Navigating the Music Business in the Digital Age with Bas Grasmayer

Skyn8 Bas Grasmayer

Bas Grasmayer | Interview

Bas Grasmayer knows how to help artists succeed in the digital realm. Having worked for disrupters in music and tech across Amsterdam, Sofia, Istanbul, Moscow and now Berlin, Bas has spent his career closely following tech innovation and its effect on music, culture and society. His latest venture is MUSIC x, a publication that takes an in-depth look at the future of tech and music and provides a Discord community for creators. MUSIC x also a includes digital strategy crash course called the Artist Lockdown Challenge that helps creators think about alternative ways to showcase their music while dealing with lockdown restrictions of COVID. We talked to Bas about how his past work has now taken centre-stage as the music industry navigates the lockdown and his advice for how to thrive as creatives and artists in a digital-first environment.

Did you always know you’d have a career in the music business?

Like anyone in the industry, I’ve always loved music. You wouldn’t pursue a career in the business if you weren’t in love with music, because the business can be ruthless no matter how talented you are. Listening mostly to underground hiphop, I hesitated going into music, because I had this notion of the artist being authentic, pure and good and the music business being evil and exploitative – but quickly came to find out it’s really not that black and white. 

I studied International Communication Management at university, which basically means I learnt everything there is to know about PR and marketing, but also got knee-deep in conducting research and surveys. When it came to writing my graduate thesis, I stuck to music as a topic and wrote about marketing music in the landscape of The Pirate Bay, Limewire and the sort. 

By the time I finished my thesis, I had developed a clear vision of how artists can thrive in the digital space by building a business through community management. At the time this was a fairly novel way of thinking: streaming hadn’t completely disrupted the industry yet, and releasing or promoting music was still done through fairly traditional means. I was fascinated by all the ways that artists could scale their digital presence, and just saw several avenues for marketing there! Marketing in music has always been about artists and their image, but with social media, it’s also about getting the conversation started among your fans. 

Tell us about your career so far…

My first experience in leading a music service took me to Moscow, where I joined Dream Industries, who developed disruptive online and media products. By the time I joined, its music service Zvooq had already acquired about a million users for their streaming service, which back then was huge! I worked with developers and designers there, but also got to know consumers. I ended up leaving a bit disillusioned, taken aback by the amount of red tape in the music business, through licensing agreements of all sorts. I had assumed it would be a creative business, but every new idea we wanted to test, we had to negotiate.

Source: Idagio

I took a small break from music, but couldn’t stay away for long. This is when I started MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE, now MUSIC x, which is probably the main thing I’m known for. I wanted to start writing again but also crystalize everything I was learning, so a weekly newsletter seemed like the perfect way to do both. It started with a 40-person mailing list for the very first newsletter – mostly family and friends and whoever else I could convince to sign up!  Today, it’s up to a few thousand. I write about changes in the tech landscape and how they may affect and apply to the music industry. You can sign up here if you fancy a read.

Tell us a bit about working at Idagio

I’ve steered pretty close to the music and creative business since Dream Industries, in Moscow and then the Netherlands until finally in 2017, I joined Idagio. Idagio, as you may have heard, is the Spotify for classical music. My understanding of the streaming space then, and I still maintain this point of view, was that large streaming services are going after the mass market instead of the pockets of music lovers who are the usual early adopters and might be hard to serve with a one-size-fits-all solution. 

I saw a void in terms of experiences on offer here and this was a huge impetus for me to join Idagio. Classical music fans really struggle to make sense of the catalogues on most music services, since metadata is either missing, not displayed, or improperly structured. By doing that job better, we could create an experience where fans can find the composition they want to hear, by the orchestra they want to hear play it, with a singer or soloist of their choice, since many orchestras will have made multiple recordings of the same piece over the decades. It was definitely a challenge, especially as I was their first product team member, but it was a valuable experience.

What are some of the more recent things you’ve been working on?

Well, MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE has taken on some contemporary challenges; namely, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown as well as the climate crisis. MUSIC x CORONA is a newsletter concerned with the effect of coronavirus on the music industry – we send this out twice a week to help music professionals out and get them through the crisis. MUSIC x GREEN another offshoot of the newsletter – it’s a directory of companies and organisations that make the music industry greener, reduce its impact on the planet and work to make it more sustainable on the whole. Half a year in I saw an opportunity to rein the brand explosion back in and merged the two newsletters into a single new brand called MUSIC x.

