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May/June 2022

by Vanessa McGowan

Road Rules: The Secret Sauce For Amplifying Your Audience

by Vanessa McGowan

Road Rules: The Secret Sauce For Amplifying Your Audience

The Secret Sauce For Amplifying Your Audience: When I was 16 all I wanted in the world was to be Jaco Pastorius. I bought the fretless bass, wore the headband, and learned how to play Portrait Of Tracy, trying to slip back 30 years and become my hero.

A few years later it was Bill Evans’ bassist Scott La Faro, then Dave Holland’s work with Chris Potter, before I finally realised the path to success wasn’t imitating the jazz greats of the past but leaning into my own unique playing style. To allow whispers of classical harmony and snatches of Broadway melodies to sneak into my solos, permit the hip hop grooves I loved to add some backbeat fun to my basslines and let my love of bluegrass and country find its place in my playing. To find my own unique voice – made up of seemingly disparate influences – rather than trying to emulate the players who’d come before me.

The key thing that sets you apart from all other musicians in the world, is you. And it’s the “you“ that is the secret sauce for all winning career-building plans. The “you“ in music is why no two love songs are ever the same, why there’s always room for another songwriter or band to be born and cherished, and why throughout history the world has never said, “OK, that’s enough, all the songs have been written and we don’t need any more musicians, thanks.”

Your unique set of experiences is what makes your music special. Your upbringing, culture, thoughts, and influences. The way to level up in your career is to invite people in. To get them amped about your career and artistic output by sharing the unique story of who you are. To be all in and all you. You share your story to grow your audience, and growing an audience is how you build a career.

Why stories?

Humans are hardwired to care about stories, and storytelling has been central to human development since language began.
“Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture,“ says Frank Rose of Wired Magazine. Simply put, we evolved into the storytellers we are because we didn’t have fangs and needed to develop problem-solving skills to stay safe from predators who wanted to eat us.

Problem-solving requires co-operation with other humans, and achieving unity within a large group of people means everyone working towards a common goal, often imagining outcomes of future potential events (aka ’if we all work hard to build this feed store together now we’ll have food in the winter months when our fresh crops have run out’). “Achieving this kind of persistence and unity requires imagining outcomes that haven’t yet come true, and of seeing your neighbor’s welfare as tied up with your own. And this is where story comes in.

In the days before written language – most of human history, in other words – the only way to create an idea that persisted from one day to the next and spread from one person to another was to somehow make it durable in our minds (or “sticky“, to use a popular bit of marketing jargon).“ says Carl Alviani on Medium. We are literally hardwired for stories. Don’t believe me? Let’s prove it…

Example one:

I was really excited because I got a new work opportunity that I thought was going to be a really great step up in my career. I turned down another pretty big opportunity so I could say yes to this one, and at first, I wasn’t sure if it was the right call, but now that I’ve had the experience I know it definitely was. Have I lost you yet? Snore…

Example two:

He tried to kiss me after his set one day, close enough to my cheek that he could get away with saying it wasn’t inappropriate, but so near to my mouth, it was clear what he was really trying to do. He was the bass player in the headlining band and I’d been trying to be friendly because I thought it would be a good networking move to know him, but now – cornered and alone in the dressing room with him – I knew I’d made a big mistake…You probably don’t care about my new work opportunity from example one but I bet you want to know what happened next in the dressing room!

An example of the power of sharing a message through story:

Message version:

You should always take a backup instrument to a gig in case your primary instrument breaks during the set because it’s very stressful when your guitar breaks and you don’t have a backup. I can feel your eyes glazing over as you zone out… try this one instead.

Story version:

I was on stage in West Virginia in a country music dive bar playing to a sea of white faces, red ball caps, and a handful of lost-looking WAGS. It was redneck heaven. We had just launched into the second to last song of the set when my bass sound started to crackle and sputter. My heart rate climbed quickly as I went into troubleshooting mode. Twiddling the guitar cable at the bass end first, then the pedalboard. No dice. I turned my back to the crowd to make sure the pretty blue light was still showing proof of life in the amp and the sound came back, clear and true. I turned back to the front to sing the next line and the signal went dead again. Turned back to the amp, signal back on. Having discovered the perfect 45-degree angle to the amp that my bass now apparently required to function, I finished the set with my back to the crowd, eyes fixed in anguish on the drummer. “You’re going to need this,“ he said in the green room after the show, handing me a vape pen. And you’re going to need to start traveling with a backup bass.”

Stories are how we connect with each other, and sharing through stories is how you get people to connect with your music and choose you over the millions of other artists in the world today.

