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When an Experiment Fails - Wrong Approach, or Just Giving Up Too Early

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As a visual artist, I find the articles posted to TechDirt very interesting and inspiring, but rarely do they seem relevant to my own practice and business models.  But I still really want to put some of these great ideas in action! 
While I can't try out all these ideas myself, as someone who is friends with a lot of musicians, I have access to the perfect set of lab rats!
In my many conversations with these friends about how to "do it yourself", "connect with fans", give fans "reasons to buy", and "avoid the middlemen", I've become sort of a middleman myself, with one friend asking me to plan an experiment for him to follow, and if it succeeds, he will throw me a percentage of the cash that comes from my scheme.
Finally, my chance to put a Tech Dirt idea to the test!
This friend is a folk singer, his songs are very visual and melancholy, but what really makes him shine is his hilarious stage demeanour, and his wonderful improv abilities. He can make up a song on the spot describing what is going on in the TV, or on the dance floor, or about a recent news item, and to the casual listener, the quality of these improvised bits are just as good as his "real" songs.  He is very much a "I don't care, just let me take the stage, play what I want to play" kind of musician, with no interest in the promotion/logistics/marketing side of things.
The Plan:
Once a week, you will record and release a fun improvised song to YouTube/SoundCloud/your website.  This song should be timely, personalized, auto biographical, dealing with current events, etc.  It is designed to be temporary, not timeless.
The improve songs should all have a consistent background; you should wear the same coloured shirt, and use the same guitar across the whole range of videos, so people can easily see that this is an improv song from the thumbnail alone.
At the end of every month, you will record and release a new proper song - not a studio recording, but a rough recording of a song that will later be recorded in studio.  Same background as the improve videos, but a different coloured shirt, and a different guitar each time, so people will know that something is different about this video from the thumbnail.
The first 3 months are Operation: Stay quiet.  Produce and publish content, but don't advertise it.  leave it for people to randomly stumble across. You don't want to advertise, have people love it, want to see more, and realize there is no backlog of content. No one wants to be the first to arrive at a party.  Let the backlog build up while no one is watching.
By the end of the 3rd month, at least 12 songs should be published.  Start advertising each new video over social media sites, get your friends on board.  Stick to the same schedule; keep on working away, publishing each new video to facebook/twitter, tumblr, etc.
At the end of the year, you will have 12 proper songs and 52 melodies and structures and ideas to play around with.  Use those 12 proper songs to cut a new album. Make a collection of your favourite 12 improved songs and sell digital versions online for cheap ($2 or so), with easy to find links back to YouTube for those who would rather listen and not pay.  People will still largely ignore the channel at this point, but a very small group of core fans should hopefully start to emerge.
In between all this, write some custom songs for friends and events.  Offer reasonable rates to record a custom song for anyone for any topic. Advertise this fact.
First month: Everything went as planned. 4 improved songs, 1 developed song, a few odd hits, nothing unusual.
Second Month: artist grows impatient. Is discouraged that no one is watching.  Writes more songs.  No developed, proper song is released this month. slightly more hits than last month, but nothing unusual.
Third Month: Artist grows impatient, begins posting new songs to facebook.  A much lower than expected number of friends follow through and watch the videos (they will drive an hour and pay $10 to watch him play live, but they wont click a button in facebook?!?!) Artist is discouraged.  No proper, developed song this month.
Fourth Month: only 2 improvised songs see the light of day this month. viewership drops. Artist gets discouraged.
Fifth Month: Artist comes back with 4 improvised songs, final song is announcing and advertising a tour.  Viewership stagnates.
No new videos have been posted beyond this point.
One year later: these videos are all set to private.  Viewership has, obviously, not grown.
The plan failed.
My Ideas for What Went Wrong:
Aside from the obvious giving up early and my possibly being too strict with the schedule, I think other external factors played a roll in the failure of this plan.
I would like to use the analogy of a new forest for a moment:  In YouTube's early days, all the shoots were the same height, and opportunity was fairly evenly spread.  But after several years, some of the stems have shot up into the sky, sucking up all the light and attention, leaving little for the others who have remained low to the ground.  I believe the established YouTube Megastars have fundamentally changed things on that format, making it vastly harder to break through and reach that critical mass needed for something big to happen.  Simply put, Just making and releasing good content isn't enough anymore.  Not by a long shot.
My plan might have had a shot 5 years ago during YouTube's Wild West days, but this time around, it was choked out by bigger, flashier things.  The music was good enough, the plan was open, easy, and accessible, just waiting for an audience to connect with it, but there wasn't anything remarkable about it, there was no publicity stunt, no magic thing to shock people, draw people in, or grab their attention.
I'm sure others can point out other mistakes that were made.  I urge you to point them out to me so I can learn for next time.  What went wrong?  What should have been done differently? What can be learned from this?
initiated Nov 20, 2012 in Connecting with Fans by Kyle Clements (2,460 points)   3 9 17

