What changed the music industry?

Maybe it was Microsoft, which in 1997 incorporated digital music (MP3) support into its Windows Media Player, allowing users to conveniently listen to music from their computers.

Maybe it was the introduction of Napster in 1999, which perpetuated the use and distribution of MP3s to millions of users worldwide -- although the true streaming revolution might have started when Radiohead released Kid A in 2000.

Maybe it was the first iPod hitting the shelves in 2001, ushering in "a thousand songs in your pocket" and an all new way to carry, share and consume music.

Or maybe it was John Cougar Mellencamp?

I would argue that the music industry changed in 2006, when Mellencamp became one of the first major recording stars to record a song specifically for a major corporation, producing Our Country for Chevy. Why this particular event? Because it was not the digitization and streaming of music that changed the music industry, it was the acknowledgement by musicians that it had changed, hence ushering in new way of thinking about, producing and profiting from music.

When Our Country hit the commercial airwaves, my generation ( Gen X) looked at Mellencamp as a "sell out." The music charts at that time were filled with artists, after all, not corporate spokespeople, and to produce a song -- much less license a song -- for the sole purpose of promoting a product was akin to music treason.

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"I agonized," Mellencamp told USA Today's Edna Gundersen in 2007 about his decision to produce Our Country. "I still don't think we should have to do it, but record companies can't spend money to promote records anymore, unless you're U2 or Madonna."

Mellencamp saw early on what took the music industry a few more years to see. The traditional means of reaching consumers and making money were done. Musicians needed to reinvent themselves.

Marketing professionals are finding themselves in a similar predicament as the music industry. Reaching consumers is more difficult as the use of traditional channels of advertising continues to fade. Today, consumers have choices, and a great many of them, so they can easily tune out advertisements, and with digital natives entering the consumer market soon, this trend will only continue.

If businesses want to stay ahead, they need to think more like Radiohead and Mellencamp and get creative with their promotional strategies. Here are three simple ideas businesses can run with:

1. Leverage influencers.

One strategy musicians are adapting is to become advocates for their own music. By generating a substantial social-media following, musicians can reach out and engage with their fans far more personally, which helps them sell concerts ticket and merchandise (and maybe even music). Not every business can generate the fan following of musicians, but they can still tap into online influencers.

Love or hate them, social-media influencers, or individuals who have made a lucrative living from building massive online audiences, have tremendous influence when it comes to promoting products. More important, most young consumers do not look upon celebrities who promote products as "sell outs." Rather, the idea is viewed as a respectful way of making a living.

One such company that has had success with this strategy is Challenged, developers of a mobile app that allows users to make daily challenges with friends, celebrities and companies with a focus on social awareness. The creators of the app engaged with a number of social-media celebrities, such as Nash Grier, which propelled the app into the top 20 lifestyle apps (and top 150 overall) in just a couple of months.

Haven’t heard of Nash Grier? Well, a combined 28.7 million social-media followers says you should.

2. Place products.

Attitudes in the music industry have changed and adapted (somewhat) to digital-music streaming, with some even advocating that musicians give away music for free. Radiohead continued along these lines in 2007 when it released In Rainbows for free, simply asking patrons to pay for what they thought the download was worth.

The idea, of course, is to get the music in the hands of customers before they burn the music from a friend’s CD, download it illegally or stream it on a music service such as Spotify or Pandora. This allows artists to provide a personalized experience and ultimately control how consumers experience their brands.

For businesses, traditional means of promotion, namely commercials, are slowly losing effectiveness. With more and more people cutting cable and avoiding commercials, and with the recent introduction of ad blockers, businesses will find it increasingly difficult to get their brands in front of people.

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Instead, businesses need to consider creative ways to be where consumers are and, again, get noticed. The idea of product placement, or getting your product or service seen, used or mentioned in a program (typically television programs or movies), has been around for years.

Avion tequila gained attention in 2010 when it cleverly placed its tequila in the popular HBO show, Entourage. Since being introduced to the show’s huge audience, the company has seen tremendous growth and gained the backing of liquor giant Pernod Ricard SA.

I recently noticed a placement of the Under Armor logo in Season 2 of NBC’s The Black List. Although very subtle, I would argue that it is much more prominent than any advertisement that was skipped or even left out altogether, as is the case with streaming the series on Netflix.

Getting a product placed on a programs may be difficult, but with the right strategy and a focus on smaller niche markets, it can work for any company.

3. Consider podcasts.

A podcast is, essentially, radio on demand. As someone who religiously listens to podcasts while driving, running or doing chores around the house, I can attest to the quality of the programming that is being churned out. As more multitaskers like myself come to understand the benefits of audio programs on demand, the opportunity for reaching consumers via this medium will grow.

With 271,000 podcasts available, marketers need to know and understand which podcasts their customers are tuned in to -- and with data, that should be easy. Research and find the right podcasts that meet your customer profile and company culture, and simply inquire about advertising costs. Many times, the podcaster will produce the commercial for you.

Think it’s a little early in the podcasting trend to jump in? A cumulative 1 billion podcast subscribers says otherwise.

The takeaway from all of this is that marketers need to get creative. These are just three ideas to consider, but more than likely, the best ideas have yet to be discovered. Maybe it just requires a bottle of Avion tequila and Radiohead to inspire you.

What other creative ways have gotten your product or service noticed? Please share your insights with others in the comments section below.

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