It’s also what the industry wants to see from you.

I’ve been interviewing publicists, managers, label owners, music journalists, and publishers in Nashville for a book I’m writing, and they all say your story is the key thing that they look for, outside of the quality of the music, when deciding whether they want to work with someone. They want to see it in the content you’re creating. They have to know the stories behind your songs to be able to promote them, and it’s the main thing they need to see in your promotional materials to say YES to you. In short, they need to see you to invest in you. They need to trust you. They need to inherently want to ’buy in’ to what you’re doing and to do that, they need to understand you and easily see that others will too. Before you can share your story, you need to figure out these things:

  • Who you’re talking to
  • Where those people are
  • What you’re talking about

Who are you talking to?

You wouldn’t tell a story in the same way to your 5-year-old cousin as you would to your 30-year-old college friend, and it’s the same reason why it’s important to figure out who you’re actually talking to before you start telling your story online. We connect with people who use the same lingo as us and make references to things we know. We connect with people who show themselves to be like us. Once you know who your target audience is, you can make sure you communicate in a way that they are most likely to respond positively to. There are two simple ways to figure out your target audience: the mirror method, and competitor research.

Mirror Method

Often, your target audience is either like you or likes the things you like. If you love to create super nerdy odd-meter funk jazz, it’s likely that your target audience is other people who create super nerdy odd-meter funk jazz. This is especially true the less mainstream your music is. If you’re a classical music nerd writing film soundscapes you’re probably going to find other classical music nerds will dig your music too. The best way to cut through the noise online and grow an audience is to tell broad stories about very niche aspects of a very particular profession and creative experience.

Competitor Research

The competitor research method works well if you’re more of a mainstream artist. For example, if you’re a pop artist with a sound similar to Kimbra, go to her Instagram and check out the comments on her latest posts. If it’s mostly women who look like they’re between 16-25 and living in the US, then that’s a good starting point for defining your target audience. Do they seem to be musicians? Do they look like they’re into fashion? Are they trendy or not? By choosing an artist who is your ’competitor’ and digging around in their fanbase you’ll get an idea of the kind of people who are likely to become your fans as well.

Where are they?

Ultimately, the best way to build an audience is to re-purpose the same content for multiple channels: post the full video on Youtube, create short teasers for Instagram and Tik Tok, share stills on Instagram and Facebook, share stories of the making of the video on Facebook, and key takeaways from the experience on Twitter. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, the best way to get started is to focus on one platform and grow there before you start on a second platform. If you try and build on multiple platforms from scratch at the same time, you can just end up diluting the energy, time, and resources you have, and the result is a snail’s pace of growth on all of them. There are millions of monthly users on all the social media platforms, so you will not run out of potential new fans by focusing on just one (until you hit at least a million followers!).

The formula for success in choosing a platform is:

The platform you enjoy + where your target audience is = the platform you start on. You have to enjoy the platform or you will never do a good job on it. Once you’ve decided which platforms you enjoy, do some more competitor research on those platforms to see if artists similar to you are on there and seem to have a thriving fanbase. If they do, you’ll be able to as well.

What do you talk about?

The simple answer: yourself, but with your audience as the focus. You need to share about yourself in a way that makes your audience feel invited in. For someone to care about you, they need to see themselves in your content and connect with you through it. The way to attract an audience is to consistently share content that features your music, and to share the process and journey of creating that music to help people connect with you and it. The key to sharing the process is to stop sharing what you’re doing (releasing music, playing a gig, recording a song) and start sharing:

  • Who
  • Why
  • Where
  • When
  • How

You’re releasing a new song? Awesome! Tell me:

  • Who played on it?
  • Why did you write it?
  • Where did you record it?
  • When did you write it?
  • How did the recording process work?

Those mini-stories around the journey of recording a new song are what make your audience care about the song when it comes out. You grow your audience through sharing your story, and once you have an engaged audience you’ll be able to sell more music and merch, draw more people to shows, and create more buzz every time you release something new. Plus, Yo​​uTube and TikTok stars are proof: when you grow a highly engaged audience on your own, the industry will beat down your door to sign and work with you.

The fastest way to level up your career is to turn inwards. To figure out who you are, what’s important to you, and why you make music. From there, look up and look out. Share that unique journey with the people out there primed and ready to become your Superfans. Write stories for your community – from you. The rest is magic waiting to happen.

Vanessa McGowan is a Fender and Aguilar endorsee originally from NZ and is currently the musical director and bass player for Nashville Americana artist Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints. She is the founder of promusicguide.com – offering personalised coaching programs to empower musicians with creative marketing and career skills.