How to Build your Fanbase (And Why The End of The Traditional Model is a Good Thing)

(Updated and fully revised 22nd September 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.

I heartily recommend that you sign up to his newsletter.

In one of his posts a while ago he referred back to an interview in which there’s 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:

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.

Why not?

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 must!

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.

The internet.

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 all of which needs to be ‘on brand’ for the niche you’ve identified.

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 not hosted at 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 (fan 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 add more to the package.

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 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 –

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!

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.

Learn how to create a community through your social media.

You can’t just post about you and your music, you need to be posting about things that resonate with the people in your niche. You need to build community by talking about the things that matter to you as an artist and to the people who like the kind of music you make.

Oh, and you can, of course, post about you, your music, your creative process and your lives shows – as well……

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.

Ariel Hyatt is the expert – start with this article series (part one) and (part two).

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!

Keep writing.

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

No, really.

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!

16. Invest In Your Discovery

When you’re doing all this and driving your career this way, there’s one more thing that you can do.

And we are at a moment in time where this has become a secret and golden gift for the DIY musician.

You can now control your own discovery.

No longer are you beholden on those live shows (but still do them), those blog reviews, that write up in the old school music press or that radio play, and certainly not that ‘out of reach’ record deal.

If you worked out your niche and what makes those fans tick and if you’ve built a website and a squeeze page, you can add to the natural discovery that all these other points help to drive.

For sure, people will find you from all that video I just told you to create and from your social media activity – and you need to master that.

But, to control your discovery you need to turn to advertising.

Specifically Facebook advertising.

Right now there is no better way that any musician can rely on to accelerate the growth of their fanbase.

We know. We do it all day every day for a host of musicians.

It is, however, a huge topic all its own, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t put it here as the last point.

In essence, all you need to do is spend $5 or $10 a day (every day) and send people to your Squeeze Page on your Band Website (points 4, 5,6 and 7 above!) and get them to join your email list.

Run an ad that positions you in the niche that you have identified and appeals to members of that tribe. Basically, run an ad that says ‘If you like X, try us out!’. And send those that click to sign up to your email list.

OK, there’s a lot more to it than that, but we’ll get to it another time – you have plenty to do with figuring out steps 1 to 15 properly…..

The key thing you need to understand is that Facebook advertising (and maybe Youtube, Twitter and Google ads too) changes the game for DIY musicians.

It unlocks the door of discovery and allows you to go out and put your music and your story in front of people who should be highly targeted to your message.

Musicians could never do this before, but you can now!

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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Ian Clifford is the owner of Illicit Media, a music management and consulting company. He is also the owner of Make It In Music, an online site that is the ultimate resource for aspiring musicians offering advice, tips, and insight on all the skills needed by modern artists to succeed in the rapidly changing music industry.

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Atul Rana - August 15, 2010 Reply

Fantastic! This is pretty much the essence of it! I’m going to print this out and make sure this is one of the articles I keep coming back to if things stray a bit out. Thanks man 🙂

Ivan the Music Guy - August 17, 2010 Reply

Awesome, that’s just what I was shooting for! You just spared me alot of digging around

    Ian - August 17, 2010 Reply

    Glad you like it. We’ll go into each part in more depth over the next few months.


sly nova - August 17, 2010 Reply

truth!!!! if u want a free download. of one of MY tracks.. sign up for my mailinglist ! :$

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[…] How to build your fanbase – and why the end of the traditional model is a good thing by Ian Clifford reminds artists of the fundamentals on how to build a fanbase – the key to any artist’s success. According to Clifford, “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.”   I like Clifford’s point that changes in the industry have made today’s recipe for artist success similar to the one artists used in the pre-MTV days.  Artists have to be great and put in the work to slowly build up a fan base, rather than gaining sucess overnight by being featured on MTV.   Clifford’s article emphasizes timeless keys to artist success- dedicating time to great writing, practicing and playing live shows – as well as giving useful information on how to take advantage of technology to supplement traditional fan building methods.  One suggestion I liked was to give fans something for joining the mailing list – something many bands and artists still do not do.  This small effort can turn a visitor to your site into a long term fan, and help make your fan building efforts a success.   The article also includes some concrete and strategies as well as recomendations for websites artists can use to help them accomplish their fanbuilding goals.  As someone who isn’t terribly web savvy, I appreciate the recommendations for sites that make creating a website easier like Thesis  and Hostgator.   I was glad to read that Make it in Music will be addressing many of these topics in greater detail in future blogs, and I will definitely be checking them out. Share and Enjoy: […]

Carol - September 12, 2010 Reply

Hi Ian,
It’s very nice to see that you take the time to reply comments. So far, makeitinmusic has been very helpful to me. But I have one doubt that is killing me. I’m not originally from the US, but I’m moving there and I’ve been given two options: LA or New York. Comparing both cities, which one do you think would make it easier to get a record deal? LA or New York?
Thank you.

    Ian - September 12, 2010 Reply

    Hi Carol

    Thanks for your thanks! We do our best to make sure that we do reply to everyone who comments or emails us – and we hope to provide a HUGE amount more help when we launch the new version of the site in less than a month (hopefully!).

