In a sea of turmoil surrounding the music industry that includes sagging sales and copyright challenges, Courtney Holt charts a course that others strive to follow. Holt overseas the label’s New Media strategies for Sting, Sheryl Crow, Eminem, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Beck, Counting Crows, No Doubt, Peter Gabriel, Eve, Enrigue Iglesias, Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson, The Wallflowers, Weezer and U2.
When Apple debuted AppleMusic.com, Holt’s stable of artists dominated the first week of sales with six out of the top 10 selling tracks. Currently leading the overall year-to-date market share for the music industry, Interscope Records in late-May landed the top three albums with Marilyn Manson debuting No. 1, rap superstar 50 Cent at No. 2, and Cold debuting at No.3. It was the first time a label had held the top three album spots on the Billboard chart since November 1996, when the very same Interscope dominated the top four spots, with Bush, Snoop Dogg, No Doubt, and 2Pac.
If you are pondering what it takes to do business with a record label, then read on as Holt shares an insider’s look at the online strategy at Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records.
Braswell: What is your role at Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records?
Holt: I am responsible for new avenues of marketing using technology and new media to market music in ways the record companies have traditionally not done. Traditional record business utilizes lanes that have been in place involving video, radio, sales, promotion and marketing. I handle the new landscape to market our music, build community, and build new revenue for the company.
Braswell: Tell us about your first online promotions.
Holt: When I first started working in the New Media space, the first thing I was tasked with doing was to build an artist presence online. We got artists like Sheryl Crow, Monster Magnet, Dishwallla, and Blues Traveler to take a step into the future using the Internet as a way to market. We started to find bulletin boards and mailing lists of fans interested in Monster Magnet. We went into America Online to users’ profiles and searched for people who were interested in Monster Magnet and did one-to-one communication with them, letting them know about the album. Then we started to expand it to White Zombie fans and to other artists who were affinity artists. It was before we had electronic postcards, little mini-players, Napster and even before streaming media was readily available, so it was just me and an intern talking to kids and telling them about the records and asking them to come to the artists’ sites. I remember we also did a game in which you got a loop of music and that was groundbreaking at the time.
Braswell: How did you evolve your online marketing strategy with the growth of the Internet?
Holt: In 1998 we started to collect e-mail addresses to build up databases and talk to the fans. One of the big things we did was answer every single piece of e-mail. Record companies were always arms’ length from their consumers. We sold our records through distributors to stores and the consumer was always the store’s consumer. The artists went out and played shows and touched their fans every night, but once they left that town, no one ever knew who those fans were. I believe in coming up with ways to keep the consumer’s attention tied to the artist and keep the relationship going. The minute that tends to wane is the minute we have to go recapture that fan. It is really difficult and I have been lucky enough to be involved in campaigns like U2’s that were very successful in doing that. But it is really hard.
Braswell: QEIB is about targeting the key multiplier -- the folks who hunt for the latest and newest item on the Web. They bring it back to their not-so-online friends, which keeps them popular in their social groups. For your business model, how do you find your key multipliers?
Holt: We release products frequently and change our marketing strategy frequently. We look at how we communicate quickly and efficiently in the way the consumer is going to be interested in responding. We maintain databases of active music buyers on the Internet. If we are talking to people who want our message and we talk to them in their language, the response rate is off the charts. Within our database there is a large chunk of consumers that have opted in to receive e-mails and information on music broken down by genre and by lifestyle. We know information about people in terms of brands they like, sodas they drink, clothing they wear, how often they go out and how many hours a week they watch TV or play video games. We cross-reference that data to target people with different opportunities. Some are music related and some are brand related. But we keep that communication very pure, honest and we keep it ongoing. So the people remain interested but they don’t feel like they are being inundated.
Braswell: So by creating a synergy between the roster of all your artists you have created a large database of key multipliers for all your marketing campaigns?
Holt: Yes, that’s one way we do it. Another way is outside of our internal database. We have an external database of people who are tastemakers in various communities. We pay attention to that music fan site with 1,000 kids on its mailing list … or that gets 2,500 unique visitors a month. We know that by communicating with them, they are going to spread the word virally to 10’s of thousands of people. We focus on making sure those kids have the right information because having access to us gives us access to their community. All they really want is the right information early and feel they have access. We do this within artist’s communities or in general rock, pop or urban landscapes. We work with these people as partners the same way we would work with a top-tier online partner because we know these are the people who have influence over their communities. We see how people discover music from a friend. We target the right communities and watch it build from there. We track and report on what we are doing and when you talk about key multipliers…we know what is working. I can look market by market, week-by-week in our viral campaigns and look at those numbers against a SoundScan or BDS and I can see the true effect it can have on sales and our marketing.
Braswell: How early do you approach your various channels to reach the key multipliers?
Holt: Early is sort of a complication, because you don’t want to go too early since we are dealing with piracy. But you have to go early enough and at some point you need to find the balance. We try and figure out ways the music can be available to people to get them to feel passionate about what they are hearing. With a rock artist we feel we have to get in there very early. Puddle of Mudd was a huge success for us a number of years ago and we worked that in the online space for nine to 10 months before the music ever went to radio. We were coming off a big Limp Bizkit record and the band was affiliated with Fred Durst (leader of Limp Bizkit). We started to work within the Limp Bizkit community and spread out to other communities like Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, Rage Against the Machine, Korn and Staind to build awareness on this band organically.
If the first time our consumers hear music is on the radio or MTV, traditionally they consider it pop music. They want to discover it and hear about it online. Tastemaker kids have a thing about “I heard it before anyone else”. The minute something’s too popular it’s not cool anymore. You ultimately want to reach those kids who are going to own it early because all their friends are going to copy them and those kids will move on -- but it is their nature to move on. The goal is to use those original tastemaker kids to feel it. If they never feel it, then it is a flash in the pan. You use nine to 10 months to build and in a lot of cases start with getting that music in the communities virally -- building digital players that can be e-mailed, allowing people to listen to music and comment on it, then being part of a community and passing it on. We can track what is played and we utilize partners to help move this along. We often let people rate and then get involved in music. Fans have been involved in helping to chose singles -- tastemaker fans -- because we ultimately want these kids to discover the songs and participate in the progress. It helps us get a lot further.
Braswell: How did you break T.A.T.u online and set up the CD release?
Holt: With t.A.T.u. we knew we had something that was extremely explosive but we wanted it to bubble under so we put a lot of pressure underneath the cap and it just had to explode. A year before the release, we went out with the Russian version of the video (the way we discovered the band was through that video) and put it online. All of a sudden we had 15,000 to 20,000 kids on a mailing list off that one video. We gave it to AOL and AOL streamed it over one-million times before we took it to MTV.
t.A.T.u. is an explosive record and one of the best pop records I have heard in 10 years. But we had to be careful because what can end up happening is that we go out with a really sensational video and all of a sudden it is all about the video and, in this case, about girls kissing. Luckily, with the Internet, we have the ability to turn on a dime and change our messaging to move completely away from that and let people see the depth of this record.
In part two on Monday, learn how Holt is using new technologies such as TiVo in his marketing efforts, and how he quantifies QEIB.