20 things to do while you’re waiting for your fans to show up

I’ve been trolling the posts that I missed while I was out of the country, and ran across Chad’s post about firing up Ye Olde Indie Bande. Rather than giving a specific response to his request, I thought I’d give this, a general list of things to move your music project forward.

Most of the things on this list are the result of observation – APU is like a petri dish for watching the launch of music careers. We have around 50 people at any given time who are trying to become viable artists in the commercial music world. They range in success from those who are signed and touring in support of great projects, to those who can’t even get a pay-to-play booking with 300 other bands at Chain Reaction, and I get a front row seat to their process. They come talk to me about what works, what doesn’t, and I get to listen to their experiences and cull from that data.

So here you go – 20 things to do while you’re waiting for your fans to show up. The first 4 are in order of importance, but everything after that is in wild brainstorm mode.

  1. Change your mindset. Once you’ve recorded the album and rehearsed the band, you’re no longer an artist, your full-time career is now marketing and sales. Congratulations – you’re now a small business owner!
  2. Get on iTunes and other online distribution sites with tunecore.com
  3. Upload your music to last.fm. Your music gets placed on a playlist next to well-known artists with a similar style. I can’t think of anything more valuable to a starting artist than song placement in proximity to fans that don’t know you, but that already like what you do. In fact, move this up to #2 – I think last.fm is more important than getting on iTunes.
  4. Put together an EPK. Make it downloadable from your website.
  5. Send the EPK to your very local paper, the one that writes about school board meetings and the farmers market, along with a friendly email suggesting why your story isn’t the typical I-wanna-be-a-rockstar band story. Local papers are receptive to ready-made content (nice pictures, packaged story), and it will give you some experience in talking to the media about your project in a way that doesn’t come off as pretentious or vain.
  6. Update your website blog. (you DO have a blog on your website, right?) Frequent updates help with your search engine ranking, and you want to be on the first page of results for fans who go googling for your website.
  7. Get your social networking sites up. Make sure you have a presence on MySpace, Facebook.
  8. Find 10 blogs that you think your potential fans might read. Make an interesting comment on a post. When you fill out the comment details (name, email, URL) insert the link to your website. If people who read the comment find it interesting, they’ll follow the link back to your site. Don’t promote yourself directly in the comment, just make it interesting and relevant to the post.
  9. Somewhere in-between iTunes and Last.fm is Aimestreet.com. You upload your music, people can discover it and download it for free, or a few pennies initially. As it becomes more popular, the price increases. It rewards people for becoming early fans, and rewards artists for gaining in momentum. I love this distribution model, and it’s gaining a massive following among fans.
  10. Find 5 podcasts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) that talk about music in your genre. Email the host to ask if you can send them a CD (or links to the album online). Express your interest in being interviewed for the podcast.
  11. Locate 3 artists in your region who are in a similar market (both in size and genre). Check their tour schedule for venues, and start cold-calling. The place they play today is the place you should be playing 9 months from today.
  12. Do a process audit on buying your music online. How hard is it for fans who get to your website to actually purchase your CD? Can they choose a process they are already familiar, or do you force them to do something like download iTunes, or signup for Paypal? It should be as simple, quick, and intuitive as possible for someone who already wants to buy your product to actually buy your product.
  13. Can you accept credit cards for live sales at your concerts? Have a laptop with a wireless connection to Paypal Virtual Terminal, so that you can.
  14. While we’re talking merch table, how easy is it for people who get to the table after the show to continue their relationship with the band? There are 3 pieces of critical info you should have from every fan – name, email address, and zip code. Why zip code? If you’re playing a show in San Jose, every fan with a zip code that starts with 950XX, 951XX, 940XX or 943XX should get a personal email inviting them to the show. Any fan living in Phoenix should not. Excel, or really any spreadsheet program will let you sort data this way.
  15. Put together a list of 10 known artists that you think would have potential cross-over fans. Start a series of posts on your website reviewing their latest album. Be positive, if you can. You’ll start to get links from their fans doing google searches for album reviews.
  16. Take that same list. Find out who manages each of those artists. (Google is your friend). Send an introductory email to the manager, making specific mention of the artist you think is similar, and ask if you can send an EPK.
  17. Head to your myspace page. Find 5 well-known artists who are in your same genre with a large fan-base. Check out the fans who are commenting, and send 20 of them them an invitation to become your friend. Cross-over, cross-over, cross-over.
  18. As an artist, you have 3 products. Your recorded music, your live music, and your community. Does your website allow simple, intuitive access to all three products? If not, time to stop treating your business like a hobby, and hire a real designer.
  19. Setup a google alert for your band name, or for links to your website. If somebody says something about you, or links to you, you should be the first to know! This allows you to be proactive about building relationships with potential fans.
  20. Change your mindset. You’re now a small business owner. If you want this to be your full-time job, treat it like a full-time job. Manage your time and your goals. Put in 40+ hours a week. Run this business.

