It’s All in Advertising – Why No One Knows About Your Last Album/Event

One of the coolest posters anyone ever made for us. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the posters up until THE DAY OF THE SHOW. The promoter knew about the show and poured hours in to screen printing these posters. We knew about the show and spent hours practicing for and driving to it… No one else knew about the show. We played the to bartender.

How many times have you spent hours, days even months finishing a project only to realize at the actual event or release that no one else had/has a clue?

In March, I bought a 3-year old album by one of my favorite well-known Austin bands thinking it was the album they’re just about to release!  When I mentioned this, one of the band members said to another, “I told you that no one knew about this when it came out!”

This is a clear case of thinking, “I know all about this thing, therefore everyone else must/should, too.”

It sounds silly that anyone would truly make that assumption – and yet humans operate unconsciously under it ALL THE TIME.

As creators, we’re conditioned not to be annoying and not to shamelessly self-promote by other artists (“Don’t be a sell-out”), the industry (“Don’t call us, we’ll call you”) and even fans (“Too many notifications – unsubscribe”).

But…. if you want people to know about what you’re doing, you’ve GOT to tell them somehow – and not just once.  Your work is on your mind all the time but it’s not on anyone else’s mind much at all unless you tell them… and remind them… multiple times.

(This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt – “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”)

Just like you, everyone’s got their own life.   Getting others to know/care about your project is tough.  It’s the reason that huge marketing companies and college courses have been developed.  It’s the reason for heavy rotation and why you see the same commercials over and over on TV.

Balancing between reminding and nagging takes strategy and time!  Ever notice how big festivals announce their line ups WAY in advance?  Or how bigger new releases are reviewed BEFORE the they’re out?  It’s not accidental.  They know that it takes lots of reminders and if they space out their promotion, they will seem interesting at best and novel at worst… but not annoying.

In my high school days in the pre-internet world, I remember being very excited to talk to the bands I liked about the non-musical side of things.  At an Ed Hall show in 1994, Gary Chester got talking with me about various bands’ levels of success.   “It’s all in advertising,” he said.

That bugged me as a young man.  I didn’t like idea that he-who-has-enough-money-to-pay-for-commercials wins.

Advertising isn’t the naughty word that we in the creative class seem to think it is, though.  At it’s core, advertising is simply letting people know about what you do.  Even notorious anti-advertisers Fugazi had to do that.

None of us would know about our favorite bands, movies, events or other activities and products without some form of advertising.

Tweeting, social media, sending a newsletter, alerting the press and making a poster are all forms of advertising.   Even word of mouth.  In fact, it’s the best form of advertising according to many marketing experts… and the only form acceptable to your inner Fugazi.

Even playing shows is advertising!  If word spreads about your band because you played great shows, then that’s your advertising.  (side note:  when I think about it, how is standing on a stage demanding attention/money any more valiant or shameless than tweeting about the show or buying print/radio/tv advertising for that matter?  I guess it just seems less corporate…?)

The most successful artists, musicians, etc. are really, REALLY good at getting the word out about what they’re doing and making others care about them and their work.  They’re good at creating a buzz.

Some creative folks think self-generated buzz isn’t legitimate.  Poppycock.  If you tell no one about your ground breaking screenplay, recipe for crab cakes or life changing book, how can you expect to receive the accolades you deserve?

Self-promotion is the first step to generating buzz.  The only reason big time artists don’t appear to self-promote is because someone else is doing it for them.  If you don’t have that luxury, who will promote what you do?  Only you.

And plenty of buzzworthy stuff gets passed over – especially in a saturated town like Austin in the age of instant everything.  If consistently attempting to generate interest never creates a buzz, it will at least create awareness, which almost always outlasts buzz.  Coca-Cola isn’t exactly buzzing but they’re still making commercials (and drinks, too).  Some things that don’t buzz at first turn out to be very successful later.  The Princess Bride.

I know, I know – you want your work to be judged only on artistic merit and your talent.

Talent is absolutely the ultimate reason anyone is there to experience your work… but it’s a given.  If you’re not talented, why are you on stage… or the radio… or in the paper?  For that reason all the other non-artistic factors like presentation, location, timing and competition play a role in how and even if you’ll be judged.

