As most of you reading this probably know already, Adele recently released a new album. Let me just stop here and congratulate those of you who don’t know this as you are the only people I know to be sufficiently removed from pop culture to be able to claim that you have a life. For the rest of us, read on…
I was watching Adele perform her new single on Saturday Night Live with my wife, and after listening to it I said to her: “I get that the songs is good, and she is a great singer, but I can’t help but wonder why this gets insanely famous while other music that I like so much more never even hits the charts.” This led to what usually happens to me; I try to analyze as objectively as I can the subjective whys and why nots of art.
I am the first to admit that Adele is an exceptionally talented singer. I can also say that her songs are crafted to the highest standards of songwriting, at least in the popular music domain, that the production of her albums is top notch, as is the skill of the musicians in her albums. So why is it that I do not, nor will I probably ever, care enough about her music to buy her albums or go to one of her shows (or even bother to sit through a televised performance for any reason other than being too lazy to get up and do something else). So here’s what I finally came up with: chemistry. I am talking about the same intangible chemistry you refer to when trying to explain to a friend why the relationship with a dreamy, hot, intelligent and financially successful romantic candidate did not work out.
Think of why you like the music that you like. Some people might say because it is good to dance to, or because it is relaxing, or because it pumps them up. Whatever the reason cited, it can be boiled down to how that particular song, artist, or style makes them feel or, as I put it, whether or not the song, artist or style “speaks” to the particular listener. At the end of the day, it has very little to do with production value, musicianship skills, literary value, etc., except in the case that any of these makes a person “feel” one way or another.
This all creates a very real dilemma for independent musicians when it comes to how to market their music. The major artists, such as Adele, have a business machine behind them that ensures that masses of listeners will have multiple chances to hear their songs and hopefully make the connection. You will hear her songs on SNL, on James Bond movies, on commercials and in ringtones, to name a few. While I am sure that, like me, there are many others that even if you locked them in a room listening to Adele records over and over, would likely emerge still not liking the music, Adele’s sales have proven that she connects with a gigantic mass of people. But independent artists don’t have the business and marketing machine behind them. We are left to our own devices to figure out how to not only identify, which is a vastly complicated task in and of itself, but then to reach out to the audience that our music may make a connection with.
I don’t have sage advice for the indies on this, I can only tell you how, in my infinite ignorance, I approach it. As I heard in a recent industry seminar, you have to start with the song. If you can’t write a good song or a hit (not always the same thing, that’s why I make the distinction), then no matter what you do or how big of a machine you have behind you, financial success will not follow, at least not sustainably so (read Gangnam Style). If and once you have a good song, let’s call it “the product,” then you should develop a strategy to spread that song in ways that maximize opportunities for an audience to hear it. Your strategy needs to be sensible and logical; notwithstanding Judas Priest’s cover of Diamonds and Rust, you should probably not include in your plan live performance at the local heavy metal joint if you are a folk singer-songwriter.
Here three initiatives you should consider in your strategy:
1. Live Performance Initiative. The power of live performance cannot be understated and you should be particularly careful not to undermine your product by delivering a poor or misguided live act. It is through live performance that an audience makes a connection with the artist, not just the song. So you should be conscious of developing your brand, which includes the aesthetic presentation of your live show as well as your delivery. I wear a hat. Not always the same hat, but always with aesthetic consistency to the image I am trying to project. I also always dress in dark colors and make sure I don’t shave for a few days prior to a show. This is all consistent with maintaining form to the brand I am selling: the gruff, whiskey-infused philosopher. The name I came up with for my act is memorable and I have received very positive feedback from industry representatives: Banjo Bones. It always begs the question, what does it mean? You want to keep the conversation about your act alive. Finally, you should have the utmost respect and appreciation for your audience. There is no such thing as too small of an audience when it comes to your show. As an example, I recently had a gig at a remote venue and the show only drew 6 paying customers. I happened to be really “on” that night and delivered one of my best live performances ever. I noticed a lady that got up during my set and danced to my music (which is hardly dance music). After the set she bought my CD and asked me to sign it for her. She then joined my Facebook page and she went out of her way to ask me to let her know when I was back in town and to let me know that she would reel in friends to my next show. To me, that was a very successful night. Had I delivered a half-assed presentation, I may have missed out on the great opportunity to make a new fan and supporter.