So what are your thoughts? Do any of these strike you as essential? Or as complete time-wasters? What would you add to the list if your were launching your own band? How have other bands or artists found you, and turned you into a fan?

Comment away, my friends.

56 thoughts on “20 things to do while you’re waiting for your fans to show up

  1. aly hawkins

    Oh, man…these are great.

    Ash & I saw a local band a couple weeks ago called afterward who were some of the most amazing self-promoters I’ve ever seen. Between sets they visited every table in the bar, meeting and greeting and inviting each person to sign up on their email list for a chance to win swag (T-shirt, EP, etc.). They also let people know where and when they would be playing next and invited them to come. They weren’t pushy, but they weren’t apologetic, either.

    Two or three days later, I got an email with info about their next five or so gigs, including links to Google maps and a short, amusing descriptor about the vibe of the place so you’d know what to expect if you’d never been. At the end of the email they gave shout-outs to all their “new fans and friends” and named each and every one BY NAME, which came out to 50 or 60 people.

    I was very impressed. These kids are serious about building a fan base.

  2. June

    That is awesomely amazing! (Yes, I’m 12.) Really, that could be published. I mean, published somewhere else too.

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  4. michael lee Post author

    Aly, I love those kinds of stories. It sounds like a band that gets how important the sense of community is to building a fanbase. The music is the product, but the community is the brand.

    Or, something equally clever but more accurate. I dunno. I ran out of time.

  5. corey

    I love number 20. And I think I love it because it poses the greatest platform for debate/discussion.

    As an “artist”, we’re supposed to be spending time in awareness of the inspiration around us. Sometimes it takes an hour of sitting in a quiet room staring at the wall to come up with something that I’m really proud of. And that unbillable “nothing hour” replaces 3 hours of frantically trying out different leads to find the one that will produce the greatest end result. A musician has to run the business end of things, but he or she also needs to focus on building a catalog so that customers see breadth and width in the product. More than one trinket on the merch table.

    On the flipside, most artists (self included) don’t really have a concept about what it means to work hard. And while I’m making sweeping generalizations, I’ll say that most artists don’t really have a good concept of themselves. We think that stressing about our artistic integrity counts as work. We also see the world as shades of grey where just about anything can be perceived as just about anything. At the end of the day, clients don’t give a damn if I’m secure with wearing a pink shirt, using an out-of-favor typeface, or playing a blue telecaster with flowers on it. They care if they’re getting a good return on their investment. Tying this back to musicians, I’ve known a dozen or so that spend so much time planning their responses to Carson Daly’s questions that they forget to enlist the interest of the people just outside of their immediate circle of influence. I say to my oldest from time to time (and it makes sense because many of us artists operate like a 9 year-old), just because you’re moving, doesn’t mean you’re doing anything. I tell him to hurry, and he swings his arms wildly, stomps his feet, and gets the most determined and focused look on his face- but he’s not actually moving through the house any faster or being more productive. He’s just doing nothing with more intensity. This is the curse of the vain & fragile artist.

  6. the ben

    dude this article rocks. i’m not in a band so can you whip me up a 20 point list of things to do while you’re finishing up grad school? seriously, email me.

  7. Darrell A. Williams

    Your ideas are great for any business owner. Make goals that you can control. You can’t control who will buy your product (your music), but you can control how many people you tell about your business (band), how many contacts you make online, how many demos you send out to radio stations and agents. Make goals and stick to them, and when you accomplish these goals, everything else will fall into place.

  8. David Nelson

    21. Pray! Pray for direction. Pray for strength to do numbers 1 through 20 continuously no matter how many times you have done them. Pray for God’s hand to touch your endeavors, even in a small way. Pray that your eyes are open and expecting the unexpected.

