(There are also some Steve Albini quotes in here, so read the whole thing)
Facetious title aside, it’s true. Well, it’s not exactly true. This isn’t a new thing. The self-help, marketing, and no-money-down real estate ‘gurus’ of the world have been doing this for years. Typically they make big promises or not-so-subtly threaten consequences if you don’t follow their method, and then they offer a piece of free content, and then they charge you $37 for every course thereafter. I swear to god, it’s always $37. I don’t know what tidbit of market research said that was the sweet spot on pricing, but I’ve come across four unassociated people of the aforementioned stripes, from different industries, and they all charge $37. Weird right?
So, needless to say, I’m offering a brand new course that will change your life for $36. I’M A GENIUS. I’ve gamed the system. I don’t know what that course is yet, but trust me, you NEED it. Like, more than you need to pay your electric bill this month.
Some of the courses I’ve taken for $37 have been put on by total snake oil salesmen. Others by well-meaning, but perhaps overly ambitious folks who don’t really have sophisticated enough expertise to deliver on a lot of their promises. One that has actually been great so far is Indepreneur. Taking one look at the guy’s haircut led me to believe that I was about to be taken for another ride, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the depth and usefulness of the information being delivered. He seems to know what he’s doing.
In any case, there is a point to this post. Recently, I’ve read a number of books (I highly recommend Known by Mark Schaefer [@markwschaefer on Twitter]), listened to a bunch of Podcasts (Making It with Chris G. is pretty exceptional, and also where I got most of my recent book recommendations), and taken a bunch of courses on various facets of music business and marketing. The common denominator in all of them is that you need to have content. Not only do you need to have content, you need to have consistent, valuable content. Not only do you need to have consistent, valuable content, you need to find a sustainable interest that plays to your strengths, or you will never be able to create valuable content consistently. Not only all of that, you need to find an uncontested niche within the realm of your sustainable interest, or your content will probably just get lost in the noise. And…if your brain is starting to shut down, I feel you.
So, how does this apply to us musicians? Well, my guess is that every single one of us has some skills other than playing and songwriting. Lots of musicians are highly adept at recording, production, and mixing. Some are incredibly savvy promoters and networkers. Some are excellent music curators and could potentially be creating hyper-specific playlists for like-minded listeners.
In my case, I’ve learned a ton of indirectly related skills over the last 8 years, and they’ve all been as a result of trying to make things my band needed. I can do graphic design, videography, editing, photography, web design and development, email marketing, press releases, social media marketing, SEO, Google AdWords (well, Google Ads now), Facebook ads, Twitter networking, tour booking, blogging (totally meta, I know), and drone piloting (and one time drone crashing). I also have a vast wealth of information on how NOT to do things, how to waste a small fortune on ineffective promotion, and how to make your family regularly fear for your sanity. Additionally, I have a number of unique-ish life struggles that I have either successfully overcome or currently make do with that may offer some kind of different perspective on things.
According to my…let’s call it…research, creating distinction in a given space doesn’t have to be that complicated. For me, it is combining some of the non-music stuff I know how to do with the context of being in a band that is still struggling to find an audience. For someone else, it could be as simple as having a different cadence of content delivery than others in the space of music marketing advice. I don’t think there’s anyone doing daily videos or podcasts on it. Most of the content I see on this topic seems to be in the form of video or audio. I haven’t found much in the way of blogging. I may just not have looked hard enough…or at all.
Am I heading somewhere with this? Let me answer by not going somewhere for a few more paragraphs. Steve Albini told me,
…you should not have any expectation about how much
appeal your band will have and how many people will like it. That shit
is totally random. I know a hundred bands better than mine that haven’t
found an audience and I know Hoobastank played in fucking arenas. There is literally no correlation between bands being good and them being popular enough to sustain. The sustain comes from within the band, either you are going to do it or not. The audience is like the fucking weather.
Fair enough. He also said,
The band Slint, on their reunion tour 20 years after they broke up,
played to thousands of people a night at headline gigs. While they were
an active band they never played to more than 100. It took 20 years for
an audience to develop for them. The Stooges’ Raw Power, one of the
keystone records of rock culture, sold 1500 copies in its first
pressing. It was a cutout bin staple throughout the 70s. To this day, if
you find an original copy of it, you are 10 times more likely to find
one with a cut corner than a perfect one. You cannot have any
expectations of the audience. The audience has its own agenda.
You have to just do music you’re driven to do and appreciate it when
other people get on board. Anything else is going to be a blueprint for
So…I tend to agree. We could get into the psychology of choice and the philosophy of free will, but his words seem to sum it up nicely: that shit is totally random. But what the hell? I want to work in music. I want to work on MY music. I want to develop an audience and be taken seriously and be a rock star and stuff. Bummer. I know. I don’t mean to make light of it too much. The realization that there is an extremely high probability that you can pour everything you have into making music and no one will give a shit is heartbreaking. Or maybe ego-crushing, which is similarly devastating. The fact that there is no path, magic bullet, or guarantee that anything you try to do to build an audience will work is one of the harsh realities of this business. Does that mean we stop caring, or stop playing and creating? No. Absolutely not. Does it mean we stop trying to find an audience? No. Absolutely not. Does it mean we stop experimenting with and applying new information to our quest? No. Does it mean I am going to stop falling for too-good-to-be-true sales pitches by people claiming to have a magic bullet solution? Too soon to tell. Sometimes you just gotta remind yourself why NOT to do certain things.
The point, finally…is that we aren’t doomed to a career we hate while we toil away with these efforts. Make no mistake, the willingness to keep on with the toil is the sustain to which Steve was referring. The information economy is booming, and believe it or not, SOMEONE will find your perspective, expertise, humor, or whatever useful. I may not have found the raving masses of fans I was looking for with my music, but I love teaching people things I know how to do. I like teaching classes. I like writing. I like making videos. I especially like NOT HAVING A BOSS. I just got out of a corporate gig that I was at for a year and some change. It was absolutely as long as I could stand to stay. That sort of thing is perfect for people who are happy to just execute tasks and collect a paycheck. It was a total disaster for me. I like creating things I think are cool and sharing them with people. There are numerous ways to make money off of that IF, and only if, the stuff is useful, there is a market need, it is done consistently, and is done with the objective of being genuinely helpful. I may be waiting 20 years for my music to find an audience. I have to find something else I can enjoy to occupy that time. There is no reason the thing I find shouldn’t be related to my musical ambitions, and have the potential to further them while doing something for which there is a current need. This is the advice I have to offer to anyone in my shoes. Find something related to what you love, find a way to make it useful to others, and just start trying shit. I’m about as happy as I’ve been in a few years in spite of staring down the barrel of financial uncertainty. I’ll keep you posted on how things go, and in the meantime, expect some content on some stuff you might find useful.