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7 Marketing Lessons From Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers is a dear friend of mine and has long been a beacon of light for most of us in the music industry. These are highlights from talks I heard him give at Taxi’s Road Rally and at the Indie Buzz Bootcamp.

I constantly like to return to the lessons that Derek teaches and I always walk away feeling inspired.

Here are 7 wonderful lessons, which are great to revisit no matter how strong your marketing muscles are. These are all good places to start when considering your own plan of attack for marketing.

Before I dive in I want to start with how Derek got his own music career off of the ground. This speaks volumes about how he achieved his CD Baby success later in his career.  There is a huge marketing lesson in his story…

When he was a student at Berklee College of Music, Derek was attending a music business lecture.  Before the lecture was staring he overheard his professor whispering to the guest speaker Mark Fried from Warner Chappell Music that there would be no time to eat before the lecture was starting and it was a 3-hour talk.  Mark was looking hungry and there had clearly been a miscommunication about eating before the class started. So, Derek slipped out of the room to a pay phone and ordered pizza for Mark and for the entire class.  45 minutes into his lecture, Mark was eating pizza with the class and was extremely grateful to Derek (who was one of many students in the room) who went out of his way to help Mark.

After the lecture Mark gave Derek his card and told him to keep in touch, which Derek did for the remaining 2 years he was at Berklee.  When he came to New York he would meet Mark for coffee and their friendship grew.  A week before his graduation, Derek called Mark to ask if there were any jobs at Warner Chappell opening up. Seven days later Derek had a job working at Warner Chappell in the tape room.

Lesson #1 A Marketing Golden Rule: It’s about THEM Not YOU

What struck me about this story is a simple marketing lesson that is one of the golden rules: Always think about this question: How can I be helpful to other people?  That is what will make you memorable in the long run. It was Derek’s courteous consideration that opened all doors for him in the music business.

The pizza took Derek one phone call and $25 and it secured him a job in the music industry.  There were probably 45 students sitting in that lecture hall that day and he was the one who ended up with a relationship with Mark and in the end…a job.

Lesson #2: Unsolicited Actions Will Get You Nowhere

Derek then went on to explain what it was like in the tape room at Warner Chappell.  It was there he got to see first hand about what it looks like from the inside when indie musicians send unsolicited music to a publishing company.  Warner Chappell is a large publishing company that was not looking to sign new artists and Derek saw the packages arrive by the dozen on a daily basis. From this he learned exactly what never to do.

Lesson #3: No One Is Coming To Save You In The Music Industry

Derek points out (and I have repeated this line in my own talks) that no one will come along and be your music business “fairy godfather” it all has to start internally.  If you hire anyone to be on your team no matter what they are doing for you. You must understand that that person is your hired partner and that you will both will have to work to achieve your desired result. This is especially true in the realm of social media and online marketing.

Lesson #4: Marketing = Consideration

Reach People the Way You Want to Be Reached

Stop thinking of it as Marketing and start thinking of it as creative ways to be considerate. Think of things from the other person’s point of view: Imagine if you called your friend up and screamed into the phone:THURSDAY COME SEE ME PLAY NEXT THURSDAY!” (HANG UP)

You most probably would not show up if you were spoken to that rudely and then hung up on and it was funny to see Derek act this out but his point was: This is exactly the way most musicians speak to their newsletter recipients (and therefore their fans).

If your friends spoke to you the way you speak to them on your newsletter list you wouldn’t be friends. Begin to pay attention to other artist’s messages and notice what works on you. The considerate thing is to be so novel and creative and innovative so that people say: you have GOT to see / hear this musician play!

Lesson #5:  Sharply Define What You Do

You cannot slice through the world’s attention if you are using a blunt knife and you will most definitely be blunt if you are trying to be all things to all people.  Your message must be sharp and pointed. It’s OK to Exclude 99% and have 1% Worship You! Be unapologetic in your bluntness.

