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How To Build A Fan Base From Niche Markets [Part 1 of 3]
This three-part article will explore one approach to building a fan base that any independent artist can employ
By Anne Freeman, The Aspiring Songwriter®
(more articles from this author)
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Building a fan base is one of the consistently challenging aspects of artists' career. Finding and developing an audience for your art is also one of the great appeals, the golden fleece of a record deal (or a book deal, a movie deal, a show at a gallery), because a major record deal is perceived to be the quickest means by which to gain a broad audience and develop fans. And that can be true because major entertainment companies have the budgets and access to large audiences via major media and retail outlets.

But even with a major deal, most artists will quickly lose their deal because they are unable to develop a large enough fan base in a short enough time period to support the cost of their deal. If it is difficult for artists with a major deal to establish a fan base with all of the marketing power behind them, what does that mean for the independent artist?

It means that money and airtime doesn't necessarily translate into fans, so not having a major deal does not limit your chance of building an audience for your music on your own. It just means that building an audience for your music is always hard work under any circumstance.

The purpose of this three-part article is to explore one approach to building a fan base that any independent artist can employ. But first, we'll consider the approach to building a fan base in which independent artists most typically engage.

I. Building Your Fan Base 101

The first and most common approach to building a fan base is to record your music (or find someone to record it if you are strictly a songwriter), make up some CDs and MP3s, post them on a website or two or three, play a few gigs, and hope. This approach, although typical, is pretty much a guaranteed failure.

Answer this question honestly: Are your MP3s flying through the data pipeline faster than a speeding bullet? And that case of CDs under your bed - well, have you dusted it lately? How about your live show sales? Unless you live near a town or city that is a hotbed of indie music, you'll find some fans at a few local gigs and sell as few CDs, but not enough to make a dent in that dusty case (other than the one you made when kicking it). What is the problem, you wonder.

The problem is that people do not part with their money easily. Online CD and digital download web services have reported that about 10% of the artists, I call them the 10% Camp, account for 90% of the sales. The other 90% of artists, I call them the 90% Camp, account for 10% of the sales. A well-known CD manufacturer reported similar statistics. Only you know how many sales you've made, but it's not too difficult to guess if your tent is pitched in the 10% Camp or the 90% Camp.

The goal of this article is to help you move to the 10% Camp. In order to do so, you first must understand what you're doing wrong. To help you visualize the typical fan building strategy that the 90% Camp uses, I've created a linear progression that would look something like this:

Linear Progression for Building Your Fan Base 101 (A)
Write songs →Record songs →Post songs to website(s) →Play a few gigs →Hope for fans →Wait for sales

That's pretty basic. Some of you have figured out that you can drive more traffic to your website and shows if you actually reach out to people. So, you invite your friends and "friends" to your website and shows, chat it up, and hope that they will buy your CDs and downloads. This approach would look something like this:

Linear Progression: Building Your Fan Base 101 (B)
Write songs →Record songs →Post songs to website(s) →Invite some friends to "Check Out" your new songs →Hope they visit your site → Play a few gigs →Hope they come to your gigs →Wait for sales

Better, but not by much, and still nowhere near the 10% Camp. What is the problem?

In strategy (A), the muscle that the artist employs to build a fan base is "wait" and "hope." You wait for people to stumble across your website and hope that they take the time to: (1) listen to your songs, (2) read your website, (3) discover something about you and your music that they can relate and connect to, (4) make that connection with you and your music, and, (5) be inspired enough to buy your songs. Let me ask you this question: How many times have YOU done that? Not often, and most likely, almost never. In strategy (B), you've at least taken a step and reached out to alert people about your songs and gigs, but with weak results.

There are critical two problems with both of these approaches to building your fan base:
(1) You, the artist, are in a passive role with regard to fan development, and
(2) You are relying on a potential audience to take an active role (in other words, they have to do all of the work) of becoming your fans.

This is never a good sales strategy because it simply doesn't work. So even if you are guilty of Fan Base 101 (A) or (B), I want you to progress so I'll be nice and promote you to Building Your Fan Base 201 (if only because 101 is way too crowded).

II. Building Your Fan Base 201

You made it into 201 by the skin of your teeth, and now you're ready to try something new. You are ready to take a more active role in building your fan base. In this class, we're going to explore niche marketing.

