The way most people get to hear your music is by somebody somewhere telling them to listen to it. It could be friends, family, people on websites, promoters, radio pluggers, journalists, bloggers, A&R executives, graphic designers, record shop owners, music teachers, instrument manufacturers, brands, bar staff in gig venues, people at gigs, record producers, advertising creatives, filmmakers and TV shows producers. It’s highly rare that somebody will just stumble across it, yet marketing is something that few bands and artists ever do well. Apart from the successful ones.
There are many, many voices and channels through which your music can be heard, and you’ve got to try and engage as many of them as possible. It sounds obvious, but putting up a Myspace page and doing a few local gigs probably won’t do a great deal to progress your music careers. You have to be everywhere, and you need a story, an aesthetic, something that distinguishes you from the rest. And it has to be authentic.
A manager for one of my bands kept trying to get us to do something, anything beyond just showing up at a venue with a bunch of mates and playing. For some reason we weren’t that up for it. Maybe it was because we were fed up with our manager showering us with spittle every time he spoke to us up close. We didn’t have a desire to do anything but play.
We had started out strong in the beginning though. The other guitarist in the band had designed a logo for us and created a stencil to use to spraypaint the image on to the front of t-shirts, both men’s and women’s styles. We sold 7 at £10 each on our first night. Needless to say this worked for a while until we ran out of paint.
We were also asked to take a social media site each and manage it, which didn’t really work. I had actually become obsessed with Myspace a couple of years earlier when I was in my previous band, sitting there for 8 hours a day adding as many “friends” as possible. It did actually get us new fans. Some people in Essex liked our band so I arranged a gig in Chelmsford, their home town, and they all came. We got some gigs in towns around the south coast out of it, and we even had kids in various parts of America digging it too, sending us back Photoshopped images of ourselves. We looked dashing treated with a pink transparent overlay.
So I’ve been in bands where the Myspace page has worked for us (before people got really sick of bands hitting them every other day) and I’ve done the gigs and sold the t-shirts. But that was about it, and it cost me. Particularly when the hard-drinking country-rock band I was in (years before that music got cool again) had been approached after a gig by a music lawyer from Warner Bros saying it was the best thing he’d seen for ages.
It was a chaotic gig on paper – we almost pulled out because when we got to the venue we were told there was no drum kit, which there should have been. A young band on the bill managed to drive to their college and bring back what they could, which was about a half a drum kit. This meant our drummer just hit it twice as hard. Our singer was pissed off so we purposely didn’t have a set list, and we just played the heavier songs with extended jams, making the set up as we went along. We looked a mess but that angry energy produced a great gig and the lawyer, who was only at the gig because someone my Mum worked with was his girlfriend and she’d made him go as a favour, was all over us. He passed our CD on to an A&R friend of his at Parlophone Records (EMI) who actually emailed us about a week or so later asking for a gig schedule so that he could come and watch us play. The CD was doing the rounds at various music industry offices and it was a great chance.
But we had no fan base. We’d never collected many email addresses, most of those we had were friends. We hadn’t done much promotion other than leaflets on pub tables, and we really didn’t put in many ideas. The lesson here is that we’d got our way in by doing a blinding gig, and we had a good Myspace page to back it up, but in neglecting to cultivate a fan base we were just another pub band. Despite the fact EMI liked our sound, they weren’t going to waste time watching a band in a half-empty venue which was that way because the band hadn’t put the effort in. It’s not actually as clear-cut as this, the A&R guy was very busy with another band he was really pushing, but we could have helped inspire a change of mind by being more clever and committed to marketing ourselves. We had a couple more meetings with the lawyer on his request because he wanted to work with us, but there wasn’t a great deal he could hold on to in order to take the band to the next level. The band was only together for a few more months before it was finished.
These days there are so many potential ways to get yourself heard. There isn’t one elusive individual that sneakingly and frustratingly evades your continuous attempts to glean a recording contract from him, until in the end you’re so bitter and twisted that you hate every mention of the music industry. You don’t have to be chasing a phantom. There are hundreds, thousands of people out there who actually want to hear your music.
The most important person isn’t the one who signs you up. It’s You. This whole big adventure starts with you and it’s entirely up to you how far you take it. You are the one who has to tell people to listen to your music right at the very beginning. You need to tell as many people as possible where they can listen to your music, when, how and why. Communicate these four key messages as clearly, accurately and in as many different ways as possible and the message will spread through others.
Many musicians don’t really like marketing themselves too much. They think it’s against their artistic morals, that it’s beneath them, that the music will speak for itself. If you’re good, the music will speak for itself up to a point, but we all know it’s not just about the music. Most of it is, but the bit that really tips it over the edge into something exciting is the image, the aesthetics, the story, the PR and the marketing. And every great popular artist in the history of time has benefited from all of these.
We’re in an age where it’s more important than ever to market yourself, not just in the field of music but the field of everything. You’ve got to get people excited in you enough so that they become fans and sign up to your email updates, go to gigs, interact with online content and buy your merchandise and ultimately your music. Telling people where, when and how they can listen to your music is the easy part, but telling them why they should be a fan, to buy into you, is the most challenging and the most important. From a music professional’s point of view, they need to see lots of fans attending gigs and loving what the band does. But for that to happen you’ve got to engage people in a way that generates excitement, emotion, desire to become a fan – it’s the part that gets people hooked. This is what the somebody somewhere’s go and tell their friends.