Kevin Breuner has not only helped hundreds of musicians with their releases but is himself in the same trenches as a musician. In Part I Marc traces Kevin’s journey from being in a Grammy-nominated band to working with CD Baby. They also get into the acronym K I S S: Keep It Simple Stupid
Part I of II
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Marc Brown: Hey Kevin! Welcome to #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. Where are you talking to us from?
Kevin Breuner: Hi Marc, I’m in Atlanta, Georgia. The organisation Music Biz has an event here tonight and we’re sponsoring it. I’m speaking on a panel and giving a quick presentation about CD Baby.
Marc: I think you’re the first guest we’ve had who’s a musician who also works on the business side. Can you tell us, what it is you do exactly?
Kevin: I’m the SVP of artist engagement and education for CD Baby. We’re a music distribution company based out of Portland, Oregon which is where I live. At one point I was running the marketing department there but it got so big that we split it off into 2 branches so now my team really does all of the content marketing. That involves the podcasts, our blog, conferences & events and basically just anything related to content and outreach. We just started an influencer program that my team is building. All of that kind of stuff falls under my role.
Marc: Ok, now tell me about your band Smalltown Poets – that didn’t start in Portland, right?
Kevin: No it didn’t – I was living in Nashville but the band is actually based here in Atlanta so I travel here all the time. I went to Belmont University to study music and music business. I’m a guitar player so while I was there my roommate was friends with these guys in Atlanta who were looking for a guitar player. They already had a bunch of shows booked so I started playing with them and by the end of the summer we were signed to a label under the EMI umbrella and it grew from there. We had 4 albums on the label and then the band took a hiatus. After our break, we started making records and releasing songs independently with CD Baby. So we’ve been doing music together for almost 25 years.
Marc: What would you call the style of music you make?
Kevin: We have been compared to bands like Death Cab for Cutie nowadays, but back in the day we always got compared to the Gin Blossoms and Counting Crows or REM. Our producer, who produced our first two albums, also did Gin Blossoms’ records so it was a great experience working with him. When the band went on hiatus I thought that I was done with music, but then I started writing like crazy. We started recording music again. We came across CD Baby as a distributor and decided to use them, and then in 2006, I got a job here. I’ve been working here for almost 17 years now! So I have witnessed, firsthand, how much the music industry has grown, especially in the independent market.
Marc: Your band was also part of the Christian music scene back then, right?
Kevin: That’s right.
Marc: I think I remember that back in the ‘90s, that was a huge market – there were loads of different genres of bands who all fell under the umbrella of Christian music. Is that right?
Kevin: Yeah. It was actually a really exciting time! If you grew up in the church and listened to that kind of music, it completely exploded back then. All kinds of new bands and music that didn’t previously exist under that umbrella. A lot of those bands were also making it into the mainstream. We got pretty successful. We were nominated for a GRAMMY and multiple Dove awards (Christian Grammys).
Once worship music, as a genre, came out, a lot of people in the industry focused on that. We didn’t feel like we fit into that category. After we took our hiatus, we started recording music independently. We were faced with the challenge of finding our audience again. We had our classic fans from our first 2-3 records, but we’d grown and changed as artists and songwriters. Those older fans were kind of stuck in that original era. Finding a new audience is challenging. So I’m actually in the trenches too, along with all of the artists that come to CD Baby! So in my job, we see other artists finding success in various ways and we try to highlight and share those success stories and strategies through the content we produce at CD Baby.
Marc: Wow. To feel like you suddenly don’t know who your fans are is completely relevant to our discussion. It’s about finding out who you are as a band and how you can reach the people that you want to reach. So when you started at CD Baby, you spent most of your time talking to artists, right? What would you talk about?
Kevin: In 2006, the most common question I’d get was how to get signed to a label. We had been distributing digitally to iTunes (Apple Music) since 2004, but that concept was still brand new because they were still building and educating the consumer market about MP3 players. The independent market and the idea of going directly to your fans was still so new that a lot of those calls involved just helping people understand the opportunity and enforcing that it was accessible to them. So many new online platforms were emerging.
