Being a Successful Band Has Nothing to Do With Talent
By: Jessica Hopper
[Editor's Note:Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.]
We're having a really hard time finding an audience. We have a solid album, and no one has heard it. We play an absolutely killer live show and we can't get enough people to come and see us play. The people that do make it to our shows always have a great time and we get a lot of good feedback. We've started to solve the problem by doing showcases, where eight bands play, and this tends to draw a larger crowd, but we are READY to move on and do great things. I admit I am clueless at marketing, at generating interest, even the basic aspects of talking to people about my music. I know there's no magic formula, but I'd really appreciate any tips or advice you could give about what I could work on. We are genuinely talented and we keep making progress, I just feel we are capable of so much more.
Your letter gets at the crux of why it sucks to be in a band; it's a little heartbreaking. Reading over your letter and listening to the link to your band's album on Bandcamp, I see that your problem is actually something other than what you think it is.
Getting people to your shows, having a record people like doesn't really have anything to do with talent. This is the great myth of the music industry. Sure, beautiful songs and punchy hooks help, but you need to purge your mind of the idea that if you just make great songs and play them well that everything else will fall into place, because you deserve it. Mourn the death of that dream of music as a meritocracy and that the world is going to discover your genius and come scampering to your doorstep to pad your path with dollars. Thinking that way will make the reality of being in a band really discouraging and painful.
You live in a city that is a great place to be a musician... if you are a country session player. You are a macho bar rock kind of band and admittedly horrible at networking or self-promoting. Does another member of your band have any palpable social skill or gladhanding ability that you can call upon? Could you recruit a second guitar player from another band who has connections to bookers and other bands? You guys need to work on ingratiating yourself into your city's rock scene and getting on the radar of the people that make things happen within it -- bookers, club staff, other bands. Think about the marginally talented local band that gets all the plum opening slots on the big national-band shows and get annoyed. Let that competitive fire fuel your pro-active networking. Covet thy neighbor's opening slot. You know what I mean.
Be a super nice dude, accommodating, show gratitude to the people that help you, don't act like you deserve things and people will want to work with you again just on the basis of that. Most dudes in bands act like the world owes them and they never say thanks and they want everyone else to make it happen for them. No one wants to work with a big baby. Nepotism is a real thing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not well-connected.
Anyhow. You need to redouble your efforts. Network with other bands that are in and out of your scene, pass your album to national and regional touring bands at the merch table after they play, bug the promoter at the club you want to play -- just like every other band does. Also, make sure you're connecting with your fans -- have an email list people can sign up for at shows, get a Facebook page and a Twitter account, so they know when you are playing. Invest in a good tape/staple gun and flier the living shit out of your shows. Promoters love a band that makes their job that much easier. Play some college house parties or campus bars -- your band has that kind of sound that people love when they are wasted. Court a demographic! There is no shame in that.
Showcases are fine, but half the time you are playing for all the members of the other bands and those folks are in the same boat as you. How about putting together a decent bill yourself someplace weird and making it "fun"? Take matters into your own hands and do some rad bill at the janky Chinese buffet restaurant in the basement of the student union and have a piñata? Do a renegade 20-minute set in a gazebo in the park. Make your band an exciting secret to get into and foster some word of mouth. Shape your own destiny. And if it doesn't work, at least you have more fun than playing a showcase that lasts ten hours in some dank dark bar.
Also, a final thought: make sure the aesthetic of your posters/stickers/promo photo/album art match up with your sound. Judging entirely by your album art work I thought you were going to sound like the Postal Service, not a band that has a song about a woman turning you on by shaking her ass in tight leather pants.
Best of luck,
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.