3 CD Baby Artists Who Are Sharply Focused

Eileen Quinn – Create A Niche

One of CD Baby’s all time top-sellers is an artist named Eileen Hoyton. Eileen is from Nova Scotia and she owns a boat.  She recorded her music on the boat and the title of her album is called Songs For Sailors, and it’s a top seller at CD Baby. Why? Because it’s laser focused. It speaks directly to a niche audience I bet you can find a copy of her album on every boat that you set foot on. Eileen also laser focused her PR and marketing efforts on her niche audience.  Since sailors read boating magazines, she went after reviews and features in boating mags, (she could have cared LESS about Spin and Rolling Stone) and she got publicized to a select group of people she knew would love her music and she sold tens of thousands of albums!

Regina Spektor – Don’t Be Afraid To Be “Out There”

Regina Spektor also understood laser focus but it took time. She did a Tori Amos style thing for years and with those albums, she did OK but when she added the hiccups and the “weird” themes and she started banging on her piano bench with a drumstick while she played people really started to notice her. This is what led her to her record deal and to her popularity.  She really stood out from the crowd.

David M. Bailey - Find A Small Hill To Dominate

David was a lawyer who was diagnosed with brain cancer. Out of that experience he became a top seller at CD Baby. David was given a few months to live and he immediately quit his job and decided to record an album.  He beat the odds and he survived brain cancer.  He is now the poster child of surviving brain cancer.  He has since recorded 7 albums and brain cancer patients often find him online through research, they then logon to CD Baby and buy all 7 of his albums at once.

Lesson #5: DIY Does Not Mean Do It All Yourself – Decide It Yourself

DIY does not have to mean do it all yourself.  Doing it all yourself will surely set you up for exhaustion and will leave you no time to be creative.

Instead Derek recommends that you think of DIY as: Decide It Yourself – you call the shots but you MUST learn how to delegate, put your fans to work and get things off of your plate. If you have a sense of STRESS and UPSET around every decision and everything becomes so important you really miss the point. Just try delegating things and don’t make it all so serious and significant. Start every decision with: Let’s see what happens if… and try it!

Lesson #6: Act AS IF….

 “You are whatever you pretend to be.”

-       Kurt Vonnegut

 Most people do not know this: Derek Sivers is an introvert by nature.  His instinct when at a music conference is: he wants to retreat to his hotel room.  To combat this he ACT as if he is an extrovert.  Pretend to be the biggest extrovert possible for an hour at a networking event or at a party.


Lesson #7: It’s Who You Know Mixed With How You Persevere

Everything major that happens in your career starts with someone you know. Derek’s story of how he got the gig touring with world-renowned Japanese musician with

Ryuichi Sakamoto. Derek’s roommate from school was working wrapping cables in a studio and he overheard the musicians saying that they needed a guitar player to go on an upcoming tour.


To prove that he was the perfect guitarist for the gig, Derek got a hold of some of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music that he was in the process of recording, wrote all of the guitar parts and mixed it and sent it back.


After a few days when he did not hear from Ryuichi he transcribed wrote a cello part out of another one of his songs and sent that to the studio.

After the third day he got the call and tour Japan for 2 months in front of 20,000 people each night

But Derek proves that it’s not only who you know but also what you do once you get the connection how to fully take advantage of each situation.

Persevere With People

Get used to staying in touch with hundreds of people with blogs and with your newsletter – it’s a psychological shift in your head but once you can make it you can be very very effective staying in touch with many people.  This is the miracle of technology.

Make yourself meet 3 new people every single week: Do this by picking up the phone - people get hundreds of emails and dozens of phone calls.

My 2 Cents: AVOID saying the words “pick your brain” to anyone.  That says: I want something from you….  and when you do talk to people, prove that you have already done your research.  Derek says that people will ask him: So, what does CD Baby do?  And It’s totally disrespectful – you want to let them know that you care enough to have spent some time learning about them before you talk / meet.


Reader Comments (10)

Ryuichi Sakamoto, nice. I actually own some wax from Pussyfoot Records featuring him.

