Beyond MTV: A conversation with Nina Webb, VP of marketing at Atlantic Records

At Foundation Capital, we rely on our network of industry leaders to help us assess where the greatest needs for innovation are. With the Grammy’s coming up this weekend, it seemed like the right time to turn our attention to the music industry’s needs. So, I sat down with music-industry veteran and brand builder Nina Webb, of Atlantic Records, who runs marketing for superstars, like Kelly Clarkson, and indie darlings, like Santigold and Death Cab for Cutie.

The recent whitepaper that I wrote with my partner Ashu Garg, The 6th Key to the Decade of the CMO, was the background for our discussion about how video continues to shift the way music is marketed and what’s next for an industry that depends on the artist-fan relationship like no other.

Nina Webb, VP of marketing, Atlantic Records

Joanne Chen:  Video has been important for the music industry since the birth of MTV, but a lot has changed since then. With all the new platforms, how does video fit into music marketing these days?

Nina Webb:  Videos are more vital to building an artist’s brand than ever before. One of the biggest changes is the sheer volume being created. Everybody can make videos, so the quantity is substantially higher and they’re central to any music marketing plan. The quality and strategy of videos and the creative has to be well thought out––not all videos are created equal and fans will decide what resonates quickly.

It’s really important to choose the right platform for each artist. The exciting thing for Atlantic and our artists is that all of the new platforms need valuable artist content. With the right piece of content and artist, we have an opportunity for big additional exposure across the appropriate platforms. We have [revenue-generating business] deals with all these partners like Spotify and SoundCloud, so there are all these easy and legal ways for fans to get music today.

JC:  How much of a revenue driver are these streams? How do you measure that?

NW:  As a revenue driver, streaming is easily in the top 3. Spotify, Apple, Tidal, Amazon—all these audio streaming numbers are now being added to our traditional sales numbers as overall sales. For video streams with our licensed partners, YouTube is still our biggest platform.

When we make a video for an artist, it usually lives on their YouTube site, which Warner Music [parent company to Atlantic Records] maintains. This way, we’re able to lead fans to the high-quality official video, keep track of how many plays it gets, which is important not just for revenue, but for monitoring its success.  When we get partners to support it and post on their sites, they embed it from the artist’s site, so we’re able to see a complete picture of exactly how many views an artist is getting.

JC:  Are you still seeing issues with illegal downloading and bootlegs?

NW:  There are always bootleg issues, but more then ever there are many easy [legal] ways for people to access music for free or a paid subscription. Plus, the quality of music audio is better with our official partners than fans can find anywhere else.

JC:  That’s great. I know it took the labels a while to catch up to digital, but technology hasn’t stopped evolving. How do you decide where to focus your marketing efforts?

NW: In terms of marketing strategy, it’s all about the artist. They each have their own personality, and you need to match the artist to the platform. Some are great at Instagram but are horrible with any type of live communication. We have an artist named Brett Eldredge who has an incredible Snapchat [presence]. He’s obsessed with Snapchat. He’s fantastic at it. But some artists don’t want to be so open or are more reserved; therefore they wouldn’t be a good fit for Snapchat.  If it’s not good or authentic, fans will know it. Our marketing team has to be nimble in order to adapt to new content creation means and empower our artists to build an honest connection with their fans.

[In terms of partnership deals] we have a business development team that figures out which platforms we should work with and hashes out all the details. Once they’ve been approved, [marketing] can work with them—and we’re willing to try and work with any platform that’s on brand for an artist. We do a lot with; we do a lot with Smule for the more pop-leaning tracks.

JC:  Speaking of the right platforms, another hot topic in marketing these days is VR. How does Atlantic think about it, and are you experimenting at all?

NW:  We’ve actually had a lot of VR companies come in and pitch us. Some of them are really impressive, but the price tag for VR is very large, so it comes down to whether there’s a solid concept to make it worthwhile. To do it right, you’d need the perfect storm of a powerful creative, long lead time, and an artist with a passionate, intense fan base who would want to take on the adventure of creating a VR experience. And the artist would have to be at a level [of popularity] that the [financial] investment would pay off, or would want to partner with a brand to help with funding.  Also, not everyone has a VR headset, so we’d have to drive people to buy one or borrow a friend’s, and then how many times are they going to watch it? There are a lot of considerations.

I think the short answer is that we’re really excited about it and will do something when we are able to pair the right artist with the right idea.

Nina and Rita Ora in London for Elle Magazine

JC:  Are there solutions that you would love startups to begin building that would make a music marketer’s life easier?

NW:  Anything that would help create meaningful content with our music or artists, to ultimately engage with the fanbase. Another thought is a content database that would analyze the best times to release new artist content based on the fanbase. Days and times of the week and optimal times to gain attention depend on the audience. So, an analytics tool to follow a demographic and their music selection—to help us better reach them when they are most receptive—could be really helpful.

JC:  When you’re targeting those specific audiences, like moms, how often do you turn to influencers?

NW:  Most of our influencers come from the music press and blogs that they follow, but we did just do a campaign with mom influencers. The ones picked all have big blogs and they were invited to go see a particular band and write about it. It ended up being really successful because the influencers that came out had to opt in. So I think if we can find somebody who’s truly a fan, then that’s the best type of influencer because anything they write will feel authentic.

JC:  Okay, last question. Any closing thoughts on what music marketing may look like 10 years in the future?

NW:  I think it will continue to be a huge puzzle, where every move will have to be ultra strategic to reach the core audience.  Easily consumable video will be even more valuable than before. I was talking to my head of video about this, too. He feels that VR will be huge but also felt that augmented reality will be popping up everywhere. And I think we’ll see more artists delivering even more to their audiences––beyond the behind-the-scenes and social media posts, I imagine creators finding new ways to share experiences with their fans, monetize, create unique digital and physical products, and at the same time build an even stronger relationship with an audience. The shape of those things will emerge over the decade ahead.