Independent online marketing & ‘Underwater Sunshine’

A few years ago, Counting Crows kind of stunned everyone by walking away from Geffen and announcing they were an independent band.

Whether this was prompted by a perceived underperformance of the superb ‘Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings’ or a wider dissatisfaction with the music business is unclear. But band leader Adam Duritz’s impassioned talk on interconnectedness, marketing and audience interaction at a recent technology event confirmed that he really, really gets the brave new world of digital independent music.

I was intrigued to see what they’d do with their next album, a set of covers called ‘Underwater Sunshine‘ due for release on 10 April. What new and exciting things were the band going to do to take advantage of their newly indy freedom and push their first indy release?

Stop Press: I’ve heard it, this is a great record by a great band and I want it to succeed more than I can say. That said, I’m about to criticise their online strategy, and writing a blog criticising my favourite band, even though my critique comes from love and passionate regard, leads me to worry that I might be being a dick, I certainly hope not, but here goes… if by any chance you’re reading this Adam, this is me trying to help, not tear you down in any way shape or form.

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Things started well, when they ran a competition to crowdsource the cover art. This generated buzz and, perhaps surprisingly, a really good cover.

Today it seems they’re rolling out the next stage of their campaign, with the whole album being streamed in its entirety on a variety of music sites and blogs. Buzz is building, people are talking. Today there are loads of Counting Crows fans listening to the new songs and excitedly clicking to pre-order the music, like, right now. That’s how the internet works, right?

The first problem, and it’s a MASSIVE problem, is that the streams are geolocked – yup, you can only listen to the streams in the US. Happily, I have a proxy that gets around this, but why? Just… why? There’s no reason I can imagine for an independent artist to geolock anything. The ‘net makes geography irrelevant. I’m really struggling with this decision. It’s so counter intuitive, and seems to embody all the shibboleths of the music business the band have turned their back on.

(Don’t get me started on how miffed I was and remain that I can’t buy Counting Crows live from SoHo on iTunes over here in the UK. Grrr.)

Anyway, having circumvented the geolock, I went to www.countingcrows.com and clicked ‘pre-order the album’ and… nothing happened. The link appears to be broken in Chrome and goes nowhere (I eventually realised you can right click and open it in a new tab). I had to boot up IE to make the link work. That’s second massive huge barrier to entry. You can write off a bunch of orders right there.

Finally, the biggest problem of all: when I do get the link to work, where does it take me? Amazon!

I cast around, looking for somewhere else to pre-order and do find a second choice – iTunes!

Wow…

Guys, isn’t keeping a larger part of the profits generated by your talent and graft one of the main points of being independent? If I buy your record, I want the money to go to YOU not Amazon or iTunes.

I am not for one instant saying you shouldn’t make your record available to buy on these huge platforms, that would be self defeating. But come on, you’re an independent band, you’ve made great play of cutting yourselves out of the body politic of the big music business. Why not take advantage of that?

There are three independent artists I follow closely – Amanda Palmer, Jonathan Coulton and Ryan Adams. All three have played this game and played it well. All offer their music through their own websites, or Bandcamp. In addition, all offer a variety of packages for all types of fans, from the vanilla CD/download only option right up to the deluxe vinyl/CD/Download with book and t-shirt and footrub package for the very loaded fans. The higher price for the more elaborate packages is okay with me, as it allows me to put more money directly in the hands of the artists I want to support.

So how is it I’ve recently pre-ordered lovely packages from these independent artists, safe in the knowledge that the money was going straight to them, but when I click through to pre-order the new record by my favourite band, a group of artists I am super-keen to support in any way possible, I find myself confronted by the same old corporate infrastructure?

What makes this most frustrating is that Adam has demonstrated that he REALLY gets this stuff. But launching the online streaming/blog blitz to the US only, when the only pre-order options are Amazon and iTunes, strikes me as a huge missed opportunity.

Yes, non-US streams can be rolled out, and yes, a Counting Crows online store can be launched for direct sales – but all of that should have been in place when the blog/stream blitz launched. The internet is a medium of instant gratification, playing catch up with your own marketing blitz is not the best way to go about things.

I just hope it all gets sorted and doesn’t impact the sales too much because, I’ll say it again: This is a great record by a great band and I want it to succeed more than I can say.

Check out my interview with Adam Duritz

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