If you want to understand the future of the music industry, follow Cortney Harding. She is an expert at helping emerging artists find audiences through the intersection of music, branding, and technology — the three essential requirements for any artist to succeed in the reinvented music industry. Her resume includes being Billboard‘s music editor and working with hot music start-ups such as interactive media site ThingLink (a source of innovative digital music art) and Muzooka, a new hybrid streaming service and intermediary that helps artists, brands, and music executives find each other. (If you hear a fresh artist playing at a hotel like the W, chances are Muzooka may have had a hand working behind the scenes connecting the artist and the hotel). Harding, who writes a music column and co-hosts a podcast, recently spoke with me about the state of the industry — and it’s not always pretty for anyone who clings to pre-Napster days when record labels and albums ruled. She also has some words for artists: look for your audience in unexpected places, super serve your fans, and don’t plan on making money off your music.
Sound bleak? To the contrary: as Harding sees it, artists have more ways to find audiences than they did in the so-called good old days of the 1990s, when, in actuality, only a small handful of musicians really had it good.
Read on for an insight into a wide-ranging discussion that covers everything from the future of music streaming to how artists can succeed in a fractured industry.
You have been both a music journalist and consultant, collaborating with music companies ranging from Muzooka to Soundrop. Why did you switch over from journalism to marketing and consulting?
Well, I haven’t made the switch completely — I still write a weekly music tech blog and co-host a podcast. But I saw an opportunity in the market a few years ago and was really curious about startups and wanted to see what I could learn working in that field. Journalism is a tough place to make a living and it seemed like there was more of a future in the startup space. My goal for my career is always to be learning new skills and growing. Who knows, I might stay with startups, I might find a path back to writing, or I might do something totally different next.
Music is a notoriously fractured industry. What excites you about the industry?
The fact that it has been so disrupted, and that there are so many new opportunities to experiment. I think people recognize at this point that you can’t just cling to the old ways in music, and there is a willingness to try new things. Music is also growing on a global level, and I’m excited to see where the next big markets are.
What’s on your playlist right now? Which artists excite you?
I just got Apple Music and am working my way through the Indie Hits playlists year by year. In terms of new stuff, I love the new Sleater-Kinney, the new Bjork, Speedy Ortiz, and Torres.
It’s difficult to keep up with all the streaming services in the marketplace now. There’s even a streaming service for Christian rock available. Where are streaming services headed? What do you think the landscape for streaming services will look like a few years from now?
I think niche streaming services are super interesting — I was just talking to someone about an Indian and South East Asian service that is doing well in the expat community in the U.S.A. On a bigger scale I think there will be a contraction in the market and we’ll be left with a few big players, kind of like what we have in streaming movies and TV right now. Much of the future of streaming depends on the future of connectivity and devices, and better connectivity will only be good for streaming. But formats also come and go, and I don’t think streaming is the final place we end up.
What are your feelings about artists such as the Black Keys and Taylor Swift, who have been outspoken critics of streaming services such as Spotify?
I don’t want anyone to get the idea that musicians should not get paid — because they should. Musicians should monetize their content. But there is the idea and the reality. The reality is that you have to give something up to get something in return.
Musicians like to hearken back to the pre-digital era as being the height of fairness and prosperity for musicians, but the pre-Napster era was only good for certain people. If you ran a record label in the 1990s, your life was awesome. If you were one of the few boy bands that hit it big in the 1990s, your life was awesome. But the music industry was protectionist then. It was very hard for a bands to get their music into stores. There were bands every now and then who broke through, but the acts that succeeded were a small segment of Western acts in Western countries.
But now everyone can compete. Everyone can be heard on Soundcloud. Someone like Psy, who never would have been signed by any label in the supposed good old days of music, became huge with “Gangnam Style” on YouTube. I have personally discovered some incredible musicians from places such as South Africa through Twitter. The world is flatter.
I am not the voice for Napster or illegal downloading, which is just uncool. But you have to be realistic. No one will buy records anymore. Your music has to be shareable. And you have to work hard to be heard. There are many ways to monetize your music, but artists first need to go to where their audience is. If your target audience is women, you should be on Pinterest instead of trying to be in Rolling Stone. If your audience is teens, find a bunch of teens on Tumblr. But a lot of musicians have the mentality of, “We are a band. We need to be in a music magazine.”
