Musical niche - image of a flute on top of some sheet music

Musical niche - image of a flute on top of some sheet music

A recurring source of bun fights in the Prescription office is my general distaste for what I would term ‘silly’ music genre names involving lots of hyphenation, and my colleagues’ enthusiasm for bandying references to future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house around the place. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that such terminology is important in today’s music industry and to stop slagging it off in Prescription articles that might be read by purveyors of well, future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house or the journalist(s) that dig(s) it. And as I prepare to be rapped over the knuckles or caned soundly across the backside for daring to open this article with yet another swipe at portentous genre names, I contemplate that actually, my colleagues (and occasional editors) sort of have a point. These long-winded incomprehensible genre names ARE actually very important.

Here’s why: we find ourselves in a post-post-post-post-modern era where there are an increasing number of independent bands who plunder and combine ideas from an ever-lengthening (and, thanks to streaming, increasingly audible) music history, inject these ideas into songs using an ever-increasing amount of audio equipment (both new and vintage) and inflict the results onto an online sea of music listeners who, thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned indie bands, the development of pop music over time and the disruptive nature of the internet no longer really have particularly homogenous tastes in music. What you end up with is niches. The kind of niches that yes, really do generate fans of future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house.

And with this niche comes opportunity. Your niche might not be huge; sticking with the future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house example, maybe there are 500 people worldwide who understand whatever that means and really dig it. But if you as an artist know how to find this audience, and how to speak to it, then you open up the possibility to do two things:

  • generate an income from this niche: in my experience, people with minority interests tend to have less opportunity to indulge them and so splash out more willingly when the opportunity to indulge arises. So even if the audience you are targeting is really small, it may be more financially valuable to you than say, trying to convince a multitude of Coldplay fans to buy some music.
  • develop a fanbase that will be far more passionate advocates of your act than the average joe (thus, hopefully, helping you to eventually gain popularity outside it).

But how do you find and speak to your niche audience? Well, I’ve been thinking about this lately with a view to increasing the popularity of my own brand of retro-ever-so-slightly-camp-but-occasionally-dark-art-rock which I will one day unleash again on the world, and these are some ideas I’ve come up with.

1. Find out what your niche actually is

You may think you sound like David Bowie mixed with a bit of Brian Ferry. Actually, you sound more like Phil Collins mixed with a dash of Usher (interesting).  But hey, don’t diss the post-Phil-Collins-Usher audience! If that’s the micro-genre you fit into, dem's the folks you’re looking for, so stop going after the hipper neo-Bowie-Ferry fans. In other words, before you start promoting your music, gauge opinion on it – not in terms of quality, but in terms of who people think it sounds like and what genre it belongs to. This will help you identify the precise audience you need to speak to and stop you hitting lovers of intelligent 70s rock with inordinately high-pitched squeals combined with big floppy eighties drum solos.

2. Find out where your niche lives

Once you’ve actually decided you are a post-Phil-Collins-Usher act, it’s time to find the post-Phil-Collins-Usher fans. The internet offers you two main ways to do this: push and pull. You can push post-Phil-Collins-Usher music on the world in a couple of ways: firstly, through social advertising tactics that allow you to display ads to fans of a very specific list of bands - i.e., fans of bands that you sound a bit like. In your case, you would probably be paying Facebook to show your videos to well, Phil Collins and Usher fans. Secondly, you can try to identify fan groups and forums dedicated to your micro-genre and SENSITIVELY present your work. Time to politely introduce yourself to the Phil Collins fan club, in other words.

In terms of pull, we’re talking about SEO and blogging here. If you make the (somewhat unusual) effort to ensure your site is optimised to appear in searches for Phil Collins and Usher, and regularly blog about the genius of Phil Collins and Usher (thus generating a lot of keyword-rich content about post-Phil-Collins-Usher music), you may well find that your audience, seemingly by magic – but actually because of algorithms – starts coming to you.

3. Find advocates of the niche

You will find that with every niche genre come advocates of that niche genre: certain bloggers, journalists, rock critics and DJs who simply love it. Particularly if you are dealing with something REALLY niche like post-Phil-Collins-Usher music, you may find that there are less artists operating in the genre to pester these poor souls for coverage and airplay, meaning YOU get more opportunities to get publicised (to a smaller - but as mentioned above - more dedicated audience). Being aware of your niche also comes in very handy when it comes to hiring music PR agencies, radio pluggers and so on - if you hire an agency or a plugger that is really into your niche genre, they are more likely to be experts in it and more keen to work hard for you as a representative of that genre. Crucially, they'll know what your niche audience reads or listens to and will pitch you for those papers / shows. Conversely, if you hire an agency or plugger that says 'yes' to every project irrespective of niche or genre, you may find yourself sans publicity quite quickly, or with a feature in Take a Break when really you should be being plugged on Noisey (or vice versa). 

4. Talk to your niche in the right way

Once you’ve discovered that you are a post-Phil-Collins-Usher band and found the post-Phil-Collins-Usher online audience and the media champions of post-Phil-Collins-Usher music, it’s time to ‘talk’ to them in the right way. Obviously, the most basic way of doing this is to present them with music that they like (i.e., stuff that sounds like a postman and Phil Collins mixed with Usher, ho ho). But it’s also important to meet their expectations in other ways. Do you look like a post-Phil Collins-Usher artist? Do you talk like one? Do you dress like one? Do you dance like one? People have very specific expectations when it comes to micro-micro-genres, and are extremely particular about how they should operate and who should operate in them – which of course, is probably why I’m not allowed slag off future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house in public (crap, I did it again). But it is important to enthuse your niche audience as much as possible and you won’t do this by confusing them. You don’t necessarily have to conform completely to your audience’s expectations, but – initially at least – you do need to meet them to some degree or you won’t be recognised and loved as the post-Phil-Collins-Usher act that you know you really are.

Basically, all this seems cynical and formulaic and frankly, it is. But on another level, it’s just how record labels have made bands popular since time immemorial: find out who likes a certain sort of music and sell that sort of music to them. And it actually kind of makes sense. It’s just that these days, it’s not just big record labels that have the opportunity to be cynical and formulaic. Thanks to cheap recording gear, access to every other band in history's music for free online, iTunes and Mark Zuckerberg, you do as well! If you fully understand the power of all of these (ahem) tools and (crucially) you’re actually making some really great music, who knows how you might fare.

And actually, if you do find that niche audience, they might actually get a kick out of being found too.

Chris Singleton used to work at Prescription PR. Until he disrespected them fancypants genres.

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