Downtown Music’s Molly Neuman on the Music Industry’s Biggest Transformations
Downtown Music’s Molly Neuman on the Music Industry’s Biggest Transformations
Guidance

Downtown Music’s Molly Neuman on the Music Industry’s Biggest Transformations

The CMO of the independent music publishing company reflects on her own career as an advocate for indie artists.

Molly Neuman is the Chief Marketing Officer of Downtown Music Holdings, a leading global music services provider. Before joining Downtown, she was Head of Music at Kickstarter, where TBC Senior Producer Hannah Elliott also worked at the time as Associate Editor of The Creative Independent. Neuman has been an advocate for independent artists throughout her career, beginning when she was the drummer for the influential riot grrrl band Bratmobile, who recently played a sold out show at Warsaw in Brooklyn. We caught up with Neuman to explore how her own career as an artist provides a good use case as to how indie artists are navigating the industry with the rise of short form video platforms and AI.

Walk us through your history in the music business.

I joined Kickstarter in 2016 to be its first head of music. At that time, there was a lot of opportunity, but it was a little bit of an island. That was right before The Creative Independent was started. I had been working in music since I started playing it, then worked at a record company, did artist management, and worked in digital music, but it was the first time I was dipping out of a music company. That was attractive to me, to have an opportunity to see how different kinds of companies were run.

When I had the opportunity to join Downtown, and Songtrust specifically, at the end of 2017, it was really exciting to me because it was a part of the industry that I did not have as much experience in, which was publishing. It was part of a new opportunity for songwriters to have access to their royalties in a more comprehensive way, but still retain ownership and autonomy over how those works would be used and to grow something that didn't have a lot of competition.

Cut to now, publishing has dominated so much of our industry. Whether it’s been people selling their rights, new legislation, or the Music Modernization Act, which is a whole new entity within the Mechanical Licensing Collective in the US. I wouldn't say it's glamorous, but it's clearly significantly more recognized and more value is assigned to it in the industry, which has been gratifying in lots of ways. 

How has your role evolved over the past two years since you've moved from Songtrust to Downtown?

One of the distinctions about Downtown is that we don't own rights. We really are only as good as the service we provide. Our contracts vary in length and term, but are primarily among the most flexible in the industry. Education is a core part of the Downtown group because we have CD Baby on the distribution side for self-released DIY artists, Songtrust for independent artists and songwriters and producers for that set segment of their rights' management. [So we are] pulling all of that into something that's digestible in an environment where things are changing so quickly.

One of the things we talk about a lot now is how we're in the third wave of another transformation for the industry. If you think about Napster and file sharing and digital music in the late 90s, early 2000s, then streaming from 2009 and on, and now it’s whatever we are all undergoing with AI… which is a whole new way to approach music, whether it's the creation of it or the evolution of it as the creation. There's still hopefully some human involved at some point, but there are so many things to do on top of that. 

I saw a post on LinkedIn where you're talking about the recent show you did with your band Bratmobile and your experience asking ChatGPT to help with merch buying, and how unhelpful it was.

Right, [so if the prompt is], “Thirty-year-old band playing their first show in 20 years in New York, that is sold out for a thousand people, and [we] want to have three or four size-inclusive designs… what's the order?”

At this point, if everybody's so right that the technology is there, I should get an answer of, "You need this design and that design, and order this design in 20 smalls, 18 XL…" whatever it could be. No. I loved how in that thread, everyone's like, "My company can help you." "No, I don't need your company. I literally can do that for myself." I was hoping that I could have a tech solution. 

Everybody's promising that we're going to have technology at our fingertips. I don't want to begrudge any of these companies that probably have a great tool or whatever, but I don't want to talk to anybody else. That's the point. I got other shit to do. Everybody's saying it's going to give me the capacity to be more creative or whatever it is, but it hasn’t happened yet. 

We're in this awkward, "We're figuring it out/We'll figure it out eventually," space, and everyone's aware of the possibilities which are exciting, but also potentially scary. Do you sense any fatigue in trying to adapt and do the right things with AI? 

It's a lot of life suck and mind share that we are applying to these problems because we're scared. Whether it's an artist or a company, we're all scared that we are not going to be ready, we're not going to keep up, that we're going to be last to the party. Literal business FOMO. However, there are still many [other] things to do.

When I got to Kickstarter, one of the things that I was trying to do was to put my head down and figure out a way where bands of my size or smaller [can tour]. But the country is large. It is the most inefficient network in existence. How do you map it out? How do you afford it? This was before the pandemic and these crazy gas prices. Could we not, as Kickstarter, as a community of supporting creativity, come up with a model to map on top of that to de-risk the entire situation? We know we need it, but it's not the priority for the powers that be.

We are all dealing with the same number of minutes in a day. With more people, with new generations, there are all new ways for things to expand, and the content has expanded beyond anyone's literal capacity to listen to it and engage with it. As a human, I love playing music and I love working. I love my job. This is a crazy cool business, but it takes a lot. It's a little easier when you have some passion for it versus you thinking you're going to be a star or super wealthy.

How do you see short form video’s influence evolving in the near future? We're all talking about the possibility of TikTok being banned, but if that happens, we will just migrate to some other platform. 

Obviously there's [also] Instagram, YouTube Shorts… all of those things exist at the same time. My less positive take is it's a lot more work for the creator. You can do these things to market and to promote and build your audience, but you have to figure out a way to do that that's in the right balance with the other things that are required.

Unfortunately, at any level of artistry at this point, you have to have some business responsibilities. If you put your music on any DSP through any platform like CD Baby, you have to have certain tax paperwork, you have to have a bank account, you have to have some verification of who you are—because there's all sorts of tricksters that try to come in and do things that are nefarious. You have to manage those sums, even if they're small when they come in and you have to report them properly. There's a lot of infrastructure management that needs to happen. On top of that, you need to make some great marketing plan for your work, and with what the platforms are requiring, it's not so fun.

 

Right? How can I play the algorithm and all these different things?

If you're savvy enough to be thinking like that, then you're game already.

I think that leaves a lot of people behind.

It sure does. This may be harsh, but I don't know that it's terrible that not everybody makes it into this whole ecosystem. SoundCloud or Audiomack is an example of that, where you have these self-contained ecosystems that are more about creativity and engagement versus larger distribution and audience building.

In theory, a Patreon-type system for artists should work because a lot of content creators have developed these huge communities of fans that pay their bills through these platforms. Their fans are happy to opt into these situations, but for music, it seems harder.

I think we have some exceptional cases and I see more people trying it now, which I want to support and I try to support directly when I can. I think the core experience of going to a show and listening to something are still the main areas that artists and fans connect to. 

Right now, it's kind of fun to have the opportunity to have [my own personal] case study of some ladies in their mid-career who want to play music because they love it, knowing that it's not a full-time gig. Sure, we could be Fugazi, and bless them, they didn't ever have merch problems because they didn't have merch and they didn't care.

Sure, it does make it a lot easier when you just don't do a lot of things… You don't do social media, you don't do all the merch, you don't do all of the interviews. But, that's not us. We are happy to do all of those things. I think most of the people creating music now are going to be part of Gen Z Alpha, right? We're talking about a whole new era. My kid is Gen Alpha so I have a little specimen to observe, too.

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