Rethinking Conventional Promo Strategies

Andrew Dubber has an interesting new post on who to send promos to, an issue that many labels and artists struggle with these days. Dubber likens the traditional model to a lottery, whereby promos are sent out to prominent gatekeepers of taste (reviewers, radio hosts, and so on) in the hopes that someone will actually crack the cellophane and give the release a spin. It is very goal-oriented; there is a desire to see a tangible return on the investment, which is often difficult to achieve. Sending promos is wasteful—many are simply discarded. There will always be far more people interested in having their music heard than there are “tastemakers” with enough free time and curiosity to take a chance on something new. Speaking from experience, this is largely because a lot of music isn’t very good—and sorting through the crap to find that future gem (or even something worth writing about) is an arduous and uninspiring task. Labels and artists play this lottery to win the attention of the gatekeepers and, ideally, increase sales and exposure of their product.

Dubber’s alternate model is more like gardening: planting seeds and cultivating relationships. The idea here is to send promos to people you have an established personal relationship with—even if they are not influential bigwigs. Send promos to your friends, to fans with which you keep in contact, and let news of the release percolate through the social web. And why not? Digital promos don’t really cost anything apart from a bit of time and effort to properly target your efforts. Dubber argues that people who don’t usually receive promos will pay far more attention to your release than those that do—and he is probably right about that. But he also brings up a likely objection to this course of action: since friends and fans are the people most likely to buy the release anyway, why send them a promo and ruin your chance of a sale? I can see why labels and artists coming from a traditional, conservative background might find Dubber’s answers unsatisfactory.

Finding value in the “gardening model” of promo distribution will be easier for those who have already adopted new attitudes about the future of music in the 21st century. One of the more fashionable ideas presently circulating emphasizes the power of engagement and interaction. Sending promos to fans and friends is a great engagement strategy—just be sure to follow up and continue the conversation. Will all of this lead to better sales? Well, there is some evidence for it, but not very much—and a lot of the best examples (e.g. Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead) are groups that were already phenomenally successful before the Internet changed everything. I am wary of reading too much into their success with new forms of digital distribution.

Reading deeply into the Music 2.0 literature you will regularly hear the mantra “sell the experience, not the music”. There is this idea that labels and artists can convert exposure into profit through the sale of concert tickets, merchandise, and deluxe physical media editions of free digital albums. And maybe this will work—but there are many kinks to iron out. We still don’t know how viable these radical concepts are for smaller music subcultures such as psytrance. This is, of course, where my efforts with Ektoplazm come into the picture. And my thinking is that complex promo strategies are somewhat irrelevant once you embrace a more open distribution model.

In any case, cultivating relationships with friends and fans is smart, and labels and artists would certainly benefit from putting more effort into listener engagement. This means sending promos—even at the risk of losing sales. There are fewer psytrance reviews written than ever before—and it is a far worse fate to be completely overlooked than it is to not break even. So, my advice: take a risk and spread promos freely.