Show Notes: Episode 2: Tony van Veen & The Rise of The Indie Musician
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In This Episode Tony van Veen and Ariel Discuss:
I am thrilled to be interviewing Tony fresh off of a major announcement…
CD Baby has been sold to Downtown Music Publishing for 200 Million Dollars!
Tony explains how the company will now be structured and what is in store.
How to Monetize
You need to adapt a small business model because that’s what you are and even though it sounds cliche, you need to have your artist hat and your business hat! Both are critical.
Why Spotify & Other Streaming Platforms Are Important (But Won’t Make You Money)
When you are an indie artist you can’t count on the streaming platforms to make you money until you get to the point where you can generate a large number of streams (like in the millions). But you STILL need a marketing plan to shock the Spotify algorithm and get your fans to subscribe (follow).
How to Think About Your Fans
Tony dishes out some amazing advice about how to make your fans your TRIBE instead of thinking of them as “out there” or even worse “down there” and how doing this will shift your relationship to them and to your marketing. You need to think of them as CUSTOMERS.
Building Your Music Career is All About Incremental improvement
Ask yourself – What is making me more successful today than I was yesterday? It is all about the small steps, winning one real fan at a time, incremental improvement. In business you need to have a concept of continuous improvement. Whenever you’re somewhere, and you’re like wow that feels good your next step, after you celebrate the win is ask: All right, what’s next, what do I have to do next?
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Ariel Hyatt: Hi, this is Ariel, and that there is someone that I have known – are we on 20 years? It’s got to be 20 years.
Tony van Veen: It’s 20 years.
Ariel: God darn. And how long have you been working around music and musicians? It’s
gonna be 32 years this year. It’s a long time! So 32 plus 23, that’s what you’re getting today!
Welcome Tony van Veen – Disc Makers, CD Baby, amazing human. I will let you do your own description of how you like to be perceived by indie artists. It is a delight to get to talk to you today.
Tony: I’m thrilled to be here Ariel, we don’t get to talk nearly often enough.
Ariel: Very true. So please, for those of them watching that don’t know a little bit about you, do fill us in.
Tony: I am the new CEO of the newly founded DIY Media Group that includes Disc Makers, which does CD manufacturing. As I hope everybody knows, it includes Book Baby,
which is a book printing and self-publishing company for independent authors and it includes Merch.ly – our merch and garment printing company. Until a couple of days ago, I was the CEO of AVL digital group, which included all of those companies, and CD Baby, which is a leader in independent music distribution, and HostBaby, a web hosting platform for independent artists, AdRev, which is a YouTube monetization platform. We actually just spun off the digital brands from the physical products.
Ariel: Congratulations, that’s a huge deal. While we were preparing for this call, Tony and I were talking about something that we’re both feeling newly inspired and excited by. It’s really the time for the rise of the indie. The fact that CD Baby just got spun off is huge. Independent artists and their voices are now being included and invited to the table, we . both think it bodes extremely well.
Tony: I started playing in punk rock bands when I was in college and I have been very fortunate to be able to spend my whole career kind of with an alignment between my personal passion for music and my profession. And not just music, but specifically independent music. For decades – literally decades – people would turn up their nose at independent, vanity little bands, what have you. Now that anybody can put content up on YouTube and on social media, everybody – every individual – is a content creator.
Actually, I think this has elevated independent artists to a level where they’re getting respect. There’s many of them in the aggregate that the dollars to the industry are actually making a real difference. Think independent music with a music industry that is growing by single digits at this point in time, after 15 years of declines. I think the independent artist’s segment – if I recall the latest numbers is up I think either 23 or 27%. There’s huge growth in the independent artists side, and you’re gonna start seeing stuff now with royalty collections where strong writers, independent songwriters, in particular, have gotten screwed – honestly for years – with unattributable royalties for songwriters that ultimately end up getting distributed to the big publishers based on market share that now with the spinoff with CD Baby, which is now a partner with Downtown Music Publishing, where they’re gonna be able to have a much bigger say and a seat at the table with these mechanical licensing committees that are being established and hopefully being able to get some of the black box revenue to independent songwriters.
