Interview: Sean Adams, Drowned in Sound

Sean Adams founded the hugely popular music website, Drowned in Sound, in 2000 and also runs the record label of the same name, through which he has released music by Bat For Lashes, Kaiser Chiefs and Martha Wainwright. With a decade of music industry experience behind him, it’s fair to say he knows a bit about music and is very vocal in championing new talent so we asked him a few questions on your behalf to get a bit of an insight into what you can do to get noticed…

Sean, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us.

Ok, so first things first, in your opinion, what’s the first thing a new artist/band should do when trying to build up a fanbase?

First of all, I think it’s really important that bands are aware what kind of first impression they’re able to make. Be warned, most people will only check out your band once, so be sure your songs and recordings are as good as they can be. You may think they’re genius now but will you still think so in two weeks or two years?

It’s really important you don’t expose yourself until you’re ready as bands are written off by potential fans, media and the music industry far too early these days – few people have the vision to forsee what you may develop into, given time, a better studio, etc.

At what stage should bands start promoting themselves to the press? Do you have any tips for artists looking to do the work themselves?

Spend some time doing plenty of research. The best thing you can do is spend a couple of weeks (or more, ideally) trying to discover some music for yourself. In doing this you’ll hopefully discover a few things:

1) what other music is out there

2) what you like about how people present themselves

3) what sort of things certain publications/radio stations/web services do and cover that are relevant to you

4) the process that fans go through to find music

With this ever-evolving base of knowledge you’ll hopefully find relevant nights to play or blogs to send your music to or realise what you’re doing is/isn’t as unique as you think and perhaps re-address things. Looking at the more established acts you might also be able to magpie the germs of some ideas which can work for your band in terms of clear and concise presentation or find networks you should be on. Use a site like metacritic.com/music to find and hone in the relevant sites you should be on (Take for instance Paramore.net, which is a great example of what a band website should be like. It highlights a current hot topic (release/video, etc), summarises news and aggregates both artist and fan content. It works for them but if you don’t have as many fans as a multi-million selling band, then look at it and adapt it for your own use.

There are many tools out there online for artists to connect with their fans, make money from their music, promote themselves and manage their careers (ours included!); what would you say are the most useful tools for a new artist to investigate?

Just as important as trying to sell things, is building an audience to sell things to! Giving ‘some’ music away seems to be the best way of doing this and any tools which allow you to give tracks away in exchange for an email address (as long as it’s easy to opt out) or someone sharing your music with their friends, is the key. I really like Bandcamp and theSixtyOne in this sense. Also, digital aggregators like yourselves are great for getting your music onto multiple digital stores, like iTunes, too – however being on there isn’t the end game, it’s just the start. Be everywhere and continue to promote your music, concentrate on whatever is working and drive people to those sites and stores. I’ve found tracks on iTunes which are being given away elsewhere still sell, so don’t just do one thing but focus people in one place (ideally your website).

In terms of data-management and getting listings spread, Artistdata is pretty good and there’s a wealth of ways you can keep your band in touch with each other and communicate with fans. Lifehacker is great for finding best ways of sharing diaries with band members and Google Docs is good for having a shared band manifesto/plan.

As someone who runs a label, what advice would you give to anyone setting up a label to release their own music or any budding entrepreneurs looking to run a label online?

Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Start a label because you have to, not because it’s a way to make money or monetise things. If you’re self-releasing your music, say so, creating a fascade will just detach you from fans who might be ok spending a few quid extra if they know the money is going direct to you. If you want to start a label, then be prepared to make no money and discover that the music business is a mess and full of unexciting forms and dated concepts, with more paperwork to officially put out and push a single through a label than is worthwhile in the long run.

Know your audience and be pessimistic. On the whole, indie fans want physical/collectible products, and not necessarily just digital files that they’re potentially savvy enough to obtain elsewhere, for free. A survey of a 100 Drowned in Sound readers found that only about 6% of them pay for music in a per-track manner and that only 15% of them pay for services like EMusic or Spotify premium, whereas nearly all of them buy 7inches and nicely packaged CDs.

With the announcement this week that 2009 is a record year for single sales (and we’re not even into the Christmas period yet) and with only around 1% of these singles being purchased in physical formats, it’s safe to say that the music-buying public is increasingly turning to digital means, where do you see things in five years? Will people still be buying music outright or will we all be streaming content online?

I’d love to believe these numbers are a good sign. They’re great if you’re a heavily marketed act like Pixie Lott or Lady Gaga but don’t really mean anything if you’re not in the same well-funded warship. If anything, these acts are selling individual tracks, cheaper and cheaper and it’s costing them more and more to do so. Whereas a few years ago singles were £2.99, they’re now 79p, so the margins are tight.

Staying on the topic, DiS is one of the first sites to go completely digital, you are now only accepting content through digital means and turning your back on traditional methods of consumption. Do you think there is still a place for traditional music industry values in the future of music or have major labels, charts companies and radio stations got to start doing some thinking?

For me, I don’t like the clutter of a lot of CDs I’ll never have the time to listen to (I was getting sent about 40 hours of music, every day!). We’ve created an open demo pile (here: http://soundcloud.com/groups/drownedinsound), so that our readers can fish through what we’ve been sent. I mainly treat CDs as carcasses which I strip music from, I’ve never really had an affinity with shiny magpie traps. I fear that a lot of those younger than me (I’m 27) who’ve grown up with p2p, Hype Machine and now cloud streaming services like Spotify, have the same lack of compulsion to build a physical library of dusty discs.

Having said that, I’ve bought heaps of albums on vinyl lately and love everything that Trent Reznor has been up to, he’s a true visionary. Plus it really irks me that In Rainbows has now become a “music has little to no value” irresponsible message to consumers, rather than a “we sold loads of records for £40,” vision of the future. I think it’s a good sign that streaming is being considered for the UK charts but I’m not sure the ad revenue will ever match the revenue required to pay royalties fairly.

So I guess the final question is, is digital really all that? Sure things have changed a lot from the days of having to go into a studio and press up copies of your demo on vinyl but are home-recording artists, catalogues of digital music that could run for 2 years and online tools really good for the growth of music?

There’s not really an answer to that. If anything, this young industry is in a complete state. We’ve had our boom period (at its peak people were buying an average of one point two CDs, not 10+ CDs) as a capitalist industry whereby megastars propped up thousands of also-rans. Those who’ll be left when everything finally goes to shit, when things are truly untenable will be the ones who care, the ones who have a passion that knows no bounds. Decisions will be tougher to make and things will be just as hard as they ever were.

More people than ever have easy access to music and the key will be making a small amount from a larger audience. Things will downsize and I’m not sure as many people will have careers across the board. I’m not saying being a full-time musician will be as rare as being a full-time poet, but that’s kinda how things were in the 1870s, when the music industry at the time feared the phonograph, and decreed recorded music would kill the live gig…

Thanks Sean.

Sean Adams is founder of http://drownedinsound.com & DiS Records http://myspace.com/disrecords and is a columnist for Sunday Times Culture. He blogs at http://seaninsound.blogspot.com and tweets here http://twitter.com/seaninsound .



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