Build a Fan Base: What Musicians can Teach Writers

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While talking with Doretta about personal branding, one of the things we concluded was that musicians tend to do better than writers when it comes to expressing their personal narrative and selling their work. It seems quite ironic, considering that writers are in the business of telling stories (although when it comes down to it, art is usually about narrative no matter what form it takes).

It’s very sad and strange to me because writers and poets used to be the celebrities of the past. People would crowd into salons to meet writers or simply hear them speak; they would faint and shriek and (a true sign of fame) make up stories and wild rumours about writers. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know” as a description was not given to a musician or a painter or even a military guy, it was given to a writer with a clubfoot. Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain are just a couple of the writers who did sold-out speaking tours.

Now, I’m not saying that celebrity or fame is something that we should strive for. But what I’d like writers to understand is that they’re not helpless when it comes to selling their books–and you do want to sell your book, right? If your goal is just to sink into some kind of mid-list obscurity and have a job doing something else while you occasionally write a book that 1,000 people read, then you don’t need to read the rest of this post. But if you want to make a living off writing, then I hope this post can help you rethink your writing career. Yes, I know it’s all very capitalist, but so is poverty.

Building a core fan base

I’d like to first start by saying that it’s been more than ten years since I’ve worked for a major label, but the concepts behind the marketing techniques used back then are still valid. An artist or a band usually had to put in a ton–often a few years’ worth–of performances because very few new artists succeed without an initial fan base that they’ve earned through the grind of performing.

At the very early stages of their careers, artists had to go out there and perform anywhere they could find a spot, whether it was a school stage, a church basement, a mall, a bar, a club, a fair–anywhere that would have them. Every artist I ever worked with had at least one story about playing an empty venue–or even worse, venues with one person who inevitably would stand in front of the stage with their arms crossed and a scowl on their face hissing, “YOU SUCK!” at them.

This grind of performances accomplished two important things: it made the artists better performers–they would learn the tricks and techniques to keep audiences interested–and it helped them build a core fan base of people who loved their music and cared about their success.

1000 fans

There’s a concept called “1000 True Fans” that you can read about here, and it’s really something that successful musicians–whether indie or mainstream–have built their careers on. Overnight sensations are rare and usually don’t have careers that last.

For example, I remember when the Strokes first came out, and people were angry at them for coming from privileged backgrounds and said that their connections helped them become “overnight sensations”. But while being young and good-looking and privileged helped (and still does), they still had to put the work in. Before Is This It came out, they were performing every gig they could find for a couple of years, passing out flyers on the streets for their shows, and hustling their asses off. Privilege makes it easier to open doors, but it doesn’t build your fan base.

It’s the same story for My Chemical Romance, who also had a similar “overnight sensation” narrative when the truth is, the band was touring fairly heavily before Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (yes, MCR fans, I realize they had an indie label album before that, but it was Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge that got them mainstream success).

What this means for writers

One important thing that musicians recognize (that writers sometimes don’t seem to acknowledge) is that they need people to listen to their work. Knowing that you need people at the other end to appreciate your work so that you can make a living doing it shouldn’t affect WHAT you’re making. That is entirely up to you. But it should affect how you’re getting it out there.

By the time musicians needed the help of the industry to break their albums into the mainstream, they already had a core of fans. In fact, I think that a lot of artists wouldn’t have been considered priority for us in the marketing teams if they didn’t already have this fan base. These artists had to take charge of the first and most important step of reaching out to the people who would buy their albums and queue to see their shows and buy their merchandise.

Back then, it meant having to do the performance grind, but now, it could be as simple as putting out content on YouTube or Soundcloud and doing the Internet equivalent of passing out flyers to get people to watch. Musicians have a lot more options out there now, and so do writers, in fact.

So how can writers apply this to their own careers?

Produce content and make it accessible

One equivalent to performing your ass off is producing content and doing your best to get it out to people who will like it. Provide extras that people don’t need to buy. Write articles, posts, stories, poems–anything! The point is not to create buyers, it’s to create supporters, your fan base. Your supporters are the true heroes of your marketing, they will do everything in their power to make sure that you have a career.

I don’t understand why some writers turn away from free content. Yes, there will be people who will read it and move on, but there will also be people who will fall in love with what you’ve written and be your reader for life, and they will buy the work that you actually sell.

Another positive consequence of this is that you get to practice (and improve) your writing and you’ll also discover which ones resonate the most with people.

As much as possible, reach out to people yourself

You can’t just hope that your poor, overworked publicist does everything for you. Unless you’re a guaranteed bestseller, I can tell you for sure that they simply don’t have the resources and time to do a proper marketing campaign. The onus is on you to create that fan base that will provide the foundation of your sales, spread positive word-of-mouth (still one of the best marketing tactics out there), and stan for you, no matter how much your ass is scorched by Pusha T.

If a band hands someone a flyer directly, it has more impact then if a label parasite like me hands it to them. We both know I’m just doing my job, but a band needs you. No matter how amazing they are, a publicist can never promote someone’s work as effectively as the person who created it because they simply have no skin in the game.

Figure out who is in your core fan base

Is it young people? Middle-aged people? Men? Women? You know who they are? Great, now look for them. It’s like punk bands going to punk clubs to perform and rappers going to hip hop clubs. You have to know who the people who will love your work are and where they are.

You could go out to meetups or schools or book clubs or all kinds of organizations. Or you could hang out online in forums or social media groups. Make friends and share your content with them. This is the equivalent of passing out flyers and making people aware of what you’re doing.

I’m going to end this post by saying that not all musicians are successful, of course, but the successful ones–and I define “success” as being able to make a living from being a musician–have all done this. Now that the publishing industry is shrinking and has fewer resources for writers, if you want to be a successful writer, it may be time to take a look at how they’re doing it.

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