Steven Corn '84

By
Mark Small

Steven Corn ’84 is the CEO and cofounder of BFM Digital, a California-based digital music distributor. The company represents hundreds of independent artists, labels, publishers, and other content creators to a network of more than 250 music services, including iTunes, Napster, Spotify, Zune, Amazon.com, and eMusic, to name a few.

Prior to establishing BFM Digital, Corn majored in film scoring at Berklee and wrote music for various productions before getting into music supervision and media licensing and consulting for major international entertainment enterprises. His years of experience in the creative and business-related sides of the contemporary music industry enable Corn and BFM Digital to serve the needs of both music creators and media services.

Does having more music in the marketplace reduce the perceived value of music?

I actually don’t think that the quantity of music out there affects the perceived value. It’s the ease of access—the ubiquity of music—that often affects the perceived value. It’s harder to find the music you like if there are 30 million tracks in the iTunes store rather than 10 million. The bigger question is, are people willing to pay for the music that they consume? I think that’s been affected more by access to “free” music—not just P2P [peer to peer], but YouTube videos, Pandora, and Web radio. There is a clogged highway of content out there, and that makes it harder to do genre-based searches. Even artist-based searches are harder because of the number of artists with similar names. That frustrates users and may, to some degree, affect their willingness to pay. People have to find the music first.

Does BFM Digital help to make artists easier to find in the search process?

We are able to share our brain trust—usually for free—to help with an artist’s discoverability. As a distributor, one of our main functions is to help pitch artists to the digital stores for features, promotions, and editorial reviews. An artist’s album being featured among the new albums on iTunes for a week helps with discoverability.

An artist should consider their digital distributor as their spokesperson to the digital stores, but there has to be a story to tell. First, the music has to be compelling, and the artist needs to be active. We are in a position to tell your story and can also help craft the story.

It’s frustrating to have an artist make a great album and then hand it to us saying, “Make me famous.” That’s the job of a manager or a record label. The best scenario is when an artist comes to us saying, “Here is our EP or catalog, video blog, and tour schedule, and these are the videos we plan to make.” Then we can design a marketing plan for them and have an active partnership.

During the 1960s, the music marketplace was driven by singles and only later became album oriented. Now we’re back to a singles market. Do you think future listeners will seek out albums?

I agree that we have moved more to a singles market, but the album is not dead. I think fans still want an album experience and want to hear the songs in the sequence the artists wanted.

[Today] iTunes is still known for not letting artists stipulate that their music be sold only as a whole album. Other services allow album-only purchases in an effort to protect the album experience. Some styles—electronic dance music, reggae, and hip-hop—do best in a singles market. But for others, an album provides the opportunity to add bonus material and booklets. So I wouldn’t advise most artists to only produce singles. Albums are still important.

The beauty of the digital marketplace is that you can create a variety of retail SKUs. It used to be that an artist planned a single, then dropped the album, and a few months later released another single. Now you can mix it up anyway you want. Releasing an album after a few singles is still a good goal. The singles are part of the discoverability factor and then the album gives another retail opportunity.

Do you think more listeners accept the idea that music is something that they need to pay for?

The conversion from “freemiums” to subscriptions is a never-ending problem. But it’s more a marketing problem than anything else. I don’t know why it should be hard for a music fan to go with a $5 monthly Spotify subscription. I can understand people not wanting to spend thousands of dollars a year, but $5 per month is $60 a year for access to a lot of music.

My kids use YouTube like a radio station. So I see that the idea of owning music has changed. People used to have large record collections. But these days, people don’t have walls of product. Now there is an option to not have to pay for the music we hear. If someone really wants to support indie artists, they can go to their shows, buy an album once a year, or buy a T-shirt. There are lots of ways. We just have to remind people that if they want their favorite artists to keep making music, they have to help. It’s not charity.

Do you think subscription or streaming services hinder sales of downloads or physical product?

I  don’t think they affect physical sales too much. Some people think the streaming services cut into download sales. I don’t see that happening. In my universe of 650 labels, I see streaming services as aggregate income rather than replacement income.

For the time being, I believe there are different types of consumers. Some people go to Amazon or iTunes to buy a track; others go to Spotify or Rhapsody and listen rather than download. I think the streaming services just offer another way to engage the consumer. I don’t believe they cannibalize download sales. Amazon and iTunes sales as well as the streaming services are growing.

What can an indie artist glean from the statements they get about their digital sales?

We’ve had to decide how much or how little information we should put into the statements. If you put in too much, it’s overwhelming. I feel it’s important to include all track-level information, including the country, type of sale—meaning download, stream, or ringtone—and the store. Our artists can learn that there may be places where they didn’t know they were popular and which of their tracks are selling better than others on a given service. Then they can focus their efforts on where they are reaching fans. The most important thing for an artist is to discuss activity they see on their statements with their distributor. That’s part of the story that an artist needs to convey that could help their next release.

How does an artist get signed to BFM Digital?

We are selective about who we represent, we don’t have an automatic signup process or a portal to upload your album. People can reach us through our website [see www.bfmdigital.com]. We look at every submission. We represent more than 600 content providers—artists, labels, publishers, and more. We have every style covering jazz, indie rock, world, classical, and reggae music—even yoga music.

The music has to be good and marketable. We don’t charge an up-front fee, we are partners with our labels in a revenue-sharing situation. So if something doesn’t sell, we don’t make money. The fiscal realities make it hard for us to get involved with a project that is starting from square one. There has to already be a foundation.

Do you see ample opportunities for those who want to become content creators?

Generally, yes. There are a lot of ways to generate money from music and make a living as a musician. I think it’s a challenge when artists limit themselves to just one or two. Now more than before, an artist has to pay attention to the business—even if they have a label or a distributor. Artists have to know how the business works. That’s the only way they can increase the chance of making a living doing what they love.