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12 simple steps to building a besotted fanbase from scratch

Learn Amanda Palmer's 12 simple steps to building a besotted fanbase from scratch.....without having a hit single

Learn Amanda Palmer's 12 simple steps to building a besotted fanbase from scratch.....without having a hit single | gigomi
Amanda Palmer's 12 simple steps to building a besotted fanbase (photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Are you struggling to get people to listen to your music?

How would you like a fanbase who, if you asked them for $100k to finance a new album, would gladly send you $1.2 million?

It happened to Amanda Palmer.

Amanda who? Don’t worry if you don’t know who she is. Not many do. (Over the last few days I dropped her name into a dozen conversations with people in the music industry. About half of them hadn’t heard of her.)

During our podcast conversation, Phil Nelson mentioned Amanda’s book, The Art Of Asking, and the TED talk that led to her writing it. He thought she had some useful advice for aspiring musicians.

I have to admit that there was something about Amanda Palmer that I found irritating. The photos I saw, the music I tried; it was not really for me. Even though I found some of the points she raised in her TED talk interesting, the way she presented them grated on me. But I decided to persevere. I read the book.

And I’m glad I did.

It’s pretty bloody impressive!

There are loads of useful tips and tactics to help you move from having few - or no - fans to growing a devoted following who can’t wait for your next record or show.

I strongly recommend that you read or listen to the book yourself. These are the 12 things Amanda Palmer taught me about building an audience from scratch.

How and where do you find an audience?

Conventional wisdom is that you always go after the biggest possible audience. Wrong!

Amanda suggests you don’t worry about how big your fanbase is, but concentrate on finding the right fanbase for you.

#1 Most people will never be interested in you or your music

Before she started playing music, Amanda spent 5 years as a street performer. She stood stock still as a statue on a milk crate in a long white wedding dress, white face makeup and a wig. She called her creation The Living Bride. When someone put money in her hat, the statue came to life and presented them with a flower. Millions walked past her over the years. And 99%+ ignored her. Even though she stood out like a sore thumb, almost nobody looked up.

This is a perfect metaphor for a life as an artist. No matter how good your music is and how well you perform it, most people will not look up.

#2 How much money do you need to live on?

Most people didn’t look up at the statue. But some people did. And some of them really got it. The statue spoke to them and so they put pennies and dollars - even the occasional $20 note - in the hat. They were delighted when the statue came to life and gave them their flower.

Amanda Palmer quickly found she could regularly make $100 in 3 hours. In the 1990’s you could live on $100 a day. She realised that you don’t need to win everyone over to make a living, you only need some people - the people who get you.

#3 How steely are your balls?

Getting used to being ignored while performing & continuing to climb back on the milk crate and perform each day is a great skill for the gigging musician.

As Amanda writes. “I highly recommend street performing over attending a conservatory to any musician , especially if they’re going into rock and roll : it wears your ego down to stubbly little nubs and gives you performance balls of steel .”

#4 Your most valuable commodity is time, not money

Three hours as a statue and Amanda could afford to live. She had to live frugally but she no longer needed to work dead end jobs. It gave her 21 hours every day to write songs, practice, experiment, find like-minded friends, throw parties, build a network.

#5 Concentrate on the people who get you

When Amanda formed her band The Dresden Dolls with drummer Brian Viglione they went after an arty crowd. They looked odd. It was just the 2 of them on stage. Amanda banging away at a flower-festooned piano and Brian on drums. They played fast and loud and not very well. They wore vintage clothes - often cross-dressing - and white face makeup and looked grubbily glamorous. They described their music as “Brechtian punk cabaret”. They were clearly never going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

All those that turned most people off acted like signposts to the people who got them.

By defining who they were not for, they defined who they were for.

And they found an audience.

#6 Concentrate on the people who get you

Yes, I know I wrote that already. But it's so important it is worth the duplication.

The Dresden Dolls eventually signed to a label that is part of Warner Music. The label had big plans for them and advanced them money to make an album. A whole marketing and promotion plan was put in place to break the act in the States and internationally. The album came out and sold 25,000 copies in its first week. Amanda was delighted. She thought it was a huge number for week one and a great start to the campaign. The record company didn’t agree. They thought it was a disaster, They pulled the promotional plan and the album died a death.

The Dresden Dolls left the label. Amanda Palmer went solo. (Don’t worry, she and Brian are still friends and still reunite regularly as The Dresden Dolls.)

She also went independent. Ignoring conventional record companies, she put her records out for free and asked her fans to pay what they wanted. She was one of the first to do this. Like the hat in front of The Living Bride in Harvard Square, her bank account filled with money from her fans as they chipped, enough for Amanda to make a living and continue to make and release music.

In 2012 she decided to try to use the new crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, to raise money to pay for the cost of recording and promoting a new album. She offered a range of products from getting a digital download of the album for $1 to having your portrait painted by her (& dinner with her) for $10k. She hoped to raise $100,000. It took her less than 24 hours to make this amount. When the Kickstarter campaign ended, the total was almost $1.2 million.

