Most new bands approach the first part of their careers like this: We need to find an audience, but in order to find an audience we have to play shows. If we want to play shows we have to get a talent buyer to book us, but talent buyers are going to want to know we can draw an audience before they’ll ever consider letting us play. It’s a frustrating catch-22.
Thankfully, it’s also not the only (or even the best) route to finding your first audience or building your initial fan base. It just means that you’re going to have to go around the gatekeepers and find fans somewhere else.
I’ve put together a list of three somewhat unorthodox suggestions to help you break free of the catch-22 and think outside the venue. Each of these three activities is designed to help you find an audience when no talent buyer in town will let you play.
1. Play to the line.
This first idea comes from Martin Atkins. You may not be welcome to play inside, but they can’t stop you from playing outside, can they? Keep track of when big acts come into town. Make sure you’re there and bring something to play. Perform for the line outside the door.
Think about it - they’ve come for music and here they are just waiting outside with nothing to do. So, give them something to listen to! Put up a sign with your band name and pass out demos for free. Give away bottled water if it’s hot, or hot chocolate or cider if it’s cold. Bring someone along to walk around with a clipboard to take down names and email addresses in exchange for buttons or even the demos.
2. Host a living room show.
Leverage the resources and connections that you already have. You have friends, right? Well, invite them all over to your flat and tell them each to bring a friend of their own. Put on an awesome show and hang out afterward to connect and find out who enjoyed your music. Take down names and email address and network to see if anyone might have an in with a more established band or even a venue. At the very least you’ve built a solid list of people you can count on when you approach that talent buyer next time.
3. Target local listeners online.
I talked about the various online tools available to bands for uncovering potential fans in a recent post. If you are really starting from scratch I would suggest using these online tools first to drill down into your local scene. The line outside the show of an established band in your genre is all but guaranteed to contain people likely to enjoy your own music. In the same way, targeting an established band’s fans online will greatly increase your chances of finding new listeners.
Once you figure out where to find potential listeners you need to initiate a conversation. Notice that I didn’t say that you need to send them messages that say “Check out my MySpace page!” or “Listen to our new album for free!” Those messages are completely unnatural and you’d be better off trying to sell them a vacuum cleaner.
A real conversation starts with a simple introduction. You both live in the same city or region (because that’s who you’re targeting right now.) So right away you have something in common. Sending someone a free track will be much more meaningful after it has been established that you are a human being rather than an automated account or a marketing intern.
These online connections can be leveraged in several ways in landing that elusive fist gig. Crowd-source them - find out who would come out if you had a show, and where they like to see bands play the most. Offer an incentive if they commit to coming - a free piece of merch or an exclusive track that only the members of your network who show up will get. If you are really successful in connecting with a decent number of people on Twitter, MySpace or Facebook consider forming a ‘petition’ that includes your new fans’ names and email addresses. I would imagine that your friendly neighborhood talent buyers would be much more receptive to you with something like that in their hands.
The most important concept that I want to get across is that the only person who can hold you back from launching your career is yourself. Booking agents, talent buyers, club owners - none of these people owe you anything. They are never going to care as much about what you are doing as you do, and you shouldn’t expect them to. If one of these gatekeepers is standing in your way there is no reason why you shouldn’t simply find a way to go around them. Independent artists live and die on their ability to find creative solutions for difficult problems. So get creative.
This post was originally published at Creative Deconstruction.