1. Set Realistic Expectations
If I had a pound for every artist or band that believed quality music would eventually be rewarded with exposure and a massive fanbase I probably wouldn’t need to work a day in my life again. Through my studio and in my role as record label owner, manager, and producer, I have seen a large range of talented people make their start in this industry. Unfortunately, I have seen quite a few give up when the realisation hits of the work needed to even get their friends to share their page on Facebook. Despite what you may have read about your favorite artist, they didn’t appear out of nowhere and they didn’t suddenly get discovered on youtube because THAT video was so awesome.
They all will have done one thing. They kept performing, auditioning, networking, uploading, sharing and writing even when no one was listening because they believed in themselves and no one was going to deter them. I remember sitting in an industry meet hearing Tony Platt (producer for Bob Marley, AC/DC, Motorhead, etc.) explain that to make it in this industry it takes a huge amount of ego sprinkled with realism. If on some level you don’t believe that you’re awesome and everyone should listen to you then what is driving you to get up on stage?
You absolutely should think your music is awesome. You are the first investor in your career and anything but unwavering faith will let it be a hobby at best. These days, the cards are stacked against you with radio play being less influential than it used to be, majors taking even fewer risks, venues having an abundance of bands to book so finding good paying gigs are hard to find, and year on year only between 1% and 1.5% of albums released sell more than 10,000. So when I am asked what should a band do when starting out, my reply is always this – manage your expectations before you do anything else. If you don’t keep a level head and manage those expectations, you will either find yourself being carried away by the hype of small victories or disillusioned when your first bunch of gigs or your first release doesn’t go as well as you thought it might. This is by far the most important thing you will do in your career at any point.
2. Develop a Look
Ok, so I’ve heard it all before. You’re unique, you don’t want to look like a boyband, you don’t want to look like something you’re not, you wouldn’t know what to wear, it’ll look lame if an outfit is thought through, you’re just a free spirited rock band. Those are all good points so let me just clarify. You don’t need to wear matching suits and sit on stalls until the song changes key to tell you to get off the stall and walk toward the audience. We are talking relatively low-level coordination of clothing here, I’ll put it in the simplest way I can, don’t turn up to a gig looking like you were watching footie with your mates on the sofa an hour before the gig. No one is suggesting that you wear a suit or colour match your clothes throughout the band but at least make your clothing look intentional, let the audience see that you took the gig seriously and are a professional, you will never progress beyond pub band if you don’t develop some kind of look on some kind of level. No need to call Gok Wan, just be sensible and imagine what you look like to the audience.
3. Create a Marketing Plan
Important to some, pointless to others but necessary for all. Quite simply, without a marketing plan, you are likely to bounce from one opportunity to the next and without drawing lines between them, they will stay just individual opportunities that will struggle to form a big picture. Establishing answers to the following four points at the start of your career will help you move on in a more defined, deliberate way.
What are you selling? I would hope you haven’t said music as the answer here, if you’re reading this then that’s a given. Really think about what you are bringing to your fans. Why are they going to love you more than another band in the same genre? This will help you when promoting yourself or trying to sell your band to a promoter or venue owner. If you can explain this in a couple of sentences, then you have cracked the biggest element of marketing and promotion.
Who is the target audience? This is overlooked far too often, yet it shapes how you market yourselves, which venues you approach, which festivals you want to play, titles of songs, which bands you want to support, which radio stations will play you. The Pokemon attitude to fan base building (gotta catch them all) will rarely help any band build momentum. At some point you need to decide which demographic you are going to focus on, for example, rockers over 30 aren’t going to want to go to a gig full of teens and teens aren’t going to be able to attend some venues. You want fans from one gig to be talking about you and getting their friends to come to the next one or buy the album; it’s harder to achieve this if you don’t focus on a demographic. You can always revisit and expand this later once you are embedded a bit more and have a sustainable fan base.