Ariel: So, this is the perfect segue into what we are going to be talking about today – which is monetization. As someone that helps artists to write plans primarily as my career, monetization has been something that unfortunately has eluded a lot of artists. I think social media, unfortunately, and digital streaming has hurt us in a way because a lot of our
brainpower and our time and attention went towards those things. Like, ‘gotta be on Spotify, we got to work on our streaming, and we got to work on Instagram posts,’ and unfortunately, these are not (until you get into the millions) very monetizable. I’d like to talk a little bit about monetization for indies. Where should artists begin to turn their attention? If you did maybe like three hours less a week of Instagramming and tweeting until your fingers hurt, and turned those hours towards really focusing on making money, can you give us a little bit of advice about where artists should point the firehose?
Tony: I could try, you know, there’s no magic bullet and to be honest, monetization is hard – especially when you’re an emerging artist. The plus on monetization is with companies like CD Baby out there today, it is easier than ever to monetize your music rights across all platforms where it’s used. You can get your music on all streaming platforms, you can get your music onto YouTube, you can collect streaming royalties, publishing royalties, YouTube royalties, public performance royalties, synchronization license. You can do all that, but with streaming over the past 20 years went from $15 a CD, to 99 cents per iTunes download for a single, to a quarter of a penny per Spotify stream, or a tenth of a penny per YouTube stream, and so artists complain about ‘I can’t make money on Spotify, can’t make money on YouTube,’ and they will be right. When you’re a DIY artist, you want to monetize because you never know if it blows up there’s going to be some money there. You cannot really count on the streaming platforms to be your major sources of music revenue until you’re huge and you’re driving millions of streams.
And how many emerging artists are doing that? Not too many. So, then no with monetization. To me, part of being an artist is you have to wear two hats – you have to wear your artist’s hat, and you have to wear your business person’s hat. I mean, that’s a cliche, everybody knows it, but it’s actually true. When you’re thinking like an artist, to create great art you have to entertain. When you’re thinking like a business person, ultimately the goal of every business is to generate revenue. And in order to generate revenues, you have to drive a transaction.
My pet peeve with artists is when they talk about their fans. All my fans, my fans, etc. Because fans imply, ‘I’m up here on stage, you’re down there in front of me, I’m high and mighty, you’re admiring me and you’re there for me,’ when in fact, if you think like a business person, it’s the exact opposite. ‘Don’t think of them as fans, think of them as customers.’ When you think of them as customers, or prospective customers, now all of a sudden they’re not there to worship you – you’re there to service them, to offer value.
And how do you offer value? By being an artist, by giving a great show, by writing great songs. And that’s the foundation, right? Your stuff has to be good, you have to work on your craft and it’s got to be good. You know, it happens. When I walk through the plant, you know, I see discs that are getting made that look amazing, and sometimes I’ll listen to one, and frequently I’m disappointed. Because, as good as they look, if the songwriting isn’t good enough to captivate me, that’s it. One listen, it’s over. I won’t even make it through a song.
Back to the original point, the goal is to drive a transaction. A stream can be considered a microtransaction, but driving one stream is not going to pay for itself with any kind of activity that you do driving them one at a time when you’re working with communicating to fans, to clients, to prospective clients, that can drive some activity. ‘Where are the areas where you can actually monetize?’ It’s with actual transactions. I think actual transactions still matter, whether that’s selling concert tickets or, if you’re performing live, selling merch, selling CDs, selling vinyl records at your merch table.
And there’s a million little tips and tricks to do that better and to do more of that – but you have to keep your business person’s hat on. And there are many artists who are uncomfortable doing that – they’re uncomfortable telling somebody when they’re on stage, telling the audience, ‘hey, we got a merch table in the back – at the end of my set I’ll be back there, I’ll be autographing. Stop on by we got t-shirts for 20 bucks, CDs for 10,’ and asking for the sale. If you ask people for what you want, it’s amazing how often you’ll get it. If you don’t ask them, they won’t know that they have to go back to that merch table.
