Q: I’ve been struggling with a question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. I’ve been playing in a band for the past two years, mainly in bars and functions. Finally, we are getting some contracts to play in clubs, which is great! However, instead of the annoying sound of loud voices and laughs, we’re getting the haunting silence of a fading public. What is the next step? How can we build our audience? We try our best to advertise our gigs on the internet and to our friends, but it seems we’re locked within the boundaries of our very limited social network.
A: This is a question that I’d encourage you readers to chime in on. Many of you have a wealth of experience that likely differs from mine, so let’s get the conversation started and share the knowledge!
Packing the room has never been easy, and it seems that it is only getting harder. Property values go up, leases get insanely expensive, BMI/ASCAP fees for clubs are through the roof (one club owner here in Portland told me that he pays about $90k/year for licensing just to have live music. Where that money actually goes in reality, I have no idea). That means that food and drink have gotten pricey enough that the public has become pretty picky about where they go and spend their hard earned money.
Here are some thoughts I’ve had as well as some approaches I’ve observed by others.
We all know that much of the buzz around a project is generated online, however, the bucket is pretty much overflowing with content, which can make it hard to get noticed. I’ve seen many bands get some real traction simply because their content is eye-catching, unusual or unique in some way.
I would start a band fund and pool your cash to invest in some good quality recordings as well as hiring a good videographer to help you create content to post online.
- Find someone who can help you foster a style or vibe (brand) for your content. Think about how you want to present yourselves and find the team that will work with you to bring it to life.
- Don’t just release everything at once. If you film and record an album’s worth of tunes, don’t just post them to Youtube and share the links twice a day, but rather, schedule the release of the content in a steady but controlled stream. If you release a new video every week or two and repost every so often, it creates the illusion of a band on the move who is always doing something and creating something. If it’s of high quality, it’ll get out there.
- Continue to create content. Video/record every show. Stick a GoPro on everybody and release short clips of particularly noteworthy moments. Keep it flowing and keep on top of it. It’s a part-time job but it can go a long way towards making people aware of your project and is far less likely to get passed over in someone’s feed because it’s not just another gig notice mention of your band.
- Build a solid website and update it! Building a great looking site is easier than ever. I’ve been building my own sites for a while now and I can’t believe how easy it is to use an site builder like Wix or Squarespace. If you can use a word processor, you can build a website. And, UPDATE YOUR SCHEDULE. Even if you don’t think anybody really goes to the site. Treat everything you build in association with your band as sacred and nurture it. I can’t tell you how many phenomenal bands/musicians I know that haven’t updated their calendars in years. Nothin looks worse than somebody clicking on that ‘tour’ link and seeing either a) an empty page or b) a dozen dates from May – Aug 2011.
- Your band needs an album. You need to have a way to represent yourselves to entertainment buyers and booking agents. You can do a digital-only release, but I would encourage you to do short runs of actual CDs. You can pay to get them printed 100 at a time and use those actual CDs to send to magazines for review, give to booking agents, sell at shows, giveaway on the streets… whatever. It’s always good to have a few available. I also carry download cards as well as keeping copies of everything in the cloud so I can provide my music and books in whatever format someone may prefer.
- Cold call and email every publication you can think of to send your album and a one-pager for review/mention consideration.
- Email every music site online.
- Share links to your videos to blogs and content related music sites as well as social media. Get that stuff out there!
- A lot of extra money can be made by having some merch. Don’t feel like you need to print a thousand shirts, either.
- Having charts available for a nominal fee in PDF format on your site can bring in a few extra bucks every month.
- Sell MP3’s of your music on your site as well as with whatever online sites you prefer.
- Have some CDs available at shows. A lot of people love to buy CDs simply to help support the band.
- There are also a plethora of places online where you can slap a logo on just about anything and they will print and ship it.
- You don’t even need to fill your garage with boxes of supplies anymore. Simply create a web store and design something. I would also encourage you to hire a designer or make use of a talented friend in order to help you create things that people might actually want to wear/use.
If you’re having trouble moving beyond just clubs, here are a few things that I’ve seen people do successfully:
- Create an event/benefit of your own. The point here is to expose yourselves to a larger audience. I’m not suggesting that you create a relief effort for the newest disaster and pay yourselves $1,000 to play it! What I’m suggesting is that you actually raise some money for a good cause (while paying all talent involved a respectful but not inappropriate amount) and use that as an opportunity to both do some good for the world while also exposing your band to a new audience.
- If you can get corporate sponsors to affiliate and donate money, then you also may make some fruitful connections for working more events they sponsor or hold.
- Just about every musician you can think of works for money. Even your heroes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten to play with a famous A-list musician simply because a local player hired them to come play with their band (which is, of course, marketed to the nines). Sometimes it’s billed as ‘A-list musician featuring ‘local players B, C, & D’’ which can really help bring in the crowd. However, this approach also means that you are playing that artists material, which doesn’t necessarily help to push your project (although it can help to add some cushion to the band fund if it’s successful enough).
- The alternative approach is to bill it as local project featuring “A-list musician”, which really helps to raise your cachet as well as providing some great content because, of course, you’ll be paying to have it recorded (audio and video!).
- Of course, this can be a gamble. Flights, hotels and their fee add up pretty quickly so you need to hold the show at a venue that has the potential to make some real money (after the venue fees). You very well may not actually make any money and it might even cost you a bit but it’s an investment in your selves.
- Be aware. You will need to have some solid examples of your band, be of acceptable quality, and present well to be considered by most A-listers. They also have their reputation to protect and consider so there will be some quality control going on, on their end. They will also likely demand at least partial payment before-hand.
You need to get more people to hear your band, hoping that they like what they hear and will want to start coming to your shows. What better place to do that than by playing at one of the thousands of music festivals that run across this country all year long. Built-in crowd of 3,000 – 15,000? Yes. Even on the side stages, in the late morning slot, you’ll get to play for hundreds of people and you can add that festival to your list of accomplishments in your bio as well as develop a relationship with the buyers, artist liaisons, and crew working the festival. It’s a smaller world than you think and word spreads fast when a band makes an impression.
Generally speaking, I would visualize where you want to be and what you want to be doing (collectively) and get creative when you really think about how to foster that and make it a reality. Think about what you wish you had people to do for you (managers, PR, booking) and just figure it out and do it yourselves. It’s not magic but it does take a lot of patience, time and effort. It’s a bear but with every success, the next door becomes easier to open.
Best of luck!!
Don’t forget to make suggestions, readers! I can’t wait to hear what you do to get out there and expand your reach! Please share your thoughts in the comments.