Koalas and Uzis: Managing Get Busy Committee
You’re going to laugh, but it’s true so I’ll own up: I’ve started co-managing an artist *. The artist is Get Busy Committee and consists of Ryu (Styles of Beyond, Fort Minor, Demigodz), Apathy (solo super-MC, Army of Pharoahs, Demigodz), and Scoop Deville (young and in-demand producer for Snoop Dogg, Clipse, The Game, Murs, and more, and also the song of O.G. MC Kid Frost). You can get their new album, Uzi Does It, at the Get Busy Committee Web site now (and on Nov 10th at digital and physical retailers worldwide). The album is 100% self-produced and self-released.
But promoting the record is not the purpose of this post. I am going to try to blog the experience in hopes it might be interesting/useful for others. I talk to people daily who are trying to figure out the future of music products, marketing, promotion, etc, and I thought it might be a good contribution to the cause to simply stumble my way through it end-to-end and share the process and results. If nothing else I’m sure many of you will have comments and suggestions which I’ll find useful, and I thank you in advance for helping me organize my thoughts and for any tips/tricks you care to share. I appreciate most managers prefer to play it pretty close to the vest but I hope this inspires others to share a bit as well. It’s a pivotal time in the industry and I’d love to see more folks in the trenches sharing tips/tricks. We all know the reality of actually finding audiences and selling art is challenging; I talk to people every day trying to make the jump from the old world to the new. The more info we share about what works and doesn’t the sooner we’ll cross the chasm. I understand the argument for protecting your secret sauce but think about the artists you could be helping by sharing both mistakes and successes; the rising tide does raise all boats at a time like this IMHO.
So read on and give your comments on the approach and process. Please save your comments on the music, like all great music it isn’t for everyone, and I appreciate (but don’t personally understand how) koalas toting Uzis may not be your thing. I love the record and there’s a niche of people who will also love it, and that’s all that matters. The goal is to reach everyone who might like this record and to turn a profit in the process, not to have a “hit” and reach the mass market. But more on that later…
I’ve had my eye toward working on a project like this for a while. Being the CEO of Topspin and *not* having experience managing a band is like running Flickr and not taking photos. I’ve worked with managers, artists, and labels peripherally since 1993 and I suppose if you used the term really loosely I “managed” DJ Strictnine and Paranorm around the time of their Grand Royal 12″ (meaning I wanted to be their manager but really I was just their friend who loved their music), but the truth is I’ve had no real experience as a manager. Back in 1997 Kid Rock asked me if I’d be his manager (and a few months back he did the math for me on what I’d have pulled down if I’d have said yes — whoops!) and since a couple other friends have asked, but I’ve always declined. Recently, though, I’ve had my eye out for the right project, something that feels right and I love (David Crosby — LET’S DO THIS), because I knew I needed to get my hands really dirty to take my thinking about the challenges which face Topspin’s clients every day to the next level.
I had zero expectation Get Busy Committee was that thing when they walked into my office a couple months ago, and just as little when they left an hour later. They were referred to me by Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and I took the meeting as a favor to Mike. They came by the office, told me their story, and left me a CD. Ryu had his last Styles of Beyond record shelved by Warner Brothers (I guess I understand why but it’s a great record) and Apathy was once on Atlantic.
They’d started making some music with Scoop Deville and throwing it up on MySpace and YouTube. It wasn’t the usual hip hop fare. To their surprise, their friends were saying things like, “This are my favorite tracks you’ve ever done!” Thinking outside of the hip hop box had freed them creatively and it was working. They dug in and cranked out twenty tracks in no time.
A few labels, big and small, had expressed interest, but Ryu and Apathy hadn’t even followed the thread. “We just don’t care,” they told me. “We’ve heard every promise in this industry already and know all that glitters ain’t gold. We don’t have any idea what we’re doing, but we’d rather fuck it up ourselves than let someone else fuck it up.” I actually told them I thought there were a few labels who could do a great job with this record (Downtown comes to mind) but they wanted to try it themselves and get it out quick instead of making the rounds and waiting months more for the album to come out. I told them I’d think of some ideas of people who could help them, they left me a copy of most of the record, unmixed and unmastered, and split.
