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In Search of QEIB: Robin Bechtel Interview

In Search of QEIB: Robin Bechtel Interview Ty Braswell

Have you ever wondered who had the guts to be the first major label exec to sell a music download? On September 10, 1997, Robin Bechtel fired the first shot heard around the music industry by offering the Duran Duran single “Electric Barbarella” available for $.99.

Robin Bechtel is a pioneer in pushing the envelope to use the Internet to help her artists reach more fans. With a New Media career that spans a decade, Robin has initiated groundbreaking online campaigns for artists including The Beatles, The Beastie Boys, Radiohead, and Madonna. Starting at Capitol Records and later moving over to Warner Bros Records, Robin has left her mark with each band she has touched.

Check out what Robin feels is key to creating the online buzz.

Braswell: What is your role at Warner Bros. Records?

Bechtel: My department has three main objectives: We produce Websites for our bands, which involves art direction, design, and coming up with compelling content for these artist’s sites. We create enhanced CDs with added value to strengthen the relationship with the fans. But the majority of our energy is focused on Internet marketing, which is geared toward setting up promotions and tie-ins with AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, music sites, lifestyle sites, fan sites and grassroots marketing. And we try to convert each promotion into record sales, whether the music is bought online or offline. My personal goals are to push the envelope whenever possible and come up with unique and compelling ideas for each artist release.

My department is unique within the company because we start marketing our bands very early on in the stage of a record release -- sometimes a year in advance of an album release date --starting with the promotion of the band in the studio while they are recording their album, then on tour and then leading into the start of a new album cycle. And because we start early, we can generally feel a reaction to a record and a band before other departments and that can help shape the marketing plan.

Then, when a record has reached the end of its cycle, there’s still a fan base out there, and we want to keep their attention, so we always try to continue online efforts. One of the really important aspects about the Internet is its ability to help you continue to keep a fan engaged -- you know how kids are really fickle these days – we are committed to keeping their interest in an artist between album releases.

Braswell: What was your first online promotion?

Bechtel: The first promotion, in 1992, was a screensaver I made to promote the Beastie Boys and we passed them out via traditional marketing on floppy disks. (Remember those!) No one was really using the Web yet for a vehicle to get music out, and there were very few Websites. My cousin told me that if you were a Mac user, you could download files off a server called Sumex Aim. I FTP’d the screensaver there and the next day I started getting emails from people all over the world telling me how much they loved it. Then I got an email from Rolling Stone magazine in Australia asking me if they could run a story on the screensaver. I put it on CompuServe and the same thing happened, more emails from all over the world. At that point, I thought, I can’t believe I’ve reached people all over the world by just putting this one file up. And the response was overnight. Through the Web I had met the Webmaster of a site called Underground.net, which at the time was only three or four Web pages (the Web at that time was only gray background, Times Roman type) with a few music items, and I approached him to put up the Beastie Boys screensaver. He invited me to come over and see the Web and how it worked and he happened to be right down the street from Capitol Records. The second I walked out of his house, my world had changed.

Braswell: In 1997, before many bands had built their first Websites and two years before Napster, you leap forward with selling the first single on the Internet via Liquid Audio’s technology. Wall Street Journal calls it “a turning point for an industry”. The song is made available before you can buy it in retail stores and some retailers respond as if the sky is falling by threatening a boycott against Capitol Records. Tell us what happened.

Bechtel: This is all very surreal in hindsight, due to the current climate of selling singles online and the Apple iTunes store. In 1997, people were in a very different place in time, in fear of the Internet and uneducated as to its promise. When we launched the sale of the single, we weren’t trying to cut out retail and go direct to the consumer, but we could not sell the single through the retailers because they did not have Websites at that time, except for Tower Records. So the first story that ran was in Billboard Magazine which sent a message that this was a promotion to create excitement for Duran Duran’s new album, much like putting a song on the radio, and we were selling it to get people to the stores to buy the physical album, much like we do with a physical single that we sell in brick-and-mortar stores before an album release. But the press had its own agenda and the story just took a life of its own.

It was a very controversial move, which shook a lot of retailers up, but in hindsight I think it helped everyone move into the digital frontier a lot faster. Very soon after this Duran Duran promotion, retailers launched their own Websites.

Braswell: But some retailers did have Websites to sell digital downloads.

