1) Wait to be Discovered
If you want a career in music you have to MAKE your career in music. You can’t wait for “the powers that be” to come swoop you up and turn you into a star. You must put in the work. No one wants to work with someone with a great recording but absolutely no work ethic, no following, no buzz, can’t perform live and has no social media presence. You must build this on your own first. The days of “getting discovered” at a club in Hollywood are over. Build up your enterprise on your own first, and people will come a-knockin’ when you’ve become unstoppable.
2) Expect People to Just Show Up to Your Shows
I can’t tell you how many young bands I see (with very little online presence) book huge tours and expect that people will just show up because they’re playing a cool club. This goes for local shows as well. Just because you’re on the venue’s calendar doesn’t mean anyone is going to come. You must have a purpose for every show you play. If you’re a super new band and you need performance experience, then fine, play open mics, jams, community centers, charity events, and low pressure environments. If you’re a professional outfit, you need to promote EVERY show you book. Otherwise why are you playing the show? If you do not promote the show, no one will show up. Plain and simple. And you can’t just make a Facebook event and pat yourself on the back. There are many more creative (and effective) ways to promote your shows than just Facebook. Do them!
3) Go On Tour Before You’re Ready
Similarly, if you haven’t figured out how to get anyone out to your shows locally, what makes you think you’re going to get people out when you headline a tour? Unless you’ve been invited as the support act on a national headliner’s tour, don’t tour until you have figured out your audience. If you’re in a major city (200,000+ people) I promise you there are people in your town who like your kind of music. Maybe “the scene” doesn’t care for your music, but there are actual, ticket buying humans who do.
Want to test this out? Go on Facebook advertising and start to setup an ad (you don’t need to buy one) and type in similar artists in the Interests field and then make your location within 20 miles of your city. It will give you an exact number of people who like those bands. So target them!
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t get any local media attention. I consistently filled the 800 cap Varsity Theater when I was living in Minneapolis without any radio or press coverage. I was completely ignored by “the scene’s” tastemakers, but drew more people to my shows than most other local bands they positively reviewed.
Once you’ve figured out how to draw locally, then take your show on the road. Not before then.
If you’re in a tiny town, then it might be a good idea to move to a larger city to start your music career. Or start killing it online first.
4) Move to LA Before You’re Ready
I’ve been living in LA for 5 years now. LA is not a town for beginners. Not to say there aren’t beginners here. There are WAY too many! If your band can’t get your hometown to care about you, it probably means that you aren’t good enough yet (no matter what your friends and family say). Cut your chops locally. Practice and perform your ass off. Move out to LA ONLY when you’re killing it regionally (or online). That’s when you’re ready to make the leap. No, you don’t need to be in LA to make your music career happen. Not at all. BUT don’t move out here before you’re ready. LA is not a very forgiving city. If you get a tastemaker or gatekeeper to one of your shows and you suck, they will blacklist you and never come again.
5) Fake Social Media Numbers
The industry has caught on. You can’t fool anyone anymore. It’s now about engagement. People want to see that your fans are ENGAGED. It means nothing if you have 10,000 Facebook likes but you only get 2 Likes a post and can only get 10 people out to your shows. Everybody knows numbers can be bought. If you have 200,000 YouTube views and 6 comments, everyone knows those were paid views. They don’t count. You look foolish.
If you’re going to buy numbers to just get started, buy a small amount. 1,000 is good. It at least gives you a starting point and off of a one second glance it looks like you’re doing something. But then you ACTUALLY need to start kicking ass. But if you want Facebook Likes I recommend using their ad platform (NOT a 3rd party Like-farm service) because Facebook weeds out fake Likes pretty frequently and Facebook only shows your posts to a tiny subset of your followers. If you have 1,000 fake Likes and 400 real ones, it’s very unlikely those 400 real people will EVER see your posts. If you’re going to spend money on Facebook promo, use their ad platform. But don’t pay to get fans before you’re ready.
6) Belittle Merch
Bands live and die on the road based on merch sales. Especially if you’re the opener getting a tiny guarantee for each show. You NEED great merch and a great merch seller at every show. Someone at the merch table from when doors open to when they close. But, of course, you need a fan base first. Don’t go buying thousands in merch inventory if you’re only bringing 40 people locally.
Make sure you accept credit (Square or PayPal have swipers with low fees) and make your display BRIGHT and BIG. You want everyone leaving your show making a conscious decision to either buy merch or not buy merch. Not knowing you have merch or not being able to purchase it when they want to (no merch seller) should not be an option. And always announce it from the stage. It may seem cheesy, but you can find a way to do it that’s not. Make it a part of your set.
7) Ignore Video
In 2015, people are way more willing to watch a video than listen to a song (unfortunately). Make sure when making your album budget, video production is a part of it! No sense in making a kickass record if you can’t afford a kickass video to go along with it. You don’t need a $30,000 music video. But you do need very high quality video. Live videos and music videos. If you’re on a tight budget, find a friend with a DSLR camera to shoot performance videos. Learn Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premier or even iMovie will work. You should be putting out videos regularly.
8) Neglect the Website
Some of the most frustrating people I’ve ever worked with are web developers. They are unreliable. Overworked. Charge too much. And did I mention unreliable? Unless you have a huge budget to keep one on retainer who can turn around updates within hours (not weeks), then you should be using a template based service like Bandzoogle or Squarespace which you can update yourself. Make sure the template you choose looks super pro and keep it updated. Make sure your music player is on the home page and that you feature your best videos. Do not have a news section if you don’t update this every couple weeks. And do not have a blog if you aren’t contributing to it regularly.
This is your calling card. In 2015, yes, it’s still important to have your own website that you OWN. Facebook will not do.
9) Belittle the Email List
You need to OWN your fans. You rent them from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube when they follow you there. These sites can change their reach overnight (like Facebook did) and you lose complete access to the fans you worked so hard to get. Or they could start charging you to reach them (hello Facebook again). Or the site could die altogether (MySpace anyone?). Email seems super uncool to teenagers and even college kids. But it is how everyone in the real world still communicates. Email is still an incredibly effective way to reach your fans. It’s how you will run successful crowdfunding campaigns, get people out to shows, get fans to buy your music (if they still do that), and generally have a successful, long term career. Pass the clipboard around at small shows. Have a mobile friendly signup on your website and announce from the stage for everyone to go to your website on their phones and signup “RIGHT NOW to get this next song in your inbox before we finish it.”
1 email subscriber is WAY more valuable than 1 Facebook Like or 1 YouTube subscriber.
10) Try to Appeal to Everyone
No matter what kind of music you make, some people will like it and some won’t. Get over it. Make the music you want to make and find your niche. Some niches are bigger than others. The worst thing you can do is change your sound to appeal to what you think “people will like.” Yes, make the best kind of music in your genre, but don’t change your sound because your uncle told you to sound more like The Eagles.
11) Engage the Haters
Once you have haters you know you’ve made it. Well, at least in your scene (be it online, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally). People don’t hate things they don’t care about. If they are taking time to hate you it is because people are paying attention to you. This is a good thing! Do NOT respond to personal attacks. As tempting as it may be. If you ignore the haters they will go away. Let your supporters defend you. You look small if you bring yourself down to their level to have it out on Facebook or Twitter. You will never win. If you must engage, take the James Blunt approach.
Photo is by Chloe Muro from Flickr and used with the creative commons license