board only to find I had a surplus.
We’d vowed to keep the new place bereft of clutter, so I started working through everything, culling anything that had been on the substitute’s bench for more than 6 months.
When it came to the pile of shirts I’d rapidly thrown into a bag on moving day, I was shocked to discover that nearly half were either too long, some too wide (the ‘tent’ look), or with sleeves too short.
The Shirt Dilemma
Months later, long after the ill-advised purchases had been given to a better home, I saw this going around on Twitter;
This summer marks my 10th anniversary living in London. A lot’s happened in the past decade, but it’s not hard for me to remember some of the highlights of my first year in the big city.
I was living in South London, and whilst I worked in Soho I found myself gravitating to East London and the Shoreditch district in particular.
One of the best spots was Hearn Street arches and the adjacent car park, where the likes of mulletover would put on some of the best European deep house and techno around.
The building next door to these part-time party venues would later be home to my first startup’s first office. In that scrappy-looking block were old-school Cockney furriers (led by a chap we knew only as John The Mink), a dance school, designers and a whole bunch of other eclectic and unlikely tenants.
Incidentally, less than 5 years after we moved out, the entire block has been flattened to make way for 40+ storeys of chrome and glass, presumably for the City to creep further into the Shoreditch district. John The Mink is nowhere to be seen.
The place I remember most fondly from that first summer was in the Tea Building on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road. Back then there was no Boxpark, no overground train station, and definitely no Pret. Sitting within the Tea Building was the simply named T Bar.
It had a simple concept; plenty of space, minimal lighting and decor, a well-stocked bar, Funktion One soundsystem, and some of the world’s best house, techno and disco DJs, 3 or 4 evenings a week from 7pm. For free.
Sure, it had its downsides; drinks were on the pricey side (although the fact it got slated for £5 for wine and £8 for cocktails shows how expensive London has become); there were a fair few of the less endearing Shoreditch stereotypes in there when bigger names were booked to play; and the place got pretty hot when it was full.
But when you’re getting to hear the likes of Michael Mayer, Audion, Loco Dice and James Jones play on a great soundsystem with no door charge, no advance tickets, just after work on a Thursday (or even Monday) evening…
T Bar also put a bunch of relatively unknown but excellent DJs in the driving seat for the full Friday and Saturday nights; Boris Horel & Greg Sonata’s Foreign Muck party was one of my favourites.
Unfortunately, it was all over in 2008, and despite a short-lived return to a venue nearby, T Bar is now something of the past. The venue is now a pizza restaurant.
10 Years Later…
Remembering my experiences around East London during this period, and at T Bar in particular, really brings home the current situation in the city with the lack of suitable space and the possible opportunities to reach new, underserved and broader audiences.
Space & Opportunity
Like many inner city areas and scenes, things are cyclical in their nature and places comes and go, but Shoreditch had many more music venues when I was first exploring the area than are operating there now. The physical spaces available for music & broader culture feel like they’re being hoovered up by other sectors more quickly than ever.
According to Miller, the number of nightclubs in the UK has plummeted from 3,144 to 1,733 in the last decade. The article and the comments that follow it both point to the stark differences in culture and approach in European cities like Amsterdam and Berlin vs London.
The document has been around for 6 months as far as I can see, and no one I’ve spoken with has heard of it before.
It feels like a good step for the Mayor’s office to be taking, but the level of wider public awareness and distribution around this and what it stands for seem to be sorely lacking.
Music venues and particularly nightclubs often get unfairly siloed as havens of crime and something almost unsightly in a 21st century city landscape.
With music becoming part of a wider bundle of content that makes up consumers’ wider leisure and entertainment activities, it feels like it’s well overdue to lose some of that stigma.
London could do this by learning from Amsterdam and Berlin’s approaches (the idea of a night mayor would be a good start), consider innovating on the conventional models, and embrace night life as both a key component and driver of how people choose to spend their valuable leisure time.
A space such as Amsterdam’s De School (from the creators of the legendary Trouw club) feels like a great blueprint for what the next generation of multi-use music, arts and work spaces will look like.
Money on the Table
Relating to the challenges that night time venues are facing, I’ve been thinking about the amount of money being left on the table by the music industry and also how better serving other markets and audiences may help solve some of stigma challenges I mention.
We all know music consumption and revenue streams have shifted immensely in the last few years, and I won’t dwell on the reasons for that, it’s been done to death. The only thing I’ll say on it is that the industry needs to shift its focus from complaining about Spotify…
Despite all these changes, there seems to be a lack of innovation and change in the live sector as to how events can be delivered.
