Times are changing. And these times are certainly challenging. In a recession you need to know (and be able to articulate) exactly what you bring to the proverbial table. While banks and car companies are receiving the lion’s share of press coverage, most industries are feeling the pain. As I mentioned before, record companies are but one example.

Before the Internet, when all music came on pieces of plastic, the record companies controlled distribution. They had the warehouses to store the LPs, CDs, and tapes. They paid the trucking companies to ship them music to record stores around the country. Record labels were the only game in town. Downloads and file sharing have changed this forever and record companies need to redefine what benefits they offer their artists.

At the recent Adobe MAX 2008 conference. Eric Snowden, Sr. Creative Director at Atlantic records, gave an excellent presentation, “Atlantic Records: Connecting Fans with Bands.” which described some of the innovative ways Atlantic helps its artists turn casual listeners into fans.

What’s in it for the musician?

If you’re a musician, what benefit (other than prestige) do you get from signing with a major label?

The first thing you get is a team with a vested interest in your success. (Without being too naive about the beneficence of record companies, if you do well, they do well.) On this team you get people who have skills that you probably don’t. Just as most companies spend most of their time perfecting and producing their widgets, most musicians concentrate on making music, not on marketing themselves and ‘maintaining their brands.’

On the Web

The presentation focused on the web sites for two acts: T.I. and Paramore. T.I. is an rapper who has sold tons of CDs. Paramore is an “indie” band that just released its second album. Because T.I. and Paramore are at different stages in their careers, Atlantic’s strategies for marketing them are different: in brief, increasing community for T.I.’s fans and increasing access for Paramore’s.

Atlantic has given cell phones with cameras and Flip video cameras to all its artists so that they can upload their own candid photos and videos to their sites. This sort of behind the scenes access is what fans crave. Paramore is constantly blogging from the road.

Fans are encouraged to participate via forums and to contribute their own photos and videos. All user-generated content is tagged with paramore.net (to encourage others to visit the site).

On your phone

All Atlantic bands have mobile websites. These mobile web sites are not second-class citizens: Due to the restrictions of the medium, the content isn’t quite the same as the main sites, but there is the same priority given to mobile content. Chat, authorized and unauthorized photos. All designed to give fans instant access to the bands and to their communities.

On your desktop

Atlantic has also created an Adobe AIR application (i.e., a standalone desktop application based on Flash), FanBase, that features an audio player, chat room and a continuous feed of official and unofficial news, photos and videos from some of Atlantic’s top artists. FanBase allows fans to find out more news and information about their favorite bands without having to launch a browser.

Whether on the web, desktop, or phone, all of sites are designed to keep fans engaged and excited.

But, I’m not a musician …

While your widgets may not be as sexy as a slow dance ballad, businesses today need to connect with your ‘casual listeners’ and turn them into fans (and let them connect with each other). Who wouldn’t want to have fans? People who are truly excited about what you do and tell all their friends about how cool you are?

For instance, an online forum doesn’t just establish a sense of community. It could also allow your customers to help solve each others problems cutting down on your customer service costs. It can also be a great (and inexpensive) way to get real feedback on how your company and your products are perceived. Access and transparency can both help your bottom line.