I listened to the CD that night and was kinda shocked at how much I liked it. As a kid who spent the 90s buying vinyl from Fat Beats I’ve loved everything from NWA to Cypress Hill and Masta Ace to J-Live at some point in my life. This hit those nerves pretty hard, but with melodies and beats which reminded me of why I liked the Girl Talk, Gnarls Barkley, and Santogold records more recently. I listened again the next day. And the next. And the one after that, too. I started playing it for people in the office. I played it for a friend who knows what I like and he said, “Damn, Ian, did they make this album for you?” It kinda felt like it.
I wrote Ryu and Apathy, told them it was my new favorite record, and asked if they’d mind if I wrote up a few marketing ideas. I wasn’t thinking I’d execute them, but thought maybe they’d find them useful.
They liked ’em, and after a couple of phone calls and a dinner we slid into talking about how “we” were going to release this record. I gave them all the reasons they did NOT want me to help, which included me being an idiot but mostly related to the fact that I have two kids and an 80 hour/week job and there would be times when I’m 100% unavailable. I told them I’d help if my wife, Julie (who used to work in the music biz but whose job title is now Mom/Yoga Teacher), would help out with the day-to-day stuff. They said cool and Julie said yes. GAME ON. Let’s Get Busy.
The first thing we did was define success: as I mentioned earlier, the goal is to get this music to as many people as possible, connect directly with the ones who like it, build products those people want to own, and turn a profit. Sure it would be great to make enough money that Get Busy Committee could be their primary income, but we definitely aren’t starting with the “if we don’t get a song on a radio this is a failure” mentality. We are starting at zero. The goal is to grow every single week and not lose money. In other words we’re following Clayton Christesen‘s golden rule of innovation: Be patient for growth, impatient for profit.
We started by putting together a release plan. I opened a Google Doc and started dropping ideas and info into it, and encouraged others to do the same. We needed a team, so we started assembling the roster of people, services, and tools which would help us get this record out the door:
$$ – Costs a fee
%% – Costs a percentage of revenue
- Press Relations and Marketing ($$): We knew there were people out there who would love this record, but we also knew finding them would take mentions in the right places. Since there’s no label, we need smart, experienced people helping us spread the word. There are a lot of great PR folks out there but ultimately settled on two: Greg Miller at Big Hassle is handling the lions share with Dick Huey at Toolshed helping a bit around the edges with a few specific things. They’re just getting started. Keep an eye out and see how they do. 😉 No pressure, gents.
- Creative direction (%%): Ryu and Apathy have a close friend, 2tone, who designs for the clothing company True Love & False Idols. He’s laid out a lot of the creative direction, giving the project a unique look and feel, and since he’s a friend with a day job he isn’t looking for up-front cash, but is lending his company’s brand and support (and the clothing company makes money from the shirts we sell). 2tone and TLFI’s support will build over time but he’s already been a very important part of the project.
- Web site design and development ($$): Apathy’s long-time friend and Demigodz crew member Open Mic has designed countless MySpace pages for all the artists in their circumference. We chose Open Mic to design GetBusyCommittee.com based on 2tone’s art direction as well as collateral such as MySpace page, YouTube page, etc. Open Mic has been great, fast, responsive, and always down for the extra task. For Web development we hired the amazing Parker Brooks (parker at wrvrywhr dot com if you need him), who has built more Topspin-enabled Web sites than just about anyone. Parker specializes in low-cost sites built on WordPress and integrating Topspin. He actually used Get Busy Committee as a guinea pig for the new Bandmajik tool he’s building. IMHO Parker is creating a scalable way to get great artist sites at a price reasonable enough for an independent artist to afford.
- Digital distribution (%%): We knew we wanted to be in iTunes, Amazon, and retailers worldwide. If someone hears about Get Busy Committee they should be able to go to *any* digital retailer and legally purchase the music. We considered a few options here including The Orchard, IODA, INgrooves, and TuneCore. These are all great companies with their strengths and I’m fond of the people at each. We ended up going with INgrooves because we think retailers are going to be willing to give this album promotion but since we don’t have a record label and we have literally no staff, we don’t have time to follow up with each of those retailers. INgrooves does digital distribution, has a handy dashboard via which we can see exactly what’s going on with our content, and for a small percentage of revenue their team of marketers adds your product to their pitch meeting with retailers such as iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, etc. I had many people tell me not to give up that % of revenue but the fact of the matter is with no label we need as many people talking about this album as possible and I’m willing to give up some money to get that help and support. Again, we’ll see if that was a smart move or not. No pressure, INgrooves. 😉 Bring the placements and no one gets hurt.
