I have spent the last 20 plus years of my career working alongside independent musicians primarily from the Texas/Oklahoma music scene, and I have had the pleasure of watching many of them reach new levels of success each year through serious commitment, absolute fortitude, true belief in their art and grassroots marketing. I started out on Nashville’s Music Row and have dabbled in the mainstream world from time to time, and while I have gained invaluable experience in that realm and have tremendous respect for the people who make it happen every day, I have always had my anchor firmly planted in the independent music sea where untapped original music is just coming to the surface. I thrive on the hunt for stardom, the battle to plant our flag and the overall journey young artists undergo to claim their victories. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what type of music you play, the initial steps required to get your music business off the ground is the same. Of course, this is not an exact science as anyone in this business will admit, especially in the current landscape of the music industry, which is much like finding yourself in uncharted territory, and there is absolutely no limit to the creativity you can pour into it. However, I have learned that starting with the basics is key when trying to launch your music career, and I have repeatedly witnessed remarkable success stories that were years in the making and have now charted a course for long term fulfillment. Every upcoming band/artist I have ever worked with has always had one ultimate goal on the onset of their career, and that is to get their music heard and make a living off their art. If you, who are reading this, have the same goal, I will outline the top 10 things every artist should know about promotions. And if your goal is to ultimately make it in the mainstream world, you would do well to incorporate these steps as major labels will be more apt to look at you if you have succeeded in doing your own footwork. This life is not for everyone, and definitely not for the weak of heart, but if you have the solid commitment and know deep down in the depths of your soul that music is your calling, then I invite you to join us in the fray. I can’t promise you will win every battle you are faced with, but it’s sure as hell worth the fight.
1) Live show: Your first goal when trying to get your music heard is to gain a fan base or a following, and this requires you to have the best live show possible. It is very difficult in the beginning to get your foot in the door at venues, but once you do, you better have a show that makes an impression. Thousands of bands/artists are vying for stage time and the ones that make an impact on the audience will be the ones to secure those spots and be invited back. Let me be very clear here. It is not enough to get your set list down and then run through that set without any mistakes. You have to command the audience, make them want to stop and listen and not drink their beers and talk to their friends. You have to breach the border between the stage and the audience, and draw them into your world. This is an art that is specific and personal to each band/artist so you have to work hard to figure it out for yourself. But if you can create a show that takes command of the room, and it doesn’t have to be flashy with stage dives and pyrotechnics, then you will have what we call “word-of-mouth affair,” and that is always going to be your most important asset.
2) Product: Once you get your foot in the door at venues you will obviously need available music for people to buy, a tangible representation of the band/artist. You don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to record a record or an EP. This can be done nowadays at a reasonable price if you find the right studio and a really good producer if you can. Many bands/artists will produce their first record or first few records by themselves, and that’s fine if you have that kind of ear. If not, finding the right producer is as important as finding your voice or that perfect musical hook or guitar riff…it has to fit right. Ask other musicians about who they have worked with. Look at records you admire and see who produced it. If you find someone you want it would be good to have a few tracks via Pro Tools or some other program that you can send them. Again, there are many ways to accomplish this so be persistent and creative.
3) Your package: Your package sets a professional tone and is something that can be used to solicit more support for your music. You need to have a biography written. Please heed my warning when I tell you that your bio needs to be no longer than one page in length. Trust me on this. Nobody wants to read more than a page so keep it short and to the point. When writing a bio, I always include a decent amount of background information on the band/artist, but I focus a majority of the information on the current or upcoming record. To really round out your package, try including a quote sheet and press clippings. A quote sheet is basically your endorsement page with accolades from music critics, peers, concert promoters, etc. Anything written about you in the press or “clippings” also help to covey the interest in your music. As you progress with your career you eventually graduate into the EPK or electronic press kit among other things.
4) Promotional photo: Gotta have a good photo ladies and gentlemen. Again, you don’t have to spend a ton of money getting a good shot. If you can afford a professional photographer, that’s great. If not, chances are you know someone who can do it for you. This is part of developing your package which is used to solicit gigs, media attention and the like. When taking photos make sure to have a nice selection to choose from in both black and white and color. Try to be creative with this. Bands in front of a stone wall with graffiti or standing on a bridge has been done to death.
5) Website/social media pages: This pretty much goes without saying. The Internet is your best friend so use it to your full advantage. Get your website up. It has become easier and more cost effective over the years to build one. Your social pages are always an excellent way to keep your fans in the everyday loop so be as interactive as you can be.
6) Merchandise table: Your merch table makes a big statement about you. As you begin building your merch you want to have a few items available for fans as they will act as moving advertisements for you. So make sure you start with at least one good T-shirt then start adding as you go along with items like a koozie and bumper sticker. As you start creating revenue over time you will want to reinvest come of that capital in expanding your merch. Other great ideas include several choices of T–shirts for men and ladies, key chains, hats, sweat pants/pajama pants, flasks, belt buckles, posters, etc.
7) Grassroots marketing: Now that you have your package together, your website up and running, some live shows under your belt and a merch table, you are ready for business. I have always believed that word-of-mouth buzz has always been, and will always be, the most important tool in creating longevity in this business. The fact is, people will always listen to their friend’s opinion before anyone else’s. Creating a buzz among music fans will literally catapult you up the proverbial rungs of the ladder. I could go on and on with countless stories of musicians who have created enormous and widespread fans bases doing it just this way. So what does that mean? Again, be interactive. Hang out at the venue after your show and talk to people. Make it a point to go to the merch table as soon as you get off stage to sign CD’s and take photos with fans, which is also great content for your social pages. Come up with cool contests where fans can win prizes via your website and social pages. Be consistent in your Facebooking and Twittering, and stay updated on your website. And flyering. Folks…with all this technology at our disposal, I will tell you that flyering is still one of the best grassroots tools you have. Not everyone reads the paper or goes to the local websites or listens to local radio, and our intentions spans are often short these days so, putting out flyers a week before your show will help spread the word in a blanketing effect.
8) Booking agent: This is, in my opinion, the very hardest piece to put in place, and is crucial to your progress as a working band/artist. In the beginning you will most likely have to do this yourself until you can build up a following. Booking agents only make money if you do, so if you are just starting out and are playing for a percentage of the door, you probably won’t have many of them knocking on your door. When you get yourself to the point of playing for guarantees and drawing an admirable crowd, a booking agent will up your ante and not only help you to get bigger gigs, but also help you expand your tour schedule.
9) Radio promoter: This is very important when promoting a new record, especially in the music scene that I work in as we have our own music chart. Radio is obviously a very powerful media outlet so getting your music played on air will give you a farther reach. Again, this is something you may have to do yourself in the beginning, but there are a lot of great promoters out there with a specific focus on pretty much any type of music you might play.
10) Publicity: This is what I do for my musicians. Publicity is the piece you usually put in place last, and if you have accomplished most of the nine previous goals you would be shooting yourself in the foot by not hiring a publicist. Your public relations person is the one who is going to be your biggest cheerleader with a giant bullhorn. In this business “perception is reality” and your publicist will help to establish your reputation and get your music heard by the media. Record reviews, single reviews, photo servicing, feature stories, spotlight profiles, tour press, TV segments, event planning, marketing angles…this is all part of their job. Many artists/bands make the mistake of hiring a publicist for a few months, and after getting some good reviews and feature stories, decide to stop doing it to save a little money. When you do that, you are cutting off your momentum, which is something you have to keep building if you want to progress. Publicity is crucial because the hard truth is once "they” stop talking about you, you no longer exist. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”