As a musician, I’m familiar with the mindset. Over the years my own musical tastes have shifted, developed, and broadened with the advent of new influences from particular players or entire genres of music. These influences have shaped my creative capabilities into something more eclectic, more expressive, and more-so me. But as artists, we aren’t ever quite satisfied with who we are creatively; there’s always room to grow.
Growth from the perspective of an artist commercially is more complicated. There are a few additional barriers between point A and point B when a musician, or painter, or filmmaker attempts to expand as a service. Without getting into Porters Five Forces, Clustering, or SWOT analyses, we can agree that, generally, making it isn’t as simple as locking oneself away in a shed and repping real book charts until your chops melt.
One of the most difficult challenges to overcome – the one that most clearly separates professionals and novices in the industry – is the continued expansion of one’s fanbase. The first hundred ‘likes’ may be easy, as they’re often sourced by facebook friends and family out of complicity. The subsequent hundred or two can be earned by playing shows, but the growth regularly stops here. It stops when the same people are coming to your shows and you’ve no more facebook friends to hound. This is the wall that condemned your ska band to high school battle of the bands performances. This is the wall that’s keeping 99% of singer-songwriters off the playlist of my younger sister.
This first few hundred cooperating individuals are what I call an artist’s first sphere of fans – those with whom the artist has personally interacted with in exchange for support. The exponential growth beyond this point and the concept of “blowing up” all come down to an artist’s ability to mobilize these fans to help out. Once the members of an artist’s initial sphere reach out and share to their own personal spheres, that initial hundred becomes a thousand and, with any luck (or talent… right?), more.
I’m going to ask you to really dig deep to remember this next artist. While he’s phased out of the nation’s musical lexicon since his prime, he’s a perfect example of the difference between Nicki Minaj and Laybelle.
His name is Psy and he used to be a pretty big deal.
Psy’s initial following – his fans in South Korea or the savvy goldminers of YouTube who stumbled across his video for Gangnam Style – were quick to relay his work to their own personal networks. His first sphere expanded to a second sphere, which expanded to a third, etc. – outwards to over a billion YouTube views. It helps that his video was optimized for virality, since without something so damn endearing like a round man dancing like a horse it wouldn’t have merited the share in the first place. Nevertheless, from this example we can learn that without something a bit more tangible than a piece of music, it’s quite hard to turn your ‘likes’ into passionate foot-soldiers.
There are no explicit rules to accomplishing this, though there are a few pre-requisites. Firstly, be very sure of what is it you’re trying to say. Be able to say it without needing to take a breath in the middle. One of my favorite examples comes from a songwriter I worked with back in Boston – Dylan Ewen. He said this about his album:
“It’s about real life being a bummer, girls that suck, and porn. I hope you enjoy it. I really like Bob Dylan.”
From there, you can set out to create something tangible, whether it be a story, a video, a logo, a t-shirt, anything you can achieve. The second imperative is creativity! Keep in mind, when you give someone a cool thing, chances are they want people to know they have it. If it’s something that they can give away without losing their own, they want to be known as the one who found it and the one who gave it away.
It’s something to consider – while a truly great song can be your ticket, sometimes it takes a little something provocative to get things rolling. Be inspired, be creative, and consider how you can add something tangible to what you do.