Growing Your Fan Base

Growing Your Fan Base

Randy Nichols is President of Force Media Management, a company that currently manages artists and producers including Underoath, The Almost and Aaron Gillespie. With two decades of experience in the music industry, Randy has also previously worked with bands and artists such as Reel Big Fish, Say Anything and Finch and has worn many other hats; he has worked as a booking agent, and a marketing/tour manager and product manager for record labels and also music websites.

 

Recently, I sat down to talk with Randy about how he got started in the music industry, his “Randy Nichols Needs a Job” newsletter experiment from several years ago and his practical advice for artists that want to successfully build their fan base locally, regionally and nationally.

 

Musician Coaching:

Thanks for taking some time out to talk to me. How did you get started in the music industry?

 

RN:

I started the way many other people in the business started, by booking shows at my college, C.W. Post out on Long Island. I’d book anyone from Murphy’s Law to Tori Amos, because we had a bunch of different facilities on campus and had to book a lot of different acts. That was the beginning of it. From there, I moved onto a lot of interning. The big internship that got me started was an internship at Sony Music for a label called Chaos.

 

After I interned at a million different places, I realized I’d interned everywhere, except for a booking agency. So I decided search around looking for a booking agency that was growing, since it was about the time I was going to graduate from college. I started looking  at Pollstar guides to find a growing agency so that when I graduated they would want to hire me. I was looking for good, solid companies with small staffs and bands that were about to break. I found a company where that exact thing was happening – Artist and Audience – and  they offered me a job when I finished up college. That was an interesting angle that worked for me that I always tell kids to use when they’re just getting started:  Look at companies that have acts that are going to break and get in with those people.

Musician Coaching:

It’s not the kind of forethought I had as a kid, but you’re right on.

 

RN:

Part of our job in the business is to predict the future all the time and know what’s going to happen for our artists and our own careers before they happen. If you can do that and are successful at it, it allows you to deal with the problems that come up too.

 

Musician Coaching:

What did you do with Artist and Audience?

 

RN:

I got hired as an assistant, and within a year became an agent there. I signed a couple bands that were really successful. I worked with Reel Big Fish. I had a band called Weston and Samiam and the Voodoo Glow Skulls – all stuff similar to what I do now. I was there for a while, and that company grew too fast, which was foresight I didn’t have. It had some growing pains and collapsed on itself.

 

From there I went and did tour marketing for a record label, Wind-up Records, for about a year. And then I left the industry for a couple years to work for an internet advertising company focused on the music space, back in 1999, before anyone in the business was doing those things. I learned a lot that is still helpful to this day in my job, which was kind of cool. That company collapsed in the whole dot-com bubble of the late 90s.

 

Musician Coaching:

Where did you go from there?

 

RN:

I also worked for London-Sire Records for a super short stint, and it was my big lesson in label politics. When I left there, it was 2001, and I knew I needed work, so I created a newsletter called  the “Randy Nichols Needs a Job” newsletter. I had made my calls and stayed in touch with everyone I needed to stay in touch with, but we didn’t have LinkedIn or Facebook or any of those tools back then. So, I made a list of all the industry people I knew wouldn’t be bummed out to be bombarded with emails from me. The newsletter was meant to be comical, and I sent out once a week. It would give people an update of what I was doing. I’d say, “I sat on the beach for four hours today, and all I could think about was working for you.” I went for being super sarcastic, but also showed my marketing skills. I ended up having tons of people emailing me back and starting to send me jobs they thought could be good for me. A lot of them were junior-level gigs that didn’t make sense, but when I turned them down, the people would always say, “If you hear of anyone else good, let me know.”

 

Musician Coaching:

Did that lead to other opportunities?

 

RN:

Well, I ended up making a website called the “Randy Nichols Needs a Job” website. I started posting other jobs on my website in addition to having info about me needing a job. I started throwing other fun music industry things up there that I knew other people would like. But the focus of the site was on my resume. On that site I had things like music industry jokes, etc. I also threw things on there like R.A. certification numbers – how many records you need to sell – but the equivalent for every single country in the world. This was the early days of Google, so it was interesting stuff people would want to know but didn’t know how to search for easily. Then randomly enough, a friend of mine worked for the dot-com that had exploded and was running a new iteration of it. They were running Mariah Carey’s website, at the time everyone thought she’d gone crazy when she fired her management through an audio message to her fans on her website. My friend sent me a copy of this message before the whole team had heard it and pulled it down. I posted that on my website, which suddenly started getting a ton of traffic because it was only up for a second, and you didn’t have BitTorrent and all those things to go searching for it. I suddenly had a bunch of people talking about me and interested. I actually got interviewed by the L.A. Times about my website, which was sort of ridiculous on about September 8th or 9th. The article about my site never ran because everything in the media changed on 9/11.

 

Musician Coaching:

Was this when you started thinking about having a management company?

