The CEO of Rock Blog

The Quest of a Student/Entrepreneur to Add Value in Music and Business

Countersignalling – If you have to say it, you ain’t it.

There is a quote from a well known fashion blog that said “If you have to say it, you ain’t it”. This was referring to clothing on which flattering words were written, like “hot stuff”, or “supermodel”. My hope is that by the end of this post you may laugh occasionally when you see 35 year old women wearing these types of shirts and pants (usually sweatpants) in the supermarket.

My goal, however, is that you understand a concept from Cal Newport’s Studyhacks blog called Countersignalling.

Cal’s post was originally about whether or not to do a large laundry list of things so that the sheer amount of accomplishments on the list will impress people enough to get you into a great college. He decided in his lectures that he would preach a different view.

The Brag Stops Here

To do this, he turned to a study done in 2002 by economists Nick Feltovich and Rick Harbaugh, along with statistician Ted To. These researchers found out that that smartest kids in class don’t raise their hands as much as the average.

They used a field of social science called signalling theory to find out why.  Signalling theory basically means that both people and animals take certain actions or say certain things constantly to convey that they have a higher value. Examples include peacocks with lots of feathers, Two-thousand dollar suits, and professors who insist on being referred to as “Dr” First Name.

People signal using things like this because people assume that getting these things are difficult, and since they are difficult for the average, then this must mean that those that have them are above average.

What kills the signalling strategies of so many is the side channel, or “the word on the street”. If the word on the street runs counter to the signalling of a person, that person not esteemed as highly. Such people may be called “posers”, “wanksters”, wanna-be’s, or be accused of “fronting”.

Back to the classroom. The top students are already known as being the top because their accomplishments are being evangelized by others throughout the hallways and among teachers.

The students in the middle have to signal that they have value by raising their hand frequently to answer questions. Correct answers imply that they are smart, brave, and of higher value than those who are on the bottom (who neither raise their hand, nor have word of mouth on their side)

Therefore, the best students who have the word on the street, notoriety, or whatever you want to call it, on their side demonstrate high value nonverbally, because “only a student who is truly confident about his skills can afford to avoid constantly trying to show them off.”

That, my friend, is countersignaling. The situation of having other people evangelizing your high status to the point where you rarely, if at all, need to do it yourself.

The short version of this post: “actions speak louder than words”, and “the strong actions in the right place speak louder than the weak actions in the wrong place”

You can read the full article here, or by following the link up above.

Stuff for you to take out of this

This should show you that the main goal is not to do a lot of things on your own that signal that your greatness. Your goal is to get the side channel (other people) to say great things about you.

Authenticity comes from having a strong side channel. Good examples are The Dave Matthews Band, or John Mayer.

If you continue to signal incessantly, you might come across as unlikable, even if you have a high amount of success with your music. I jokingly call this the Kanye West effect. He’s good, but the amount of times he feels the need to remind us verbally is way more than needed. To be fair to Señor West, he is not the only one who does this but is simply the most recognizable one right now.

The good news is that instead of needing to promote yourself with a long list of accomplishments, you can cut that list down to maybe one-fourth it’s size. The great, yet sometimes uncomfortable news, is that you must become the type of person that everyone else brags about, and that takes work.

Thanks once again to Cal, I can show you three paraphrased things to keep in mind to make the transition less uncomfortable:

Applying Countersignalling

1. Don’t send mediocre signals. An easy way to represent yourself as a medium ability candidate (be it for a gig, business endorsements, new fans, or a record deal) is to shout out a long list of achievements none of which are all that difficult to achieve;

for example,
“my album is out!” Buy it because it exists!
playing songs that are technically proficient but very very long
using lines like “we are taking the world by storm”…I’m pretty sure you’re not.

None of these signals convey a particular impressive trait, and the list as a whole makes you seem like someone desperate to differentiate yourself from the low ability candidates. The top people don’t have this worry.

