So you have made good music but have no idea how to get it heard, let alone to #1 on the charts. Now this is the 42 cent question. If there was a simple 1-2-3 answer then there’d be no musicians with good records and poor incomes.
As usual I will look at the background first – you may not want to read a longer post but I am a firm believer in understanding bringing change and therefore different and hopefully better results. Each section presents the different pieces of the puzzle as I see them. Don’t worry they all get put together at the end in simple 1-10 bullet points.
There Ain’t No Second Prize
This sentiment was rammed into us over a few decades by sports brands trying to sell clothing. Clever campaign as it really caught on. Sadly it did catch on, as we polarized ourselves to think that the only winners are those who made #1 on the podium. The person at #2 didn’t count. The person at #11 didn’t even exist.
Big mistake as many of the people in music who don’t ever make Top 100 still make a living. You don’t need to be on the charts to make a living doing what you love. As soon as you let go of the idea that #1 is the only thing that counts the sooner you can focus on your message, as you can deliver it to the people who can take it in. We’ll call you the musician and them the fans.
Sign Me Up
Almost every musician I meet is desperately trying to get a deal, to get signed. I used to be the same way. I felt that if I were discovered by someone who could see how talented I am, they would tell other people I was talented and those people would want to buy my records. Nice story. It was happy ever after thinking (and even had hopes of a princess in there somewhere).
So why are artists so keen to be signed, under-contract? The key to better online sales is in the answer – and I showed you above. It is my firm belief that artists want to be signed to get approval, so that they have permission to be: a) an artist, b) successful.
As long as an artist feels they need to get approval to tell their story and have people like it, they find it hard to tell their unique story. They may make a noise, but probably will really only be trying to make someone else’s music – copying what is successful in hope something rubs off. It won’t work out very well.
While fans like Justin Bieber, they actually only want one of him. There is definitely a market for similar so we get offered other teen-pop singers but if one of the follow-up stars strays too close to being a clone then the market rejects them. Fans do want similar but even so they want original, authentic. There are an infinite number of ways to say “I love you”. Find yours.
Welcome to the Dark Ages – there ain’t no first prize
In the 70’s an artist had to get in good with Mr EMI or there was no hope of selling records in another country, let alone on another continent. In the 80’s, there was a rise in independent labels who signed more odd stuff as they could afford to handle smaller accounts. When the artist started to fire, the artist was licensed or on-sold to a Major who had the power to market and distribute harder. In the early 00’s we suddenly discovered that the Internet was on computers and that anyone could post anything that could be seen and heard by anyone, anywhere. The ball game changed and the world as we knew it fractured.
From the Middle Ages on, the world became more and more centralized, but the internet has ripped much of that apart and it will get ripped further. In 1066 a singer (whilst avoiding being skewered by Normans) would earn food and lodging for a show. Some got to stay-put at the foot of the King but most had to roam. This is the landscape we find ourselves in now. There are a few who get elevated but the rest of us have to revise our game. Fame is back to being a very local thing.
It is just that Local now has two meanings:
- Physical – your physical local is your local pub, or any venue you can drive to to play a show.
- Online – your sphere of influence on the Internet. If I were to track what you do online for a month I would see you only go to certain places. You could go anywhere but you don’t. You could have visited The Smithsonian exhibit of Pharaonic Phoenician Porcelain but you didn’t. Where you went and what you looked at is your local area. Get this concept as you will need it later.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
People blame the record industry for what they hear. Saying “they” are the cause of all the music turning to number two. Understand the music business is a business. It works out what people will pay for and delivers that. If people will only pay for number two then it will be number one on the charts. As soon as there is a new floater making a wave then the record business will snap that up and wrap it in a bow.
Must musicians are afraid to do anything different – at least until they have permission from “The Man”. The record industry knows it will need different as people become bored with their current obsession. There is advantage in being different. A few smart (or bull-headed) artists know this. Those who build a strong crowd are going to be looked at by record companies. Justin Bieber rose from YouTube.
Don’t like the music then offer something new that people like and you are on your way. The record industry doesn’t want bad music. It doesn’t sell anywhere near as well, long term, as good music. The Eagles and Creedence back catalog are easy money for record companies now.
The real boss is the fan. If fans don’t get your music then they won’t buy it simple as that. Your job as an artist is to make sure you make good music that obeys the 6-points that make people happy. Sure fashion has an influence but biology and history are stronger. Making people happy is the role of the artist. You can make people happy with 3.5 minute love songs, or 22.5 minute Progressive Rock solos. People are different.
Go Your Own Way
YouTube let you be seen anywhere for no cost. Sites like Bandcamp let you build your own record store. WordPress and other platforms let you tell your story with words and pictures (you can even embed YouTube and Bandcamp). Tunecore and CDBaby let you get your music distributed to almost every online outlet in existence (iTunes, Spotify…).
