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Does making your pond smaller work to make you a bigger fish?

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I often get asked to divulge my recipe for DIY Music Career Success. The dirty truth is that I had no recipe. I've been a musician all my life and I've stumbled along like everyone else, for years.

I had no idea of any of this as a 'plan', but looking back at it all, here are some things that have worked for me. I will list them and then summarize into a larger 'strategy'. 


#1 Saying yes to crazy things

There have been many seemingly nutty things that people have asked me to play at or write music for. Until I had a baby last year, I used to say yes to most of them. Hopefully when my son is a little older I'll be able to say yes again ;-). Anyway, this 'strategy' also happens to be the kind of thing that I like to do anyway. An example that sticks out:

An out-of-the-blue request from a friend-of-an-acquaintance: "Will you come and play in the desert next week for a commemoration of the Trinity nuclear test? We're going to make a simulation of a nuclear blast at dawn and would love it if you'd play a piece after the blast. We can't pay you, its a 6hr drive, the last hour across a roadless area, you'll be recommended to take a 4WD"

When I was asked to do this, my husband, housemates and I were in the middle of being evicted from our warehouse home, I had multiple work deadlines, and I was practically broke. Doing it sounded like a real pain in the you-know-what, but I was intrigued. So I replied.

Me: "This sounds awesome, I'll be there."

Inspired by the idea, I spent the next week composing a piece of music for the occasion. I convinced my husband to come along.  After a long day spent crossing the desert, we came upon a camp of about 100 people, hard at work. They had 6 industrial blowers, the kind you use in mines, intending to pump biodiesel into the middle of the fan circle and ignite it. The blast would go 250 feet in the air and look strikingly like a mushroom cloud. I laid out a tarp a safe distance away (to protect my cello and computer from the dust) and setup for the performance. We stayed up all night and at dawn the blast went off. I played the music, the small crowd dispersed....and I was interviewed by someone who happened to be there from NPR.

The week following, I got a little profile on Boing Boing, a little mention on NPR. The chap from NPR invited me down to do an interview on Day to Day a few months later. My CD went to #1 on iTunes classical, where it stayed for a little bit and the staff made me an iTunes banner. $10,000 in digital sales the month of the NPR story.

Not a bad bonus for saying yes to a crazy thing.


#2 Play to my venn diagram audience.

I never thought of this one as a strategy either. Basically, I love music and I love musicians, but I identify with and like to hang around with technology geeks. 

One thing lead to another and I ended up playing at tech conferences and then at tech companies and then those tech companies started licensing my music for various things. The idea of playing at tech conferences seems silly to some music folks I've talked to, but I think its a strategy....finding your Venn diagram audience.

Here's how it works:

I am a musician

I am interested in technology

You are a technologist 

You are interested in music

We have things in common and I think we might like each other. I want you to listen to my music but rather than expect you to come to my world, the world of nighclubs and stages, I will come to find you where you your company, at a tech conference, etc. The result: A tightly knit, connected and engaged audience that sees you as one of them....and tell their friends about you.

A venn diagram doesn't have to have geeks in it. It could be Foodies, or Environmentalists, or Librarians, or Bicyclists. The key is that you have to be passionate about the subject also ;-)


I will now summarize these 2 pseudo-strategies as "Be Where No One Expects You to Be" or, "You can be a big fish if you make your pond smaller"

Do people expect to see a cellist at a nuclear commemoration event thrown by pyromaniacs in the middle of the desert. Or at a Ruby on Rails conference?

No one will find me if I don't put myself out there (the saying 'yes' part) and if I'm out there with other passionate people in a place where people don't expect me to be (the venn diagram part) might be more memorable and more remarkable. I care about connecting with the subset of people in the intersections of my venn diagrams (I have several, not just tech folks). I don't worry about trying to be any larger than that. I think this works financially and it helps me stay focused and sane as my career grows. Niche, niche, niche!  

Caveat, Disclaimer and a follow-up question: The world of marketers will tell you otherwise, but I don't believe it's possible to succeed by executing deliberate strategies that aren't YOU, and I certainly don't condone it. I believe that in the DIY world there needs to be authenticity for anything to work. You have to really be doing the things you're doing because you care about, believe in and love them. That it leads to glorious success is a happy byproduct.

My question at the end of this: "If you do art for purely strategic reasons, is it evil?" I don't want to be too harsh, but I feel like the answer is yes. I'd like to hear what other people think though.


initiated Oct 12, 2011 in Lessons Learned by Zoe Keating (290 points)   2 3 3
edited Oct 12, 2011 by Zoe Keating

3 Responses

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Thanks Zoe for a great post here. The idea of making your pond smaller or "finding your niche" is definitely the key for most "DIY" artists. (I put DIY in quotes because in many ways this is the key for all content producers in general).

In order to narrow in on that niche, or your venn diagram as you put it, you really have to have a clear understanding of who you are as an artist, how your fans perceive you and your art and who your true fans really are. You say you are passionate about tech-y things, and therefore you set out to find people who shared your passion in order to engage with new fans which makes a lot of sense.

What's fascinating to me is that if I read your post and had never heard your music, I would assume you were a singer songwriter type who wrote songs that would appeal directly to the "tech" crowd. The first comparison that might pop into my head would be Jonathan Coulton. Someone who was essentially a coder as well as being a musician and wrote a song called "Code Monkey" that became a big internet sensation among others. He wrote music that makes the obvious connection to his particular niche.

