Want to see real creativity? Check out the marketing of music (Nordicity Snapshot)
Posted by Peter Lyman in Toronto on Aug 31, 2015

In preparing a proposal on the marketing of Canadian music, I asked a trusted advertising agency advisor, my son, for some examples.  Wow! So this is where social media really gets integrated into marketing campaigns.

The first was about marketing Pharell Williams’ “Happy” which was launched globally as 24 hours of “happy” performed by over 300 artists [see the video here]. The song went viral and generated over 9 million viewers with an average viewing time of 6 minutes. The music video featuring the “best of” those acts was seen over 200 million times. Result – 50,000 sales of the track prior to the marketing campaign and 7 million within a few weeks after.  The campaign spawned the creation of over 1,500 fan-made tribute videos of individuals, celebrities and even the US Ambassador to Armenia enacting their own versions of “Happy.” Eventually, the UN got into the act and declared that henceforth March 20 would be International Day of Happiness.

So, this is great, but we know mega-acts can afford the best marketers in the business, access to global brands, and have plenty of moolah to invest in marketing.

What’s more, Anita Elberse’s work at Harvard Business School points out that “blockbusters” benefit the most from the long tail of creative products – the most well-funded and well-promoted releases benefit the most. It’s the paradox of choice – choosing among more options means more work for consumers, so they tend to prefer keeping their search narrowed to the most recognizable options with the highest perceived quality.

Does this mean social media and new marketing tools are only for the top artists? Well, another example I scrutinised from my son’s suggestions was an account from Swedish hip hop artist, Adam Tensta. Wanting to recreate the anticipation of a new release in a novel way, Tensta’s campaign was launched on Facebook, using both exclusivity and an incentive to share, making the song go viral. The campaign. The single, aptly titled “Pass It On”, “exists in only one copy. To hear it, you will have to install this application.” With an enticing library-style ‘check-out feature, the song could be played by only one person at a time. Fans lined up, and could jump the queue by an order if they indeed ‘passed it on’… either tweeting it, listening to it on Spotify, or downloaded it. The result was a jump in Facebook traffic for Adam by 20 times and exposure in 40 countries – truly a redefinition of a launch of a single. [see the video here]

What can Canadian artists do? And who are more apt to begin with more limited resources and clout? 
As it turns out – a lot, actually. In fact, Canadian music has had more than its share of industry marketing and promotion breakthroughs… in no particular order.

  • Take the Weeknd’s free mixtapes way back in 2011, when the Weeknd (stage name of Bel Tesfaye, a Canadian PBR&B singer early in his career) released three downloadable mixtapes: House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence. Despite a mysterious image and no label support, the releases attracted attention via their powerfully original “dark R&B” sound and concept, boosted by a nod from Drake. It has been cited as a model of building global buzz via early free releases, strategic management, and an effective marriage of innovation and tradition to create a fresh sound.
  • A not so unknown Canadian act, Arcade Fire, broke ground in producing an interactive music video for their track “We Used to Wait” (AKA ‘The Wilderness Downtown’) with a global partner also wanting to tout a new release to a young audience – Google. The interactive experience takes the viewer on a location-based audiovisual journey culminating in a surprise visit to their personal childhood home. The project found common interests between the release of their album The Suburbs and Google’s desire to shine a light on the advanced HTML5 features of its then-new Chrome browser. Arcade Fire won new attention from tech fans and Google’s massive audience, while Google gained credence from a young audience and cool cachet.
  • Tanya Tagaq’s Polaris Prize victory brought her international attention last year. While Tagaq began her music career as a throat singer in Björk’s band, she had over ten years of experience as a solo performer when she was selected live at the Polaris Panel gala by a team of eleven journalists. The win led to her first stories in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and Stereogum, and subsequent coverage of future projects as well. Her story illustrates how artists who build their groundwork via Canada’s networks of venues and festivals can use a well-respected, well-publicized awards program as a catapult to higher levels of media attention and audience development.

These examples show that music discovery and findability are critical. While prominent retail display used to be the gold standard for music promotion, today’s lack of physical product means a multiplicity of strategies become necessary to encourage listeners to try out new artists or musical releases. In responding to these new realities, music industry professionals are finding they need to continuously gain new skills and keep on top of ever-changing technologies – meaning they’re now not only tasked with understanding their artists and their audiences, but also the latest algorithms.

So how do music professionals keep on top of music marketing?
Some of the preferred strategies include:

  • Artist co-sign – e.g. Drake tweeting about the Weeknd early in his career.
  • Branded marketing – e.g. artists capitalizing on having their music placed in commercial campaigns, with a brand wanting to reach the demographics of the artist’s audience.
  • Front-page promotion – e.g. on services like Spotify, Apple Music and Rdio.
  • Digital promotion platforms specific to regions – e.g. “Live toune” is a digital platform for the Quebec music industry, whereby fans attend concerts and see clips of their favourite performances.
  • Inclusion in playlists – e.g. genre- and activity-themed playlists in services like Songza, Spotify and YouTube. Canada’s own Caribou released “The Longest Mixtape – 1000 Songs For You” on YouTube, to share with his fans some of the artists and songs that have had an impact on him.
  • Ease-of-search – e.g. artists with unique spellings are much easier to find via text search. Alvvays and Lunice will be found within one search, while listeners are more likely to give up before finding Women (Calgary) or “The Band.”


About the author

Peter Lyman is a founding principal of Nordicity, and its Senior Partner. Although he has zero musicPeter Lyman aptitude – except as a mediocre snare drummer in a marching band in his youth – he has consulted in the music industry at Nordicity for the last three decades, from music channel licencing at the CRTC to music publishing report completed for Canadian Heritage earlier this year. He fully supports Nordicity’s quest to build its global leadership in music economics, business practices, policy alignment and remains personally determined to master the mysteries of best practices in the music and other creative sectors.

Nordicity has experience analysing the Canadian music industry both nationally and regionally and has worked on strategic planning for clients including the Canadian Independent Music Association and Manitoba Music. In association with Capital Culture, Nordicity is continuing research on how Canadian music can take advantage of new tools.