Musical gifts are not meant to be kept to ourselves, which means at some point you’re going to have to deal with connecting with your audience: AKA the consumers of your musical product.
There’s a lot of negativity out there about the music business and how awful things are. If you buy into it, you might believe we are all destined to be Emily Dickinsons, writing songs in our attics only to be discovered in a hundred years after our miserable, lonely demises. I have great respect for art for art’s sake: Johann Sebastian Bach’s genius is not diminished by the fact that most people really didn’t know him outside of his little town of Leipzig during his lifetime, but if I’m guessing correctly, most of you out there making music aren’t doing it just for what the British call “a good laugh.” Even the laziest weekend warrior has some kind of goal: make a record, play a gig, get free beer, etc. Or maybe you do have purely artistic motives and you want to create art just for yourself. There is no shame in that.
However, it’s my belief that musical gifts are not gifts meant to be kept to ourselves; they are meant to be shared with the rest of the world. This means that at some point you are going to have to deal with other people: the consumers of your musical product. The good news is the barriers between artist and fan have largely been decimated by the ever-equalizing Internet. And, if you believe articles like “1,000 True Fans” by Kevin Kelly, your audience is the key to your having a sustainable career in music.
In order to connect with your audience, first you have to start building one! Audience building is a subject for another day, but let’s assume you have a small yet devoted following coming to see you perform. Maybe you are a national touring act with hundreds people attending every gig, but you still don’t feel a sense of connection with your crowd. These ideas can work on every level, from 10 people in the crowd to 1,000, and on every level of audience relationship, from just getting to know your crowd to being “married” to them.
John Naisbitt first theorized the concept of “high tech / high touch” in his 1982 book Megatrends. The idea is that as technology has sped up and become more prevalent in our lives, our human connections have diminished and become less significant. Any successful business will integrate high tech and high touch into their marketing strategy in the 21st century, and this concept applies to the “new model” of the music business as well.
In short, you need to be available to your audience. Social media allows you to entertain your audience on many different platforms. If you don’t already have them, you should have social media pages for yourself on every current platform and you should encourage your audience to connect with you on all of them. As a creative person, don’t be afraid to hop around. Bored of Facebook? Tweet. Or post a pic on Instagram. It’s good to have continuity (i.e. the same username and the same general design scheme where possible) for each of your pages, but the important thing is to be creative and let your posts reflect your personality. Be who you are and expose your audience to the things you’re interested in.
The same idea applies to before, after, and during shows if you have an intermission. Hang out by the merch table, sign your product, talk to your audience. Get to know the names of the people who come to see you play regularly. Send thank you messages on Facebook. Have an email list and use it (I am terrible at this particular thing but working on it!).
This doesn’t mean “have no boundaries.” Don’t give out personal contact info to people you do not feel safe with. Use common sense when it comes to how much information you share. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone; you’ll just benefit by being available to them and show them how much you truly do appreciate their interest in your music and to give them a personal response.
Create moments/change the pressure
This idea comes from the live music producer Tom Jackson. One of his greatest tools and the one that has personally brought me the most profitability in my own career is his set list graph. Tom has you number your songs from 1 to 5 in terms of energy. A 1 is a quiet, introspective ballad, a 5 is a highly energetic, get-the-crowd-on-its-feet barnburner, and a 3 would be like your average radio pop song. Within these songs, Tom helps artists connect to different kinds of moments which create memorable shows. Because ultimately what audiences remember are not songs so much as moments.
Jackson urges you to break down your set in terms of different kinds of moments: an intro moment to introduce who you are, a “big fun” moment to encourage audience participation, musical moments to draw attention to instrumental/vocal performance, quiet moments to bring the energy down, and a closing moment to end the set with a bang. The concept behind this is to change the pressure on the audience to set up these moments, because these moments are what the audience remembers and connects with, emotionally.
In addition to changing pressure musically, you need to be changing the pressure visually. If it’s a “1” song, sit on a stool. If it’s a “5,” use your space and make sure you are working all sides of your stage. One of Tom Jackson’s greatest lines is “Your songs don’t sound the same, right? Then why do they all look the same?” Major artists often have extreme light, costume, and set changes between different songs. For someone performing in a restaurant, that kind of thing is way over the top. But small adjustments like sitting on a stool, putting on sunglasses, taking a jacket and/or a hat on and off are quite possible.
Your show needs to have variety, even if you are just one person (like me). and that variety is not just playing fast song, fast song, slow song, medium song, fast song, slow song. It comes from creating different kinds of moments for the audience to connect to emotionally, and changing the visual and musical pressure on the audience by mixing up these moments. This will keep your crowd coming back for more: more gigs, more merch, and more moments!
Part of what distinguishes Music Business 2.0 from the music business of the past is lack of middle person between the artist and the audience. In the old days, you’d record an album, the record company would press it, the distributor would take it to the stores, and the retailer would sell it. Now the means of production are available to the average person and you can sell physical product directly from your website and directly to your fans. The main advantage to this is the ability to deal directly with your audience, to be able to ask them what they want and when they want it.
If you are just starting out or still creating a relationship with your audience, find out what they want! Take requests. Ask them what kinds of merch items they would like to buy. See what kind of music they’re listening to on social media. One of the amazing things about the two-way conversation on social media is not just that they can see what you’re up to, but you can see what they’re up to also! Want to blow your biggest fans’ minds? Write a song about their trip to Mexico or their dog. Write a silly 30 second song about their Instagram pic of their dinner. Obviously you need to judiciously use the information about them as you would hope they would use it about you (not mocking, disparaging, or being too personal). The important thing to remember, though, is that the conversation is a two-way street; you are communicating to them and they will communicate information back to you. You should be listening to them!
The traditional method of marketing questions and/or surveys might work for you. I’ve used that sparingly in my own career, but mostly I haven’t found my own audience receptive to those kinds of inquiries at all. The dialogue coming from you should feel personal, not corporate. One way I listen to them is I try to be aware of how they respond to my new original songs. If they mention a song or a moment in the song to me, I pay close attention. Sometimes you can just tell by the looks on people’s faces what’s working and what is not. The more objective you can be about these observations, the better. Another good example is if your fans go out and make their own T-shirts with your name on them, it’s probably a safe bet that they would buy a T-shirt that you were selling. Sometimes they will make an innocuous comment: “You know what would be cool? A Chris Huff pen.” All of this is information that you can use to sell them things that they want to buy. And then everybody wins!
Image via ShutterStock.com.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.