Did you see the story a few months back about the American funk band Vulfpeck?
They sold out Madison Square Gardens (13,000+ people) with no manager or record label.
And, on top of that, they did it with no advertising budget: they announced it to fans on social media and then watched the tickets disappear.
A lot of importance gets placed on the search for a booking agent, a manager, a record label these days…
Filling those roles can be an important step forward in your career, but there’s something within your control that could have a much bigger impact on your work than anything else:
Finding and connecting with the thousands of people around the world who would love your music and become a true fan.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. As Christian McBride mentioned in a recent Jazzfuel interview:
“One of these days the jazz world has to take a real honest look at itself and figure out why we’ve been saying the same thing about building an audience for 65 years…”
This is a ‘big picture’ topic that could lead each musician on a different journey, so in this article I just wanted to share some ideas and practical examples, to try to convey this:
Working on audience development – AKA building your fanbase – can revolutionise the freedom you have to play gigs, release music and follow pretty much any other creative idea you come up with.
What do we mean by a fan?
It doesn’t take an impossibly large number of people who are willing to consume most of what you produce (gigs, albums, videos, merch…) to allow you to live comfortably and be free to create what you want.
In fact, if you do the maths, that number might be surprisingly low… the sort of number you could actually count to.
But first, it’s good to be clear about a fan.
- We’re not talking about Facebook likes or Instagram followers…
- We’re not even talking about mailing list subscribers (although that’s getting warmer…)
- We’re talking about the people who actively follow, support, spread the word & care about everything you’re doing… SUPER fans.
You’ll probably notice that it works a little like this:
It’s unrealistic to expect everyone who hits ‘like’ or joins your mailing list to be a super fan, but it’s good to be clear about the ones that are and how you can grow that number…
Who are my fans?
If you’re going to put some concerted effort into growing your fanbase, it probably helps to know who already likes your music.
That way, you can try to figure out some common traits and use that to grow.
It’s much easier to create content, write emails, run ads, plan press campaigns or even make creative decisions if you know your ‘ideal’ fan.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be trying to get anyone else to check out your music, but it’s a good place to start.
- What other bands or types of music do your fans like?
- Where do your fans live, outside of your home country?
- What sort of venues do they got to?
- Are they [amateur] musicians?
- What sort of age are they?
- Where do they go online to discover music and interact with musicians?
- What sort of magazines, blogs or websites do they read?
In the world of business, people often advise taking the time to create an avatar of your ideal customer: an image, in your head, of what your ‘ideal’ fan looks like, does, acts, follows etc.
I think it’s a super valuable exercise for you, as a musician, to do too. Can you picture your ‘ideal’ fan in your head right now??
It makes a lot of sense: think how the way you put yourself out there would be improved, subtly, if you’re actually doing it with a real ‘person’ in mind…
Where can I find my audience?
Of course, streaming has reduced the monetary value of music, cheap international travel means more competition and the availability of low-cost recording studios means anyone can release a record.
But one massive advantage you, as musicians, have over your predecessors, is the ability to connect with almost anyone in the world.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that it’s just as easy to connect with someone on another continent than another part of your home country, using the internet.
So, with that in mind, making use of digital tools at your disposal makes a lot of sense.
Pick your platform
Developing a committed audience is not quick or easy. And, as with most valuable things in life, it doesn’t happen overnight.
So rather than trying to be everywhere in terms of social media and ‘online’, think about which platform will best connect you with your future fans and then double down on that.
Of course, you probably need to have at least a basic presence on Youtube and Facebook – as well as maybe Instagram too, but which one are you really going to put the effort in on?
Doing one of those ‘well’ would be much better than spreading yourself too thinly and getting sick of it all.
And, for those of you who really hate social media, you don’t have to be ‘there’ all the time.
Creating videos, writing articles, curating content… those types of activities are great at connecting with people and don’t involve you to be stuck on a social media platform for a hours a day ‘interacting’ with the world.
Let’s go back to the Vulfpeck example for a minute: they post killer videos on Instagram where they follow exactly ZERO people.
How’s that for being stuck ‘liking’ and ‘commenting’ all day? They’ve built a following of more than 300,000 fans on that platform just through posting great content.
The old fashioned way… gigging
Whilst it’s the digital platforms that really provide the possibility to scale your fanbase, of course delivering the results at a gig are key.
Not only does this reinforce relationships with your existing supporters, it can also win you new ones.
I guess it goes without saying, but I will anyway:
All of this ‘stuff’ away from your instrument is important in building a career, but it’s nothing without the music to back it up!
“People should discover my music organically and become a fan”
I know: talking of audience development – or ‘building a fanbase’ – can sound a bit dry and uninspiring, compared to the important business of creating music.
And no one is saying you have to do this.
But sometimes, you might decide the end goal is worth the efford…
The successful musician’s compromise
Of course, letting things build naturally is an option.
But if you believe that your project deserves to be ‘out there’ and that you should have the freedom to create more & more of the music you want, then putting in some effort on reaching these people is a smart move.
Overrated or underrated?
I’m sure you can think of a ton of jazz musicians in your community who you’d describe as underrated.
