I am actually pretty psyched about the New Music Seminar book that was given out when you purchased a badge. In the past guidebooks tended to be lists of the events and panels and performances as well as a contact list of the industry people who were attending and very little else. This guidebook has tons of information geared directly to the artist including sample tour budgets, riders and advice from industry professionals on their topic of expertise. My personal favorite piece of advice from the book was from Kevin Lyman of the Warped Tour who suggested checking the oil in your van on a regular basis and several ways to prevent your gear from being stolen on the road.
I was perhaps overly critical in my post yesterday about the panels as I forgot to mention that Emily White from Whitesmith Entertainment offered very real and tangible ways that Amanda Palmer and her other artists retained fans from the road including having her tour manager’s cell phone number shouted out from stage for the purpose of collecting fan email addresses via SMS. Of all of the panelist I got the sense from her that she had spent the most time at ground level working with bands (and it turns out she started out tour managing the Dresden Dolls). The rest of the panelists were discussing some good advice for fan retention and interaction but I wanted to hear more about the process of building a fan base. As I mentioned yesterday I missed the touring panel and I am sure judging by the members on it they would have much more experience in growing a following than I would but this is what I’ve learned and oddly most of it came from my time as a gigging musician rather than an industry executive.
I played bass (and became the manager by default) of a seven piece band that had a three year run from 1992-1995. The band was by no means a big success but we did manage to bring between 200-300 fans out on a regular basis towards the end of our little run in the NYC market which is a particularly difficult market to build a following. I’ve had other projects but this one makes the most sense to describe because it was really the band I learned the most from because I knew absolutely nothing when I started. I have since used modern tools in other projects I have been in more recently but these examples somehow still resonate.
Our first gig came about opening for a friend’s band. We were spared the cold calling and got a pretty lousy time slot club that at best held 400 people (I mean really held 400 people not what the fire marshal said it should hold). It was late-ish on a weekday night but we did manage to put 35 or so people in the room and we were invited back. At that point I don’t think we had even spoken to the guy who booked the room other than to ask what kind of back line was available and I’m pretty sure as it was our first gig that none of us really knew that it was called a back line.
It’s a funny thing being in a band, the idea was to play music and not have a real job because I hated the part time jobs I was able to get at the time and I think I dreaded job interviews even more. I would come to realize that every gig we ever played was simply a job interview for the next gig. If we wanted a better job at a better time slot on a better night we had to out perform the attendance expectations. If we wanted the same people who were there that night to come back the next time we played then we had better put on a damn good show.
I befriended the promoter of that first venue, it turns out he also booked a few other clubs and as we drew well for him on a usually slow week night. He was kind enough to suggest a few other nights at his other venues with bands that were more “our kind of music”. At the time we wanted to be like the JBs but were all very young and overplayed too much so it wound up being more like (sigh) disco. We played many such gigs with other bands who had a similar sound and were able to pull some fans from them as well.
I can already see this will be too long winded so I’ll sum up the things that helped the most going from a few dozen friends to a regular draw of several hundred people.
1) Make personal connections. I am going to take it for granted that everyone wanting to build a business is collecting email addresses and on all the social networks and using some restraint so as not to mass email everyone six times a day about important stuff like the lead singer having a headache. But I most remember being out and about with my bass on my back talking to people I worked with, talking to people I went to school with, talking to record store clerks and just talking to anyone about music. We wheat pasted flyers to telephone polls and send out mailers but I most remember that the people I stopped to talk to (without hard selling them) and actually handed a flyer to were the people who most often showed up. I still believe that looking someone in the eye will always be much more effective than emailing (at least locally). A side note about wheat pasting, I’m pretty sure no one does it anymore and it’s illegal (in NY) and the clubs get fined so be wary. Also be wary of smoking cigarettes while wheat pasting because inhaling wheat past that lands on your cigarette can be rather disorienting albeit not entirely unpleasant.
2) Be fearless. Like a band? Want to open for them? (and no, not U2, the big local or regional act) Introduce yourself after a show, get an email address explain your situation if they have some time. I’d be surprised if they didn’t do the same thing to the big regional act when they were coming up. Several larger acts mentored me after introducing myself in this way and one in particular became a life long friend. These relationships allowed my band to open up for some really powerful regional acts and really grew our band’s profile.
3) Be humble – Ask questions. Find people who have what you want, or even better find people who have what they want and ask them how they got it. For better or for worse I asked a local promoter for an unpaid internship because I wanted to learn how to get my band signed (yea, yea it was the 90s, shut up) and it got me an internship at Atlantic records. Ask the people at local clubs what they have found to be the most effective ways of promoting shows at their venue as soon as you book the gig and listen. The question alone let’s the person booking your act know that you care about your business.
4) Be Polite, follow up and don’t take rejection personally.
If you are in a position of cold calling put yourself in the position of the person on the other end of the line. And then think back to the stereotype of all musicians- guys and gals – as a rule, we suck! How much mediocrity and worse is out there? Do you silently groan when you see 3-4 normal looking people who are unknown to you take the stage before they have even opened their mouths or played a note? Well okay then… now picture it is your job to sift through mediocrity that we all know so well. If the last visual didn’t grab you go immediately to Guitar Center and stand in the guitar section listening to people trying out instruments for an hour if you come back smiling (from joy not Schadenfruede) please Fedex me some of what you are on immediately. Short story long – would you be happy to hear from a musician you didn’t know? I’m gonna go ahead and guess no. So call, be polite – provide facts about your business and accolades not how talented you are and then call as many other clubs that would have an act of your size and hope for the call back. Ask them their preferred method of getting material to them and do it as they request. Monday nights and open mics are the way to start and take baby steps from there.
5) Start small, start segmented. I will give it up to Terry McBride from Nettwerk who when I asked the basic build a band question to the panel he was on @ NMS simply said “start small, start local – Tribes.” This is sound advice. Go after an audience or community one community or segment at a time. At college- go after college students. Work at a big company? Go after co-workers. Belong to a strong group of some kind be it religious, national, political or hobby oriented? Group them together and market to them. The band I was in targeted the intoxicated, NYU students, Kung Fu fans and video gamers and even before the internet we manged to find these people. Be sure you are a part of these communities though because outsiders pedaling their wares with a hard sell are not at all welcome.
I may be way to scattered to be a blogger but those are some of the things that helped me – drop me an email I want to hear from you.