A producer friend of mine says that in the music industry, overnight success takes 7 years. I figure I’m okay since I’ve been at it for 4. But I do have my moments of “seriously? I went to Cornell and now I am doing WHAT???!! making HOW MUCH a year?!!? “ I get freaked out by the size of the industry and the number of people trying to do exactly what I am doing. But I take it one step at a time, one tour at a time, one song at a time, one Excel sheet entry at a time. If I focus it all on the present, with gentle thoughts and planning for the future, I figure I’m on the right track if I’m still overjoyed that I get to perform for a living. The present is looking bright.
Perhaps this section should go first, but I rambled on about CDs and websites and made the assumption that anyone who considers him or herself in this music business is already ahead of this part, so I’ll be brief. The gist: make a great friggin’ record and make it (and anywhere you promote it) look cool. This may cost a little money up front, but it is well worth it- hire a graphic designer, a professional recording studio, and a good CD duplication place. I also hired a web designer who took the CD design and incorporated it into my website design, which I use as flyers for shows, posters, and other websites (like myspace). I am essentially branding myself, and consistency is key. My email signature and all paper I write on has my album logo on it. If you have a great product that is well presented, you are half way there. Distribution and exposure come after you have something to distribute and expose.
As I started to mention before, connections are critical to a career in music. And the best connections for me have turned out to be my ex-boss (who introduced me to my new boss at the jingle house), my mother’s chiropractor’s son (who hired me to write music for his websites), the intern (who introduced me to his drummer friend who now tours and records with me), my landlord (who introduced me to a friend who hosts private house concerts) . . . and my list goes on. I’ve learned to share unabashedly. The more people who know what I’m up to, the more people can help me get connected to my next “big gig”. And most times, people are overjoyed to be hearing about a young musician following her passion. It’s not like we’re talking about how great our 5’x5’ cubicle is…. we are out there doing it. And that is inspiring to people. So share away.
Following up on leads is a huge part of making and solidifying a potential connection. A phone call, lunch date, or email (that should include web links and professional looking signature) reminding the person I met through so-and-so is often enough to engage them in future conversations. I remind everyone who I am and what I am up to and what I am going for. It’s good to have an idea in your head of a brief way to convey your musical goal. (My recent one is: “I am working towards getting sponsorship for my fall UK tour while spending the summer performing around the Northeast and at private house parties. Do you know of anyone hosting a summer event that may be interested?”) And there… I got my two goals – getting sponsorship for my fall tour, and booking summer gigs- out in 2 polite sentences.
I used to think that NYC musicians are doomed to playing in clubs that pay $1 per person after the first $50 is collected if you brought more than 40 people. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN????? Luckily, I have learned that there are gigs out there that pay you decently in exchange for your performance. Simple as that. Some of these gigs are in unexpected places: house parties in peoples’ private homes, ski resorts’ après ski, summer camps, high schools, colleges, restaurants, museums, to name a few. It takes a lot of legwork and a good phone plan but the money is out there, right next to the eager listeners.
Selling CDs is one of the best ways to make money. I have gotten over being embarrassed about announcing that I have CDs for sale . . . shameless plugs are not shameless if you are making money… how are people supposed to know about your great product if you don’t tell them? CDs at live events tend to be more lucrative than CD sales online. But keep directing people to your website… tell them about it in person and direct all of your other websites (myspace, facebook, whatever) to your CD sale site. Also I’ve tried a few gimmicks. Buy 2 get a free poster and sticker, or sign up for the mailing list and get a CD half off, etc etc. I try to be original because everyone else is doing it one conventional way. It seems to be all about catching someone’s eye. Once you’ve won their eye, you have a few seconds to win over their ears, and once you’ve done that, the heart is close behind. Once you’ve won their heart, you’re in, as the heart is directly connected to the wallet.
There’s no shame in supplementing your gig money and CD sales with an additional job. Many musicians feel that they would be shifting focus away from their passion if they found a day job, especially one that wasn’t even related to music. I have found that there are several ways to fluff up the old bank account without compromising my musical integrity. First off, I teach private piano lessons. In just 4 hours a week, I can make half of my rent, and by teaching piano, I have become so much more proficient at my main instrument that I feel like I should be paying them. (Don’t tell them that!) Taking cues from my successful piano lessons, I figured out what else I love, and decided to teach that. In the summer, it’s abs classes, or guiding kayaking tours. Of course, location is important, but finding flexible people to work with you around your busy life is extremely advantageous. Even though I’ve toured for weeks at a time, my piano students enjoy a break and feel they can cancel if they are feeling stressed or scheduling doesn’t work out. I am equally flexible with them, which I believe is the key to keeping my students for the long haul.
