RetroHash by Asher RothIn April, rapper Asher Roth released his second album, RetroHash. His first album was released by a major label, but he put out this one independently, following an open letter explaining his desire to release music directly to his fans.

Asher is an acquaintance of mine and supremely talented. We came into contact when I was putting together a panel about fan interaction for a conference. He’s a digitally savvy, fan-centric artist, and I love watching him interact with his community via social media. He’s the opposite of arrogant.

I was really impressed with how RetroHash was distributed online, and I think the music industry as a whole should follow Asher’s lead. I would describe his strategy as a best-of-all-worlds approach that put the music in the places where people actually consume music, rather than forcing fans into a particular box. I want to walk through the layers of this strategy, as I see them.

Selling Direct

Earlier this month, I wrote that most music artists routinely give away their most valuable resource and don’t even realize it. The resource is their relationship with their fans. Most artists are all too happy to push their fans off onto some third party intermediary that owns the relationship.

The easiest example is iTunes. When you send a fan to iTunes to buy an album, iTunes keeps 30% of the revenue – and 100% of the relationship. The revenue isn’t a big deal, but the relationship is everything.

Asher utilized Topspin Media to sell the album (as well as other merchandise) directly. This allows him to keep more of the money and, more importantly, to know who is supporting his art. He owns the fan data, which is so powerful. It allows Asher to connect with fans more directly and make smarter decisions as far as how best to serve those fans.

Popular Music Retailers

While I am an advocate for directly connecting with your fans, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t release your album on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and other stores.

A dedicated fan might know exactly where to go to buy your album directly from you. But that isn’t true of casual or potential fans. A casual fan might hear your song somewhere, or a friend might recommend they check you out. In those cases, that fan will fall back on their habits: they will go to wherever they normally go to consume music. And if that is a legitimate service, like iTunes or Amazon, your music should probably be there. In general, you want to make it easier for fans to consume your music legally – not harder.

If you ignore third party sellers, you cut off a lot of sales and a lot of fans who are trying to do the right thing and buy your work. If they can’t find your album in the place where they go for music, they become more likely to pirate it. Which is why it is great that RetroHash was released on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.

Popular Streaming Services

Taylor Swift’s decision to pull out of Spotify received a lot of press, but it’s unclear (and, in my opinion, unlikely) that it led to an increase in revenue or legal consumption of her music. With Spotify leading the way, the growth of streaming services simply cannot be denied. In 2013, according to IFPI, subscription and ad-supported streaming services accounted for 27% of all digital music revenue. That was up from 9% in 2008. The number almost certainly grew again in 2014. That is the reality of the market.

Spotify has had a very positive impact on piracy. They are convincing (some) people to place a financial value on music again. People who previously haven’t paid for music at all are signing up for their service because of the library and the ease of use. The free, ad-supported tier of Spotify, which Swift and others object to, is a key part of convincing people to become paying subscribers. 80% of Spotify subscribers began as free users, according to CEO Daniel Ek.

If a fan goes to Spotify to listen to your music and doesn’t find it, do you think they are more likely to buy it – or to pirate it?

Smartly, Asher released RetroHash on Spotify, Rdio, Beats Music, Pandora, Deezer and elsewhere.

YouTube and SoundCloud (and Going Where the People Are)

Credit: Incase (CC BY 2.0)

Credit: Incase (CC BY 2.0)

The strategies I have discussed so far are pretty common, when it comes to major music retailers and streaming services. Most artists utilize these options. Some sell music directly – though not nearly enough (and few have a real strong concept for the power of fan data). But what really cemented Asher’s distribution strategy, to me, was when I saw that he had uploaded the album, in full, to both SoundCloud and YouTube.

That’s not regular. It’s not normal. Not for an artist that has sold as many records as Asher has. A single on SoundCloud or YouTube? Sure. But the whole album? No. Certainly not on release day. But it’s genius, and it comes back to the overall theme of this entire piece, which is understanding the reality of the market and going to where the people are.

So far, the audio only videos he uploaded to YouTube have received 622,470 views (minus one song, which was not uploaded). Meanwhile, songs from the album have been streamed 878,163 times on SoundCloud.

The YouTube Dilemma

Understand this: people will upload your songs to YouTube on their own. Right or wrong. It’s not a matter of if, only when. What is your response? YouTube has copyright tools that can allow you to claim videos and serve ads on them – or pull them down entirely. Do you fight by attempting to block the way that many people naturally consume music these days?

Or do you fight by making it available in an official, legal way, on a channel you control? If you do it that way, you have full access to the stats. You’ll drive more subscribers to your YouTube channel. You can monetize the videos if you want. You can provide links to buy the album, buy tickets on your tour or whatever else. This is a proactive approach, not a reactive one.

Google places heavy emphasis on YouTube in their search results. “Something for Nothing” is a RetroHash album cut. Because of Asher’s smart, simple YouTube play, guess what happens when I search “Asher Roth Something for Nothing” on Google? The audio only clip on Asher’s official channel pops up, big and bold, as the first result. It appears above lyric sites and above sites offering their own mp3 downloads of his song.

This is big. Google controls 88.79% of online search marketshare. For Asher to be #1 for all of his songs – it totally shifts how those search results work, and it does so in Asher’s favor. Most people will never look past the audio clip posted on his official channel. They’ll simply go there and enjoy – legally, with Asher’s approval. They’ll be more connected to him – and vice versa.

It’s a masterstroke, and it amazes me how few artists take full advantage of this.

The same is true for SoundCloud, in a different way. Their monetization options are in their infancy, but the music lovers are there. People who upload snippets to SoundCloud don’t get SoundCloud. It’s a community of passionate music listeners, and full songs are the norm. People will upload your music if you don’t. So, again, how do you deal with that? By going where the fans are, by offering them the music and connecting to them directly, which gives you the opportunity to ask for their support.

The Reality of the Market

D.A. Wallach, artist-in-residence at Spotify and a successful recording artist in his own right, shared an interesting story on Facebook recently.

He spoke to a group of forty underprivileged high school students, about business and entrepreneurship. He asked how many of them had ever paid for music. Two had. 2 out of 40. One of them was a subscriber of a digital music service. The other pays for downloads. Almost all of the kids said they listened to music on YouTube.

The music industry is clouded by the past, by anger over illicit services like Napster. Interestingly, D.A. noted that not a single one of the 40 kids even knew what Napster was. We have to let go and accept the market as it is.

That’s the reality. You can wish that it was something else. You can hope music sales go back to their peak from the late 1990s. Or you can embrace where we are at right now and be where the people are. Whether they want to buy your album, stream it or just discover it.

Asher Roth has embraced the people – and it’s so smart. I hope more artists follow his example.

Asher just released the retrospectively-styled music video for “Be Right,” one of my favorite cuts off RetroHash. Watch it below.