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Cats

Tips for making your band stand out from the crowd

catpiano.jpg

Pardon the pun, but making your band stand out these days is a tough gig. You end up trying to differentiate your act not only from a zillion other bands on the internet, but every band and artist in (an ever-lengthening) rock history who 'got there first' as far as your type of music is concerned. However, there are a few tricks that you can employ to distinguish your band from the competition, and, as we are generous souls here at Prescription PR, I thought I’d share some of these with you.

Sound different

“Impossible!”, “It’s all been done” and “But I want to sound like the Clash circa early 1981 just after they released Sandinista!” are all fairly understandable reactions to an instruction to make your band sound different. To a large degree, it has all been done (and to be fair, many tastemakers do insist upon you sounding like the Clash before taking you remotely seriously). 

And yet…it hasn’t all been done. That’s because most bands – The Clash included – don’t live in your house. Eh? Well, in your house you will find a plethora of kitchen utensils that you can hit, record and insert into a drum loop; you can sample the cat and turn her into a funky synth that you can then play on a keyboard; or how about turning your bathroom into a real-life echo chamber? Very few – if any musicians – will have access to your cutlery, cat or bathroom, so the sounds you make using all of these will be completely your own.

Moving outside your house and walking down the road, you will discover that in your local flea market there are host of little Casio keyboards that nobody would in their right mind think of using on a song – except you; there’s also a guy selling a cheap Italian organ from the 80s with some sounds that you haven’t encountered, perhaps for good reason, on any records before.

The point I’m making is not to rely on the standard plugins in Pro Tools or instruments that everybody else uses to make your music – look outside your sequencer or even studio for inspiration and design your own sounds. It’s harder than relying on Pro Tools plugins and presets – but it’s a lot more fun, satisfying and it helps you to sound unique.

Look different

Particularly if you are in the ‘it’s all about the music man’ camp (and being a fashion disaster myself, I sympathise very much with that point of view) it’s easy to disregard or overlook the importance of image. That’s why there are so many rather dull pictures of grumpy bands in jeans standing against a wall in existence. The other mistake bands tend to make when it comes to image is to try to look exactly like their heroes, to the point where the act looks completely unoriginal, or worse, like a tribute band. In the UK the a recent Government-commissioned report has highlighted a serious problem with the number of indie bands that STILL look like Oasis circa 1997.

The answer? A bit of time and thought put into styling your band; use of interesting backdrops for your photoshoots; and hiring a professional photographer with ideas that extend beyond the “let’s all stand up against the wall and look cross lads” approach to photo-taking (and maybe a few lights to boot!).

Unless you are going to make your own clothes (dress the band in bin liners anyone?), you will find it difficult to come up with a totally unique look, but by taking style, shoot locations and choice of photographer seriously, you are making a good start in distinguishing your act from a lot of drab-looking indie bands. 

Position yourself differently

A lot of bands assume that releasing a record simply involves issuing a press release that tells journalists that the new album is out soon and that it sounds, well, a bit like Oasis only with a synth sound that was generated by sampling a cat. Actually, you may find it more productive in some respects to forget about the music for a moment and dwell a bit more on the people making it. Does the drummer in your band have a secret criminal past involving cabbages? Has the lead singer had a relationship with a goat? Does the guitarist emit special pheromones during solos that make his performance sound more pleasing to ladies’ ears? All extreme examples (although I’d bet my bottom dollar that they’ve all been mentioned on press releases before) but what I’m getting at is that by looking at your band members' personal lives, you will often find ‘creative angles’ which can be used to generate high-profile human interest stories in the press.

There is a danger here though: sometimes human interest stories can overshadow the music to the point where either rock critics don’t take you seriously (suspecting that your angle is being used as a substitute for a record deal or talent or both) or where the human interest story completely overshadows the music, to the point where punters focus on the story, view the music as secondary, and ultimately neglect to buy the album. It’s a question of getting the balance between the music and the angle right.

So there you have it: sample some cutlery, wear a bin liner, and have a relationship with a goat: a recipe for instant success. And with that I’m off to investigate my secret past with a cabbage.

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The power of enigma

Enigma

In pre-internet days of yore, there was a clear barrier between rock stars and their fans. If a rock star wanted to communicate with fans, this was generally done at gigs attended by thousands of people, through big newspaper interviews or via appearances on TV shows watched by millions. The communication was generally one way, with the rock star talking to (or sometimes even down to) his/her fans using the 'traditional' mass media. 

Fast forward to our whizzy fancypants digital era and, to a large degree, the internet has brought this barrier crashing down and changed the whole way stars communicate with their audiences. Firstly, the rock stars in question are able to inject themselves much more easily into a fan’s everyday, personal life, via appearances in Facebook accounts, email inboxes, Twitter feeds, Instagram pictures and so on in a way that was unimaginable even a few years ago; secondly, they can’t seem to resist using this power to divulge sometimes quite boring details of their personal lives that would never have been shared by their rock star forbears. Finally, the communication between a star and his/her audience is now two-way, with even the most successful of musicians replying to fans’ online comments on Twitter, taking part in Facebook conversations with them and so on.

