Being an independent artist is like having your cake and eating it too. The feeling you get after a great show is so rewarding and fulfilling, you just can’t bring yourself to do anything else. You get to be your own boss. You have control and ownership over your music, you get to tour the world, and you get to rock people’s socks off. The love of making music is what drives us and these are some of the perks of doing what we love. This thrill, although very intoxicating, doesn’t come without a price. Working as an independent musician is tough. For some of us, work days are longer than 8 hours, we work weekends, and for every YES there were 30 NO’s. The field is highly competitive and the fact that you’re putting the inner workings of your soul out there for all to see and criticize can be daunting to say the least. What’s more, some of us don’t get half of the support and acknowledgement we think we deserve. Support is what feeds our career, but it can be hard to achieve. And when we don’t get it, a good portion of us tend to blame everyone else but ourselves.
I have heard this idea time and time again from musicians. The notion that good music will attract fans. “If you build it, they will come” is a very popular saying, but sadly it doesn’t apply in the world of music. We can’t write and produce a song, throw it on an album and expect people to bust our doors down trying to get to it, no matter how good our work might be. Similarly, we can’t book a show and expect people to just come based on the quality of our music. Real fans don’t just materialize out of thin air. They don’t just appear with the snap of a finger. Oh how I wish it were that easy. We have to promote, we have to promote right, and we have to promote well.
Why is it that a person with seemingly no musical talent can become the biggest hit since sliced bread, but a highly skilled musician can’t seem to round up 30 people in a room at one time? It’s all about marketing! And that my friend is our responsibility. If we’re not getting enough support from fans or we’re having trouble getting fans to begin with, don’t pass off the blame to them. We’re inadvertently putting our careers in their hands when we do that.
Instead, turn the focus inward. Look at what you’re doing. What is your marketing angle? Do enough people know about you? Do enough of the right people know about you? Do they have a reason to spend their time and money with you?
The reason why you’re not getting the support you think you deserve can be boiled down to three factors:
1. You’re relying on the wrong people.
Friends and family are not true fans. They didn’t sign up to support you. They signed up to be just who they are and nothing more. They didn’t discover you in a magazine or on the radio or at one of your shows in the way that a traditional fan would. They’ve known you for years and to them you are the same guy/gal that used to (you fill in the blank). You will never be anything more to them (unless you win the music lottery and get signed to a major label. Then they might acknowledge you as a real artist. But that’s a different article). This is very typical in friend/family relationships. The purpose of these types of relationships is not to catapult your career. They are there to provide emotional support, a shoulder to cry on, and a sense of belonging. However, in the off chance you do have a friend or family member who genuinely likes your music and they make the personal decision to become a fan, embrace it but don’t expect it.
Another common pitfall for independent artists is trying to apply the Spray and Pray method. This is when you hit up every single widespread promotional avenue you can think of and hope something sticks. This works well for labels with deep pockets, but as an independant artist, you simply can not afford to pour out hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars to mainstream radio stations, media outlets, billboards, publicists, and the works hoping for the best. Your approach will have to be more targeted. You need to pinpoint precisely the people who will truly appreciate your music. Have you asked yourself who your target market is? When you can answer this question, you will have more insight on what to spend your advertising budget on and how to get the most bang for your buck.
2. You’re not doing enough to promote.
Creating a poster and an event on Facebook is not enough to get people out to your show. You have to give them a reason to come. Answer the question, “What’s in it for them?” Maybe it’s to just relax while listening to smooth live music after a long hard week. Or maybe you are introducing new songs or new merchandise. Maybe you’re doing a tribute to some well-known artist. Maybe it’s a social event for people who like to dress up in costumes. Maybe it’s an album release party. Whatever it is, put some serious thought into your gig and figure out a way to make it an event that people will want to come to.
Have you been cultivating a mailing list? Your mailing list is your #1 source to realizing support as an independent artist. This is where the folks who did sign up to be fans find out about your shows, your projects, and your products. These are the people who will most likely spend their time and money with you. Each time you perform in their area send them an e-mail with an offer they can not refuse. Also, send correspondence to your entire list consistently. I do mailings once monthly, but some have experienced success with mailing more often like twice a month or even weekly. Whatever you do, make sure your content is interesting and valuable.
I look at marketing as a numbers game. The more targeted marketing you produce the higher your results percentage will be. For example, if you want 30 people to come to your event, you have to market to 200. If you want 50 people to come to your event you have to market to 350. This goes back to the classic quote, “You get out of it what you put into it.”
3. You’re not promoting yourself in the right ways.
The numbers game works best once you find the right way to promote yourself. I call this The Sweet Spot. The Sweet Spot is a trick you’ve discovered that works the best for you. For example, if you have a special interest you might be able to leverage that into new fans. Write a song about this interest or even an entire album and then pitch it to groups that hold the same interest. You can get an infinite number of show opportunities and new fans just from this alone. Take MC Frontalot for example. He carved out a niche in nerdcore hip-hop. He raps about Ralph Macchio and Starwars and landed a huge gig at Def Con, the world’s longest running and largest underground hacking conference. He hit his Sweet Spot and rode it all the way to the bank. You can do the same. I am a singer-songwriter with natural hair. There is currently a huge movement of women and support groups centered around the topic of natural hair. So I wrote a few songs about it and released them on an album. Now I get natural hair gigs at meetups and expos, getting a bit of radio play and features on popular blogs across the globe. If it had not been for me tapping into this market I could have missed out on all these new fans and opportunities.That is just one example. There are so many different ways you can promote yourself. Finding what works for you is key and then you promote the heck out of it.
If no one shows up to a show, don’t play the blame game and have a pity party. Figure out why and do something different the next time. Try a different or smaller venue. Try offering an extra incentive. I once made bring-a-friend flyers for a show to get people to bring someone with them and receive a “we’re friends” discount. Ari Herstand has built an audience of fellow career minded artists, so in an effort to bring more people out to his shows, he hosts artist meet-ups before/after each show. The artists meet and greet and then listen to him play. One group in NYC hosted a clothing swap concert where they encouraged guests to bring old clothes to swap while enjoying live music. Whatever it takes to build buzz and get people out is the name of the game.
If you’re having trouble selling your music, try changing your sales pitch. Do some research on marketing strategies and best selling practices. If you’re not selling from the stage, learn how to ask for the sale without feeling guilty. Take another look at your pricing strategy. Is there something you can offer at every price point? Are you connecting with your fans enough? People typically buy from the musicians in which they already have some sort of connection or emotional attachment. Figure out how you can make a long-lasting emotional connection with people. Cultivating genuine relationships with people will help you build a stable career with longevity. It’s better to have 300 Super Fans who will spend $100 a year with you, than 2,000 almost-fans who won’t spend a dime with you. Take the time to connect with people. Segment your list so that you can focus more on those who really want to hear from you. The fans who reply to your e-mails, respond to your posts, and come see you perform are Super Fans. These are the people who will get you gigs, share you with their friends, come see you at every show, and buy what you’re selling. This is your bread and butter. Make sure you treat them as such.
The bottom line is we as independent artists must learn to take our careers into our own hands. The old-school record label business model is a thing of the past. If we want to earn a living with music, we no longer have to make a heartfelt pitch to music gatekeepers and hope the lottery calls our number. With the rise of the internet and high-tech direct-to-consumer methods, we can pitch ourselves directly to fans bypassing the record labels all together. This in no way is meant to diminish the value of record labels, they have their purpose. However, it should be an encouragement to those of us that don’t want to play the lottery. There is a market out there for every style and genre, you just have to find yours.