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For Musicians: 10 Tips For Turning Your Fanbase Into A Tribe

Fans of groups such as the Insane Clown Posse (the Juggalo), the Grateful Dead (the Deadhead), and Jimmy Buffet (the Parrothead), are all apart of communities that exists beyond the band. The music is what brought these groups of people together, and the loyalty to the music acts as the glue bonding them together, but the artists themselves have no responsibility to control the group - the community acts as it’s own separate entity, with its own leaders and followers.

These fans belong to a tribe.

What Is a Tribe?

Tribes exist as a way to connect and to share an interest in a topic, and it is because of this that you as an artist must recognize that creating a tribe is an essential step towards success and career-longevity. And since a developed tribe acts as its own entity, the incessant ‘shameless self-promotion’ that unfortunately paints the walls of all too many artists’ Facebook and Twitter pages will become a thing of the past.

With a tribe of loyal fans at your side - just one announcement of any album, any show, even any new merch will be absorbed and spread like wildfire. Remember that a typical characteristic of a tribe member is to be overly dedicated, or obsessive, which can be used to your benefit! Think of these obsessive tribe members as your own instant viral marketing strategy- these are the types of fans who make sure that everyone in their social networks know about this new announcement.

All tribes are created by people following a leader who is making it possible to connect and share with others who are also interested in a common topic. In most cases for musicians, that common topic is your music. Though it is very important to understand that it doesn’t necessarily need to be about the music. It can be something else that YOU, the artist, are passionate about such as global sustainability or political awareness, or it can be something that your FANs are passionate about, such as tape trading of recorded live performances. Even if the agenda of the tribe may surround a larger cause, the music then becomes the soundtrack to the movement.

So although a tribe is ultimately a separate entity from the band or musician, it is your (the artist’s) responsibility to be the initial leader of the tribe. Once the tribe is fully developed, the leadership can be simply transferred to the most dedicated members or member who possesses the proper leadership skills needed. This leaves you free of any further responsibility, yet the tribe will continue to support, obsess, grow and purchase. 

10 Tips To Consider When Starting A Tribe

Something to keep in mind is that creating a tribe can be a very time consuming and arduous process. But if the effort put in can result in a successfully developed tribe, you will see greater and longer-term success than ever possible before. So with that in mind, here are 10 important steps, or rather considerations for planning and executing the gathering of a tribe:

1) Have an agenda. This agenda can be as simple as sharing the music (i.e. in the case of Dead-heads and Phish-heads, the sharing and trading of tapped lived performances is and has always been the main agenda of the respective tribes) or can be revolved around something a bit deeper such as being ‘green’ as is the case with Jack Johnson and his tribe. Now, it is also important to understand that this agenda can change.

This was the case with the Phish-heads who felt strongly enough about the fact that bassist Mike Gordon was not turned up enough in the live mix, that they worked together to get his bass turned up by creating a campaign called People For A Louder Mike (which was featured in Bass Player magazine in 1998 and resulted in successfully having his bass turned up!). The agenda can be whatever the tribe would like, as long as it reflects the tribe as a whole.

2) Give the tribe a name. A name gives the fans something real to identify with. Think of the Dead-heads, Phish-heads, Juggalos and Parrot-heads of the world. There is a heightened sense of pride and enthusiasm from members within these tribes knowing that they are not only apart of something real, but that the outsiders (including the band) have given them a label. Notice that even Lady Gaga refers to her dedicated fans as her ‘Little Monsters’ - by doing this, she has created a separate entity for her fans to exist.

3) Determine which fans should and should not be included in the tribe. Different levels of fans have a different level of dedication, outward enthusiasm and support. This is extremely important - although it is hard to say ‘you cannot join our tribe’, it is a crucial step towards building a strong tribe. Going along with the 1000 True Fans theory, you want the core of your tribe to be made up of passionate and dedicated followers. Not only does this create a stronger bond between the existing members, but it creates a system of insiders and outsiders, and an increased level of desire by the outsiders to become an insider. And therefore, once again, the tribe is working for you to create a stronger following.

