Whenever I read about effective social networking for artists, I see the same few discussions concentrating primarily on examples of people who had traction prior to the use of social networks and found that they were able to continue to build their fan base using these tools.
Amanda Palmer is the most common example. She is excellent at engaging her fans and followers, but she has many of those fans and followers because of the significant backing of a label. While her path is interesting, and it does provide useful lessons for artists just starting out, I don’t think all of her techniques and approaches apply to the beginner. As such, my goal here is to discuss some of the things that I, as a more unknown artist, have found effective in building and maintaining a modest following.
The most essential point to note in my approach to social media is that it begins with the word social. In order to generate interesting discussions and interactions, you must follow exactly the same practices as you would at a party. You wouldn’t just stand up on a table in the middle of a room full of people and shout, “come to my show!” or, “buy my music!”
You need to create engagements where there is a naturally developed interest in your affairs and your music. If you stick with a party conversation long enough, you’ll inevitably be telling your new friend about your band. They are a lot more likely to check you out than someone you walk up to on the street and hand a flyer.
In addition, when you use social media properly, you are promoting the product “you” (I put you in quotes because the “you” in this case is a public persona and is partially distinct from the true you), not your music. If you want the music you make to stand alone and develop its own social identity without your persona and personal identity backing it, I’d suggest not bothering.
One of my social-networking experiences centers around trying to get people to come to my performances. I’ve found that the fact is, locally and at my level, people go to shows because they know and like the performer; People will come to your shows because they meet you at a party, they meet you at a bar, or because you were at their show or event.
The biggest mistake new bands make is that they believe that people will come see their band because the band makes good music. Not so! They will come to your show once because they like you. They will return to your shows because they like you AND your music. If your music isn’t good, most people will come once. If your music is good, most people will still probably come once. Generating show attendance is an every-show effort. If you slack even one time, you will feel the effects.
For me, social media and networking has become the best way I’ve found to generate continued interest, maintain acquaintance-level relationships with large numbers of people, and disseminate works and ideas to help drive show attendance. The same ideas apply to other aspects of a budding music career as well: driving sales, building word-of-mouth buzz, and accessing those involved with traditional press and media, for example.
So, what are some rules and strategies that work for me?
1. Don’t think of social media as providing an avenue for mass broadcasting. Think of it as providing an avenue for mass receiving.
Spend most of your time commenting on posts, replying to comments, and answering questions. If you read the famous book _How to Win Friends and Influence People_ (disclosure: I’ve never actually read it), the fundamental tenets of getting people to like you is to become genuinely interested in their affairs and to spend most of your time being a good listener.
Social networking works just the same. I personally find that Facebook has a good interface for listening. I have tried to use Twitter for this purpose as well, but found it difficult to follow the unthreaded conversations and noticed that most people act as broadcasters, but do not reciprocate as listeners. Twitter constructs what I consider to be a “broadcast culture” whereas Facebook is built around a “listener culture.” Be a listener first and a broadcaster second.
Although I have over 2000 Facebook friends, I work very hard to keep up with all of the posts in my feed. I believe that it is my responsibility and duty to read what everyone else on my friend list is saying if I expect them to read and react to what I am saying.
On Facebook, I comment whenever I have something to add to a conversation. Commenting also serves as a way for me to subscribe to a status discussion thread via e-mail and to receive updates on that thread. I probably comment on seventy-five to one-hundred posts per day. I receive about 200 e-mails per day containing comments on threads that I’ve commented on or have been tagged in.
I genuinely enjoy using Facebook for this purpose because it allows me to stay in touch with and be, at least superficially, embedded in a large community that I cannot interact with in person on a regular basis. I remain connected to more people than I could if I had to regularly call and e-mail the same large set of individuals. Thus, Facebook is my primary “news” source, or probably better, my “grapevine.”
I have become known for “liking” things in sufficient quantity to motivate local booker Agent Bishop to create a t-shirt dedicated to that trait. I wrote a post recently on my blog about why I believe Myspace failed and how it can be saved. The very brief synopsis is that Myspace is a social networking site that does not allow any social networking. You can’t communicate with your “friends” in any way. Being friends with someone on Myspace is nearly identical to not being friends with them. Facebook connections, if used properly, provide a means to maintain a relationship.
