Building an audience was once a lot simpler. If you loved what someone did, then you went to see them when they came to your town. Record labels and radio stations acted as filters and only the “best” stuff got thru. Then payola reared it’s ugly head and stuff that couldn’t have made it on its own suddenly showed up on the charts and on the airwaves. Labels once did things like shipping enough units to make it go gold or platinum and then take them back as returns later, just to create the initial buzz. We have now come to this place in time where putting out a CD doesn’t mean that you have created art; reviews mean nothing as everyone has great reviews; and people are not coming to the shows because you had a hit song. They need much more to think of you as an act they want to see. Previously, you built an audience and that in turn became a recording career. Now you make a recording and hopefully after that you become an artist with a constituency. Let's go back to basics and see what we come up with.
Here’s the way I first built an audience when I moved to the new town of Santa Cruz. I went into a local bar called the Crowsnest (http://www.crowsnest-santacruz.com/) that had solo acts. I began playing on a Sunday night, as that was the solo act night. I played originals almost exclusively and I did forty five on and fifteen off for four sets, starting at 8pm.
Now I already had a recording contract and an album out, but I wanted to play while I was off the road and I thought that once a week in front of an audience would be enough to keep my chops up (given that I practice every day).
They had never heard of me and I actually had to audition for a lovely woman named Rachel. She liked what she heard and hired me for a pittance. But I didn’t care, I just wanted a place to play, a residence as it were.
For about a month I played there every Sunday and then, people began actually coming in just to hear me. Those that didn’t like what I did stopped coming on Sunday nights I guess, so I began to get more and more a crowd that was coming just for me. As the room filled up, the money went up (I always had to ask for the raise, which they cheerfully gave me).
After months of doing this, I was a local celebrity of sorts, and as it became known that I was actually a recording artist, even more people began coming in. I don’t know if this would work in this new millennium, but I’m willing to give it a try.
Right now I’m looking for someplace in Los Angeles that I can play once a week whenever I’m off the road. It has been difficult to do this year as I have a new solo CD out (www.jamesleestanley.com/eternalcontra.html) and have been going out every chance I get to perform anywhere in the country.
But I digress. Find a room that will let you play every week. That is the key. If you play once a month or once every six weeks, it’s not gonna work. And it is important to charge something to see you. I have played many places for free and find that I rarely sell CD’s to that audience. If people must pay to see you then they come in with a subtle but significant view of you as a perceived value. If the music is free, why should I pay for the CD? You get what you pay for in this caveat emptor country
I also went to the local high schools and offered to come and do free lunch time concerts for the students if they liked. As schools have no budgets for music, they welcomed me with open arms. And when those high school students becames adults, they came to my shows,and reminded me that they first heard me in their high schools. I didn’t realize that I was cultivating an audience. I was just looking for places to play.
You have to play every place that you can, because you are going to gather a few folks every time, and at some point these folks become a crowd. And consider this, if you have only so much time and so much money to spend promoting yourself, it is better to spend it in a smaller area. If you sell a thousand CD's nationwide, no one knows you are there, not a ripple. Sell a thousand CD's in your home town, and you have created a buzz. A place to start.
So the short clue here, is find some place to play and play there consistently until you have found a core audience of people who appreciate what you do.
I will tell you that in this media overload world, it’s not going to be as easy as it once was, but the fact remains that if you do the work and are prepared as an artist, you are going to impact people and they will come back.
I am always amazed (I’m sixty one) that people of all ages and tastes respond to me and my music when I play live. Music is universal. Practice. And play live. That’s the beginning of building an audience.