Solveig Whittle on the Business of Music

For my interview of an entrepreneur this quarter, I decided to interview a local musician who, armed with an MBA and years of experience in the tech industry, is working to build her band’s brand from scratch. Today, Solveig Whittle is a music marketing consultant, teacher, and one half of the band Solveig & Stevie. I initially stumbled upon Solveig’s writing from an interview she did with musician Molly Lewis and was struck by the quality of the interview questions. Solveig was kind enough to sit down with me, and then follow up over email, to explain how she thinks about her own entrepreneurial venture as a musician.

Solveig’s Market

In defining her market, Solveig has found her target market to be baby boomers who are also musicians. We talked a lot about the difficulty of creating music with authentic emotional resonance while still thinking strategically about finding an audience; there is a tension there that is difficult to resolve in practice. In Solveig’s own words:

“I actually think the key to being a successful musician (commercially), and I can’t say I’ve proved this myself empirically, but it seems to be true of the musicians I study, is an intersection of three things:

  1. Passion, talent and hard work that drives one to make a remarkable product
  2. What the market/customer wants, also known as finding your “tribe” or your “1000 true fans”
  3. Serendipity, or being in the right place at the right time, and being prepared to take advantage of “breaks” (connections with influential people, opportunities for exposure, etc.)

Instead of looking at it as a tradeoff, where success requires compromise of one’s creative integrity in order to achieve commercial recognition, I think it’s a matter of doing what you love and working hard to get exposure and find the audience who loves what you do. Of course, the more accessible your music is (eg. pop), the easier it is to find your audience. On the other hand, there’s a lot more competition, so it’s harder to be heard. Finding a niche (like Molly Lewis has) can be a very efficient way to reach a minimum viable product. You don’t necessarily need a huge fan base to be moderately successful. Also, new monetization models are potentially ways to bootstrap yourself until you can get exposure to a wider audience. As I think I mentioned, I think the average musician spends 8-15 years struggling before they see much concrete financial success (or they give up).. It’s not an entrepreneurial pursuit for the faint-of-heart – or faint-of-pocket.”

When asked whether she is creating a new market or disrupting an existing one, Solveig replies that she is making her way in an existing market that is in one prolonged state of disruption.

Positioning Her Brand

When brainstorming with her daughter about how to describe Solveig & Stevie’s sound, her daughter offered the phrase “soulful pop rock,” and that is now the sub-heading on her website’s title. Aside from having a concise descriptor and identifying boomer musicians as great potential fans, Solveig also thinks about acts that have moved further along the success curve that she might want to emulate. She recommends this as a good thought exercise for all boot-strapping musicians. In Solveig’s case:

“Brandi Carlile is an artist from Seattle whom I really admire and who has been very successful recently, as well as having had a loyal following for a while. Another Seattle artist who has gotten national exposure and has done well recently (I think she has good management) is Shelby Earl. She got a feature in Rolling Stone recently and has also gotten a licensing deal for one of her songs. Another Seattle artist who does some really, really fine work is Jason Webley. I wrote a blog post about his recent Margaret project, which I just loved. It was very collaborative and highly original.”

Reaching Her Fans

In our class earlier this quarter, Andy emphasized that a good marketer chooses social networks based on where customers hang out. Solveig interacts with her fans on Facebook which, based on my anecdotal experience, seems like a good match for baby boomer musicians:

“Our Facebook band page is the primary way we are building community. I don’t track retention and referral closely as it correlates with the page. One thing I don’t do that I should is use our email list to send out a monthly newsletter. That is one of the most effective ways to build community.”

For more thoughts from Solveig, check out her blog.

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