I also started the Artist Lockdown Challenge along with an old friend from university, Carlo Kiksen. Artists signed up to receive a 30 minute task every day of June 2020, which would help them build up an overall digital strategy. The website and Discord are still up for those who want to do the challenge themselves and we’ve just started doing regular livestreams with industry experts!

The idea came to me when I was going through the Soundcloud profile of a friend who also happens to be a successful musician. They have all these tracks up, but there was no avenue for building traction – no way to buy their music or other basics. I think a lot of artists spend years building an online presence but miss a lot of revenue and commercial opportunities due to a lack of strategy. I wanted to fix this and lockdown seemed like a perfect time to get that going. 

I wanted artists to think along these lines: 

  • How do I find new fans?
  • How do I connect with them?
  • How do I get new releases out to them? 
  • How do I set up and optimise my online presence? 
  • How do I optimise my YouTube/ media channels? 

We coached participants every day, including weekends. 

What are some pieces of advice you would give artists trying to make it? 

Let me break it down for your readers:

Channels

As an artist, if your music has reached people in the past, think about how you’ll get it out to your audience again, at a larger scale when you release a new track. You’ve really got to understand who your fans are, where they listen to new music and how you can connect with them long term.

Have a plan for what you’ll do if suddenly you’re unable to connect with them on conventional platforms like Facebook or Instagram. Diversify the range of channels through which you reach your fans. Have somewhere to capture people’s email addresses if you can; for example, offer tracks for free on Bandcamp in exchange for an email sign-up. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s crazy valuable because you have a lot more control in terms of your reach. 

Your platform – where do your fans find you?

These are where the links you provide send you fans – landing pages, streaming platform. Where’s your home base? Nobody starts with a thousand fans, and that’s okay!  You need to build your base from the ground up and have a hub where they can access your music and the community you’ve built. 

Collect data

In all the legal ways, of course. This will help in the long-term. Add tracking pixels so you can track performance and traction. See who your fans are, retarget them when releasing new stuff and find other people like your fans in the future. Even if you don’t know how to use it now, you may involve a smart marketing person later on for whom that data will be immensely useful so start collecting it as soon as you can.

New releases – think ahead

When you finish a track you’ll want to get it out to your fans straight away. Stop! Pat yourself on the back and settle down to start planning your release. This is how you can get the most value out of your work. 

You need to get the buzz going leading up to your release and have a plan for how you’re going to keep the buzz going after. Have a mechanism to let your fans celebrate your release with you, and let them share in the anticipation of it all. Sometimes people need to be reminded 4 or 5 times until they get to your platform and start listening so don’t be afraid to repeat, repeat, repeat again and then repeat yourself a bit more! 

Who’s getting this right then? Whose digital strategy should artists look up to?

Run the Jewels have a solid online presence and an amazing digital strategy. Their website has a page where they capture fans’ emails too. Also check out Jauz who was doing Twitch hangouts even before lockdown started. He would ask fans to send him unfinished tracks and would play them on his livestream, giving feedback and sharing them with his community. This is a great strategy for artists who have a lot of aspiring musicians in their fanbase. 

All these people emerged from a subculture of music and they catered to a niche that’s now boomed. People aren’t afraid to seek out new kinds of music that they can’t find on the top charts or the radio. And these people have been making that sort of sound for years, they’ve mastered creating online communities and over the years have come up with a fool-proof digital strategy.

Live Streaming plays a central role in the time of lockdown, how can artists capitalise on this?

Live music is obviously suffering as things have moved online for the foreseeable future. But there’s plenty of opportunity when performing in the digital. Here’s some ideas:

You’ll want to make it interactive, give people something to do so they’re involved. Connect people with each other and to other performers. Get yourself more deeply involved to give your fans magical powers. In other words, give them the opportunity to do things they couldn’t in real life – let them share the stage with you or plug their music on your platform – let them share into your success and they’ll become loyal fans. Also make it exclusive. Limit the number of invited to your livestreams and sell exclusive merch. 

Customise each event, do something unexpected and surprise your fans – take advantage of the fact that you’re not constrained by the limitations of a live event. Lastly, immerse yourself into your fans’ worlds. If your fans are all on Minecraft, engage with them over there. These sorts of trends are really important; the traditional media are changing all the time and it’s in artists’ best interests to change with them. I wrote some newsletters around these topics: Making the virtual engaging and Minecraft raves.

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