WAMM: TAG Strategic Founder Ted Cohen on Branding Your Band and Investments

July 14, 2010

Yesterday, we spoke with Ted Cohen, the founder of TAG Strategic, a digital branding strategy firm that serves tech and media companies. Prior to founding TAG, Cohen worked in artist development at Warner Brothers in the ’70s and ’80s, working with artists like Prince, Pretenders, Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac, and the Ramones. He also has close to 30 years of experience working on digital music strategies.

Everybody is talking about how artists need to think of themselves as brands. But this is hardly a new idea. Haven’t labels like Warner Brothers viewed artists in a similar way for a long time?
We were really focused on building the artist as a brand. We realized, early on, that there was a big difference between having a hit record and having a brand that gave you a career beyond that hit. A lot of artists, and I don’t want speak ill of anybody, but someone like REO Speedwagon, if they had a hit single, they could tour stadiums. If they didn’t, they couldn’t fill a club. They didn’t have that brand credibility that Chrissy Hynde developed with the Pretenders or David Byrne developed with the Talkings Heads, where you’d want to go see them even if they hadn’t put out a record in three years, because you thought they had substance.

It’s true that David Byrne and Chrissy Hynde have that substance, but a lot of it is non-musical. What else besides music goes into a successful brand?
Do they have a story that people will gravitate to beyond the music? Is it something that fans in the demographic they appeal to can have a relationship with? Do they have a point of uniqueness?  This is what prevents somebody from saying, “She’s the next Taylor Swift,” or “She’s the next Gwen Stefani.” You don’t want to be the “next” anything.

I’m working with an artist named Rana Sobhany, and initially she was the first iPad DJ. Gizmodo featured her, WIRED featured her; Mac Life, Huffington Post too. And this was all her work. She’s relentless about building the brand. With every artist, the idea that “I’ll put my music up through Tunecore, and I’ll make it available on iTunes and Amazon, and I’ll build a Facebook page and a Myspace page, and I’m set”…Those are just the basics. It’s creating that relationship, really creating a bond.

Rana Sobhany, the first iPad DJ

So when starting out, is there any sense in an artist thinking about those non-musical aspects before making music?  Is there any sense in saying, “Maybe it’s better for me professionally to just focus my first release on the angry songs, it’ll help me stand out,” as opposed to saying, “These are my ten best songs, I’m going to put them on an album”?
There is no imperative to publish albums at this point. If you have three great songs, create a three-song bundle and put it online. This thing of having to fill up a silver disc with 12 songs is over now. If you’ve got four great songs right now, you can put up four great songs. Or if you write a song a week, you can put them up that way. It’s whatever you want to do. There’s no longer a reason to get 12 songs together, get them to the label, wait months for them to hit stores, then try to feel fresh about them when you finally get on tour.

The freshness of music today is what’s most appealing to me. If I’m listening to a lot of indie music that’s been delivered digitally, then a lot of it is very fresh –20 to 30 days old at most.

Changing gears a bit, one of the things that Tag offers advice on is venture capital sourcing. Could you talk a bit about why investment in music has gone up recently, and where it’s gone up?
One of the sectors where you see a lot of investment in is things like Nimbit, Reverb Nation, and Tunecore because they don’t depend on licensing from the major labels. The big resistance that VCs (venture capitalists) have had toward music ventures has been they don’t want to invest ten million dollars in a start-up, only to see eight of it going to the labels [in licensing fees]. It’s just not smart business.

Do you foresee more direct investment in artists down the line? Something between VC investment and crowdfunding in terms of the size of the investment?
Those kinds of funds are already underway. There’s a few out there, if the numbers are right. On a very big scale, there’s a company in London called Ingenious that will fund an album, that will fund a video project, that will fund a number of different things. They’re the guys who backed Avatar. But they’ve also backed albums by various artists and they’ve backed video projects by various artists.

So you foresee that as something that’s likely to grow.
Yes, if the economics prove themselves out; if the people in there early start making some money, other people will start to take notice and get involved.

Let’s talk about licensing. It seems like that’s all anybody can talk about now: “Band-brand partnerships! That’s your new stream of income!” But often, the artists are basically these ripe fruits that larger companies just pluck off trees, take a few bites of, then drop to the ground. Is there a way for artists to defend against that, or strengthen their position?

It has become commoditized now, because there’s a lot of music out there. It used to be really hard to license music for film and television because the major artists were very expensive. But then some great indie music came along, and you wind up with shows like The OC, and The Hills, and Grey’s Anatomy, which are filled with it.

There’s a new company called Hello Music, and one of the things we’re helping them do is build relationships with music supervisors. One of the biggest issues is filtering through this stuff. What Hello Music is doing is sending packages to music supervisors at film and TV studios that say, “Of the 10,000 songs that passed through our site, we think these 200 are great.”

But is this combing going to be done by humans? Or do you think we’re headed toward a future where everybody at Hello Music has uPlaya on their desktops, and they’re just running user submissions through these algorithms? Should musicians be cognizant of that?
I don’t think algorithms are the answer. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work. Echo Nest uses algorithms and social behavior – what kind of music do your friends like, what’s happening on the music blogs, etc.  The combination of the two, the algorithm approach and the social approach, turned it into a winning system.

So you see it as a combination, in the future?
The problem with the algorithms is that by design, they find similarity. They don’t find uniqueness. If something is truly unique, it’s not matched to anything.  In the algorithmic approach if a band sounds a lot like Fall Out Boy, they’re going to get a high rating because of that similarity. But how do you find a band that doesn’t fit into those things? It’s challenging. It’s a great opportunity.

Finally, what aspect of the NMS are you most excited about?

We’re doing the tech summit, and we’ll be talking about what’s working and what isn’t. The most important thing to come out of this edition of the New Music Seminar is, really usable transactional advice. Not theoretical “in the future it’ll all be like this.” No, what’s happening NOW? How do you gain a competitive edge? We’re trying to make it so that in a competitive environment, people have the best weaponry.

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Posted by Ted • Wednesday, July 14, 2010 .