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Live in Conversation: Amber Horsburgh Part II of II

Amber Horsburgh

Music Strategist & Educator

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Amber Horsburgh, Founder of the School of Deep Cuts and the Deep Cuts newsletter, was held virtually on September 28th, 2021. The event was presented in partnership with The Push, an Australian youth music organisation based in Melbourne.  The Push is at the forefront of emerging trends, delivering a range of programs that are responsive to Australia’s future music industry leaders, artists and audiences.

Amber joined us from Melbourne, Australia.

Every month Byta’s founder, Marc Brown, sits down for an in-depth one-to-one Zoom conversation with someone who provides deep music industry insights and tips. 

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation is designed to deliver the knowledge to enable tomorrow’s artists and industry leaders to better manoeuvre their way through the music ecosystem. 

This episode’s guest is Amber Horsburgh, expert in developing strategy for artists and music brands at every level. She has worked as a marketing executive to majors, indies & brands including Interscope, Atlantic, Downtown Records, Spotify, SoundCloud & YouTube Music. Amber has also launched her School of Deep Cuts: the sum total of every tool, case study, best practice and quick tip Amber knows to help break artists. She also publishes a strategy newsletter called Deep Cuts, read by over 15,000 music industry professionals globally, and offers students Fanbase Accelerator. A self-paced course offering artists the tools to build a promotional plan that scales their music career. 

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In part II (below), Marc and Amber dig into the concept of the seven gatekeepers and how you must not only find them but convince them to help you. The trick is that you will also need to help them.  

Miss Part I? Find it here.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Marc Brown: So, let’s talk about gatekeepers. We had a previous discussion about this, and I thought that you had a great way of talking about who these people are and what you can do about them. Tell me why you use the word gatekeeper.

Amber Horsburgh: OK! So say you’re an artist, and you’ve got the best music that you’ve ever made. You’ve done the exercise where you decide which publication you exist in and what your headline is. What I teach in my course is that the fastest way to get your music heard is by identifying the 7 gatekeepers and how you can work with them. If you can get the recognition from these 7 gatekeepers, you’ll grow your audience a lot faster than trying to buy your followers. 

Gatekeepers are people who work within the industry and have an audience that you can use to help grow your own platform. In my course, I teach about the motivation behind each of the 7 gatekeepers, how you can be of value to them and how you can collaborate with them. Some of the artists from the last cohort who were able to do this ended up getting a residency on community radio, booked their first support slot, got songwriting sessions etc. It’s through collaboration that you advance your career further.

Marc, I know you said that your first knee-jerk reaction was that you didn’t want to promote the idea that the music industry has a lot of gatekeepers, but it does. That being said, the gate is wide open and everyone that works within the business is there to promote and support artists. If you can pitch your music in a way that adds value to these people, then you’ll be able to advance and build up your audience much quicker than relying on organic methods. 

Marc: So those 7 gatekeepers, are they the same for each type of artist and genre or are there different categories?

Amber: There are certain categories that represent the main influences in the music industry. You have promoters, radio, artists, influencers, streaming curators, journalists and music industry movers. These are the same for anyone, no matter what genre. You need to figure out what world you exist in within the music industry; that is when the people within that space, with big audiences who can put you on their platform, becomes clear. This can be either grassroots or on a bigger scale.

Marc: What you’re saying about grassroots makes total sense. This idea is that you’ll drown in all of the opportunities out there if you don’t focus your efforts. So if we go back to this hypothetical artist who has come up with their story, what would the next steps be when reaching out to these gatekeepers? How do you suggest people decide on who to reach out to?

Amber: You research the people who are in your world. From there, you start to look at how you can categorise these people. The most important part of the whole thing is figuring out what value you add to another person and how you can support them. That’s the thing a lot of people are missing. The method is the same, and the outcome looks different for everyone, but no matter what, it becomes a lot easier once you know what your strategy and “headline” is.

Marc: You just hit on something I think is super important – what value you bring to other people. There is the assumption that people will just play your stuff, but are you saying you need to seek out the people that will be more receptive to listening to your music because of what they do?

Amber: Absolutely. There’s a community radio station here in Melbourne that has this program where they play the best new music from Australian and New Zealand artists. So if you’re a new Australian artist, your likelihood of getting played on that show is much higher than getting played on the general pop stations. So going and developing a relationship with that host will increase your likelihood of getting to know who these tastemakers are, and you can grow from there. 

