How to build your fanbase – and why the end of the traditional model is a good thing.

Posted: August 7, 2013 in Artist Corner

You’ll probably know that I’m a great fan of the ramblings of Bob Lefsetz. I heartily recommend that you sign up to his newsletter.

In one of his posts this week he referred back to an interview with Jerry Greenberg on Bite Me! in which Jerry makes a major statement on how to build your fanbase.

It almost passed me by but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it is exactly the ideology that we now follow with our artists and which we suggest you should too.

The piece said, “Bud Prager—who managed Leslie West in the old days and Felix Pappalardi—he’s a great producer who I have the utmost respect for. One day we went for lunch…it was 1979/1980 and MTV had just started. Warner Communications funded MTV in the very beginning along with American Express.

Steve Ross had a vision of creating music on TV and having it be a marketing tool. Bud said to me as MTV progressed that he felt MTV hurt the record business. His whole philosophy and, I have to agree with him, was that we broke bands by them going out and getting a fanbase – a real fanbase. AC/DC started out in a little club called Max’s Kansas City then they worked their way up to the Fillmore then the Forum and then the stadiums. They built a fanbase, but so many of these artists just became these video stars and you could see them on video. The only way you could see AC/DC, before videos, was to wait until they went on tour.

Bud felt that in the long run it hurt the artist and hurt their career and then it also created a lot of what we call “The One Shot” video artist – who were really acts that people got because of the video but when they really had to go out and do it there was no substance.”

It’s obvious really isn’t it?

You need a fanbase

If you are hyped and leveraged into the national (or international) consciousness, you’re going to have to be spectacular to make it last. All the kids who get the big break on the TV talent shows cannot sustain the level that those shows give them.

Why not? They just aren’t actually talented enough, but, more importantly, they haven’t built a fanbase. They get instant recognition but it fades in the public interest when the next series comes along.

I can see that the same was true with MTV – and the same is still true for major label artists today that are over hyped and simply manufactured. Sign someone half pretty and get them a load of songs from the current writer / producer du jour. It all sounds good enough but 99 times out of 100, there isn’t anything to back it up. I’ll accept that there will occasionally be an exception.

BUT – if the right thing to do in order to build a career is build a fanbase, then how do you do it?

Look at Arcade Fire – how did they do it. Quality material, no bullshit, slow build of momentum, unreal live shows, true talent.

No-one wanted to sign them when they started, so they did it on their own!

The message is the same now as it was for AC/DC when Jerry Greenberg remembered how they started.

Get your material strong and go out and play it. Watch this video of legendary Island Records boss Chris Blackwell telling how a live show and word of mouth is all you need.

So now that the music industry has changed and everyone wants music for free, how do you build that fanbase and why is that change a good thing?

Well, you can still do what AC/DC did and go out and play. You must! You’ll improve, you’ll bond as a unit and you’ll find champions who will tell everyone how good you are.

BUT – you now have an advantage that outdoes MTV in it’s heyday and will allow you to build momentum slowly, reach a global audience, perfect your style and sound – all the while sticking two fingers up to the old music industry hegemony.

The internet. You must use the internet to build your fanbase.

10 steps to building your fanbase

Here’s what you do:

1. Get your act straight. Right people, right look, right sound and BRILLIANT material. Not ‘good enough’ – brilliant is what is required.

2. Buy a domain name for your band’s website (we use Namecheap – it is!), and then buy hosting for it. Use Hostgator. I know you have loads of choices, but, trust me, this works really well and I have never had a problem.

3. Build a website – Use WordPress, hosted on your own domain (that’s downloaded from wordpress.org not hosted at wordpress.com). Personally I always use Thesis as the theme for the site for a host of reasons that I won’t go into here. It is awesome. If you think you can’t build a site in WordPress and/or Thesis, you will be able to. Honestly – there are loads of videos on YouTube to talk you through it and if you get stuck, find someone at your school, college or even on Elance to do it for you.

4. Build a list of fans using serious email software. You can use Fanbridge – it works fine – but if you are really serious, there is only one choice – Aweber. It will do more than any competing mailing list software and it will last you your whole career.

5. Give people something really valuable in return for joining your mailing list. Sure, give them mp3′s of a few tracks. But, you can do so much more. Give them a whole album and ask them to get their friends to come and sign up for it.

I love Pretty Lights and what he does – 3 albums, 2 EP’s and some live material. All FOR FREE. How does he make a living? He sells merch and has a massive live following. If he hadn’t given this music away he would not have gotten anywhere. The free music gave him the momentum. Now he makes more money from his music career than if he had signed to a major – by a factor of 20 or more. Plus he gets to be a true artist and do exactly what he wants, when he wants with his art.

6. Put the sign-up box for the free stuff on the top right of every page of your site – what designers call ‘above-the fold’. Why? Because it works. Also – have a dedicated ‘squeeze page’ on the site or even on another domain that you can send people to. He doesn’t do this, but Pretty Lights could have a squeeze page at freeprettylights.com. It’s easy to remember and you just put a single page site there with just a small pitch and a sign up box for your Aweber list.

7. Build a quality profile (and interact – don’t ignore any of them) at MySpace (yep, still – it is the music directory and you need to be there), Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. This is the minimum – there are others that you might wish to add.

8. Shoot LOADS of video of your band. Writing, rehearsing, gigging, in the van – goofing off. It doesn’t matter. Send emails to your list at least once a week telling them to check out something that you have posted somewhere online. DO NOT just email them the week of a show asking them to come. Be in regular content. Put those videos on your YouTube channel and all over the place.

9. Post on Twitter and Facebook all the time. Not inane stuff but things that your fans will want to know.

10. Develop a healthy interest in music blogs. Find ones that might support you and start to build rapport with the bloggers. This is a key way to spread your name when you have material being released. Chris Bracco has the best guide to this currently available – which is free – get it here.

11. Don’t neglect the art! Keep writing. Write much more than you record and rehearse as much as you write. Recording is important and you need tracks to give away, but it is having great material that is going to make your fans talk about you to their friends and build that fanbase. Writing is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing.

12. Play live. Anywhere for anyone. Not to the extent that your fans can’t keep up. But spread wider, cross genres, make new fans. Obviously, collect every name and email address that you can at gigs. Go to other band’s gigs – hand out cards with your site address on them at those gigs. Hang out, meet other bands and meet their manager, agent, sound guy….whatever.

13. Be tired. No, really. If you’re working a full time job and you’re doing enough to succeed, you are going to be exhausted. The people who can keep going when they are exhausted will win.

There you have it – I think that’s a blueprint on how to build your fanbase. I’ve just read it over and, in essence, that is all there is to it.

Of course, I can and will expand on many of those points and go further another day – how do you move from this point to selling records, how to go up a level etc.

But, right now, that’s not important. It’s not important since you MUST build a fanbase to get started and to achieve anything – whether that is DIY and Direct-to-Fan success or the aim of getting signed. Either route will happen much more easily if you have built the fanbase yourself – that’s what other fans will see so they will want to be in the in-crowd – and it’s what agents. managers and record label A&R will see that will help take you to the next level.

One last thing. This is not ‘selling out’. This is ‘selling’. It does not cheapen the art. It gives you a chance.

It will only happen if you do it – start now.

Step one is critical! But as soon as you have something ready for the world to hear, build your website at the heart of your efforts.

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