Ariel: You just said something that was really profound, and it really resonated with me. When you said the thing about like ‘all my fans,’ where artists are somehow talking down to their fans. It’s this sea of people, and I think we all know and get by now that fans, especially in this day and age, within the age of social media, they expect a transaction. Not a financial transaction, which is what we’re also talking about – but a different type of transaction. And yes, they’re fans, but they’re also your tribe and so it’s a very important distinction. In our pre-call, Tony and I were talking about how we both like to run our business – which is to be accessible to our tribe. You can email this man – right in his email is a link, which when the dispatches go out for his minutes which are fun to watch. And I’ll put a link in the show notes you can watch The Indie Music Minute with Tony van Veen, and it’s one minute he just gives great advice – but the thing that’s fantastic about that, he is. If you’re accessible to your people, your people will begin to show you something. Whereas, if you consider them fans, they will never show you. But, if you consider them your tribe, if you talk to them, the most successful musicians that I know – everybody always uses Amanda Palmer, but there are many many other examples. Eric Hutchinson is one of these artists – super approachable and understands the value of this kind of transaction. It can start so simply- it can start with your newsletter list, just sending an email communication out to your email list and saying, ‘hey, talk to me, hey, let me know what song should I cover, hey, talk to me about what kind of merch I should make, what should I do with my next tour.’ Anything you can do to get your fans to contribute to the conversation and to what you’re doing and sort of be part of something, that is the first transaction that you need. Then the transactions that have to do with selling merch will come so much more easily – it won’t feel like a sale, it will feel like just an extension of a behavior.
Tony: I think it’s a good point, and the thing you’re not saying is, specifically: ‘Don’t put yourself above your tribe. Put yourself at an equal level.’
I like to think that one of the reasons that I’ve been fortunate to have success in this business, in this industry, is because I’m on the level with everybody who works for me. I’m on the level with my clients. I have clients who call me. I have a staff of hundreds of people, and so I don’t get to talk to a lot of clients, necessarily. And when they call me, it’s usually when there’s a problem that somebody can’t solve for them – which happens on from time to time. Usually, the conversation starts, ‘hey, Tony, I’m just a small client, but,’ and they’re surprised that I take a call, or that I answer their email, but our business is made up of human beings, and the clients are human beings, and if I can’t take care of that client and leave them with a sour taste, then that doesn’t help them, and it certainly doesn’t help us as a business, and it doesn’t help me.
Be real. Don’t be full of yourself. Don’t be an a-hole – a little bit of advice, don’t be an a-hole. Just be authentic.
A lot of our communications nowadays is through social media – there’s a lot of communications through email, I get these emails from folks and it’s obvious somebody else wrote it, or it’s really formulaically written. Be yourself. You are right about that, you want be authentic. If you know you’re somebody, like our friend Martin Atkins, who drops f-bombs in conversation all the time, drop f-bombs in your communication. It’s okay. It’s not for everybody. But it is for the people who like you. Be yourself. It becomes that communication. And, by the way, social media is critical for communications nowadays and it’s really cool. I think music fans get a lot out of the fact that if you’re – not just that you’re posting – but if you actually engage with some of the comments, like, ‘oh wait, it’s really her.’ It’s really powerful, and that’s a lot of authenticity and getting people to like you, to follow you, to save you as an artist on Spotify, to subscribe to your YouTube channel. If they don’t do those things, then you cannot reach them anymore to communicate down the road – and those are mass communication channels – just like email – but it doesn’t mean you have to get formal in your communication style. When we do the Disc Makers emails every Saturday, I do one that has a little YouTube video. As you talked about the indie music minute, I write that, and I write those myself, and I sit down, I think I’m writing to one person. I think about one client, one artist, what would this artist be interested in hearing from me, and how would I write to one person, how would I have a conversation? I try to write like I speak, and rather than thinking I’m writing to 150,000 people, I’m thinking I’m writing to one artist, and what would that artist want to know? The more effectively you communicate, the better, ultimately, you will do as an artist.
People will like you more. Back to transactions, people like to buy from people who are like them, and who they like, so, if you come across as a regular human being who’s friendly, interesting, puts their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else – you’ll do fine.
