Debunking the Publicity Myth for Artists and Musicians
In my mid-twenties, I was focusing on building a career as a performing artist and songwriter. And by most people’s standards of “making it,” I was certainly failing.
I knocked on doors that wouldn’t open, I lost money traveling to play shows, and hardly broke even on an album release. That season of life was hard as hell, and I learned a lot. But there is one specific lesson I want to focus on in this article.
On my path towards ultimately pursuing a different career path, there was this recurring theme of advice:
“You just gotta get your name out there.”
Have you ever heard that? Has a marketer, manager or label ever approached you with the promise of “getting your name out there?”
Or maybe you are the manager or label — has your focus for your clients been on exposure? Have you held brainstorm sessions around the question: “How can we get their name out there?”
Even as I write that phrase, I cringe a little bit. When I was performing, it seemed like everyone from my parents to my more-successful-than-me industry friends would reference this need as if it were the key to my breakthrough.
But I’m writing to tell you, to warn you, that whether you’re a fledgling artist or a performer at the top of the game, a priority focus on publicity is a mistake.
TL;DR summation: Publicity (“Getting your name out there”) is very helpful to artists and entertainers. But only when it comes after 3 specific priorities.
There are 3 things more important than “getting your name out there.”
1. Become great at your craft.
Legendary advertising man David Ogilvy once wrote, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” If you are an artist — a singer, songwriter, comedian, whatever — developing a great act must be your top priority, always and forever.
So what does it look like to become great? When will you know you’re putting in enough work?
One of my favorite examples of this priority is Ed Sheeran. If you’ve never heard his story, here’s the essential progression:
- Dude practices a ton as a teen, eventually gets the guts to move to London to play the gig circuit in that market.
- Dude challenges himself to play 200 shows in a year, ends up playing 312 shows. That’s a lot of freaking shows.
- Decides to take a trip to LA to try his luck. Has no real connections, just 312 shows worth of practice.
- At his first open mic, dude is spotted by Jamie Foxx, who is so wowed by dude’s performance that he invites him to stay at his house and use his studio.
That is what it looks like to become great. It may have been luck that Jamie Foxx heard Ed sing, but luck had no influence on Jamie Foxx being wowed enough to open up his home. If you find yourself needing to tell people you’re great, then you probably aren’t great yet. Greatness is recognized. People open the door for great.
Moreover, your own ability is the one thing you can completely control. So many artists get distracted and discouraged by trying to control what they cannot: is the audience enjoying it, why is booking so hard, will labels pay attention to me, etc. Instead, make your first priority becoming great. Write every day. Perform anywhere.
No one will ever stop you from taking the next step in your greatness development.
And the greater you become, the less resistance you will face in ultimately “getting your name out there.”
2. Bring in the fans
Music industry writer Bob Lefsetz wrote something recently I loved:
“You can employ publicity to try and make them aware, but if your goal is to convert new fans, you can’t do it, only your fans can do it, by spreading the word online.”
I am amazed at how so many artists miss this point, from beginners to established veterans. When was the last time you listened to a new artist because that artist tweeted about it? When was the last time you went to a live show of a band you’ve never heard of because you saw a flyer posted to a telephone pole?
I’m not saying publicity is useless, I’m just saying it shouldn’t be your priority when you haven’t figured out how to capture new fans and nurture your relationship with them.
Some of you reading this right now actually already have enough fans to meet your revenue goals this year. But you don’t have any way of leveraging that progress toward money in the bank because you either A) haven’t secured a way to contact the fans or B) you haven’t connected with those fans in a meaningful way in so long, that anything you say now will feel like an advertisement.
Before you put any time, energy or money into publicity, make sure you create multiple, easy gateways for your fans to join the club.
Otherwise you’re just like a guy who spent hours at the gym making his body look great, spent money on nice looking clothes and used all of his charm on the girl of his dreams at the club but…left without getting her phone number. That guy wasted his resources.
Don’t spend any more time wooing more fans with your greatness until you are prepared to capture their contact info so you can set up a second, third and fourth date.
What does that look like practically?
- Focus on capturing the email addresses of your fans — it’s the most valuable, trustworthy marketing asset you can build for your career.
- Never ask for an email address without first giving something valuable away. For example, give discounts at your merch table in exchange for joining your email list or offer exclusive/free music on your website’s homepage.
