Kacy Hill, Melissa Manchester On Building A Village Of Fans
Making great music is always a challenge. But making a career of making music presents a second challenge: finding an audience who enjoys your music enough to spend money on it.
New Orleans-based funk-soul collective Tank And The Bangas were announced as winners of the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk contest. The group has U.S. and U.K. tour dates scheduled through December
These days, with the traditional model of record sales and radio airplay having largely given way to downloads and streaming, artists now rely more than ever on profit-generating live performances and merchandising opportunities to sustain themselves. For many artists, song placements in film, television or advertising have replaced radio as a means to a wider audience and a decent paycheck.
Of course, one of the biggest keys — and potential roadblocks — to a sustained music career is social media. While Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud and other platforms have, in theory, made it easier for artists to connect with fans and introduce music into the marketplace, there's now so much digital chatter and material available out there that it makes it difficult hard for any one artist to cut through.
As a result, with a generation of listeners accustomed to hearing what they want when they want for free, every artist who enters the marketplace — from veteran artists and GRAMMY winners to emerging talent — has to figure out how to survive in an ever-shifting entertainment economy.
"Everything's for sale now, and I'm not sure what to make of that as a performer or as a fan," says Tyson Ritter, frontman of the All-American Rejects. The band, known for hits like "Move Along" and "Gives You Hell," has been touring in support of their first new recording in five years, an EP titled Sweat, and Ritter says he's very aware of a changed dynamic on the road.
"Not only have bands' interactions with fans changed but the fans' interactions with bands have changed as well," Ritter says. "Nobody wants mystique anymore — they want as much access as possible and are willing to pay for it. That's as much a contributing factor to the changing times as the bands wanting to monetize whatever they can.
"Bands have to make a living, but when you're selling meet-and-greets for $200, you're selling access to yourself and it has a lot less to do with actually making music."
On the recent tour, the All-American Rejects opted to use social media as a means of deepening fan connection rather than enhancing their bottom line: Through a Facebook promotion, fans who won tickets to a concert were also invited to join Ritter backstage for a free pre-show "tea time" visit.
Many in the industry feel that a focus on fan connection, rather than short-term profits, is the best long-term financial strategy, especially for emerging artists.
"If you want people to spend money, you have to give them something of value, and a big part of that is an artist's story," says Lily Golightly of No Big Deal Public Relations, whose clients include the electronic trio Cheat Codes and the GRAMMY-nominated rock band Highly Suspect. "You want people to feel they can become part of that story. Announcing that you have so many listens on Spotify or went to number one on Hype Machine is not a compelling story. Artists need to connect with fans in ways that really show who they are — through live performance, social media and everything they do."
From a record label point of view, the efforts to connect with fans shouldn't overshadow the very reason for connecting.
"One thing that's important is to not lose sight of why you're on social media in the first place and that's usually to promote your music, which needs to be memorable," says Chris Manak, founder of the celebrated L.A.-based independent label Stones Throw Records. "Some artists these days spend more time trying to promote something mediocre than they do trying to create meaningful that's worth promoting and that's not gonna be effective."
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That point is seconded by manager Sam Feldman, who is currently working with Jordan Smith, an exceptionally talented young singer who won season nine of "The Voice" and who now faces the challenge of leveraging a legion of TV fans into a sustainable career.
"You can work hard to build up followers all sorts of ways, but if you're a musician you can't forget that sooner or later you've got to deliver some music that people respond to."
"You have to prioritize the opportunities that really count towards building a career," explains Feldman, "and just getting your music streamed isn't enough to build a career on. In terms of marketing, things are always changing and you have to take advantage of it all, but the basics tenets haven't changed: You can work hard to build up followers all sorts of ways, but if you're a musician you can't forget that sooner or later you've got to deliver some music that people respond to."
In the realm of crowd-funding, fans have the opportunity to respond as directly as possible to financially support their favorite artists. GRAMMY winner Melissa Manchester has enjoyed a long, accomplished career marked with a catalog of hits, including "Midnight Blue," "You Should Hear How She Talks About You" and "Don't Cry Out Loud." But without a major label home, she launched an Indiegogo campaign to finance the recording and release of her 2015 album, You Gotta Love The Life.
Manchester recently repeated that strategy to create her latest album, The Fellas, a tribute to such personal favorites as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Nat "King" Cole. She first became aware of crowd-funding as a career option through her work as an adjunct professor at USC.
"For my students, this is just their version of normal. And since the complexion of the recording industry has changed so drastically I thought, 'Well, let's give it a go," Manchester says with a laugh.
"I was so surprised to see how interested fans are in the process of recording and putting it together. Some who donated enough were even invited into the studio to watch the albums be born. It's been a fantastic experience and it’s made me closer to the fans. It's very touching because I didn't know what to expect but now I really see where my 'village' is."
Kacy Hill recently released her debut album, Like A Woman, through Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label. The 23-year-old electro-pop singer/songwriter is doing all she can to launch a career and build up her 'village' of fans, whether it's performing live, releasing buzz-worthy videos, pursuing merchandising opportunities, and attempting to establish an authentic voice on social media platforms. But above all, Hill is trying hard to stay level-headed and focused.
"I'm trying not to panic," says Hill. "It would be easy for me to panic about a career in music right now because it seems like every time I open my phone — Instagram, Twitter and everything else — I feel pressured to be doing everything at once. Certain things are going to help and certain things won't, but it doesn't feel like there's any algorithm to it that you can follow.
"So, I'm just trying to be calm and centered and do what I enjoy doing most, which is making music."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)