“It’s been an amazing experience, going from 0 to millions of fans in so little time. Amazing how my career just seemed to take shape naturally, I didn’t even need to talk about what I was doing. I guess the music was so great it sort of made the money on its own.”
– No One Ever
A couple of days back, I was reading Emily White’s midemblog post, “Direct To Fan For All”, and it was her simplest message that most caught my attention: “Don’t wait. While you’re busy hovering over your masterpiece, your fans are turning elsewhere for content and engagement”. It caught my attention because it brought this one back to mind: “Perfectionism is often an excuse for procrastination”, by Paul Graham. As an artist, it only feels natural to be focusing so intensely on putting as much of yourself as possible into every bit of your recording, your packaging, your band website, as long as you can. Much more so than spending hours on Twitter, Facebook, Soundcloud, and marketing blogs.
Paul is no artist, but as the legendary cofounder of Y-Combinator, the world’s most prestigious startup incubator — launchpad to the likes of AirBnB and Dropbox — he knows a thing or two about people who want to get noticed. His key argument: products don’t sell themselves; startups take off because their founders make them take off. Bands take off because their members were out there to make it happen. Easily said, less easily put in practice.
It’s not the hours spent on Twitter, it’s the things that don’t scale.
The common misconception he points to: that if you’ve recorded insanely great music, or put together some mind-blowing lines of code, you’ve built a better mousetrap, and the path to your door should sure as hell start beating itself. That art should speak for itself, not require musicians turned salesmen to be peddling it from door to door.
But in today’s attention economy, it’s somewhat of a lack of humility to think events are going to unfold that way, unless you already have 50,000 fans and a host of bloggers in your network. In the eyes of Paul Graham, many startup failures come down to a question of mindset. “A lot of founders are trained as engineers […] [they think they’re]supposed to build things that are robust and elegant, not be slavishly attentive to individual users like some kind of salesperson”. They easily get obsessed with the elegance of their ideas, to the point that they’ll forget the extremely high odds of 5 other teams working on the same idea, 20 on a rather related one, and a couple thousand more being busy bombarding social networks and predating the exact same blogs and bloggers in a struggle for attention. As a musician, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re most likely stuck in the same situation.
To be sure we’re all on the same wavelength, let’s define “things that don’t scale” as all the initiatives you have the capacity of taking because you’ve started out as small and anonymous, but that you couldn’t possibly replicate if you were to get much bigger. And it’s because you’re small and anonymous that these things make the difference.
Number one on Paul’s list: “Recruit users manually. […] you can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.”. Sending handwritten notes, not tweets. Always being poised to unholster your phone loaded with your freshly mixed EP on the spot, instead of promising to mail the link later. Offering to get on Skype with your first fans to hear what they have to say about your show (or even better, in person), rather than posting the question to your Facebook page. All very time consuming, but if you’re aiming to be remembered, those are the right things to do. There’s no mistaking either, as Paul puts it:
“The right things seem both laborious and inconsequential”
And they are the right things for one very good reason: you and your band are an investment decision. Unless you’re making the music for yourself, what you want from your fans is their attention, and, once you have that, their money. Because music fans have both a finite amount of attention and money, they can only split it between a finite number of bands.
That doesn’t mean the first thing to do is to get at every other band’s throat (we’ve already said quite the opposite on our blog, Digital Edge). It means you should first identify who and where your fans and potential fans are – and the more you’ll have done things that don’t scale with them, the easier it will be.
Next, the hard question is: what does it feel like to be your fan? The answer to that should help guide you through Paul’s second most important point:
“You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire [fans], but also to make them happy”
Knowing what it feels like to be your fan means you’re more likely to know how to delight them. And identifying your (potential) fans before trying to make those particular people happy is essential, because trying to make everyone happy basically means you’d, knowingly or not, be going for mass market appeal. It takes a major label to build that. If you’re a musician reading this, you’re most likely not mass market material. But that’s more of an opportunity than a barrier. Becoming the next Google happens to 1 in 100,000 startups. Becoming the next Mumford and Sons is most likely an even less probable endeavour. Becoming a big act in your own niche, however, is an objective that can and should keep you going. Take Bandcamp in the startup world, for example – a team of a dozen people, they’ll never strike the $130M in funding pumped into Deezer in 2012. They’ll never be a 600-person team like Spotify. But they don’t need to. They don’t want to. What they did was find their audience, DIY artists in need of promotion tools, and focused intently on creating great tools and an insanely great experience of being a user.
“Your first users should feel that signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made”, says Graham. The product is an element of the bigger picture. The music is just one component of the bigger experience of being your fan. Going out of your way to make the first people to have listened to your music, and enjoyed it, feel they’re part of something special cannot possibly be counter-productive (unless you’re actually stalking them). Understanding exactly what it feels like to be your fan is the first step to making that experience purely awesome. Connecting with your fans, face to face, as often and intensely as possible. As much as she can, Amanda Palmer spends hours with her fans after each concert.
When “iterating” on your fan experience, though, it would be a mistake to work in comparison with standards established by existing hits. The question shouldn’t be “how much can I make my fans feel like Gaga’s Little Monsters”. Lady Gaga can’t send a handwritten thank you note to every person (legally) downloading her album or signing up to her newsletter. You can.
Creating an insanely great and intensely immersive fan experience is the best way to make sure they’ll spend more than the occasional Like or Tweet on you.
Take Pretty Lights. His intent is for the fans attending his shows to feel they’re part of something bigger than just the music. The result is that he consistently sells out his shows, and despite his music being available for free download on his website (in 320kbps bitrate), his latest album hit #5 on iTunes on the week of its launch. His fans invest in him because it makes them feel special, part of the Pretty Lights experience. And, sure enough, when his albums were only being downloaded 10 times a month back in 2006, he reached out to people as much as he could, and did things that didn’t scale.
Pretty Lights exemplifies the attention economy, and is one of its brightest success stories. But in a world of D2F, DIY and music entrepreneurs, the overarching fear has become that the voice of the artist is being drowned in favour of that of the businessman; something Emily Gonneau had equally pointed to on midemblog. A matter of authenticity over marketability. Still, though there’s no doubt concerning Paul Graham’s desire to see the startups he invests in become marketable, doing things that don’t scale is above all a matter of delighting your first users as a prerequisite to turning them into customers and evangelists. Almost every successful Web startup burns millions of dollars connecting with an audience before monetising it. And before implementing wide-scale social media strategies or rushing to Kickstarter for money, bands should be able to describe exactly what it feels like to be their fan. And being able to do that means having been out there, making your authenticity marketable, if you will.
Speaking of startups, the call for entries for the 7th edition of Midemlab is now open! Submit here: bit.ly/Midemlab