Interview with Believe & TuneCore CCO Jonathan Gardner (Cybercultural 6-14-2019)

Early subscribers may recall that I wrote about TuneCore in a previous newsletter about music distribution. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Gardner had signed up to Cybercultural and so he reached out to introduce himself after reading my piece. Soon after, we arranged a virtual meeting (Gardner is based in New York City and I’m in Wellington, New Zealand).

Note: I’ve edited Gardner’s comments for clarity and length, plus added my own thoughts and any relevant contextual information. Let me know if you’re happy with this format for future interviews I do with industry experts.

The first thing I asked Gardner was how Believe and TuneCore work together? Both companies are digital music platforms that, at first glance, appear to provide the same set of services: online music distribution, marketing services, revenue data, analytics, and so on.

In fact the two companies were rivals before Paris-based Believe acquired the Brooklyn, New York-based TuneCore in 2015.

Gardner explained the current set-up:

“Believe is building a new kind of model for the music industry, and really a new kind of company. It’s very much in the label services space – or some people call it artist services – and has been integrating various really valuable components of the music industry.”

Gardner stressed the transition from “label services” to “artist services” several times to me, so it’s clearly a key point. Indeed, you could make an argument that Believe / TuneCore is a new kind of record label for the digital era.

What ‘artist services’ means now

Traditionally, record labels have been the ‘middleman’ between the artist and their audience. It was the record label that promoted the artist, sold the music, got the music played on radio, etc. Record labels still exist of course, and some are very influential, but in this era artists can control a lot of the distribution, sales and promotional work by themselves.

For example, streaming has largely taken over radio as the primary way people discover and listen to music, and artists can easily distribute their music directly to internet platforms like Spotify and Pandora.

However, while a record label as intermediary has arguably become less necessary in the digital era, artists still need help with distribution, sales and marketing. Much of that work is digital nowadays, requiring technical expertise, data analysis tools, an affinity with social media, and so on. And that’s where Believe and TuneCore come in.

While artist services has become a new staple business in the digital era, that’s not to say record labels aren’t still a key cog in the system. In fact, record labels continue to hold many advantages for artists; it’s just that it comes at a revenue and control cost. The three major labels – Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group – still hold a tremendous amount of power in the music industry, including over all the main streaming platforms (who have signed deals with the big three).

Believe’s ‘hybrid record label’ model

So no, record labels are far from dead. In fact, Believe has itself acquired at least a couple of them. In August 2016, it purchased French label Naïve and last October it bought a majority stake in German metal label Nuclear Blast.

Gardner explained a little more to me about how Believe and TuneCore operates.

“Believe has probably over 1500 employees at this point, and is growing quite fast. It’s diversifying across the area of services for artists, and that’s why TuneCore is a pretty integral part of it.

You can think of it like this…you’ve got Believe and then under that you have various services and subsidiaries. You have the labels [that Believe owns], and then TuneCore to fulfil the artist direct piece of it – the distribution for independent artists and also for smaller labels that distribute through us, etcetera, and then that is part of the global Believe distributional platform.”

One example of this is the newly launched Aspire program, a joint TuneCore/Believe program that Gardner says “helps independent artists reach global audiences and take their careers to the next level.”

“This is something I feel passionate about,” Gardner said, “and I worked with the team to create and roll out a marketing and communications campaign for it in May.”

Interestingly, part of the Aspire promotional text positions Believe as a label that artists can sign to:

“Distribute with TuneCore and sign a deal with Believe, one of the biggest names in music.”

Seen from that point of view, Aspire is basically a talent discovery program for Believe – using TuneCore data to help identify hot prospects.

In a promotional video (embedded below), the artist Ayelle called the program a “hybrid between a label and distribution platform” that allows her to “remain independent” and “be in charge of my product.”

It all does come back to the question of whether an artist needs a record label. The “hybrid” approach of Believe aside, Jonathan Gardner thinks the artist can do it using the suite of tools available at TuneCore.

“Right now,” he said, “if you wanted to make as much money as possible from your music – on your own, basically without a label – there are a lot of tools out there to do it. But we shoulder the hard technological work for artists, so they can focus on creating.”

What artists can glean from streaming data

I wanted to dig a bit more into how TuneCore works in the streaming ecosystem. So I asked Gardner whether it was difficult to get accurate and thorough streaming data for artists? I had in mind the opaqueness of Netflix, which doesn’t reveal some of its streaming data to content providers. Do music streaming companies like Spotify make such data easy to access and figure out?

“It’s not that it’s a challenge to get the data from the digital service providers,” he replied, “it’s more about taking the massive amounts of data you’re getting from disparate sources and aggregating and providing a layer of analytics.”

Gardner pointed out that Believe and TuneCore are global organizations with “hundreds of thousands of artists” and relationships with more than 150 digital stores and streaming providers. So it’s more the sheer volume of data – and sometimes disparity of data formats – that is the challenge for TuneCore.

But Gardner says the data TuneCore collects is more than sufficient to “help [artists] expand the reach of their music” and find “new markets and audiences.”

He provided a couple of examples:

  • An artist sees that sales for her latest songs are growing in Wellington and some nearby cities, so thinks perhaps she should tour there.
  • An artist’s back catalog seems to be getting a lot of attention from a segment of the audience in New York, so maybe he should promote his newer tracks to that audience.

What tools does a music industry CCO use?

Finally, I was curious to know what digital tools of the trade Gardner himself uses, as head of communications for Believe and TuneCore.

“So I’ve been in marketing communications for a long time and the general philosophy about marketing or communications is something that you develop throughout your career and that doesn’t change. My style of doing it, the way I engage with people, the way I work to engage audiences, the approach I take doesn’t change. But the tools and the channels evolve over time.

Doing the communications for TuneCore and Believe, I think Twitter is incredibly important – because we’re trying to reach a committed audience of business watchers from a consumer perspective. When we’re marketing ourselves to the 250,000 customers that TuneCore has, and to all the artists and labels that Believe is working with, there’s a lot of Instagram and Facebook [in addition to Twitter], there’s a lot of email marketing that we do, a lot of on-site communications, and we produce a ton of content.

A big part of Gardner’s job is to market the services of Believe and TuneCore to potential customers – that is, musicians. Media relations and industry insights is a key component of that, he says.

“We focus a lot on media relations, we do big media relations campaigns around industry insights that we have around data analytics – announcements and things like that. But our main way of reaching potential customers is through the content we produce. We produce an incredible amount of content. Our blog gets articles published all over the place, with tips and tricks for artists, how-to’s, ‘here’s how I created an independent career’. We produce content that gets published in a lot of industry publications, or publications for musicians.”

But the most powerful marketing tool for driving customer acquisition at Believe and TuneCore, says Gardner, is the customer testimonial.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had some very high profile musicians speak about how we’ve helped them in their career.”

Thanks Jonathan for the enlightening discussion! You can follow him on Twitter for further music industry insights.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I did conducting it. I plan to bring you many more industry interviews and insights over time on Cybercultural.

Lead image taken from a TuneCore promo video.

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