All the above has led to the arrival of a conventional wisdom which says that bands – particularly unsigned bands – need to ‘engage’ with listeners in order to attain success. The idea being that artists need to develop a very direct relationship with their fans, where they must reply to even the most inane of queries; do requests of cheesy Christmas songs; go round to fans’ houses and play gigs; post pictures of themselves at home doing the washing up and so on (and yes, I've probably done all or most of these things myself at some point or other throughout my, ahem, music career). Through these personal interactions with fans, the theory goes, an artist eventually develops a fanbase comprising people who feel like they really know that musician, are friends with them, and ultimately feel compelled to buy their music when that oh-so-engaging artist finally finds time to stop chatting with fans online and actually record and release an album.

In many – perhaps most – situations, the above approach works, not least because fans, accustomed to the two-way communication processes facilitated so easily by online technology, almost demand this level of interaction and attention. And for emerging bands with small fanbases, where the act effectively knows each and every one of their listeners, it seems almost rude to ignore them. 

However, something huge is lost in all of this personal, two-way, share-everything communication business: the mythology that used to surround musicians.

When, many moons ago, I was a teenager, following a band meant devoting time and thought to a bunch of guys you really had no direct relationship with or access to. This meant imagining what that band was like. Forming your own idea about what the front man ate for tea. Developing weird and completely unfounded notions regarding what the band liked to do with their groupies at the weekends. It did not mean being shown Instagram pictures of an artist’s cat, or being subjected to tweets about a band’s preference for a shot of vanilla syrup in their lattes. The inaccessibility of musicians (coupled with the imaginations of fans) meant that rock stars ultimately ended up shrouded in enigma.

And enigma is a powerful thing, because it provides two key ingredients for rock success: interest and ‘cool’. It creates interest because an enigmatic star often represents the ultimate, sexiest mystery for fans and the media to get to the bottom of; and cool because it is the enigma surrounding an artist that makes him/her stand apart from the crowd – they form a hip clique all of their own. But too often bands today (particularly those using social media for the first time) tend to use the digital communications tools available to them to strip away anything remotely enigmatic. Inevitably status updates of the ‘I’m having a sandwich for lunch now’ variety appear, and there is nothing particularly cool, enigmatic, or curiosity-generating about that (unless your listeners really want to know what was in the sandwich).

Ultimately what I’m getting at is that in this age of instant, interactive digital communication there are still alternatives to the ‘show all, tell all’ route to pop stardom available, and sometimes an approach which focuses on maintaining enigma and mystique may be far more productive than the ‘let’s engage everybody to the nth degree’ option. Being enigmatic online doesn’t mean that you have to ignore your fans, but it does mean using online tools to communicate with them more cleverly. You can use social media to be cryptic, oblique, dark, moody and mysterious just as easily as you can use it to tell listeners what colour socks you are wearing at any given point in time – it’s really a question of deciding what sort of relationship you want with your listeners, and if you think potential fans will be more impressed with a dark and mysterious musician or one who is good at sharing pictures of his cat.

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Using Instagram to promote your band

cat-chris.jpg

Chris Singleton's cat, with a 1972 sort of vibe going on.

As a self-professed digital sort of dude, I'm meant to be ridiculously ahead of the curve on just about every level, but given that musically my head (and haircut) is somewhere back in 1972, it's probably no wonder that occasionally I miss out on the rise of a social media craze every now and then. One such craze is Instagram - I've only recently started using it (hence my paltry following) but I must say I do love it - probably because it makes all my photos look like they were shot in 1972, which, as discussed, is where I feel most comfortable, even though I wasn't born then.

Anyhoo, I'm sure you're all more clued up than me on Instagram, and have been using it for ages to take and share retro pictures of your cat, but in case you haven't heard about it, it's a photo taking/filtering/sharing app for your iOS or Android device and it's great (for a full introduction, I'd suggest reading this Wikihow article). What you clued-up musical kids might not have considered though, is that beyond allowing you to take and share retro pictures of said cat, it also has potential to be a useful tool for promoting your band. This is because people can subscribe to feeds of your images, meaning that fans can follow your band, pictorially speaking, all over the place. In other words: on tour, backstage, at the recording studio, in the toilet, doing lines in the toilet and so on - in realtime. Which is kind of funky, and I'm sure would be right up the street of your die-hard nutjob fan (or fans, if you are very lucky). Alternatively, non-fans may come across cool pictures you've been taking of your cat doing coke in the jacks, and love them so much that they investigate your non-cat-narcotics-related activities (i.e., your music) a bit further.

So, why not steal a march on all the other desperate musicians out there by setting up an Instagram profile dedicated to your band, and creating a photographic diary of your musical life? Here's some quick tips to help you do just that:

  • Download the Instagram app (obviously).
  • Pick a good username that allows fans to find your profile easily.
  • Make sure your account is public, so that the great unwashed can see your pictures (you can do this under the settings option).
  • Only post your best pictures; don't put any old rubbish up there.
  • Don't just share pictures of your band - post other cool images that are likely to get shared / liked by other users.
  • Enable sharing of your pictures on Facebook and Twitter (and any other social networks you may use).
  • Always add captions for your pics and (VERY important this) accompany them with hashtags, so that the image is easily discoverable in Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
  • Follow other users and comment on their pictures (the 'find friends' options will help you do this), so that they think you like their inane, lo-fi, washed-out pictures of stag dos, and feel inclined to follow you back.
  • Embed your Instagram feed on your band's website and add a 'follow' button.

Hope that helps you on your way to musical stardom, and if not, well, grab the nearest cat.

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