One of the main challenges new artists face is building an audience and then, by extension, cultivating a fanbase.
The traditional music industry will tell you that you need radio play – and hits – and you need to gig, to tour, to play as many venues as possible, even just to the mythical man and his dog, in order to gradually, through hours of grit and hard toil, build up a fanbase.
Since radio play – and hits – costs tens of thousands of pounds in promotional expenditure to achieve (and that’s the small ones; large ones cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds in associated marketing spend) that’s pretty much off the cards for most artists.
Which leaves gigging.
The problem with gigging to build a fanbase
Whereas I fully agree that playing live is the best way to improve your performance skills, it is an extremely inefficient way of building a fanbase.
Here are a few reasons why:
- You are directly trading your time for fans – if you’re not physically playing a gig, you’re not getting any more fans
- You’re completely limited to only those people in the venue, in that city, on that given night, to become possible fans – let alone limiting yourself again to only those people from that crowd who like your style of music (e.g. if the place is full of hip-hop heads and you’re playing folk music, it’s probably not the best place for you)
- When you’re starting out you’re offered dead slots on dead days in dead venues – playing 11pm on a Tuesday night at The Airman in Feltham in London’s Zone 6 is not the most buzzing gig, but you take what you can get
- Often (especially for central London venues) you’re contractually obliged not to play a “local” show two weeks either side of your show – meaning it’s very difficult to build up any momentum and get that much-needed gig experience
- Unless you’ve brought people yourself, most people in the venue are there to see another band and often spend your set at the bar (sometimes in an entirely different room) chatting to their mates and completely missing your set (even if it might be something they’d actually have enjoyed)
- If you don’t bring enough people you’ll probably not going to get another gig with that promoter – which makes it very difficult to build up any kind of regular gig schedule or “tour”
- If you do bring in the magical 20+ people – by busting your balls hustling friends and family – they already know you; they’re not going to become the core fanbase you need to build (of people who don’t already know you). Plus it gets gradually more and more difficult to get them to come to future gigs, meaning your “box” turnout gets progressively lower after your first gig, not higher.
- Assuming you play a fantastic set and there are some people who don’t know you there who really like what you’re doing, unless you’ve got a great follow-up game (e.g. getting their email address) the chances that they even remembered/knew your act’s name in the first place (from your mumbled opening of “Hi, we’re Mystical Donkey Killers”) is pretty remote, and the chances of them being able to find and engage with you online the next day (if they even remember you through their hangover) are extremely remote.
- Once the gig is gone, so is any opportunity to get more fans (unless you’ve been smart, and made a high audio and video quality recording of the gig, that you’re using for future marketing. Hint: you should ALWAYS be doing this!)
Does any of this sound familiar? 🙁
Yes, of course, there are a few exceptions, but for the starting band, this is an all too familiar situation. And after spending huge time and money on gear, rehearsals, printing flyers that only ended up in the bin, etc, it gets really demoralising really fast.
So, like most performers, you find it tough to build a fanbase and just assume you need to “gig more”.
(isn’t “doing more of the same thing and expecting different results” purportedly Einstein’s definition of insanity?!)
OK, so, if not gigging, how would you build a fanbase?
The basics of building a fanbase
Let’s break it down:
- The first step is building an audience.
An audience is a group of people who are giving attention to what you’re doing. They don’t necessarily like what you are doing – they aren’t fans yet – but they are listening.
- The second step is to convert that audience into fans
(or, at least, convert the highest percentage you can – after all, not everyone will like what you are doing, but that’s cool; you shouldn’t be trying to impress everyone – that’s the road to banality).
Today I want to focus on Step 1.
If an audience is a group of people who are giving you attention, then you want to look at channels and tools that can get the attention of a people.
Sure there is the live road (gigging, busking, etc) but, thankfully, the Internet is here, and it has a raft of (usually free) tools that allow you to put yourself in front of far more people, from Tasmania to Toronto; a far bigger catchment than any gig and one that can be reached 24/7, even whilst you sleep (e.g. by using automation and scheduling tools like Buffer)
Picking the right tool for the job
When deciding on what tool to use for a job, you first want to look at the unique strength of each tool; you could use a screwdriver handle to bang in a nail, but a hammer would be much better. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to try embedding a screw with a hammer…(well, probably not.. 😉 )
So, for example, one of YouTube’s biggest strengths is the ability to be found by search. So YouTube might be your go-to tool for being discovered organically (i.e. without paying for advertising).
Likewise, Facebook accounts for over 80% of all social media shares (second place is Twitter, with 8.6%, according to this 2014 report, though I seem to recall a more recent report that puts it over 90% for Facebook now). So, clearly, Facebook offers the biggest potential for having your content shared (Hint: share your stuff on Facebook!)
But the platform I want to highlight for today is Twitter.
The audience-building power of Twitter
With 320 million users (as of this March 2016 report) Twitter is a major social network. One of its main strengths is the ability to connect with people who you don’t already know; you can Follow anyone and they’ll receive a notification with the option to follow you back (whether they see or respond to it is a different matter).
And due to the open nature of Twitter you can also see – and connect with – the followers list of any other Twitter account.
So what does this have to do with building your audience?
The Follow for Follows tactic.
This can be employed to great effect in building an audience.
Your basic workflow would be something like this:
- Select a Twitter account who’s followers you think would like your music (e.g. if you sound like Led Zeppelin, then the official Led Zeppelin account would be a good place to start)
- Start following the followers of that account
- A percentage of those followers will follow you back; send each one a message inviting them to take an action (e.g. to click a link where they can download your music – in exchange for an email address)
- A percentage of those who follow you will take that action and download your music; you now have an audience who have heard your music who you can then follow up with via email
- Via your emails you can start building a relationship with them; a percentage of those people will like what you are doing and become genuine fans
- You now have a fanbase!
Your objective is to optimise each stage of the chain; i.e. to increase the percentage of people who take the action you want at each stage of the process above. The better you get at improving those percentages, the more rapidly you’ll build your fanbase (again, there are automation tools you can use like Statusbrew and MailChimp)
Now, perhaps you’re thinking “That never works!”…
Let me introduce you to Nate Maingard
I met Nate three years ago. At the time he was struggling to build a fanbase. Nor did he have an active Twitter account. This is a screenshot from his account today:
Notice how many followers he has?
Nearly 1 million.
Notice how many people he’s following?
Yep, nearly as many as he’s got followers – a classic follow-for-follow indicator.
Bonus: see his pinned tweet? Guess where his link takes you? Yep; to a page where you can download his music…in exchange for your email.
What Nate does differently to most is that he genuinely cares about his followers; he interacts and responds to as many of them as possible. This is why he can make this tactic work, and not feel spammy.
As a result, Nate has managed to build up a global community of fans that, among other things, pay him $1.4k a month so he can travel the world playing intimate house concerts for people (where he also gets paid, makes new fans and can sell more premium products).
Bro, sounds like a lot of work…
It can be, sure. But isn’t everything that’s worth doing? The point is, it IS doable…from your bedroom…in your pants.
Moreover, if you’re not prepared to put the work into your music career perhaps you should consider doing something else.
Again, I’m just scratching the surface with this. I’m not saying that Nate is the be-all-and-end-all of how it should be done (though he is a lovely guy and does do it very well!).
What I am trying to do is open your mind to a different viewpoint, so you can make more informed, more educated decisions on how to progress your music career.
Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to dig deeper into this kind of stuff. Hopefully, you’ll be happy to realise that the thankless drudgery of trying to build a fanbase only by gigging isn’t your only – or even best – option. Either way, it’s food for thought, no?