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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Tracker Ads: GrubHub and Bombfell

This week’s mission was to lure some product (or, as it turned out, service) into using cookie-ing me such that a banner ad for that product or service would track me and show up while I was browsing an unrelated site. At first, I tried navigating to Hult International Business School to see if I could get them to follow me. Back when I was in the market for a business school education and fishing for scholarships, I definitely browsed their website enough to be considered a prospect. The internet bots that control our lives clearly picked up on this because for the next 3-4 months, Hult banner ads appeared everywhere I went: Facebook, Amazon, the New York Times… Hult was waiting for me in all my favorite cyber-places.

Today, though, I guess my exploration of the Hult website was too cursory because no banner ads followed me after I had left. So I reactivated my Facebook account (deactivation is part of my sprint to obsolescence, which I anticipate completing before my 30th birthday) and clicked around my friends’ profiles to see what the ad gods had in store for me. As it turns out, this:

fb ads

I’m chalking GrubHub up to demographics; I’ve only ever visited the site once and it was several months ago. An almost-30 white guy in business school is probably a good target for GrubHub though. On average, this segment probably cooks with below-average frequency, enjoys higher-quality food than Trader Joe’s frozen enchiladas, and is willing to pay for small conveniences. Does the ad make me want to use them? Not particularly. Delivery in Seattle is abysmally slow and/or expensive and this ad does nothing to convince me that GrubHub will be different.

The other ad is for Bombfell, kind of a remote personal shopper for men’s clothes. I browsed the company’s site, or the site of a similar service, a week or two ago when exploring companies on ProductHunt.com, so that’s probably why that one is showing up. Either that, or the internet has seen recent pictures of me and finds my fashion sense lacking. Either explanation is equally likely. Does the ad make me want to use them? I won’t be punching in my credit card info imminently but I do find the idea appealing and the ad helps make Bombfell the brand in this category that I’ll remember. So it might be one helpful step for them on the torturous road to acquiring me as a customer.

Rejection Therapy

Rejection Therapy is a game designed to help people conquer their fear of rejection. Simply, one must be rejected by someone every day, the idea being that over time you will learn to ask for larger and favors and build your rejection tolerance in the process.

If I were the company’s CEO and looking to broaden exposure, I would reach out to:

1) Steve Pavlina (@stevepavlina), a self-help blogger, speaker, and product developer.

2) Tim Ferriss (@tferriss), author of the popular “Four Hour” book series.

3) Maria Popova(@brainpicker), owner of the self-help website, brainpickings.com.

Simple & Crisp – Positioning analysis

Simple and Crisp makes a substitute for crackers made from dehydrated fruit. Their products are distributed through Whole Foods, Amazon Fresh, and a number of boutique food stores nationwide.

The company uses a number of social media channels, focusing most on artistic, high-quality photos of their product across a variety of use cases. These use cases often come from other vendors such as magazines and chef bloggers, offering the opportunity for cross-promotion. Because Simple & Crisp is so photo-heavy, they use networks in which good photos carry high currency such as Instagram and Pinterest. Additionally, they use Facebook and Twitter and have a robust website.

S&C position their product as a novel and healthful alternative to traditional wheat crackers with the value proposition that the product will enliven your dinner party and provide a cracker substitute for guests (or hosts) with gluten-free, vegan, or simply “foodie” dietary preferences. While wheat crackers are vegan, a delicious alternative made from fruit would likely still have appeal to vegans because fruit is often regarded as more healthy than wheat crackers. The product is a luxury good; the use cases on display are often elaborate or unconventional and the positioning, based both on these use cases and the brands of retailers through which the product is distributed, appear to target middle-to-high income women.

S&C does appear to be successful in reaching its target segment. The fact that similarly-positioned brands, including Martha Stewart, are endorsing the brand with use cases is evidence of the brand’s traction, as is the lengthy list of retailers who have agreed to distribute the crisps. S&C appears to have the potential to establish itself as a successful brand.

Patreon – Customer Profile Analysis

Patreon, started in 2013, is a platform for discovering and financially supporting artists who produce recurring smaller works such as web comics, podcasts, and YouTube videos. It resembles crowdfunding services such as Kickstarter in that it enables a group of consumers to support a creator at varying financial levels that correspond to perks set by the creator. At the same, it harkens back to a much older patronage system of the arts in that consumers opt into an ongoing relationship with the creator, electing to support that creator at regular intervals (every new creation, every week, or some other metric that better suits the content).

Patreon has two main customer types: creators and patrons. For creators, they are trying to appeal to small, independent artists who do smaller, recurring work that doesn’t match the project-focused nature of Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding services. In practice, this will mean a short head of relatively established internet-based artists who make their living exclusively through creating content and a long tail of artists who aspire to do so and are in the early stage of customer acquisition. For patrons, they are looking to appeal to consumers passionate about niche artistic brands and who are interested in a more substantial relationship relationship with the artists they enjoy than the pure transaction of money for product. In both cases, Patreon is attempting to coopt customers from existing crowdfunding services that can be better served by the Patreon model. Additionally, they may be looking to attract creators who previously saw no clear path to revenue from their art but may find spending more time on content creation more viable due to Patreon’s services.