Thursday, March 15, 2012

Performers & Promoters: Help Yourselves! - Essay

The essay below is a re-posting from my monthly column on the California Bluegrass Association's Welcome Page, which appeared on Tuesday.  I look forward to your comments here and on the forums.

My job, as a blogger, depends on my ability to obtain up-to-date information about bands and people in bluegrass music. A major feature of the blog is to provide previews of events we're going to be covering. Usually I post a preview about two weeks before an event in the hope it will energize people planning to attend, inform them about ways to enjoy the festival more, and encourage other people to attend. Generally, I have no idea whether the blog entries have any influence in building attendance at festivals and concerts, but promoters and artists seem to like having me write them.

Recently, I was preparing a preview of an upcoming event in which a featured band we've only seen once was performing and whose photos were lost in a computer crash. I therefore turned to my next best source, the Internet. The band's web site featured a band photo still showing former members of the group. Their Facebook page was a moribund place containing no information and hadn't been updated in months. They still have a MySpace page, but the most recent comment is a year old and their “shows” page says they have no current appearances scheduled. In other words, they've done nothing to help promote themselves. Yet wherever we go, I hear bands bemoan the difficulty of getting gigs, the competitiveness of the work, and the expense of traveling. Some promoters still rely on printed fliers distributed at festivals as their major source of advertising. Meanwhile, the largest demographic in my online readership is people between the ages of 55 – 65 and the most desirable group to attract to events because they have money is people between the ages of 18 and 49, a group who are Internet savvy and rely upon it for information and planning.

The Internet in general and social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) in particular have become an increasingly powerful way to let current and potential bluegrass fans know who's who and what's happening where. Relying on advertising for their income, most social media sites are free to users, relatively simple to use, and allow the people who use them to focus their efforts in places with the greatest potential for making a return. More than two years ago, Internet guru Ariel Hyatt posted an article called “The Top Seven Reasons Artists Resist Social Media” filled with the arguments against social media use many musicians have given to me and debunking them. Nevertheless, musicians say they'd much rather practice their instrument and perform than spend time developing their careers. Nevertheless, it's the plain truth that jobs don't just come to a band because they're good. Jobs develop, at least partially, because performers have learned how to sell their product and do so persistently and frequently.

“Lou Reid & Carolina are really hot right now,” a friend commented the other day. What's happened that a performer who's played with signature band The Seldom Scene for eighteen years in two stints and been touring with his own band for twenty years has suddenly seen a jump in business and popularity? The band has been putting out solid new recordings regularly. They are welcoming and energetic on stage and available at their merchandise table. They respond quickly and warmly to requests for interviews. And they're active on Facebook...very active. Both Lou and Christy Reid have Facebook pages that draw their “friends” into their lives. Lou makes frequent humorous, even silly, remarks about the antics of their two daughters. Christy is saucy and fun on line, just like she is in person. They post about their daily lives as well as about their music and appearances. They encourage people to come to see and hear them, but it's never a hard sell. And their popularity has been growing by leaps and bounds. They humanize themselves and reach out to the public using social media. Could this have anything to do with their burgeoning popularity?

The Gibson Brothers last seven CD's have reached number one on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts. In the past two years, they've been showered with awards at both IBMA and SPBGMA. They are not huge self-publicists and, generally speaking, they prefer to let their work do their talking for them. But their popularity around the nation has grown spectacularly in the past two years. Could this have anything to do with their presence on Facebook? I think so. Eric has commented that he can post material about a new song or a performance, and there's relatively little response. But when he comments about the joy he feels in attending one of his son Kieran's games or seeing his other son Kelley write new material on the mandolin, he gets dozens of “Like”s and comments. The Gibson Brothers are one of the busiest bands on the bluegrass circuit, having resurrected what had, for a while, become a career that seemed stuck, despite the success of their recordings.

Four bands I can think of have actively promoted fan clubs. The Gary Waldrep Band, Nothin' Fancy, Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road, and, of course, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage have each, over the years, cultivated active fan clubs. The clubs appear to stand alone with officers and membership chairs and work hard to promote the appearances of the bands they're devoted to. Members receive regular e-newsletters and notices about when the band will be performing in their area. Officers of the fan clubs are given recognition, but, I understand, serve for the love of the bands they follow. Promoters tell me that bands with active fan bases put “butts in the seats” at their events, a necessary component to getting good bookings.

A few weeks ago, Archie Warnock and Betty Wheeler, both knowledgeable about he Internet and part-time bluegrass promoters, posted some ideas for bands and promoters on the IBMA Members e-mail list, about how to use web sites more effectively. Here's what they wrote:

Archie, writing advice to bands said:
1.  Don't make me click an "Enter here" link to get to the site.  I'm at the site because I already *want* to enter.
2.  You must, must, must have a "Press Kit" link.
3.  Your "Press Kit" page must have a direct link to download a current photo that you want to see staring back at you when you come to our site
4.  Never, ever use “Flash” for displaying photos for promo purposes. They can't be downloaded and stored for use in the event promotion.

Overall, the easier you make it for me to make you look good, the better you'll look.

Betty, adding some thoughts for promoters, commented:
1. Check out the artist's press kit page for current and approved photos (and current bios). Use those instead of some random image served up by Google.
2. If you last presented the artist in, say, 1998, don't recycle the photo and bio from that appearance.
3. Make sure the band members you mention didn't leave the band 3 years ago...
4. If you create an eblast that features or includes the artist, be sure to use the "create a web version" option so that the artist can share your eblast on Facebook, Twitter, artist website, in his or her own eblast, etc.
5. Make sure your publicity identifies the location - or at least drops big hints (the state?).
6. Make it easy for people to find key info: especially how to buy tickets, directions.

There's much more to say about how to use social media to help yourself do better at being a bluegrass professional. The first step, though, is to recognize that just being a good musician isn't good enough. You need to work to get your name out and keep it out. Doing so appears to get results, and, for most people, only takes a few hours a week, several minutes a day to keep your name up and your site responsive to your fans. It's also worth noting that the annual World of Bluegrass conference put on by IBMA has been offering seminars dealing with these topics each year. These meetings provide band members and leaders with golden opportunities to discuss with their peers approaches to promotion and development. They are crucial to helping bands improve their professional position. IBMA also sponsors regularly scheduled webinars where such topics are discussed in real time on line for those who may not be able to get to meetings. Growing your band or your event takes hard work and attention to detail. Bands who take advantage of all the tools available to them, taking the time to learn how to use them and exercising them with taste and regularity will certainly see positive results from these efforts.