(Updated and fully revised 20th June 2017 – original publication August 15th 2010)
You’ll probably know that I’m a great fan of the ramblings of Bob Lefsetz. I heartily recommend that you sign up to his newsletter.
In one of his posts a while ago he referred back to an interview with Jerry Greenberg on Bite Me! in which Jerry makes a major statement on how to build your fanbase.
It almost passed me by but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it is exactly the ideology that we now follow with our artists and which we suggest you should too.
The piece said:
“Bud Prager—who managed Leslie West in the old days and Felix Pappalardi—he’s a great producer who I have the utmost respect for. One day we went for lunch…it was 1979/1980 and MTV had just started. Warner Communications funded MTV in the very beginning along with American Express.
Steve Ross had a vision of creating music on TV and having it be a marketing tool. Bud said to me as MTV progressed that he felt MTV hurt the record business. His whole philosophy and, I have to agree with him, was that we broke bands by them going out and getting a fanbase – a real fanbase. AC/DC started out in a little club called Max’s Kansas City then they worked their way up to the Fillmore then the Forum and then the stadiums. They built a fanbase, but so many of these artists just became these video stars and you could see them on video. The only way you could see AC/DC, before videos, was to wait until they went on tour.
Bud felt that in the long run it hurt the artist and hurt their career and then it also created a lot of what we call “The One Shot” video artist – who were really acts that people got because of the video but when they really had to go out and do it there was no substance.”
It’s obvious really isn’t it?
You Need a Fanbase
If you are hyped and leveraged into the national (or international) consciousness, you’re going to have to be spectacular to make it last. Almost all the kids who get the big break on the TV talent shows cannot sustain the level that those shows give them.
They just aren’t actually talented enough, but, more importantly, they haven’t built a fanbase.
They get instant recognition but it fades in the public interest when the next series comes along.
I can see that the same was true with MTV – and the same is still true for major label artists today that are over hyped and simply manufactured. Sign someone half pretty and get them a load of songs from the current writer / producer du jour.
It all sounds good enough but 99 times out of 100, there isn’t anything to back it up (although I have to accept that there will occasionally be an exception!)
BUT – if the right thing to do in order to build a career is build a fanbase, then how do you do it?
Look at Arcade Fire – how did they do it?
Quality material, no bullshit, slow build of momentum, unreal live shows, true talent.
No-one wanted to sign them when they started, so they did it on their own!
And there’s been plenty since them – The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper just to name a few – and there’s many many more who have great careers in their ‘niche’ that you may never have heard of, nor never will!
The message is the same now as it was for AC/DC when Jerry Greenberg remembered how they started.
Get your material strong and go out and play it.
Watch this video of legendary Island Records boss Chris Blackwell telling how a live show and word of mouth is all you need.
So now that the music industry has changed and everyone wants music for free, how do you build that fanbase and why is that change a good thing?
Well, you can still do what AC/DC did and go out and play.
You’ll improve, you’ll bond as a unit and you’ll find champions who will tell everyone how good you are.
BUT – you now have an advantage that outdoes MTV in it’s heyday and will allow you to build momentum slowly, reach a global audience, perfect your style and sound – all the while sticking two fingers up to the old music industry hegemony.
You must use the internet to build your fanbase.
15 Steps to Building Your Fanbase
Here’s what you do:
1. Get a Story and a Niche
You define yourself and your music by identifying your niche, your tribe, your fans – and you understand your story so that you can tell it to that demographic in a way that engages them.
This is something that most musicians simply don’t understand sufficiently, yet is a fundamental foundation in building a career, especially for the DIY musician.
You must know where you fit stylistically and you need to tell a story.
People engage with the story and your music.
If you’re a major label pop act with millions of dollars in marketing then people can bond with your music first through repeatedly hearing it on the radio or through discovery on streaming services.
But, if you are building a fanbase as a DIY musician you need people to bond with you and your story as much as with your music and that’s why you need a story to tell.
2. Get Your Act Straight!
Right people, right look, right sound and BRILLIANT material.
Not ‘good enough’ – brilliant is what is required.
3. Buy a Domain and Hosting
Buy a domain name for your band’s website (we use Namecheap – it is!), and then buy hosting for it. Use Hostgator. I know you have loads of choices, but, trust me, this works really well and I have never had a problem.
4. Build a Band Website
Use WordPress, hosted on your own domain (that’s downloaded from wordpress.org not hosted at wordpress.com). Personally I always use Thrive Themes as the theme for the site for a host of reasons that I won’t go into here. It is awesome and heavily focused on getting conversions (email sign ups or sales).
It is, however, a touch lacking in the super crisp design that many musicians lust after. If that’s your thing then look for any Theme that comes with Visual Composer (itself an add-on plug-in within themes).
That plug-in will allow you to build almost any kind of page or layout that you can imagine and is included in many themes that you can buy. Even if it isn’t you can buy it as a plug-in and add it to your installed Theme.
If you think you can’t build a site in WordPress using Thrive or any theme that is using Visual Composer, you will be able to. Honestly – there are loads of videos on YouTube to talk you through it and if you get stuck, find someone at your school, college or even on Upwork to do it for you.
5. Build a Fan Mailing List
Build a list of fans using serious email software. You can use Fanbridge – it works fine.
But if you are really serious, there is only one choice – Aweber. It will do more than any competing mailing list software and it will last you your whole career.
6. Trade Free Music for Email
Give people something really valuable in return for joining your mailing list. Sure, give them mp3’s of a few tracks. But, you can do so much more. Give them a whole album and ask them to get their friends to come and sign up for it.
With the reality of streaming the trading of an email address for a download is beginning to lose effectiveness in some younger demographics so you really need to think about offering something that is exclusive and desirable.