Who do you sound like? The bottom line here is most bands try to say they are unique and they don’t really sound like anybody. They’ll say their music is so unique it’s hard to describe. First of all, that’s simply not true! Unless you are the kid from the book/movie Room, who has never experienced anything but four walls and some furniture, you cannot claim your style is unique. All music is influenced by something that came before, and there’s no shame in saying that, saying your style is reminiscent of an early David Bowie or has elements similar to the Beastie Boys is not the same as saying you copied them. So why pigeon hole yourself? Let’s use a blogger as an example, a popular and somewhat lucrative way of promotion for bands starting out, they will answer your email enquiry with a feeler asking you to tell them a bit more about your band, they will want to know more about your band and if you don’t know how to describe your band, how can you expect them to? One of the key things they will want to know is ‘who are you influenced by,’ ‘who do you sound like.’ If you say something like ‘we’re doing something different and unique’ or ‘we don’t really sound like anyone,’ you probably shouldn’t expect to hear back from them. To a journalist or anyone who has been in the industry more than five minutes those kinds of answers tell us at best that you are still developing and you haven’t fully realised your band yet, in this case, most will pass on you and wait until you have a clearer message. At worst you sound like you have no idea what you’re doing. When a journalist or blogger reviews you, they are banking on you doing well and becoming big, so they have the bragging rights of saying they found you early on, some will even take some credit for your rise, however, none of them want to have a site full of band reviews/interviews that aren’t around anymore. Knowing this answer will also help you with algorithms like Youtube, Spotify, Deezer, iTunes, etc. where having it dialed in that you sound like David Bowie will get your track or video in front of the eyes of people who just played a Bowie track or searched Bowie on Youtube.
Who is your competition Let’s be clear, we’re not talking Battle of the Bands or X Factor here. This is simply to know who else is traveling the same journey you are, other bands at the same stage of their journey, making similar music, booking similar gigs, etc. You’re not going to try to knock them off their road, but it will help you greatly if you keep an eye on their journey, see what’s working for them, was a recent gig successful for them? Did they get booked onto a festival? Have they got more page likes? Take a look and see if they’re using a strategy that could work for you. Perhaps network, get in touch and support each other on social media or through gigs. When this is done properly you can progress quite nicely, just make sure you don’t get too envious if they seem to be catching bigger breaks than you, just see if you can find out how that’s happening and what you can do about it.
4. Interact With Your Fans
Long gone are the days when a band could enjoy living in a spotlight outside the reach of fans with interactions limited to signing autographs outside the venue or hotel. The relationship between a band and their fans has morphed over the last few decades into a much more intimate 2-way conversation. This shift sees the most successful bands building a fan base in 2 key ways
a) Social Media – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reverbnation, etc. Most bands allocate a network to a band member to look after i.e., drummer on Facebook, a singer on Twitter, etc. Spread the work otherwise, you will end up with loads of social media profiles that aren’t interacting and being kept up to date. You don’t need to be on them all but do the ones you are on well.
b) Gigs – using hometown as the nucleus of their outreach, less hoping some big A&R person makes it to their gig, more relying on word of mouth to help spread from venue to venue moving outwards from their home and friends. Socialising/Interacting with fans after the gig really helps as well.
The lesson here really is that the most successful independent bands have a close relationship with their fans, I will touch on content in the next point, but consistent uploads, messages, fast responses to fans posts will all help. Fans want to feel that they are on the journey with you and even contribute to your ongoing success so bringing them a little into your world goes a long way.
5. Content Is King!
This may seem obvious, but I see so many examples of it being done badly. That gig you had that was awesome and had a great crowd might be a good candidate for uploading and sharing, but if the sound distorts every couple of seconds and the picture is too dark or blurry, you are just going to irritate your fans. These days everyone seems to have a phone that records pretty good video but in all cases just run through a whole video before upload to make sure it plays nicely and sounds good. The same goes with images – blurry pictures are an unforgivable sin, and an overkill of black and white pictures just make myself, and other professionals think you don’t have any clean images as black and white covers a lot of quality flaws. There are lots of good amateur photographers out there looking for experience work, contacting a local college would help you find a good affordable photographer if your budget is tight. Behind the scenes/impromptu pictures and videos are also a great way to make fans feel more involved, they shouldn’t look staged but do cast a critical eye over them before uploading and just make sure nothing pops up in there that you feel represents your band in a bad way.
6. Nominate a Speaker
Talk between your songs but not too much. Some of the best gigs I have been to are ones where the band have engaged with the audience. A little comment here, a question there, observation, bit of banter between band members, etc. This will make you just as memorable as your music. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this has to be your lead singer’s job. Some of the most charismatic, confident lead singers are awkward and shy when trying to talk to the audience. Choose someone who is confident talking; maybe it’ll be two members who bounce between each other. It’s not uncommon to see the bass player and a guitarist share this role to take a bit of pressure off the singer so they can catch their breath and get ready for the next song.
