X Factor: Power For Good?

Imagine if X Factor used its power of influence and ability to reach mass audiences for social good.

I've had the opportunity of recently paying a visit to the X Factor studio. It came at a time when I had just been researching the influence gays have had on western culture, so I was sensitive to what I now clearly see as discrimination on the programme.

X Factor has over 10 million viewers per week in the UK. In terms of creating and reflecting social norms, the programme is a potential force. And with the franchise in the US and beyond, it's reach is extensive.

Now in its eighth year, X Factor continues to skirt around and often hide the sexuality of its contestants and judges. Apprehension of losing viewers to a conservative audience, or of turning off teen girls who are meant to fancy the young attractive contestants, is apparent. It is a fear that has plagued the entertainment industry for decades, keeping actors, musicians and TV personalities in the closet.

Young male contestants, like The Risk and Frankie Cocozza, are clearly encouraged each week to discuss their exploits with female fans. This sends the message that straight youth is normal - while at the same time being gay is not to be discussed.

The often cited argument is that sexuality is private and no one else's business. I don't agree with this, and find strong contradiction within the music industry where heterosexuality is openly encouraged. Young stars should either make the nation fall in love with them, or date each other to create tabloid headlines.

The issue here, however, is that until homosexuality is normalised in society, gays will continue to be seen as different and something to be hidden.

A result of this is teen bullying - which is often believed to be the cause of suicide attempts amongst youth. The UK charity Stonewall reports that two out of three gay teens are bullied in school. Alongside this is the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds in the US - with gay youth attempting suicide up to four times more than heterosexuals in this age group.

Lady Gaga has just been celebrated with an appearance on X Factor. Its safe to say that her fans include a large percentage of the gay audience. She campaigns against bullying, and has been part of the brilliant "It Gets Better" viral campaign. Gaga is the biggest force in pop music, and her recognition of this issue could have a significant impact in encouraging young gays to come out with confidence.

Shows like X Factor provide an opportunity for establishing social norms due to their popularity. By continuing to whitewash issues in an outdated belief that doing so will save ratings they are contributing to discrimination and homophobia. Think of the potential message a show like XFactor could send to young kids growing up gay who feel ashamed to be who they are. It's tragic that Simon Cowell has yet to discover the real power of his empire.


Learning From Our Elders

Pete Townshend chose to use the honour of the BBC John Peel lecture this week to deliver a rant. Essentially without any central thesis, his speech went over the same well-trodden ground that old industry giants find themselves covering - piracy, publishing, copyright, etc etc etc. Definitely not very Manifesto.

Townshend falls into the trap of many of our industry elders who feel that change is happening, but cannot recognise what a new industry offers to artists. Rather than adding a positive vision with their experience of being a creator, they respond from a place of resistance. It stems from the fear of seeing the foundations of how their own careers were shaped being torn apart and rebuilt.

We have much to learn from the forefathers of pop. They developed a blueprint of a creative form that we love, and the new industry is still celebrating. Townshend is apologetic throughout the lecture of speaking about music as art. But this is the area where he should own the platform. I want to know his genius and learn from his ability as a creator, not hear him riff about the price of downloads.

I'm not dismissing the old guard as being irrelevant to building the new industry. There are many who are active in pushing change forward. Brian Eno spoke recently on Channel 4 news about his new project involving crowd sourced creativity. These types of visionaries add immensely to finding solutions. They are using their abilities as creatives to offer something new - not attach to the past and complain that things are different.

The very act of being an artist means you create change. I often think of music as a mathematical problem that I must resolve - like sonic sudoku. Perhaps pop music has made us too comfortable. Even though we now live in the most exciting and productive era for artists, we seem to not all be able to rise to the challenge. For artists like Pete Townshend, it's just too much to let go of the past and embrace what we now have.

Image by Zio Zeta on Flickr


A Tribute to Think Different

With the recent passing of Steve Jobs comes also the ten year anniversary of the iPod, and therefore more reflection on Apple and the impact the brand has had on our lives.

The blogosphere does not need another tribute to Jobs. However, I'd like the chance to acknowledge the role that Apple has played within the music industry. For without them, I don't know how we could have progressed so far in a decade.