I am no expert on classical music or the cello, and I cannot claim to be knowledgable about all of your music either, but it seems that you differ from the Coulton example in that you play music that couldn't be LESS hi-tech. It's beautiful music, but music played on an instrument that hasn't changed much in hundreds of years! And there seem to be no vocals or lyrics to aid in the connection.

My question is, can you provide any information as to how you were able to make this connection with your niche? Looking back on it, were there any Ah-Ha! moments where you realized this connection was real and that you were able to nurture it and let it grow? Am I missing something about your music and maybe there is a Coulton-like obvious connection to this tech crowd?

I think so many artists struggle to, and often hate to, define themselves. And most artists have a hard time figuring out who their true fans really are and where they are. You clearly have done this with great success, so any detail you can provide in this forum could be really helpful to all of us who are trying to figure out how to make our "ponds" smaller.

Thanks again for the post!
response added Oct 18, 2011 by Matt Stine (190 points)   1 1 2
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I would heartily disagree that executing a strategy that isn't you, is evil, won't work etc... In fact I believe that executing alternate strategies especially the ones you do not believe in are the one that are likely to suceed if given a chance.  Your own post in fact has many elements to prove this contention.  

Growth in personal and professional areas, comes from changes in behavior.  For example, I once took a class in giving presentations.  I did not believe in the class going into it, and kind of resented being voluntold to go.  It actually ended up changing my perspective in many ways and I learned a lot.  The class wasn't me, wasn't a topic I believed in, but after giving it and its techniques a try, actually it has been very beneficial to my career.

Likewise, experts in an area, may give advice to try a new marketing strategy, (for example to try crazy things, say yes more often) that isn't you.  Yet by giving it a try, you may suceed beyond your expectations.  It is through experimentation, and trying out strategies that you do not believe in, that major growth can occur.   This isn't evil it's just scary.  

Note that attempting a strategy you do not believe in is less likely to suceed because the effort is not given, it does not prove that trying is not worthwhile.  Every new strategy will have a substantial number of people dcrying that it will never work.  My advice, try the stuff you are scared about, really try.  The results may surprise you.

It may seem cynical to pursue a strategy just to make money, but money is important to.  It means that you have connected with more people, and that they value your efforts.  It is easy to remain an unapproachable artist, with only those in the know who get you.  That's fine, but then don't expect your art to pay you a living.  Independence that earning money through alternate strategies helps you devote extra time to channels that are more rewarding.
response added Oct 12, 2011 by Tom Fitzmaurice (340 points)   2 2 5
@sortior I think you might have misunderstood me, so just in case I'll try to make a distinction. Growth, trying new and potentially scary things, etc...all are extremely necessary and essential if an an artist wants to expand. What I think is morally questionable is creating a work of art specifically to fulfill a market strategy goal.

An example of this is something numerous bands have admitted and even been advised to do....choose a popular song and make a cover for the sole purpose of luring listeners viewers who are seeking the original.  Jack Conte of Pomplamoose has been quite transparent that they did this on purpose with their cover of Single Ladies after noticing that Beatles covers on YouTube got more views than the originals. They knew that people looking on Youtube for Beyonce would end up hearing Pomplamoose and that YouTube's recommendation engine would recommend Pomplamoose if a viewer watched the Beyonce video. Now, I've recorded with Pomplamoose and I like them personally. Both down to earth, wonderful people. Jack is a phenomenal composer and arranger. But I will be totally honest, I was shocked when I heard that story because knowing they did this makes me pretty feels.... sleazy. Now, if the band really, really loved the Beyonce song and wanted to make a cover because it was their favorite song....that feels authentic and real and ok. But to record it solely to create more exposure for themselves? I would never do it.

Clearly their strategy totally worked! Is that questionable to anyone else? Is it a generational divide and I'm wearing my GenX membership on my sleeve?

That's what my question was related to.
@zoekeating While it may seem questionable, I don't believe that it is unless you try to confuse the audience.  Your own take on a song, differentiates in the marketplace.  The search performed by the user, may introduce them to your cover, but your execution will make it popular or open to ridicule.  Using a strategy to attract an audience is ok.  Folks on the web understand that bands cover other songs, and then they may choose to listen or not.  Its authentic if your cover has something to say, and it will fail anyways if it does not.  

Take classical music - Should only 1 symphony play Peter and the Wolf?  Do orchestras play it to attract a young audience?  Is this questionable?  Is it questionable that every ballet troupe does Nutcracker at Xmas?  Are these strategies that work?  Definitely!  But if the production sucks... the artists still fail.  Self promotion often feels sleazy, but that is part of our culture at work.  Getting attention may be hard, but in part you must trust the audience, they know Pomplamoose isn't Beyonce.  But would I listen to a cello version of one of her songs.... You BET!  I think it would be interesting, and could make the cello seem more approachable.  The sleaze factor comes in when you think you are manipulating people, if you are clear you aren't beyonce, then no sleaze.  Trying different strategies to get noticed is fine as long as you are not misleading.
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I'd agree with this post. Put it simply, it takes a small drop to create ripples. So, never underestimate what a "drop" can do.
response added May 31, 2012 by Jaime Anderson (180 points)   1

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