For some, a collection of tracks (unreleased or demos, perhaps) is still enough, but for others it now needs to add in access to some additional material – a backstage video, or downloadable art or discount tickets and merch. test it and see what works for you and your fans.
I love Pretty Lights and what he does – 3 albums, 2 EP’s and some live material. All FOR FREE.
How does he make a living? He sells merch and has a massive live following. If he hadn’t given this music away he would not have gotten anywhere. The free music gave him the momentum. Now he makes more money from his music career than if he had signed to a major – by a factor of 20 or more. Plus he gets to be a true artist and do exactly what he wants, when he wants with his art.
7. Collect Email Everywhere!
Put the sign-up box for the free stuff on the top right of every page of your site – what designers call ‘above-the fold’.
Why? Because it works.
Also – have a dedicated ‘squeeze page’ on the site or even on another domain that you can send people to. He doesn’t do this, but Pretty Lights could have a squeeze page at freeprettylights.com. It’s easy to remember and you just put a single page site there with just a small pitch and a sign up box for your Aweber list.
You can see a great example of a squeeze page here – https://thisisadultcinema.com/free-music/
And, if you use Aweber as we recommend, there are two great apps built specifically for it, one of which is specifically designed for collecting emails from fans at gigs and at the merch table – Use it!
8. Use Social Media (Properly!)
I know, right, it’s obvious, but it bears repeating.
Build a quality profile or page (and interact – don’t ignore any of them) at Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. This is the minimum and with your website what we call the ‘Holy Fivinity’ – the five things you must have online.
There are others that you might wish to add depending on what genre of music you make and the demographic that you’re targeting, including SoundCloud, Mixcloud, Snapchat, bandcamp and more.
9. Shoot LOADS of Video of Your Band.
Writing, rehearsing, gigging, in the van – goofing off. It doesn’t matter. Send emails to your list at least once a week telling them to check out something that you have posted somewhere online. DO NOT just email them the week of a show asking them to come. Be in regular contact with fresh content. Put those videos on your YouTube channel and all over the place.
Facebook and Instagram are obviously very strong for video these days and some video works better uploaded to these as native video than it does as a YouTube video dropped on Facebook or Twitter.
Work out what works best where and don’t be afraid to be impromptu and throw up a quick sixty second clip to Instagram or even try streaming live on Facebook or Instagram.
People love to see musicians on video doing what they do in their musician life – rehearsing, writing, travelling etc.
So, show them!
10. Be Always On
Post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all the time. Not inane stuff but things that your fans will want to know.
And…..things that widen the telling of your story.
And….things that you know your demographic will like – so music by other =bands in your niche is a start, but also the stuff that speaks to their other interests.
11. Be Your Own PR
Develop a healthy interest in music blogs.
Find ones that might support you and start to build rapport with the bloggers. This is a key way to spread your name when you have material being released.
But, don’t just stick to music blogs. Try local and area blogs that have some kind of music features and then think laterally to places where your story might play well. If you’re a one man band prog rock act that’s also a builder ‘in real life’, look for a site that writes about builders and pitch them your story. You’re far more likely to stand out.
12. Sell and Stream
Now that streaming platforms are such a vehicle for music discovery and consumption the notion of releasing a record to make a noise is defunct.
It can be that. A build up to a release on download and streaming sites with physical sales if your demographic still buys physical music. But, it can also be just what you do to find new fans and continue your growth.
By releasing music on Spotify and Apple Music you are making it available for potential fans to find and listen for free (sort of..depending on their subscription choice).
It’s frictionless and painless for the music fan and there is no doubt that being on Spotify or Apple and getting added to an influential playlist can sky rocket a career.
And, that can only happen if you are regularly releasing your music and embracing streaming.
Sure, you should also be selling music direct from your newly built website and there’s ways to maximise that which we can go into on another post, but first and foremost consider streaming sites and download stores to be outposts that you must use to spread the word about your music.
13. Don’t neglect the art!
Write much more than you record and rehearse as much as you write.
Recording is important and you need tracks to give away, but it is having great material that is going to make your fans talk about you to their friends and build that fanbase.
Writing is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing.
14. Play Live
Anywhere for anyone.
Not to the extent that your fans can’t keep up. But spread wider, cross genres, make new fans. Obviously, collect every name and email address that you can at gigs. Go to other band’s gigs – hand out cards with your site address on them at those gigs. Hang out, meet other bands and meet their manager, agent, sound guy….whatever.
And, get those that are interested at the gig to join your mailing list using the Aweber app!
15. Be Tired
If you’re working a full time job and you’re doing enough to succeed, you are going to be exhausted. The people who can keep going when they are exhausted will win.
If you don’t think this is going to be hard work then you’re deluded and you haven’t got a hope!
Just Get Started!
There you have it – I think that’s a blueprint on how to build your fanbase. I’ve just read it over and, in essence, that is all there is to it.
Of course, I can and will expand on many of those points and go further another day – how do you move from this point to selling records, how to go up a level and so on.
But, right now, that’s not important.
It’s not important since you MUST build a fanbase to get started and to achieve anything – whether that is DIY and Direct-to-Fan success or the aim of getting signed.
Either route will happen much more easily if you have built the fanbase yourself – that’s what other fans will see so they will want to be in the in-crowd – and it’s what agents. managers and record label A&R will see that will help take you to the next level.
One last thing.
This is not ‘selling out’.
This is ‘selling’.
It does not cheapen the art.
It gives you a chance.
It will only happen if you do it – start now.
Step one is critical! But as soon as you have something ready for the world to hear, build your website at the heart of your efforts. Go and get a domain (Namecheap) and hosting (Hostgator) right now if you don’t have that sorted yet!
Image credit – by wonker
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