It's not so much what Apple made, though we have to appreciate the tools they gave us. Every Gaymonkey album was produced on an Apple product - most creatives even beyond the music industry will have used one of the company's machines to generate their work. The hardware allowed us all to be producers and stretch the boundaries of our talents.

And the innovation that Jobs and his team drove through wasn't confined to the products themselves. With the iPod came iTunes - disrupting the fabric of the traditional distribution model of the industry. Now everyone could release their material and gain unlimited shelf space to sell their work. And do it internationally. The platform allowed our own label to have top 20 albums across Europe.

But what stands above this all is what sits at the heart of Jobs and Apple itself. The intention of the brand to think and do things differently.

It's this driving force that attracts the cult of Apple. The outsiders who want to identify themselves with a product that is like them. Who see themselves reflected in the vision of a business.

Gaymonkey was founded on the same principles. We believed that anything creative could be possible through the motivation of the artist. That to make it happen we could use the resources at our fingertips. That by thinking differently we could reach the goals we set ourselves - not the ones dictated to us by an industry that lacked the foresight of the new exciting digital era.

And as Gaymonkey shifts - to enable artists to achieve - the ethos we share with Apple still remains. Think different and make it happen. That's all we need to wake us up and keep us going.

Image from bangdoll on Flickr.


Online Community Building - The Basics

Building your community takes planning, attention, and patience. Here's three key things artists should keep in mind when making connections:

Do Your Research
The fatal failure of any strategy is to get down to work without understanding the landscape - and that goes for social media as well. The tendency is to think that your potential audience is EVERYONE - in order to make the most of your efforts and resources, you need to focus. And a little research goes a long way.

Your research brief should include:

- which artists do you compare yourself to? Pick ones in similar situations to yourself (local artists, with the same musical profile in a similar stage to your career - don't put yourself in the Lady GaGa league!) Choose five favourites to focus on and dig deep into.

- build a profile of their fanbase. What type of people do they attract? Look across the usual channels - MySpace, Twitter, Last.fm, Facebook.

- what does this audience care about? Examine how they react to engagement with the artist. Do they like new tracks? Live shows? Videos? Exclusive interviews?

- look at their tastemaker champions - which blogs have written about them? what radio shows support them? 

Putting all this together will give you valuable insight to create a profile of your potential online community.

Construct Your Content
Now that you know the community you could attract, make a plan of the content you to engage them with. This is key - you need to plan this out in advance to be proactive. 

Think about this as you build online tools, like your website or Facebook fan page - and how it links to the other social media channels you could use (like your own blog, SoundCloud page, YouTube channel etc).

Check out this great post about Lady Gaga's social media success - which points out how she used great content strategically across various online channels. 

Start Conversations
Twitter is the best place to keep the engagement going. Remember that your community isn't just an audience - it's bloggers to support you, potential people to collaborate with, and other artists to form connections with.

Find a tone of voice and topics to chat about that relate to your content (and avoid talking about what you ate/what your cat ate!). Follow people, listen to their conversations, and retweet the things you like. And above all, make a contribution. 

This is jus the start. Eventually the community will build, and will become the megaphone of your voice. Communities support each other. It's about being authentic, and getting involved - and about making a quality - not quantity - connection.

Image from Flickr by alles-schlumpf


Manifesto Fundamental: Artists Connect Communities

Community is the next fundamental of the Manifesto. One of the major differentiating factors of the new industry is the ability of artists to interact with others on a global scale. MySpace was a turning point for this - suddenly musicians had the ability to connect with their audience on a daily basis, build a fan base, and make contact with other artists. Free, simple and easy.

Artists have always been at the centre of networks, and their work has often found a key place within subcultures (think disco, goth, trance etc). The difference now is that artists are connectors on an even greater scale. The rise of social media has put artists at the heart of online communities - where their own participation is crucial to the establishment of their audience.

And audiences are developing an expectation that their participation and interaction with the artist will be valued. In the old industry, where fans would make contact hoping for a response from the band they admired, the artist had the ability to remain removed from their audience - connecting primarily through live performances. Contact was essentially one way, with the artist kept at a distance from direct interaction.