3. Say interesting things and people will become interested in you.
Number 3 is my seven rules equivalent of the financial advice: buy low, sell high. It sounds obvious, but most people don’t follow this rule. In fact, it is perhaps the most frequently overlooked. Don’t post things that interest you alone. Post things that interest others. Don’t just repeat what other people are talking about, but instead add a unique perspective on things. If you were one of 700 people in my feed telling me that Michael Jackson died, you were not contributing to the conversation.
Just one small recent example for illustrative purposes. Lots of people were talking about the television show “Mad Men.” One of the posts included a “spoiler alert.” I am not a fan of the show and I am even less a fan of people emulating the characters on the show and wanted to express my distaste for it. I could have written a reactive “Mad Men sucks” in response to being tired of so many associated status updates.
Instead, I approached it in my favorite manner - attempt to include both humor and serious commentary. I said, “Mad Men SPOILER ALERT: All the men on the show are going to act all sleazy and misogynistic and lots of viewers will idolize them and not recognize that the show is a critique of the culture, not a celebration. Don’t look up to, and dream of being, terrible people. These are villains, not heroes. I only saw the first 3 episodes, but my insides crawled out of my body after that, so I had to stop.”
Almost immediately, dozens of comments came in and a real discussion that transcended far beyond “Mad Men” is a good/bad show happened. In response to the thread, multiple people started other threads, tagging me and addressing the discussion on my thread. Important to note: there was no hostility contained anywhere in the discussion. I like to believe that everyone involved enjoyed engaging in the conversation.
I find that creating difficult and controversial conversations engages people more than any other type of conversation, as long as it can be done without anyone walking away with hurt feelings. I also love to post on strange topics that generate discussion like genital graffiti in green rooms and pictorial summaries of bathrooms seen on tour.
4. Hone your identity: both your visual identity and your personality.
Honestly, I think of my public persona as a bit of a cartoon. I have a fairly absurd mustache (which has its own Facebook fan page and song). I say relatively outrageous things. I post photos and videos of myself doing things that may seem silly. You know what? It works. In terms of music, your band doesn’t have a personality, the individuals in the band have personalities.
Communicating with others while hiding behind a band identity feels impersonal and provides a barrier to the type of intimacy and access that friends, fans, and followers want and need to become engaged in your affairs. So, focus on using your personal accounts and de-emphasize the use of your band accounts. The personal account is not really a reflection of you in absolute truth.
We’re all fakers on the Internet, so I embrace that and use it as an opportunity to pick and choose the traits, feelings, and ideas that I want others to know about and I choose not to reveal the rest. I am not “lying,” but rather creating a sort of caricature of myself.
I get recognized all the time by people I don’t know. They’ve often just seen my band’s flyers or maybe saw me at a club once. I can only attribute this to my mustache and glasses. This essentially makes me a public figure. Someone once said to me that the citizens of my city in the Boston metro area (Somerville) would be more likely to recognize me than the Mayor. While it does mean that I can’t cut this damn mustache off, it also means that people remember my image.
Thus, I am careful to include clear photos of my distinguishing features throughout my social media presence, to reinforce that visual association and contribute an image aesthetic to the character I portray on the Internet. I stick to method acting. That is, my comments and interactions on Facebook come from my adopted persona, which differs from my real persona only marginally, but I rarely discuss my intimate personal affairs except in the context of developing my public identity. You are what you say you are. The truth will always be there, even if you try to hide it, so don’t get too hung up on it.
5. Share your experiences with others and allow them to experience vicariously.
How many times have we spoken with great excitement about our friend meeting a celebrity, participating in some great event, or accomplishing some great goal? If you’re like me, you will answer “a lot” to this question. We band folks often take it for granted, but every little thing we do is something that we once dreamed of doing and countless others still dream of doing.
You know how to play an instrument? You have written a song? You have performed in front of people? You opened for a band you love? These may seem like baby steps toward some grandiose goal of becoming the greatest band of all time, but to your friends, family, and fans, these are exciting experiences that they are sharing with you. The more you give them insight into those experiences, the more people feel close to you.
When my band was on tour last Summer, we focused on determining the optimal ways to leverage our touring experience. We had a great time, but we knew that having a great time and playing a mix of great shows, mediocre shows, and sub-mediocre shows really wasn’t the most “valuable” thing we could get out of touring.