Bechtel: Tower Records had an online store. AOL also sold the track via The Hub (in 1997 AOL had nine- million subscribers).

Braswell: Let’s fast-forward six years to 2003. How has your digital distribution strategy evolved?

Bechtel: Tom Whalley, the chairman of Warner Bros. Records, had come to me and asked me why the record business has not been successful at selling music digitally and I explained to him that we, as an industry, have made the process too hard for the consumer, and if we made it really easy for people to pay then they would pay. At the time (before Apple iTunes launched) it was easier to steal music than to pay and we as an industry have to make the process of paying easier than stealing. So we set up a system using PayPal, which in itself made the process easier and decided to sell Madonna’s single “American Life” from her new album for $1.49. You also got a free message from Madonna. We set up a very aggressive marketing plan around selling the single, which started by taking pre-orders of the single two weeks in advance and launching an affiliate program which enabled fans to sell the single and be rewarded throughout the album cycle with the ability to watch a video first, or hear the new album first—if you paid for the song we wanted you to feel special and connected to the project. We ended up selling over 8,000 singles and it was the first digital single to ever debut on Billboard’s Soundscan Singles chart --- #4 debut the first week.

We listened to comments from the fans who purchased the song through a focus group and we continued every day to make the buying process easier and easier until we felt it was perfected.

Braswell: QEIB is about targeting the key multipliers. They hunt for the latest and newest on the Web. They bring it back to their not-so-online friends, which keeps them popular in their social groups. The Josh Groban online story is a good example of targeting key multipliers. You launched a groundbreaking online campaign for Josh Groban with his performances on “Ally McBeal” utilizing on-air promos to get music fans to the Internet. How did this evolve?

Bechtel: The Internet campaign for Josh Groban was born when Josh made his first TV appearance on “Ally McBeal”. We set up a chat with Calista Flockhart and Josh after the show aired and David Kelly, the producer, let us tag the end of the show with on-screen information that drove people to allymcbeal.com to chat. Our goal was to get people from TV to the Internet so we could capture their demographics. Networks normally do not give out expensive airtime but we convinced them to use the channel to drive people to their site. Before the show was over, I was getting an email every 10 seconds and the CD went to #1 on Amazon.com. It was apparent a star was born.

The next morning we had 5,000 new email names and a call from allymcbeal.com as to the huge response. Josh’s fans quickly named themselves The Grobanites and began spreading the word about Josh online in message boards and emails, planning conventions and making t-shirts to sell on eBay. I had not seen TV convert to online record sales at that point, which was two years ago, and I thought it was interesting because people were watching TV and they were immediately buying it on Amazon. We immediately saw a connection from TV to the Internet to buying on the Internet. Then we started seeing from the Web that there was a younger demographic for this artist. When Josh started doing appearances, young kids started showing up and that’s when people in my company were like – ok you’re right. But I could already see that from the emails and message boards.

Braswell: How did you use the online research about the younger fans in your marketing plan?

Bechtel: Our radio promotion department wanted me to help cultivate those younger kids to help the song at radio so I started doing a lot of marketing geared to a younger audience. We bought keywords on Google, so if you searched for artists like Justin Timberlake, you would get to Josh’s site. We started a street team and then got these kids to call radio stations to request Josh.

Braswell: How many CDs has Josh Groban sold since the release on November 20, 2001?

Bechtel: Over five million and every time he was on TV through the project, his record shot back to #1 on Amazon. It blew my mind. Like clockwork, we’d like wait two hours and go to Amazon and watch Josh go to #1.

Braswell: How do you use sponsored searches with Google for other artists?

Bechtel: I have an artist called Bonnie McKee coming out next year who has never had a record before, never toured, nothing – so where do you start with zero fans? You have to start with similar artists and find people who like artists like Bonnie. If you do grassroots marketing, you have to spend all this energy going into message boards and postings, where for actually less money, you just buy the keyword searches on Google and you do the work once and it’s just a lot less effort for a higher return. For our band Trapt, if you searched for the Deftones, you would see “If you like the Deftones, then you’ll like Trapt. To get a free MP3, click here”. The cool thing about Google is if the keywords aren’t working, they’ll drop off those and add more impressions onto the keywords that are doing well. When you run a print ad, you really don’t know what happens – there’s no music attached to a print ad – no email names collected, but with this approach, the copy you’ve written is testing better than the other copy or it’s people’s patterns of behaviors, you can really accelerate it to make it more successful as you’re going with the campaign. That’s what I like about it—it’s very high targeted.