Over the past few years we have seen a dramatic shift in media from passive communication to one where anyone can be active and interact. Social media is based on communities of people involved in conversation. Some in the creative industries, such as Stephen Fry, understand this and invest heavily in building strong communities.

The new industry directly connects artists to their community. It's a powerful way of increasing feedback and building loyalty; for new artists, this power is priceless. Simon Curtis is a prime example of this - building up a community via social media alone that has resulted in tens of thousands of downloads of his material from people around the world. Hard to imagine that only a few years ago that level of exposure would have cost a label serious cash investment.

The fundamental of Community works in conjunction with the first of the Manifesto. If music is art, and artists connect communities, the key principle here is that an artist is defined by their ability to deliver their work to the world.

With creative production democratised, anyone can now make music. Technology makes it easier to output creativity - but this act of creation does not make an individual an artist. Only those with the bravery to ship their work to a community that respects what they have created can be termed an artist.

The ease of production and distribution means a high volume of music is being made - a fact that many musicians bemoan. Their fear is that more music on the shelf means their own work will not be heard or recognised. The Manifesto's fundamental of Community addresses this. Artists that make their own connections - with an audience, partners, and other musicians - and nurture them over time, will benefit. The days of the recluse artist reliant on big label marketing spend are over - the Community is critical to supporting an artist's work.


Manifesto Fundamental: Music is Art

The first of the six fundamentals of the Manifesto for a 21st Century Music Industry holds the central idea of the entire work. If we believe that "music is art" then we will be able to build an industry that is more exciting than the old one that has been crumbling over the past decade.

Music is art.

On the surface this seems obvious and irrefutable. Yet we tend not to think about music in this way. The industry has been working for decades to position music as a retail object.

What is art? It was Seth Godin's book Linchpin which helped me to finally develop clarity. His idea is that we can all be artists, indispensable creators, no matter what we do - and that as artists we create gifts. In the music industry, this is now more important than ever. Music has existed longer than capitalism. Human beings have always been inspired to express themselves through rhythm and sound. It is almost a basic need, found in every culture. Music is universal to the human condition.

Yet music has become a commodity. It's now a product, made by others, for purchase. There is no issue with the idea that creators of art should be rewarded for their work financially, but the intention of music's creation seems to now be focused around how much money can be made - not on the gift it brings to our society.

Something I often hear from musicians is that they are concerned about music being "devalued". This usually comes up when discussing giving away their music for free, streaming services, or people downloading tracks without paying for them.

My response is that value cannot be derived from a price tag. Music is so much more than a retail object. It creates change, inspires, makes us dance and cry. How can we then only feel validated as artists by the receipt of cash - by making what we have created into a product with a price point lower than a tube of toothpaste?

Music is art. You create it, and you give it value. It is not solely a commodity for your own commercial gain. A fundamental of the new music industry.


Manifesto for a 21st Century Music Industry

Here's something new from Gaymonkey. Something we're very pleased to be able to ship to the world ...

Over the past few years it has become clear that the biggest issue facing the music industry is not piracy. It's not the collapse of major labels, or the recession damaging retail sales. And it certainly isn't the public devaluing music.

The biggest issue facing the new music industry is that artists do not believe that they can make their careers happen. 

We know they can.

That is why we have put together the Manifesto for a 21st Century Music Industry. It outlines a vision for a direction for the new industry, and a way for artists to have ultimate control of their own careers.

The Manifesto sets out the Fundamentals of this new industry - the foundation of what must change to reposition the relationships within the business. We set out three key steps for artists to help them take control. And we bust some myths that pinpoint areas that are blocking artists from reaching their new potential.

The Manifesto is an ebook that is free for everyone to download. I'll use this blog to further delve into the key points that make up the book. And I'd love to hear your feedback - so please download, enjoy, share it - and let me know what you think.

The new industry is exciting, and our potential is now limitless. We just need to make it happen.


Do What Radiohead Does - Four Artists Who Make It Work

So Radiohead have done something quite different in releasing their latest album without a mainstream above-the-line ad campaign, and by distributing via their own website. Which they can do - because they are big already, right?