3 Responses

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Hi - first off, I hugely congratulate you on designing and trying this, and I congratulate you even more on writing about it. Wow. That's a risky and brave thing to do and having your story in my head has already helped me by knowing more stories about art on youtube.

I think there are a few problems that you ran into - one is the long timescale, and the commitment it takes to get through that work schedule. You were getting data from every video and the reaction to it, why not start learning and adjusting on the fly?

Another is about asking the existing fanbase what they think and what they want from the start. The people who already like this musician are the best resource for telling you what to try, and they'll be able to help you develop new projects, and refine existing ones.

I think the plan to put up videos and not promote them is really where it all falls down. Unless you're an SEO wizard on youtube, with descriptions, tags, etc., you're not going to get much if any traffic from posting without promoting. If any part of a marketing plan contains a whiff of "if you build it they will come" magical thinking, you're probably found the problem. Plus, not pushing the content to the existing fanbase meant that you don't get the information from those community members about what's great and not so great about the work.

The other thing for me about marketing experiments is that they ned to be designed to be *hard for the experimenter*. There's a lot of good information just sitting around, ready for you interpret it well and find great insights, and if you plan something with one of two outcomes (wild success or failure), you probably are leaving information on the table. There's more in there to study and learn from (how about looking at what happens when you post the videos in different places form week to week, or other faster response things?).

The hard work isn't in designing or running the experiments, it's in studying the crap out of what comes out of them and making adjustments on the fly. At least, I think that's the hard part.

Hope that's helpful.
response added Nov 21, 2012 by Kevin Clark (1,470 points)   4 8 14
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The reason for not promoting the videos at first was so that when we started activly promoting them, there would be a backlog of content for interested fans, they woudlnt be stuck with "just one song", but have a collection to tode them over.


That was the idea, at least.


I think the part of your comment where you really nailed the problem was when you suggested asking the established fans what they want.  This whole scheme was very top-down, very planned and delebrate, not an organig outgrowing of what the fans were asking for or wanting.


Thanks for the comment.
response added Nov 21, 2012 by Kyle Clements (2,460 points)   3 9 17
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It sounds like one of the problems is that either the artist wasn't fully bought into the plan or had some unrealistic expectations. Both of those things are always going to be likely and always going to be really tough to deal with.

Credit for sitting down and actually working and trying to follow through with the plan. We learn more from failures than we do from success most of the time.
response added Dec 7, 2012 by drew stephenson (3,370 points)   3 10 22
Following through with the plan rather than quitting early is definitely a factor here.

As someone who's been on YouTube for 6 years now, and only now had one of my videos go viral (despite never honestly expecting to have one) I know how critical it is to simply stay in the game long enough to chance to play a factor.

I spent a long time hammering in how "no one would watch any of this for a long time, but you've gotta see it though" but he still only stuck with it for a very short time before giving up.

It feels like a lot of the success stories I read about have an element of luck - great content and a great amount of preparation meet a lucky break, then magic happens!  It still feels like despite a lot of conversations here, there is a big missing piece, and I'd like to know what that is, so next time I can offer a friend a better plan.

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