By George Howard

We hear the near-constant drumbeat of the importance of direct-to-fan marketing from virtually every corner of the record business.  The sentiment is undeniably correct.  Eliminating middlemen, and their accompanying transaction costs, is certainly good practice in any type of business.  There is, however, something not quite right with respect to current thinking around direct-to-fan marketing.  In short, if all we’re doing with D2F is eliminating the middleman, we are only improving efficiency within an inherently flawed system; we’re still “marketing at” people instead of “marketing with” them. 

As Hugh MacLeod correctly states, “If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face.” What’s right about this statement is that we know when we’re being “marketed at,” and we don’t like it. 

Clay Shirky, building upon the work of John Seely Brown, makes a distinction between the “lean back” era, and the “lean forward era.”  In the “lean back” era — the era not coincidentally when the majors had their greatest stranglehold over both artists and consumers — we had little voice or interaction; we sat back passively and took whatever the gatekeepers/advertisers threw at us (“Here we are now, entertain us!”).  “Lean back” implies passivity, and a lack of voice.  While, from time to time, all of us just want to sit back and be entertained, for too long, whether we desired this or not, this was our only option.  How else to explain so much of the pabulum that exists on the radio and TV?  It’s sheer, mind-dulling repetition that, over time, causes us to hum a song we hate, or sit in a paralyzed/semi-catatonic state through Two and a Half Men.  

We know now that while we took it, we really didn’t like it.  We know this because the Internet — the first pillar of the “lean forward” age — was the fastest adopted technology since fire.  In other words, the moment we no longer had to lean back and take it — the moment we had access to the conversation via the Internet — we leaned forward and began creating, commenting, discoursing…conversing.  Now we are pre-disposed to interact with our content. From a simplistic level, we lean forward and use our DVRs to fast-forward over commercials, or, perhaps, we use Boxee, and lean forward to filter our content via what our friends have “favorited” in their Boxee queue.  More actively, we lean forward and grab content and remix it, or mash it up, or repurpose it to help let others know us better by Tweeting a link to a song, or highlighting a salient piece of text on an Amazon Kindle, and sharing that with all others reading the same book.

All of the great Internet success stories realize that it is about conversation, rather than commerce.  These companies — be they eBay, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Quora, Flickr, delicious, Groupon, Yelp, etc. — began with the premise that their customers were their allies.  Rather than “marketing at” these people, these companies created “architectures of participation.”  If you really think that Amazon, for instance, is only about commerce and not about conversation, ask yourself what you look at prior to making a purchase. If you’re like every other person on the planet, you look at the user submitted comments and star ratings.  What do those who submit those ratings receive?  Nothing.  It’s not about that. The Amazon star ratings are an example of civic sharing at its most fundamental; it’s people doing what they’re hard-wired to do: share/converse.

Music is something that people have always loved to share and converse about.  Even in the “marketing at” era, architectures of participation emerged — one thinks of, for example, The Grateful Dead’s encouragment of tape traders; or the ‘zines (truly precursors to web blogs) that acted less as marketing tools and more as a means to disseminate information of interest; to genuine gestures of community such as R.E.M.’s long-running fan club.

Our greatest challenge and opportunity with respect to the new tools — tools which make it possible to directly connect to fans — is to not use them simply as replacements for the mechanisms employed by the “marketing at” system.  Twitter/Facebook cannot become a PR feed from an artist to her constituents lest it lose all its value. 

Your constituents are your greatest, and when all is said and done, your only allies.  It is they who will compel their friends to check out your music, and, in so doing, grow your base.  You as a content creator, therefore, have the responsibility to empower them in a genuine, non-jive manner.  What bothers me about the current direct-to-fan approach is the air of condescension.  There still seems this false hierarchical attitude: “I, creator, deign to give you, “fan,” access to ME…aren’t I great!”

As Bruce Springsteen famously said, “The audience and the artist are valuable to one another as long as you can look out there and see yourself, and they look back and see themselves.”

If you’ve followed this article at all, you’ll know that there’s simply no way I can tell you how to authentically converse with your constituents.  I can, however, point you to some artists who are doing this: Kristin Hersh, Roseanne Cash, Jonathon Coulton, Sage Francis, Zoey Keating, Mark Isham, The Hold Steady….there are others, please leave your examples in the comments below.

Study their approaches, and then determine how you can begin really utilizing your constituents as allies, rather than thinking of them only as consumers.  Once you do this, you begin to realize that you’re not alone in this; it’s not you going direct to your “fans” in some sort of one-way anachronism, but rather you and your fans working to build something together.


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:

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