Such are the effects of time, I am no longer 22 years old as I was in 2006. I’ve grown up (for better and for worse), and I prefer channelling my leisure time into early mornings, breakfasts with friends, reading…and watching an entire season of The Walking Dead in one sitting.
Going out to catch electronic artists play shows at 4am doesn’t really fit my lifestyle any more. To be honest, it never really did…hence my love for T Bar.
So why is the convention to put on shows (electronic music in particular) on at times when you surely can’t reach the optimal number of fans?
The concept that most attendees want to drink and do drugs (and thus more likely to want to go out all night?) holds weight to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a solid enough argument, particularly with the ongoing blurring of the lines between different genres.
Simply, within significant portions of the live music sector there is an excess demand that is underserved.
In addition to VR experiences (the subject of a future article), this could be addressed in a couple of ways;
Change/extend/duplicate performance times
Better serve demand through improved / more tailored experiences
3 simple examples come to mind that I’ve experienced recently.
Filling time-based demand
An electronic artist played a London show on a cold winter Saturday night, stage time around 3am.
I had plans for Sunday morning and didn’t want to get home at 6/7am, so I didn’t buy a ticket and thus didn’t go. I don’t see how anyone wins in this situation.
The artist could have played either an unannounced or very tightly segmented show earlier in the night.
Or to help mend the stigma I mention above (and broaden revenue streams), why not package food and drink together more closely?
Brilliant Corners is a great little venue in Dalston where you can eat some great food, have a few drinks, and hear underrated gems of DJs like Jonny Rock (who incidentally also played at T Bar a lot) play records on a superb sound system. Yeah it’s not Fabric, but the model is sound.
For further reading on this subject, Cortney Harding explores related matters here, and this recent Guardian article explores a seemingly growing trend around young people shunning the traditional clubbing experience in favour of other activities.
2. Service level and transparency
A disabled friend had tickets to a show at a large London venue last week; when checking ticket collection options and the stage time of the headliner (my friend’s disability means she can’t stand or sit in one place for more than an hour or so, and didn’t want to miss the main event), the venue didn’t answer their phone, and it took 20 minutes of searching for me to find out who the promoter was.
Upon calling them, no one in their office knew if they were even promoting the gig, and there was no information on the artist’s website other than the venue name and opening time.
I can’t see why the service here is so opaque — this one fan loved the superb artist she got to see but the rest of the experience left a lot to be desired.
Will she go back? I’m not sure.
A couple of ways of improving this area include new ways of dealing with customer service (chat-bots for simple enquiries?), and more visibility of who is promoting shows and what they stand for; promoters can also be excellent curators after all.
3. Baby boomers
Despite marketers focusing intensely on Generation Z & Millennials (don’t get me started on this…), I feel lines are being blurred between demographics and their behaviours, and herein lies opportunity.
An example of this opportunity is Field Day’s extension to 2 days. Through smart programming they now attract a broader range of customers without diluting their core values.
A case in point is that my parents will be going to the festival with my brother and I on the Sunday.
This group (in my parents’ case aged 63 and 62, living an hour or so from a major city) hold around 70% of the population’s disposable income, are becoming more adventurous in the experiences they want to have, and are willing to pay for quality. Coachella’s new event Desert Trip is a signifier of this.
For a number of practical reasons my Dad is very unlikely to see bands on a midweek evening in London, but he will happily pay for a quality festival experience with a range of both new, established and heritage artists. He’s become a fan of several artists from last year’s event and has spent money on their music since.
The balance in appealing to a range of markets like this is not easy (and certainly not suitable not for all promoters and events — not everyone wants to hang out with their parents of course), but in any case there are underserved audiences that the music industry could surely do better to serve.
The baby boomers with 25–35 year old children is an interesting segment to explore here.
I love London and part of what makes it so special is its diverse range of culture and creativity.
Music should be a key part of that.
I just hope that the spaces and places sustain, and that the industry does a better job of serving its audiences and communicating its value so an even broader range of people can enjoy great live music experiences.
None of this is easy and the answers are not simple, but just because the live sector is one of the industry’s strongest areas it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for doing things better.
Travelling on a train from London Fields to Liverpool Street last week, I came across this article via Pitchfork’s Twitter feed, focused on English band Arctic Monkeys and their success in South America.
I got 2 paragraphs down and emailed the link and a note to a friend.
One paragraph more and I followed up to the same email with two more notes.
