jessie scoullar wicksteed works

How to manage direct-to-fan relationships in 2016

We chat to direct-to-fan expert Jessie Scoullar to glean her tips for artists and managers. She also offers PRS for Music members a discount on her latest study, Which Platform 2016.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 17 Nov 2016
  • min read
Vinyl mastering services, crowd-funding and mobile tech are just some of the ways direct-to-fan platforms are developing to best serve artists in 2016, according to industry analysts Wicksteed Works.

The company’s founder, Jessie Scoullar, is a direct-to-fan expert who’s been charting the space in the groundbreaking Which Platform reports since 2014.

During that time, she’s covered all the leading players, watching as some fold and new ones emerge to take their place.

Along the way, she’s noted each platform’s key developments and merits, offering up her analysis to artists, managers and labels to help them decide which platforms best suit their needs.

The latest version, Which Platform 2016, is out now and takes a careful look at 17 leading marketing and retail platforms including Bandcamp, Music Glue, PledgeMusic and Songkick.

We recently spent some time with Jessie to learn more about the report, hear how the sector is changing and find out what’s on offer for emerging and established artists.

Jessie is offering PRS for Music members a 15 percent discount on both the report (normally priced at £29) and the report + consultancy package. Click here to claim your discount.

What were the key direct-to-fan platform developments you noticed when putting together your latest report? How has the landscape changed since Which Platform 2014?
There have been a few notable changes to the market since we first launched our report back in 2014, with one or two platforms quietly disappearing, others changing their name and focus, and new services emerging.

Overall we’re seeing a shift towards more sophisticated functionality, with services striving to offer a one-stop suite of features to their clients. Most of the platforms which offer simple template storefronts are also ensuring that those stores have mobile-responsive functionality. This is key as it’s reported that more than 50 percent of customer transactions are now taking place on mobile devices. There is also an increase in support for administrative requirements such as the VAT rules for digital products in the EU, and chart reporting in a growing number of key territories.

As the space evolves, we’ve improved the way the Which Platform report displays comparison data. As well as expanding from 10 to 17 services worldwide, we’ve added new data points taking the total comparison criteria from 43 to 64. This is a lot of information to digest, so this time we’re trying something new. We’ve provided seven specialist grids within the report itself, grouping the featured platforms within pre-defined sets to simplify the comparison process. These include self-serve or DIY, managed, and what we call ‘destination’ services.

If you’re after a simple template store, want something that permits customisation, or require a specialist ticketing focus, these are provided for as well. If you would like your ecommerce platform to handle merchandise production, you need look no further to find the information you need to make your choice. And for the first time, we’re making all of our source data available as a companion spreadsheet. This means that you’re able to slice and dice the information any way you like, to enable the best-informed decision.

Which platforms are driving innovation?
One of the newest platforms in the direct-to-fan space is Qrates, which is an ecommerce platform for vinyl and digital sales. Artists or labels can choose to sell vinyl products, or to crowd fund a new vinyl project, with a minimum run of 100 units. They also offer a vinyl mastering service. Demand for vinyl production can also be generated by fans using Qrates’ Vinylize tool, which allows fans to nominate tracks to be made into vinyl, through an integration with SoundCloud.

We’re also seeing advances in the degree to which off-the-shelf solutions can be customised to suit the artist or label. For example, Music Glue has just launched a new version of its platform, and is fast becoming a very compelling offering as not only a retailer of tickets, music and merchandise products, but a flexible full website solution for artists at all levels at a very competitive price.

Are more artists going direct-to-fan?
Management in particular are increasingly aware of the enormous value in building a direct connection with their artists’ fans, in terms of a mailing list, as well as broadening their reach on social networks and digital platforms. However this doesn’t always translate into an effective strategy for ensuring that these connections are made, and once they are made, that they are nurtured.

Building the relationship between artist and fan, and facilitating the development of a community within the fans themselves, are key components of an audience strategy, and these need to come first before any kind of commercial goals. As this report demonstrates, there are a wealth of tools for supporting fan engagement but there must be a narrative that’s authentic to the artist or it’s going to fall short. There is no cookie-cutter approach. While every direct-to-fan strategy will involve the building blocks of connecting and engaging with fans, and giving them a reason to buy, in order to be successful, the execution must be true to the artist’s personality and brand.

How do you see the market evolving?
A significant development in the past few years is the increasing opportunity for artists and management to make use of the data held by streaming services. Pandora, Shazam, SoundCloud and Spotify offer artists the chance to market directly to their fans on those platforms, which represents a huge opportunity. The services hold so much information about who is listening to what and how often, and this is a potential goldmine for artists, management and labels when it comes to pushing marketing and sales messages. They represent additional channels to consider when putting together your direct-to-fan strategy.

What’s your biggest tip for artists approaching direct-to-fan strategy for the first time?
Don’t underestimate the importance of building your mailing list. Email may not seem like a trendy proposition, but it remains the best tool for communicating complex messages and calls-to-action to your fanbase.

Most importantly, a mailing list is a valuable asset and it’s one which no one can take away from you. There are key advantages to owning the relationship with your fans, as opposed to relying on a third party such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. For starters, when you own the database, there’s no risk of losing that connection with your fans should anything happen to the middleman.

Think of Myspace and the tragedy for all those bands who lost contact with sizeable fanbases as the platform slid from popularity. Should you change direction and rebrand, or set up a side project, you can still contact your fans directly to keep them informed.

In addition, you’re in control of your communication - not at the mercy of a platform which will charge you fees in order to convey your message to your fans, set limitations on how much you can say, or run the risk of having your message swallowed up in a sea of noise. And if you’re just starting out, remember that the three people on your mailing list have no idea that there are only three people on your mailing list. Treat them like the VIPs they are from the get go!

What are the best options for new artists?
For new artists looking to get started with building a mailing list and working towards commercial goals like selling tickets, music and merchandise, Bandcamp, Bandzoogle, and Music Glue are all excellent options. These are self-serve, DIY platforms, perfect for the emerging artist who may not yet have a team around them. They are straightforward to set up and can quite capably fill the role of artist website.

The self-serve option means becoming intimately involved in every detail - including customising your online interface, uploading digital content, ensuring your metadata is in order - and this is really important for the new artist as it provides the opportunity to oversee and understand the process and get a feel for what’s involved. Managing your marketing and retail activities will provide invaluable insights and once the time comes to build a team and scale up, you’ll have the best possible understanding of your direct-to-fan capabilities.

How about established acts?
Established acts are likely to have more sophisticated requirements than new artists, such as support for accounting including sales tax, flexible currency provisions, support for mechanical/performance licensing, and the ability to report eligible sales to the relevant charts. Where there are a high level of fans and transactions, it’s more likely that the artist and their management are going to require account management services from their direct-to-fan platform, for example to keep an eye on inventory and watch out for customer support issues. Eleven of the 17 featured platforms in our report offer a managed service, including Fullscreen Direct, Greedbag, Kontraband, Sandbag and TM Stores.