Here’s Chapter 1 of Rock Your City: 5 Steps to Becoming the Biggest Band in Town!
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Does Your Group Exist?
“I don’t exist when you don’t see me.”
- Sisters of Mercy
When I first started playing in a live band, I would hang flyers and promote our shows vigorously. I believed people would come out in droves because we were an exceptional band. At that time, this reasoning seemed logical to me. Why not? All the other local bands were promoting their shows with flyers or by getting the clubs to add their name to the club’s print ads. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way that there is no correlation between how good a local group may be and how many people come to see them.
Back then, if all the bands on a particular show (concert) were good, or we were playing in an awesome club, I would automatically assume the place would be packed. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was disappointed when we played to a relatively empty room. Nevertheless, every time we booked a show, I posted flyers around town and told myself that this time, things would be different; this show was going to be crowded. Why? Well, this time, we were playing at a better club, on a better night, or there was some other factor that made me believe that this time we would attract a big crowd.
I didn’t know it then, but I was putting my energy in the wrong place. I was working hard to promote something that was not promotable. Here is what I mean: it is not possible to generate interest in a band that no one has ever heard of simply by hanging up flyers, around town. Yes, it was cool to see our group’s name in print; but no one knew our group or our music outside our circle of friends. And even some of them had never really listened to our music. Yet, I kept repeating the same pattern, each time expecting different results. First, I posted 100 flyers, and no one came. Next, I posted 300 flyers, and no one came. Finally, I posted 1,000 flyers but got the same result: no one came.
I didn’t understand that it didn’t matter how good we were, since we were unknown. Our group didn’t exist outside our own circle of friends, family, or coworkers. We weren’t getting any airplay; we didn’t even have a record yet. The rest of the world had no idea who we were, what we looked like, how we sounded, or anything else about us. Sad to say, we were invisible. And we weren’t unusual. Most local groups had never released a record or had their music played on the radio. Most local groups are as invisible as we were.
Here is what I learned: people do not magically turn out for a group they have never heard of. Concert clubs, concert halls, and theaters do not have built-in audiences. People don’t just show up at a club and ask, “Who’s playing tonight?” This may be the most misunderstood concept in the concert business. What I didn’t realize then is so obvious to me now. If no one outside your circle of friends and family has ever heard your music, then no one outside that circle is going to come to your next concert.
I completely missed that point. The question is, are you missing it as well? If so, it is time to stop repeating strategies that don’t work and learn some that will. In this chapter, I will explain why promotion—as most of us understand that word—is an ineffective way to build your fan base. I will show you exactly what to do instead.
Promotion Will Fail
Promotion usually takes the form of a publicity campaign for a particular product, organization, or venture. In our business, most local groups think they need to promote themselves or hire someone to do it for them. The strategies they seem to favor include posting flyers or getting their group’s name in print, on the radio, or featured in a news story.
What I have learned from working with thousands of groups is that none of these activities do anything to affect attendance at a local show, or to grow a local band. Not even radio helps, unless the station actually plays a local group’s music. Stations rarely do this, unless it’s for a local radio show that features local music. Even then, it’s often very late at night with a very small listening audience. (Radio stations usually charges hundreds of dollars for a one-minute ad during the day; that same ad running on a Sunday night might cost as little as $5. That ad cost should give you an idea of the size of the audiences for late-night shows.) In instances where a station does play a local group’s music, it’s usually only once, which is not enough for anyone to know if they like a song.
My business partner and co-author, Dan Cull, and I own a concert production company called Gorilla Music. We coordinate an average of twenty local shows a week, with about ten groups on each show, in more than sixty-five U.S. markets. After coordinating shows with thousands of bands across the country, I have never seen a local group successfully reach the top of its market on promotion alone.
While traditional promotion may be effective for tangible products, there is a big difference between promoting a tangible product and an intangible one. Music is intangible. That makes music one of the most difficult products to explain and the reason why most groups have so much trouble describing their own sound. Even if a group can pinpoint their genre or make comparisons to other artists, it’s still not the same as having someone listen to their music. People won’t know if they’re going to like a group’s music until they’ve heard it for themselves. When was the last time you walked into a record store and bought a bunch of CDs or gone to a show to see a group you’ve never heard of?
Therein rests the biggest problem for the aspiring artist: it is very difficult to get your music on commercial radio where thousands of people will hear it; yet, that is a critical component of attracting people to your shows. For people to become fans of your music, they have to experience it first-hand… multiple times.