Braswell: How early do you launch your new campaigns to reach the key multipliers?

Bechtel: We hope to start six months to one year in advance of street date with a developing act because we have to go out and find new fans and start spreading the word of mouth. We can go with two to three months on an established act since we already know where to find its fans. For our developing rock band Trapt we did start a year in advance when the band was in the studio recording their new album. They’d chat online with kids while in the studio and then we’d put out un-mastered studio tracks. When the time came to service the song to radio, this band had an Internet following and when kids would see the show they would know every word to every song before the record was even out in the stores. We knew we had a hit with the single “Headstrong” as it tested well on the Internet right from the start. (In less than eight months, Trapt has sold over 500,000 CDs.)

This Internet base in turn helped the radio campaign. People get familiar with the song, and then when they hear it on the radio, they’ve already heard it on the Internet. When radio stations do their call out research, kids are telling them “I’ve already heard this song on the Web and now I’ve heard it on the radio and I know it’s the band Trapt.”

Braswell: How important is placement for your music on Websites that traditionally have not executed music programming?

Bechtel: Very important. What I envision is everyone and anyone can be a retailer and that’s the model that worked for Madonna. One day we looked at the stats of who was selling the most Madonna singles – and in the top ten there was this site called tastychicken.com. I went to the site out of curiosity and it was a fast food restaurant in New York City. If you go to this site, it’s actually hilarious. It just reinforced that anybody can be a potential retailer anywhere in the world. The fans were selling more singles than the music retailers because they know where the Madonna fans are online.

Braswell: Quantification is the first word of QEIB. What do you look for to quantify the value of your online efforts?

Bechtel: The main thing my department uses to feel a buzz is how many people are joining the band’s email list and message board, and how many people are listening to the music and coming more than once. Another sign is when our radio promotions department can feel it and radio stations feel like this artist has a buzz. The band is usually the first one to report back in because they hear their fans saying they discovered them on the Internet and kids will know every word to every song at a show when there’s no record out yet. There are lots of things like that happening where the word of mouth gets back to our company about an Internet buzz on a band. We have very detailed stats for the online promotions we’re doing. We know who visits, who repeats, who comes again later, and what they’re doing and what friends they are telling. We pass around fan emails that come in to the Website and they can see what we’re doing has an effect. Reading the information on the Internet, whether you’re reading the message board or an email that comes into the Website or looking at all your tracking, or talking to the online street team kids, you can get a real good gauge for what the first week sales are going to be, what people like about the project -- do people like the record, do they like the first single, what song don’t they like. I look at so many different sources and really read the Internet and I feel we’re the one department that has a direct pipeline into what’s really happening. We have that direct relationship with the consumer. We’re the department the company depends on for that information.

Braswell: For the benefit of the iMedia audience reading this column, give us the ideal scenario for a sponsor/brand to be involved with your content for an online buzz campaign?

Bechtel: Bring us new music fans. We’re able to give to your brand our audience and we’ll drive them to your product. Then we need the brand with its own customer base, to get new fans for our bands. We already have a list of all our bands and what sponsors they’ll work with and won’t work with. We won’t even go down a path and waste your time if we aren’t confident the artist will participate.

Braswell: What about your business keeps you up at night?

Bechtel: Too many ideas and not enough people or dollars to implement them.

Braswell: Last question, what’s the most fun you have in your job?

Bechtel: Inventing the future. Launching projects that no one has ever done before. Pushing the envelope and experimenting trying to push aside bureaucracy and politics to do what is right for the consumer. It’s challenging and exciting to forge new ground. Also turning the Internet into a real business for my company. I think finally the timing’s right for it to work with bandwidth increasing and successes like Apple iTunes and the sale of the Madonna single. I want to continue to create new business models so the artists can have relationships with their fans over a long period of time.

Ty Braswell is the senior strategist for iMediaStrategy, the new division of iMedia Communications providing industry-wide thinking that serves to advance the business of interactive marketing & advertising. Click here for previous articles on QEIB (Quantifiable Early Internet Buzz).

With a career at the forefront of entertainment and technology, digital strategist Ty Braswell moves big ideas from conception to reality. He has held leadership roles at Sony Corp and Virgin Records, served as the digital architect building the...

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