There are a slew of in-industry jobs as well, which are great if you’re taking some time to write, or do local shows, or stay in one area for a bit of time. Interning, answering phones, or starting out as an assistant at ad agencies, record labels, jingle houses and recording studios is a great way to learn some industry jargon, get a chance to play with cool technology, and meet critical connections. Advertising agencies are a hub for creative talent- graphic designers, web designers, copy editors, music supervisors. The works. After 3 years of working at a jingle house, I had written music for nationally airing commercials, just by starting as an assistant tech. The connections and recording facility that I had access to were invaluable.
Keeping my life organized in the areas where I do have control is, I have found, the KEY to being self-employed. I have become very friendly with Excel spreadsheets. For $10 I found an incredibly thorough budget template online. I track CD sales in a separate worksheet. I have radio and other media contacts and phone numbers in a different file. And the important thing about all of these: I keep them up-to-date. They are not snapshots; they are fluid and act like ocean waves- I need to see where the last one was in order to predict where the next one is coming from. My budget is not really a budget (since my needs and costs and income vary greatly from month to month it is hard to predict exactly what I will spend and develop a budget around that)…. instead, I use it to track my spending and my income. At the end of the year, I print out the summary sheet (which tells how much I made in CDs, tips, day jobs, speaking gigs, tax refunds… ANY source of income… along with all of my spending like gas, travel, supplies, food, extra dining out, etc…. I have over 20 categories!) and I hand it to my tax guy. He loves me. This spreadsheet is so useful, but my trick is to update it EVERY day. Any exchange of my money to ANYone, whether a few grand to my CD duplication company or $3.50 to Starbucks, it goes into my “budget”.
I keep track of the people that work for me. I have all of my band members sign receipts (even if I pay them with a check) and fill out 1099s at the end of the year. I keep all receipts that have to do with my business (CD duplication, equipment insurance, travel tickets, gas receipts) not only so I can have them when I write all that stuff off, but also to keep track of where the money I make is going. I have all band-related items in one folder. (It’s actually one of those sub-divided folders with 10 sections… my sections include: Credit card bills and statements, Insurance papers, receipts (band related), receipts (personal), tax stuff, phone and cable bills, contracts (from licensing companies, radio promotion companies, with band members), miscellaneous (jury duty papers, traffic tickets- not that I get ANY of those, etc etc), bank statements. This folder is my life, and I have one for every year.
My car has the potential for looking like a music junkie’s dirty old basement. Instead, I have my gear organized and hidden under the station wagon’s security cover. I constantly clean out garbage and keep it clean- not only for peace of mind, but to keep my gear clean too. When on the road with my band, we establish and keep our own personal space. This ensures that we survive as a band and a group of friends, and although not directly important to the “business” side of things, it keeps the business running smoothly. My charts are neat and organized in folders. My iCal calendar keeps track of my gigs and are consistent with my website and myspace show listings. And my apartment is neat. Anywhere it’s possible to stay organized and neat decreases the chances of frustration, losing something, and insanity!
I am a control freak. Type A personality. Pisces. Left-handed. Female. You get the point. There’s very little room to wiggle in my daily-budget-excel-spreadsheet, color-coordinated calendar and perfectly stacked bookshelves containing mostly last years’ musician’s atlases, DIY novels (is there even such thing?) and booking resources. So when it comes to my internet, the one that I use to spread the word and music that is CBE, I need control, I need it to be tight, and I need access to obsess over it. These mean different things to different people, and in this article, I’ll let you know what it means to me, and maybe there’s a little light to be shed in the realm of DIY Internet marketing.
On that bookshelf I mentioned before, there are scores of “how-to” books- like how to get the gig, how to publish your music, how to start a record label. In most of them, I saw a few consistent words of advice: get a good website and brand the hell outta yourself. Okay, got it. Now what??
After coming out with my first album 4 years ago, getting a friend to build me a website that I could edit, and setting up a Myspace account, I thought I was set. But when I was getting ready to release my second album last fall, the one I spend 10 times as long making, put more money into designing and was overall incredibly proud of, I wanted to raise the bar on every other front as well.