2. Airplay Initiative. While live performance is the historically tried and true way of “spreading the word,” it is by no means the only one. Although its value is highly debated and disputed, radio stations still claim, based on statistics they say, that traditional radio continues to be the number one means by which fans discover new music. There are promotion services that, for a fee that varies between two and three digits, will distribute your music to a network of stations in their portfolio. None of these services can guarantee airplay, but I do believe that a station is more likely to play something that has been referred to them by some of these services than they are if they receive the same material directly from the artist; if for no other reason than the ongoing prejudice that if you don’t have “the machine” behind you, then you’re probably a “nobody” and undeserving of their time and attention. There are exceptions to this, especially in the smaller markets, but it is still an unfortunate reality for the most part. Whether you go through a promoting agency or you decide to plow forward on your own, there are ways to improve your chances to get airplay. The obvious one is to target stations that play material that is stylistically similar to yours. This can be based on the station’s programming as a whole (i.e. a Country Station), or specialty programs they may have (i.e. “the Blues Hour with DJ Famous”). Be ready for rejection, which will come in the form of “thanks, but not thanks” in the best cases, or in a traditional cold shoulder, which is what most often happens. Keep in mind that, like job hunting, this is a numbers game: the more contacts the better your chances.
3. Media Reviews Initiative. There is another type of specialized promotion service that you can tap into: the media reviews. There are promotions services that, again for a fee, will distribute your release to a network of printed and virtual media organizations for review. They also cannot guarantee that their network will review your release, or that if they do it will be a positive review, but I do believe that like the radio station promoters, they have a better chance of getting you material reviewed than if you send it directly. One important word of caution: the vast majority of mainstream printed media actually operate in a combination of the printed format, enhanced by virtual content in their website. Many of these will reach out to you once they have written the review, and tell you that because of the volume of reviews, they can’t guarantee yours will reach the printed edition and may be only posted in their website along with two thousand other reviews. They then proceed to offer you the opportunity to increase the power of the review by securing advertising space in their publication (maybe printed, most likely virtual). Now I am not suggesting that there are no benefits to advertising, nor am I accusing these publications of being underhanded in their approach. I am simply suggesting that you make well informed decisions. Ask them if your purchasing an ad will guarantee your review reaching the printed media, and if your ad is guaranteed to be on the printed media irrespective of the review. Once you know the answers to that, then you can decide if you still wish to proceed with the ad or not. There are benefits to these reviews beyond the outreach to potential new fans. Specifically, you can use quotes from these reviews, along with the reference to the publication and author, in your website and other promotional material. This gives you another layer of formality and credibility. So don’t be so quick to disregard the virtual reviews in the 2k+ database they can still be useful. The good news is that publications that are inclined to offer you ad space will likely only do so if the review is a good one. You get my drift…
These are just three examples of how you can increase the mass you are targeting. You may not be anywhere near Adele masses, but you will certainly go beyond the mandatory Facebook announcement to friends that probably already know you have a new CD out, many of which have no intentions of buying it and expect a free copy.
One final word of advice… Artists, and I am not exception, tend to see their creations as children. We nurture and protect them, and treat them with care. We get personally offended at the mere suggestion that our songs are not someone’s cup of tea, and we protect them with the bravado of standing up for a damsel in distress. Big name artists can afford to stay in this state of mind perpetually, but the same is not true for indies if we want to reach any level of commercial success and stay independent. As soon as the creative effort is over, we must remove our creative hats and put on our business hats. We must look at our creations as product to be pushed and pedaled, and give them every opportunity to reach commercial success. We must avoid the tendency to blow our entire financial wad in the creative process (i.e. recording, mixing, mastering, and packaging), and be cognizant that in order to reach critical mass we must invest in promotion, advertising, marketing, etc.
As you embark on your next recording project, think of this and make sure to consider it in a mid to long term budget. You owe it to your good song to give it the best opportunity to succeed financially. Rock on Boneheads!