Marc: Yeah, it’s also knowing where you fit in and who you are, which goes back to what you were saying at the start. 

The other thing I wanted to discuss is timelines. You’re talking about going to certain people and building a group who are interested in you, but when do you start building your audience in the context of how you release music?

Amber: I would say about 12 weeks out. People usually think that’s too long, but it gives you enough time to develop and properly execute your campaign. The more time you have, the less overwhelmed you’ll be because at that point, it’s just executing the plan. 

Artists sometimes come back to me and say, “what if I can do the blueprint you gave me in 6 weeks” and I say to them it’s fine but just know that you need to create a system that is executable and repeatable for your resources, whatever your timeline is. Make sure that you’re excited on release day and not burnt out.

Marc: So you explained the importance of having a timeline for yourself. Can you explain more about how these seven gatekeepers would work into this timeline? Do certain types of media work with different deadlines, and how would an artist figure that out?

Amber: You have to start! In the course, I give you a spreadsheet with individual timelines for different gatekeepers, but the best thing is to just start and see what happens. 

You should make your own timeline spreadsheet and document everything so that afterwards, you can look at it with a critical eye and repeat what works and throw out what doesn’t. That way, you can make every release smarter and smarter.

Marc: Would you argue that it’s better for new artists to do a series of singles and try a series of different strategies or record and release an album? What’s the best format, in your opinion?

Amber: I tend to stay away from this because my job is as a marketer, so I come in once the art has been created.

The singles versus album debate – I’d say if you’re releasing an album because that’s what your vision is, then that’s fine, and you can work with that. The argument for releasing singles is that you have a lot of chances to learn and test what works and doesn’t work. 

That being said, I don’t know if releasing an album versus singles is going to give you a better chance. I usually encourage artists to release singles because you’re going to learn a lot more. 

Marc: A lot of what we’re talking about isn’t new, the idea of DIY. I found when I was doing radio that a ton of the radio DJs actually wanted to hear from the artists themselves. People want to connect with the artists because they are the creators, but when external people come in and start dictating a plan it sort of changes.

Oh, I also want to talk about pitching. What’s the best way to approach others, in your experience? 

Amber: The secret that unlocks pitching is finding what the value is to the other person. It’s more effective to craft intentional pitches and to know what you’re asking the other person. Develop relationships and support what others are doing on your channels before actually asking. It’s harder than putting together a general pitch, but the more personal your pitch is, the higher your success rate will be.

Marc: That also goes back to the idea of knowing who you are – do you need to research how you would fit into what they do? Do you ever recommend looking at similar artists?

Amber: All the time.

Marc: Why do you recommend that?

Amber: In order to get an idea of which world you exist in. Figuring out which similar artists exist in your world and seeing who’s supporting them is a great way to find people who could also support you.

Marc: Let’s talk collaboration – what’s your take on that? Is it an effective tool for exposure or overused? 

Amber: I think collaborations are the best! It’s the fastest way to grow on streaming platforms – every label knows that. If you look at the Billboard Top 100 now versus 20 years ago, there are so many more collaborations. You’ll also learn so much by working with another artist. So long as it makes sense for you and your vision, only good things can happen by working with other people.

Marc: Should you have criteria when looking for or seeking out collaborations? You shouldn’t do them all, right?

Amber: Yeah, it goes back to your strategy. That strategy will be the filter for everything that you do. 

Marc: What kinds of genres do you love to work on?

Amber: I’ll work across everything except country and gospel since I don’t have expertise in those areas. It’s not so much about the genre for me. It’s more about the artist. Like I said before, I like to work with artists who have a really strong vision because I find that collaboration way more natural. That being said, the main genres I work across are electronic, pop, hip hop and alternative. 

Marc: I see! So using pop & hip hop as references – even though they’re different genres, would you generally start in the same place and then differentiate in the details?

Amber: Well, you can’t give the same marketing plan to a pop and hip hop artist, but you would generally start in the same place where you start mapping out the scene you exist in, your strategy and identifying which collaborations and partnerships you need. 

After that, then, you can map the creative ideas with those opportunities. Strategy principles sit above channels and trends, so what you do in that phase remains the same. Once you get down to the channels, that’s where the nuances happen.

Marc: Amber, I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me; thanks so much! Hopefully, at some point, we’ll get to meet in person.

Amber: Bye Marc, thank you!

To watch all of Byta’s #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation videos back, head to our YouTube channel here!

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