The new industry is preparing itself for any artist to do what Radiohead does. All the means to create, distribute and connect are available to anyone. The problem rests in our own belief as artists that it's not enough - that we need to rely on others to build our success for us.

Yes Radiohead have benefited from mainstream support. However, the last five years of their career has shown them breaking from the status quo to take more and more control of their work. Their confidence must stem from the fact that they are supported by a great community of fans that shows no sign of dissipating. A community that with which they have always had a relationship of mutual respect.

To demonstrate that this is happening across the industry, here are a few examples of individuals who are brave enough to step ahead, build their communities, and try out a different perspective:

The Swedish electropop queen has been making music since she was a teenager, but her biggest success did not happen until she packed in the major labels and went on her own. Her top album Robyn was released in 2005 on her own Konichiwa imprint, which she tirelessly promoted and used to build an international fan base - in fact it took several years for the record to stick in markets outside Sweden. She followed it up with a triple album - Body Talk - released across several months. Her strategy is to work hard, create, and give back to her fans. And it's paying off. Yes she has support from the big players now - but she's in control. Inspirational.

An artists' goal does not always have to be based around global stardom. Matthew Ker's debut album Body-Piano-Machine was released after his career as a producer took off via collaboration with French artist Camille. MaJiKer and I worked together with the aim of increasing his solo profile amongst key tastemakers in the industry. Since then he has played at London's iconic ICA, remixed Fever Ray, and earned the praise of Janice Long, Ken Russell and Nico Muhly. Tracks from new album The House of Bones was recently featured on David Byrne's podcast. Proof that targeting your PR pays off.

Simon Curtis
This electro pop robot boy has become an internet success story by using the free model to build his community. With over a million downloads of his debut album from his site, Simon has tapped in to social media to capture a fan base of tens of thousands via Twitter and Facebook. What happens next is up to him - but with that level of support he is certain to move forward confidently to the next stage of his career. His community will follow him and amplify his intention.

Raj Rudolph
The maestro behind top pop blog Electroqueer continues to build his empire with devotion that shows no sign of letting up. Although not a musician, Raj and other bloggers like him who are serious about what they do embody the spirit of the new industry. They focus on their craft, remain independent, and create communities of support. And they innovate; Raj's EQ London live nights hold sought after slots for emerging acts keen to gain their own audience.

While none of these artists are yet at the stratosphere of Thom Yorke and friends, each are working within the very same playing field as Radiohead. In the new industry, the game is up to you. Take a chance, poke the box, and see what happens. The only thing stopping you is your belief that it can't be done. Artists now have the ability to take control of their own careers. It's liberating - and it works.

Radiohead image from Flickr by Ben Ward


Radiohead's Surprise Idea

They changed the game with their proposition of pay-what-u-want for In Rainbows.

This time round, Radiohead have set the price, but The King of Limbs still remains remarkable in it's distribution. No warning, no hype, no marketing - just music. Worldwide, on their site, downloadable at a reasonable price. Available instantly.

It seems incredible, doesn't it. Yet the methodology is simple. Make something, then make it available. Any artist could do this, but few do. We are conditioned to thinking that only bands like Radiohead have the power to be brave because they already have the fan base to do so. The lesson is still the same for every artist - focus energy on building your community. And then give them great ideas to experience.

The album is great, and the band continue to inspire a new industry with a new way of thinking. Thank you.

If you don't have it already - The King of Limbs is yours by visiting http://www.thekingoflimbs.com/


Selling Ideas in Seconds

When we talk about selling within the music industry, we always think of the relationship between the artist and their fans or community. There is, of course, another level - the B2B connection with the various partners that artists must work with: from PR to distribution, other musicians, venues, bookers, etc. Often both sides must pitch to each other to establish the relationship. Its an important sales job, and often a complete disaster.

Check out this clip from Mad Men. Besides being one of the best moments in television that I have seen in a very long time, Don Draper's pitch to Kodak is a lesson in how to deliver a concept in under two minutes. His approach is grounded in what the product is, but at the heart sits the real reason to believe; the emotional hook that draws you in, puts you at the centre of the story, and makes it impossible for you to not want what is being sold.