    As for your question, I think neither city is better than the other in terms of opportunity. The US is a massive market, so all the major record companies run twin operations and if you are making a name for yourself in either city, you will come to their attention. All the infrastructure also exists in both cities (and in many more besides) – promoters, agents, press, pr companies, online pr etc. That said, you can have some serious local success in the States and still not get a deal. It’s not uncommon for people to sell 10’s of 1,000’s of records on their own before geting signed.

    Given the nature of the busines these days with ever more people going ‘Direct-to-Fan’ that’s even more the case. On the plus side, there are more forward thinking companies in the US to help you than there are anywhere else. They are at the forefornt of the new indie movement.

    I’d say that there is a little bit more of that internet savvy new school thinking on the West Coast – particularly in San Francisco where Facebook and Topspin are both based, for example – but it wouldn’t be enough to sway me one way or the other.

    The most relevant factor for me would be attitude and lifestyle of the cities. I love them both but they are very different.

    New York is truly all hustle and bustle and feels fairly European (with hot and cold weather and plenty of rain!), whereas LA is a constant temperature and, to me, feels truly slacker – I often wonder how they ever get anything done. To be fair, LA is the heart of the entertainment industry as a whole – obviously the global film industry is there, and the majority of TV – but music success is evenly spread.

    It may be that your particular genre might suit one city more than the other. If not, I’d go with how you live your life. If you are all ‘get up and go’ and love the big city intensity, try New York, but if you like perfect weather and a relaxed attitude (in some things – not all!) then LA is hard to beat.

    Hope that helps.

    I’d also love to know what any other readers feel – I’ll tweet and see if we can get any other opinions.

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drhill - November 20, 2010 Reply

Good article, another article, different emphasis – but also has some good ideas!

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Ian - January 11, 2011 Reply

Thanks drhill. There’s some great stuff in that article – some is old and out of date, but others are great. I love point 15 – a great idea.

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Alice - January 25, 2011 Reply

Thanks for an excellent post!
I’d like to know more about how to set up the sign-up box.
Is there a wordpress plugin that you can easily use, or have you had that custom made?

    Ian - January 25, 2011 Reply

    If you’re using Aweber (or most other mailing list software) they make it easy to create the sign-up box in their system. You then usually cut and paste the code and drop it into your site – easy to do if you are using WordPress.

Ben Cooper - January 27, 2011 Reply

Thanks for all the helpful information! I’m a professional songwriter in Nashville and I’d be interested in writing articles for you.



Sally Romero - March 24, 2011 Reply

I would also be interested in writing for you. Please email me.


Dee - March 27, 2011 Reply

Awesome article! Very informative. I’m an aspiring DJ/Producer who wants to tour, release original tracks, and reach out to people. Hopefully this same info can apply to any aspiring DJ who wishes to develop a following.

    Ian - March 27, 2011 Reply

    Definitely can – In Dance music it’s all about getting tracks and DJ mixes out. Get on Soundcloud and find ways to release tracks and get them to DJ’s.


The New LoFi - June 26, 2011 Reply

Amazing article and great site. We’re glad to see musicians value the role of music blogs. Most of us don’t get paid for blogging; we do it for the love of music. Keep up the great work with this site. We’re going to check out more of your article for sure. Cheers.

Dboy - August 11, 2011 Reply


indiemusicfan - October 31, 2011 Reply

I would also like to personally add that busking is another good way of getting noticed. That’s right, I’m talking about getting your music out there by playing on the streets. Talk to your local city hall and ask them about a busking permit, and find a good spot in town that allows people to play on the streets! (If you have about 3 to 4 members in your band, it’s cheaper to pay for the permit when you all chip in)

For all you bands, you can now get those rad portable battery-powered speakers, so you can plug in your guitar, vocal microphone, bass, and other instruments that have a quarter-inch cable input. Add a decent mike stand and you’re all set to go!

Ian - October 31, 2011 Reply

Thanks indiemusicfan

Can’t argue with your suggestion. You never know what will bring you new fans or an opportunity and setting up in the street develops your balls!

I’d try doing it to promote forthcoming shows as well.


J Watkins - February 19, 2012 Reply

“Now he makes more money from his music career than if he had signed to a major – by a factor of 20 or more”

How do you know???

This is a good article with some common sense advice but to claim you know how much money, or more money an artist makes is both inaccurate and’ve reviewed there contracts? there bank statments? lol..there are alot of variables in an artist’s income.. both indie and those signed to throw out an inane number as 20 times more is pretty lame.. learn alittle more about music business before giving advice.

    Ian - February 19, 2012 Reply

    Hi J

    I know because I know people who work at his management company and having been a music lawyer for 20 years I have seen hundreds of deals of every description which is what qualifies me to make the statements I make. If I knew any more about the music business than I already do, my head would explode.

    To be fair to your comment, what I hoped to convey was that, in that particular case, Pretty Lights retains all his rights and thereby is not giving up. in real terms 95% of the gross income on record sales, which is a ballpark evaluation of the true cost of a record deal including mechanical royalty provisions. In other words, he makes 20 times what he would under a record deal if he were signed to a major. You can argue that it can be as little as 10 times but the real range of income share given up in a record deal is somewhere between 9/10 and 19/20, if you follow my logic.

    That he actually gives his music away for free and monetizes the experience is, however, the real story and one that NO record comapny would have allowed. In truth he owes ALL his success and money to NOT being signed to a label as it is that freedom that has allowed him to make any money at all from his live work.

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