As you can see the Internet has created a level playing field. We no longer need to get permission to publish our art in a way that it can be picked up by anyone, anywhere in the world. There are a lot of people using these services and a few are doing pretty well. A lot aren’t. The main difference is in the effort and determination that drives them. Bottom line, it all comes down to whether people understand and/or like what you do. Good news is you can influence that.
Let’s compile this whole article into one list. I know people like lists (check each link for a full article):
- Give yourself permission to be an artist and a success – the artist you are and were born to be. Remember only you can be you and only you can stop you from being you.
- Hone your craft – put in the time to get the basics (as you need them). You don’t need to be a great singer to be a great singer. If you don’t have a four-octave range with a tone to make angels cry it doesn’t matter so long as you have something great to say. When you find yourself doubting this then listen to George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Gary Numan, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Tyler, Marianne Faithful… Get the message that the message always trumps the messenger so long as the messenger dares to be the soul of the message.
- Create Good work – creating sounds easy, and it should be if you know what the story is. Good Music is the alpha of a successful record.
- Complete the work – I shouldn’t need to add this point but I know a host of artists stalled at #3. If you don’t complete your work, ready to ship, then you are nothing. A musician isn’t a musician when there is no music. If you want to sell then you need a record. Yes even if you only want to tour then I believe there should be a record to a) draw an audience b) provide a keepsake/reminder to help achieve point a) again. If you are stalled then look at points 1-3 as your problem/solution is in there.
- Find fans locally – If you can play locally then please do so as it will help in ways you can’t imagine. If you don’t want to play locally then please reconsider the last sentence as you are making life harder for yourself. Gig so you can see what fans like and don’t. Get a following of people who want to be more involved, who want a CD or a t-shirt. These fans help drive your internet shop traffic as well as catching the eye of record companies (if you actually need one).
- Make videos to pop on YouTube – there can be no excuse here if you want to be seen & heard. YouTube is the most important source of traffic you will have after the real world. It is here you start to create an interest within your online locality. People want to connect and the combination of vision with audio is killer. Use it to show yourself and your vision. Videos can be easy. If you absolutely cannot D.I.Y. (and I think you can as every phone has a camera and every computer has a video editor) then find a helper.
- Make a website – you can use any method but WordPress.com will be the easiest and most cost effective way. This MUST be the place that you make your center of activity as it is the only part of the Internet you control – just as you should control the stage when you are on it.
- Social Media – Facebook etc. Just make sure you choose no more than two (2) platforms or you will drown. Make sure the platform you choose lets you have some control and point people to your website. This is VITAL as social media sites are almost all about moving people around. Let a fan find you on Facebook but really engage with them on your site where you are in control. Clear any non-music stuff from your Facebook. No one wants to know what your sister did whilst she was pissy – it makes you look tawdry. TAWDRY & TACKY DO NOT SELL your records. Be sure to use these sites only to announce and find out what your fans are saying. If someone asks an interesting question then answer it on your website.
- Start appearing in the local places of your fans – Social media helps tremendously here. If you are a Goth band then start to appear in the haunts of Goths, just as you would seek a booking in a Goth venue. Just be very careful how you behave. If you appear loudly touting your new record then you aren’t natural. If you get your fans posting about you in Goth forums then that is the best thing. If not then simply be there and post on the higher side of the equation. Hopefully people will see in your signature that you are in a Goth band they don’t know and click to have a look. This is where your record/video/website has to be good to pull them into the fold and have them becoming an advocate as well as purchasing your album. Don’t assume fans of Justin Bieber will be remotely interested in your Goth record. Remember you always have to start local.
- Go do it all again – there are no laurels to rest on. Your fans will get bored and want more. Make a new record that is more and better than the last one.
Hire Professionals – as you need them.
This is such an important point as if you look through the ten points above you see there are a lot of things to do. You cannot expect to know everything. Sure the advert for the DAW you use says you can do it all in the one box (and technically you can) but if you can’t do something yourself then get in a specialist. A good one will want you to achieve your thing. Don’t struggle with drum loops if they leave your music sounding terrible, there are a million drummers out there dying to drum for as little as a credit. Don’t struggle with mixing if you can’t make it work. Don’t let your website fail because you don’t get writing and layout.
Take advice and use it. If you get to the point of hiring a major record company to get your record into Wal Mart or on Good Morning then do as they tell you. If you don’t understand then ask for an explanation. Your A&R man should be able to help you understand why you need to drop the rotting-corpses off your cover art. Just remember who the boss is in the relationship. The boss is you. If you don’t want the exposure/money/fame… then say no and end the relationship (think carefully before you do this). Either way you have all the tools at your disposal.
And just for some motivation:
This is the wholeseries of articles on Self-Promotion for musicians
- Good Music & How To Make It
- How To Get Out There – Approaching Marketing Music
Just in case you think I am the only person saying this stuff, then have a look at Bob Lefsetz and his potted view on modern stardom. Bob is in the heart of the music biz (with a red hot poker somewhere uncomfortable) and he has a great perspective.