October 20, 2015
After over two decades working in executive positions at three different major record companies, Livia Tortella left her post as Pres./COO/CMO of Warner Bros. Records in June 2013 to go out on her own, use her experience to create her own company that best fits the unique environment of the digital music world. That company, Black Box, was soft-launched in November of 2013. Tortella took her time to fine-tune the company until officially launching last September. Here, she explains Black Box's presence and its potential in today's very challenging environment.
When did you come up with the idea of Black Box?
In some ways, I was always thinking about something approximately like it. The more time I spent at the labels, I started noticing the lack of interest in taking the necessary time for artist development. Labels right now are so strapped, they really need marketing to help get to the hit quicker, or they sign artists that have been able to develop a bit of a base on their own.
I always believed that you build lasting careers through artist development and innovation, so when I left Warner Bros. in 2013, I felt the time was right to offer artist development outside of the labels -- to managers, agents, publishers, as well as record companies. Anyone can benefit from a strong artist-centric approach to marketing with a multi-faceted, personalized approach that embraces the rules of the new music business.
Was it different going from a corporate label lifestyle to your own independent company lifestyle?
I've been lucky to love what I do, and growing up in the label system has given me resources to learn, experiment and solidify an effective marketing approach and perspective. I wouldn't trade any of those years for the world.
But I find it truly liberating to start and lead an independent company today. We are starting with a blank page and a lot of experience. As an independent, I am able to focus on building a quality audience for my artists & clients - and looking at downloads, tickets, and streams as a by-product of that audience. I spent years focusing on the tail wagging the dog, so Black Box was a real breakthrough in that respect.
How has the digital revolution impacted marketing and artist development?
The digital revolution has made the notion of cultivating an audience for artists and fan engagement extremely important. It evens the playing field for artists, making them less reliant on gatekeepers; if they have a creative vision for themselves, and they can translate the vision across all available social and media platforms, they have a real shot for a lasting career.
Marketing, in 2015, is also about how to monetize an audience with insight. The industry is finally at a place where we can read data, and take clear action on what is a better experience for fans, and ultimately, enhancing revenue possibilities.
Do the new or up-and-coming artists truly understand the challenges they face today? Do they ultimately "get it?"
In the music business, as in life, it comes down to working with people who get your values. In general, I think management companies believe that artist development is important, but they all define it differently. Some artists really get it, and others, are more old school, focusing on the radio or media push, viewing branding, social media and fan marketing as luxuries. If they understood the direct correlation between these efforts and revenue, they would be fully invested. In any case, everyone should fully embrace and understand the new music industry, especially managers, who are the ones in position to fully benefit from a brand-centric business approach.
What's the best way to attract a new audience?
Our approach revolves around branding, identity, creative, cross-marketing, data and partnership outreach. We have a very involved on-boarding process with an artist, where we dive in on their message, what they stand for, and creatively, what they're trying to put out into the world. We use our knowledge of platforms, and our artist and playlisters network to get something started. We connect the dots with the right creative and digital strategy to support it.
There is no magic bullet or formula. But I would it say it starts with knowing who you are, where you are going, nailing the execution and then consistency.
Is generating radio play part of your marketing strategies?
We can recommend radio companies, but we don't handle it ourselves. Record labels are excellent at that, and there are great independent radio promoters out there. Our main job is to get artists on solid ground before the hit comes. One of our client partners refers to it as a "bottom up strategy." Unfortunately, what often happens is that some artists are going to radio too soon; they're not fully developed and they don't have fans fully engaged. On the flip side, you have established artists that could be making more money if they had a better fan strategy, off cycle and on.
How do you decide on the right strategy for your artists?
We have a very detailed on-boarding process with artists and clients. Based on what the artist sees as their identity, we then review any available information and data on them and their fans. From a social media perspective, it comes down to what platforms we feel would be the most natural to engage fans. The plan is always centered on what feels natural and authentic to them. Then it becomes a lot easier to fine-tune things, such as which blogs make sense, what TV or film projects should we focus on, and what digital media platforms make the most sense.
We discuss building and tying in with brands a lot, but unlike other marketing companies, it's not only about the deal, but whether or not it is right for the artist. We feel this is good for brands as well. What I really found in dealing with the agency world is that they basically want the same thing; they want artists who truly love their product. So we have to use the right kind of language when we speak and engage with third-party partners. It's all about the mutual win and benefit.
Streaming seems to be next "big thing" in music exposure and transaction, yet artists and content creators are worried that their compensation is infinitesimal to the point of un-survivable. How do you see this playing out?
I believe that once streaming starts to scale, it'll turn into a good business for artists and labels. There should be a more level playing field for all music companies, large and small, better financial transparency and better dialogue on how to get everyone invested in seeing it succeed.
However, it will continue to remain a tough business for niche artists without pop hits. They're going to have use streaming in different ways - mainly as a platform for exposure, actionable data, help with touring, selling merchandise and other areas of the business.
There is so much to learn about how fans engage with an artist's material. We recognize that streaming is a means of discovery and engagement, and not just a means of revenue, so we work with playlisters to syndicate our artists' music to the right audience. We also work with various data vendors to help us leverage the context of a stream to something more meaningful like a concert ticket or an experience with the artist.
Although you officially announced the launch of Black Box, you actually had a slow beta rollout for certain artists. Why did you do that?
We wanted the time to learn. When launching our services company, we were lucky to have clients who sought us out and became our partners in this. We focused on what they were looking for and how we could become nimble, and fluid within their organizations ... how we could deliver value every day to their team. We also learned a lot about how we want to engage with brands, and what our core competencies are.
Another reason to do a slow rollout was to figure out our capacity. We've found out that we now have a good staff configuration we can build on as we add more clients.
There are a lot of specialized marketing and promotion companies out there. What makes Black Box unique?
We believe we are the only music marketing company oriented both structurally and strategically around the 360 of the artist/fan relationship. There are digital publishing companies, publicity firms, and many other parties that can play a piece in the development path, but we bring a unified approach. We are uniquely poised and experienced to do this.
Even after 20 years in the business, I continue to believe that if the artists are really good, it's just a matter of time before they achieve success. This is marketing's super-power.
With the company just getting off the ground, can you afford to set long-term goals, or are you too involved with the current moment?
We have a lot of long-term goals, but for now, as long as we are moving the needle for our clients, and being good partners to their extended teams, we are doing okay. Breaking artists today is challenging work and requires all of our focused attention. There are a lot of details and moving parts - and if we can make our clients' lives easier and better, I'd say we are doing amazing.