Former Label Exec Livia Tortella's New (to the Public) Marketing Firm Says It's All About Building Audience

What is artist development in the age of streaming and social media? "For us, the new music industry is all about audience," says Livia Tortella, a former co-president and chief operating officer of Warner Bros. Records and founder of Black Box, an 18-month-old marketing company that specializes in building new artists' brand and audience.

Some marketing companies typically focus on social media, communications or traditional marketing like event activation. Black Box provides "high-level strategy," says Tortella, who quietly operated the company since early 2014 before coming out to the public on Monday. Her team of eight includes music veteran Brian Popowitz, formerly with Nettwerk and Warner Bros. Records, as general manager.

Tortella's approach seems like more a brand expert -- a person that crafts a brand identity -- than a music marketer. Her team sits down with an artist-client and helps them understand their brand, what they want to represent and who their fans are. They can develop and implement plans to monetize an artist's audience, through partnerships and direct-to-consumer commerce. As an added element, Tortella can consult her large, wide-ranging professional network to help solve a problem. It's a "high touch" approach missing from the automated marketing platforms flourishing these days. 

Audiences don't just appear out of thin air. Artist development runs into the reality of listeners' short attention spans. To understand the size of the challenge, look no further than this analysis of Spotify data. About a quarter of listeners skip within five seconds, and nearly half don't make it to the end of the song. Artists simply don't have much time to make a memorable impression.

In fact, the very nature of online communications makes it difficult to artists to make a lasting impression. A recent study by Microsoft found that attention spans had shrunk to eight seconds in 2013, from 12 seconds in 2000. What little time creators have to make an immediate impact is reduced when consumers use multiple screens. With three out of four Canadians studied -- and 9 in 10 millennials -- using multiple devices, a message must be delivered in the right context to make a mark on the listener.

Tortella has seen the impact of not presenting a meaningful brand to music consumers. "If your audience doesn't care, you don't have a long-term career anyway. You can have a big, monster hit and be without fans. We see that all the time in the industry."

Some of Black Box's early clients are management companies Bill Silva Entertainment (Jason Mraz, Brooke Candy) and Zeitgeist Artist Management (Death Cab For Cutie, Best Coast). With their relatively small staffs (compared to record labels), management companies are a natural fit for Black Box. "Managers -- some of them -- are in the unfortunate situation where they can't necessarily beef up on resources, but they're the ones that have the most to benefit from branding," says Tortella.

Even so, Black Box feels it's an appropriate partner for record labels as well. What Tortella calls "the glorious, magic button" labels used to push to easily create distribution and radio play has disappeared. "First it was digital downloads. Now it's figuring out streaming and figuring out how that works, and at the same time doing everything they've always done: managing distribution, managing radio promotion and what that entails and trying to move artists across the country. I think their plate is more than full."

The finicky nature of today's consumers will uncover the quality of an artist's audience. An artist's career, and success, always comes back to the quality of the artist development, says Tortella. "I've been in that chair, when I've seen a lot of really quick burns really early, and then you always have to answer to that [question], 'Do I have fans or not?' Do I have people that care? Do I have people that will call radio [stations] or show up at my shows?' I think that is the secret of today's business: figuring out what that means for each artist."