Connect with your audience
If you buy into all the negativity out there about the music business, you might believe we are all destined to be like Emily Dickinson, writing songs in our attics only to be discovered in a hundred years after our lonely lives expire.
Don’t get me wrong, art for art’s sake can be the work of genius: Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is not diminished by the fact that people outside his little town of Leipzig really didn’t know him during his lifetime.
But I'd bet most of you out there aren’t making music just for kicks. Even the least motivated weekend warrior has some kind of goal: play a gig, meet a girl, get free beer, etc. Or maybe you do have purely artistic motives and you want to create art just for yourself. More power to ya.
If you ask me, musical gifts are not meant to be kept to ourselves, they are meant to be shared. This means you're likely going to have to deal with the consumers of your musical product at some point. If you believe articles like "1,000 True Fans," your audience is the key to your having a sustainable career in music.
To connect with your audience, first you have to build one! Audience building is a subject for another post, but let’s assume you have a small but devoted following coming to see you perform regularly. Or maybe you've got hundreds of people attending every gig, but you don’t feel a sense of connection with your audience. These ideas can work on every level of audience relationship, from 10 people in the crowd to 1,000.
In Megatrends (1982), John Naisbitt theorized the concept of “high-tech / high-touch.” The idea is that as technology speeds up and becomes more prevalent in our lives, our human connections diminish and become less significant. Any successful modern business will integrate high-tech / high-touch into their marketing strategy, and the concept applies to the new model of the music industry as well.
What this means is, you need to be accessible. Social media allows you to entertain your audience on many different platforms, and if you don’t already have them, you should have a social media presence on multiple platforms and encourage your audience to connect with you on all of them.
Don’t be afraid to hop around. Bored of Twitter? Post a pic on Instagram or Facebook. It’s good to have the same username and general design scheme for each of your pages, but the important thing is to let your posts reflect your personality. Be your creative self and expose your audience to the things you’re interested in.
This idea applies before and after a show. Hang out by the merch table, sign your product, talk to your audience. Get to know the names of the people who come to see you play regularly. Send thank you messages on Facebook. Build an email list and use it.
This doesn’t mean you have to eliminate boundaries. Use common sense with the information you share – e.g. don't give out personal contact info to fans. You can't be best friends with everyone; just show your fans how much you truly appreciate their interest in your music and give them a personal, heartfelt response.
One of the greatest tools – and one that has personally equated to profitability in my own career – is the "set list graph" I learned from Tom Jackson. Number your songs from 1 - 5 in terms of energy (1 is a quiet, introspective ballad; 3 would be your average pop song; 5 is an ballistic barn burner). Within these songs, Jackson helps artists connect to different kinds of moments which create memorable shows. Because ultimately, what audiences remember are not songs so much as moments.
Break down your set in terms of different kinds of moments: a moment to introduce who you are, a “big fun” moment to encourage audience participation, musical moments to draw attention to your instrumental or vocal chops, quiet moments to bring the energy down, and a closing moment to end the set with a bang. The concept behind this is to change the "pressure" on the audience, because these moments are ultimately what the audience connects with, emotionally, and remembers after the show.
In addition to changing pressure musically, you need to change the pressure visually. If it’s a "1" song, sit on a stool. If it’s a "5," use the entire space and work all sides of stage. One of Jackson’s best lines is, “Your songs don’t sound the same, so why do they look the same?”
Major artists often have extreme light, costume, and set changes between songs, but if you're performing in a restaurant, that's not possible (or recommended). But small adjustments like putting on sunglasses, sitting on a stool, or taking a jacket or a hat off can help create a mood and a moment.
Your show needs to have variety, and not just fast song, fast song, slow song, medium song, fast song, fast song. It comes from creating different kinds of emotional moments for the audience to connect with. This will keep your crowd coming back for more gigs, more moments, and more merch!
Listen to your audience
In the old music industry, you’d record an album, the record company would press it, the distributor would get it to the stores, and the retailer would sell it. Now you can produce material yourself and sell product directly to your fans live or through your website. One big advantage to this is you can directly ask your audience what they want and when they want it.
If you're just starting out or still creating a relationship with your audience, take requests, ask them what kinds of merch items they would buy, and find out what they want! One of the amazing things about the two-way conversation on social media is not just that your fans can see what you’re up to – you can see what they’re up to, as well!
Want to blow your biggest fans’ minds? Write a song about their trip to California or a silly 30-second ballad about the Instagram pic of their dinner. Obviously you need to judiciously use the information about them, but the important thing is that the conversation is two-way: you are communicating to them and they will communicate information back to you. You should be listening to your fans!
One way I listen is to be aware of how they respond to my new original songs: if someone mentions a song or a moment in the song to me, I pay close attention. You can usually tell by the looks on people’s faces what’s working and what is not, and the more objective you can be about these observations, the better.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.