So, we made sure to do a few things: 1. we brought along (the beautiful and talented) photographer Kelly Davidson to assist us with documentation of the experience and 2. we made sure to have fun that extended beyond traditional music performance and to document that fun. The result? Countless people were excited about our experience. Countless people commented on how great our tour went.
None of these people knew a single thing about our shows. Instead, they saw us frolicking (and acting silly) in a park with life-size displays of dinosaurs eating Confederate soldiers. They saw us performing acoustic versions of our songs in front of Foamhenge, the full-scale styrofoam replica of Stonehenge. They saw us singing in front of the burned-out metal shell of a giant 60+ foot Jesus statue that had been struck by lightning.
These experiences were special and we posted countless photos and videos depicting our experiences. Sure, we posted photos and videos of the shows we played, but the oddities and the whimsical settings of the other elements of the tour were what people perseverated on.
6. You first, music second.
Again, concentrate on your identity and become ubiquitous. It’s okay to be known for things other than your music. I am a bit of a harmless prankster and had 15 seconds of fame recently when I dedicated a new National Park to the mummified squirrel (I named him Skippy) that had been sitting on my street for 4 months.
I posted a video of it and it became a bit of a local “sensation” earning me the cover story in the Somerville News (slow news week I guess). Numerous people found me that way and have since been coming to see my bands perform.
Admittedly, one guy I met recently had heard of me and thought that maybe I was a “Paris Hilton” of the Boston music scene. That is, I was known, but not for any good reason. Anyway, Paris Hilton or not, knowing me and/or knowing of me is very likely to lead you to hearing my music. At that point, of course, the music must speak for itself.
7. Slow and steady wins the race.
The best thing you can do for yourself is abandon the idea that some magical music-industry Pegasus will come and pick you up and fly off into the great blue yonder. Never use the term “viral” to describe the dissemination of content. I believe that 99% of viral videos went “viral” because someone spent a ton of money to make it happen. (See this article for support of that theory.)
You should never expect that your music, your videos, your status updates, your persona, or anything else will be instantaneously championed by the Internet community. Overnight sensations and rags to riches stories are rare and probably fake. A lot of PR campaigns are built around convincing the public that a celebrity was simply plucked from the common folk for the purpose of rallying support behind that person. It’s fake. It just didn’t happen that way.
So, you should not expect any kind of mythical, magical occurrence either. In order to succeed, you will need to commit yourself to years of constant, hard work generating content, disseminating content, and building a foundation brick by brick.
I view my content - videos, songs, status updates, etc. - as tiny pieces in a cumulative effort. I have videos that have 30,000 views (from hard work pushing them) and I have videos that I think are really excellent that have 100 views. I don’t let that bother me. I never use the success of a single item as a metric for my overall success.
I regularly revisit old content (in posts just like this one) and expect that those 100 views may become 10,000 next year. In fact, I can work hard and make sure that any single video gets 10,000 views. It’s just a matter of deciding whether that is the best focus for my time and energy.
We all dream of the “set it and forget it” Internet. That is, we create a page, post some content, and walk away and people eventually start discovering our work and the support pours in. Again, it just doesn’t happen. You want 10,000 people to see your video? You need to ask 10,000 people to watch your video.
There is no easy breaking point either - 30,000 views doesn’t lead to 60,000 views. If you want people to continue coming, you need to keep inviting them. You need to promote every single show you play. You need to update content on your blog regularly. You need to post interesting status updates, videos, and songs at a regular and consistent rate. You must constantly feed.
A lot of people lean toward putting out single songs every month rather than a single album once a year, for example. My goal is to keep interesting content pouring out almost every single day. I am talking about a serious and continuing commitment to creating and disseminating meaningful content.
I am always simultaneously working on projects on all different scales so that no one is just waiting around for big news. There are always little bits of news filling in the gaps. In short, work hard, and don’t get distracted by small successes!
Michael J. Epstein is an artist, writing and performing with The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, Neutral Uke Hotel, and The Motion Sick. He is also developing a Boston-centric music licensing company, Launch Over. Along with writing about his bands, he frequently posits his thoughts on the present and future of music on his blog.