Michael Walker is leading a revolution in today’s music industry.
The following comes from Modern Musician, a proud partner of DMN.
Having personally reached 17 million views on YouTube, working with Grammy Award-winning producers and touring internationally to perform for hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide – Michael is one of those rare mentors who has actually walked the walk of their own methodology.
Starting out with pure grass-roots techniques, he and his band Paradise Fears went from living out of their cars to selling 24,000 albums in 6 months. Now, Michael works with other independent artists and bands to provide them with the tools necessary to create a lasting career in the music industry. We sit down with Michael Walker to find out how he made it as a successful musician without a manager and why he believes 2020 is the most exciting time to be an independent artist.
When was the first time you picked up an instrument?
Michael Walker: Oh man, I started playing piano when I was about six years old. Not because I enjoyed it, but because my parents bribed me with video games to practice and it really became more of a passion in high school. I was a pretty shy, awkward kid, and wasn’t very good at expressing myself. I didn’t really feel very comfortable in my own skin and playing music and performing was a way for me to express myself and how I connected with my best friends and we started this band. And basically, everything in my life now that’s good came from music, and so it’s something I feel incredibly grateful for.
Who were your early musical inspirations?
I grew up listening to a lot of Billy Joel. My dad was a big Billy Joel fan, so I listened to a lot of him, Elton John. In high school, I definitely got more emo, so I started listening to some more pop rock like All Time Low, Blink 182, Mayday Parade. That’s really the style that our band played when we first started, and now I’m mostly a fan of folk, singer-songwriter, pop. The Beatles are my favorite band of all time.
You had a huge amount of success with Paradise Fears. What were some of your highlights?
Reflecting on it, I think the transformation was pretty awesome. How basically we started, lived in our van, slept in Walmart parking lots, and essentially played shows to the bartender in the back of the room. And made a lot of mistakes and essentially crawled over broken glass to figure out a few things that actually worked. We got to a point where we released an album that hit number two on iTunes, we were able to tour worldwide successfully. We had about 24 million streams on Spotify and videos with about 17 million views on YouTube. And really, the best thing I think was just being able to play shows to sold out crowds of people who were singing the words to the songs that we wrote. After the shows people coming up and telling me stories and showing me tattoos on their wrist where they used to self harm, and telling me stories about how our music helped them. It was really amazing to hear that we were able to make that kind of impact.
What was your craziest fan moment?
Craziest? I mean, there’s good crazy and bad crazy.
Bad crazy? I almost don’t want to say it, I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus because anyone, if they saw this they’d know exactly who they were. There’ve been some times where fans have crossed over the line or they’ve shown up to our house unexpectedly. That was kind of concerning.
But I also heard a lot of stories from fans who talked about how our music helped them through difficult times. We had one song in particular called Sanctuary that was about overcoming depression and I remember one girl telling me she was about to commit suicide and she heard our song come on shuffle. She said it felt like that was a sign. She was in tears, I was like… It’s insane the kind of impact that you can make with musicI. It makes you feel like what you’re doing is worth it.
What were the hardest moments with Paradise Fears? Did you ever think about quitting and how did you overcome those moments?
I would say the most difficult moment for us was probably early on in the beginning because we didn’t really have the success yet. We didn’t have the results to prove that we were on the right path and so a few of us had full ride scholarships to college. A lot of people thought, “What are you guys doing, throwing that away so you can pursue this band?” It took a lot of belief and faith that what we were doing was going to work out. When we were living in our van and sleeping at Walmart parking lots, eating peanut butter tortillas, that was probably the most challenging. But also, we were having a blast and we were living our dream. So even during that, I feel like there’s this undercurrent of enthusiasm and positive energy. I think that’s part of the reason that we were able to achieve what we did.
What were the key ingredients that led to the success that you had? Because you guys didn’t have a manager, right?
Yep, we didn’t have a manager, we weren’t signed to a record label. I mean, really, if I had to nail down one thing that made the biggest impact, I think it was this idea that our lead singer had early on, which now we call tour hacking. But basically, the idea was there are six of us in the band and we were big fans of All Time Low and Blink 182. Before their shows, they would have thousands of people waiting in line in front of the venues, sometimes for days in advance, not doing anything better than just waiting. And so we thought, “What if we walk up to those people and introduce ourselves? And share our music?” And so we’d split up into groups of two and follow different tours around the country. And before the shows, we’d walk up to those people.
