Your Music is a Business - Part 1: Building the Initial Fanbase
As an artist, do you ever ask yourself why it is that you have the desire to create? I'm talking about that deep in your bones urge that inspires you to make music at all. The want, or perhaps the need, to express all the happenings of your soul. I believe humans have a deeply instilled inclination to feel connected to others. I also believe that music is one of the most powerful means of human connection. It's instrinsically valuable and worth the endeavor to create in its own right. But for the passionate ones out there that want to dedicate their life to creating music, the hard truth is that you also have to look at music as a business.
Many of us, not just musicians, find that our life's passion and our career aren't always the same thing. Many of us have goals and aspirations, but the way we make money doesn't always align with those goals. How many of you out there work 40 hours a week to get the bills paid but your job doesn't directly help you progress towards your ultimate life goals? I'm in that boat. We spend all day (or night) at a job, but it's when the shift is over that we can actually get to work on what we want to do most. Imagine if you could take the 40 hours you spend working each week and dedicate it towards music instead. I believe that's the ultimate dream, aligning your career with your passion.
If you believe your music is your life's work, you're probably also choosing music as a career path. If you want to dedicate all of your focus totwards something, it would be wise to also make money from it. That way you can do things like eat, sleep under a roof, build your credit score, shit like that. If you want a career as a musician you're essentially taking on the endeavor of a small business (at least in the beginning). For a business to thrive, it needs to be profitable.
A sound business should have a sound plan (get it?). An outline of how you will make money off of your service. It's important to always make the music itself the top priority, but you should understand the different aspects of business and how they pertain to you as a musician. Becoming adept at turning your creations into some cash flow is one of the surest ways to allow yourself to dedicate more of your focus and time to your music.
For a musician to profit from their creations there are several requirements. First and probably the most obvious is the music itself. The first step is creating the music that resonates in your soul and fine tuning it until you feel that it is ready to be heard by others. Your live performance of it needs to be on point and you need to get it recorded so you have a means of sharing it with others. The rest of this article assumes that you have reached this point and your next step is to be heard
So you have a product worth selling, now you just need some customers. In this segment, I want to discuss some of my ideas and ideas I've read elsewhere on how to begin building a fanbase. The next segment will then talk about several ways to create some cash flow once you have that fanbase.
So It Goes
I recently read the book "All You Need to Know About the Music Business" by Donald Passman where he made the point that artists should build a fanbase of ~2,500 fans before they start charging for their music. In other words, at first your focus should be gaining fans, not cash. I've also read elsewhere that you can make a very modest living as a musician with as little as 1,000 dedicated fans. I believe that assumes the majority of those 1,000 fans are people who will actually purchase your albums and attend your shows though. We all know that not all of your fans will actually purchase your music and they won't make it to all of your shows. I think the 2,500 benchmark is more realistic. If you frequently play shows, with a fanbase of this size in your area you can realistically assume you'll have decent turnouts. And if even 25 percent of them actually pay the $10 for your album, that's still a decent chunk of cash to help fund the next one or that first regional tour on the drawing board.
I must say that I don't believe it's necessary to hold out on selling your music for that long though. With streaming platforms, most artists are already giving away their music for very little or no cost to the listeners. In the beginning though, it's probably still important to hand out free music at shows. It's a way of showing appreciation and making a source of your music immediately accessible to them, potentially increasing the odds they'll give you further listening. If you have 1000 fans though, why not have music available for purchase for those who want to buy it and let everyone else listen to it through other means. As a fan I know I can find most artists' music online but I try my best to attend shows and purchase music/merch in some form so I can do my part in supporting the artists I like. There are many others out there who want to pay you in some way because they understand you aren't paying rent with Spotify royalties. I think the reviving practice of collecting vinyl is doing some good in a time where streaming has become the primary method of obtaining music. So long story short. Play shows. Get fans. Give away free music for a bit. Get more fans. Start selling music. Vinyl good.
