The Other Side with Section 101 Founder Liz Leahy
Section 101 founder Liz Leahy explains how independent artists can utilitize technological avenues to brand themselves, create an online presence, and increase their fan base in this week's Other Side feature.
Liz Leahy grew up in Princeton, NJ, where she spent many Saturday afternoons holed up at the Princeton Record Exchange. As a music obsessed teen, Leahy would often take a train to New York City to see shows at Wetlands, the Ritz and CBGB. Although she knew she'd end up forging her way through the music industry, it wasn't until Leahy met Jim Hoffman that she got her feet wet in entrepreneurship. The budding business partners started their company, GSG, as a way to provide new revenue streams for major artists and brands by leveraging their existing fan bases and by cultivating new audiences. Leahy explains, “GSG offered website and online brand development, pre-sale opportunities, VIP ticketing, tour promotion, album/digital promotion, fan contesting, community development, and digital marketing to global fan bases. The development of these programs was expensive 5+ years ago, so we predominantly worked with large touring artists. Jim was way ahead of the curve with cloud computing and he knew a window would open for artists at all levels to create amazing websites and web presences that could be effective, as well as affordable.”
In 2007, Leahy and Hoffman began developing a platform to create this “window” for artists; by 2009, they launched Section 101, a marketing technology platform. Since then, Section 101 has helped artists such as Bush, Hesta Prynn, Joseph Blaise, and Todd Alsup, as well as artist management companies like Canvasback Music Management and The Mgmt Company to create a brand for themselves and cultivate an online presence.
We were able to convince Section 101 founder Liz Leahy to step away from her company long enough to tell us what it's like to be on The Other Side:
Green Light Go: What inspired you to work in the music industry?
Liz Leahy: I think about that a lot! I combined my passion for marketing with a need in the music and entertainment industry. Using digital marketing to drive and control a brand puts artists in the driver’s seat, which is where they belong.
GLG: As the president and founder of Section 101, what was the turning point that sparked your decision to evolve from operating a tech and marketing company to focusing your efforts on a technologically driven career in the music industry?
LL: As mentioned above, there was a seminal moment in technology about 5 years ago that made the availability of low-cost, server capability bandwidth readily accessible to people. Today, this term is best known as ‘cloud computing,’ and it made more technology affordable and available to a much larger audience. Another pivotal moment for us was that record labels were continuing to re-shape themselves, which resulted in great artists receiving little to no attention as companies restructured. These artists and managers had to quickly figure out how to market themselves without much participation from the people they’d previously relied on. This was where I knew Section 101 could be a great deal of help.
GLG: Since many people have preconceived notions about what a career in the music industry actually entails, what is the day-to-day really like for you at Section 101?
LL: One of the things I love most about what I do is that [my job] is so diverse; no two days are the same. My day could be spent planning out Section 101’s presence at SXSW, it could be spent on the phone doing a business deal, it could entail a meeting in my office with an artist to figure out how to launch a campaign for an album or tour, or it might revolve around going to a showcase or performance somewhere. I have learned that even though I can wear casual clothes every day, I need to keep another outfit in the office!
GLG: Section 101 is a unique company that has developed a revolutionary new web-publishing platform that enables artists, celebrities and other entertainers to proactively take charge of the proliferation of digital content on the web and effectively market their brand across a growing number of online channels. Let’s say that a band just signed up to work with Section 101. What happens next?
LL: S101 (Section 101) offers two services: the premium service is for artists that want Section 101 to “do the work for them” and there is a self-serve model for the growing DIY community.
With premium services, we look to marry the best creative [efforts] with the right marketing solution, so the first steps we'd take would be to understand what a client’s needs are, what creative assets they have, and what their upcoming plans include. The next step would be to build out a creative scope document, which helps us to tie the goals and objectives in with the creative aesthetic. Many people do those things separately, but to be effective, your creative efforts should be in the confines, or at least in the structure of what you’re trying to achieve. We want to make sure that an artist is able to get the biggest and best result when launching a site on the Section 101 platform.
A good example would be when we sat down with Bush before the release of their album, The Sea of Memories. We wanted to know if the art on the site should represent the release cycle or span their career. In the end, we went with images that were up-to-date, but presented the band as having longevity that built over time. In other words, the site doesn’t just link the band to this album. However, the beauty of the S101 platform is that you can easily change your art around, so if an artist decided to go in another direction, it would be easy for us to help them to do that.
