For music promotion, the old rules still hold

Pandora founder Tim Westergren would like to see Pandora become an important source of promotion for bands on their way up. But promotion may be the last area of the music industry that technology will change.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
3 min read

CNET News.com posted an interview with Pandora founder Tim Westergren the other day. He stated that technology has had a radical effect on distribution, and he'll get no argument from me there--iTunes, CDBaby, MySpace, file-trading, and all the other services I've written about are fundamentally altering how users consume music. Music production's also in the midst of a sea change: while I disagree that you can create a world-class-sounding recording for free, you certainly don't need access to a $300-a-day recording studio like you did 10 years ago when I first started playing.

Westergren hopes Pandora can do for promotion what other technological tools have done for distribution and production, and in the process help create a new breed of "middle-class musicians"--not rock stars, but people who can make a reasonable living playing music.

Based on how I've heard people talk about it, Pandora must have one of the highest Q scores of any online service--the people who've tried it seem to love it. It especially seems to hold great appeal for the semi-committed music fan--people who like music, maybe bought a lot of CDs back in college, but have stopped following every new release or trying to discover new bands. But part of its success, I think, is due to the fact that it plays mostly music that's already popular. Sure, anybody can submit their CDs for inclusion, but I'm skeptical that they will accept many unsigned or totally obscure bands or place them into heavy rotation.

Even if they do, exposing music to 100,000 people (Westergren's goal) is no guarantee of success. An example: a Seattle band had its 2nd self-released album picked up by noncommercial station KEXP and placed into unusually heavy rotation--probably three or four times a day for about six months, which is remarkable given the breadth of music played on that station. I'm sure 100,000 people heard their songs. Their local shows suddenly got a lot bigger. But when they did the four-week national tour, suddenly they were back playing in front of 20 people again. They did fine with album sales and local shows, and are in the process of recording a followup, but middle-class musicians? Not yet.

The reason? Publicity's hard. Big radio stations won't play you unless you're on a major. Daily newspapers won't write about you unless there's a really strong local connection or you already have a big following. Independent radio stations have almost no listeners, with a few exceptions like KEXP and KCRW and WFMU, and they're inundated with new releases. Smaller weekly newspapers are similarly inundated with press kits and publicists' e-mails, but have limited space--even the most in-depth music section can publish no more than a dozen album reviews and maybe five or six in-depth show previews each week. (And how many times have you gone and seen a touring band strictly based on a newspaper article?)

Sure, technology's had some effect. A lot of club bookers and newspapers accept only electronic press kits ("just send us a link to your Web site with the MP3s"), which saves on promotional costs. MySpace is a great way to meet fans of your genre of music, and other musicians to help you find a place to crash or set up a gig, but your 10,000 friends won't get enough people to your shows where they buy albums and merchandise.

Really, the only way to get publicity outside the major-label system is through word of mouth. Which means record, release, tour, repeat. Sometimes for years on end.