  9. Daniel Semsen

    #22. Buy a MAC (I type pompously from my 17″ MacBookPro) No…but really, if you’re an artist you probably already have one…

    In all seriousness though–I have only quite recently begun to understand the importance of SELLING MYSELF in order to accomplish what I want to in life. Whether it be as an artist, or a businessman, or a (insert your own), you have to be able to market your product (yourself) to others. My recent realization of this fact–and my choice to take action as a result–has led me to get a huge promotion in my current 40 hour-a-week job and the most lucrative job offer I’ve ever received in my musical career. It’s really been a huge break through.

    So kids–sell yourself.

  10. JC

    Now you’re talking my language! Mike, this is a great list. I am not contemporary enough to appreciate all of the web-based ideas, but I appreciate what you are doing. The roots all go back to the following:

    1. What are you selling…what is your product? What makes your product different than other people’s products (“Unique Selling Proposition-USP”.
    2. Who is likely to be most interested in your product? Who are you selling it to (“Target Audience”).
    3. What is the most effective/efficient means to communicate to your target audience? (Media Plan)
    4. How do we get product to our customers/consumers (“Distribution Plan”).

    Believe it or not, these principles are straight out of the Procter & Gamble training guide for marketers written in the 1970′s. While much of it has been updated to reflect contemporary technology, the fundamentals are still the same and apply to everything from marketing products to marketing ourselves. I especially like your #1 and #20. By the way, I also agree with Corey’s comments about artists. That’s usually why they hire business managers. Being an artist and a business person don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Different parts of the brain in use there.

    I also love Aly’s story and think this is a key to success for artists like musicians, painters, sculptors, etc. Getting to know the artist and feeling like you are on the inside is very cool. There is also a name for this, it’s called “Early Adopters”. You target the people who are the first to try things. Their friends see them “using” the product and know these guys are the leading edge. Then you see all the people around them using. And so on…and so on… Next thing you know, you’re selling to millions!

  11. June

    I would have to take issue just a bit with this statement: “Make goals and stick to them, and when you accomplish these goals, everything else will fall into place.” If there is one industry where A does not necessarily lead to B and then to C and so on, it is the music industry…especially (!!!) if one signs with a big label.

  12. corey

    That’s a great point, June. I hate to sound like a naysayer, but “making it” in music seems as likely or common as “making it” in acting, painting, or any other pop culture-based arena. The fact of the matter is that there seems to be little tolerance for things that are classic and timeless. Popular culture grazes on artists, they don’t partner with them.

    But the question of sustainability is the one that should be addressed. Even if you do get the label deal, or the hit single, or the perfume line, or engaged to J-Lo… how do you keep that role? How do you continue to offer a product that people care about?

    On the flipside, somebody has to get paid to make music, it might as well be you, right?

  13. aly hawkins

    I really, truly, without-a-doubt believe that if art is wedded to the can-do, anybody can make a living being creative. If that’s what Mike means by “everything else will fall into place,” I’m on board. Ash & I have had so many conversations about this whole making-it-vs.-not-making-it thing. I’m of the staunch opinion that it is far better to see modest, long-lived (and artistically credible) success like Bruce, Joni or Emmylou than to “make it big” like NKOTB, The Osmonds or Ice and spend the rest of your life trying to climb back to the top of the pile of crap.

    Sure, we’d all like to be Aretha, Paul or Willie (or in my case, Toni, ‘Berto or Joan) and attain both long-lasting and widespread fame, but that kind of success cannot be engineered, however smart and hardworking and web-savvy we are. I think it’s much better in the long run to concentrate on creating art that will last rather than merchandise that won’t. We’d all be wise to act on Michael’s tips here — some of which capitalize on several hard-to-miss trends in pop culture — but for art to gain a devoted following that sustains itself, there has to be something creatively substantial buoying up the myspace page.

    Maybe that goes without saying and I’m stating the obvious here.

  14. June

    I was quoting Darrell actually, not Mike.

    I’m all for the life of an artist, starving or otherwise. I was an art major with minors in writing and music and I married a just graduated piano performance major. Indeed, our life together alternates between inspiration, starvation, blessed blessed royalty checks, identy crisis’, attention and adulation we probably don’t deserve and back to starvation again. I’m not getting off this ride ever. We surely didn’t go about things in the best way possible (we were like 12 when we got married) but………….oh well.

