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Walk in silence

April 14, 2012

Walk, in silence…the opening lyric to Joy Divisions’ Atmosphere. Recorded June 4, 1979 at Pennine Sound Studios, Oldham, on the iconic Factory ‘Indie’ record label, it’s a tune that is eternally resonant in my mind.

Does the word ‘Indie’ mean anything now? In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a handful of independent record labels emerged, inspired by the do-it-yourself ethos of punk. The bands those labels launched – The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, James and Joy Division, to name but a few – revitalised popular music and took it in a new direction.

Rough Trade, Mute, Factory, 4AD and Creation were fiercely energetic little music hubs, founded on principles of complete artistic involvement, characterised by highly unsound finances, and small enough to retain the imprint of the men who started them. Those pioneers – Geoff Travis, Daniel Miller, Tony Wilson, Ivo Watts-Russell and Alan McGee – are the entrepreneurs of the music industry, madmen and mavericks from whom we can learn many lessons to shape our own businesses today.

Rough Trade’s finances were always perilous, Factory operated without contracts with their bands. It seems almost impossibly quaint now, but they had a fear of commercial success. However, they took on an established industry and the major labels and broke the rules with their disruptive thinking. In doing so, they changed the dynamics of a market. They had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, albeit not measured in financial terms.

Their ‘products’ – the bands – had novel, intriguing names – The Desperate Bicycles, Crispy Ambulance, The Durutti Column – with all the energy and ambition of any dotcom start-up and had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve. Vinnie Reilly expressed the motivation driving The Durutti Column’s independent stance: The biggest hurdle is just believing you’ve still got some control over your life, that you can go out and do it

When Rough Trade opened in the late 1970s, there were 14 major record labels. Today, there are just three. The chang­ing dynamics of music consumption, the emergence of the Internet, digital formats and subsequently iTunes toppled many of the big guys, and the Indies too. With hindsight, the Indies didn’t have a bad innings, the business model wasn’t meant to last.

I think there are three reasons why the Indie musicians and the labels achieved success in the music industry:

  • Indie musicians knew the true value and power of music
  • Indie musicians communicated the value of their music to their fans
  • Indie musicians delivered the value of their music to their fans.

This is about how your fans experience your brand. This is all about distribution, how your music is delivered, received, and experienced by your fans.

Most Indie musicians consider themselves entrepreneurs, they take great pride in marketing and selling their own music. Indie musicians made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like an entrepreneur, as a business owner and ask themselves the question that every entrepreneur must ask to be successful: What is the value of the work that I do or the product I make? In other words, what problem does my music solve for my target audience? In the case of music, it’s a gap in the market for a genre, a sound, an image. If you can answer that question, then you have the mind of a music entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs find opportunities and create products or services that solve those gaps in a market.  A music entrepreneur must do the same thing.  A lot of musicians do not take this approach to marketing their music. They create music without first understanding the type of music their target audience is searching for and their audience’s struggle in finding that music.  So, your music should fill a need for your target audience.

Music is more than entertainment for fans. Music has more value and more power. When musicians begin to realize this and focus on the real value and power of their music, they will build a successful business model that allows them to connect with their fans and give their fans a reason to buy.

Many musicians create music that they like and that they want to perform without finding out the type of music their fans want, they want to make music that they enjoy.  There is nothing wrong with that, but the problem is if you want people to pay for your music, you have understood the type of music they want and build a fan base.

So why do people listen to music? Why do people want to be entertained? There are many reasons. People use entertainment as escapism, to get their minds off of the struggles they face everyday. People listen to music when they are happy, they listen to music when they are sad. Listening to music is an emotional experience for so many people, they love the way music makes them feel, it helps them express and deal with their emotions. Music helps people to relax and deal with stress. People also use music to change an atmosphere, to create an environment, a mood. Music has the power to change our moods. Music inspires, motivates. Music is so much more than a catchy hook and intelligent lyrics.