I really like Derek's approach and I like to think I handle myself (at least slightly) in a similar fashion. I am a real believer in the ability to make "real" connections with like minded individuals who can in time and in turn benefit each other.

As a DJ in the late 80's and 90's I got to know local club owners and promoters and that in turn put me in touch with national and international peers with clout. Got to know some folks at most notably for me; Ninja Tune as well as some even smaller but revered labels in the underground DJ culture.

As I continued to maintain my connections over the years they have continued to grow at a modest but solid pace allowing me to transition from just a DJ & Remixer to a producer and soundtrack composer.

I am not getting rich off of my music by any means...but that is not why I do it. I make music because I enjoy it. When I am not enjoying it it just doesn't happen (and yes, my "career" as a musician suffers for that) But music is not my "career" choice, it is my passion. And if it pays then that is just gravy!

I too am an introvert, even often referred to as "the hermit" by my peers, employers & friends (all the same for me actually). It takes a concentrated effort for me to be that extrovert on those now rare occasions when I find myself at the WMC or something similar. But I understand it MUST be done to get to the better end of a relationship where your peers/employers/friends jokingly refer to you as a hermit.

And actually at this stage in the game for me (some 20 years in) the connections I have established almost create the new connections for me without my direct involvement. Almost. But that was kind of my plan.

Thanks Ariel for the post and thanks Derek for setting the example.

December 11 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

OK, so what if you didn't attend a prestigious music institution such as Berklee? No offense to Derek - he's as tenacious as they come - but glowing tributes to people who essentially got their start on second or third base are of little value to the great unwashed.

December 12 | Unregistered CommenterPat


Dude, seriously; Don't come at this with the played out "Entitled-Rock-Star" mentality.

Wasn't it Ghandi who said; "Be the change you seek" or something to that affect?

The 'great unwashed'? What is that supposed to mean? I was not brought into the game already at second or third base (of course my dumb-ass didn't think of something as brilliant as CD Baby either!)...But you get my points here I am sure.


"Do or do not, there is no try" (pretty sure that was Yoda)

December 12 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

OK Milton, so how does one get the opportuinity to impress someone from a major league player like Warner Chappell if they attend, say, Austin Community College's music business program? Those who have been granted relatively easy access to the levers of power in business, either through their financial station in life, nepotism, or dumb luck always seem to gloss over that rather integral chapter of their success.

December 15 | Unregistered CommenterPat Offender

I guess we will have to chalk mine up to "Dumb Luck" as you call it. (I prefer to call it perseverance)

All I did was be myself and seize opportunity when it appeared. If you are in Austin Texas then you are surrounded by like minded and talented people. You also have just as much if not more opportunity than I ever had (seeing as I did not attend any type of school for music).

I still think you are frustrated because you feel entitled. Not fair is really not an option for adults.

December 16 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

Hehe - don't mistake my tone for frustrated sour grapes. I'm not some college kid crying foul coz no no one'll give me a leg up, I'm a 46 year old drummer who has been playing semi-professionally since 1979. (I also manage a law office full-time and currently play in two actively gigging bands.) I don't lament the relatively modest extent of my musical career; I'm quite proud of it. I've had lots of opportunity - toured the US 5 times opening for bands like the Ramones, Damned, Dead Kennedys, and Minor Threat, and more recently on metal festivals in Europe and Mexico. I speak mainly for those coming up behind me who are receiving questionable advice and considering whether to act on it. I'm no longer a stargazer, I'm a realist - and to run with the big dogs, well, you really need to be (or have a booster) on the inside to get access to the varsity track. I have learned that while work + talent just might get you noticed, neither of those counts as much as who you know/blow in the music business. (See: Julian Casablancas, The Sword) That's always the way it's been, and mp3 technology, independent P&D, and the contraction of the music business hasn't really changed that fact, it's only made the door everyone has to squeeze through much smaller.

