When I was a kid, my brothers and I would record ourselves singing in Audacity. Then we’d lay down some rhythm using a few pots and a basket of legos, and some guitar riffs using the only two chords Jon knew at the time.
When a song was in its final form, we’d sit our parents and friends down and essentially force them to listen to what we thought was sure to be a massive viral hit, songwriting masterpiece, etc. We even made album art in MS Paint, which we’d proudly display while our audience listened with awe.
Long story short, we had a formula we believed in, and we stuck to it:
Make lots of music + Have a captive audience = Lasting success.
We weren’t quite right, but nobody ever told us that. When the money and fame never came, we figured we had been blackballed by the system like Pete Rose and the MLB.
It turns out that to have lasting success in any artistic field, you can’t rely on a captive audience. You have to find people who actually want to listen to your music, buy your merch, and go to your shows. In other words, the formula looks a lot more like this:
Make lots of music + Have real fans of your music = Lasting success.
There’s a general rule that gets cited pretty often in creative industries. It’s called the “1000 True Fans” rule.
It’s a theory that began with an article by Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired and an extremely successful writer and journalist. Here’s the gist:
If you’re a self-starter in any field, and you’re content to make a living and not a fortune, then you don’t need a million people screaming your name at a concert or buying your product online or following you on Instagram. You only need 1000 true fans, each of whom are willing to buy $100 worth of your product every year (for those of you who aren’t great at math, that would equal $100,000 per year).
For an indie artist, there are plenty of ways to get fans to spend $100 on you. You can sell merch, which often takes up a large portion of artist income. You can get streaming and publishing royalties (explained here), or get radio placements. In a normal year, you can go on tour and collect from ticket sales. You can even set up some sort of crowdfunding campaign, either for a specific project or for your career in general. With some combination of these things, $100 of income per fan doesn’t seem too difficult to believe.
Obviously, there’s some nuance to the rule. Taxes are a thing. So are business expenses. 1000 fans each spending $100 on you probably amounts to an annual income that’s much lower than $100,000. But it will almost definitely mean that you make a living making music. And that’s the dream, isn’t it?
It’s the age old “fishing pole vs. fish” idea. The root of making money as an artist or a musician isn’t necessarily more revenue streams: it’s more fans.
Make sense? Awesome. Here’s how to get more fans of your music.
1. Hone in on your brand.
This one may seem obvious and easy, but it’s important to state this tip first because nothing else really works without it. All successful artists have something in common: they’ve built a brand.
A brand is the lens through which an artist filters all of their content. If you’re an artist, then everything you make, from your music, to your visuals, to your media tone of voice, is creating context for your fans to fit themselves into. They don’t just want to listen to your music; they want to feel like they know you, or at least are similar to you.
Therefore, consistency is key: all your content should come across with the same message. Lizzo is confident, loud, and powerful in everything she does. Bon Iver is vague, mysterious, and detail-oriented about everything. Both brands work perfectly for their respective artists, because of consistency and intention.
Building a brand is a big enough topic that I could write a full post on it. Maybe I will soon. But here’s the my best way to sum up the overarching strategy of brand-building:
In short, be unafraid to associate yourself with similar artists. Most genres of music have a built-in, broad, easily recognizable brand (rock music works well with red and black, folk artists take pictures in front of trees, indie-alt dudes never smile). Chances are that the stereotypes of your genre are already natural to you in some way. In everything you make, ask yourself: Who am I similar to? How are they doing it?
But the other key to branding is something your mom told you when you were five: be yourself. You’re your own person, with your own tone of voice, your own songwriting style, and your own artistic vision. In everything you make, ask yourself: Am I being authentic and original? Am I doing this how I want to do it?
It’s a tough balance to strike. It takes work, analysis, evolution, and all those other things that require effort. But everybody needs to develop a brand as a launchpad for the rest of their career.
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Song Release Checklist (21 Steps)
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2. Pick your target audience.
After you’ve built your brand, start thinking about your audience. There are two reasons this is important.
First, not everybody is going to like your music. Call it persecution or an unfortunate side effect of the subjectivity of art, but some people will want to turn it off immediately. Don’t worry about them; haters gonna hate. If you focus on the people who do like your music, you can adopt strategies that appeal to people like them.
Second, it’s hard to sell to someone if you don’t know anything about them. Truck commercials run during NFL broadcasts for a reason, and you’re unlikely to see ads for My Little Pony unless you’re watching Nick Jr. Audience-ignorant promotion is always a waste of everybody’s time and a waste of your money; targeted promotion is way more effective.
Your target audience is made up of people who will gravitate towards the brand you’ve built; they like your music, but they also relate to your image and personality in some way. As long as you’re not completely self-oblivious, it’s usually predictable who they will be.
Just go with your gut about who the type of person your average fan will be. If you’re a rapper, you probably shouldn’t target 65-year-olds. If you’re an indie-folk artist, you’re probably more appealing to people who own a Subaru and go hiking. You know, that kind of thing. (Side note that feels necessary: making these kinds of blanket judgments about individual people in everyday life can be a mean thing, and you’re not mean, so don’t do it. Only think this way when you’re keeping track of large groups of people – like your audience – for market or research purposes.)
