Guest Column: Big Scary Monsters
I started writing this some weeks ago, sitting in the back of our pimped up little hire car as we sped across the US, enjoying the unbelievably good US classic rock radio and relishing the chance to turn onto a new road every 150 or so miles. Unfortunately, thanks to the busy nature of the trip and the ensuing email catch-up (welcome home!) it has taken me until now, sitting in my front room in drizzly Oxford, only just back into sleeping on UK time and proudly sporting a “Don’t Mess With Texas” t-shirt (just one small part of my strong new tourist wardrobe), to find time to sit and write this thing up. Lets start at the start shall we?
The initial purpose of my trip, this was my first visit to South By Southwest and I’ve spent a fair amount of time since wrestling with the best way to describe what goes on and just why it’s such an amazing experience. Alcohol abuse certainly gets an honourable mention. As does the heat. Bands playing in, on and outside of every single building on 6th Street is as daunting as it is deafening, and the pizza place pumping out Pig Destroyer owned by a 60+ year old man who names everyone by the colour of their shirt (“$4 please, Green Shirt”) is an experience within itself. I can understand why people don’t enjoy SXSW but for me, with no agenda apart from having fun, and no pressure apart from my desire to find suncream, it was perfect and the fact that I came away having made some unexpected new friends and some interesting new ideas for the label were the cherries on the redneck cake.
My naivity saw me leave the UK planning on seeing in excess of 20 bands per day. The reality was more like 20 over the course of the whole week. I finally lost my Dananananaykroyd live virginity and came away glowing, feeling refreshed, respected and keen to tell my friends. There was even cuddling afterwards. Rolo Tomassi, our outward bound travel companions and frequent gig going buddies were on fine form, ripping up Austin at every opportunity. Our old friends in Anathallo played my dream set, Kevin Devine was everything I’d hoped for and more and Trash Talk had a circle pit raging before even playing a note. Tera Melos are officially the best band I’ve ever seen play in a car park (and that includes the rap metal act we laughed at Thursday night. Yep, turns out that genre does still exist. Who knew?), Look Mexico were pop genius and HEALTH rounded the whole thing off by blowing away any last night cobwebs. Happy and content, a healthy March tan and adrenalin keeping the tiredness at bay, 2010 has a lot to live up to.
With the musical responsibilities out of the way it was time for us to hit the road. Four guys (myself; a label owner, a PR agent, an A&R guy and a journalist – the UK music industry elect) hired the most badboy four wheels we could get our hands on and mapped out a route taking us nigh-on 1000 miles due East across the States.
A rodeo, with pig races, Western shoot-out, freak show and racist taxi drivers included, Houston, the 4th largest city in the States where we saw all of three streets, two pubs and one hotel room, got drunk in a clothes shop and danced on a bar to the first Hundred Reasons record, jazz on every corner of New Orleans and the swamp tours of Louisiana were a blast. Being warned to get out of Mississippi and the ghost town that is Birmingham, Alabama were a little less entertaining. Staying in the heart of a city (the capital city, at that) where the restaurants shut at 5pm, bars are as rare as seeing another person walking down the street and we found ourselves singing famous British sporting TV shows theme tunes to keep our spirits up, only to eventually stumble across the one and only open drinking establishment, inexplicably boasting a signed, framed Frank Turner poster on the wall. Confused, we next find ourselves drunk in an Atlanta shopping mall food court and then it’s on to New York and good times wandering around Times Square with Andrew WK. So far from reality, coming home was difficult to comprehend.
1000 True Fans
I spent a lot of time in the car in a strange, almost insomniac state. Not quite asleep but never properly awake and considering the company, music industry conversations were never hard to come by. We talked about illegal downloading, the decline in magazine sales and, without wanting to put too vague a title on it, ‘the future of music in general’. It was interesting to hear everyone’s points, each of us coming at it from a slightly different angle with varying priorities and interests. With Andrew in NY the circle felt complete, getting an artists opinion thrown into the mix, but whichever way you looked at it, and no matter who was speaking, the underlying tones were the same: The value of content, connection and honesty have never been so important.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an article I read over Christmas called '1000 True Fans'. The basic premise being that a thousand people who love your band and are willing to spend $100 a year on you (be it on CDs, gig tickets, t-shirts or whatever else) is enough to sustain a band full-time, and that’s before you factor in the casual fans who’ll spend somewhere below that figure, which could feasibly increase your gross takings substantially. It’s an interesting concept and my first reaction was surprisingly confident. Perhaps I’d missed a couple of those zeroes as my second thought wasn’t quite so boastful. How on earth do you find 1000 people, get them to fall in love with your music AND keep them coming back? People are fickle and the wonders of the internet means that you’re not competing with every single band in the whole world. That’s a lot of bands and there’s a recession going on right now, in case you haven’t heard.
I attempted a bit of market research this week as I struggled to find a solution to this problem. First I considered the old street team model. Don’t let the name put you off, dirty little kids with grubby handfuls of flyers getting up in your personal space whilst you’re minding your own business queuing for a gig is no more appealing now than it was 10 years ago, but maybe – just maybe – there’s a way to embrace technology and find a way to reach new people and motivate them with your art. My second query was that of people’s passage to new music. This one received an amazing response both in the comments on the initial blog post and also on a couple of forums, although unfortunately brought about no obvious solutions. Support slots as shows are easier said than found and I can only control my own list of Myspace top friends. I’m starting to think this might be a little further out of my hands than I’d hoped.
A strange, incomplete note, to end this on. I would love to be able to finish the story and give you a winning formula to find your 1000 fans, but right now I’m as stumped as the next man. That said, I have my broken notebook, some leftover Easter egg and Hot Water Music on the stereo, so if ever I was going to hit on a groundbreaking solution, it will surely be today. How do you promote your band? If you were trying to find 1000 true fans, how would you go about it? Have you seen any bands managing this well recently? As ever, comments below are welcomed or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org is also more than fine.
Next month I’m off to The Great Escape in Brighton (check out the BSM showcase at The Hobgoblin on Sat 16th May. This Town Needs Guns, Blakfish, Shapes and more. Doors at 4pm. Free entry. JAG, right?) so expect more drunken festival tales of bands, beaches and hopefully 1000 people.