For Joy Division, Factory Records and The Hacienda venue became synonymous with Manchester, capturing its vitality and audacity to do something different. Factory brought a clear identity to the city for the band, and fans the association with the attitude, style and vibrancy of a unique sound, created by producer Martin Hannett. The spacious, eerie, atmospheric sound was intense. The themes of Joy Division’s music are sorrowful, painful, elegiac and sometimes deeply desolate. Melancholic Manchester – check out New Dawn Fades, a brilliant piece of music that I find inspiring, but others find morose!

But what are the business lessons we can take from the impact the Indies had in their time, in terms of the challenges SMEs face in 2012? Here are my thoughts.

Establish and dominate your brand:Make it obvious what you want to be known for or known as. Wouldn’t it be better for your reputation to be something that you designed and are proud to live with? Once you have established your brand, work hard to dominate it.

Keep up with the trends that affect you or your fans (customers): These include trends in music, fashion, the economy, merchandise – what are people buying now? These also include how your fan demographic discovers new music, how their income is changing and more. Always go to where your audience is instead of trying to win over people who aren’t interested in you or your music.

Work Ethic: Many artists are unwilling to do the behind the scenes work that successful artists do relentlessly. They may be waiting to be discovered. Successful artists know that you have to create your own success. They take care of business, and are willing to do whatever it takes to reach their goals.

Talent: Many artists think they are talented enough to cut through the clutter and stand out among the millions of other artists competing for the same fans. Successful artists work tirelessly at their craft and strive to be the best songwriters, performers, musicians etc. They are always looking for ways to improve, both individually and as a group.

Uniqueness: Many artists are trying to be the next ‘____’ instead of creating a sound and look all their own. Even though they may be incredibly talented, nothing about them distinguishes them from the artists they hear on the radio or the multitude of similar artists vying for attention. Successful artists know that the best way to stand out from the crowd is to be unique in as many ways as possible, and they work hard at it. They also know how to build a brand around their uniqueness.

Perseverance: Many artists quit too soon. Maybe they have had some success and so they stop doing the things that got them there. Many just get tired of wasting time, money and effort, when all the while they have started creating the kind of buzz that can lead to much bigger and better things. Successful artists refuse to give in.

Never stop networking: Always seek to meet new people and develop and maintain relationships. This includes all people from all walks of life. You never know whom they know or will meet. You can’t know who is going to move into a decision-making position that can influence your career. Plus, the more connections you have, the more people you can turn to if times get tough.

Freshness: Many artists get stuck in ruts and never climb out of them, becoming stale and predictable. This can become evident in their music, their stage show, the look and feel of their marketing. Successful artists are always adding new dimensions to themselves. They keep everyone curious about just what they are going to come up with next. They not only watch the trends, they either jump ahead of them or set their own. They find ways to become pioneers. They avoid stagnation by constantly reinventing themselves, all the while remaining true to their fans and their brand.

Fan (Customer) Management: Many artists have no idea who their fans are. They can’t tell you with any sense of accuracy their biggest fan demographics like age, gender, income level, where they live, what their occupations or hobbies are etc. Successful artists know their fans and everything about them because they interact with them. Many conduct surveys and contests to extract demographic information then used to select merchandising strategies. They use that info to know what to write songs about. They track where the people who visit their website are coming from so they know where to book gigs.

Goldman Sachs will never live down being described as a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money by Matt Taibbi. The Indies were the total antithesis to this in business terms, and although maybe naïve, provide some thoughtful insights into creating innovative business models to enable David to take on Goliath for many SMEs today.

Don’t walk away in silence, don’t walkaway. The closing lyric to Atmosphere. This song always makes me stop and listen intently. You can feel the pain and anguish in Ian Curtis’ voice, it’s a rare beauty. Thirty years later, it still takes me away to a place where no one can find me. He had an amazig ability to convey his feelings and emotions through his music.

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