Probably others that are getting a ton of gigs and press attention that you’d [secretly] call overrated.
If those overrated musicians have developed their music to the best level they can and are making up for any of the shortfall by smart work and determination… well that deserves some credit, doesn’t it?
In a lot of ways, I’d rather be in that group – knowing I’d done my absolute best in every way – than be the one who ‘should have been more successful…’
Anyway, I’m not suggesting you’re in either of those groups – or that you should aim to be.
My suggestion is that you develop your music as well as you can, but that you balance this with a consistency in the non-playing side of things.
Why are you reading about audience development?
If your only goal in life was to be the best musician you can be, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this. You should be practicing, playing and keeping your mind free from any other ‘business’ distractions.
But my guess is that most professional musicians have a more nuanced goal: to reach as many people as possible with the best version of their music.
That’s why musicians want bigger and better gigs, an agent, a manager, a label…
And, as with any multi-layered goal like this, it involves some careful balancing.
Vulfpeck: More money for the musicians
Back to Vulfeck, who do 1,000’s of tickets to gigs by posting on social media and sold out New York’s Madison Square Gardens with no manager or record label.
“At the end of the day, I want to get the musicians paid as much as possible. If that’s your North Star, a lot of stuff is out of the question — certainly a label, and most likely a manager. That’s been the guiding thing.”
Check this out, for example. Posted 15 hours before I took the screenshot, the band announced a new release:
9,500+ people already hit ‘like’ and there’s a stream of comments about how they would order anything from the band without even listening first.
I’m not sure I can find a better example of super fans?!
In my opinion, great music deserves to be rewarded in every way, including financially.
If you agree, then it’s almost your duty to make sure this fan building or audience development is taken care of.
How can you develop an audience?
Booking agent Jackie Nalpant commented to Billboard: “As more and more musicians can just make records in their bedrooms and have more access to their data, there’s just more control for musicians and artists than ever before.”
What’s your story?
As a musician, you’re skilled at deep listening and appreciating the nuances of bands and jazz records.
But if you want to build a big audience, you’ll probably need to set your sights a bit wider than just ‘other talented professional jazz musicians who’ll understand exactly what you’re doing.’
We all know how well that converts into selling music and tickets.
You need to help people discover & engage with your music by giving them something to latch on to. A hook, a story, a vibe….
That doesn’t mean dumbing down your music or making up throwaway lines about it.
It means taking a deep dive into the hows & whys of your music making motivations – and the who’s & where’s of your target audience – a figuring out a way to connect them somehow…
How can you show them what you’re about and what you believe in, as well as what you play?
Moving your audience down the funnel
However you dress it up, you – as an independent musician – are running a business.
It might be small one, with a focus on the creative stuff, but if you want that to be free to make the music you want – and get paid for it – there needs to be some sort of plan behind it.
We already looked at that upside-down pyramid to show how your audience usually looks in terms of ‘likers,’ ‘supporters’ and ‘real fans.’
But it’s not just there to show you how things are, it can show you the most common direction of movement – the journey, if you will, your fans have made…
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but the idea is to show some of the different ways a potential fan might discover you for the first time.
As you probably know from your own experience, the most common ‘action’ at this point is to hit like on Facebook, Instagram or Spotify to make sure you’re kept up to date with what’s coming up.
Of course, in some cases, you might immediately head over to their website and give them permission to email you whenever they want.
And in other (rarer) cases, you might be so into the project that you immediately buy their album, send a link to your friends and look for their next gig.
But let’s focus on the most common route for this one..
So you hit ‘like’ somewhere, giving the musicians the chance to put more ‘content’ in front of you. That might be them sharing a blog post, uploading a video, running an advert, posting a playlist or something else.
After a few of these, you might still feel enthusiastic and the project and keen to discover more.
If the band is on the case with these sorts of things, they’ll probably try to get you to sign up to their newsletter, so they are really connected.
Maybe the next step, you go to a gig and it’s GREAT. You tell your friends, share a video and pre-order the next album.
There are many ways this journey could play out, but I think you get the idea:
Part 1: Make great music
Part 2: Figure out ways to get it in front of the right people
Part 3: Connect with them via whatever channels you can
Part 4: Engage with them in an interesting way that’s true to your personality and music
Part 5: Keep producing music and gigs for them to consume
How big is your audience?
So I hope you found some useful ideas in this article.
Thinking about these ‘big picture’ topics is important, especially at times like this when the ‘normal’ is being challenged and we’re having to look for new ways to work.
A great exercise you can do right now is to think about who your super fans are – and how many of them you have.
It doesn’t matter if that number is small. Maybe you can fit them on one piece of paper?
The point is, you’re aware of them (send them a personal message or a social media shoutout sometime!) and you can start to figure out how to reach more people just like them…
If you’ve read this far (👏) take a minute to post in the comments section:
- A link to your project (website, bandcamp, Spotify, as you want)
- A note about which channel you use to best connect with fans and possible fans
- What % of ‘followers’ there (Facebook, Instagram, Youtube etc) you would consider SUPER FANS?