So now for the actual topic of this article, building an initial fanbase and reaching that 2,500 benchmark. What is to follow are several concepts that may help you. I'm not claiming any of these are sure fire ways to gain fans. I'm saying that if your music is truly solid, utilizing these tools and concepts may help you gain more exposure. They may also help you gain fans that are more supportive of you and your music.
Five Concepts That May Help You Get A Fanbase Going
1. Email / Subscriber Lists / Web Presence. As an artist or band in the modern day, you should most certainly have an online destination where people can find you and all relevant information about you such as a website, social media accounts, Bandcamp page, etc. Using at least one of these platforms, you need to create some way for fans to follow or subscribe to you. Facebook essentially allows you to keep track of your fanbase by allowing people to follow your page. If you create a website and an associated email you can then allow fans to subscribe using their email address. You should also allow people to sign up for your email list at your shows. Have a sheet at your merch table and give out stickers or a USB with an alternate version of a song on it to anyone who signs up. Fans appreciate when an artist gives away something like that and they'll remember you for it.
With this email list, you now have a means of tracking your fanbase. Not everyone will sign up, even if they do like you. So it's not 100 percent accurate but it's accurate enough to work with. Plus, fans who take the time to sign up are probably fans who sincerely dig your music. So now you have a list of fans that may actually purchase your music or attend a show, hence fans that may have both enthusiasm and money to offer.
With a website and email list, you now have a database you can analyze. Google analytics and Facebook insights track a great deal of information about how people interact with your website (Scary, right?) and offer you access to some meaningful statistical measurements. For example, they allow you to see where in town your fans are clustered. This could be helpful in determining which venues in town may be best for your next show. You can also take note of where you're gaining fans outside of your area which could be helpful for when you do start planning that first tour.
Website building formats such as Squarespace allows you to see how people discovered you. Whether they found their way to your site via social media or direct search. This can give you a rough idea of how many fans are searching for you which suggests they heard of you via word of mouth or possibly took an interest after seeing you at a show. It can help you assess how much buzz you're creating in the social media sphere.
With email lists, you can also offer your followers exclusive opportunities. Maybe give everyone on your list sneak previews of upcoming tunes. Perhaps offer them a code that will give them a discounted ticket to your show. You can have a raffle for free merch from time to time. The idea is giving your following fans unique opportunities and showing them you appreciate them. Plus fans like to interact with artists.
Google analytics, website hosts, and social media accounts along with an email list offer you a wide variety of tools which can be used to analyze trends and use this information to your advantage. You're only limited by how creative you are in using this info.
2. Starting your own blog. This goes hand in hand with a website and a social media page. Starting a blog and consistently posting on it along with your social media accounts gives you a more active presence on the web. The more often fans interact with your content online, the more often they're reminded of you. Also, frequently posting to a blog on your site boosts you up the chain in search engines when people are searching for things related to you (example: Columbus artists or Columbus local music scene).
The content of your blog can be about more than just your music as well. Show them a more personal side of you and allow them to feel like you're also a friend. The more of yourself you reveal to fans the more intimate your music will become to them. You may find that they become more supportive of you as a person or group of people rather just a musician. Lastly, knowing more about you as a person may allow them to better understand the meaning and purpose behind your music. This could help fans relate to your music in ways they otherwise wouldn't have thus allowing them to have a closer bond with it. My perception/interpretation of many artists has changed once I learned more about their story. I had a better understanding of why they make the music they do and ultimately I was able to appreciate it more.
3. Before you start engaging with the scene make sure you have an image prepared. This means several things. Cosmetically your image is composed of things such as your band logo, color scheme, the font you use, artwork concepts, etc. You're a band but you also need to be a brand. You need the image of your brand ready to go from the start and you need to commit to it (if you change it up too much it won't have as powerful an association with you). Over time it needs to become something that people recognize and remember so that they always associate it with you. If someone sees a flier with your logo on it you want them to immediately know who that logo is referring to. For those who don't know who you are, they should be intrigued by the image you've created. You want them to go home and look you up because of it.
