If you’re an Americana artist with an independent spirit, then you’re bound to learn something from a new book, From Art to Commerce: A Workbook for Independent Musicians.
Written by music business consultant Tamara Saviano and singer-songwriter Rod Picott, the text navigates essential areas of the industry, like distribution, radio and touring.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2 about actively finding an audience.
Start Local and Build Your Community
I know you are impatient and your music is great and you want to skip all the local stuff and move on to the big time right away. Well, good luck with that. Is there a chance you’ll get lucky and an A&R guy from a big time record label will see you, pay you a huge advance and make you a star? Yeah. Sometimes people win the lottery, but the odds are pretty stacked against it.
But, if you want to be a working artist and create your own success, you can do that. Thousands and thousands of artists are doing it. If you are serious about building a career and making a living in music and you are starting from square one, then take the time, be methodical and strategic, and you will increase your chances for success big time.
Most importantly, you must get out and play your music in front of a live audience. If you want to make money with your music, this is a huge piece of the puzzle. It is extremely rare today for an artist to have success without playing live shows.
To put yourself out there, determine what it is you want to do. If you are in a cover band, you’re probably not interested in this workbook, so we’re going to assume that you are writing and performing original material. What better way to test that material than with your peers? Find out where live music is played in your area. If there isn’t a songwriter night that you can join at a club or coffeehouse in your town, then start one. You are probably not the only artist in your area. Find your people.
Once you start building your community with your peers and close friends and are comfortable performing in public, you’ll want to expand your community. Invite your co-workers. Ask them to invite their family and friends. Tell your family and friends to invite their co-workers and extended family and friends. Make it easy and FUN for everyone to come out. Pick a night of the week that seems to work for people. Thursday might be good … late in the week but before the weekend craziness. Or if there is a big bowling league in your town on Thursday, maybe you need to look at Wednesday. Maybe it’s once a month or every other week.
After you get some traction and it seems like the house is full every time you host a songwriter night, then it’s time to invite some media. Is there a local NPR or non-com/college radio station in your area that plays the kind of music you perform? Do some research and see if there is a disc jockey that hosts a folk hour (if you’re a folk singer) and invite him/her out. Don’t forget about the local newspaper music writer who may be interested that you’ve gotten this great group of local musicians together for a monthly song swap. This writer may work for the alternative weekly, if your town is big enough to have such a thing, or the community paper or maybe the big daily. There may also be a citywide blog that gets a lot of hits. Milwaukee has onmilwaukee.com, which is a great place for entertainment news and it’s widely read. If I were hosting a singer-songwriter night in Milwaukee, I’d try to get those guys out to see it.
Though you are your own boss in this world and you are CEO of your music machine, you will want to align yourself with like-minded and talented people as you move forward. Bruce Springsteen met Jon Landau, his manager of 40 years, as a journalist who reviewed a show for him in a local Massachusetts newspaper. Look around your local community. Who owns the local record store? Who works there? Who writes the local event blog of the newspaper? Is there a regional arts paper that lists gigs and reviews shows and releases? Where are the local musicians playing? Are they all playing two towns over near the college? Go to shows, the record store, the music store, the open mic, other musicians’ shows and befriend people whose music and tastes you identify with. You are trying to build a tribe.
One of the most valuable things I did when I first moved to Nashville was to host a writer’s night. As much as I’d be happy to proclaim the never-ending limits of my obvious genius, the truth is that it happened by accident. There was a pizza joint near Vanderbilt University that presented occasional shows. I went to some. I was meeting people and trying to find my tribe and other good writers and generally trying to navigate new waters. In casual conversation with the owner one night, he mentioned that the host of his open mic was leaving and so he was losing it. He asked me if I would want to fill in for a few nights. “Sure,” I thought. It seems easy enough. I’m not a natural host, but it doesn’t seem complicated. You sign people up, introduce each act as they start and ask everyone to put down their slice and clap when the songwriter is finished.
After hosting the first night and listening to 10 dreadful acts, a great idea dawned on me: What if I hand-picked the acts? What if I only had songwriters I wanted to hear and could invite specific people to show up to play a 20-minute set. It seemed obvious after I thought it through. I had posters printed. I gave the evening a name — Rod Picott’s Fireside Whiskey Hour — so that my name was included. I opened each show with one or two songs, then I gave myself a nice spot toward the middle of the night to play a couple more. I wasn’t paid. I brought my own monitors. It was a lot of work. But as the weeks went on, we started to get a crowd. I was inviting people to play, so there was a sense of importance about the night. Each week, I had that week’s acts printed onto the poster. It made people feel like they were invited to play something worthwhile. People started bringing their friends to listen.
After a couple of months, the place was packed. I had better and better songwriters wanting to play. I tried (and sometimes failed) to give everyone a nice introduction. I tried to pay attention and get people’s names correct. It took off. Some songwriters eventually used the nice little 20-minute spot to audition for labels, managers, agents. Lucinda Williams came down and hung out one night to watch a friend play. Songwriter Alex Harvey came and hung out. Local news anchors came to hang out to watch friends play. I met my future manager there when he came down to watch another act. One year later, he had me opening shows for Alison Krauss. He no longer manages me, but he’s still a close friend and two years ago explained to me how TuneCore works and helped me set up my distribution there. He’s part of my tribe. It was a great time and a lot of fun, but the best thing was that I was meeting all these people. I was building a community of friends and fans and musical compatriots that I’m connected to this day. The chain reaction worked like this:
1. I agreed to host an open mic.
2. I turned it into Rod Picott’s Fireside Whiskey Hour.
3. I met Gurf Morlix there when he played a short set for us.
4. Gurf and I wrote a few songs together.
5. Ray Wylie Hubbard recorded one of those songs when Gurf produced Ray’s record.
6. Rounder Records pays me for each copy of that CD that sells.
7. I get paid for the airplay the song gets on radio, satellite radio, cable music channels, Pandora, etc.
I also met loads of people I didn’t connect with as well. I met songwriters I didn’t like and who didn’t like me. I had a bass player ask me to “fetch him a beer.” When I didn’t get it for him, he motioned to me in the tipping a bottle up motion that means: “fetch … me … a …beer.” I wanted to fetch him my right fist but got him the beer since my name was on the poster. The point is that I was searching for people I connected with and paying attention when I recognized them. It’s not a matter of just meeting people. You can’t force friendships and you can’t force collaboration and you can’t make people like you or your songs but you have to make yourself available if you want to find those things. You aren’t trying to force anything. You are just looking for your tribe. You are looking for people whose work you like and whose sense of the world you like and you are building a community of like-minded people that will support each other and sustain each other and encourage each other. I am not a social person. I prefer to stand against the wall in case the wallpaper starts to peel. But I learned a valuable lesson those two years I hosted the Whiskey Hour. You need to find your tribe. When you do have a community of people around you that you like and respect, a wonderful symmetry starts to spin in ways you don’t expect and can’t predict.
The people I met in the formative stages of my career are the very same people I turn to for help now that things are humming along nicely for me. They are also the people I’m quickest to jump in and help with their own projects and problems and question. Write with people who are better than you are. Play with people who are better than you are. Align yourself with writers and performers who share your vision of things, your view of the world, your taste in music, your taste in guitars and sounds and coffee and beer and be there to help them when you can. Build your tribe from the inside out. Relationships forged from the inside out are stronger than relationships that happen because you stumble onto a scene and attach yourself to it. Go build your tribe.
Excerpt from From Art to Commerce: A Workbook for Independent Musicians by Tamara Saviano and Rod Picott. Reprinted with permission.