So you're a musician...Fantastic! Now how do you get people to actually notice?
You would think that all of the music lessons, band practices, and hours and hours of individual practice would be enough. That’s blood, sweat, and tears right there! These skills we possess as musicians are coveted. They're valuable assets. To go out and make a living as an artist or performer, isn’t that enough? I’m both elated and somewhat sorry to say that “No!” it isn’t enough. Not by a long shot. But don't despair—read on!
Have you ever driven down the highway and seen billboards for lawyers, dentists, surgeons, etc.? These are individuals who have an extensive and expensive education. Yet, after all of their hard work, they still have to “present”—or rather, “market”—themselves. Sometimes it may seem gimmicky, like the law office that specializes in getting rid of tickets, or the dentist that promises the pure white smile. In reality, great thought went into what niche these professionals would focus on and how they would get their message out to the world.
The same rules that apply to other professions also apply to musicians. While it may appear like Keith Richards just rolls out of bed looking like the textbook rock star, you might be shocked to hear that he actually curated that look with care. In fact, he did such a great job that "Keith Richards in sweat pants" is a completely different person than "Keith Richards in leather pants or torn-up jeans." The chains, rings, tattoos, necklaces, wrist bands, open shirt, fitted jackets—along with the carefree attitude—are all part of the look. In practice, he and the lawyer on the billboard are the same. (Though, I agree, Keith Richards is definitely cooler.)
As musicians, we too have to carefully and creatively consider how we want to deliver our message to the world. How do we want to be perceived? Where do we want to be found? Who is our audience? What is our specialty? What is our mission, and how do we live up to it? These are essential questions that all musicians should be considering, but especially anyone who has aspirations of being an artist.
Now, before we get carried away here, let’s make one thing crystal clear: Everything should be a genuine representation of you. Though it may take them a minute, people can see right through fake...and it never feels quite right to be wearing the wrong size shoes.
Here are 5 things to consider…
1. Physical Appearance
Rock Stars are like Batman. He isn’t really a superhero because he doesn’t have any actual super powers, but he is a superhero because of the choices he makes. He created his alter ego. He chooses to fight crime. He wasn’t born with any special abilities. Like Batman's heroic yet intimidating appearance, physical appearance for musicians is important because people have a tendency to listen with their eyes, but this isn't inherently bad. It just means the music they're hearing has to align with what they are seeing. For me, when I do gigs with Air Supply or any rock band, that means tight jeans, necklaces, bracelets, vest, blazers, leather, etc. When I do gigs for weddings or corporate events, that means black pants, black shirt, and maybe even a tie. If I showed up to either occasion and switched the look, I would quickly be fired.
When thinking about your own image, have fun! This isn’t a “cool” contest. Look at a band like Weezer. Their look is nerdy, and they made that so cool. Think about Nirvana and SoundGarden. Their look was that of the average person, someone who doesn’t really care what anyone thinks. At the time, that was absolutely intentional because it was in opposition to everything everyone else was doing. So, get creative!
Yes, as a musician—whether that be a songwriter, composer, sideman, or producer—you are your own brand. Your brand is the story of you through logos, colors, images, and videos. When branding is done correctly, your audience will know who you are and what to expect or anticipate musically. Music is currently delivered primarily digitally through Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, and other downloading and streaming platforms. It is then promoted digitally through social media on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok (throwback to the OG music streaming/social media site, Myspace!).
As an artist, it's important to ensure that your branding is consistent across all of these platforms. Your look, colors, logos, and messaging should be uniform. They also need to properly reflect you and your music. If my Instagram page was nothing but pictures of puppies, and then one day I put out a heavy metal song, people would be confused. This doesn’t mean my artist pages can’t have a picture of me and my pup, but if the ultimate goal is to bring attention to my music, I better make sure that's front and center.
First question: who is your audience? Second question: where are they? Is your audience on Instagram or TikTok? Are they in Los Angeles or Singapore?
These questions do have answers. If you are an artist trying to get your music heard, follow the leaders. Go on to social media and follow the artists that inspire you. Watch what hashtags they use, look at the type of content they put up, and study their following. For major artists, you'll notice their branding right away. You’ll notice that all of their content, captions, and overall profiles are uniform. You’ll notice that their posting is typically on a consistent schedule. You will also notice what platform has more engagement. At the end of the day, you want people to hear you, and all of this is to prime your audience so they hear you through the correct lens and become raving fans.
What are you going to do to engage with your audience? Putting out original music is important for any artist, but as we all know, songs, EPs, and full-length albums take a big chunk of time. It's important to consider how you're going to engage with your audience to keep them interested in and excited for your music.
Again, find models and study them. If you look at your favorite artists, they are always putting up bite-sized content to engage with their audience. This could be little personal videos, cover songs, professional photos, candid photos or selfies, contests, poetry, snippets of past performances or press, or even just random thoughts. In the beginning, just try things. See what works, keep that, and discard or refine the rest.
Music is like sports. They love you when you're winning, but are quick to forget.This is why reputation is everything in this business. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your talent is going to carry you to the top and keep you there. That isn’t how anything in life works. We’ve all heard the saying before, “It takes a village.” Make friends, and support those friends. Ask questions. Follow up. Find those individuals who are doing what you want to be doing, and reach out. Be honest. Be real. Be a fan first.
Your reputation is also important when it comes to your audience. The same rules apply. If you say you’re going to deliver something, deliver it. The artist/fan relationship is special. This bond can be lifelong, but only if trust is built and kept. There are no shortcuts to building trust. It takes time and consistency. The best idea is to start now, and never stop.
It may seem like a lot to consider, but when it all comes together, it’s magic. Don’t think too much about the destination. Enjoy the journey. Remember that presentation is a creative aspect of every individual's life, regardless of their profession. It’s something we get to consider each and every day. The only difference is that for artists and musicians, there are no limits. If backwards jeans can be a thing (which they were, I promise you) then anything is possible. You get to be the trend setters, the influencers, the leaders for your audience.
And now for a classic Spider-man quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Be good to your fans, and be good to yourself.