There is a reason I’ve separated this from content. Artwork (album/Ep/logo design) is more deliberate. It carries your message even more than your music. Why? Because it’s the first thing, people will see long before they click on the link to listen to you. This is all too often the point where they will decide whether to check out your music. It may be the poster on the door of the venue promoting your gig next week, the album you want them to buy on iTunes, the page you want them to like and many more scenarios where the visual representation you choose goes before anything else you have to offer.
8. Music Bloggers
These can be your greatest ally in the digital age but just writing to a blogger won’t get you a mention. Before you even attempt to send an email to a blogger first take a really good look at their site, don’t be so desperate to be written about that you overlook clumsy formatting and bad writing. Look at what the majority of their content looks like, what and who they are writing about. Take Pitchfork, for example, they are a tastemaker blog who rely on big traffic; they are unlikely to cover you unless you have something big to bring to them. Consider these steps before contacting a music blog:
It’s not about your band—Your email to a blogger should be more about fulfilling their needs than selling your band, they rely on page impressions and adverts and they have decided what type of blog works for them to do this, if they predominantly review albums then contact them for that, if they look to write about undiscovered bands then use that, if they mostly do live gig reviews then invite them to your gig and so on. You are unlikely to get a response if your email is generic and shows you know little about what they do.
Choose wisely—You only get to launch your album once, bloggers want to be the first to find you, the first to announce your news, the one to say ‘i told you so’ to their readers when you blow up. If someone else has written about your album a week before that’s where all the traffic will go, bloggers will hardly ever cover something already done elsewhere unless you’re Iron Maiden or something so when you are looking at bloggers choose carefully who you contact for which purpose, contact your no.1 choice first, wait a while, follow up with a courtesy email. If you don’t get a response, leave it, go to your second choice and so on. It could be that the ones that didn’t reply took a look and decided you don’t have enough presence yet so make a note to go back to them later for another reason.
Too much information is bad!—Keep it simple! A blogger doesn’t want to scroll through reams of information the first time they open an email from you. If they are interested and want more information, they will ask you. This is where a press pack or one sheet will be very useful. Try to keep your first contact email to just a few sentences, bloggers tend to get a lot of emails, so they won’t spend too much time reading, the three main things you should include are:
Introduction – Introduce yourself, mention their blog and show some knowledge that will tell them you’ve taken a good look at it beyond the first page.
Objective – Tell them what it is you’re doing and what you want from them. Do you have an album coming out soon or do you want them to come to a gig and do a review of your show? What’s in it for them to do so?
Links – Forget putting your Facebook page under their nose, they want to see and hear your work. Lead with SoundCloud or YouTube links to your strongest tracks.
9. Practice Like Someone’s Watching
So, you book a rehearsal room or meet at a mate’s house, and you sit/stand wherever and play in a very jammy enjoyable way but you are meeting regularly and getting that sound tight. Rehearsals are fun right? You’ve got past stage one, let’s call this the garage band stage, to get to the next stage which we will call quality gig band, you need to do one key thing – practice like someone’s watching, try to make as many rehearsals as possible if not all like mini gigs, stand in your stage formation, practice the segways, time your set, develop a range of sets for different times so you can respond to short notice gigs with any set times without adapting anything at the last minute leaving less to chance.
Take it one step further and video your rehearsals from time to time, see what your set looks and sounds like to the audience, really be hard on yourselves, see how you can improve, what you would have liked to be different if you were the audience. Invest in a good PA system so you can take on private function gigs and either get good at setting your sound or make friends with a sound engineer to help you out either as a favour or a small slice of your gig fee. Finally, be flexible with your equipment, these days it’s not uncommon for bands to share equipment especially in smaller venues where there isn’t enough space for 4/5 bands worth of gear. Experience different amps when you can and know your pedals inside out so you can get the best sound possible when using someone else’s amp.
10. Make Great Music
I would certainly hope that by this point you have at least written some songs. Write lots of songs, but understand that not every song is worthy of an audience hearing them, writing bad songs is good experience that paves the way to better songs. Be critical of your work and ask friends who are capable of honest feedback to give you constructive advice, don’t be afraid to cull songs that don’t fit the flow of an album or a set list. Just as I’ve said above content is king, and there is no more important content than your music.
Finally – Good Luck, I Hope To See You Out There!