Statistically, at least according to an informal survey of bar patrons I conducted last weekend, Williamsburg and Bushwick are home to more musicians than most other parts of the city. Which should mean that all of us are more than familiar with the tired trope of the struggling musician who’s just waiting to be signed: the bands playing to the same group of 20 friends each week, and somehow guilt you into paying that $5 cover almost every time; your drummer who hops from piss-stained mattress to piss-stained couch while he’s waiting for his “big break”; that 300-press of your band’s CD you made that you’re now using as a nightstand. As much as New York is the place we all come to dream big, it’s also the place we watch those dreams, and our bank accounts, slowly shrivel and die.
Enter Williamsburg-based music industry veterans Jesse Cannon and Todd Thomas. Cannon has not only been producing and managing bands for more than a decade, with groups like Animal Collective, The Misfits, The Cure, Leftover Crack, The Menzingers and Man Overboard; he, along with his partner Thomas, has been covering the way the music industry ‘s been rapidly changing on his blog, musformation.com. And just this week, the two of them decided to turn that blog into a comprehensive, 700-page look and DIY guide to the real way the music industry works today: Get More Fans: the DIY Guide to the New Music Business.
Free Williamsburg: Why did you write this book?
Jesse Cannon: For years, whenever bands would come to my studio, they would ask me what they should do to promote the record. I found myself writing down the same things for each band over and over.
Todd Thomas and I had the idea to start Musformation.com as a place for answers for bands who wanted to learn about the business. The idea that music promotion and creation was sort of a black art seemed silly. Since we often found ourselves being jaded to the world of music, we figured if we gave this information out it may help level the playing field, so that shitty bands promoted by big major label money wouldn’t have as huge of an advantage over DIY groups.
FW: Who’s doing the DIY music thing really well? Who sucks at it?
JC: Metric have really shown the world how it’s done. There’s a quote in our book where they talk about how the songs they give away for free are also the ones they sell the most of. I see them doing smart things, like hiding free tickets to their sold out shows around town and tweeting it or cool contests. Circa Survive, Macklemore, Alex Day and Pretty Lights are also doing cool stuff. But most of all it’s the things that all these tiny little DIY dance acts and punk bands are doing that are really cool. Basically if you are taking the time to treat fans special and work hard creating cool things, you’re doing it well.
FW: In your book, you make the strong argument that bands should give their music away for free. Why is that?
JC: There are too many ways out there already that let people easily consume music for free. If you put a dollar sign in front of your music before someone’s even heard it, it puts you at a disadvantage.
Keep in mind, just because your music is free today doesn’t mean it needs to be tomorrow, or that you can’t also put it on iTunes, Bandcamp, Spotify and Rdio for people to buy.
FW: So does that mean it’s getting easier or harder to “make it”?
JC: The most accurate data I’ve seen said that there are about 2 million different active musical projects right now. I’m a pretty big music nerd, but I still only have 40,000 songs in my iTunes, spanning 50 years of music. So now out of 2 million projects, you have a 1 in 25,000 chance of getting into my library. You figure you need to get into about 50,000 people’s library in order to get any sort of fanbase that will help make you a living.
The odds aren’t good, but they certainly aren’t anything to give up over. Most people that I know who make big sacrifices like health insurance and poverty when starting out, and really work a 70 hour week on their music can get some sort of recognition if they keep at it for a while. I have very rarely seen anyone who really worked hard, instead of just doing what’s fun, absolutely fail.
FW: OK, we’ll bite. Give us some advice. What five things should most bands should be doing?
- YouTube – The #1 way people discover new music is YouTube, meaning you should be putting way more emphasis on YouTube than on any other social network. Make as many videos as possible, and link to free music and your other videos in the description section.
- Email Adresses – I’ve always despised trying to get people to sign up for emails at my shows. But I can say for sure that while you may worry that this is tacky or annoying, nothing is better at keeping fans more up to date with what you’re doing than an email list. Facebook and Twitter are overhyped for sure, but email will always be effective.
- Relationships – The days of being a rock star dick, or ignoring your fans, are done. You need to be open and talk to your fans regularly, answer tweets and comments, and let your fans see the person, not just the band, they’re interested in.
- Online Radio – Most bands don’t know that they can easily get their music on online radio like Pandora, Earbits and Jango — all of which expose them to countless new fans who already like their style of music.
- SoundCloud Groups – Most types music have a SoundCloud group. Become an active member in it, and you’ll connect with the right people in your genre.
FW: Any shout outs? What are the best show you’ve been to lately?
JC: Seeing Todd’s band Sensual Harassment is always inspiring. They mix a rock aesthetic with awesome classic dance songs really well. Jacob 2-2 does really nerdy dance music with stunning visuals. Jim Campilongo plays The Living Room every Monday and you would be hard pressed to find a more captivating set of musicians playing together. Anytime you get the chance to see Runny play you are in for the most frightening site you have ever seen. The Naked Heroes consistently blow me away with the power they emit from a stage. Hey Anna have some of the funnest surfy, indie girl pop jams out there. Iconaclass does some really cool hip hop nights at Don Pedros too.
Get More Fans: the DIY Guide to the New Music Business is available from Amazon on on their website. Cannon and Thomas’s blog is musformation.com.