The idea that more people show up because more money is spent on “broadcast” show promotion is false.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
I don’t know if anybody plays “Magic: The Gathering” any more, but that was the best metaphor I could think of.
There is a persistent myth in the music industry that more promotion = more concertgoers. This myth is untrue. (There are true myths, at least in my experience, but that’s a philosophical discussion for another time.)
Now, what IS true is that “the word” regarding an upcoming show does need to get out. Makes sense, right? If nobody knows about your upcoming gig, they probably aren’t going to show up. The problem is making the assumption that, just because someone knows about your gig, they WILL show up without fail. Of course, at an intuitive level, we know that’s not true. Even your best friends – people who love your music, or the venue, or whatever, don’t always turn up when given the opportunity.
For some reason, though, when it comes to marketing and promotion, we shut off this particular piece of knowledge and start acting like dollars and effort will force things to happen. As a result, money and effort is expended out of proportion to the returns it might bring. This leads to frustration, anger, and also less money for other things. Things like gear. And also food.
Fortunately, I think there’s a fix. The fix doesn’t solve the problem of people showing up, but it does solve our internal problem of believing a lie. The fix, like all troubleshooting, starts with understanding what’s broken.
“Broadcast” Advertising Is A Risky Investment
A quote attributed to John Wanamaker goes like this: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Whether or not he actually said it, the quote illustrates the problem with advertising your show, album release, or anything else via traditional means. It’s hard to know if mass marketing is effective or not.
Traditional media is broadcast in nature. That is to say, it gets fired off into the public with no (or minimal) targeting. Sure, a publication, radio station, or TV production may have its own target audience, but the actual delivery medium effectively “radiates” to a general area. With the exception of their streaming services, TV and radio transmissions fly out with minimal directivity. Folks either tune in or don’t, but the signal still arrives at their location if they’re in range. That transmission power is lost if folks aren’t listening. The same analogy applies to print. Sure, The Salt Lake Tribune, SLUG, and The City Weekly target where they put their distribution stands. Even so, once the papers get to those stands, there’s no targeting at all. The “signal” is just out there, and you don’t immediately (sometimes ever) know if it reached any particular person or didn’t.
This is why traditional media advertises their advertising services the way they do. (So meta! It’s like a reflection of a reflection.) They say things like, “We reach thousands of people across the Wasatch Front. A percentage of these people buy from radio/ TV/ newspaper ads. Advertising with us works!”
Think about that last paragraph. Promotion via traditional media is a form of gambling. It’s really nothing more than a bet based on percentages – like Roulette, or Poker. If your product has a general appeal, then the percentage is in your favor. If your product is niche, then you’re making a risky bet.
Live music is a niche market. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of people who like to attend shows. The issue is that there usually aren’t a lot of people who want to attend YOUR show. So, just telling them that your show is out there isn’t going to turn them into a customer.
If you want to boil it down, you can say this:
Let me lay a couple of examples of well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective marketing on you.
- I once did an all-ages show for a band that wanted to make a splash in Salt Lake. The whole night was theirs. They spent money on radio spots, flyers, the whole thing. As I recall, about 10 people showed up to a 200 capacity room. To the best of my knowledge, all of them were existing fans.
- I once did a show where the venue invested in a “far more extravagant than normal” newspaper ad for the show. It was a good chunk of the page, and in full color. The act came from a good, “name” pedigree. The show night was probably in the top 10 of the slowest nights in that venue.
Of course, I recognize that two examples isn’t a huge sample size. At the same time, I feel that it’s representative of what’s going on.
So…watcha gonna do? Take heart! The news isn’t all bad. Actually, the news is pretty good.
Do What’s Effective, Then Stop. Immediately.
The pretty-dang-good news is that you – yes YOU, you eating the sandwich over there – are your own media outlet now. (Remember my article about that?) On top of that, you’re not just a media outlet. You’re a laser-targeted media outlet.
If the marketing available to bands, artists, and venues were a guided munition, it would be able to home in on a target the size of a cell phone (not one of the big ones, either) in the dark, during a violent hurricane.
…and this isn’t because of studies. It’s not because of polling. It’s not because of statistical genius.
It’s because of social media.
There are a million lectures to be had about the power of social media, so there’s no need for me to repeat very much. What I will say is this:
You don’t have to throw money at traditional media, hoping that someone might listen. You have Facebook likes. You have Twitter followers. You have people who look at your pictures on Instagram. You have people who have decided to listen to you, and you know who they are. Right now.
Yes, I know that capturing the attention of those folks is an issue. That piece of the discussion is beyond the scope of this article, although you might want to check into the resources that Carlos Castillo posts.
The upshot? Spend your precious money and energy on reaching the people that you know are already interested in some demonstrable way. Actually, because social media is effectively subsidized, you only have to directly spend energy. Ask the people who have already taken the trouble to “declare for you” to pass the word. Only some of them will, but the end result is still more effective than throwing a message into the howling, black vortex of broadcast media…and then hoping for the best.
Then, once you’ve reached out to the people who have already said that they want to listen, stop.
I mean it.
Give yourself permission to quit promoting after you’ve done all that will actually be effective.
It’s really hard, surprisingly, so make sure to practice.
Even in the music business, which is supposedly a very free-love, touchy-feely sort of place, there’s this incredible undercurrent of having to do an “acceptable” amount of work on a show. The undercurrent is so strong that people will actually spend time and money that they shouldn’t, doing things that don’t actually work, all to satisfy that sense that there’s a certain amount of “tired and used up” that must be achieved before something becomes legitimate. It’s all part of the competition based on work that I’ve come to deeply dislike.
I urge you not to do things that are ineffective simply to say that you’ve done them.
Do what matters, and then move on. Give yourself permission. Even better – give others you’re working with, like bands on the same bill, and the venue you’re playing at, permission to stop after they’ve done what works.
…and keep track of what works. Flyering (which is a form of broadcast media, I assure you) isn’t something that I see as working very much. However, if you can positively determine that it’s effective for you, with real numbers to back up your conclusions, then go for it! If nobody that follows you on Twitter is actually interested in your shows, then don’t sink a lot of time into marketing your shows on Twitter. If Facebook does everything you need, post to Facebook and then let things ride. Do what works for you, and avoid being lazy, but also recognize that all you have to do to avoid being lazy is to do what’s actually enough. Adding on a bunch of useless activity is just getting tired for the purpose of internal bonus points.
Marketing and promotion for shows isn’t magic. It doesn’t conjure an audience out of thin air. If you’ve done what you can, you’ve done what you can.