Development Part 3 – Training Your Audience

Hey everyone, sorry I’ve not been posting lately.  My world got super busy leading up to and during a tour.  I’m back now but also realizing that I need to stop being so long winded here if I’m going to keep up my weekly posts.

Years ago, The Invincible Czars played a show with Suburban Terror Project and a few other metal bands at Trophy’s. It was the most people I ever saw in that venue. We were definitely the sore thumb on the bill. When I looked into the audience.  I saw a roomful of deer in headlights – not sure what to think.  But at least they didn’t leave.

Later, Josh Wardrip (from Suburban Terror) and I were talking about the show and he introduced me to a term I hear and use all the time now: ready-made audience. That conversation was extremely helpful for me. I immediately understood what he meant when he said, “there’s just no ready-made audience for what you guys do.”

The audience at Trophy’s that night had developed a taste for heavy metal. They hadn’t developed a taste for what we did — but at least they were open enough to try it.

That seems to be the route that you have to take if you’re doing something that doesn’t have a ready-made audience. It’s not a very fun one at first. It means spending lots of time in front of deer in headlights and hoping some of them snap out of it having liked what they heard. That percentage of early adopters in an audience is often low.

Years later, I heard Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds talk about this as the process of   training your audience. Just as your music and band must develop, the audience for what you do must as well.

The first time I heard Mr. Bungle and Naked City, I didn’t have any context. It took me being exposed to the music lots of times again to understand and acquire a taste for what they did. (The hilarity of that sentence is that I often make fun of people who say you have to acquire a taste for beer. Why would I want to acquire a taste for something awful?   That’s exactly how people feel about music they’re not ready for.)

Unless you’re doing something that everyone can immediately appreciate, it takes time to for people to develop a taste for what you do. This is why cover and tribute bands come out of the gate with an audience. Everyone already likes what they do before they even do it!

Last year, I saw two very different bands with very different ways of building their fanbase each fill the Mohawk in Austin.

One was Red Fang. It’s not terribly surprising to me that they’ve built a relatively big fanbase over the last 10 years – anyone who’s ever heard Metallica or Black Sabbath can grasp Red Fang’s music and they’re very good at what they do. No additional audience training is required.  (I did feel compelled to train one kid to quit trying to pull me in to the mosh pit by throwing a can at him.) Red Fang has tapped into a ready-made audience and do a really good job of entertaining them.  Good for them!

Later that month, I saw Goblin at the same venue. This was a very different audience of people who’ve somehow acquired a taste for Goblin’s intricate, proggy music over the last 40 years.  For most of that time, the band didn’t even exist having broken up the early 80s.  Any group that might’ve been considered a ready-made audience for Goblin would have been (and still is) minuscule compared with today’s broad world of heavy metal.  It took much longer, but they finally developed that audience!

So how can you train your audience?

Good question.  All I can think to do is find what you do really well without stopping and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Because  ultimately you don’t have control over who likes your band. I mean, you can target a large potential audience but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll like you. That’s the double edged sword of the ready-made audience – not all of them will like you and it’s hard to stand out.  Red Fang has WAY more competition than a band like Goblin that creates its own context rather than tapping into one.

But don’t fool yourself.  Creating your own audience is very time consuming.  After 10 years as a band, Goblin called it quits for nearly 20 years.  Their horror movie soundtracks kept the music alive and won new fans in the film world. People who liked them kept sharing their music. 40 years later, they played the same size audience as Red Fang did in 10.

If you can find or create a context for what you do best and take advantage of opportunities that develop around that, your audience will find you and vice versa.

On a personal-ish – note, I really had a lot of time to think on this topic while on the road.  I don’t think this entry quite nails all my thoughts and I’m still learning but I did get to experience some benefits of my own audience development efforts:  The Invincible Czars were touring with our 7th silent film soundtrack.  It was the longest tour we’ve done since 2004, nearly every show was full or sold out and I achieved the goal of booking an all silent film tour – meaning no rock shows. When I first started booking these shows outside Austin, most theaters/venues would (and still do) say, “Who would come to a silent movie?  Not interested.”

This got me thinking of the power of having your own contexts that supersede the actual art.  Hollywood might be the best example.  I love the irony of a bunch of rednecks watching movies created by the very liberal California entertainment business they rail against or the hardcore Star Wars fans who criticize and complain as they buy every last piece of a Phantom Menace memorabilia.

Now that’s a well-trained audience!