Soapbox aside, knowing who your fans are will be valuable information throughout your career. And it’s especially helpful for promotion purposes. Speaking of promotion…
3. Use free promotion tools.
There are a lot of free ways to promote yourself, and you should use as many as you can without going insane or burning out.
First and foremost, stay consistent with your social media presence. This pretty much applies to every genre, esthetic, and brand out there right now. A lot of things about social media are poison (here I am on my soapbox again), but a lot of things are useful, too.
As an artist, you should be using social media as a tool, not to compare yourself to other artists, but to communicate and build relationships with your fans, and to garner new ones. As of right now, Instagram and TikTok are pretty important, so focus on those first. Do some quick research about best posting times, formats, and frequencies, and then treat your social media like part of your art.
Besides social media, there are other ways to promote yourself for free. Tons of blogs and playlists (like ours) accept free submissions via email or SubmitHub. Word of mouth is free, too; go old school and use your parents’ printer to make QR codes flyers to hand out. Get creative, and find ways to get your brand across however you can.
As an artist myself, I can really say that when it comes to promotion, there’s rarely a real excuse to not use all the free tools available to you. I’ve found that most of my hesitancy to promote myself isn’t valid; it’s just some iteration of self-doubt. Promotion can feel hard, but if you believe in your artistry, do as much as you can, including…
4. Budget for paid promotion.
I have a friend here in Nashville who has incredible promotional materials. He has new photos every week. He’s made music videos for each of the past three releases. He’s paid for services like Playlist Push, Omari MC, and SubmitHub to boost his streaming presence and get press coverage, and he’s bought targeted Instagram and Facebook ads to gain followers on social media.
Surprisingly, he’s not spending his parent’s money on all this. He just works a few different part-time jobs for 60 hours a week to fund his music career. To put it another way: he’s betting big on himself. And it’s starting to pay off in cool ways: more organic streams, radio placements, Instagram verification, etc.
Not everybody can have the work ethic he does, but everybody can learn from his example. When you work hard and are willing to spend money on your artistry, results really do follow. It just takes a little time.
All those services I listed are relatively cheap, effective, and accessible to everyone. So, I’m not going to use this space to describe them. Instead, I just want to say this: if you’re committed to being an artist, then at some point you have to bet on yourself. You pay for what you care about. Paid promotional tools are a tangible way to commit to making music as a vocation. If you want music to be your job, then you’ll have to come to terms with business expenses. Getting fans is work, but it’s worth it.
5. Be consistent with your content.
Whether you’re releasing music, playing shows, dropping merch, or posting online, adhere to this rule: keep it consistent. Do things at regular times, regular intervals, and for regular purposes.
This is a good idea for two reasons:
First, your fans are more likely to engage with your content if you’re consistent. Just like in real life relationships, failing to keep up with socials creates a distance between you and your fans. If you want them to feel like they can trust you, then create expectations and deliver on them. If you post a cover on YouTube every Wednesday, people will start to expect it and look forward to it. If you post a picture of yourself on Instagram every day, people will start to feel like they know you and your life. If you release an album every two years or so, then your fans will be roped in enough to build hype when the next cycle comes around.
Second, the more consistent you are with your content, the more you can find creative ways to disrupt your consistency to your advantage. You want your fans to feel like they’re insiders when it comes to your music and life, so every now and then, reward them with a surprise single release, or exclusive show, or something similar. It’s a great way to convert fans into superfans.
And that brings us to number six…
6. Engage with your fans.
The model of a marketing funnel is a great way to think about your fans. The lower down on the funnel, the more dedicated the fan. The average fan isn’t spending much money on your music or merch, so all of your promotion and interaction with them should be meant to guide them down the funnel, from average fan to superfan.
The best way to do this, again, is to get personal with them. Engaging with fans on social media is a great way to get them to feel closer to you, and the closer they feel, the more they will be willing to come to a show or buy a shirt. Like any other business, lasting relationships equal lasting success.
There are plenty of ways to creatively engage with your fans, no matter who you are or what your brand is. You can reply to comments on social media; you can go on Instagram live and do a Q&A; you can write personal blog posts on your website; you can stay after shows to talk to fans.
I’ve heard it put this way: the more your relationship with your fans feels like one big friendship, the better. Engagement is the best way to cultivate that friendship.
7. Commit to yourself.
This is the end of the article, and the beginning of your work growing your fanbase. So, I’ll reiterate this one more time: none of this matters unless you commit to yourself.
I have a friend who works at Capitol Records. I was talking to him the other day about the artists he works with, the major-label acts who most people would look at and say something like “They got lucky.”
He told me that, without exception, that’s just not true. Every single one of his artists had to grind for a long time before they signed with Capitol, and it never came easy. They all have stories about playing countless shows to tiny audiences, spending the last of their barista money on promotional opportunities, and refusing to give up when things didn’t seem to be working.
Here’s the thing. Making music is the easiest part of artistry. The hard part is being willing to do the work it takes to keep pushing it into the world until more and more people find it. It takes commitment, more than anything else.
But music is amazing, and so are you. Your music has the capacity to do a lot for the world, I promise. You just have to bet on yourself for long enough, and slowly, more and more people will start to bet on you. Building a fanbase takes time, but it’s worth it, because your music is worth it.