I once sat through a long meeting with a PR team who were pitching for business with Gaymonkey. They spent the majority of their time talking about themselves, who they were and what they have achieved. After 90 minutes I was no clearer on why they did what they did, what they were offering me, or why they wanted to work with us at all. It was all about them - unremarkable, ineffective, and a waste of time.

A simple rule: the best ideas are sold within seconds, not hour-long presentations.


Marina's Big Failure

For too long we've defined success in the music industry by popularity and sales. Neither of these are values that are inherent to art, so its not difficult to see why artists get discouraged at points throughout their careers. With constant pressure to be the next big thing, ride out trends, fill stadiums and shift units, we can't be successful unless we are the biggest and the best. Right?

Marina Diamandis is angry, feeling "more like a failure than a success". This is despite the launch of her career as Marina and the Diamonds with an album applauded by many, nominated for a plethora of accolades and winning an MTV Europe award. Her debut peaked at number 5 in the UK and made a splash in charts around the world. To many, this would be an achievement. But to Marina, she's a flop.

According to her interview on Australian radio, Marina's ambition is "to be one of the best artists of her generation". Great - but what does this mean? How does she define this success?

In the new industry, with decreased volume of sales, meaningless charts and more and more choice along the long tail, artists need to be able to articulate what success means to them personally. They must establish a vision for their work, with milestones to achieve along the way. For many this will continue to be money, fame, popularity. These artists will inevitably find their work unfulfilling with each missed goal. Only so many can reach the superstardom of The Beatles, Madonna, GaGa - this doesn't mean that other artists should just pack up their kit and go home.

A sustainable career, that allows the artist to continue to stay self-motivated, needs to have more than just goals. The vision must be supported by the artist's own understanding of what success looks like. In doing this they must get to know the feeling of success to them personally - not just create a list of achievements. 

Marina wants to be the best of her generation - this may take decades to fulfil. Will she be miserable throughout her career until she is informed that yes, indeed, she is now the best artist of her generation? It sounds like she has a destination she wants to achieve, but still does not know how she wants to feel.

We become deluded into believing that our success is measured by criteria established by others. Its not your parents, your boss, your label, or your fans that give you success. Only you can define and ultimately recognise it.

The biggest failure is to not take the time to set out what success means to you up front - if you can't establish that, how will you ever feel successful?


His Master's Voice

2011 starts with the news that HMV have announced their intention to shut 40 branch locations this year.

The alarm bells are not only the poor Christmas trading - but the rumour that the company was having trouble meeting their bank loans. 

Over the past few years, it's been clear that record retail - in the form of physical sales - has been shrinking; not only the amount of HMV's shelf space devoted to CDs, but the disappearance of chains such as Fopp and Virgin Megastore. In the case of HMV, I'm neither surprised nor disappointed.

From an artist and a label perspective, HMV's approach to retail is in no one's favour but their own. Their margins are massive and yet they demand one of the highest discounts on PPD than any of the other retailers. This is the set rate that a distributor sells CDs at to stores. HMV then request a discount of 20% or more, depending on the relationship they have with the retailer. Independent stores would get this discount, but because of the size of HMV, the discount is granted.

Distributors love HMV because they buy in bulk volume. HMV has over 250 locations - so each album release could get a hefty minimum order. The problem for the label is that distributors make their commission up front - labels pay around 20% for every unit shipped. If HMV don't sell your album in a few weeks, they return them. And the distributor keeps the commission.

It gets worse. HMV orders weekly, with each store putting a separate order in to the distributor. So even though you may have returns from the Glasgow branch, the next week might see orders from Bristol. The same CD returned to your distributor could be resold to HMV, and then even returned again. 

As an artist having your CD in HMV once gave you credibility. But once the discount was applied, you weren't making much in revenue from your sales. Then taking into the account returns - well, you could find yourself losing money on a release.

This distribution-retail relationship has always been one of my biggest issues with the record industry. Digital music has none of these problems - music is shipped and sold on demand. With this in place and available to all, there is no need for physical product or record stores like HMV.

If you're one of those who still insist on buying a physical album, there are great independent stores and Amazon who you can go to. For artists, get your CDs out of HMV now - there's no prestige in seeing your work sink with the ship.

Image from Flickr by Max Sparber