In part I (below), Amber talks about her own journey into and through the music ecosystem and starts to dig into her own theories on how independent artists should strategically approach their careers and release their music. Amber introduces the concept of “story”.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Marc Brown: So Amber, how did you start working in music? I think we always forget how hard it was to get into the industry, so I’m always curious to know how people got into it. I think you’ve been in music for about 15 years now?
Amber Horsburgh: Yeah! So I started at EMI in Australia as my first real music job, then I worked in digital and social media strategy with big EDM festivals in Australia. After that, I moved to New York and worked for MTV in digital strategy, so basically, my whole background has been in strategy with a focus on digital.
I’ve worked on the label side, the artist side, manager side, brand side and DSP side. By getting exposed to all of those elements of the business, I realised they’re all connected by digital strategy. Now I coach self-managed artists through my programs and teach them how to market and roll-out releases in the way that labels do.
Marc: One thing I wanted to discuss in detail is schooling. Did you go to school for music or music business?
Amber: No, I went to university for psychology and marketing.
Marc: I didn’t go to school, but when I met Jamie (who works for Byta), he was in university. I think things have changed over the last 20 years; before, it was uncool to go to school to learn about the music business, and that seems to have radically changed. So I wanted to get your vibe on that since in the music industry a lot of things are passed down from person to person – how did you decide to start doing music courses and put everything into your framework?
Amber: I was already writing an industry newsletter and had hit around 8,000 subscribers. I had always wanted to do something like that, so it was just more formalising it into a system that can help artists who are self-managed and self-releasing. The reason that I did it is because if you’re an artist, you’ve got a couple of different options on how you gain that knowledge.
On one side, you have major artists who are signed to a label and therefore have a ton of resources and people who are pushing their records. On the opposite side, there are hobbyist artists who do music as a hobby but have a day job and aren’t really trying to do music as a career. They’re also super well served because there’s lots of online communities for them like Reddit or YouTube.
The gap is with career artists. These are artists who do music as a full-time job and don’t have something to fall back on. Whatever their end goal is, there’s not a lot of resources at that career artist level, so I tried to do that with this program. For artists who want to self-manage and are serious about their careers, I want to give them a road map that makes the promotion side of making music less intimidating.
Amber: For most artists, I work with, time is the biggest problem – you have so much you need to do. You need to not only make great music but also turn around and promote the record, and the skills that it takes to create a great song aren’t the same as skills it takes to promote music.
In my course, I want to give artists a blueprint so that if they only have limited time, they are clear on what needs to be done. It really comes down to focus and how to best spend your time, particularly from a digital stance today.
Marc: Why do you think there is this gap?
Amber: We’re at this point where there’s a lot of knowledge sharing on the internet, but it’s all presented in the same medium, so it’s hard to tell what’s quality and what isn’t. Also, no two artists are the same, so no two marketing plans should be. If you’re searching online on how to best promote your music, you can get into this rabbit hole which can get overwhelming.
Marc: How does this knowledge aspect work in your course?
Amber: I have a new program that lasts 8 weeks. Basically, a cohort of artists come through and we talk about all sides of the industry, the seven people you need in your court and how that relates to your project. It also provides you with the tools you need to be able to pitch your music.
Your pitch is what gets people’s attention, not necessarily the music. If you’re able to pitch your music in a way that’s compelling to the person on the other end, you’re more likely to secure radio play, media coverage etc. That’s really what the program does. It’s also a good opportunity to connect with other artists.
Marc: That’s an interesting point you make. So you come from a digital background, and you believe that release marketing is the key?
Marc: Tell me about that; some people might think that is old school because there’s so many other ways.
Amber: Well, I think releases are your gateway into the music industry. It’s what you build your brand off of. If you don’t have the music, nothing else can happen. We’re in a very singles focused market, and I always encourage artists to treat each of those singles as a mini-campaign and come up with a blueprint for every release that’s repeatable. In doing so, every time you launch and relaunch, you learn so much more that will make your promotion more effective.
I think without interest in the music, the rest doesn’t matter. You do need brand building, but all of that happens through the way that you release and promote the music.
Marc: I totally agree. An artist’s currency is their music. That’s the thing that reaches everybody.
Amber: That’s the consumer experience too, like when you first hear the music, that’s what makes you fall in love. It’s the entry point into the artists’ brand.
Marc: I also think the idea of the 7 gatekeepers is interesting. So going back to the basics – if you’re a new artist, how do you know what the first step is? If you don’t know who you’re supposed to reach, how do you figure that out by yourself?
Amber: Like someone who hasn’t released any music?
Marc: Yeah, or someone who has released a few singles, but nothing has really happened. What are they supposed to do?
Amber: Before you get into promoting your music, you have to come up with your story. It can be simple – I encourage people to distil it into a headline or a tweet. It sounds simple, but it isn’t easy!
In doing this exercise, you will identify the world in which you want to exist by choosing the publication you see yourself in and identifying what makes you interesting. …then you get into the seven gatekeepers who can amplify your message and story and that is the step that a lot of artists don’t do.
Your vision can change over time but being really clear on what that vision is makes everything so much easier. When I was at a label, the artists that would have the most success were the ones who had a real vision and looked at the label as a partner to help them execute that vision. The artists that are the most challenging to work with are the ones who don’t really know what their brand is.
Marc: Can you sense that when you meet artists? Even if you connect with the music when you talk to artists, can you feel if they haven’t been through that journey themselves?
Amber: Yeah, definitely. It’s a more effective way to work with people too. Where you can say, “I have this idea”, and if people aren’t into it, you can find someone who is, instead of taking an idea and warping it into something neither party is really happy with.
There’s such a clear distinction between an artist with a vision versus an artist without one. Particularly with artists who are looking for managers. I always tell people not to get a manager until you know who you are because you’re always going to be the one who sets the strategy and cares the most about your work. You need to set the strategy and the creative and look for people who can bring your vision to life.
Marc: I think that advice about managers is amazing because you need to know what a manager does before you get a manager. At the end of the day, you’ll be the one who manages your manager.
Amber: Yeah, the best managers are the ones who are there to bring the vision to life and use their expertise and connections. Without the base strategy, this becomes really difficult.
Want to read on? Head to Part II here!