- Direct your social media, live show and all other fan interactions towards those incentives to join your email list.
- Send emails like a normal person — as opposed to an advertiser — to that list on a regular basis.
- Bonus: If you want more specific suggestions and a the system I use with my clients, click here to get my 3-part course for free.
- Hey, see what I did there?
3. Focus on cash flow
I made mistakes with those first two points in my brief endeavor as a performing artist, but nowhere did I miss it more than this one: cash flow.
I was constantly broke. Racking up debt. Running on fumes.
And why? Because focusing on cash flow is impure, right? That’s for the business manager, the label, the non-artsy people. If I focus on cash flow, then that will cripple my ability to purely approach my craft.
W R O N G
Cash flow is the lifeblood of any business. Without it, the business shrivels up. A focus on cash flow doesn’t crimp your art, it sustains it.
Yes, it’s true that what makes art so great, so refreshing, is that it is free from the confines of a balance sheet. But a career artist without cash flow is merely a hobbyist. Just because your business is your art doesn’t excuse it from the laws of every other business.
I bring this point up because I, like many artists both fledgling and veteran, can too easily fall into the trap of ignoring cash flow. This tends to happen in a couple of ways:
“Do what you love and the money will follow.”
This is advice is romantic, but it very rarely works.
Personally, I had a hard time letting go of the “do what you love” mantra. I think that’s because my artistry was really all about me — my process, my expression, my passion. But the thing with business is that you must be in service to the wants of others.
So a better version of that popular advice is “Do what you love, but follow the money.” (That’s not my quote, BTW, but it’s true). Following the money means you are following the desires of paying customers.
Here’s a quick example of what I mean:
I did a little coaching session with a visual artist who was struggling to make ends meet. She wanted to build her following on social media and sell art pieces to her followers. She was also getting occasional contract work from an interior designer who needed art in the homes of her clients. The contract work paid well, but it was relatively unpredictable.
So what do you think I told her to do?
“Just get your name out there!” Haha, no I did not say that. I told her to follow the money. I gave her some ideas for regulating the work from her interior designer so the income would be more steady, and I gave her some ideas for connecting with other interior designers in her local area. I told her that because by increasing her income from interior designers she would be able to afford the time to invest in long-term social media brand building while becoming better at her craft.
If you don’t follow the money when you’re doing what you love, eventually you will no longer be able to do what you love because you need money. If you need proof, ask a Nashville-area barista in 2013 (oh wait, that’s me!).
Make a big splash.
We want this next album release to be fantastic! So let’s go into debt producing it then spend a ton of time “getting the word out.” Artist tires themselves out with social media posts, publication submissions and graphic designs for their upcoming Southeast tour.
Hopefully, this strategy works and the artist does indeed make a “splash.” Featured in some publications, score some social media followers and get a bunch of album streams and sales on release week.
There are two potential problems, though.
First, even though album streams/sales is money in the bank, this approach misses out on an exponential revenue-growth opportunity. Because on iTunes, every sale is equal. But not every fan is equal. There are some fans that bought a song who will also — if given the opportunity — buy a pre-sale VIP ticket at 3x the normal tour ticket cost. Or they would buy the vinyl as well if they knew it existed.
The point is that most “make a splash” marketing approaches treat every fan the same way, and thus leave a lot of money on the table, both for the current release and for releases to come. Again, I reference some strategies for leveraging fan data in this free course.
The second problem is…it may not work much at all. Labels can afford to do this: spend a lot of money on production for 10 albums, and as long as 2 of them hit, they can cover the expenses of the failures. Trouble is, those 8 failed albums have artists that now have very little leverage to move their career forward.
In other words, part of focusing on cash flow is minimizing risk. Marketing doesn’t have to be a financial risk. Artists, don’t let your label or management take risks unnecessarily.
The bottom line
Publicity is important and necessary for an artist’s success. However, in terms of an artist’s priority list, it comes in 4th place.
This belief has proven true in my own personal experience and the experience of my clients. But it’s also a part of a larger point-of-view I have:
You already have more than enough to take the next important step towards your success. Artists, you have more power in your financial situation than you probably realize.
I called my company “Abundance Marketing,” because it’s not about getting your name out there. It’s about giving your gift — your valuable, unique gift — to the world.