- Physical Distribution (%%): We honestly weren’t sure we were going to be able to release CDs right away. We are well aware that many people want CDs but we considered going just digital for starters, thinking we could always do a P&D deal down the road if things picked up. We decided to start out by producing the CDs on-demand with our friends at Kufala. Kufala are a great company in Paso Robles who handle all the live CDs for Pearl Jam and a host of others (they also invented the smokable shrink-wrap, but that’s another story). They handle pick/pack/ship for a number of Topspin projects including Eminem. The prices aren’t dirt-cheap, but the customer service is *great*, which is really important to us. We have a great setup with Kufala for CDs where they create the CDs and packaging on-demand as-needed, ship them (along with t-shirts and any other merch fans buy), and handle customer service all at a very reasonable price. We’re able to make the same margins on a CD as we make on our digital, and don’t have to go out of pocket or manage inventory for CD production. They have a deal with CIMS for indie retail distribution and Amazon for selling online. They’re also very helpful when it comes to indie retail promotion and reasonable when it comes to things like returns (no hidden costs). It’s not the highest margin CD deal we could do but clearly there’s a lot of good there (including the smokeable shrink wrap). We’d be open to a P&D deal — perhaps something international — any takers?
- Non-traditional physical manufacturing ($$): We decided to release the album in a non-standard format, a USB drive shaped like an Uzi. We shopped to a couple different companies who do custom USBs and found the cheapest price. These get manufactured and shipped from China and they’re more expensive than you’d think. The most interesting part of this endeavor was the demand we generated just by leaking a photo of the prototype on Flickr. Fans were writing on the message board about it and giving us feedback on both what they wanted and what they’d pay. If it hadn’t been for the pre-manufacturing feedback from fans I probably would have cheaped out on the size of the drive. The fans said they wanted it to be 2GB and would pay an extra few dollars if it was, so that’s what we did. Fans said they’d pay $20-30 for a 2GB drive loaded with the album, so we started the pricing out at $20 and will probably raise it to $25 long-term. Still, we had to go out of pocket a few thousand bucks to make a few hundred of these and that’s a risk. So far I’d say it’s been worth it, though, nearly all the press we’ve received thus far has been either because of or at least referring to the Uzi USB and we’ve received some off-the-beaten-path attention from high-profile places like Wired and Gizmodo.
- Legal ($$): I asked a few friends (I was talking to John Strohm in Alabama and Jeff Colvin in Nashville because I know they’re amazing and the prices are better than in LA) but Ryu and Apathy wanted to use their long-time lawyer here in town, Gail Perry at 3am Management. She’s fantastic, reasonable on price with us, and all in the family (Topspin works with Gail’s husband, Richard Bishop, and Ryu once toured with 3am client Crystal Method). Lesson: it’s good to stick with people you trust, and never underestimate the goodwill of a collective. Richard and Gail have already sent a number of opportunities (video directors, licensing opportunities, tour visuals help) our way and seem to always have the group in mind. There’s more to a lawyer than just contracts in the music biz.
- Performing rights organizations (%%): Ryu and Scoop are both customers of SESAC, and Apathy has a BMI relationship. I haven’t met anyone from BMI yet (hit me up! Apathy doesn’t know how to reach his rep!) but we’ve sat with James Leach from SESAC and they’ve been very helpful in making sure the songs are registered and talking about other opportunities.
I’m sure I’m forgetting someone/something, but that’s the team that’s coming to mind right now.
Additionally, we’re using quite a few software tools. Here are a few:
- WordPress (free): As I mentioned, Parker generally uses WordPress to build his Web site (as do I, you’re reading a WordPress blog right now, and TopspinMedia.com is 100% WordPress as well). It’s simple to use and has an incredible array of features developed by the community.