Ariel: Yeah, that’s true. I think, also, it’s a great way of alleviating the anxiety and stress that comes out of that feeling of like every communication has to be very old school. Cheryl B. Engelhart, gave a big seminar for your Disc Maker’s peeps, and she also did one of my LABS, and she’s been bringing an awareness that’s been around in business for a long time into the artist community. Which, I think, is so needed. Which is about nurturing, it’s about – don’t just send a newsletter, blast the “July newsletter.” That was something that’s when we started 20 years ago we were saying you put together a monthly transmission. It’s not ever gonna work now.
Tony: Plus, with social media, those schedules and frequencies are just totally out the window.
Ariel: Right. So, when I interviewed Manafest – he is an artist who emails his tribe almost every day. I was shocked. He has a very very large email list, and I love that he’s all about it. Not saying you have to do this, but for him, it works. And he’s managed to create a tremendous crowd. But, email nurturing. for those of you that don’t know what that is, look up Cheryl – there’s a great blog on the CD Baby DIY Musician Blog that she wrote, there’s also one on my Cyber PR Music Blog. She talks about the different types of nurturing series that you can write, and it’s a really brilliant way of strengthening your fan base, which is the key before the monetization. No fans, no monetization. It’s the have to have – they have to hold hands.
Tony: You know why Manafest can email daily and keep people opening his emails? It’s because he writes stuff that people want to read. He is not spamming them with, ‘buy my music, buy my music, buy my music.’ In business or marketing, that’s called a value-added communication. You want to add value, offer some kind of value to your reader with what you have to say. That means, not everything you say needs to be – in fact, not everything you say should be commercial. What would your fans, if you have fans who are true fans, they want to know? What’s going on with you? Whether that’s your political opinions, or your songwriting sessions, or whatever it is. Talk about that, and that offers value. I wouldn’t recommend emailing daily, either. At least, not to start. But, you probably are posting daily – and your posts are also should be value added. I don’t think you should post [on socials] willy-nilly about just anything. I think there is a certain level of discipline – ‘Is this worth a spot in my followers feed, and is it actually something that’s interesting?’
If your stuff is interesting, you will not just retain and get more interaction from the folks you already have – if it’s shareable, it will help drive additional people to your socials.
One other thing about monetization that I do want to say is, as much as I talked about not everything that you communicate should be commercial, one of our experiences – and I think the experience of most artists – is social is not a great channel to monetize your music. People don’t go to Facebook to pull out their wallet, even though more and more advertising is happening. We are seeing for our company and other companies – we are seeing dollars coming from social. If you spend dollars on it, you do have to spend some advertising dollars on it. Email continues to be the best channel to actually drive transactions. When you have new albums out, a link to wherever you have your merch – with the right offer – is the strongest driver of online revenue that an artist can generate.
Ariel: I’m in the middle of my crowdfunding course right now, and that’s a huge thing we talked about – which is understanding that everything you put out [on socials] has to have value, has to build a story, has to be something that is interesting. That’s how you monetize, for sure, yeah. And on that note, monetization, back to that topic. I’d like to hear a little bit from you – one of your Indie Music Minutes, you talked about releasing singles and how historically – cuz you got 10 years on me – we started in a world of marketing albums, back in the 60s, 70s, 80s. Then, of course, we had a huge disruption, and iTunes came in, and that’s when we started thinking about marketing in a singles world. What’s your take on singles and putting music out? Should we still even worry about putting entire albums out?
Tony: You know, it’s funny. I just posted something on Facebook over the weekend that – I don’t know whether you saw it – where you know I was in my basement, I saw this rack of CDs that I hadn’t listened to in the 17 years that I’ve been in my current home, and I started looking through, and I started kind of popping them in the CD player, listening to these great, great tunes, great albums by great artists, and just kind of take me back in time, and made me realize – really very viscerally – that I’m a Spotify user. Spotify and the release radar recommendations have totally changed my music listening behavior over the past better part of a decade, away from enjoying my existing music catalog with the occasional new purchase, to almost entirely listening to recent discoveries with this buffet that is Spotify – or streaming in general – and almost always is singles. I mean, release radar is feeding me singles, and when there’s a new album out by an artist I like, it’ll feed me a single every week. So now when – look, I love Spotify and I love streaming and I like those discoveries. I love listening to albums, I like to hear the whole work and how the artist thinks about a collection of songs. We are in a singles world and singles are the way now that you, as an artist, get to add value and stay in constant touch with your customer base. It’s not – drop twelve songs today, and then pick the singles after. You will still drop 12 songs in many cases, but after.