Yes, social media and video sharing sites are extremely useful tools for sharing your music. However, these tools have not made a measurable impact on a vast majority of local artist’s record sales or tickets sales for their shows. For the last few years, unidentified artists have bombarded Internet users with local music. Unfortunately, most of the music hasn’t been very good, and this has turned off millions of potential fans.
So, if you can’t rely on social media sites to spread the word, what is the alternative? The answer is simple: you have to get out there in the trenches and literally drag people to your shows. You must do this until your concerts are so packed that you’ve established a reputation for having great shows.
This does not mean you should abandon your Facebook or YouTube accounts. Social networking sites like ReverbNation are a great way to reach your current fans, and some people may take a chance and give your music a listen. If enough people tell each other about your great songs or sound, and you really catch on, that’s called “going viral.” (It’s also called a miracle.) It’s not likely, but miracles have been known to happen. So, stay on top of all your social networking sites and use them to complement your word-of-mouth marketing activities. Used properly social networking sites are the best tools local bands have available to them. Word of mouth marketing in conjunction with social networking is how you will make the biggest impact on selling your music and packing your shows.
The Reason Fans Come
Two things to keep in mind: 1) At the local level, clubs and promoters are event coordinators, not promoters, even if they tell you they can promote your band; 2) The quality of your music at this stage of your career has very little to do with the number of people who will come to see you.
How many times have you seen good or even great groups play in front of no one? It happens all the time. Have you seen a terrible group play at a packed venue? That happens often as well. How can less talented groups draw bigger crowds than more talented groups? The answer has to do with whether people are enjoying themselves.
That’s not to say that the quality of the music isn’t important. It is. However, the music is not the driving motivation for people attending a local show. I know; this is a concert, and people go to concerts for the music, right? Well, yes and no. On one hand, they go for the music; but it has to be music they’ve heard before, music they like.
The local band has a different challenge than the famous touring acts. Remember the chicken or the egg riddle? For the touring act, the music comes first. You like their music, so you go and see them in concert. It rarely happens this way for local groups. When you go to see a friend’s band perform live, this is often the first time you have heard their music.
If people don’t go to local shows for the music, then why do they go? Mostly, they go to have fun and to hang out with friends and like-minded people. They go because someone invited them, or to be a part of a scene, or to meet new people, or to see their secret crush. There are many reasons, but hearing unfamiliar music usually isn’t the main one.
When you get in your car and drive to the local arena or music hall to see your favorite national act, chances are you listen to that group’s music on the way to the concert. You listen or jam to the songs you’re about to hear in a live setting. If you’re in a local group and people are singing along to your songs in their cars, you’re on your way to developing true fans. I will talk more about true fans in the chapter, “Selling Your Music.” Right now, you need to understand that people go to shows to have fun, and they have more fun if there is a crowd. People like to go where they can be with other people who are sharing their experience. If you are able to pack a venue full of people, your fans will have more fun and be much more likely to come for your next show.
Create a Network; Create a Buzz
If promotion is largely ineffective for local talent, what’s the alternative? The answer is networking—meeting new people, making new connections, and recruiting people to attend your shows. This is the most effective way to grow your fan base, as you will see in the next two chapters.
Networking is powerful. Networking is the best way to create buzz around your group. Networking is easy, natural, and free. The more people you know, the better. Every one of these people knows other people—lots of other people. Networking is all about meeting as many of those people as you can and getting the those people to attend JUST ONE PACKED SHOW. Once they attend a sold-out show, the buzz will follow. It may be impossible to describe your sound, but it’s not hard to say, “These guys are great. I love their music, and their show was so much fun! It was packed to the walls!” Pretty soon, the word is out, faster than you would have ever believed.
The more people you can get out to your shows, the more fun your friends will have, and the more likely it is that they will come again. If they have a great time, they will also tell others about your group. People who spread the word are exactly what you need; it’s the most effective way to grow your fan base. This is the way to create a buzz around your band. Once you create that buzz, great things will start to happen. Can you imagine what the local music scene across this country would be like if every group could bring at least 100 people to every show? Frankly, that’s my dream—to build every local scene in every city in this country. I sincerely hope that you will join me in realizing this dream, and while you may have your doubts right now, I assure you it is well within your power to do so.
- There is no correlation between the quality of your music and the size of your crowds if no one has heard your music before.
- Unknown groups don’t exist outside their own circle of friends, family, or coworkers.
- People do not magically turn out for a group they have never heard of. Concert clubs, concert halls, and theaters do not have built-in audiences
- There is a big difference between promoting a tangible product and an intangible one. Music is intangible.
- Old-fashioned promotions are an ineffective way to grow a local group’s fan base.
- The most powerful way to get people to your shows is by networking. Networking is free, easy, and highly-effective for local groups.