Steve Jobs, who died on Oct. 6, will undoubtedly be remembered for many things. Through his emphasis on simplicity and ease of use in Apple products he helped make advanced technology accessible to more people. His most impactful achievement, however, is arguably through music. iTunes and the iPod, both launched in 2001, marked a new era in digital music consumption.
Needless to say, digitization has changed and continues to change how we listen to and consume music. But what’s more, this transformation has also impacted the creators of music: the artists. By leveraging new technology and social media, artists can distribute their work more easily and to broader audiences. Now anyone can get their music hosted on iTunes.
Just ask Malcolm McCormick (a.k.a Mac Miller). Branded as “the next Eminem” by Donald Trump, Miller is a 19-year-old independently signed hip-hop artist who is quickly becoming a household name without the help of major music labels. With more than a million Twitter followers and fans on Facebook, Miller has succeeded in building a large fan base. If you haven’t heard of him, chances are that you will in the future. Mac Miller is a case study for how music artists, personal brands and even businesses can successfully promote and market themselves in the digital age.
Not too long ago, the radio and MTV were the two biggest influencers of new music discovery. They were, in a sense, the “gatekeepers” of music. And today, a handful of major record labels — EMI, Sony BMG, Universal Music group, Warner Music Group — dominate the commercial music business. Through partnerships with popular radio outlets, TV stations and supply networks that ship records to retail stores. These four companies control almost every aspect of big music’s promotion and distribution.
But the Internet is slowly diminishing this power by providing a platform for “indie” artists like Mac Miller (signed to independent label Rostrum Records) to share and market their music digitally. With the availability of free music online and the prevalence of social networks, digital “word of mouth” is proving a new and effective form of artist promotion.
Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, former President of Facebook, and a major investor in the popular new music streaming service Spotify, echoed this trend at a Web 2.0 summit in San Francisco. “In the age of digital distribution … it costs nothing to make each additional copy of the music. And you find about music primarily through your friends.”
Mac Miller has long understood the importance of using today’s popular social networks to build fan support and promote and distribute his work. He not only uses Twitter and Facebook to communicate and engage directly with his fans, but to announce the release of free tracks and collections of singles “mixtapes.” For the most part, this strategy appears to have worked. Since 2007, Miller has released seven free mixtapes, which together have amassed well over a million downloads.
Not all of Mac’s music, however, can be given away for free. To turn his fans into paying customers, Miller sells some of his music digitally through iTunes. He has experienced some degree of success in doing so: two of his singles “Frick Park Market” and “Donald Trump” have reached #11 and #40 on the iTunes singles chart, respectively.
To promote his featured songs on iTunes and his free music, Mac has also innovatively employed music video promotion. Instead of running a $500,000 production tab, as big-name artists often do, Mac is producing and marketing his music videos at a fraction of the cost on YouTube. He’s proving that YouTube videos can be just as effective, if not more effective, than big budget videos on MTV. Total YouTube views for Miller’s music and promotional videos have exceeded 160 million.
But even with the millions of followers on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, Miller still faces the challenge of translating his large and growing fan base into actual sales. For Mac’s first official album release this Nov. 8, titled Blue Slide Park, he decided to do something different: he is allowing fans to literally “control” the release date. That is, if digital preorders for his album exceed 100,000 any time before the scheduled launch date, the album will be released immediately. The day after this announcement, preorder sales alone carried Miller’s not-yet-released debut record to the number three spot on the iTunes album chart.
In an interview with Billboard magazine, Benjy Grinberg, CEO of Rostrum Records, explained the thought process behind this strategy. “The idea of doing the very typical sales and distribution just seemed really old school to us … I just started brainstorming about how connected Mac’s fans are to Mac, and how connected he is to his fans, and just tried to think of new, innovative way of continuing that into sales.”
In less than two weeks, on Oct. 31, MTV will host the “O Music Awards,” an awards show that honors art, creativity, personality and use of technology in the digital music space. This year’s show will pay a fitting tribute to the late Steve Jobs, whose vision helped push the digitization of the music industry — a shift that has helped artists like Mac Miller, who will be presenting at the Awards, break onto the music scene. I think Mac says it best: “For me, I want to see if we can change the game, change the industry . . . it's inspiring a lot of kids to really try to do it themselves.” Jobs would be proud.
Christopher Henty is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. #TheStartupBiz appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.