You use the singles first, and you dribble your singles out. So you can still be in the studio working on your album, but your first single you could already have mixed, and you can drop that you want your fans to remember you, to stay in touch with you. The singles really are the way that you do that. But the listening public – I was gonna say – the public, but with streaming, there is not one single transaction anymore. The listening public, like I was just talking about, has basically been retrained to consume music in those bite-sized singles chunks, and, overall, that said, I think it’s fine. I don’t tend to criticize what happens when the market speaks, because the market has its own infinite wisdom. We can complain about it all we want, but that’s not gonna change the market. What we get to do is figure out how to optimally respond to whatever the market is doing as artists and as businesses.
Ariel: When you are an artist, business person, and from a marketing standpoint, we are actually excited about a singles market. The reason for that is – I don’t have all that pressure on me. Back in the day, when I was a traditional publicist – this is going way back – I had these three months where I had to take someone’s twelve or fourteen tracks and I was on this crazy treadmill and then there was the big Tuesday drop day, and any journalist would basically tell me it’s all over on the Wednesday. So, the marketing, as far as the PR side of the house, was pretty finite. It was all about – tada, the big release day! What press were you going to get then? Of course, if the artist went on tour or dropped a video, you had a little bit of extra life – but, the beautiful thing, from a marketing standpoint and from a Spotify curator standpoint, of dropping singles every four, six, however, you want to do it. Spotify does recommend between every four and six weeks – it gives you four weeks or six weeks to get the attention of the Spotify curator team, and possibly get on some playlists. It also gives you a chance to market one thing at a time.
You put out one single and make a decision – this is the single that I’m going to use to build my mailing list – then you’ve got four weeks to do, that then you can put out another single and go for four weeks – I’m gonna use this, I’m going to do Show.co, and I’m gonna get some unlocks, and I’m gonna build my YouTube subscribers, for example – and you can do this strategy without feeling like everything has to happen all at once with one single. Because, the truth is, you don’t get a message out clearly when you’re feeling like you’re only doing a little bit on each and every one of these platforms. So, for those of you who are not familiar with Show.co, it’s an amazing marketing platform which is owned by CD Baby and can be really helpful when you’re planning your single releases because you can use a different piece of Show.co for each release that you put out.
Tony: It’s super cool, actually, and it’s so many tools that artists actually need. You talked about social unlock, which is basically a way to – you know, if you have a YouTube video for example, in order to have somebody allow somebody to watch the YouTube video they have to either say view on Spotify or subscribe to your YouTube channel or you follow or like you on Facebook – something like that. That helps somebody who’s maybe casually interested, it helps them for relatively little commitment. It’s just a like, maybe to get give you the ability ultimately to communicate with them down the road, which hopefully will lead to them becoming a customer at some point in time or regular customer. There are other things – Show.co just announced the beta of a new ad platform where we help artists create the little audio ads on Spotify for ad-supported Spotify listeners. You can use a part of your song and you can create a little ad, which is super exciting. There are other social media ads that we help artists create because, nowadays, when you post something on Facebook, I think 80 percent of your fans, your followers, your friends, don’t see it very well. So, if you’re an artist – Facebook’s in the business of making money, and it makes money by selling ads, and selling your data, like it or not. Many artists have to get used to the fact that you’re gonna have to spend a couple of bucks. Now, you don’t have to spend an awful lot to boost your posts, but if you want to achieve some results, you have to spend a couple of bucks. Show.co is an easy way to do that, and some of the tools. If you want to look into it show dot co is the domain name, and we’re really excited about some of the things that, as we continue to kind of build out this DIY artist friendly kind of marketing tools set, will be able to help artists kind of continue to rise.