You were recently director of media strategy at Muzooka, which has an interesting model for helping artists get discovered. Tell me more about Muzooka.
Muzooka is a place for artists to connect directly with businesses and people who are looking for new music to feature commercially. Any music fan can join in order to discover new music. Muzooka also works with a lot of venues and management companies and labels to help them find new artists.
For example, one of Muzooka’s clients is the Basement, a live music venue in Nashville. The Basement, like many other venues look for acts, uses Muzooka to find potential artists instead of having to scroll through a million emails or random platforms to find new music to book.
Muzooka has a partnerships with other businesses ranging from the W Hotel to Epic Records EVP of Urban Records Sha Money XL, who is using Muzooka to find new hip-hop talent. Sound engineer Vance Powell, who has collaborated with Jack White, has found emerging artists on Muzooka.
Muzooka is for artists who understand their music needs to be where their audience is going to discover them, such as in a coffee shop, a yoga studio, a hotel, or a scrappy music venue.
How does Muzooka work for artists?
It’s all free. You don’t have to pay. You just go to Muzooka.com and sign up. It takes about five minutes to upload songs, band photos and the standard setup. You can submit music to any number of campaigns that interest you on our partners page. If a venue, a business, or an executive wants to work with you, they’ll reach out to you. Muzooka doesn’t promise anything, but it does not charge anything.
It’s up to the artist to leverage Muzooka correctly. If you leverage social and know how to draw attention to yourself, it can help you. Artists spend so much time working on their music, which they should, but they don’t always leave enough time to cultivate their fan base.
What’s one of your favorite Muzooka success stories?
Musician NameBrand, who grew up in Long Beach, started rapping at an early age. He put is music on Muzooka. Jared Lee Gosselin, an L.A. producer, heard his stuff and put him in the studio. He passed NameBrand up the chain and hooked him up with Sha Money XL at Epic. NameBrand was ready to walk away from music and do something else, but he finally got his chance. And he’s a cool guy, too.
What kind of person succeeds on Muzooka?
Someone who is savvy on social media and discerning as well. They have to have some established fan base. If you’ve never played at a coffee shop, you are probably too early. You get out of it what you put into it. Crowdfunding is not a magic money tree, and neither is Muzooka. You don’t just post your music and expect someone to call you.
You used to hear the word “sell-out” associated with artists who use their music in advertisements and cozy up to brands. How and why did the attitude change?
With the rise of piracy, artists needed an alternative way to make money, and brands offered it. I also think there is a generational divide, where Gen X’ers were skeptical of brands, but Millennials were much more open to having a closer relationship with them. Gen X artists did create branded content; they just never advertised it — Yo La Tengo had a track in a fast food ad but part of the deal was that their name could never be associated with it.
Are albums dead?
I won’t say they are dead full stop. The new Kendrick Lamar album is great from start to finish. Radiohead will always make albums meant to be consumed as a body of work. But for the vast majority of artists. you don’t need to make albums. You just need to make great music.
Albums take a very long time to make, and artists can’t remain silent in between album releases, especially when everyone else is releasing a steady stream of content on YouTube. If you want to release an album a year from now, you need to release a song a month and content between songs rather than remain quiet and expect fans to wait for the big release day.
The album is a scheduling tool for labels. Album charts are silly. The Billboard Hot 100 is a more vital snapshot of what people are hearing. People are listening to singles on Spotify. People don’t listen to albums anymore.
What’s your advice for up-and-coming artists trying to succeed?
Have realistic goals and a back-up plan. Be prepared to never make money on your work, or make money on your work in indirect ways. Having the cred of being an artist in a cool band is actually something that can be leveraged and monetized — I know a lot of creative directors at agencies who got a foot in the door because they were cool musicians and could bring that to the agency. Do everything you can to build a base on your own so that you can have a better negotiating position if and when you decide to work with a label. Super serve your fans — hang out with them after the show, buy them a beer before the show, encourage them to bring friends.