Music in the Digital Era: Part 5: The Shallow Money Trench Analogy

Part 5– The “Shallow Money trench” Analogy

However impossible it may seem…the reason is, you’re not famous enough.

In January 2014, Kaspars and I were debating the validity of the recordings we had just done on a commercial level, and working on our musical connection on stage while Alex was just getting back from traveling the world. Dominic was getting ready to have a baby girl with his new wife, studying to be an ophthalmologist, so he wasn’t coming back to LA. I had written a 27-page business plan for the band from what I had learned in school and from my experience so far with the local LA music scene, and started putting it into use.

Our plan was simple even for my long-winded document: play as many shows as possible and hope to get noticed using other print media and online promotion to get fans, and then attract an independent label to take us under their wing to eventually get promoted by one of the big three major labels.

Hunter S Thompson meme

I started by promoting online, and found I was able to set up a network of social media websites to track every look, stare, view, like, and glance that anyone gives us online anywhere in the world, measure our online reach and track our online insight graphs from any mobile device, track all our sales numbers in real time, and be able to have instantaneous international digital transactions, all for a total of 25 dollars a year. Spend 20 bucks here, 40 bucks there for a boost in promotion on Facebook, you’ll end up at the top of Google searches for your name or song in less than 2 days. That’s the best thing we got out of that plan. Its the rest of the plan that we did not expect to fail miserably.

We failed not because we didn’t try: we showed up early to gigs, met with other bands and tried to drum up interest with people weeks before the show. We scraped together 50 bucks we barely had and printed out some flyers we did in Photoshop, posted them around the area weeks prior to the gig; barely did anything. We played, at most, to 5 of our friends and maybe 20-40 fans on a Saturday night at the House of Blues- Sunset in one of their many showcase rooms. In the end, we couldn’t get paid for shows and didn’t have enough money to buy merchandise to sell, and we didn’t have solidly recorded albums to sell after the show, either.

We told all our friends about the band, which wasn’t a lot of people, but they liked and shared our content online, which helps build a new marketplace with every click. (Thank you. No, really, thank you for your click.) Being the introvert I am and generally distrusting of humanity, it left me feeling like selling things to people who you depend on to care about you on a personal level was a bad idea, and in the end could compromise friendships, if you push it. I have very few but close friends, none of which will sustain your music career especially when some of them are your competition. No, the people I needed to reach, according to Facebook, were the 178.4 million “rock fans” in the world who could share, use, and potentially buy our albums online. But you gotta pay for Facebook to show it to them.

Steven Duarte Photography The Quarantined Kaspars (L), and Sean (R)
Steven Duarte Photography
The Quarantined
Kaspars (L), and Sean (R)
That leaves attracting a label, artist development or management firm. Well, see, bad news… they want you to have a lot of money already coming in, which we didn’t, and any PR company wants $2000 or more to promote anything they like. And yes, you will get promoted to potentially millions of people, but there are certain levels to expect based on content quality, demographics and time frame. Even if they like the content, users sometimes will feel online peer-pressure and not share it with anyone if it doesn’t already have a few thousand people paying attention. Trust me, they have complicated algorithms to calculate whether something has “potential” in the current marketplace or not – before you actually release anything. Its not 100%, but its math. 

I couldn’t afford to pay them, so I had to do it myself.  

Sean Martin The Quarantined, Live at The House of Blues- Sunset Photo by Richard Le' Abbee
Sean Martin
The Quarantined, Live at The House of Blues- Sunset
Photo by Richard Le’ Abbee
I could email internet radio stations, and share my music with companies to have them share with their following online. That worked much better than self-promotion on the street. The unavoidable truth was that unless it comes from a “trusted source”, nobody will spend money for music. There is a ceiling on how far you can reach people on your own online. You might know a thing or two now about the limits on Facebook posts to subscribers on a page they’ve already liked. If the test group the content is promoted to doesn’t react to it, your ad will essentially get bounced to another demographic test until it finds one that gets positive results. Our positive results by location were Canada, UK, Mexico City, Ireland, California, Australia, and New York. So we can’t go to most of our fans anytime soon. Metaphorically, we’re trying to start fires by running around rubbing our hands together, and the major labels have flaming asteroids. Facebook’s policy, as it is, asks us with the fast hands to come up with bigger fires – And even if you build it, you still gotta pay somebody for it. Somehow, Facebook and YouTube became the authority on what music gets heard.

Most legitimate music representation firms and artist managers don’t take unsolicited material, and since we were broke for the bands budgeting purposes, paying that fee for professional marketing and promotion had probable success rates, but we didn’t have the money for the immediate investment for touring, which needed to be done at the same time to get the best effect out of the promotion. Its a massive catch 22 – You can’t play shows without having played shows so the show promoters have something to promote for your next show which you can’t play until you’ve played some shows… No matter how many shows we played locally, no matter how many times we sent in to the press to get our show reviewed, our views online did not go up, our music did not sell more than usual, and the amount of people who saw and interacted with our content online was always higher with time spent behind a keyboard than on a stage.

Not everything always goes to plan... Sean Martin Wild Side Studios Photo by Santiago Arias
Not everything always goes to plan…
Sean Martin
Wild Side Studios
Photo by Santiago Arias
So, to recap, that plan with market research is: play at failing businesses, use failing infrastructure to advertise to demographics of fans and industry people who genuinely don’t give a fuck unless you’re already famous. The LA music scene was a small world after all. It was a refreshing break to meet someone who knew what they were talking about when it came to the successful ways to make money with a band — They are there, but there should be way more of them. 

We knew we had value even if the local market indirectly said we were worthless and Ke$ha was the shit. I called shenanigans on that. We realized we had something rare: a unique voice, and a unique message that only we could tell, but couldn’t be restrained to the confines of a simple YouTube page. 

We can’t put up high quality content online because we can’t afford it, and we can’t play live because we can’t afford it, but we can’t afford to not do anything because then, we don’t exist.

Photo by Alex Diaz Old Zoo, Los Angeles, CA
Photo by Alex Diaz
Old Zoo, Los Angeles, CA
Follow our blog, and stay on for part 6-8

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