Seriously, I mean no offense to the gifted/talented and privileged among us, but truth is only a tiny fraction of musicians get to attend Berklee or Julliard, or even the Musicians Institute, and my original point was that too often the biographies of those who attained success through relatively exclusive means such as these come across sounding more like self-aggrandizement than sound career advice.

December 17 | Unregistered CommenterPat Offender

Your point was very well spoken/written. I have actually been lamenting the same news to whoever will hear it: Your ability to communicate well is almost or more important than the musical talent you possess.

"Who you know" or "Who you're gonna know" is what it is always about. It has always been that way.

My only caveat to that is: Bring great work to the cocktail parties - or - Have something to communicate about (meaning; you have some work under your belt). All the talk to all the right people amounts to zilch if you don't have a "product" (music) to give them.

I am lucky enough to have 38 years behind me and a wife and two beautiful kids in front of me. I have a similar perspective as you (minus the Law firm thing!) - I have been lucky enough to have spent some time in the trenches and my days of 'stargazing' are also through.

The years taught me how to focus and also how to not be intimidated by general misconceptions of "How the biz works". No more anonymous demos sent out blindly to every Tom, Dick and Harry. No more traveling around to other cities 'hoping' that a shot in the dark pans out.

Now I make plans, take steps and execute. On occasion I am lucky enough to make direct contact with someone of interest - and this helps my plans move forward faster. That is how I got my soundtrack work.

You are not at all what I thought you were Pat. But considering the back and forth up to now - you can see where I would have mistaken you for one of the "I Deserve _______" entitlement types. I agree the traffic coming through the door has increased to an obscene amount - ergo: Find a back door. Mine was soundtracks.

And I have to give Derek credit - as far as I know of him, what I have seen of him - he appears as kind and humble as any. There are plenty of hacks out there, plenty of people who have things and achieved success that maybe should not have...But I do not think Derek is one of those.

Ramones? The Damned? Minor Threat? I think I love you Pat.
Those are three of my fave bands - especially the Damned and Minor Threat (I mean Fugazi is cool enough - but I really like McKay's first band better).

"Curtain Call" has spent many nights in my ears coming down off of who-knows-what back in the 80's - Vanian's voice and many minutes of grandeur via - rain samples and ambiance.

This conversation is a good example of a subtle building of relationships in the myriad of processes involved in creating success for one's self. We may not be the best of friends, but we have stepped just past small talk and into mutual respect and genuine conversation.

Thanks for the conversation Pat.

December 17 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

Pat, then tell me, why is both down and the sword touring with metallica? I dont know if any cocks where sucked but wasnt it because metallica likes the sword?
Ive seen moderately sized bands get picked up for huge tours cause the band liked them.
it just seems like you are not a realist, but a slapstick case of negativity!

December 19 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

Actually Austin, you just made his point: Somebody in Metallica likes a band and asks that band to open because of it.

"WHO YOU KNOW" (the 'blow' part is for the most part just a humorous way to say it)

Someone in "shit band" knew someone in "successful band" or at the very least garnered their attention enough to get the gig. No web marketing, no Facebooking, no Myspace - just a couple of musicians in the right place at the right time REGARDLESS of talent. (Not to say the bands mentioned above are not talented - just using the example to prove a point)

I too thought Pat was looking at this wrong - but it turns out he is backing a concept I have believed in for a very long time now.

(see previous comments)

December 19 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

(?? My 1st reply got hosed for some reason)

Austin - The Sword is signed to a major "indie" complete with full tour and financial support, something most freshman metal acts only read about in rock history books. This after nearly zero development in their local market or in the national metal scene. They're a perfect example of how who you know gets you to the front of the line much quicker than what you bring to the table. Their music is good - just not anything that groundbreaking (unless you're Lars Ulrich, apparently) that would explain their current fortunes, as there are dozens of European bands who do the doom thing much better in many critics' opinions. Thus to my original point, their story is not useful to a young doom metal band trying to break in.

December 22 | Unregistered CommenterPat Offender

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