 

RN:

New York was in a really weird state for the month or two around that time, and you weren’t calling anyone looking for favors. It didn’t feel right. But I had built this really great vibe with people and a couple people did call me after 9/11. The only real opportunity that popped up was my friends from Drive-Thru Records wanted me to run a management company with them. I felt I had no other options. The newsletter died out, and I partnered with them and started a management company in October or November of 2001. We partnered for about six months, and a lot of the artists we were working with decided they didn’t want their record label managing them, but wanted me to stay involved. So I split off from Drive-Thru and went full force running the management company by myself. I ran it for three or four years and then merged with Red Light Management for six years, and have since pulled my business back again. But my core business has been the same for about the past ten years.

 

Musician Coaching:

So, as someone that has been working as a manager for a while and has worked with a lot of established artists, what would make you take a risk on a band that doesn’t have a really established track record?

 

RN:

One of the biggest things I look at when I’m thinking about taking a client is whether or not the client is working really hard already. Not just working hard in the studio, but working hard on the street, getting to know people, talking to fans, using technology and doing everything a manager should be doing to build their own careers. The way I see it, a successful artist needs to be a good business person nowadays.  A manager can come in and help them run their business, but if they’re not already smartly running their business, chances are they’re not going to take my advice, they’re not going to follow everything I say, and they’re going to be in a bad situation quickly. I’ve picked up the artist that is super promising, has really great songs, has all the right stuff going on but just doesn’t have those instincts of how to run their career, and they fall on their faces.

 

For example, a band called JamisonParker –and I’m still really good friends with both guys – had great songs but were clueless, and didn’t have the drive to break their own career. We didn’t realize that the record label, the manager and the agent were way more excited about their career than they were.

Musician Coaching:

It’s always a big problem when the team in place is more excited than the artist.

 

RN:

An artist might think they’re really excited, but unless they’re really excited to do the work that comes along with the music, I’m not really interested.

 

MusicianCoaching:

The live show is everything these days, and you’re working with bands that are touring workhorses. What are you doing to help grow artists on the road?

 

RN:

My opinion on this has always been that a manager doesn’t make people like a band. There are a lot of kids who say, “You manage big bands. I want you to manage my band because people will like us if you manage us.” There’s that thought process out there a lot. My belief is that I didn’t make anyone like any of the bands I represent. I helped each one get in front of the right audience and smartly make business decisions so their fan base can grow. To me, it’s going back to the olden days of focusing on building a local following. Then, once you have that, work on building a regional following. Then take that to another region and eventually take it national. I think the idea of being on a national tour nine months after you’re a band is a terrible idea.

 

People need to sit back and really do the work. But then it’s getting on the road when you’re ready to be on the road, and getting on a big tour when you’re ready to be on a big tour. These days, kids have an idea, then two months later, they put something up on Myspace, then a month later they’re calling agents and managers trying to get on tour. If you look back at someone like The Beatles, who I think spent a year in Germany just playing that club there, honing their skills as a cover band, you realize how much bands need to learn how to be a band first. And I tell kids this all the time:  “Don’t send me your demo until it’s 100% ready, and you’ve done everything you can to make it as strong as possible, because I’m going to write you off the first time I hear it if it’s not good. If it’s really good, I’m going to pay more attention. But if it really sucks, I’m just going to remember your band sucks. Don’t send it to me until other people around you and strangers are starting to feel excited about it.” You need to get that honest feel. If you put something up online, all your friends are probably going to tell you they think it’s great. But if you start to see people you don’t know saying, “This is good. Tell me more. Tell me when you’re playing, because I want to see you, and don’t know you as anyone but the guy in that band.” That’s the point where you’re better off starting to reach out to people.

 

Musician Coaching:

When you’re kicking the tires on a band and something strikes you as good and you know the people are working hard, what are typically that band’s most important assets? So, what are the core elements you see that identify something that’s about to pop?

 

RN:

I feel like you can’t quantify one specific area. Even looking at my own artists, I’ll have a band that has a massive Twitter following vs. another that has a major Facebook following. So, you can’t say, “They’re big on Twitter, but they’re not on Facebook, so it’s not meaningful.” I think the most important thing is finding a real, legitimate, compelling fan-artist interaction happening. It should be on multiple platforms to some degree – it could be much stronger on one than another – but there has to be a lot of feedback online, on Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, whatever other social networks are around at a given number. It’s not just the number of plays or the number of fans or friends. It’s the actual interaction of people posting and the band reacting with them.

 

It’s equally as important for the band to say and do things regularly. I’ve been hit up by bands that have a decent online buzz, but they don’t interact with the fans. And at some point, that’s going to kill them too. In this new model, you have to talk to your fans regularly. You can’t be aloof and hiding all the time.

 

Musician Coaching:

Is blogging a good part of this interaction and something you think works for your artists and artists in general?

 

RN:

It doesn’t have to be blogging. It could be micro blogging, which is just quick Twitter posts here and there or quick Facebook updates. They don’t need to be wordy. It’s just about regularly saying something and keeping an open dialogue. It could be a one-page diatribe once a month.

 

Musician Coaching:

But it has to be above and beyond purely promotional messages.

