Friends: just don't invite them.
Being in a new band is a sure way to make sure you stay in touch with your friends. This because as a spankingly new band, nobody will have heard of you…meaning you won’t have any real fans, and will rely on your chums to provide the bums on the seats at gigs you play. As such you will find yourself staying in touch with even the most boring individuals just so that you can invite them to your next gig. We’ve all been there, and irritated lots of people in the process (or been irritated by the aforementioned boring gig invitees).
However, there comes a point where it’s prudent to start looking beyond your ‘friendbase’ and start trying to build a genuine ‘fanbase’. This 'having-a-fanbase' business, of course, is generally the key ingredient to being a popstar, but this essential fact is easy to forget – or wilfully ignore. Making proper fans is difficult and the soft option is to pester friends regularly to come along to your next show. And pester we musicians do – via phone, email, Facebook, letter, carrier pigeon…but it is ultimately a fairly self-defeating strategy.
What generally happens with friendbases is this: your first gig with your new band is a sell-out. All your mates, and your bandmates’ mates come out in force to support you. You feel like a rock star for 15 minutes, you end up getting off with your guitarist’s sexy but impressionable second cousin and, high on success, decide to put on another show a couple of weeks later. This show is reasonably well attended by your friends, but as you start to play your second shoegazing-hip-hop-grimey-post-rock number, you get a niggling feeling that there are quite a few mates who came to the first gig who didn’t bother to come along to the second. By the time your third gig comes around, you’re struggling to pull a crowd. By the fourth show, even your mum and dad are busy that night. No amount of Facebook-ing, tweeting or personal appeals is going to reverse this situation.
You shouldn’t be offended by this. After all, when you became mates with somebody you did so based on common interests; a shared concern for each other; a mutual love of Carry On films; delighting in some sort of bedroom peccadillo that might actually be illegal. Your best mate Charlie Chum absolutely did not befriend you just so that he could attend every single gig you are ever going to play in your life. And, what’s more, Charlie may adore you – but not your music. In fact he might not like music at all. So why subject a mate repeatedly to something he doesn’t like? Frankly, it’s not very nice of you. And besides which, Charlie prefers watching footie at home on a Monday night to trooping down to the local Dog and Duck for a gig, and has a very busy life involving 2 kids…which is why he is washing his hair by gig 3. You can't compete with football and nappy-changing (or both) indefinitely; the nappies ALWAYS win.
Besides all that, friends aren't evangelical about your music - most will view it as your hobby and who spreads the word about people's hobbies? - but real fans, when they get on the case, can seriously wax lyrical about you. So if you want to grow in popularity, you HAVE to build a fanbase (there is also the added bonus that by ceasing to invite your mates to gigs all the time you might stop losing friends and alienating people). The question is: how do you build this fanbase? It's very difficult, and involves loads of work, but based on my experience of building my own, er, shall we say 'boutique fanbase', and watching other (infinitely more successful) acts go about it, these are the main things you need to do:
1 Write great songs, and ensure they are stonkingly-well produced. Easier said than done of course, but if you don’t get the music right, nobody’s going to like it enough to become a fan.
2 Give some of this music away for free – in exchange, preferably, for an email address. Some acts are a bit sniffy about doing this, but people need to hear your tracks in order to be able to like them (hence the freebie) and you need some way to communicate with fans (hence the nabbing of an email address).
3 Find ways of targeting people who will actually like your music. If you happen to be the next Rod Stewart, maybe find some Rod Stewart fan groups on the internet and ask them (politely) to have a listen to your tracks, invite them to give some feedback etc. Find the correct audience: don’t go onto One Direction forums flogging your ‘Maggie May’-inspired EP.
4 Rehearse your ass off, because you will need to be a great live act in time for my next suggestion.
5 Play loads of gigs that are not 'yours' – i.e., where you are not topping the bill (or booking the venue and taking the door etc.). Put your ego aside for ten minutes (well, ten years) and play second fiddle to as many already popular bands as you can. In a nutshell, the aim of the game is to nick other bands' fans. And of course, don't bother playing live at all unless you are truly fantastic.
6 Try to capture as much data as humanly possible at each and every gig. Again, you need to stay in contact with the people who like your music. Use this data to invite people to the next show.
7 Repeat steps 1 to 6 until you are not relying on any cousins to make the crowd look decent.
If you manage all the above correctly, and are finding yourself in that happy place where you have a lot of genuine fans downloading your music and attending gigs, it’s time to take things a step further, by seeing if you can get some industry / media figures enthused about your act. It’s these sort of ‘filters’ / gatekeepers that can ‘upscale’ your project and increase the number of fans. This can be done via a lot of research into who's who in the music biz, creating big Excel spreadsheets of industry contacts, and approaching them extremely carefully and methodically with your music. Heck, you could even consider hiring the likes of Prescription to do the hard work for you. It’s really important however not to overdo the communications – just as your friends will get peeved by being nagged about your music, so will industry figures, journalists and bloggers. Often, the key thing is to ask for advice rather than a record deal – people in the entertainment industry tend to have big egos and love venturing an opinion, so you might have a better chance of forming a relationship with, say, a Svengali by acting like you find him/her interesting and getting their insights on the future of the CD (there isn’t one – you heard it here first) instead of bombarding them with your music.
Now, one last thought on all this: there is still a place for your friends – there are times when you will still REALLY need them. For example, in a crowd-funding project, or to support you at a very important showcase. You don’t need to write them off completely – you just need to think hard about when to blag a favour. And in the meantime, go out looking for real fans. Good hunting.