I had heard the word branding and decided it was time to brand myself. Not like a cow… like a company, thankyouverymuch. I started looking up other bands online just to see what their websites looked like. I kept a bookmark folder of these sites, with the hopes I could find a great web designer who could check them out and understand what I wanted. And that’s just what happened. After finding a few sites I really enjoyed, I contacted the bands to find out who designed them. I called 3 designers and based on availability, price, and design talent, chose Josh Webb (www.joshwebb99.com). And with a name like that, I knew I was in luck.
Josh and I spend a few months going over my basic requirements. I wanted the design to match the graphics of my new album, with the same color patterns, fonts and image treatment. For content, I made Josh a “map” which included the pages of the site I thought were necessary and what features I wanted on each. For example, part of my “map” looked like this:
1. Home- email signup; “next show” marquee and/or newest news; “buy cd” link; myspace link
2. Music- Music samples from both albums; store (from CD baby, or iTunes); pictures of album covers (2)
3. Tour- Show schedule from Sonicbids.com
4. Photos- I’d like a quick-loading photo album, with the following albums: Live- archive, Live- recent, On the road, Misc
I also let Josh know that editing the pages after the site was designed and launched was really important to me (and my controlling personalities). I didn’t want to have to depend on his schedule, or pay extra, to add some text to my “news” page, or to update my biography, and with very basic HTML skills, I didn’t want to spend days learning advanced Flash or CSS.
After a few months of back-and-forth, we got to what is now cbemusic.com. And I couldn’t be happier. Josh made an overall frame (the photos on the top and menu on the side) in Flash. The individual pages within each frame in HTML, which means I can drag them from my ftp onto my computer and edit them. I use the program Fetch to access my files and edit them in Dreamweaver, then drag the new files back to the ftp.
So now that my website was up to my par, I hired a friend who creates suped-up myspace pages. He designed my myspace page to match cbemusic.com (which matches the CD design… Cheryl “B-for-Branding” Engelhardt, at your service). I went through all of the other websites where I upload and/or promote my music: Garageband, iLike, AirSpun, PureVolume, FameCast, etc, and uploaded the same audio tracks and pictures that are featured on cbemusic.com. I went to my email-marketing program (more on this later), and had Josh do a quick design of my e-mail template to look like…. you got it…. my home page. So now when I send out an e-mail to my fans, they get a little piece of the website, which hopefully makes them want to explore the site more. My goal is to drive traffic to my website for the results of 1. obtaining a hard-core fan 2. CD sales 3. both.
After feeling totally confident that I had mastered branding, and was completely satisfied with my websites and my online image, I started to use these tools I had so carefully created.
As we all know, there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to anything technical or digital. With every web page and every email, there is a boatload of data behind it. I use key data-tracking features in my web hosting and email programs to target my market better, and to see what works and what doesn’t work in how I communicate with my listeners. Only recently, since I put out my new website in January, have I learned to really use the back end of the e-mails and web site statistics.
I have been using Constant Contact as my e-mail marketing software for a few years now, and have used their services of importing new subscriber data like e-mail, location and name, to send out e-mails about my shows, new albums, etc, to a targeted audience. For example, I send emails about New York shows only to people who live in the NY area so I don’t spam my Switzerland fans. Setting up a good target-marketing plan before sending that email is extremely important. What I am finding is there is much to be learned after that email is sent.
Constant Contact allows me to look at a ton of great statistics, like how many people and who opened my email (this helps me hone my subject-line writing skills) and which links were clicked on the most (I use this to determine how interested my fans are in reading about charity causes I’m involved with, other artists I link to, and to see how many people clicked on directions to a show, and how many people are drawn to my website, iTunes, Cdbaby and myspace links). I use all of this information, especially when creating my next email. I may have learned that 40 people clicked on my website, 5 people were interested in my environmental charity initiative and 3 people clicked on directions to my show in Bumblefoo, Maine. Okay, so maybe mentioning my charity initiatives is taking a little attention away from other, more important links, like CD sales, and that there is probably going to be a low attendance in my Maine show, so I should do some additional promotion for it, or send a more personalized email to my fans in the Maine area.
