by George Howard, Read more articles at Artists House Music or follow George on twitter @gah650
I still wake up on Wednesdays with a little shudder. You see, Wednesdays are (and, I guess, always will be) Soundscan days. Back when there was still a record business, you got your report card every Wednesday morning. I remember so well hauling my pale ass out of bed and logging in to SS (SoundScan). 90% of the time, this was immediately followed by an “ugh.” The numbers were rarely what you wanted them to be (for more on SS’s continued irrelevance, read this).
Numbers indelibly etched in my brain, off to the office I’d go. I’d review the radio and press reports from the indies, and check on internal press and radio reports. Ugh. Ugh.
And, typically (almost always) with each subsequent week after the initial numbers, Wednesdays sucked exponentially more. You see, 99% of the time, the only week you might have any type of non-ugh reaction over SS numbers and other reports was that first week.
From there the numbers tended to drop precipitously. In fact, it was often considered a win if your SS numbers only halved from week 1 to week 2. Same with the other reports: radio and press (linked, and, in many respects, taking their cues from SS) tended to start with optimism (“So and so from such and such magazine/newspaper/radio station really likes the record, and promises to listen!!!”), and got increasingly depressing (“So and so says they’re on deadline/add week, but they’re going to try to listen;” “So and so doesn’t really dig it/feel the heat/will give it a review instead of a feature/will try it on the specialty show, but won’t add yet”).
Here’s roughly what the report card looked like:
What this is saying is that in week 1 if your SS number was 1000, by week 2 you’d often decrease that number by 75% (so, from 1k down to 250); the press and radio interest would decrease by half. Week 3 would continue apace with your SS numbers being a tenth (in this case, 100) of the first week, while radio and press interest was 25% of what it had been in week one. This is probably a little dramatic in order to make a point, but it’s not that dramatic, and this is, sadly, often exactly what it looked/looks like).
Can you imagine how hard it became to do this week after week? Don’t get me wrong, I (and many more others) had weeks where the SS numbers went up, press went crazy, radio added the song, etc. But, for every one of these, there were literally dozens where it went the way I described above.
Just from a psychological standpoint, it caused a ton of psychic torment; rather than being excited and finding ways to create energy and positivity about a project, you were left sugar coating: “The numbers weren’t that bad;” “Hey, we laid a foundation for the next record.”
This type of laying-it-on-thick was particularly important in terms of artist relations. You had to present things in some sort of positive light to artists or they’d lose their minds; they’d just spent many moons and much blood, sweat, and tears creating a piece of art, and entrusted it to you, and to tell them that the general response to their work was, “meh” was simply cruel. (In hindsight, it was equally cruel to sugar coat, but I wasn’t as evolved as I am now (hah!)).
In any case, as the negativity began to become almost endemic, the process became surreal: what were we doing? What is real?
Happily, we have a new report card, and it’s sort of the inverse of the above.
Below is a quick list of some of what I feel are the more important elements that should be on your new report card.
The legend to my map: email addresses; twitter followers; Facebook fans; Google Analytics (you should look at visitors, time on site, bounce rate, etc. Also, you should be looking at Google Alerts); downloads; subscriptions (i.e. people subscribing to some offering, ala Kristin Hersh’s Strange Angels).
The calculation is just an example. Here, I’ve got week 1 as “X,” and the subsequent weeks’ numbers increasing by 20, 30 and 40% of X. So, if for week one you have 100 email subscribers, by week 2 you want 120, and so forth. This is arbitrary. You should set whatever goals are difficult but attainable, and you should adjust as the weeks go by.
Couple of things to note: 1. You can do this daily. 2. You should measure what I’ve suggested, but you should also have your own things you’re measuring; I’m sure I’ve left off some obvious things (one thing I’d love to be able to measure is how effectively your music is being shared; another is gig attendees/number of gigs played – you need to measure this!).
The big distinction, however, between the old school report card and the new school report card is the shift from pessimism to optimism it represents.
Where the old school report axiomatically led to depression due to the inexorable decline in numbers (SS, reviews, spins), the new school report axiomatically leads to hope (and thus energy). If you haven’t increased – even by a teeny bit – your email subscribers, etc., something is wrong.
The good news now is that once you realize that something is wrong you can take strides to fix it.
Not getting enough email subscribers? Do you have an email-for-content widget rocking on your site; have you done what you need in terms of SEO to make sure people know you have a site; are you leveraging Twitter or FB to go to where people already are congregating and giving them a decent value proposition to go to your site; etc.
You know what your “remedy” was for bad Soundscan numbers? Spend more co-op dollars. Uggh. Bad radio numbers? Payola. Double Uggh. Bad press? Cry. Sigh.
Again, the real beauty of this new type of report card is that it should be exciting and encouraging. You can see incremental progress, and, most importantly, you (band and/or manager) are in control.
This is vastly different than placing your hopes/destiny in the hands of a sales rep, publicist, promo person, label.
You note that nowhere on this new report card is a category for radio play or press reviews. You know why? They don’t matter. Yes, a teeny bit of an exaggeration, but even if they might matter a bit (and, really, only for artists who are already established) – you largely can’t control them. Please focus on what you can control. I did, by the way put Google Alerts as a measurement; think of this as your press report, and when you see that someone blogged about your work (via Google Alerts), respond/comment, etc. Remember, markets are conversations/relationships.
Map: What you have to do is figure out what you need to measure (I’ve tried to give you some ideas). This should lead to an overall strategy (i.e. big picture goals), and this should lead to action plans (i.e. small, daily steps that help you hit those goals).
Don’t try to go from 0 email subscribers to 1000 in a week, and then deem it a failure when/if you don’t hit that. Try to go from 0 to 25 in a week. Before you can get any, you have to do some work: as above, email-for-content widget, SEO, etc. – these are elements of an action plan that lead to success at a strategy of getting more email subscribers.
Measure your progress weekly. Use a Google sheet that can be updated weekly. Have a band meeting and look at the numbers. Assess what’s working, and what’s not. Where things are working, there is energy – do more. Where things aren’t (no addition of FB fans, etc.), figure out what actions you can take to change it.
Do this for three months; you’ll be shocked by the results.
George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is a Professor and Executive in Residence in the college of Business Administration at Loyola, New Orleans. He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650