Another two paragraphs, another note. I decided to read the rest before brain-dumping any more ideas to my friend who already suffers from inbox overload (and the train had arrived at my stop).
This article really resonated with me and I found myself generating ideas with more fervour than anything else I’ve read recently, so I thought I’d write a few words around why that may have happened, and some of the ideas I had.
Some of the people who knew me in my time as a music agent will be aware that I ended up (half by design, half by accident) booking tours in a really broad range of territories.
In 2014 I booked shows in about 65 countries; I’m sure there are a bunch of agents that do more than that, but relative to my experience and size of roster it was still pretty high.
There were a number of reasons I ended up working this way. Two of the main ones that were more by design than happy accidents were;
I felt there was growth in developing areas within a consolidating industry, and that there was a need to diversify a client and customer base in line with that
If I could help develop a live career for an artist that was strong and stable across many different countries I felt they would experience more longevity and be more immune to the trends, cycles and fads that inevitably come and go (now more than ever)
Most people often actively avoided this way of working, and with good logical reason; higher risk of failure, more unknowns, customers you haven’t worked with before, challenges with currencies and exchange rates, difficult logistical hurdles, things being lost in translation/time difference between teams, etc.
(Sounds kinda like working at a startup, no?)
Despite all these challenges (some more clear and present than others) I still dived in, and one of the most challenging yet also rewarding territories I did business in was South America.
From Angel Falls to Patagonia, plus Bebeto’s baby
Like a lot of people, I love to travel, and have been intrigued by South America in particular for years. The landscapes, the food, the people, the music… and the football.
I think my interest first came about through watching the 1994 World Cup — Maradona in overdrive, the tragedy of a Colombian defender who was murdered for scoring an own goal, Bebeto and the ‘baby’ celebration, and Jorge Campos’ dayglo goalie kit. Growing up in suburban England, these guys were like something from another world.
South America was also one of the reasons I started learning Spanish (I’m still pretty rickety but can keep it together in most everyday conversations), and I got to make a visit a few years ago which was a genuine life-changing experience.
One of the things that was really stark whilst on that trip is that there are a ton of parallels between music and football, and in South America I think the two are as closely linked as almost anywhere in the world.
Now I’ve got my minor football digression out of the way, it’s time to go back to the Pitchfork article.
Ways of working
There are a bunch of learnings from the Pitchfork piece which I think are worth expanding on a little bit with regard to breaking the market.
Leverage partnerships, think laterally
There are a lot of products and services that may not be well known in an artist’s home country but are huge elsewhere. Think about combining medium and message, like the actress in the Arctic Monkeys’ music video (see below)
For example, services like Uber are becoming very popular in Mexico (yes, they are in most places — but it’s worth looking at what’s nascent in the region and thinking about strategic partnerships that can increase reach and visibility far more than a targeted Facebook post can)
Don’t ignore or shun cultural differences, embrace them
Arctic Monkeys used a very well known telenovela actress in a recent music video — this kind of leverage can be huge. Local star + band seen as aspirational to their fans + high growth video delivery platform = Crash Bandicoot.
Street cred and star quality
Jason Borge of the University of Texas says; “[Brazilian] middle class kids, young people and intellectuals, mostly white, establish street cred through their embrace of foreign popular culture,” Borge explains. “It allows them to perform or display a rejection of the status quo, particularly if they’re embracing rebellious-seeming celebrities like James Dean or Elvis or Mick Jagger.”
I wrote about star quality in another article, doesn’t matter whether it’s a muddy field in England or an sports arena in Rio…
Watch out for streaming, and not just on the big players’ services
Smart phone ownership is growing enormously in the region (there’s still growth in Europe/North America but the curve here is much steeper), and streaming services are going hand in hand with that. There are a handful of services that are either native or lesser-known in Europe/North America that have serious traction in South America. Also watch out for video, streaming music services don’t necessarily just mean audio.
<plug> One of the companies I work with, F#, are experts in the digital music landscape and how it all fits together. If you want to know more about all this stuff, ask us, we do workshops 🙂 </plug>
Never forget how passionate the fans are, especially the core
Another football parallel; musicians can have their own section of Ultra fans, and in South America the people are enormously passionate. I know of several artists who have been playing shows in the region for nearly 20 years and the fanbase shows no sign of dilution, boredom or losing their fervour — I can testify that stuff like this that’s mentioned in the article really does happen, and you don’t need to be an arena band for it to be you. Cultivate and connect with the fans in an authentic way and they will stick with you, just like they stick with Boca Juniors, River Plate…or Crystal Palace.