I can do the same thing with my website. Once I login to my Startlogic (my web hosting company) account, I can see my website statistics for as long as the site has been alive. I can compare the number of hits the site gets over years, months, days and even hours (huh… people check out my website during lunch more than in the evening). I can see what pages get more hits and which pages I need to drive more traffic to. I can also see how people search for and end up at my website, and what other pages are linking to me, resulting in hits for cbemusic.com. I try not to get too obsessive with these statistics because, like friend or hit counts on myspace, none of it really matters. It is helpful to translate more hits to more CD sales, so if there is any information that inspires new ways to drive traffic to the site, that’s the ticket. But spending hours analyzing the site is a waste if you could be, for example, spending the time contacting websites that link to you and seeing if they would feature your music on their site. I have to force the die-hard businessperson in me to take over the “oooh-look-at-the-pretty-graphs-with-all-the-numbers” girl. It’s useful stuff, as long as you use it.
The long of the short of it is that I try to keep my space in the world wide web as neat as my space in the world, while reacting and being pro-active in this obsessive-compulsive business I call music.
As a touring musician, there’s only one thing better than connecting with an audience of thousands of people…. doing it again. And what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not the number of people that matters, but that connection. Of course, the more people listening and connecting and buying merch means I can keep touring and making this music as my living. But it truly does come down to the one-on-one intimacy that only happens when the audience (one person or ten thousand) has their ears and hearts open, and I wear mine on my sleeve (heart, that is… not ears. That could get messy).
With all that said, I have come to find a nice little niche of music venues where the audience is primed for connectivity . . . living rooms and backyards.
People are making it easier for themselves and their friends, family and colleagues to enjoy good music without having to deal with parking traffic, Ticketmaster fees and binoculars. They are bringing the concerts home.
The way it works is someone (the future host) hears of a musician (for this example, let’s say me) through friends, radio, TV, or the internet. They get in contact with me usually through my website. They either say that they have a private event already scheduled and would like me to perform, or they would like to build an event around a performance. We set the date one or two months out. In between, the host and I get busy (separately). I send the host a few copies of my album so they can share the music for potential guests. The host sends out invitations, sometimes as formal as mailed cards, other times as simple as an email. The host also arranges catering or plans some sort of refreshments.
Meanwhile, I am booking my band (if a band was requested…. oftentimes I play solo to increase the already-busting-at-the-seams intimacy) and working out travel logistics. Hopefully, at the time of the booking, the host and I have worked out a payment plan and I can incorporate my traveling within the budget of the night. Mostly, hosts pay me a flat fee, allowing their guests to enjoy the music and have a choice to purchase CDs and merch. Occasionally, a host will collect money from guests prior to the show or afterwards, or pass a tip jar around. And rarely, a host will purchase a set number of CDs for their guests, guaranteeing me payment for the evening. To be intimate is to be full of possibility, so I stay flexible.
On the day of the party, I show up on time, earlier than the guests so I can set up. I love love LOVE it when the host has a piano in their home; I don’t need to lug mine, AND I get to try out a new piano (hopefully it’s in tune- something I remind the hose a few weeks prior to the party). I then spend some time mingling with the guests, who commonly don’t realize I’m the “entertainment”. For some reason, I think they get more exited when I first sit down at the piano, like “hey! I was just talking to the star of the concert about macaroni and cheese! She’s a real person!” It makes me, as an artist, more accessible.
Anyway, back to the living room. After the host gives me a brief introduction, I play a set of about 40 minutes, mostly playing my original tunes. I always throw in a few familiar cover songs; my Sheryl Crow (makes for great banter- “the other, slightly more famous Cheryl wrote this”), a Beatles song, my jazzed version of a Christina Aguilera tune. Keeping it interesting. I occasionally share what drove me to write a particular song, especially if it’s more unique, like, “I had a girlfriend who asked me why I always write songs about guys and when the heck was she gonna get a song. I could have pulled a Sara Bareilles and said ‘I’m not gonna write you a girl song’, but I did write a song for my girls, and this is it.”
After one set, I take a quick break, allowing the audience a quick meet and greet, more mingling, to grab a desert or drink, and give them the opportunity to “take me home with them”. . . in the form of a CD. I usually play one more, shorter set, keeping things personal and professional and musical, leaving my audience feeling that they shared in something special and creative, that their presence and listening inspired my performance. If that doesn’t result in CD sales and future bookings, I’m playing the wrong game.