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The Future of Music

What will the music business look like in a decade? How can a recording artist use the Web to connect with and build a fan base? Do viral marketing campaigns work as well for established recording artists as they do for up-and-coming acts? These were among the questions considered last night in a Fast Company panel discussion featuring R&B singer / songwriter / businessman John Legend.

What will the music business look like in a decade? How can a recording artist use the Web to connect with and build a fan base? Do viral marketing campaigns work as well for established recording artists as they do for up-and-coming acts?

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These were among the questions considered last night in a Fast Company panel discussion featuring R&B singer / songwriter / businessman John Legend.

Note: If you haven’t fully absorbed Chuck Salter’s February Fast Company cover story–Way Behind the Music–on Legend and Musictoday, the behind-the-scenes company empowering artists to control their music and brand while connecting them with fans, do so; it’s the basis of the panel discussion.

Joining Legend on the panel were Nathan Hubbard, CEO at Musictoday; Jorge Just, Web “guru” for rockers OK Go; Jason King, Artistic Director at Tish’s The Clive Davis School of Recorded Music; and Dave Wolter, V.P. A&R at Capitol Music Group.

FastCompany.com will be podcasting the discussion in its entirety tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some highlights from the panel.

John Legend:

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Fast Company staffers were flattered to find out that Motown diva Diana Ross reads the magazine. Legend revealed that after the Musictoday cover story came out, Ross tracked down his phone number to learn more about the new company and how she could get involved.

The Musictoday model worked for him–and could work for Ross–because of its ability to connect an artists with their fans. “There’s never not going to be Diana Ross fans,” Legend noted.

Record labels are in the business of selling records, “little pieces of plastic,” Legend said. They’re not set up to manage the artist-fan relationship.

That’s where the Web and Musictoday come into play for Legend. The company has enabled him, and its 700-plus artists, to collect and analyze tons of data on fans. “I see them at shows and I know what they look like,” Legend said. “But that’s just empirical.”

More data on his fans won’t necessarily dictate the music he creates, but it might change which single he releases or how he chooses to release it, he said.

Nathan Hubbard:

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Picking up Legend’s points about fan data, Musictoday’s Hubbard said the Web had shifted power to artists by allowing them to “fingerprint” fans. With the Web artists can get sample sizes that matter and create content, including newsletters, merchandise catalogs and concert announcements, that are catered to fans of all levels. Some fans want to be updated once a year, and others once a week, he said. By doing so, artists can establish relationships with fans that will carry them through the life of their careers.

In that regard, when it comes to the future of the music it’s likely that 10 years from now the model for the music business will more closely resemble the patron-artist relationship of the 17th century renaissance than it will the 1980’s label-artist deals, Hubbard predicted

Jorge Just:

While the Web makes the process of connecting with fans on an individual or group level easier, Just said it was no substitute for hard work of maintaining a site, sending out newsletters and producing high-quality music and videos.

For instance, Just helped develop an OK Go online culture that involves a style guide for how to communicate with fans, including quirky language and inside jokes. By communicating directly to and with OK Go fans through their style, they feel they are part of the band’s world. Corporate “mush, mush” speak tries to speak to everybody, but not everybody is going to like OK Go, Just said, summarizing the strategy.

Just also recounted responding to fan e-mails one fan at a time as part of the e-mail campaign that launched the band’s YouTube video for Here it Goes Again (a.k.a the treadmill video) into an international hit. Even though the video is “incredible” it wasn’t as simple posting it online. Besides encouraging fans to share the video, Just cold-e-mailed YouTube executives and then worked out a deal to get the video on the front page.

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He’s currently doing the same, “painstaking” work to get the video for the band’s new single, Do What You Want, seared into the American consciousness through YouTube, and more traditional methods like play on MTV’s TRL.

Of course, doing so is not always that painstaking. “You should link the new OK Go video in your blog,” Just casually suggested after the discussion. OK Good Idea:

OK Go, Do What You Want (Wallpaper Version)

Dave Wolter:

As the lone representative of a major record label, Dave Wolter took a bit of a ribbing from the panel and acknowledged that labels have to behave differently in the new world of music. But his vision of the future still includes major labels–only instead of being in the record business they’ll be in the music business, he said.

Artists like OK Go and John Legend have the motivation and the ability to act independently on the Web and business side, but not all rock stars will. Some will just focus on the music and need a label to work their Web operations. Others will want control over their Web and MySpace pages but need business guidance. One big debate right now is how much control artists have over their MySpace page or if they own their Web site, Wolter said. It seems likely that as labels become more music than record, they will find profit centers in the Web, Web merchandising and sales that currently don’t exist and a compromise will be reached.

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Part of the label evolution has already begun as they look to the internet for new talent, Wolter observed. For instance, Capitol signed Australia’s Sick Puppies after the band’s My World video became a MySpace hit.

And labels aren’t without modern success stories, Wolter said. Capitol signed the animated band, Gorillaz, even though “nobody at the company got it.” But he and a few brave execs had faith, “got creative” and pushed forward, figuring out how to market an animated band. Now the band–real and animated–is one of the hottest around.

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