One of the main things that led me to launch the DIY podcast on CD Baby was the conversations I’d have with artists. They had some insights but more often I would walk them through how to build an audience themselves. That’s really important because today the label expects you to have already done that. The days of them picking out diamonds in the rough at a random club are over.
Some days I’d also talk to an artist who would have discovered YouTube and they’d say that they built a fanbase there, and don’t have to tour anymore. I’d ask them to tell me everything they knew and I’d take notes. I was a podcast junkie at the time, and I remember thinking that I wished I could record these talks and make them available. All of the information was so good. Those conversations ultimately led me to start our blog and the podcast.
Marc: What do you think the main differences are between the music landscape today and when you started?
Kevin: Well, there are definitely things that we did in the ‘90s that drove a lot of success that are still completely relevant today. The big thing that has really changed is streaming – there has been a fundamental shift in how consumers engaged with music. Everything up until that point required somebody to go to a store and know specifically what they were looking for. It was a purchase decision, and music was all categorized by genre and you had to know the artist to know what to purchase. Especially with physical media, if you weren’t selling you wouldn’t be on the shelf, so music also had a shelf life.
Streaming changed everything. People can now search by mood or activities. For example, I have 2 daughters who listen to a lot of music. I told them the other day that music was released on Fridays and they had no idea because that’s not how they think about it. Release dates are irrelevant because they listen to playlists, hear music in movies etc. The way music is shared and searched for is completely different.
Marc: Even though I knew all that, the way you’re saying it makes me feel like I don’t think about it enough. Do you talk to a lot of artists who don’t take that into account? Is it common for people to forget how people find and listen to music?
Kevin: Well yes. I talk to artists, all the time, who really wish the old ways were still in play. They still think of music as a purchaser decision from consumers. They’re focusing on getting people to buy their music. In the streaming world, the reality is that people don’t have to buy. What we’ve seen is an explosion in the independent sector because people can go listen to something new with fewer barriers. People have the ability to experiment and try new things much more easily. I tell my artists all the time that all you’re really trying to do is to get people to push a play/follow button which isn’t that hard.
Marc: Is it not that hard?
Kevin: Ha, OK – stick with me for a sec! It’s definitely easier than telling people to give you a dollar for something that they haven’t heard of before. All you’re doing is asking them to push the play button. In that space, it should be easier for artists to get creative and engage their fans. Oftentimes artists don’t think about the user and how they’re providing value for them. I’m guilty of it as well.
As artists, you’ve been through a long creative process especially if you’ve created something like an album. Once it’s done, you’re emotionally drained and you just want it out there. It gets really easy to just think about the end result that you want, as opposed to taking a breath and putting on your promotion hat and thinking about how you can create a storyline that makes it easier for people to want to push that button.
Marc: So the way I’m reading this is that there are two different things going on. The first is that you’re trying to create a level of curiosity. A lot of people do that with press releases, where they’ll put something that is kind of clickbait, but that doesn’t really achieve the goal because people get disappointed. But if you create a level of curiosity where people want to know more, then it works a lot better.
The second thing to think about is that you should focus on a single action that you want your audience to do. Is that right? Things are so chaotic these days, you can’t ask people to do a lot because they might get lost along the way.
Kevin: Yeah. I actually ask artists this a lot – what is it that they want their fans to do when running a campaign? I often can’t tell, because either they’re not being clear and direct, or not being interesting. You also don’t want to have too many steps for your fans to follow. When it comes to marketing, keep it as simple and easy as possible. Tell them what you want them to do in a creative way, but make it clear what the reason is. I like that you said “curiosity” because there’s a difference between curiosity and clickbait. Clickbait makes you feel sort of lied to – like false advertising.
Marc: Right! I’m thinking of that acronym – KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. Ok, so we’ve discussed how things have changed over time, with the increased competition and how people see music. What are the underlying fundamentals that you think are just as important as ever?
Kevin: Well, I think some of the things that drove our success was grassroots marketing. Our band had this manager who believed in grassroots marketing so he had us going out to see our fans in person all the time. We’d be doing acoustic sets at college centres, music stores, and on-air on radio stations. The reality is that you can always go directly to your fan base. The internet has made this even easier. You just need to learn how to tell a compelling story and present yourself in a way that’s interesting and then meet the people where they are.
Want to read on? Head to Part II here!