Music DIY goes digitalAugust 16, 2013: 9:48 AM ET
Platforms like Shoutabl and CASHmusic are helping even the most numbers-averse musicians manage their online marketing in one place.
By Miles Raymer
FORTUNE -- Anyone who's read at any length about the new, digitally-based music business paradigm knows that it's entirely possible for an artist or group to make a living in a post-label world where album sales are no longer the industry-sustaining cash cow they once were.
According to a vast number of trend pieces, all you need is a robust social network of fans, a killer marketing concept, and a Kickstarter campaign to become the next Amanda Palmer, who last year raised over a million dollars from her fans that funded a self-released album, Theatre is Evil, that made it to number 10 on the Billboard 200 chart.
The problem is that musical ability and a knack for marketing aren't necessarily connected -- for every master salesman like David Bowie there's a reclusive Neil Young who is just as musically gifted but can barely be bothered to take a publicity photo. Or, as Shoutabl co-founder Travis Donovan puts it, "These days when you start a band, you're just inundated with all of these places you feel you need to be. It's so fragmented, it's so disconnected, and artists have moved away from the idea that they're a valuable destination, that they can curate a community around themselves without handing over that community to Twitter or Facebook, who really don't care about your financial interests."
"My example is always Tune-Yards," says his partner, Travis Morrison. "She's the most interesting American musician working, and her website is like an image with links to her Facebook (FB) and Twitter accounts. Her front page should be the most interesting website in American music. It's not right."
Shoutabl, currently in beta, is Donovan and Morrison's attempt to apply the digital strategies they learned while working at the Huffington Post toward solving self-marketing for the Neil Youngs of the world. The platform allows users without programming skills to assemble customizable websites that can host content from musicians' social networking accounts and a basic built-in blogging setup, as well as offering a simple way to push content back out through those same accounts, as well as serving media hosted on sites like YouTube (GOOG) and SoundCloud.
On top of their experience pushing content for HuffPo, Donovan and Morrison both have real-world experience promoting their own bands. Donovan was a member of the Phoenix metalcore band Not Quite Bernadette. Morrison was the frontman for a dancey, punk-influenced Washington, D.C. outfit called the Dismemberment Plan back in the 1990s, and he has been using technology to help manage the band's business since "just as email was becoming legit." The group recently reunited -- they'll release Uncanney Valley, their first new album in 12 years, in October. Shoutabl is a direct reflection of his experience in the new independent music business.
"There's this huge pile of B-plus products for artists' needs," says Morrison. The multiple products don't individually provide a comprehensive solution for marketing one's music. Bands can host tracks on SoundCloud, sell them through BandCamp, communicate with fans on Twitter, and advertise live appearances on Facebook. Bouncing between sites that solve only part of a problem is a hassle many artistic types just don't want to deal with. "I hate doing it, and I'm a power user," Morrison says. "It's exhausting! I mean God forbid you actually try to set up a WordPress instance!"
Helping technically un-savvy musicians get operational online is a growing field. "There seems to be a whole set of expectations, and a whole set of businesses, built around that concept," says Maggie Vail, former vice-president of the influential indie label Kill Rock Stars. Last year Vail left the label to become co-executive director of CASH Music, a nonprofit developing free, open source software intended to give musicians, "the most basic layer of music technology: things like digital sales, physical sales, and email collection, basic things that artists need to run their website," as well as an educational curriculum to show them how to apply it. "The technology isn't difficult," she says. "There's no real reason why someone connecting your PayPal account to an Amazon S3 should be taking 15% of your money. That's a manager's cut." (Shoutabl offers physical and digital sales via Topspin Media, which charges a 15% fee but doesn't take its own cut.)
As well as pulling together assorted "B-plus products" into one platform, Shoutabl also adds in services with the potential to produce the online equivalent of music scenes which in the past have been defined largely by geographical proximity. "Artists are becoming more business-independent," Morrison says, "but they don't want to be on their own culturally, they don't want to be on their own socially." Musicians can not only find and connect with each other in the way that SoundCloud does (and MySpace once did), they can also combine resources and promote each other.
For instance, the Dismemberment Plan has a Shoutabl page, Morrison has one for his solo work and another for his other band, the Burlies, and assorted members of both groups have their own projects. Shoutabl lets each of them "exploit the Venn diagram" (as Morrison says) of their overlapping fan bases. With their permission, the Dismemberment Plan can, for instance, push blog content announcing Uncanney Valley's release date to the pages of each act associated with them. Bands also can use an advertising system baked into the platform to serve targeted ads on each others' pages. Donovan calls it the digital version of someone onstage telling the audience to check out their friend's upcoming show, a way to magnify the scope of a marketing campaign while maintaining an organic sense of community. Combined with the ability to sell merchandise through Shoutabl pages, it can provide an easy way to monetize their work that few platforms can match. Eventually Donovan and Morrison would even like to see networks of musicians using the platform to launch collective fundraising efforts, for instance to underwrite the launch of a record label.
The ultimate goal of Shoutabl is essentially to empower musicians with the skills of an advertising or marketing professional, without them actually having to learn those skills, and to allow the ones who weren't born with innate gifts for self-publicity to concentrate their energy on simply making music.
"Artists aren't Internet experts," Donovan says, "but we kind of are."
"A lot of what we're doing," Donovan continues, "is taking strategies that we know, that are proven to work really well at pushing out content, and we're trying to ease bands and artists into these best practices. We're trying to kind of subtly teach them best practices or just to do them for them so they don't have to think about it."
Morrison laughs: "The idea of even making a musical artist say the words 'best practices!'"