To be successful as an independent artist, you have to wear many hats. Our DIY culture has created mavericks out of us all – each one of us relentlessly carving out our own self-taught path. Among all the hats we wear, two of them are the most important and one of them is best of all.
Most of us have been in this situation. You go to see an act perform. This act has little to no musical talent, sings off key, and/or bangs violently on his instrument until a tortured sound comes out of it. You look out into the crowd and you’re surprised to find that people are actually cheering him on. They’re moving their heads around like they are enjoying it! They buy his music, and promise up and down they’ll come back next time to see him play again. Here you are, you’ve taken countless music and voice lessons, you’ve been able to carry a decent tune and you can make some semblance of a good sound. Yet, you can’t seem to muster half of the attention he’s getting. You’re left bewildered shocked and completely annoyed at the irony. You ask, “What gives?” How can he be this successful at getting people to show up and support him?
He’s wearing both hats! One hat is the artistic charismatic musician hat and the other hat is the savvy business person hat. Both are important, but what’s interesting is that the savvy business person hat is the one that got him his dedicated fanbase and the one that will get you past hobby level and well into career-level status. The reason? Nearly everyone and anyone can learn to play a musical instrument and play it well. But not everyone can do that while standing out in a crowd and set themselves apart from all the others. That’s where the business savvy comes in. The power of marketing and promotion could quite possibly mean the difference between a part-time hobbyist and a full-time established artist on the college and premier listening room circuit.
Before I became a full-time artist, I worked in the corporate world as a marketing specialist. I saw first-hand just how important marketing is and what kind of difference it makes. My boss and I would spend hours pouring over copy for direct mailers, e-mail newsletter blasts, trade show materials, and flyers. After salary expenses, the next largest percentage of the monthly expenses went to marketing and advertising. This was the backbone of sales and revenue generation for the company. Marketing and advertising are the primary drivers to get more patrons while also connecting with and keeping the ones you have. This is true in traditional business and the same is true for independent artists. Yet, most of us don’t spend nearly as much time and money on it as we should. It makes you wonder how much return on investment is left on the table when you don’t actually invest.
This is not meant to devalue the music aspect of the independent artist career. Musical ability does have it’s place. It proves merit and is the substance of what you’re selling. But the old saying rings true: If a tree falls in the forest and no one heard it, did it make a sound? Nobody really knows. Similarly, if no one knows about your music, you can release millions of songs, but how many albums will you sell if no one knew they were available? Achieving top-level ability in playing music requires a different skill set than achieving career success as a musician. One takes practice and talent while the other takes grit and know-how respectively. Some musicians incorrectly assume that because they can play well automatically opens the door to fame, stardom and “making it in the business.” Unfortunately, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The truth is, the amount of merchandise and tickets you sell can be directly related to the quality of your relationships. How you spark and cultivate those relationships is part of your marketing strategy. Just doing small things can reap tremendous results if you take the time and do it and do it right. Apply some grassroots marketing tactics to your career and it will become the wind beneath your wings.
So where do you start? Marketing can be uber fun and overwhelmingly frustrating at the same time. Not knowing what to do or where to go can halt your strategy before getting things into motion. Remembering these three very important steps will help steer you in the right direction.
- Make a decision to invest.
How much time will you put into marketing and promotions? Are you willing to make the commitment to promote yourself on a daily basis? How much money will you spend monthly? Commit to a plan and stick to it.
2. Learn the ropes.
Marketing can be fun and incredibly challenging at the same time. Especially, when you’re not sure where to begin. Invest in a good book on marketing and read, read, read. Any books by Bob Baker would be a good start. My personal favorite is his Guerrilla Music Marketing Series. In these books, Baker gives hundreds of practical low cost ideas on how to market yourself. Also, find musician marketing blogs and sign up to their mailing lists for free. Try Music Think Tank, CDBaby DIY, Grasrootsy, Hypebot, to name a few. They will regularly send you great ideas. Another way to learn is to study successful artists and recycle some of their tactics. Join their mailing lists and check out what they are doing? Watch how they correspond with fans, how they promote their shows, how they interact on their social media, what contests they’re doing, and how they promote their merchandise. There are so many great ideas and tactics that have already been tried and tested. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just reuse it.
3. Bite off a few pieces at a time.
Ask yourself what you can do today to promote and market. Maybe it’s burning a few sampler CDs that you can take with you to pass out at your next Open Mic or networking event. Maybe you want to go a step further and make 50 Demos. Find out what mainstream artist in your genre is playing in your town and plan on passing your CDs out there to the people who come to see them. If your music is similar they might be interested in hearing your sound too.
Take some to your local coffee shops and set them up as freebies. You’d be amazed at how many people will take them and listen. Also, ask the coffee shop if you can sponsor a week of coffee sleeves. Have some custom coffee sleeves made up and let the coffee shop do your marketing for you. Another thing you can do is put up flyers on community boards in your town. Add a QR code that links to your best video and make it easy for people to watch you perform instantly. Do a little trial and error. Keep doing things, and pay attention to what works. Modify your strategy and phase out things that don’t work.
If you want to achieve success and establish a solid fanbase, take a page out of traditional business models and learn how business is done.