2. Send a small number of strong signals. People are already overloaded with information as it is. Help the reviewer follow a high ability story line by having one or two activities that are really impressive — that is, required an desirable trait, like high creativity or deep values, and not just persistence. Seeing a small number of excellent things, and no low-value bragging, will convey a strong sense of confident ability.

3. Prime the side channel. In the formal model, you have no control over the side channel. In the real world, you do. Be interesting. Make people like you. Actually convey the traits that you want the channel to communicate. If you’re a hip hop group, for example, this means you should actually be thought provoking, energetic, witty people that can really tell the audience how it is. Fan’s take notice of this, and potential partners who have their hand on the pulse of the market will find it difficult to ignore you.

Sometimes, doing less can say more. Always good news in a world that constantly demands more out of you.

If you can think of artists that do low value bragging or are great at using the side channel, tell them to me in the comments.


December 22, 2009 Posted by | Business, Music Business | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Songwriting Wall – Creating What You Want (Part 2)

Breaking the Wall

This is part 2 of a series of songwriting posts designed to personally break me out of songwriting hell. Part 1 explains what that hell is and why I want out. The link to Part 1 is here.

The beginning of getting out

About a week ago, I got myself to a cafe located in the local town I was in, and sat down facing a wall to have no distractions. After an hour and a half, I came up with many different patterns in my songwriting that may be contributing to my continual negativity during the songwriting process. So far, here are the 16 that I have found:

  1. Always writing at night-time
  2. Doing lyrics first then music second
  3. Using Garageband or my guitar as main instruments
  4. Being tempted to create a full band on Garageband before I even have 20 seconds of music
  5. Writing on days I have not had decent exercise
  6. Writing songs soon after having consumed high-carb, high-fat/sugary foods.
  7. On days where circumstances or mood are particularly bad, I often use songwriting to vent it. Doing this repeatedly has caused me to be either reluctant to pick up an guitar, or to feel down on the rare occasions I do use it to write songs.
  8. Writing in English
  9. Always writing alone.
  10. My lyrics continue to have negative, answerless questions.
  11. I tend to dress the same way when writing songs every time – Jeans, Sneakers, T-Shirt, etc.
  12. Never under the influence of any stimulant during songwriting. (Maybe coffee or tea can help?!)
  13. Drawing on past experience rather than visualizing a future.
  14. Not rewriting more than once.
  15. Not changing the volume of my song at any point.
  16. Not meditating on what I want to convey beforehand.

Are any of these issues for you?

What I am noticing is that maybe I am not the only one who gets drawn into a negative funk when writing. It is very well possible that even the greatest of artists have had to dive down into mental mud in order to pull out something that will make them a living.

I subscribe to the view that it doesn’t have to be that way. By looking at the above 16 things, what possible solutions can you come up with in your head to create a different, better songwriting environment for yourself? Comments will help fellow readers and myself.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Music Business, Personal, Productivity/Goal Setting | , | 2 Comments

Marketing – another creative outlet!

Business can be boring sometimes, even for businesspeople. Imagine how musicians see it.

When I hear about anything going on nationwide in the music industry, however, I can’t help but be excited.

I read an interesting article from Music Globalization today that explains a fascinating trend- non-traditional retail outlets are selling more music than in the past. Stores that usually do not sell music as a main item are selling more of it than before!

Think about it for a second…how have music-related sales been performing year after year? Pretty much all physical music products (CD’s, DVD’s, etc) have been falling in sales 30-40% every year for at least the past 5 years. All I hear in the news related to retail music has been bad, therefore making it difficult for top-40 rappers everywhere to convince me their life is better than mine, but I digress.

Any place that reports an increase in sales is worth paying attention to. That is why the aforementioned article was written: how to get your physical product (be it a CD, or a USB drive shaped like an Uzi) into stores. For your benefit, I will summarize what I got out of the article here, but if you want to read the whole thing I encourage it.

How to get your stuff into retail stores

I’m going to be very clear: you probably will not get your music into an exclusive with Best Buy, Wal-Mart, or any other retail giant as an unsigned artist, nor do I think that’s what you want.