    Aly, I love this statement: “but for art to gain a devoted following that sustains itself, there has to be something creatively substantial buoying up the myspace page.” That should be printed at the top of some art or music class syllabus.

  15. RC of strangeculture

    This is a great post because it’s reality.

    So many people do think that all they need to do is lay down some tracks and people will come to them…and frankly so many wanna-be-artist are LAZY.

    There’s a song on the new CD by The Rocket Summer called “A Song Is Not A Business Plan” that I just heard today…I plan on posting some thoughts aobut it on my blog in the next couple days. Reading your post made me remember the post I wanted to write in relation to that song.

  16. Bobby

    Great list Mike… as far as “making it”, my definition has changed over the past few years, from “being able to play music (at any cost? whispers the still small voice)” to “being able to support my family playing music”.

    That’s one thing (among many) I enjoy about my band. Our goal is to build a machine from the ground up, rather than try to plug into a machine at the top and work our way down. And this summer, our big tour ended with everybody paid and us in the black (slightly, but enough to be helpful)… so it’s coming together. It’s a long, long way from the point where we can all quit our day jobs but there’s a feeling of satisfaction that we are on the way, at a sustainable pace.

  17. michael lee Post author

    I think more and more artists are thinking about success in terms of sustainability, instead of the million dollar grab. i tried to bend this list along those lines.

  18. evolvor

    Money. You hit some very important details here. Something that some of us are throwing around is getting your music HEARD online, and I think that’s important. Check out iMeem, you can embed a track ANYWHERE. If you’re just starting out, I’d give the product away, let ‘em hear it, and build that fan base. Or give away a few tracks. Or just the single. The future is going to be about smart musicians running their bands with a good business model as opposed to letting a label do it for them.

  19. Trevor

    Well, thanks for the SMS plug, Mike.

    I am sorry to inform you though, that SMS has played it’s last, sorta.
    Later this month I’ll be recording my finale episode.

    The time and place for SMS has come and gone. It served me well, and I found some good music. I also met some great people.

    We’re moving next month, and I can’t stay committed to the program. Where? Oregon.

  20. michael lee Post author

    What, they still don’t have the Internet up in Oregon? Man, that’s why I try to never leave the city. I don’t know how those people in the sticks even survive!

  21. Bobby

    What could you possibly need the Internet for when you have beautiful mountains, lakes, trees, ocean, wildlife, and granola? (and 8 1/2 months without the sun)

  22. ryancathey

    Another avenue, though slow, is pandora.com. It is a personally “tuned” radio station based on the Music Genome Project started in 2000. You can suggest music to be analyzed and added to their HUGE catalogue.

    It’s pretty cool how it works in that they have actual Musicologists that analyze a song based on over 400 criteria in order to categorize it.

    So let’s say your band sounds a lot like Hambone Willie (it would be really funny if there were actually a band named this). Well if someone is listening to their “Hambone Willie” radio station on pandora, your song might come up in the mix and thus, you would be getting exposure to a fanbase that already likes this style of music. They even have links to buy the music from major retailers.

    Even if you don’t put your band’s music on pandora, It’s still a great site. I use it everyday.

  23. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="104916"]Now you’re talking my language! … While much of it has been updated to reflect contemporary technology, the fundamentals are still the same and apply to everything from marketing products to marketing ourselves. [/quote]

    The fundamentals are the fundamentals. Nothing much changes.

    Apart from just the options that the technology affords, I think the internet age is giving rise to one aspect of marketing that has new critical importance: the idea of community as part of the product experience.

    People who like the band TV On The Radio (I like to pick on them) aren’t just part of the fan community because they like the band, they are there because they like being part of that specific community. The interaction with other fans is part of the product. The internet allows people from wide geographic reaches to participate together in that aspect of being a band fan.

    People are already calling the iPhone the perfect product launch. In huge part, that was due to the community that built up around the idea of the product well before the product itself was even available. Jobs has clearly mastered that kind of buzz creation, but he didn’t invent the concept; people want to feel like they are part of something larger than themselves. They like being part of the community of people talking about the product.

    I think a large part of the drive behind indie music is the desire to feel like a part of something larger than yourself that’s also counterculture and oddly elitist. The community aspect is critical.

  24. Mark Brooks

    Hey Michael,
    I came across this post and it’s great. I wanted to let you know about FanBridge, which helps musicians manage their fan list. It would be perfect for #14 on your list because we can do targeting by zip code and radius.