Before Murphy’s final tour date, in Lima, Peru, a fan posted the arrival time for Murphy’s plane to his Facebook page. Upon his arrival, 100 to 150 screaming fans were waiting for him, the kind of scene one expects to hear described when One Direction touch down anywhere in the world.
The example above is actually a good marketing tactic that artist teams should look at — pop-up gig in the Arrivals hall? If you want to look at the sharing economy model, airports have a ton of excess floor capacity that could be filled…
Booking an artist in South America is (generally) no different than anywhere else in the world
The agent mentioned in the article states that all the money needs to be paid at least a week in advance. I’d times that by 4 and say a month ahead (at the minimum). Otherwise though, it isn’t that much different to elsewhere around the globe — just make sure common sense prevails.
Present brand and creativity in a way that appeals to the market
I’m not sure if Arctic Monkeys deliberately stylised themselves around this campaign to appeal to the specific audience in South America, but I see a lot of artists who don’t adjust their messaging to suit the market. Sure, sticking to what you’re about creatively is core, but there’s a spectrum and nudging towards one end of that for a particular market can pay dividends. A lot of the most successful electronic artists actually do a really good job of this through their social media and the design and targeting around the content they produce.
I’d like to see more clever marketing ideas in this vein — as a basic example, a couple of years ago emojis became particularly big in Singapore so the SingTel telecoms company ran a campaign where fans could enter MMS-based competitions by guessing a movie title only through a couple of emoji clues. This also ties into looking at the main media channels in a market and leveraging them.
Have that key person on the ground
This is important. There are unfortunately some unscrupulous people out there, and having a trusted and reliable partner protects against many potential pitfalls, some of which are easy to forget about because they just don’t happen all that much in developed nations.
Finding that partner can be difficult, but a good booking agent will likely know a few — and one with the right connections is worth their weight in gold. The right agent (and also the right point person in the territory) will understand the nuances between competing promoters, the politics where multi-national brands are looking to enter markets to the chagrin of the incumbents, are likely have a cross-agency map of who’s reliable and who’s not, and should have a good feel of where there are rafts of non value-adding middlemen in a process.
Most importantly, a reliable and trustworthy host can really make an artist’s tour; the benefits of local knowledge and a warm welcome is never to be underestimated.
I’m by no means a master of doing business in South America, but I’ve worked with quite a lot of people there and have seen just how amazing it can be when tours are executed well.
I think that every modern music business person should seek to gain an understanding of the market there; the mechanisms, the fans, the business, and the wider cultural touch points that make it one of the most exciting places in the world.
Things are going global, but at the same time they’re also going more local — to succeed a strong understanding of both is needed.
And if you needed any more motivation, just think about the authentic Peruvian Ceviche, Brazilian Feijoada, Venezuelan & Colombian arepas, and the unbeatable Argentinian parrilla that’s waiting for you… hopefully I’ll see you there sometime.
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter (@howardgray) or in the comments below…
Working with various artists, labels and collectives in the last few years, as well as trying to keep an eye on what’s going on in the music industry as a whole, I’ve noticed a number of traits that have tended to lead to success.
There’s certainly no magic formula for succeeding (if there was, things would get boring pretty quickly, even if in our more rapacious moments we may believe otherwise), but I’ve had a go at distilling down four elements that can certainly help get there.
Some artists are in the position where they have two or three of these, and a few maybe even have all four. I’d say if you’ve got at least two of them you’re in a pretty good position.
Of course, these elements aren’t permanent; they can shift, slip, expand and contract on an almost constant basis.
In this post I’ve outlined these elements, with a couple of artists who I think are good examples. I’ve put this together with electronic music in mind, I’d be interesting to hear whether you feel this applies (and to what degree) in other genres.
And I’ve left out the Fifth Element (or rather the First) as its value is too large to be dissected here — great music. That kinda goes without saying ☺
The Four Elements
1. The Tribe
2. The Niche
3. The Hit
4. The Star
1. Be part of a dominant tribe
Many things in life revolve around the concept of a tribe.
any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea.
I’d say electronic music is no different.
You could call it brand (and there a lots of examples of brand and marketing being an element of success — in fact, that could be the subject of another series of blog posts on its own…), but more from a purist’s point of view I think the idea of a tribe ties in better with where all this came from in the first place.
It’s also not as easy to sum it up in the types of (buzz)words that brands tend to associate themselves with, but people want to be part of something, something that connects them. It sounds corny but music is one of the best ways of bringing people together.