The interesting thing was the number of people who contributed.

Just short of 25,000 people.

There are people out there who are into you and your music but how do you build a deep connection with them?

As with all relationships the initial attraction is super important, but relationships prosper and grow (or wither and die) depending on how you act on a day to day basis.

#7 Always talk to your fans at the merchandise table

Building a fan base  gigomi

Amanda and Brian would make a point of going to the merch table after a show. They would sell stuff of course but the real reason they’d make this a priority was to spend time with the people who came to the show. They would chat, take photos, share drinks, sign autographs, listen and learn. Often the merch table session would last longer than the gig.

Talking to your fans is a great way to get to know them and for them to get to know you.

#8 Be religious in collecting email addresses

The other thing they did at the merchandise table was ask every fan for their email address. Amanda was zealous about typing them onto their mailing list and then emailing the list to tell them what the band was up to.

Email seems old fashioned in this age of social media but it is, along with a mobile phone number, the most reliable, direct, effective way of getting in touch with your fans.

Social media are great ways of connecting with an audience but if the social media platform decides you are not welcome any more, you will lose all of your followers overnight. A disaster!

Couldn’t happen to you? It happened to Donald Trump. And if it can happen to the President of the United States, nobody is 100% safe.

#9 Be communication curious

Reading Amanda’s book is like a history of communication of the last 20 years. She tries every way of communicating with her fans.

From flyers posted on walls to email to websites and blogging, texting, social media, YouTube, TED talks.

And she bends them to her task which is building her relationship with her fans.

She uses Twitter to organise what she calls ninja gigs - spontaneous, informal shows which she announces on Twitter telling people the day, the time and the place to meet.

#10 Communicate when you have nothing to sell

People see through cynical marketing stuff these days.

Bombarding your fans with marketing when you have things to sell and then silence when you don’t may have worked in the dim and distant past but it doesn’t cut the mustard now.

If you only want to sell me stuff, why should I love you?

#11 Treat your relationship with your audience like a real, committed partnership

How do you get to the stage that you can ask your fans for $100k to make an album and they respond by giving you $1.2m? You do it by building trust. Your fans need to trust you and the only way you gain it is by developing a relationship with them over many years.

Amanda puts an incredible amount of time and energy into her relationship with her fans: “Like all real relationships , my “ special relationship ” with my fans wasn’t some shtick that I came up with at a marketing meeting . On the contrary , I’ve spent many marketing meetings banging my head against a long conference table . Throughout my career , the fanbase has been like one big significant other to me , a thousand - headed friend with whom I have a real , committed partnership . I don’t take vacations from communicating without warning . We share our art with one another . They help me run the business by feeding me constant information . I cop to my mistakes . They ask for explanations . We talk about how we feel . I twitter to say good night and good morning , the way I would with a lover . They bring me food and tea at shows when I’m sick . I visit them in hospitals and make videos for their friends ’ funerals . We trust one another . Occasionally , I’ve broken up with fans . Some have broken up with me.”

#12 Learn to live with the trolls

Sadly if you put your head above the parapet someone, somewhere will want to say some horrible things about you and to you. Usually anonymously.

It's an unfortunate fact of life.

If you are in the audience building business - and as a musician you are - you will attract these nasty comments.

Even though Amanda has mastered most ways of communicating with fans she still gets trolls and the trolls still hurt. We are all human and vulnerable. We all have to work out how to deal with the trolls.

Amanda has a technique which helps her. It might help you. She imagines that the hurtful comments were not made about her but directed instead at the Dalai Lama. She imagines the spiritual leader reacting to them and finding compassion for the author of the comments, who must surely be deficient or deeply damaged in some way to do what they do. This technique puts a distance between the comment and you. It is worth trying. If the Dalai Lama doesn’t work for you, Amanda says… “….it may work to use Jesus, Joan Baez, Yoda, or your kind-eyed but strong-as-an-ox great-aunt Maggie.”

Next steps

You may be a way off from having to deal with trolls right now.

You may be looking for your first fan, or your second, of your fiftieth. Don’t worry. Everybody has to start somewhere.

I suggest you start by deciding who your music is for. Think about:

What genre are you operating in? Metal? Drill? RnB? Punk? What does music in that genre usually sound like? Does your music sound like that? How can you make it sound like that while giving it your own twist?

Do people in your space have a certain look? Think about how you want to dress, your hairstyle, your make up. Again, how can you give it your own twist?

What do you feel strongly about? Veganism? Peace and love? Becoming extraordinarily rich? Bringing about the destruction of society? Can you find a way of feeding your ideas into your work and the way you present yourself?

Each of those things will send most people in the opposite direction but will thrill the right people.

Ignore the people who ignore you.

Concentrate on welcoming the people who come towards you.

And, if you can, get their email address so you can talk to them some more later on.

And talk regularly.

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