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Chris Singleton

Memes: the secret of spreading your music about?

Can Richard Dawkins help your music career?

Today I’m going to tell you to put all thoughts of PR and marketing to one side for a minute, and use a theory called memetics to help you reach the status of global rock superstar (or richest but still the most miserable looking shoegazer on the block; take your pick).

This all boils down to thinking about your songs in a different way: not as pieces of music but as ‘memes’. According to proponents of memetics like Richard Dawkins, memes are ideas that spread from person to person within a culture. The ‘stronger’ the meme, the theory goes, the more likely it is to spread; a comparison is made with the spread of genes via natural selection, with memes being part of a sort of ‘survival of the fittest idea’ scenario. Now of course these days when people talk about memes, they are really referring to anything shared by George Takei on Facebook, but since music is now just as easy to share on the web as any other piece of digital content, I think it’s only proper to treat it the same way as a good Miley Cyrus Facebook gag.

So how do you create a fantastic, widely-shared meme? Well, if we are to buy into the theory, a starting point would be by looking to other ‘successful’ memes and trying to find out why they became successful. In this context, by ‘meme’ you can read ‘hit song’, and thanks to the internet you can audition pretty much every hit song going and try to learn as much as possible from the songwriting geniuses who crafted them...and then ‘mutate’ these hits into fabulous memes of your own.

Well, actually, during the early phases of your research into memes you’ll find out pretty quickly that some of the reasons why songs become huge hits often have little to do with songwriting genius. This is because throughout rock history, people have bought records for a lot of reasons (‘ideas’) that have nothing to do with music: they may have liked the look of a particular singer’s derriere and thought that buying that artist's album would bring them just a touch closer to his/her lovely bottom; their kids might have really liked Bob the Builder; buying the remake of ‘Feed the World’ which featured that odd rap bit by Dizzee Rascal in the middle seemed like a socially acceptable way of giving to charity at the time. Memes / ideas drove these sales alright, but non-musical ones.

Anyway, unless you have extreme confidence in your bum, particularly want to write a stop-frame-animation-related novelty hit or are hell-bent on releasing Christmas charity singles, you can probably put these sort of memes to one side and focus on listening to tracks that don’t seem out of place in a sentence that involves the expression ‘musical genius’. Everybody will of course have their own idea of what musical genius is and which artists possess it; but nonetheless a cursory glance at rock history will reveal quite a treasure trove of bands and artists that managed to simultaneously possess ridiculous quantities of musical talent AND flog quite a lot of records. It doesn’t matter what type of music you like, or these artists made, there is something to learn from them. Devour every aspect of their work.

Once you’ve learnt from the master meme-makers, it’s time to produce music like them. This, naturally enough, is the tricky part. It’s not just a question of nicking ideas from musical geniuses (although this can nonetheless be quite effective – think of how many copies of Girls Aloud’s rewrite of The Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man sold); it’s as much a case of thinking – and working – like them, so that you don’t just become a copyist but start to understand the secrets behind truly great music (one of which is that overlooked thing called 'graft' by the way)...and make it yourself. 

Now, let’s put all this rather intellectual talk of memes and theories and natural selection and Girls Aloud to one side (and I ought to point out that after shoving meme theory down your throat for much of this article, a lot of scientists have a big problem with it). Let’s boil things down to this: every day, we see people share fantastic content online; and regardless whether this content comprises jokes, charity appeals, interesting facts or weird photos of squirrels, it is accessed by millions not because a huge marketing budget was involved but simply because 1) there was something inherently great about that content and 2) it was incredibly easy, in this digital era, to pass it on to somebdody else. Now that they have been digitised, songs are no different in this regard, and whilst there are a host of things that you can do from a marketing and PR point of view to making this sharing process even more effective, you will make your life so much easier if you put the time (and money) into your content before you even think about promoting it. As the old jazz saying goes, ‘take care of the music, and the music will take care of you.’

(Worth a try anyway. If not you can always resort to those dodgy companies that get you fake likes on Facebook.)

The Prescription is written by a musician / digital nerdy person called Chris Singleton.

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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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The Long Tail - and music PR

Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is a book that was published a few years ago, but it's one that we thought we'd flag it up in The Prescription, because it's still hugely relevant to musicians and those working in the music industry. Musician Chris Singleton is a fan of the book; you'll find some of his thoughts on it and the implications of 'the long tail' for musicians below.

In his fascinating tome The Long Tail, Chris Anderson highlights how in this new-fangled age of e-commerce, online retailers are actually making more money out of selling lots of individual niche products than they are from selling hits. The classic example given in the book is Amazon: in a given week they may sell thousands of copies of a particular Coldplay album, but during the same time they will sell far more albums by a variety of less-well known artists.

The Long Tail

The Long Tail

This creates the 'long tail effect', which is illustrated in the diagram on this page. On the left hand side of the graph you see the million-selling acts, seemingly way more popular than everybody else. On the right hand side you see the 'long tail' of all the other less popular niche artists that don’t sell as many copies of their albums. But because digital distribution has allowed literally anybody to sell albums online, there are now so many niche products available for sale that the tail goes on and on and on…until all the products that sell one or two copies a year actually generate more profit, when considered together, than the hits that might sell millions in a year. The little guys actually pack more of a sales punch.

This is great, obviously, for Amazon and other online retailers - all they have to do is stock as much stuff as possible. But what are the implications for all the niche artists? Well, to be honest, the long tail effect probably doesn't help niche artists that much in strict retailing terms. The best application of 'the tail' for generating music sales is probably to make as much of your music as possible available to buy – somebody’s going to want to buy that alternative nu-metal-emo-dance remix you did of some crappy B-side, so why not let them (the downside though is that putting ropey content out there may not be great for your artistic integrity or image). 

However, what may help musicians a bit more is another long tail effect: the long tail of media. If you look again at the chart above, and this time think of the left-hand side of the graph as containing the big publications – national newspapers and magazines – and the right hand side of the chart as containing the bloggers (or online content creators), it becomes clear that the bloggers actually have a bigger readership than the traditional media. A country may have 10 national broadsheets, which will be read by millions of people a day, but millions of people in that country will be creating content on blogs or social networks every day which is read by 10 or more people a day. 

Needless to say it’s fantastic for bands if they can get into conventional print publications – as this is brilliant for profile and will no doubt also influence what bloggers are writing about – but it’s bloody hard. In the absence of success in that area, the long tail of media points to an alternative strategy for musicians who need exposure. This is to convince a critical mass of bloggers and other content creators to advocate their music. This is not by any means an easy process – it requires a lot of targeted approaches, and a lot of email-writing, but if done properly, at least it offers some exposure instead of none. The digital revolution has created a situation whereby decent bands who had no hope of getting national press can now at least get their music written about and crucially, heard by a potentially large audience.

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