I remember having this pair of headphones with like 20 second clips of our songs and I was a super shy, awkward kid, so approaching strangers did not come naturally to me at all. I was shaking and stuttering as I talked to people. But we found that it worked incredibly well. They’re the people that actually go to shows and have already spent money to be there. And really care and really support music. We sold 24,000 CDs in about four and a half months doing that. And because of that, one of the bands that we were tour hacking on, All Time Low, they’re like our favorite band of all time, they had millions of fans. They actually heard about what we were doing and they gave us the opportunity to open for them on their next tour.
I guess that leads us up to what you’re doing now. So, what is Modern Musician? How did you get started? What do you guys do?
So when I started Modern Musician a couple of years ago, I was about to start my family with my wife and I didn’t want to be gone for 11 months out of the year touring with the band. So I started this business called Modern Musician and basically invested about $36,000, that I didn’t have after buying a house, into working with business coaching mentors. It turned out to be one of the best investments I’ve ever made, but that was really scary. It was a big leap of faith.
I reflected on our entire career and the things that helped us most to get 24 million streams and a tour successfully. I created some training videos in order to share that with other artists and bands. I started doing one-on-one coaching where I met with clients and I was basically shouting from the rooftops, “Everyone go tour hacking.” I remember one of the bands I worked with starting out was called In Loving Memory. They went out and they did it! They made $11,000 in a single month and that’s awesome.
What’s your advice for the artists and bands that can’t necessarily go out tour hacking?
Yeah, what I actually found was that a lot of people I told that story to loved the idea of tour hacking, but for a variety of reasons couldn’t do it because they’ve got a family at home or a day job, or they just don’t want to go meet strangers in lines for shows.
So part of my quest over the last couple of years has been trying to figure out, is there a way to apply that strategy and do it online so that’s more accessible? And about 98% of what we focus on now, is building what we call virtual tour hacking. It’s about the same idea of connecting with the right types of fans and then having a conversation with them. It’s become a huge passion because in a lot of ways, I see myself in the artists we’re working with.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you see yourself in the artists you work with?
It’s like with my own kids, I have two kids now. I have a boy who’s about two and a half years old and a baby daughter who’s about a month and a half. I’ve discovered there’s something really profound about looking at another human, and seeing yourself in them and I get to have that experience the same way I have it with my kids. I see that with our artists that we’re working with.
What is your best advice for an indie artist or musician starting out right now?
Right now, as we’re recording this, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic so you actually couldn’t go tour hacking even if you wanted to. If you could, that would be my first recommendation, just go start meeting those fans who are waiting in lines because those are the best quality fans, start sharing your music. Right now, I’d recommend doing it virtually. So basically, what it looks like is just find out where do your people hang out online. Usually that means, what artists are they following? And then just reach out to those people and start having a conversation, start connecting with them. Actually just try to build a real relationship with them and share some of your songs.
What do you think about platforms like TikTok, IG Reels? Is the way that people are consuming music changing? How important is it for musicians to be on those kind of channels?
That’s a really good question. I think that 10 years from now, everything is going to be completely different in terms of social media. The landscape is changing so quickly that, my biggest piece of advice is to not build your foundation on any of those websites in and of itself. You should totally be on those, be on whatever is most popular. But then also be building your personal contact list either through phone numbers or e-mail addresses because that’s something that you own. If Facebook decides that you can’t reach your people who liked your page organically, and you lose 100,000 people overnight, you didn’t actually lose them because you have that list of your own that doesn’t rely on another platform. So my recommendation is figure out, where do your people hang out? And be there, but then make it a core part of your strategy get their contact information so you can continue to develop more of a relationship with them over time.
Anything you guys are planning right now? Any exciting stuff with Modern Musician?
So we just launched a new podcast called The Modern Musician Podcast. We interviewed some of the greatest speakers in the music industry right now. We speak to experts who have a lot of knowledge around licensing your music to TV and film, multi-platinum songwriters and the former manager of Taylor Swift.
We hit number eight on the iTunes charts within the first week. It’s a great free resource for anyone that they can go check out.
I’m also running a Free Fanbase Growth Workshop revealing some of the “secret sauce” from inside our Gold Artist Program, usually we only share these techniques with our inner circle.
Final question, what’s the best piece of life advice you’ve ever received?
I think one of my favorite pieces of advice is to surround yourself with the people who have done the thing that you want to do. I’ve heard before that you’re basically the summary of the five people that you spend the most of your time with. Whenever I’ve wanted to level up and play bigger, it’s always come by finding those people that I aspire to, that have already done the thing I want to do. And finding a way to put myself in a room with those people, even if it means spending tens of thousands of dollars, and it’s been hugely valuable.
Your Free Resources:
3-Day Tour Hacking Workshop