What does underground music have to do with brand loyalty?

Although it’s almost 100% true that FleishmanHillard is my life, I have a passion most would think is almost entirely divorced from communications. After being an electronic music fanatic for close to 10 years, I co-established an independent drum and bass record label in 2011.

Unlike the big global conglomerates that create cash-cows out of prepubescent boy bands, ‘indie’ record labels have to harbour the power of branding in order to exist in their murky and saturated world. They become more than just a platform for an artist to receive exposure, or a hobby of a once-idle twenty-something to fill his time with between lectures at university. Any label worth its salt undoubtedly has merchandise to sell and club nights to run. In my experience, this seems to be more pertinent in electronic music than in any other area of music.

So is electronic music really that far removed from communications? I’m not sure that it is. Here’s why.

Quality control – authenticity drives brand loyalty

Labels sign artists that the label managers ‘believe’ in. This woolly catch-all term actually has some substance: they will look for a sound that they think is either unique and worth celebrating, or that they think fits the sound the label wants to be known for; in some instances these are not mutually exclusive attributes.

In reality, this criteria could and should be applied to any brand’s business plan. A high-end clothing brand would not sell a novelty t-shirt more at home on a market-stall, for example. Their reason for doing so, I’m sure they would tell you, is that they do not ‘believe’ in that type of product – they’d rather everyone dressed in their clothing rather than gimmicky tat.

This stance creates two by-products, of which self-important record label management (guilty) is the least interesting. The key by-product of ‘belief’ is authenticity, and authenticity in underground music drives brand loyalty. Paradoxically, there comes a certain point in a record label’s existence where the music itself becomes less important to the listener. All too often, I see comments like ‘buy-on-arrival!’ on vinyl forums and Facebook groups relating to label releases. Fans trust the label in the same way that hoards trust Nike or Apple. Blind faith is true brand loyalty.

Engagement is at the heart of the business model

Even once a record label has reached a point where fans are buying-on-arrival, these hyper-engaged brand ambassadors will still fall away if your musical output does. In order not to fall foul of this, regular engagement with your customer base is key. The most effective way of doing this of course, is via social media.

Q&A sessions with a label’s fan base on social about the operational management and direction of the label are commonplace for these brands. Do you prefer 2 tracks or 4 tracks on vinyl? What artists are grabbing your attention right now? Do you care about album art? These kinds of questions may appear to the cynic as sloppy attempts to engage with a customer base. In reality, the answers to these questions can influence a label’s decision making process more adeptly than the hunches of management, and rightly so. After all, the people being asked the question are the people that keep the business thriving. To alienate them would be criminal.

Give a dog a bone

With a fan base so close to the inner and outer workings of a record label, a symbiotic relationship has to be formed between brand and consumer. In order to truly connect with people, they need something beyond great things to buy; you need to give back, and this is as easy as it sounds. Frequently labels turn out free remixes, edits, or tracks that didn’t make the vinyl pressing plant. Sometimes a batch of stickers might arrive with your fresh new 12”. I’ve even had a t-shirt arrive at my doorstep without even ordering it, by design rather than by mistake. It’s these little things that make you more inclined to shop again with that brand. The idea of rewarding is a communications classic; everyone loves free stuff, but everyone loves free stuff even more when it’s from a brand you love.

Clearly, in marketing terms, the deepest darkest sea-trenches of underground electronica is in fact a lot closer to the surface than you might expect. Brands still exist and behave in the same way as they do on the high street. If anything, they behave more like a brand ought to than some of the largest brands on the planet; they truly care about what they sell, and who they sell to, more than how much they make from it.

James Austin, Senior Account Executive, Creative Strategy