Besides, even these stores are experiencing losses in sales in the double digits every year. On top of that, these stores will only stock your product if you price it so low that even the retailer cannot profit from them, as they are willing to lose money selling your stuff only to draw your fans into their store to buy more stuff that they support more than your own stuff.

I’m not saying if you can get into Wal-Mart, don’t. I am saying, however, that in a world where you are competing for attention, eliminating all profit to participate in a system that doesn’t value you or your music is a tough choice.

Smaller, independent music stores are more achievable, but they don’t have enough high-profit items to justify selling records that they are unsure will sell. This means that top-40 artists will be given preference here too, because a smaller store cannot afford to take risks in a market that is losing money that fast. While you might get in, I want you to make a lot of money doing what you love, and only getting into a few small record stores won’t get you all the way.

What’s an independent artist to do? Aim for the non-traditional retail outlets.

Non traditional retail stores are smaller, solicited by artists less often, and are more likely to value what you have to offer, especially if it is relevant to their image.

Let’s see how it’s done

1. Build an Infrastructure

This is a key principle in business: If you want people to join your team, prove that you don’t need them. (But don’t act like you don’t, because that’s just rude). Businesses that are already making a profit can easily get bank loans. Hot girls/guys who already have lots of dates have no problem getting more dates.

Retailers will takes risks, but they want to see something that tells them you can sell. Show that you have sold 500, or 1000 copies (at gigs, or anyplace) and retail owner’s fear of taking a risk is seriously reduced. To quote Music Globalization’s M. Frascogna: “infrastructure lets a retailer know you’re hardened, not scared to promote, and won’t rely on someone else to “sell” you. Hint- this is attractive to the business world!”

(Note from Me: This principle will also help you get gigs, record deals, manager’s who know what they are doing, and media mentions)


2. Expand a Retailer’s Market Don’t Just Enhance it.

I am going to quote the Music Globalization article completely here, because first, it does a better job, and second, I want to watch Family Guy.

“Non-traditional retailers know who their market is, as should bands. If the two groups share the same market it is unlikely a store will be attracted to a partnership as the band simply enhances their store. Stores are looking for expansion- help in capturing a new market while keeping their image in tact.

For example: Chain store A has 100 skateboard shop locations, and attracts customers ages 13-18 who are punk rock listeners. The store is looking to expand into 20 new cities but wants to sustain customers for a longer period of time, 13-30. It isn’t in store A’s best interest to partner with a band that already shares these same market demographics as the partnership would only enhance the stores image. Store A stands to benefit by teaming with musicians that appeal to ages 19-30 in order to expand their brand. More than likely this will no longer be punk rock listeners, so Store A needs to capture a band who expands them into a 19-30 listener demographic. When it comes time to meet with non-traditional retailers it is important to focus on what you can do to “expand” their market. This isn’t difficult, rather takes some business detail in updating your bands market analysis and researching beforehand a target non-traditional retailers current market.”

(me again: This helps me a lot because I always thought your chances of getting into stores was higher if you appealed to their current demographic. Now I know that when you help a store expand their market, you are fulfilling a genuine need in business, and therefore you are much more valuable. In this case, you have two circles of customers: the retailer itself, and your individual fans. Keep both as close as you can.)

3. Think Global

People from different places of the world may be attracted to your music because it is different, edgy, and exotic. Companies/Business Owners wanting to expand are always looking for partners to make the transition easier for them.

“International talent can essentially be free for them because of the mutual benefit. Bands should be happy to potentially capture a new market without spending marketing dollars. Front-end money isn’t the motivating factor, rather sustainable sales over time.”

You might need to sacrifice a little profit in the beginning, but if you can tour, sell more merchandise and prove to the retailer that they could benefit from selling even more stuff of yours, it is worth it.

Regardless, if it doesn’t work out well, there is no harm done, and you have lost very little if anything (you can always get your merch back if it doesn’t sell there). Furthermore, if no one bought anything of yours in a new area because nobody knew you, your image has not sufferred.