  25. Kieran Purcell

    A great peice of information. Lots of good ideas in there that aren’t obvious. Once you have finished making your music you kind of think, “phew, the hard works over”, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Thats when the hard work starts.

    This makes it a bit easier though, thanks for writing it.



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  27. Mary Ruth

    Wow – this is a great list! I think the only thing missing from it is that you also have to believe in yourself, maintaining a “can-do” mindset even when things don’t necessarily seem to be going how you want them to go. Thanks for the article!

  28. Dharamsi

    Great service for the Musicians and Bands.
    You must include in your list too. It helps musicians manage their fan list and also does much more.

  29. Maxx

    I am a musician and I have played over 120 shows in the last 2 years. Most of these articles are not written by successful musicians so take them with a grain of salt.

    The two best ways to make it in the business are to buy your way in or get a relative in the business to pave the way for you. That is why there are so many mediocrities who are “successful” if your yard stick is money, but utter failures as far as composition and arrangement are concerned.

    If your not rich or related to the right people you can try all the stuff on this list. Some of it is good advice for the desparate poor band. Skip the flyers and street promo crap if you are playing the clubs. The money spent will not yield returns. Internet advertising is better (cheap) but still fairly poor compared to radio (expensive), and if your daddy is really rich . . . television.

    The street promotion can drum up a few people and so can the internet. Again, if you are playing clubs don’t expect to make any money. People go to bars to drink not buy merchandise. Sales will be slow (even if you are good) because your product is being pitched in the wrong market. Bars sell liquor. Clubs are liquor’s market, except well known clubs that book midrange acts. With gas hitting $3.50 a gallon say goodbye to even covering expenses.

    Don’t get discouraged if your goal is making music. If it is making money then good luck.

  30. Chad

    Hi Maxx.

    The person who wrote this article has experienced significant success as a musician. He earns a living as a musician, as do I.

    Your tone is pretty shrill, homes. Are your songs any good? To quote the great John Lasseter — “Quality is just always a great business plan.”

  31. Joe No

    M- Most informative. Your article has a permanent place in my ‘favorites’…”The two best ways to make it in the business are to buy your way in or get a relative in the business to pave the way for you” I don’t think anyone who is observant could deny that there is definitely some truth in that statement but I also agree with Chad’s take. Luckily, there are some people who achieve success through hard work and tenacious dedication. Jimi Hendrix’s life story is a good mainstream example of this and well illustrated in “Roomful of Mirrors” by C. Cross (that just happens to be the biography I’ve been reading but there are others). Cheers & Thank You -J

  32. Toni Hickman

    This is an article that will be bookmarked for a long time.I am a artist that was signed to a major, but never put my album out.I was about to put it out, but I had a brain aneurysm. And then went on to have several write ups in magazines and had another Brain Aneurysm + a stroke before I turned 30.I haven’t given up because I never accomplished my goal.
    Now I am going the independent route, and I do think that this list is very important!The days are over when the record label is doing all the ground work for you.Money does make an easier transition, but I also believe promoting your story in turn promotes you.Thanks so much for this article!

  33. amuzikman

    One rather glaring omission, which should be #1:
    Be excellent at your craft. Everything else follows from that,(though I suspect it is mentioned somewhere here on a previous post and this one simply presupposes it). There is NO substitute for personal musical excellence.

    Another way of putting it is: There is ALWAYS room at the top! Don’t let anything come between you working hard to be the very best musician you can.

    Internet and marketing savvy is a very poor substitute for musical excellence but it makes a great partner.

  34. michael Post author

    I assumed that we were starting right after your point #1. I was directing this at musicians who knew how to do the musician part, but were failing at figuring out the “what next?” part.

    If the music part sucks, then you have to be really, REALLY good at the marketing part.

  35. amuzikman

    Yeah, I figured

    Though it is funny to observe those who try to sidestep my #1 and proceed directly to marketing and promotion.

    BTW – thanks for the great info

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  37. Music on the Make

    A good point is, that your music is your business, so start treating it as one. It’s a LOT of work and finding a balance in life is the key if you are going to do it for a long time. Funnily enough, I’ve noticed that by letting go of the “making it” attitude and starting to think of music as a lifestyle has helped a lot. That way I have started to arrange my life so that it supports my music making and arranging my music stuff so that I can still have a life – you know like a relationship and future plans. ;)

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