There’s another naughty word in the creative community.  If you don’t like being judged, don’t advertise what you do and enjoy simply making your art – but don’t complain or be surprised when you’re the only one that knows/cares it.

My Meeting with a Real, Live Booking Agent

An exercise in flexibility that paid off: The wind gusts blew our instruments off the stands – not to mention the sheet music!  The hosts forgot the video monitor, DVD player and projector stand and chose to project the movie on a wall etched with script.  Gonzalo (drums) watched the movie’s reflection on his turned-off cell phone.   It was just not well planned.  In spite of all that, this was totally unique thing for the people in attendance and we earned 10x as much as we’d make on a good night in a club.

OK, OK, OK… another long post that I started over a year ago.

I had the opportunity to meet with a booking agent from Chicago on Thursday of SxSW 2013 to ask him questions related to some of the topics on this blog.

Possibly one of the biggest mysteries to musicians is how to find representation.  As a musician who briefly had it and an ex-employee at Austin Music Foundation, I’ve been asked about it a lot.  The truth is that agents and representation are about as big a mystery to me as anyone who asks me.

Why?

Well, maybe because there are so few agents in Austin.  Of those few, most book the kind of music that does well in our region – country, Americana, roots rock, folk, singer-songwriters & blues bands.  Austin doesn’t seem to have anything even close to a Billions Corporation.  Even Austin’s more popular indie bands either self-book or have representation outside the city/state:

  • The Sword, Octopus Project – The Agency Group
  • Bright Light Social Hour – Paradigm Agency
  • Quiet Company, Ghostland Observatory – self
  • Black Joe Lewis – Constant Artists (also Spoon, Okkervil River, Explosions in the Sky)

I have met Austin agents like Nancy Fly and Davis McLarty and they’re totally awesome and helpful – but they don’t have the connections to plug any of the bands listed above into the proper channels.  Imagine Octopus at a honky tonk in the hill country.  Probably not a packed house.  (then again…)

For a brief while, The Invincible Czars shared a booking agent with John Pointer and Rattletree Marimba.  She relieved me of a lot of booking pressure but we still faced the same challenges of communicating and selling what the Invincible Czars do.  At least 50% of our bookings (and most of our higher paid ones) under her representation came through the same old connections I already had established.  She just took over dealing with them.  BUT — She didn’t have to run the band, create the music, perform, practice or promote so she could get more done than I did quicker than I did.  For that reason alone, I’d take her back in a heartbeat!  I haven’t found anyone else locally or otherwise I’d trust to take her place.  I haven’t looked much either

That’s partly because I don’t believe there is someone who WILL represent us.  There are plenty of music business pros who really do have a wide array of tastes but simply don’t know how to make money off of them all.  Two or three times a year, an agent might make $400-600 (on the very high end) on us.  Not exactly rent money for the year.  An agent would need 20 more bands at our level and live in his/her car just to survive.

(SIDE NOTE: don’t be fooled into thinking you’re behind the curve by the multitude of out-of-town bands with representation that you meet at SxSW.  Most of those bands won’t exist by next SxSW and their “agents” will have either moved on to other, younger bands with pretty girl bass players that can’t tune OR moved on to selling used cars.)

All this brings me to my meeting with the agent from Chicago during SxSW 2013.  Our discussion was enlightening and vanquished some of the misconceptions and negativity I have felt about seeking a booking agent in the past.

Like what?

Well, he echoed one thing I’ve heard over and over – if he’s not passionate about a group, it just won’t work.  As self-represented artists, passion is often all that keeps us going in the face of constant rejection.  How long could you withstand the barrage of “NOs” if you were representing some band you didn’t really think was all that hot?

(flip side – I can also see how it’d be easy to keep booking a band you weren’t passionate about if the act was super easy to book and was earning money.)

For this agent, a band’s VISION is more important to him than their financial bottom line.  I understood that to mean that if the band doesn’t know where they’re going or there’s a big disagreement between the band and him about where they should go, there’s not much he can do to help them and no point in him being part of their team.  An example – an act that insists on playing too often in the same market or a band that is unwilling to take financial risks like spending the money/time to branch into new territory (his words).

