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Q&A with Music Think Tank

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Richard Banks Richard Banks | 12:05 UK time, Saturday, 2 January 2010

A few months ago, I blogged about how two fans of Islet created a fansite for the band because they had no other web presence. Andrew Dubber, one of those fans, is a lecturer at Birmingham City University who blogs at NewMusicStrategies.com. I noticed it's been a little quiet over there lately and after a little digging I found out Andrew has been writing for a new site, MusicThinkTank.com.

Music Think TankMusic Think Tank grabbed me instantly with its tagline: "where the music industry thinks out loud". Its post titles are equally provocative (recent entries include "Dear Musicians - Please Be Brilliant or Get Out of The Way" and "How to RUIN Your Music Career in 7 Easy Steps") so I dropped Andrew and his colleague Bruce Warila a line to find out a little more about them and their site.

When did you launch Music Think Tank.com and why?

Bruce: Music Think Tank will be two years old this March. Andrew and I thought it would be a good idea to consolidate the efforts of many industry thinkers to increase the size of the audience for all of us, and increase the level of debate. Both goals have been achieved (the site is steadily growing every month).

Andrew: As I recall, I was a fan of Bruce's writing and that of a few others. In fact, I wrote a blog post about how much I liked Bruce's writing before we ever had a conversation. So, I guess that dates the germ of the Music Think Tank idea to late 2007. We got in touch, had a few Skype chats - and I suggested a group blog. Bruce and I discussed it extensively before going live, he more or less took the lead on it (with my undying gratitude) and runs the website. On paper, we co-own it, but in truth all of the good ideas about what makes the site work can be traced back to him.

What has been your most-read post to date?

Bruce: Please Buy My Record: The Futility Of Flogging Music by Rhodri Marsden (August 2008).

How does the 'Open' section of your site work?

Bruce: Anyone can post on MTT Open. I will occasionally move posts to the front of the site after I get recommendations from others, or I will move a post to the front after the post becomes relatively popular according to Google Analytics.

Andrew: It's been a remarkably good way to spot thoughtful, reflective and entertaining writers to add to the core team.

We also like your 'Radio' section, where artists can post up their songs to get feedback. Has it led any 'diamond in the rough' discoveries yet?

Bruce: Not sure, but I do try to listen to every song posted. I have found a few songs / artists that I am now following. Here's a few things that amaze me about MTT Radio:

1) Artists can't follow instructions! It amazes me how many people just don't follow the posting guidelines (I delete 33% of the posts due to posting violations).

2) Even worse, some of the best artists/songs don't put any links back to their website/online home! I have to use Google to find them! I have found over the last five years: the best artists are not the best businesspeople, and the best businesspeople are usually not the best artists. This does not surprise me.

There's a lot of really useful info in the Indie Maximum Exposure 100 section. How did that come about?

Bruce: The content in this section was entirely created by Ariel Hyatt and her team. Ariel is one of the most popular writers on the site and she is a relentless giver to the music industry. Ariel leverages "contextual commerce" better than anyone on the site. She gives and she gets and she does it with class.

If you had to narrow the 100 tips down to the 5 most crucial points for any new artist just starting out, which would they be?

Bruce: 1) Decontextualize first, promote second. Artists are in love with their songs/music, and they should be. However, prior to throwing a year of your life into promotion, force yourself to get anonymous feedback from at least thirty friends, twenty artists, and from ten industry professionals. If most love your songs, then promote. Otherwise, go back to the classroom/studio and learn how to make "better" music first.

2) Don't listen to industry promotion professionals that were successful in 1999. Nobody has the answer to obtaining and sustaining mass-market exposure. Nobody! I don't care what someone says they did in the past; make them demonstrate the success they obtained six months ago.

3) Seek experienced production people. When it comes to making music, experience is way under-rated in this industry. Studios have gone out of business because everyone is a producer/engineer now. Find the most experienced/successful producers, engineers and songwriters you can find. Money spent on a successful producer or a great songwriter will go further than money spent on a promotion "expert".

4) Don't go it alone, it's almost a waste of time! (Bruce has some interesting ideas about teaming up with other bands online here)

5) Act like a software startup. Expand your definition of a "band" to include people that can handle things like social media, video production and software development. Find someone to help you use the equity in your venture to compensate everyone involved. (Take a look at Bruce's helpful template documents if you're thinking of operating your band as a legal entity).

Andrew: My number one tip is: "be amazing".

Care to namecheck any other sites you think unsigned and independent artists should check out?

Bruce: Eric Beall of Berklee Music is one of my favorite industry writers. My best advice on obtaining advice: learn how to use RSS and follow at least twenty five experts. It only takes a few minutes a day with RSS. The best tips come randomly from random people.

Andrew: Most of my recommended sites are not related specifically to music, but are helpful in other ways. Specifically, sites like Lifehacker.com for tips on getting things done, and Smashingmagazine.com for design. But my one must-use website for recording artists has to be Bandcamp.com (disclaimer: I'm on their Board of Advisors - but that's not why I'm recommending it. It is simply a brilliant service - and Ethan Diamond deserves a lot of credit for making something so incredibly useful).

Finally, care to make any music industry predictions for 2010?

Bruce: This may not happen in 2010, but I believe that music promotion as we know it - even artist/music submission to mass-exposure opportunities - is coming to an end. There are one million songs a year being uploaded to the Internet. The obtaining (by artists) of mass-market exposure opportunities is going to be given over to trusted music filters and funnels. There are many ways to do this; record labels as gatekeepers do some of this today, but this is going to change.

I would like to see the entire ecosystem of music education, music submission, music promotion, and fan adoption collapsed into a simple, frictionless and level playing field where artists learn more faster, and rapidly reach engaged fan niches, without giving up much of anything (rights, time, money, youth, energy, etc). The entire ecosystem is operating on margins that demand hyper-efficiency. Nobody can afford to miss opportunities to connect songs to fans, and nobody can afford to keep doing it incorrectly.

Andrew: The one thing I'll never do is try and predict the future. It is, for instance, possible that the biggest selling album of all time by the most famous artist ever may not have even happened yet. Trends are unreliable, and we are forever being surprised by disruptive technologies. Music industry predictions typically do one of two things:

1) They plot trends as if whatever has increased or declined in recent months will continue to increase or decline in a linear or exponential fashion indefinitely. By this reckoning, Facebook will have more members than there are human beings on Earth by 2013.

2) Worse, they simply dress up stuff that we already have and pretend it's from the future. I was told just last week that Spotify is the future - which is odd, because I already have it installed on my computer. It's just not helpful.

Nobody predicted YouTube. Nobody predicted Twitter. Nobody predicted SMS. The best way to predict the future is to go out and invent it.

Thanks, guys.

Bruce Warila has been a fulltime entrepreneur for the past fifteen years, investing in and working with startups like RockSource360, SongBoost and Music Xray.

As well as being a lecturer, Andrew is a consultant, public speaker, whisky writer, jazz fan and ex-musician. You can listen to more of his expert advice on Tom Robinson's 6 Music show pages.



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