The premium artist has creative input and a true partnership with staff.
On the self-serve side, the client is given all the right tools to get started, build out the creative elements, and add content, photos, and music. They can do this quickly, easily, and affordably.
GLG: Since the dawn of Section 101, you’ve worked with several independent and internationally recognized artists such Duran Duran, Rachael Yamagata, Hesta Prynn, Todd Alsup, and Reggie Bennett. What artists or companies might you like to work with in the future?
LL: Our roster continues to grow - we also work with Cory Taylor from Slipknot and Kina Grannis. Kina recently launched that terrific video using jellybeans. Having two services (premium and self-serve) allows us to explore more variety in music, such as Latin, country, and jazz. We also cater to songwriters and producers that previously used 'word-of-mouth' approaches to business with behind-the-scenes folks, who are now using the web to show off what they do and make their presence known.
Ultimately, the self-serve product allows us to go beyond the established artist by making our tools and technology available to all.
GLG: Many independent musicians who cannot yet afford to hire a web designer end up creating their own band websites, or they might host a blog to share tour photos and stories. What advice could you lend to an independent artist who is looking to promote their site by reaching out to a wider audience?
LL: My first bit of advice would be to look at our self-serve model. You can create a beautiful site without having to be a web designer. The other piece of advice that bears repeating as we’ve heard it time and time again is that if an artist doesn’t have their own URL and website, it indicates to record labels, booking agents, publicists, and managers that the artist isn’t making a minimum investment in himself or herself. Another piece of advice I like to give is not to assume your social media means your content is viral. People think that because they have a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, they’re somehow ‘all set.’ If you don’t use these tools effectively, they'll go to waste.
A good example would be Section 101’s Kina Grannis who releases content on a weekly basis to her fan base via a video, blog, or a fun contest. She is interesting, relevant, and most importantly, consistent. Fans know what to expect, so not only do they check to see what she has done, but they tell their friends about her too. If you’re inconsistent, you’re training people not to care. If you’re consistent, people take notice and tell others!
Lastly, we have found that if you give away free music, people are more apt to pay for it later. Music lovers appreciate free music and they like to share free music. They will talk about your music, so if your song comes up on their iTunes playlist, they will want to keep tabs on what you have coming up next.
GLG: What are some of the most rewarding and challenging things about working in the music industry?
LL: The most rewarding aspect is when I can bring my marketing and brand ‘hat’ to the table and add significant value very quickly. There are ‘easy wins’ that people might overlook and I honestly take pleasure in pointing them in [the right] direction. I really like to teach interested people something that they can take with them – when I did the A2IM case study day or the NMS “Ted” Style talk last year, the insights I provided truly helped people. If my experience can add value back to the industry, I am happy.
On the other hand, I get frustrated when people miss huge opportunities. I absolutely understand that artists and managers have so much going on, but I am disappointed when the beginning planning stages of a strategy aren’t where they should be. I am going to be moderating a panel again at this year’s SXSW conference based on the ‘Biggest Missed Opportunities on the Web,’ so you know I take this to heart! Having a website is so important, it is how people discover you. If your website doesn’t have a bio on it, then you’re leaving visitors to do their research elsewhere and Wikipedia will become the official source. Own your brand and own your online real estate.
GLG: Aside from the Section 101 artists, what have you been listening to these days?
LL: I picked up The Goat Rodeo Sessions, which features four classical string virtuosos: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer, and mandolinist Chris Thile. It’s an organic, genre-busting project that has classical artists exploring other types of music. In addition, I’ve been listening to Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. I also recently saw a PBS Special called Women Who Rock, which got me back into female rock. The PBS Special was really interesting. It starts in the 1920s, but they focus on the 70s and 80s when women really began to dominate the music scene. I had forgotten what a pivotal and influential time that was for female performers such as Cher, Carly Simon, Blondie, Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna, among others. During that time period, the tide turned, allowing female artists to have more success on the radio and through touring than men. This is still the case today –women dominate music at the high end of the market.
This week's Other Side is brought to you by: Lauren Mercury Roberts