What follows is my post on a recent thread about the what musician face in these times started by my friend, mentor & brilliant guitarist, Elliott Randall (he of the famed Steely Dan “Reeling In The Years” solo). Enjoy.
@Elliott – thanks for inviting me to join the discussion here. Interesting & necessary topic given the state of the musician’s world these days.
By way of introduction for those here who I don’t know or may not know me – I’m a guitarist, writer & marketing pro. I’m proud to say Elliott was my teacher & mentor in NYC – I carry his huge influence on my approach to playing and, of equal import, attitude when stepping on stage to this day. The world would never have seen the madly grinning, spinning dancing barefoot “other guitar player” in Dire Straits had it not been for Mr R. After witnessing my first set at a club gig in Manhattan in my early days there, Elliott draped his arm around my shoulder and asked me “Are you having fun?” My answer was a mumbled “Yeah, of course.” To which he said “Well, no one can tell!” He proceeded to explain that the people in this bar came here to be entertained, to see someone do what they could not, to give them a glimpse of a dream they all wanted to live but never would. In the next set, Elz sat in with the band and proceeded to give the place the “Elliott Randall Experience” – he smiled, he held eye contact, he walked through the crowd, played slide with someone’s beer bottle (on MY guitar!) and when he walked off the place went nuts. He came over and whispered in my ear, “What do you think these people will remember about coming to this joint tonight? More to the point…who?”
I NEVER forgot that lesson.
And it brings me to my thoughts about this thread. I have spent an equal amount of years as a professional musician as I have as a marketing cat. And aside from Elz lesson, there’s one thing I wish I’d learned at a much earlier age and what I’ve found to be the difference between those who succeed and those who fail is the acceptance of one basic fact;
This is a business.
And until you not only accept, but embrace, all that truly means, success – in terms of making a living at playing music – I believe will elude you.
My belief is that change – and deciding on a course of action that will lead to success – comes from confronting the real issue at hand. In this case, what’s required is a serious attitude adjustment for many musicians.
While not a rude awakening for some, the idea that even at the most basic level of playing a live club gig, that what we are doing is selling a product seems to upset quite a few musicians. And on one hand it’s an easy thing to say. Yeah, yeah, of course, I know I’m selling myself. Yep, just like I told Elliott, I was absolutely having fun playing that gig.
But truly understanding what selling means and what it leads to is a bit more involved. We are actually selling the experience of our art – which ultimately translates to the “brand” experience. Musicians would be better off reading Reis & Trout on positioning & advertising than bothering with some weighty tome on The Business of Music. Without a deep understanding of your brand and how to create demand for your product, you’ll never get to the fine print on the publishing contracts.
When you begin to see things through this business prism – and not the myopic view of entitlement – “I’m an artist and should be paid because I’m an artist” or “I should be paid because I showed up and played for you” – the path to success becomes much clearer.
For ex – I’m a club owner, I’m in business to make money. Having music is more often than not, an after-thought when it comes to the design of the room or investment I’ve made in the stage & equipment. I’m hoping that your music will attract a crowd that buys what I sell which is alcohol & maybe food. Your fee is another overhead cost that puts me in the red before I open the door. So if you can’t bring in enough of a crowd to drink & eat to cover that cost PLUS the profit I’d make with a jukebox, why do I need you?
Also – as a customer – I don’t care if you’re playing in the corner of a bar or club I wandered into. Seriously. And I’m a passionate music lover. Unless you’re giving me an experience I want or need, I’m not buying it and more than likely walking out – which is exactly what the club owner is dreading.
Building demand for a product is impossible until you know exactly what you’re selling. Because in the first place unless you can communicate what I’m getting, you can’t sell it to me. What is the experience of your brand? And once you know what it is, can you deliver on that promise?
Say you’re a blues band or 80’s cover band…pick your genre – all original brazilian jazz – whatever. Unless you’re giving me – the audience – the club owner an experience we cannot get elsewhere or by some other means…why would I want to listen & watch. If your blues band does nothing more than regurgitate some covers, as a club owner or a fan, why wouldn’t I just put my Chess collection on the stereo system? At least I can control the volume.
Now – if your band brings something – and it can be any number of things – to the party, whether it’s the sheer intensity of the guitarist’s brilliant playing (think Stevie Ray), a stage show, a vocalist that is the real deal, surprising kick ass arrangements or blues versions of hip-hop tunes – SOMETHING that’s going to give me an experience I can’t forget, you’re on the way to being able to communicate a brand promise and gain a fan base who will buy your product.
And, make no mistake about it, it’s your job to create that demand. Talk all you want about supporting the arts and how much time you spent studying & practicing & how much your gear costs you. Not my problem as a club owner. Those are the investment costs of YOUR craft and only one part of the investment needed to launch this business – your band/brand. Asking a club owner to underwrite your business is no different than going to the bank for a loan. And they get paid back with interest.
If your band can’t draw enough of a crowd and give the people an experience that keeps them drinking & eating or willing to pay to listen to your art, you haven’t done your share of the heavy lifting in the artist/club owner partnership. You think your band is that good? Then YOU need to put your money where your mouth is. Take the door. That’s right. If you’ve done the work of building a fan base that has the burning desire for your brand experience, you should be able to charge a cover and make money. What will your fans pay to see you? $10, $5, $2? A free drink? You don’t have 50 people in your town willing to come out and pay $10 to see you? 100 to pay $5?? You’re doing something wrong. Asking a club owner to take a risk you’re not willing to take is foolish and bad business. What your fan base is will pay to experience your brand is a very real indication of how healthy your business/brand actually is.
There are more tools than ever at the fingertips of musicians to control their own careers. I have been closely involved with Topspin – a web-based marketing & distribution tool – for the past two years and have seen numerous examples of artists who have become successful in terms of making a comfortable living from their art by building & growing a fan base and marketing directly to that base without any support or involvement of any kind by a record label. It’s not easy nor does it happen overnight but it can & does happen.
But first things first – this is about marketing, building demand for a product and approaching your career with a business mind. You have to know what you’re selling. You must be able to answer the question who & what you are and what the experience you are promising your fans. Then the job of finding consumers for that experience, getting their attention, communicating directly with them, enticing & involving them in expanding the buzz, finding other bands who can share fan-bases with in a “if you dig them, you’ll love us” strategy of building your audience. You do that groundwork and you’ll have no problem filling clubs and getting the money you feel you deserve. And have club owners begging you to return.
Can’t believe I’m saying it but study the business model of The Grateful Dead. Seriously – you may not be a fan of their music – I am certainly not…but theirs is the blueprint for success in the direct-to-fan world we now find ourselves.
It is your job to establish your brand, advertise, market and build demand by talking direct to your existing and potential audience. And the tools are at your disposal more so than ever before.
This is the new world order.
Disagree? Cool, I’ll take some fries with that burger.