 

RN:

Exactly. It needs to be, “Hey, I just  heard the new Bon Iver Record, and it’s awesome.” Or, “I went to a show the other day and ran into so-and-so,” or “Here we are, eating dinner at Burger King today.” You need promotional stuff,  but you need to manage how much promotional stuff there is vs. how much  you’re saying things that say, “Hey, we’re real people, we’re having fun, you should like us and connect with us.” If it’s purely promotional, you’re going to turn people off right away; because people want their bands to be part of their lives and a friend. It’s like any relationship. If you’re in a relationship where people are just asking for things all the time and nothing else, you’re not going to stay in that relationship for too long.


The other thing is looking at merch sales, ticket sales, reaction on tour, etc. The biggest quantifier for me is seeing each time the band does something, does the fan base grow a little bit bigger than the time before? Whether it’s playing a show with 20 people there the first time and 25 the next, or releasing a song on iTunes and getting 200 downloads on iTunes, but the next song you release gets 400 and the next one gets 800. You’re seeing a trend. I think it’s important to see that trend and fans reacting; because until fans are reacting, even on a minimal level, it’s impossible for you to get new people to like you.

 

Musician Coaching:

You were talking earlier about correct methods of touring and putting yourself in front of people in a logical fashion. Are there mistakes you see artists make time and time again?

 

RN:

It depends on which level you’re at in your career. The one mistake I see quite often is that when bands start to see even a little bit of success, they want to be on a tour bus. It’s a dream for everyone to be in a tour bus, and they make that jump from being in a van to being on a tour bus. When they were in a van, they were making some money and a profit, everyone was feeling pretty good about themselves, and moving towards a successful career. They jump into a tour bus, and they end their first tour in debt. And it’s their biggest tour ever, fans were reacting, kids were freaking out, they feel like they’re rock stars, and they don’t understand why they didn’t make a dime.

 

Musician Coaching:

I think the tour bus is also a metaphor about expenditure in general. I think people also take a swing at radio too early and don’t understand why then they can’t pay their rent. The sustainability problem is one that manifests whether it’s a tour bus or something else.

 

RN:

Exactly. And on the tour bus front, even when you can afford to be in one, you need to look at it and ask if you need one. Are you doing radio visits every day, where you need to be in the next town at 7 a.m., and you need to sleep on the way? That’s a reason to get a tour bus. If you don’t have reasons why you need to be in a town early, why not keep the van, get a hotel room and come home from a tour making an extra $20,000-$25,000 across the board? For a young band, that’s a huge amount of money, when you’re talking about throwing out between $1,000 and $1,500 per day. It’s about being smart and watching how much you spend.

 

That advice can go to a baby band too at an earlier stage in its career. They can say, “We’ve got this tour where we’re making $100 per night, we’re going to be in front of 300 kids per night. But we’re going to come home from the tour $5,000 in debt.” But if this tour is going to help grow your career, it may very well be worth taking that tour and doing it. It is your first national tour, and it could be your first chance for people to really start to know who you are. That $5,000 of debt might be paid off by having new fans buy your merch and your record online. But if you know the headlining band on the tour typically has two kids in the audience at the show in its home town, chances are only two kids are going to be in the audience in every town, and now you’ll be $5,000 in debt with no new fans from that tour.

 

You have to ask yourself, “Why am I getting this tour? What is making these people want us? Is it because we’re doing something, or because no one wanted the tour, so they’re giving it to us?”

 

Musician Coaching:

That’s a good point. Any parting words of advice for the real rookies out there?

 

RN:

The biggest thing is what I was talking about before. Don’t share your music until you’re sure it’s ready to be shared. You can share it with your friends and try to build an online fan base, but don’t come to industry professionals until you know the music is ready.

 

One other bit of advice is, “Don’t lie.” That’s my biggest pet peeve. You can hype up your band and stretch the truth little bits here or there with smoke-and-mirrors games. But we all talk to each other in this business, and everyone knows each other. If you tell me you sold out this club in town or this agent or manager wants to work with you, I know who all these people are. The first thing I’m going to do if I’m interested in you is call those people. If that information you’re telling me isn’t true, it’s going to blow up in your face, and it’s not going to be pretty.

 

Just to follow up slightly on that, there is a Long Island band who shall remain nameless that has gone nowhere, and I don’t care to help them. They hit me up a year or a year and a half ago and were always bugging me online. I always gave them advice, because they were nice enough kids, and I always wanted to see them do well. One day they told me an agent at one of the major agencies wanted to represent them. And I said, “Wow, that’s really cool.” I was happy for them. They said, “He told me he’d pick us up as long as someone like you comes on as a manager. Are you ready to take us on as our manager so this agent will work with us?” I was just genuinely happy for the kids and emailed the agent to ask him the story. The agent got back to me, and said, “I have zero interest in picking up that band. They’re nice kids, and I’ve just been giving them some advice. But if they’re saying that …” And I had forwarded the email from the band directly to him when I emailed him. He immediately stopped talking to the band, was furious with them. And then the band called me and yelled at me, telling me I blew their big deal working with the company. And I did nothing but congratulate the company for getting involved with them.

 

You really have to be careful about being truthful. If you’re not, you can do damage to the relationships you’ve built and your career as a whole.

 

To learn more about Randy Nichols and the artists he represents, please visit the Force Media Management website. You can also follow Randy and his company on Facebook.