4) Build a ‘Story Of The Tribe’. Just as it is important in deciding which type of fans you want to be included in the tribe, it is just as important to create a story or manifesto to pull them in. The idea of a tribe is that everyone involved shares a similar passion, so your ‘Story Of The Tribe’ is your opportunity to describe the passions and goals of tribe, whatever those may be (i.e. your music, tape trading, sustainable ‘green’ living, etc.) in order to connect with potential followers. The story needs to be personal and reflect your own passion, but also needs to contain a clear message of the value in bringing all of these people together who share the same interest. Think: this is why you, the dedicated follower, should join the tribe.

The best way to tell this story is to create a short video that you can upload to Youtube and Vimeo, which can be shared by tribe members through their own social networks. If they feel passionate about something, chances are they have some friends who feel similarly.

5) Connect followers (fans) with each other. A very important aspect of a tribe is that it is not just about one person (the leader) making strong connections and relationships with others. This is not just a fanbase of people looking at you and your music. This is a collective of people who feel passionate about something. The only way for a tribe to flourish and thrive is if all of the members within have the opportunity to connect and share with each other. This is why 15 years after the death of Jerry Garcia, the community of Dead-heads is still alive and well - even if the band is no more, there is still a demand for the recordings of shows that spanned their 30-year career.

6) Maintain a high level of transparency. This is critically important to the overall strength and functionality of a tribe because it builds trust and stronger connections among followers, as well as the relationship formed between followers and the leader. This doesn’t mean that you need to go on to your blog or twitter account and make personal statement - there is nothing wrong with a little mystique, if that’s what you are going for (i.e. the Insane Clown Posse). Rather, this refers to maintaining a high level of transparency in the overall agenda of the tribe. No hidden agendas allowed.

7) Celebrate accomplishment. Whether the agenda of the tribe is to change something for the better or is to just bring people together, all major milestones should be celebrated as a way to highlight members within who have made a difference, to further the excitement of the tribe as a whole, and to keep motivating the tribe to reach new levels of involvement. Try starting an e-mal newsletter, be it weekly, bi-weekly or monthly that is sent out to all members of the tribe.

The Grateful Dead spent many years using a newsletter as a way to reach out to tribe members - Originally titled the Dead Heads Newsletter (later changed to the Grateful Dead Almanac), the mailing list was 40,000 people strong by the mid-70’s. Newsletters were often sent out with a little something special for the fans, including exclusive EPs and sneak previews of upcoming solo albums.

8) Empower member. The tribe is a collective. It is a gathering of people looking for the same thing, to become further involved in something they are passionate about. So give the members some responsibilities and give them ways to make a difference. By creating a way to empower the members of the group, each one has the opportunity to take the initiative. Without this sort of empowerment, the tribe may become stale and crumble.

9) Invent Rituals. This may seem ridiculous to some, but creating some sort of ritual that is shared between all members of the tribe is a way of widening the exclusivity between insiders and outsiders. An important part of having insiders and outsiders is working to increase the desirability of the tribe so that more people WANT to put in the time and effort to become an insider. By the time they have made that transition, they will be a fully-informed and dedicated follower.

In 1992, Phish created a ‘secret language’ that was taught to the audience. The language was a set of tonal and rhythmic sequence that acted as a call and response between the band and the audience. The band explained that the purpose was to let the re-occurring fans in on the secret, so that the new people who came for the first time would feel left out, making them want to learn the language, to attend another show and eventually take part in the ritual.

10) Educate. This is a very obviously tip, but it is something that should not be ignored. What better than to not only bring people together, but to teach them about the topic, get them more engaged and in turn create a stronger, more loyal tribe who is more capable of existing on their own…

Again, Jack Johnson has done an excellent job of this with his All At Once campaign. Not only has he created a tribe of his fans who also feel strongly about living a more green, sustainable lifestyle, but he has created an online social network component that gives people a place to learn and educate how they can better their lives and communities at large. And again, his music has become the soundtrack to the movement, as seen in the campaign video shown above.