Speaking of financial risks, when I asked him how many acts on his roster make their livings from music, he said maybe 20% but that it was hard for him to know because he isn’t their manager.  Some acts sell a lot of stuff or might license their music.  He doesn’t ever see or know about any of that.  (That said, I know that MOST acts aren’t banking on licensing or selling recorded music these days.  I’d be surprised if his 20% estimate is too far off.)

Possibly the most inspiring thing to me about this meeting was when I asked what factors separated his top earners from his bottom earners.  In other words, what do the acts with the most earnings/bookings have that the acts with less don’t?   Was it time?  Commercial viability?  A trust fund? His answer was two-fold:

First, the acts that, as he put it, can’t be imitated have a real leg up.  If no one else can do what you do or you’re the best at it, there’re some serious opportunities there – assuming there’s demand for what you do!  This resonated with me.  If you’re just another singer songwriter with a good singing voice and songs about love… well… compare that to something like Dan Deacon!  Who else does what he does?  (Remember my post that mentioned GG Allin?)

Second, the acts that are the most versatile and flexible have more avenues to pursue.  Think about your band.  Do you only play loudly?  Quietly?  Do you only play one kind of music?  Do you only play originals?  Only covers?  Do you only play one kind of venue?  Does everyone in the band have to be present for the show to go on?  Do you only appeal to one very small demographic unique to your region?  Can any little problem bring the show to a halt?  If yes, then you’re not very versatile.

WARNING – Antecdote:

In June 2010, The Invincible Czars didn’t have a permanent drummer — but in a three week period we played a Beatles hoot night fundraiser in Austin (20 minutes of re-arranged Beatles songs), a silent movie in Houston (75 minute soundtrack music live w/ movie), a “Christmas in June” show in Tulsa (60-70 minutes of all Nutcracker/Holiday music) and opened for my childhood heroes Brutal Juice in Austin (rock set of originals) —– each with a different drummer.  We only pulled it off because we were flexible and organized.

The result – one of the highest paid and most fun (if stressful) months for the band to date!  If we hadn’t been able to switch gears like that, we would’ve just played one or maybe two of those gigs… and probably not the highest paying ones (Houston and Tulsa)!

Speaking of money, this agent’s own earnings are modest.  He is married and his wife earns a higher income.  I asked if he’d be able to live on his own if she wasn’t there.  He thought for a second and I suggested, “Maybe if you lived in your car?”  We both laughed.    That… sort of surprised me… This guy has a couple acts on his roster that are pretty known and have been around a while.   He represents 40 bands.  That’s a lot but if only 20% of them are earning their livings from music and most of those aren’t doing so solely through his bookings then I can see how money would get tight:

Imagine you book a band that earns $10K a year in performance fees.  That’s $1500 (15%) on the high end for the year.  That’s maybe enough to pay one month’s super-cheap mortgage in a place like Chicago.   You’d need 12 more bands that won’t break up and can earn the same or more just to pay for housing for a year.

Now you need more to pay for groceries and other living expenses.

Booking agents are just humans with a passion for music – just like artists.   Many love it enough to live on peanuts – just like artists.  Many are supported by their spouse – just like artists.   For anyone who’s ever approached an agent, this might be why they seem dismissive.  If you don’t appear to be going anywhere and/or don’t appear to be earning any money – why should they come on board?

Remember, you’re the bus, not them.

I was encouraged by this agent’s focus on his bands’ vision for growth rather than their current financial status.  That’s a forward thinker and someone who WANTS to believe – exactly what you want in someone who represents you —- but in order for them to believe, an artist must give them something in which to believe.

How many/what kind of shows did you play last year?   What was the attendance like? How much did you earn?  Do you have some idea of where you’re going or is your plan simply a series of random acts of improvement (thanks, Claire)?  Can you stand in front of an audience and wow them?  Do you have any photos, video or reviews of yourself doing so?

Wrapping up this long an long overdue post – I know it’s the same Catch 22 you hear over and over but if you represent yourself so well that you don’t need representation, they will be more interested.  That’s what each of the bands I listed up top did!

If you prove that you CAN succeed with no help, someone will be much more likely to help you succeed again.  You don’t have to turn yourself into a surefire bet, but you need to at least be a good one before anyone’s going to lay their money, time or reputation on your number and spin the roulette wheel.

(Many thanks to the anonymous booking agent from Chicago who could’ve spent his time talking to anyone else at SxSW 2013.)