- Topspin (%%): I know this is going to shock you, but we’re using Topspin for our direct-to-fan marketing and distribution. We started by using Topspin’s widgets to gather email addresses, deliver streaming media to GetBusyCommittee.com, and build the press kit so streams and email collection could easily be integrated into stories about the band and album. We used Topspin’s widgets to give away two tracks as a leak early in the campaign, then to reach out to those fans with a special offer if they’d share their love of Get Busy Committee with their fans (which worked well to get that small but loyal base excited and to put some marketing tools into *their* hands). I built the multitude of offers on the store page last Monday night in about an hour using Topspin’s tools, offering the album digitally in MP3, Apple Lossless, and FLAC format (along with photos), and a choice of CD or USB Uzi and the option to add a t-shirt to any of the above. I’m also using Topspin to stay in touch with fans via email, manage the “Share and get half the album for free!” campaign, to keep on top of what people are saying about the band via Twitter, and to grow my Twitter followers. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I’m using Topspin to see how much money we’re making on a daily basis, understand where those sales are coming from, see what sites are embedding our widgets and how much traffic they’re driving, etc. In short, I login to Topspin daily to check sales and stats and a few times a day to check the pulse/communicate via Twitter.
- Google Analytics (free): The Get Busy Committee site is instrumented with Google Analytics so we can easily see what’s happening with our traffic, where it’s coming from, etc. Also, with the Topspin integration I can understand *conversion to sale* from each of those traffic sources. Very helpful in understanding how people are finding their way to us and what they do after they get there. I’ve already used this data to show CA radio stations we have a concentrated fan base here, to discover new keywords for Google AdWords, and to choose countries to include in my Facebook ad buys.
- Awe.sm (currently free in private beta): Full disclosure, Awe.sm is the product of my close friend Jonathan Strauss and I am an advisor to the company. But you’ll notice Get Busy Committee has a custom short domain (http://getb.us/y) and we’re using Awe.sm to track all the sharing that goes on from the site, either via Topspin short urls (http://topsp.in) or the GBC ones. We get click tracking so we can see how many URLs get created (how many shares) and how many clicks, and we can track by channel (Twitter, Facebook, etc).
- Google Docs (free): Google Docs is incredibly handy for a project like this. The ability to easily collaborate on documents and spreadsheets has been invaluable. Simple but so useful.
- Bandize ($$): I’m using Bandize for my todo lists and accounting. Since we aren’t touring we aren’t taking full advantage of it yet, but I dig their interface and it’s been handy to just keep track of stuff. I’ve considered moving over to another project management system that sends emails to people when they have tasks such as Basecamp, but the Bandize guys tell me that feature is coming so I’m sticking with this for now.
- Blackberry Messenger (free): I’d be remiss without mentioning Blackberry Messenger. Thankfully both Ryu and Apathy have Blackberrys and respond *quickly* to just about any need. Blackberry Messenger has been the most efficient way we communicate so far.
- Mobile Roadie ($$): Look out for the Get Busy Committee iPhone app in the app store soon. Well, not too soon. I haven’t had time to create it yet. But we will. We have a Mobile Roadie account and have been playing around. Great way to create simple and useful apps.
- Online advertising ($$): With any luck this will be the topic of an entire post later on. I’ve been messing with trying to add fans and sales via Facebook and Google ads for a couple months now. It definitely works, the question is at what cost. At the very least I want to be sure if someone searches ANY of the terms which people search to find their way to us (easily discovered in Google Analytics) we are a sponsored result. But there are some other interesting questions to be answered: If I run an ad with Mike Shinoda’s “hip hop album of the year” quote directed at Linkin Park fans, can I convert them for less than what it costs me to advertise to them? What about fans of the artists Scoop produces? What about marketing the Uzi USB to people who collect guns or gadgets? Or the shirt to people who are fans of True Love & False Idols? Your local plumber is probably using AdWords to make sales. Is your manager or label?
There are many more, as we’ve set up profiles at MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iMeem, iLike, and Last.fm. There’s Next Big Sound and other metrics sites we’re looking at data from. But it’s time to get to bed and hopefully I’ll be able to cover these topics in the future.
I can’t make any promises about how often I’ll be able to check in on this topic. Fact is, I’m writing this post on weekend time I could be spending marketing this album. But I’ll try to post here/there as things move along. If you’re interested, please buy one of the items at GetBusyCommittee.com (come on, you’ve spent $20 WAY WORSE ways) so you’ll be on our mailing list, and/or throw your email addr into the box at the top right of this blog so you can be sure to receive any blog updates here.
If you’d like to write about Get Busy Committee, please reach out to Greg at Big Hassle dot com and he can get you anything you need.
Thanks for the support!