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Tools and strategies for connecting with fans online

Fans, Friends, & Followers

The way the music industry worked for most of the 20th century involved artists striving and gigging and hoping to get discovered, and then letting someone else worry about everything else. Today, most of the responsibility for marketing, promotion, and building an engaged fan base falls upon you – even if you are lucky enough to get signed to a label. Take a band like OK Go, signed to Capitol Records. The band members say that the way they’ve achieved a global reach is by coming up with their own clever tactics to connect with fans, like making cheap, homemade music videos and posting them on YouTube. (OK Go’s video for “Here It Goes Again” has been seen more than 45 million times on YouTube.)

“Much more of this promotional stuff used to be handled by an industrial media machine of some kind,” says lead singer Damian Kulash in the book Fans, Friends & Followers. “And little of it is now.” Now, musicians like Kulash are realizing that a strong connection with fans is their most valuable asset.

Here are 3 strategies that the musicians featured in Fans, Friends & Followers say are essential:

1) Collect emails religiously
2) Let fans tell you where to play
3) Create opportunities for participation

Collect e-mails religiously
MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter are all great ways to communicate with your fans, but most musicians still say that old-fashioned email can be the most reliable way to ensure that your message is read and to have fans take a certain action, like buying a ticket to a show or a new CD. Services like Host Baby, Constant Contact, or Vertical Response can help you collect emails on your website and manage your out-going messages. But it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity to grow your list of email addresses.
Here’s what Richard Cheese, a Los Angeles based singer who fronts the band Lounge Against the Machine, says about gathering fan email addresses:

Lounge Against the Machine
Lounge Against the Machine

1. I retain the email address of every customer who buys something, whether it be CDs, tickets to our shows, or membership in our fan club.

2. Whenever we do a concert at a venue that sells tickets online, we ask the venue to send the ticket buyers’ email addresses to us, and we send them a “thank you” email and invite them to join our list.

3. We have email sign-up sheets at our shows.

4. We have a sign-up link at our website, where visitors can add their names to our email list in a form.

5. Of course, anytime someone emails me, we invite them to join our email list, too.

Jonathan Coulton

Let fans tell you where to play
The old approach to touring involved renting a van, and heading down the west coast from Seattle to San Diego, booking gigs in every venue possible. But new tools allow your fans to help guide where you go. The result is that they feel they’ve helped “bring” you to their town, and you get a more reliable turn out. Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton explains how he uses Eventful Demand, a free service, to let fans request that he come to their town – in conjunction with his blog.

“You can put something on your site that says, ‘Sign up here and tell me where you live if you want me to perform in your city.’ I can log in and see all of the cities where people are demanding me.

“I was on tour with author and “Daily Show” performer John Hodgman in Seattle. We had an event on Friday. I sent a message out to all the people in Seattle who’d demanded me, and posted on my blog saying, ‘I’m going to be in Seattle, and I’d be happy to do a show on Saturday night if I can find a venue.’ This was maybe a week-and-a-half before the date. Within 24 hours, I got five or six responses from people, some who’d actually called up venues to find out who the booker was. One guy owned a coffee shop, and he offered that as a venue. The one that looked like the best option was the Jewelbox Theater at the Rendezvous. It held about 75 people, and there were 75 people there. That’s when it all clicked for me.

“We’d had 45 demands in Seattle, and that turned in to a 75-person audience. Then, we tried San Francisco. For me, it holds true that the audience size will be larger than the number of people who’ve made demands. Eventful Demand has helped my agent sell me to venues who’ve never heard of me. He can say, ‘Look, we just did a show in San Francisco, and the demands were at this level, and this many people showed up.’

We’ve tried doing cities where the demand numbers just weren’t there, because they were between two other cities where I was playing, and it hasn’t worked.”

Create opportunities for participation
Fans no longer just want to buy your album or a ticket to see you perform – they want a window into your creative process, and a chance to get involved. For some musicians, that may entail letting fans choose the photo that goes on an album cover – and for others, it can involve letting fans sing on their album or contribute a solo. (On his song “Shop Vac,” Coulton let his fans submit solos and then invited them to select the contribution they liked best to be included in the final version.)

When the band OK Go noticed that fans were making their own versions of some of its more popular YouTube videos, mimicking the band members’ dance moves, they created a contest to choose the best one. The winners got an all-expenses-paid trip to a concert, and the opportunity to dance onstage with the band. The result? “Today, there are many more OK Go videos out there than we could’ve ever produced,” Kulash says.

The ultimate form of participation may be getting fans to help fund the production of a new album. Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule explains how that worked for her 2009 release California Years.

Jill Sobule
Jill Sobule

“I picked $75,000 as a fundraising goal. It was kind of off-the-cuff. Making a record can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,000,000. I figured I’d use the money for recording, distribution, publicity – everything.

“The contribution levels went from $10, which got you a digital download of the record, to $10,000, which gave you the chance to sing on the record. A woman named Jo Pottinger from the UK donated at that level. I bought her a plane ticket, put her up at a fancy hotel for a couple nights, and I gave her a vocal lesson. She sang on the record, and a friend of mine videotaped it. She was fantastic.

“I’ve also done a couple house concerts for people who donated $5,000. If you donated $1,000, I said I’d write you a theme song for your answering machine, and I still have to record a few more of those.

“It took me about two months to get to my $75,000 goal. [The final amount raised was close to $90,000.] Hopefully, California Years will be successful enough that I can fund the next one myself. Yet, I’d still want to keep the participation from the fan base in there.”

There are no set rules yet about the ideal ways to collect email addresses, let fans shape your tour, or give them opportunities to play a part in your music. You may discover a strategy that works better for you – and if you do, hopefully you’ll share it with other musicians. “Everybody’s in the same Wild West environment,” says Kulash. “There are no rules. Anything could work.”

Scott Kirsner is a journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and Wired. He edits the blog CinemaTech, and his latest book is Fans, Friends & Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age. More info at

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