As new forms of media continue to evolve, it's important for musicians to stay current with the latest digital-media technology. By staying up-to-date, musicians can take advantage of work or publicity opportunities that arise, putting themselves on the cutting edge of new media trends. To get an inside take on the most recent happenings in digital media, I spoke with KamranV, the head of marketing for Universal Music Mobile. Before holding his current position, KamranV was involved with new-media production, new formats, and mobile technology at Interscope Records. In this interview, he gives his take on ringtones, podcasting, music for mobile games, and musician Web sites.
What's now the most cutting-edge development at the labels?
FIG. 1: Moderati.com is a content aggregator that makes it possible for independent artists to distribute ringtones.
Ringtones. [That technology] went from something that nobody was paying attention to, to becoming a major part of the marketing and sales for artists — particularly the bigger artists, like 50 Cent.
Are video ringtones are on the horizon?
Broadband “3G” services, which are DSL or cable-modem speed services that can take advantage of video, are already available. But video hasn't been accepted in the mass market yet. Later this year, there will be new services that focus on the video/broadband experience. By the beginning of next year, video/broadband will be all over the place; almost every cell-phone carrier will have something going on in that area.
Now that ringtones are moving into audio and video formats, will there be opportunities involving those types of products for non-major-label artists?
At this point, because carriers are in control of the distribution, 90 percent of our sales come through the major carriers, such as Verizon, Sprint, Cingular, Virgin Mobile, and T-Mobile. Currently, mobile-music buyers in the U.S. prefer to make purchases through their carriers. For the most part, it's the major acts within the major labels that are doing it right now. On the other hand, “out-of-garden” sales [sales of ringtones and other digital items independent of the carrier's store] are gaining popularity, such as Jamster [www.jamster.com] and other Web-to-phone delivery methods.
I understand that you can purchase ringtones by text messaging short codes. Can you explain what short codes are?
A short code is similar to a Web URL for a mobile phone. For example, one of our artists, The Game, has the short code 90220. If you text message an instruction to that short code, the site that the code is accessing will send you some form of a response — text, an image, a ringtone, and so on.
Using a short code provides a more direct out-of-garden experience. If there is a sale involved, the sale amount can be charged to the music buyer's cell-phone bill without he or she having to go to the carrier's ringtone store, thus making billing easy. Additionally, the artist doesn't have to compete for space in the carrier's store. If I'm an independent artist, for example, all of the marketing of my short code comes from me: I put the short code on my CD, in my advertising, wherever I want it to go, just like a URL. Since right now it's very costly to lease, host, and manage a ringtone store on your own, there are mobile content aggregators that can help.
What do aggregators do for independent acts?
They provide distribution. It's similar to the early days of downloads when bands were doing deals directly with Rhapsody, Napster, the Orchard, and IODA. You'd get distribution, but it didn't necessarily mean you'd get great placement or sales. The bottom line is that your fans can access your music in new and exciting ways.
So if you are an independent act playing a show, you can announce to your fans that if they text message a particular short code, they can download digital files such as ringtones?
Yes. As 3G/broadband networks roll out their services to cell-phone customers, there will be more demand for open-sales channels such as short codes from the carrier's consumers, ultimately opening more sales channels for independent artists.
What are some of the aggregators out there?
Infospace is one [www.infospaceinc.com/mobile]. It's one of the larger ones. There is also Moderati [www.moderati.com], which is fantastic (see Fig. 1). That company works with us and deals with indie labels as well.
Is there a market for originally composed music in the mobile-media field?
Yes. There are several mobile-games manufacturers that create original themes for their games, including big companies such as Jamdat [http://www.jamdat.com, THQ http://www.thq.com] and Sony Pictures Mobile [http://www.sonypictures.com/mobile].
How is podcasting affecting the music business?
Podcasting is like an audio magazine: it is a media outlet rather than a music-distribution system, allowing you to contextualize music with editorial. Adam Curry, a former MTV VJ, has been podcasting his show — which introduces new bands and discusses current music events — for a long time.
What about independent bands — why can't they podcast their own material?
They could, but the difference is that you've got to have an audience. Podcasting is like a magazine subscription — there has to be a number of people who want to receive the information that you're distributing on a regular basis.
Let's talk about musician Web sites. What are some of the better Web sites on which independent artists can post their music?
A really powerful one is MySpace [www.myspace.com]. It's been around for about a year and a half, and independent artists immediately gravitated toward it, making MySpace profiles, putting up music, and doing amazing grassroots development of their careers. MySpace has even worked with major artists. Nine Inch Nails, for example, premiered its new record on MySpace.
How does MySpace work?
FIG. 2: Sites such as Purevolume.com (below) and Myspace.com offer a free, community-based Web presence for musicians.
It's a free service, and what attracts people to it is not necessarily the music — it's the community. It's a tight community of passionate people. If your band is currently on the road, and you have a MySpace community, you can post messages saying “Hey, we're coming through town. Does anyone have a couch that we can crash on?” Or, “We're in town and our tire blew out. Does anyone live around here?” You can let people know what's happening; it's similar to a regular Web site.
Can you think of any other sites that are good for independent artists?
Another good one is Purevolume [www.purevolume.com]. It's a great music-discovery outlet (see Fig. 2). Purevolume is focused on music, whereas MySpace is focused on community — music is just part of the lifestyle.
I know from personal experience that figuring out how to put together a musician site and finding the right host can be confusing.
Making a Web site — I've been doing it for a long time now — is not the easiest thing to do well. That's why sites like MySpace are so effective. You don't need to find a host, get a domain name, design a site, learn flash, and learn HTML to post your work. But an official Web site [as opposed to a site like MySpace or Purevolume] lets fans explore the band on an even deeper level. Official sites have longer bios, more photos, press information, videos, and so on. MySpace is just one page, and if you put too much stuff on that one page, it will be kind of annoying.
Something like MySpace is good as a supplement, but a serious act really needs its own site, as well.
Yes. And if you don't know how to do it, [hiring someone to do it for you] can be very expensive. For independent artists, it's definitely a commitment, but it's also a necessity.
Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.