Image also has a deeper level as well. It's hard to explain but I suppose it's kind of a theme or several themes associated with you. It's who you are as people, the personality of the music and the message within it, and the demeanor in which you carry yourself. It's the "story" behind the artist so to speak. This level of image is something that's felt more so than seen. But with that being said, your cosmetic image should be indicative of the things that compose your deeper level of image. All in all, it's important to establish both of these from the get go so it can become more concrete and recognizable over time.
4. Support other artists in your music scene. It's not right to seek the help of your community if you aren't willing to offer back your own support. As a community of artists, we should all be working together if we want the best chance of succeeding. Artists share the same struggles and since we all understand that struggle we should be the first ones out there supporting the cause. Music isn't a competition. Just because band A is doing well doesn't mean band B can't also do well. So go to other artists' shows, encourage others to see them, buy each others' albums, offer advice, become friends.
If you show support, most will reciprocate that support. Other artists will be happy to attend your show, suggest you to others, and potentially ask you to play shows with them. Your support of others should be pure though, not selfish. It's easy to tell when someone is doing something nice for selfish reasons. Don't be that person. Be an honest supporter of the music community solely because you know it's right. Others will see that and over time they'll be delighted to return the favor.
In addition, support your venues. Go to shows at various venues around town. Hang out there on off nights and get to know the staff and those who frequent the bar. If you become a frequent customer and a familiar face, you may have an easier time when you approach these venues to inquire about playing a show. Also, the people that frequently drop in these venues are potential fans that you can get to know before they even realize you play in a band.
5. Be strategic with your first few shows. It's reasonable to believe that playing in front of a larger crowd means you'll have more exposure to potential fans. In fact, that statement is true. But consider the idea of playing intentionally small shows right off the bat. If you're just starting to play shows it's likely that not many people know who you are so it's also likely the turnout isn't going to be large. If you book a gig at a larger sized venue and twenty-five people show up it'll feel sparse and awkward. The best shows are the ones that saturate the room with energy. Twenty-five people standing around a mostly empty room with their arms crossed is going to feel way less exciting than twenty-five people crammed in front of a stage at the back corner of the bar. It'll feel more intimate and the energy will be more contagious.
Playing a larger venue in support of another band could have positive results but there are some realities you have to consider. If you're opening for an artist it's likely that most of the attendees are there for that artist. This could present a few challenges. A good chunk of the crowd may not even show up until you're already halfway through or done with your set depending on where you stand on the bill. The artist you're opening for may have an influence on the audiences overall expectations of the show and the other artists performing. You're performing before an artist they already like so you're already predisposed to be judged relative to an artist they have a high expectation for. You could be equally as talented as the opening act but your music isn't what they're there for and to them, it may not seem as good as the music that they are there for. Doesn't mean your music isn't as good. Also, none of this means you couldn't go in there and blow everyone away. All of this should just be something you consider when making these decisions.
Think about the people at a small venue on the Tuesday night of your second show ever. There are going to be some people who are there because they already have an interest in you and there will be those who are just there for a beer whom of which likely have no expectations of you. These are two groups of people, that if you play your heart out for, they will take notice of you. You'll be reaffirming the interest of those who already like you. Those there for no reason at all likely have a more open mind to whatever show they're about to see. If you give it your all they'll at the very least appreciate your talent and energy. Fans know the difference between a performance coming from the soul and a show. If you're playing a venue suiting to your style and you lay it down on stage, you will make fans of the twenty-five people in that room. Twenty-five fans who are likely to tell others about the band that came out of no where and blew everyone away last Tuesday night. Do this for a little while and you'll have the fans for that larger venue.
All said and done, if your music kicks ass and you're willing to beat the brick wall until it comes down, you'll find your way. My hope is that these ideas might be of some help to you on your journey. If you enjoyed this article, check back soon for part two.
“978-1-5011-0490-9” Excerpt From: Donald S. Passman. “All You Need to Know About the Music Business.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/all-you-need-to-know-about-the-music-business/id974982569?mt=11