If an artist is part of a tribe who have dedicated followers, that association alone can put position them in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be.
How to create, lead and bring in new members to the tribe is something for another post (I‘ll be writing about that some time in the near future).
There are a bunch of tribes out there in electronic music, one good example of where a tribe has become successful and created a halo effect around itself is the German deep house collective Diynamic, led by DJ and producer Solomun.
2. Own a niche
In an industry where there are three major labels who seem to have a stranglehold on the mainstream, it would be safe to assume that a niche is not a good place to be. The likes of Bob Lefsetz have written about this on numerous occasions, and the excellent book ‘Blockbusters’ by Anita Elberse also looks at the head vs the tail and why the Long Tail concept may be a red herring.
For the most part, I agree — things are generally moving towards being a headliners’ business, but I feel that it can be a different story if you can own a niche and a lot of people overlook the value in this.
By ‘own’ I’m not talking about the $$$/£££/€€€ (although it often goes hand in hand), but more about being a figurehead — the person or one of the people who is instantly associated with a certain genre/sub-genre/movement.
I think people underestimate the fan bases, businesses and longevity of artists in particular niches — sometimes they go onto have either fleeting or longer term crossover success, but a lot don’t and can still maintain long and successful careers.
A good example in electronic music is Chris Liebing. He’s been around a long time; honing his craft, playing challenging underground music, never really crossing over, and certainly never having breakout mainstream chart success. However he seems to be as popular as he’s ever been, with an ardent fan base and a packed worldwide gig diary. I’d also recommend his Resident Advisor exchange — an insightful look into his history as a music fan and DJ.
When I think about heavier, underground, full-tilt techno — he’s one of the first names that springs to mind. He’s a figurehead, so much so that for me his name is almost an adjective for a particular sound.
3. Have a hit (or a few)
This one is more obvious, but a hit track can change everything for an artist almost overnight.
The explosion in popularity of house music (particularly in the UK) over the last couple of years has included numerous top 10 national and international chart hits for artists that were otherwise relatively unknown and underground up until that point where the sound tipped into the mainstream.
The traction an artist can suddenly get from a hit track seems to be as strong as it’s ever been, especially in the live arena (but certainly in other areas such as sync). Festivals need to be able to sell many thousands of tickets and booking an act with national radio support, high chart placings and Shazam virality is going to get the attention of customers who may not be familiar with only niche and underground names.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s a headliners’ market right now and the rewards for being one can be significant, especially when compared to a middle that is often squeezed.
The other side to this coin is that when there’s only 1 or 2 hits and the next release doesn’t connect, things can get much tougher. One of the harshest examples of this is when an artist is perceived to have departed the scene that they came from (aka ‘selling out’) and are unable to find a place in the underground again. The risk of this is arguably getting greater as the speed of turnover on all fronts increases, so it’s about good management and positioning to ensure an artist protects against the downside when they start to crossover.
The examples of artists who have had a number of hits and risen from underground to overground are pretty numerous and obvious; a few from the last year or so include Sigma, Gorgon City, Breach and of course Disclosure. (always good to see a ‘Howard’ representing…)
4. Star quality (or an unforgettable impact)
One of the first festivals a close friend went to was The Big Chill festival (in 2007 I think — feels like aeons ago now). On his slightly dishevelled return after 3 days in the wild, we went to the pub for a catchup.
The first thing he told me was about a DJ who played the previous afternoon. This particular act was playing a set of big bass-heavy music, which was just starting to become popular in the UK at the time. More notable though was that he was pulling the needle off the record currently playing, rewinding tracks at seemingly random times, letting tracks finish without having the next cued up, and various other faux pas — possibly due to a degree of intoxication.
The crowd went nuts, and DJ was a guy called Skream.
Whilst inebriation may not necessarily equal star quality, it’s worth remembering why people admire rock stars (and arguably DJs too).
It’s not just their musical ability, it’s that they’re larger than life and ignore the rules; they operate in a way that regular people can’t, don’t or won’t.
Whilst a purist would say it’s all about the music, particularly in a live event setting people want to be entertained and to feel a connection with the performing artist. A slightly bored bloke looking at his laptop doesn’t always hit the spot here. Skrillex stage-diving or Steve Aoki riding a dinghy across a crowd more likely does (whatever you may think about that…).
I think a good example of someone who has a big personality and projects it well is Eats Everything
So if you can be part of a tribe with a global band of ardent followers, own a particular niche or movement, notch up some hits, and happen to possess that elusive star quality and buckets of charisma, you’ll probably do ok.