Crowd-surfing: Social media for the working musician

More than a decade of hard work pays off for a local musican

Earth Killer, my band’s pet name for my blue Econoline van, had just driven down the Pacific Coast Highway, taking the scenic route toward a show with Bright Calm Blue and The Show Is the Rainbow.

Before we could arrive at the gig, however, we experienced van trouble in a small mountain town before officially breaking down in the beautiful city of Cambria, California. To our surprise, a small fire had been burning in the dashboard for quite some time. Luckily, a friendly tow truck driver named Steve dragged Earth Killer to a campsite near the beach, then offered to pick us up in the morning.

Out of options, we divvied up the remaining rations — a large can of fruit cocktail and five Pabst Blue Ribbons—and enjoyed the sunset from our temporary beachfront property.

Photo by Amos Joseph

That was 2003. Since then, the process of booking a tour has changed tremendously. When we first formed Rent Money Big (R$B) in 2002, MySpace was the only social platform musicians were utilizing in an effective manner. Since R$B guitarist Drew and I were so consumed with designing and developing our own websites and press packets, it was nice to have a dedicated media player like MySpace that we could count on rather than just mp3 downloads. It was frowned upon by fans and friends to overuse Myspace, so we only used it for the music player and connecting with other bands. After that, we focused our website strategy mainly on fun design concepts mixed with silly inside jokes and random live show photos.

The main focus of our website was to tell our story our own way. The silly and amazing things that made us unique were always the most important to us. After awhile, something strange happened: it eventually began to work. People started attending shows and some even created their own online R$B content like photos and show reviews that linked back to our website.

Sadly, the only video or photo albums (other than the dozens of horribly shot DV tapes scattered across my closet floor) that made it online were shot by by LoveDrunk Studio three years after we broke up. At the time, we didn’t care. We didn’t need YouTube or iTunes. All we needed was a van, a simple website, a decent flier and a guitar player who moonlighted as an amateur booking agent.

Everything changed in 2008 when I joined the band Knots.

Knots holds a special place in my heart because it was the ultimate expression of my inner self. I went to practice and poured the entirety of my being into every aspect of the band. Each Knots member loved to create and communicate through art and music.

We created art for fliers, took silly press photos, and worked with promoters to guarantee people showed up. For the most part, promotion was focused on fun and fun only; we never really took it seriously enough to stop and think about how we were directing and organizing any of the content.

Then I tried to book a four-day tour from Lincoln, Nebraska to Austin, Texas.

I soon realized it was close to impossible to get booked if you didn’t look like a professional band. All the clout you think you have locally goes out the window the second you leave the safety of your home state. No amount of name-dropping, emailing or begging is going to convince a random venue to book your band.

What was originally planned as an epic four-day tour quickly fizzled into playing our music to a small group of our friends in the basement of the 8th Street Taproom in Lawrence, Kansas.

At that point, we were sort of over “booking tours.” Knots had another eight amazing months of playing locally. We even played on top of the Bourbon Theatre‘s giant marquee before the city made such activities illegal. Then we fizzled out, as bands often do.

Photo by Mark Dickenson

When I was asked to join the band Irkutsk, I approached every show, photo, recording, practice and flier with the mindset of making us look like a credible band (despite our status as just another band from the middle of the country). After realizing my tour-related failings with Knots, I knew right away I had a small window to successfully book a tour.

I set goals for the band (reach a set number of fans, get a record together, etc.), asked photographer and journalist friends to help get the word out, focused our art direction and participated in any online community that showed interest in our band. Fortunately, there are a lot more useful online tools for bands out there now, including Soundcloud, iTunes, HearNebraskaIndie on the Move, Bandcamp, and thesixtyone. Even Spotify provides a new way to connect musicians and fans.

Compared to the R$B days, people had become less interested in bands’ websites, preferring to “follow” their favorite acts on various social media platforms. Aware of this, I turned Irkutsk’s Facebook page into an aggregator for our content. We posted tracks from SoundCloud, photos taken by fans at shows and even articles written about us in the local paper and Hear Nebraska.

After two years of practicing, playing shows, and focusing my social strategy on the channels that mattered, Irkutsk went on a successful week-and-a-half DIY tour through the midwest. Using tools like Facebook, Bandcamp and Indie On the Move helped more fans and musicians find us and inspired lifelong face-to-face connections, some of whom even let us crash on their couches for a night. Bands like Scammers and Pisces at The Animal Fair became bands we watch out for when they come through Lincoln. Not every venue had a stellar crowd but the Irkutsk tour was the first time I ever returned from a tour with the ability to hand everyone $15 and say, “We made money.”

I don’t have any regrets about tour failures with R$B or Knots, because it helped me succeed with Irkutsk. The connections I made with those bands became lifelong friends and industry professionals. The correct utilization of social media tools can allow you to digitally crowd-surf directly to fans and other musicians, which is almost as awesome as actually crowd-surfing.

Like my old bands? For my next project, We Eat Pixels the Musical, I plan to bring Knots bass player Zach Abresch and Irkutsk guitar player Jesse Laney back into action. I’m even going to use live Social Media to enhance the overall musical experience. Stay tuned!

Rent Money Big – The Elevator Shaft by LoveDrunk Studio