So to recap, developing a tribe is no easy feat to accomplish. However, it does give you the opportunity to create a stronger fanbase, a bigger fanbase, and to increase sales all through this one outlet. If you do have something that you are passionate about, remember to take your time and establish the guidelines of who and who would not be included as a tribe member. This is not something that should be a widespread campaign, at least not at first. When developing a tribe, exclusivity is your friend because it actually creates a more desirable experience within, as well as a stronger desire to join from those unable to belong.

Jon is the co-founder of MicControl, a music blogging network based on a music social networking platform. This article originally appeared on the MicControl Blog on August 19th, 2010. For guest blogging opportunities or for simply reaching out, Jon can be found on twitter and facebook.

Do YOU belong to a tribe of any kind? If so, what is the agenda of that tribe? Please leave your feedback and/or suggestions in the form of a comment below. 

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (8)

Love your referral to Tribes ;-)

Thanks - Hessel (@tribeofnoise)

August 23 | Unregistered CommenterHessel

Interesting article! I never really though of Phish as a very entrepreneurial kind of band, but it seems like even they did some very deliberate things to get their Tribe together.

August 23 | Unregistered CommenterScott Hughes

@ Scott Yes, Phish is actually one of the most entrepreneurial bands of all time! They owned their own production and management company and did all ticketing and merch in house. By their hiatus in 2004, they had 40 people under their employ. The Grateful Dead were the same way. :-) Very entrepreneurial.

August 23 | Registered CommenterJonathan Ostrow

For the love of god proofread your article before postage it. This has great insight but the advice feels amateur-ish because of the errors that have been overlooked.

August 23 | Unregistered CommenterManiac Mike

Jonathan, very impressive - seems like an artist willing and able to truly create a tribe virtually assures him/herself of success...of course, as you point out it is one helluva climb.

I get and agree with all, just one question - how would one accomplish point #3? I may be missing something obvious, but how would selecting/declining menbers possibly be done?

Thanks for taking on such a sophisticated marketing approach here - clearly not for everybody but refreshing from the over-discussed issues such as piracy or other "state-of-the-industry" rants that don't do a thing for moving us forward.

But of course most people will choose to sit back and complain since something like this actually requires vision, strategic planning and massive effort to implement...which is good though, leaving the field less crowded at the higher atmosphere. Keep it coming!

August 24 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Well said!

I've had Seth Godin's book Tribes since it's release and like this post it is constant reminder of what a band should really be doing. My best bit in that book:

"It is far better to tighten your tribe than to grow it aimlessly"

August 24 | Unregistered CommenterAtul Rana

Phish and the Dead aren't great examples because they owe much of their popularity to the glorification of a psychedelic drug culture. Which is why their live shows were ultimately more successful than recorded music, because it is a big tripping rave. identifying with a great way to score some blotter acid is not ideal for most artists. Then again to each their own.

~ CrowfeatheR

August 24 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

@Dg thanks! Glad you liked it - with #3, I felt it did not deem an explanation as it is really dependent on what sort of tribe you are looking to create. For example, if you are looking to create a tribe, as the Dead or Phish, around tape trading, you would want to seek out those fans who are outwardly enthusiastic about the live shows, or even those early adopters who have already expressed interest taping the show themselves. These fans are valuable assets to strength of the core tribe. That said, you would want to avoid fans who may not be all that interested in the live performances, or who are interested in attending but have no interest in purchasing or trading live shows. Long story short - you have to have a direction for your tribe and know who your fans are.

@crowfeather, you seem to have missed the boat completely on the Phish/ Dead cultures. Of course with The Dead, who started as The Warlocks, performing at the Acid Tests, drugs played a large part of their initial success. BUT, the continued strength of their tribe, now 15 years after Jerry Garcia has died, in congruence with the continued success of Phish, now 27 years into their own career is revolved around the tribe of tappers and traders, NOT drug addicts looking to get their fix. These two groups had always allowed their fans to freely tape and trade the music, and even went as far as to help establish guidelines within the tribes and then gave them a place to trade online! As far as I am concerned, both bands are prime examples of what emerging artists should be striving for with a career - fan engagement, fan loyalty and career longevity.

August 25 | Registered CommenterJonathan Ostrow

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