Introduction

In late March 2008, rock band R.E.M. debuted its 14th studio album, Accelerate, on iLike.com, a music-focused social networking site. Facebook 'fans' of the group received blurbs announcing the “World-Wide Listening Party.” Once logged onto iLike.com, listeners had the option to preorder the album via an iTunes link. Released on April 1, the album entered the Billboard charts at #2, even as individual tracks from the record, streaming for free on iLike.com, continued to dominate iLike's 'most shared' list. Although the promotion was a first for iLike, R.E.M. had staged a similar album preview on MySpace with its 2004 release, Around the Sun. Embracing new media has only paid off for the band: Accelerate marked R.E.M.'s highest Billboard debut since 1986's New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

The R.E.M. approach exemplifies the networked nature of music marketing in the digital age. With tens of millions of teens and young adults utilizing social networking sites, the music industry’s target consumers have made themselves easily accessible in the online realm. Furthermore, Internet users are spending increasingly more time in front of their computers, a significant percentage of which, at least among younger users, undoubtedly is spent surfing MySpace or Facebook. Music marketers have responded by infiltrating social networks with both banner ads and less traditional forms of advertising. This shift in medium has been accompanied by a change in strategy: marketers, cognizant of the unique demands of young, networked consumers, have reinvented the promotional campaign as a relationship building process.

For many, identifying oneself as a fan of a certain band is an integral part of establishing an online identity, a cruicial aspect of young adult social networking. By championing a band through one’s online profile an individual is not only increasing the artist's visibility, but also shaping his or her own Internet identity. Marketers capitalize upon this desire by utilizing fans as promoters in themselves. Music promotion has trended toward a more connective approach, eliminating the emphasis on distance and celebrity that once characterized ad campaigns. Now, band's accept 'friend requests' on MySpace and provide fans with conversationally-toned updates through their Facebook pages.

Networked youth also evidence a desire for authenticity, a characteristic blatantly lacking from traditional advertising rhetoric. By using the consumer, himself, as a promotor, companies are able to achieve the demanded authenticity while expending far fewer resources. Enlisting consumer-promoters, however, requires establishing a personal connection between the artist and fan. By injecting themselves into their fans' online world, bands come to be regarded as worthy of reciprocol support. Furthermore, a fan can directly link to the artists' MySpace page or official website to give those interested direct access to the group's material. Thus, an artist'a participation in social networking not only allows users to feed their identity needs, but also gives the artist opportunities to build a promotional chain amongst online music listeners.

The popularity of band pages on existing social networks has given rise to musically-centered networking sites, a cross-section of which were evaluated for purposes of this project (See Current Inititives). Such sites capitalize on the propensity of music lovers to check out bands identified as similar in sound to artists already among their favorites. The iLike.com homepage describes the site as a community of "over twenty million [members] … learn[ing] about new artists and concerts together." By listing users currently online and keeping tally of members' most recent song choices, the site is optimately structured for word-of-mouth marketing. Of course, there is no doubt that band promoters vie for featured placement on such site, and host exclusive events, such as online listening parties, to generate buzz among peer-to-peer, citizen promoters. However, while the coporate machinary may still be at work, it is now employing listeners to do the heavy lifting — a burden most dedicated fans gladly shoulder in exchange for feeling 'connected.'

Capitalizing on both the online user's search for identity and the notion of inherant authenticity in peer recommendations, this new mode of music marketing adeptly engages the networked nature of today's young consumers. At the same time, it ignores a crucial fact about digital natives: they have different expectations concerning content delivery than do older generations. A next generation marketing strategy is being used to peddle an outdated business model where record sales remain the core of revenue. Among young consumers who have been able to get music for free as long as they have been able to understand the lyrics to it, that message may not be well-received, even when spoken on their terms.

This project posits that marketing on social networks will encourage the purchasing of music and related merchandise among core fans, but will fail to generate significant sales among 'long tail' listeners (i.e., those only casually interested in a particular artist's music). Certainly, any strategy that increases interest in an artist is worth pursuing, from a promotional perspective. However, the music industry will not find its saving grace in peddling full albums by non-traditional means.

Psychological and sociological influences have reshaped the record-buying public. Music marketers are advertising tunes to teens who have come of age in a world where they have never had to pay for music. Online previews and mp3s posted by bloggers ensure that the moment of purchase is no longer the consumer's first exposure to an album in its entirety. As a result, digital natives will continue to purchase far fewer albums then the previous generation of music lovers, even if they refrain from unauthorized downloading. Albums are being marketed to music listeners who have never understood the appeal of giving a new album a chance on the allure of a radio single, of listening to a entire CD all the way through for the first time, and either loving, hating, or needing another run through to digest the content.

As the music, itself, becomes more disposable, the industry must take a more diligent look at alternative sources of revenue, as well as innovative means of promotion. While it remains to be seen whether a hit single-centered market will continue to erode the fraction of career artists in the musical landscape, the decline in revenue record companies have been struggling with has made it evident that change, in some form, is inevitable. The industry's engagement of social networking platforms and word of mouth marketing represents a step toward revamping analog practices. However, industry, artist and fan expectations continue to be at odds in the digital world.

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