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WebWatch: Podcomplex

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Podcomplex is a free online music distribution and information resource for musicians, regularly updated with music technology news, observations on the music industry, promotion strategies for independent artists and tips for getting the most out of your studio. BAMM sat down for a chat with creator Dan Foley.

What inspired you to start your blog?

A number of factors came together really; I had been making music for quite a few years, and it seemed to me that the Internet offered the best way of getting in touch with people who might share my interests. Back in 2006, I wanted to learn more about blogging, so I started a blog about something I was interested in – music technology. This also provided a chance for me to keep my hand in with writing on a regular basis. It’s particularly important for a blog to be updated regularly – after all, that’s what makes it a blog – and I found that forcing myself to write posts according to a schedule actually increased my engagement with what was going on in the wider community.

Initially, I wrote a new post every weekday, but lately I’ve dropped off to writing one every fortnight or so. I began to develop Podcomplex as a technical learning exercise also; first by hand-coding HTML pages, then by using WordPress to run the blog (requiring forays into SQL, PHP and Javascript), and later by incorporating a Joomla section for the OMS database. So as well as providing information for like-minded musicians (and keeping myself up do date with music technology) developing the blog also increased my knowledge of technical skills required to have an effective web presence.

Do you feel there’s a growing online community of musical artists/producers who are eschewing the traditional music industry? And do you think digital technology has allowed the music industry to become more ‘democratised’?

Definitely. I always knew it would be difficult to get a record deal for my music – and that terms of record deals are not exactly very artist-friendly anyway – so it seemed a far better option to set up my own label and self-release (Podcomplex Records was probably the main driver behind setting up my site in the first place). I later discovered this was a similar idea to what inspired Derek Sivers to set up CD Baby, but Derek took CD Baby to a level that essentially redefined independent music distribution in the digital age.

I hope that CD Baby continues to provide great services to independent musicians now that Derek has left the company (and I’m sure it will), but there are few individuals who have had such a profound impact on the democratisation of the music industry. As well as availing of services like that (which have the advantage of getting independents into the iTunes store), anybody can now set up their own website and make their music available to download to the entire world; or add their tunes to any of a plethora of music aggregation sites.

How do you think the ‘old school’ music industry is dealing with emerging technology?

The major disadvantage the major labels had is that they actually became too big, and too corporate. While this used to be their strength, large corporations tend to react very slowly to change, whatever industry they might be in. Computers and the Internet have revolutionised many industries, but their impact on how we perceive, create and consume music has been particularly profound, and occurred over a timeframe that required speedy decision making in order to stay ahead of the curve. This simply wasn’t possible for the legacy music industry behemoths, and so they tried to stifle change as much as possible, while trying to figure out how to deal with the new environment which had sprung up around them practically overnight.

It’s understandable that they would want to protect a cash cow that had been so lucrative for several decades, but actions such as suing people for illegally downloading mp3s via P2P are certainly not making them any friends, and is actually doing nothing to address the underlying sea-change in music consumption (which is the real issue). Apple seem to have a viable strategy in place, with their hardware devices tied into a walled-garden type of marketplace in the form of the iTunes store, which makes it remarkably convenient for users to purchase all forms of media. While I personally have plenty of reservations about this model, from a corporate point of view it is very clever, and shows there is still great potential for selling music to consumers – though at a more granular level than the ‘golden age’ of AOR.

Do you think cross-platform/multimedia production increasingly important within music-making? And digital marketing too? What are some great strategies for bands to gain exposure online? Is this a field in which the ‘rules’ are constantly shifting?

The more channels you can use to promote your music, the greater your chances of making a breakthrough. YouTube has become an essential music tool, and although you can cobble together a music ‘video’ quickly by using a couple of still images (which is the minimum presence a band should have on YouTube), a good video can make all the difference – as the viral success of OK Go’s treadmill video demonstrated, for example. Ultimately, anything you can do to create an impact and present a professional image of yourself is going to be beneficial – so expertise in image processing, video editing and graphic design should certainly be leveraged. If you don’t have these skills yourself, you can learn them (if you have the time) or get your friends to help out – but don’t be afraid to use Web based outsourcing sites such as 99designs or elance, if required.

Nowadays, a more holistic approach needs to be taken – you can’t just sell a record, you need to combine your efforts down as many routes as possible, merging the music itself with the live performance experience, with t-shirts and merchandise, with USB key versions of your album, mp3 downloads included with your vinyl, extra artwork, behind the scenes videos, everything becomes part of the bundle that makes your fans want to give you their support.

As for digital marketing, returning to the topic of blogging, it’s important to look at how SEO (search engine optimisation) could be used from a music promotion standpoint. On the Internet, the old adage that ‘content is king’ is still relevant – if you start by creating high quality content, you’re on the right track. However, the Internet runs on traffic – and to get that traffic, you need to be ranking well on search engines.

I actually made a microsite on this subject a while ago (linkdisco.com) which provides a free ebook introducing the concept of SEO for music. The dynamic is changing somewhat now, with the growing power of social network referrals, but it’s still important to build a network of inbound links (ideally from relevant and trusted sites), and to have an awareness of keyword targeting. Facebook and Twitter obviously have great potential for music promotion, but creating a presence on as many networks as possible (especially if they are music focused) is essential. The decline of MySpace is testament to how quickly the balance of power can shift online, so keeping ahead of an online media strategy can be a full time job in itself.

Who are you listening to right now?

I like Brian Eno’s new album Small Craft on a Milk Sea (with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams), and Four Tet’s There is Love in You is immense. Incidentally, Kieran Hebden also crafted a brilliant remix of the Jon Hopkins’ track, Vessel. Other ear winners of late are Caribou, Bonobo, Amon Tobin, The Black Keys and Tom Waits. The last gig I was at was Other Lives, which was superb.

Along similar lines, are there any particular tech/media entities who you feel are doing great work at the moment?

I first heard of Ian Rogers when he was in charge of music at Yahoo!, so I was quite interested to see how he got on with Topspin. I think Topspin is one of the pioneers in terms of finding a viable balance between the legacy model of music (where artists can actually make a living from music) and the realities of music in the digital age (where music itself has been commoditised by its infinite distribution potential). Topspin provides plenty of useful information for artists, and services that enable more effective direct-to-fan engagement. There’s still a great deal of uncertainty and flux in this market, but I think there are some very tuned-in people working for Topspin, so it’s one to keep an eye on.

Read more from Dan over at Podcomplex.

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