Four 20-somethings stand stage right. They clump in a quiet huddle as the crowded bar gets louder and more distracted. The bartender tersely reminds them they don’t get paid until they start playing. U2 probably doesn’t have to deal with this. Their hands sweat as they mentally review the chords and lyrics they’ve practiced so many times before. Another bar. Another gig. Another chance for the world to learn their name.
This story is all too familiar for local bands throughout the country. Most bands do not have the financial capability to hire PR representation when they are starting out. So how does a local band make sure they are marketing themselves effectively?
Building a fan base and breaking into the industry
One main challenge facing local bands is breaking into the music industry. Most bands have a built-in fan base simply due to the friends and family that surround them.
But according to David Burkhalter, keyboardist for Seabass and the Fellas of Tuscaloosa, Ala., this fan base can quickly fade.
“Everyone loves to go see their friends’ new band when they’re just starting out,” Burkhalter said. “It’s when all your friends get tired and busy that PR starts becoming important.”
Burkhalter said that fliers, stickers, social media and merchandise are effective marketing tools to counteract this initial fading of excitement.
Location also plays a large part in breaking into the music industry. After playing the same venues and bars in their hometown, many bands choose to make a move to a bigger, more musically saturated city.
Tuscaloosa-based band Nightfires is planning to do just that. In May, the four members are moving into a cramped apartment and working mediocre day jobs in hopes of finding their big break in Nashville.
“We’re not looking to build a new fan base in Nashville,” Andrew Lambeth, guitarist, said. “We want to be recognized industry-wide.”
Nightfires hopes to establish connections and recognition that will earn them a record deal or even a spot as an opener on a tour, something they were not previously able to do living in a college town.
“College students are constantly looking for good, new music but they are unable to advance that music any further than just telling their friends,” Adam Naylor, lead vocalist and bassist for Nightfires said. “In Nashville, we’re going to be in a place where people have a good ear for music but can also distribute and promote our music on a larger, more professional scale.”
It’s pretty well known that if you want to pursue a career in the music industry, you’re going to have to struggle financially for a while before you make it. However, cash can come in handy when it comes to public relations. Local musicians must get creative when it comes to cheap, easy ways to promote themselves.
While they are not always getting paid a lot, or at all, for playing, the money they do make needs to be prioritized. Adam Morrow, founding member of indie rock band Callooh! Callay! said that it can be worth it to spend a little up front to earn more in the long run.
“Selling cheap T-shirts and giving stickers away has been big for us,” Morrow said. “We try to think of it as a very small profit now (like, hopefully enough to put gas in the van), for a slightly larger payoff later.”
Morrow said that paying for things like T-shirts and stickers can actually continue promoting the band, long after the show is over.
Effective branding and public relations are key in making it in the music industry. There is no competing with hiring representation from a professional PR firm or publicist, but because this is out of the budget for many new bands, they are left to develop their own communication plan. Since most grassroots musicians don’t also have a communications degree, here are some tips that have worked in the past to help bands become their own PR professionals.
As they say, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The first step in starting out for any band should be making connections where you live and work. Get to know the managers at local venues; find friends of friends who work in the music industry; talk to your fans face to face. Establishing personal connections can be a distinct advantage in getting your name out there.
Morrow said, “What has worked is playing a show in another town, meeting folks and staying in touch. I feel like unless you truly are extraordinarily lucky, there still has to be that layer of work and handshaking.”
Standing out as something new and different is perhaps the hardest part of breaking into the music industry. You want to pique the public’s interest without them forming opinions before they actually hear your music.
Originality does not just apply to the music. Nightfires kept originality in mind when choosing the name of their band.
“We wanted something visual, yet neutral,” Lambeth said. “We wanted our name to serve as a blank slate.”
Creativity is essential to promoting your band. Be on the lookout for new and surprising ways to market yourself and stand out from the crowd.
Having a decisive logo and staying consistent with your image are necessary in having people recognize your band and remember who you are. Callooh! Callay! has successfully branded itself using stickers, posters and T-shirts with one cohesive look.
“We always use the same font for our artwork (posters, album cover, Facebook picture, etc.). They all have a similar look. It’s even on our equipment cases,” Morrow said. “Creating a simple way to be recognized is huge, realizing that you are selling a brand as much as you are your artistic genius.”
Use (don’t abuse) social media
It is impossible to ignore the prevalence of social media in today’s society. It has proved to be an effective marketing and communication tool.
Nightfires has experienced success with social media through Facebook. Not only is it free, but it can be useful for unsigned artists because you can create a Facebook page without posting any music. It also allows bands to monitor feedback via comments and messages. Facebook even offers analytics for fan pages that shows demographics of who is viewing the page and talking about it. Facebook provides a built-in venue without anyone ever having to buy a ticket.
“People are already there,” Lambeth said.
Nightfires also uses Twitter, MySpace and their own website to promote themselves online.
However, there can be a downside to social media marketing that musicians should be aware of.
Morrow said that is important to establish yourself as a band, actually standing up and playing shows, before promoting yourself online. Make sure that you have something to say before contributing to the chatter of social media.
Play, play, play
It seems obvious to say, but the final, most important part of promoting your band is simply to play. Let people hear your music and tell their friends. Play anywhere that will let you, especially when first starting out. Morrow said that this process of actually playing shows and getting people to hear your music is not as easy as it sounds:
“The myth is that the Internet democratized this process–if you’re good, you float to the top and people find out about you. It’s not quite as cut and dry in reality. There are some great exceptions to this, where that process really worked, but for bands just starting, the hardest part is realizing that no one cares about your music. They really, honestly, genuinely don’t. You have to give them a reason to. And that only comes through either being an absolute genius to begin with (a rare luxury), or more practice than most people can imagine, more less-than-glamorous shows than most people can imagine. It’s hard work, really hard work.”
But as with anything, Morrow said if you truly love what you’re doing, it’s worth the difficulty.
“You are the manager, the booking agent, the PR guy, driver, mechanic, roadie, instrument tech, etc., in addition to finally getting up and playing your music. If you love it, you don’t think twice about any of those things.”