Ariel: We love it because it’s a great way of what we call ROC (Return on Conversation / Connection) here, I think a lot of times artists tend to focus on where they’re making money is not the best way of thinking like if I invest X amount of dollars to drive fans to my Spotify, for example. Let’s just pick a number, $1,000. You’re not going to get $1,000 back, that’s ROI (Return On Investment) You should always think about that as a business owner. You’re not a moron, but when you think about making an investment in something like that, you have to think of your ROC, as I call it, which is the return on conversation. It’s the return on connection, it’s about – if I did get several thousand more people to listen to my track, and they’ve saved it now, when I put out my next track on their new music release radar you will appear.
So it’s a long-term investment. And Show.co is brilliant because it begins to get you to think about monetizing social media. When I say that, I don’t mean that money is going to come back in your pocket – but people following you and liking you, these are important things. As you put out more and more content, there are more people at the other end of your personal bullhorn. Just putting your music up on Spotify is not a thing… but, putting it up on Spotify where you already have 100 or 200 or 500 fans waiting because they followed you or pre-saved your music, that is a thing.
Tony: And, by the way, speaking of saving on Spotify. Show.co has a Spotify pre-save function where if your singles not out yet, you want folks to be able to- you can encourage them to pre-save it so that on the day that your single launches, it shows up in their feed.
Ariel: Which is huge, so it’s your responsibility to shock the Spotify algorithm – not Spotify’s responsibility to bring you fans. So, a pre-save campaign is a really powerful way to do that.
Tony: It’s interesting because ever since I’ve been in this business, one of the complaints we still hear today is, ‘well, my music didn’t sell, CD Baby you suck,’ because it’s our fault. I tell folks all the time, and going back to distribution with physical product, we merely provide the pipe to the marketplace and it’s your job as an artist to create a demand and the things that we’re talking about today are the things that create that demand. Treat your fans like customers, communicate authentically, build that mailing list, build that social following so that you can reach out to your community and communicate to them and then drive towards a transaction, and this is not something that’s gonna happen overnight.
One of the coolest things my clients take away from our last CD Baby DIY musician conference in Nashville last year in August – it was just this gentleman up on stage, and somebody yelled something at him about, ‘how do I do this quickly,’ and he said, ‘raise your hand if you want to do this music thing for the rest of your life,’ and the whole room’s hands go up, and he says, ‘if you want to do this for the rest of your life, why are you in such a damn hurry.’ I understand a sense of urgency, and we need to operate with a sense of urgency, but the fact is you’re not gonna go from here to here overnight. You’re gonna go from here to here to here to here to here, and tools like Show.co and channels like CD Baby are not going to get you from here to here overnight, but they will allow you to take those baby steps. So long as you as an artist keep focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and making sure every time you’re learning your songwriting craft gets better, your live performances get better, you test new offers, you’re at the gig, and you do a two-for-one bundle, you have an old CD that’s not moving too fast anymore, and a new one, and you do two for one bundle, your bundle CDs, or you try a name your own price campaign, these are all things that are for when you have your business hat on. What am I learning?
What is making me more successful today than I was yesterday? Incremental improvement, you know. In business we have a concept, and I know I’m kind of rambling on here, we have a concept of continuous improvement and it is just don’t ever feel that you’re there. Whenever you’re somewhere, and you’re like wow that feels good – think all right, what’s next, what do I have to do next?
Ariel: There is no better way to end this conversation. I got nothing those are the last words. All right, beautiful.
Tony: Great to chat Ariel.
Ariel: How can they find you, Tony? How can they get in your email inbox?
Ariel: Thank you so much for being my guest today, I deeply appreciate it. Everybody follow Tony, follow me, shoot us questions, and we’ll see you in the next episode.
Tony: Thank you, had fun!
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Ariel Loves the challenges that today’s music business presents and she leads her team to help clients come out ahead- whether that is with a detailed Total Tuneup, a new brand, or an increased established digital footprint, she is dedicated to helping her clients leave more educated than they were when they came to Cyber PR. She has written over 300 blog posts and four books on marketing, crowdfunding, and social media for artists- two of which went to #1 on Amazon. Ariel has spoken to over 100,000 artists in 12 countries about how to take control of their own marketing leading masterclasses, workshops, and panels.