This Week in Independent Musicianry: Advice to Other Musicians

Money earned this week: $749

Shows played this week: Gaslight Gathering

Next show: Blastercon in Los Angeles, Friday May 10 at 9 p.m.

Is tonight the final mixing session for Giant Robot Album: I sure hope so


Yesterday I did a shop-talk Google Hangout with Nerds With Guitars and Debs and Errol. They asked me for advice on making music, making money, and growing audiences. Here is a summary of the best advice I have to give.

1. Make good work.

Nothing else matters. The first goal as a musician or as an artist or as a HUMAN is to make good work.

(The definition of what constitutes “good,” as well as the complicated intersection of “good” and “popular,” is not always clear. And yet “make good work” stands.)

2. Figure out the money thing.

This is different from “how to earn money as a musician,” which I am including last on my Advice For Musicians list because it ranks so far below everything else.

Independent musicianry is harder than other forms of freelance/indie work because it has so many associated overhead costs. You physically have to travel to perform shows. You also are responsible for 100% of the cost of your own merchandise in a way that other freelance artists (authors, I’m thinking of you) are not.

So you have to figure out the money thing. Often this means another flexible type of job. Sometimes it means savings. What it doesn’t mean is “do what you love and the money will follow.” Instead, figure out the money so you can do what you love.

3. The concentric circles model is back.

In Jonathan Coulton’s 2007 essay How I Did It, he explains that the standard audience growth model was to play in ever-widening concentric circles of fans, but the internet and sites like Eventful had made the concentric circle model obsolete.

Six years later, the concentric circles model is back.

Because there are so many talented musicians all using Twitter and Bandcamp and Eventful and all the other social networking sites, the fact that the internet exists no longer matters. Having an Eventful site is the equivalent of tacking a flyer to a coffee-shop bulletin board. You have to build your audience the old-fashioned way, by playing to small groups of people and using your talent combined with word of mouth to gradually increase the concentric circles.

(As with all things, YMMV. Some people hop out of the initial few circles very quickly due to luck or a high-profile promotion or something. And yet even getting BoingBoinged or Slashdotted isn’t enough to push you out of the noise anymore.)

4. Look for something no one else is doing.

The reason I started out writing songs about webcomics was because at the time nobody else was writing songs about webcomics. (This has since changed.)

That got me the initial attention from conventions and my initial group of fans. I then slowly increased my fan count, one show at a time, based on my talent and tenacity (the latter, in this case, just as important as the former).

There’s a balance between being gimmicky and finding something that hasn’t yet been done. Don’t be the nose-flute dude, because that just puts you in a box forever. Do look for topics, angles, instrument combinations, etc. that haven’t been tried before.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that people always seem to get mileage out of songs about Star Wars or Firefly, for whatever reason. (It is interesting that people are still writing songs about Firefly even though they’ve stopped writing songs about Harry Potter. I guess we know who won that round.)

5. Apply metrics and create reasonable goals.

I got this far in the conversation before actually addressing Nerds With Guitars and Debs and Errol's questions about how to make money and build audiences.

So here we go.

First, start tracking your metrics. This includes inventory, money made every month, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, whatever feels important to you. (Facebook likes don’t feel all that important to me.)

Then set some reasonable goals.

For example: I suggested that both Nerds With Guitars and Debs and Errol should aim for 50 new Twitter followers by the end of June 2013. This will probably require a combination of tactics, including:

  • Sending thoughtful, conversational @replies to people with whom they share common interests (that’s how I started following them, and please note that this is a one-by-one relationship building technique, not spammy spam spam)
  • Creating cross-platform things like YouTube videos in which audiences are asked to follow on Twitter (this is a lot of work for little return, but then again everything is when you’re starting out in this field)
  • Appearing on podcasts, blogs or otherwise showing up in other people’s work, which is what they’re doing with this post (so go ahead and follow @nerdswguitars and @debsanderrol)
  • Writing new music about some type of creative content that isn’t completely oversaturated and then sending it to the creator of that content, who may or may not repromote it to all of his/her fans (Nathan Fillion is not going to care; The Oatmeal might, and right now there is no song about the Goddamn Tesla Museum)

I also suggested they figure out how to sell $100 in downloadable music by the end of June 2013. How are they going to do that? Probably the first step is to get started on that Tesla Museum song.

Anyway, those are my advices, and I am curious if you have anything else to offer Nerds With Guitars and Debs and Errol.

  1. debsanderrol reblogged this from hello-the-future
  2. hello-the-future posted this
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Nicole Dieker. Freelance copywriter. Essayist (The Toast, Yearbook Office, Boing Boing, The Billfold). Occasional nerd musician. Every week I post how much money I earn writing.

view archive

Hire Me!




Ask me anything