Niche marketing for independent musicians started getting a lot of attention during the '90s in response to the technology revolution that permitted independent songwriters, singers, bands, and musicians to make and market their own music without a record label. This approach held great promise for the independent artist, and niche marketing was a hot topic at music conferences and seminars as a means to target an audience and accelerate fan development.

For artists, niche marketing typically means finding a group of people who share a similar interest, passion, or lifestyle that the artists can translate into an audience for their music. Because of their shared interests, artists can use that connection to develop fans and, ultimately, to promote sales. The power of niche marketing is that artists can focus their limited resources on a distinct group of people who may be predisposed to connect with artists and their music. Unfortunately, niche marketing does not work for many indie artists because their understanding of marketing in general is limited.

A typical linear progression for indie artists' approach to niche marketing may look like something this:

Linear Progression: Building Your Fan Base 201
Write songs →Record songs →Post songs to website(s) →Play a few gigs →Find a niche market →Let your niche market know about your songs and gigs →Hope for fans →Wait for sales

Is there any real difference in the linear progressions of 101 and 201? Not really. You've narrowed the focus to that niche market for all of your hoping and waiting. But the artist is still passive and the potential audience still has to do all of the work of becoming a fan.

This approach does not work because niche marketing does not mean finding people who share similar interests, passions, or lifestyles and then trying to sell your music to them or get them to come to your shows. What is missing in this linear strategy is an understanding of your role in niche marketing, and your role as an indie artist under most any circumstance when it comes to building a fan base.

And since I can see the light bulbs finally coming on, I'm promoting you to 301 where you can discover that there is another approach to this marketing thing.

III. Building You Fan Base 301: Real Niche Marketing

Let's put those freshmen and sophomore blues aside and become an upperclassman. No more intro courses. It's time to concentrate on becoming a real niche marketer and building your fan base. But before we jump, we must have a clear understanding of the concept of marketing. Below is a definition of marketing from Wikipedia that is simple and clear:

"Marketing is the process by which companies create customer interest in goods or services. It generates the strategy that underlies sales techniques, business communication, and business developments. It is an integrated process through which companies build strong customer relationships and create value for their customers and for themselves.

"Marketing is used to identify the customer, to satisfy the customer, and to keep the customer. With the customer as the focus of its activities, it can be concluded that marketing management is one of the major components of business management."

Thank you, Wikipedia. You may be thinking that this sounds very business-like, but not like you. You're an artist, after all, not a business person. Fair enough. But I'd like you to take a look at the very same definition for marketing in which I've only substituted a few words:

"Marketing is the process by which artists create audience interest in songs and music performances. It generates the strategy that underlies music sales techniques, audience communication, and fan development. It is an integrated process through which artists build strong fan relationships and create value for their fans and for themselves.

"Marketing is used to identify potential fans, to satisfy the fans, and to keep the fans. With the fans as the focus of its activities, it can be concluded that marketing management, i.e. fan development, expansion, and support, is one of the major components of artist career development and longevity."

Now, this definition of marketing is all about you – the artist. I want you to take notice what the artist is doing in this definition: the artist creates, generates, integrates, builds, identifies, satisfies, keeps, focuses, concludes. The artists are the active party in fan development and management. The artists are doing the work needed to convince a potential audience to become fans. In other words, the artists are marketing themselves and their music to potential fans.

If we were to build a linear progression in light of this definition of marketing, it would look like this:

Linear Progression: Building Your Fan Base 301 (Marketing)
Identify a potential audience for your music →Design a marketing strategy to develop audience interest in your music →Build a relationship with that audience →Implement strategies that create value for that audience and to turn them into sales →Make your music available to those fans in every possible way →Implement strategies to keep those fans and expand your fan base

This linear strategy is full of action words: identify, design, develop, build, implement, create, turn, make, keep, and expand.

At this point, it should be obvious to you how different the 301 progression is from 101 and 201. In 301, the artist is the active party who acts upon the audience with a planned strategy to turn the passive audience into active fans. These are the two distinctions between 301 and the others: The artist is active and the artist has a plan.

In the next article, we'll consider how indie artists can use marketing strategies in niche markets to develop a fan base. In the meantime, begin thinking about some potential niche markets that you can connect to, i.e., a group of people with whom you share an interest, a passion, and/or a lifestyle. We'll use that information as we work to improve our Linear Progression 301 by implementing some specific marketing strategies. Until next time, keep making great music.

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