One more quote from the actual article: “If you don’t have international business knowledge, nor know which stores to partner with, no worries. Non traditional retailer partnerships have advertising companies drooling. Identify the major players in advertising within your desired country, unleash your ideas, and they will be chomping at the bit to pick up a new account.”

This is a new concept to me, and would be a wise thing for myself, artists, and anyone hoping to manage artists to understand this. What do you think? Could marketing to advertising companies so you can establish the right relationships with the right retailers be an interesting blog post?

If so, I promise to give it a cooler title than that.

P.S. I found a cool video where the thinkGeek folks created a nonwashable, but ridiculously awesome shirt with a playable guitar woven into it. The video is below…maybe this could be a gimmick you could use soon.

November 18, 2009 Posted by | Business, Music Business | Leave a comment

In case you were busy, here’s what you missed this week.

First off, the CMA’s. Country’s big night.

19 year-old Taylor Swift went home with four awards: music video of the year, female artist, album of the year, and the much coveted entertainer of the year.

Brad Paisley hosted and won male vocalist of the year.

Vocal group of the year and single of the year were grabbed by Lady Antebellum. The song by the way was “I Run to You”

I was surprised to find that Darius Rucker from Hootie and the Blowfish won new artist of the year.

Cool Music Management Article:

There was an article released on the fistfulayen blog that really taught me a lot about how to manage a new band at the very beginning. The author breaks the process down into Alert, Connect, Sell; he also argues that the biggest reason new acts do not sell as much is because they have not done enough Alerting and Connecting first. Check out the article.

By the way, I’m digging the koala bear with an uzi machine gun!

Australians get mad.

Apparently it IS possible to aggravate our friends down-under. Well, at least for Britney Spears it is. According to many online sources, Britney’s Circus Tour was not going well down there. Large numbers of people left her show, angry because of her lip-synching.

I thought it was common knowledge that Britney lip-synched. I mean, almost no one can dance with that intensity and sing at the same time (though I credit Lady Gaga for trying). I guess it was really bad for the Aussies to get that pissed.

Anyway, legislators down in Australia are discussing the idea of performance disclosure to audiences before sales occur. This is so that people know what they are getting. Live would mean live, with real instruments and real singing. Anything not in accordance with that definition would need to be disclosed as such. Personally, I like the idea, even though it would be to artists what HD was to actors….all the covered blemishes now in plain view.

What do you think? Should similar legislation be passed in the United States?

November 15, 2009 Posted by | Music Business, Posts About Artists | , , , , | Leave a comment

Touring Like Iron Maiden

Twenty years ago, anyone who was big in music would tell you that you had to be on radio in order to build a large following. It was what everyone else was doing.

There was one band who decided it wasn’t for them.

I am talking about my favorite heavy metal band, Iron Maiden. For the uninitiated, you can get an idea of how powerful their live show is by streaming/buying the DVD Flight 666. Their strategy challenged many commercializing paradigms that held the music industry in their day, and they did it in several ways:

  • The bass player was the main songwriter for the band (though the singer, Bruce is quite good as well)
  • Every song they made was conceived for live performance. That was always their goal.
  • Most of their songs are not under three and a half minutes. Many of them are around 6-15 minutes.
  • For almost all of their publicity and merchandising, they featured a skeleton style mascot in place of themselves. It even had a name (Eddie) and showed up as a towering 9+ ft. tall puppet on stage.

Now these guys have fans everywhere, from India to Chile, from Japan, to London, and so many other places.

My question is…can a band starting out today gain success solely from giving and promoting a great live show?

My belief is that it can, and the reason I am bringing this up is that there seems to be few artists (if any) making it to that level in the US by doing this.

And if it is being done, why am I not hearing about it?

If anyone can give me an example to look at (other than the Jam Band genre) of bands that are doing this, please comment me on them.

October 30, 2009 Posted by | Music Business | , , | Leave a comment