Music Industry Essentials : Andrew McKnight Talks About Fan Engagement
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: When you talk about starting your strategic plan what did you put in place first?
Andrew: I think I needed to know enough about the business of it to know, ok, what can I afford to invest in both in terms of my time and in terms of actual money spent? What can I protect myself from by keeping this full-time career on the side going until the benchmarks that I set for myself were starting to come within view. You don’t need to tour the whole country, for instance. For people who are starting out and getting a good response, there are a lot of things that you need to do. You need to continue to grow your performance, your stage presence, all of that stuff. If you don’t entertain people well the rest of it’s pretty hard. If you don’t have material that’s continually getting people engaged and coming up and talking to you, maybe buying your cd or visiting your website and stuff. It’s a lot hard to try to make that happen. You really do need to hone in on the things about your art that are really appealing to other people. And here’s where the overlap with your life comes in. To me, all of the talk about the business pieces of it, the benchmarks, and putting together a viable tour, really you have to understand what kinds of people are interested in what you’re art’s about. For people who are dog lovers, somewhere along the line you write a song about dogs and you find that other people have a real empathy with the song. For people like me who are involved in a lot of different environmental issues there’s some common constituencies for a lot of different things about that that you start finding that people are interested in. You start finding where your audience is because the number one thing is you have to get to your audience and if you’re trying to get to them in terms of them in terms of a tour you’re actually trying to get in front of them, separating them from some of their money and separating them from their most precious resource which is their time. So, in order to do that you really kind of have to understand where those constituencies are and how to reach them. When I was talking earlier about collecting the data and doing the planning I think that’s the thing that a lot of people get impatient about and they say “Oh I want to play this venue” or “I want to play that venue” and things will be really good if I get to play this place or this festival and the bottom line is it’s kind of like you poke your head up out of the water for a minute or two when that happens and then a week later a lot of the energy from that’s died down. It’s really about building some sustainable momentum. The way to do that is to really tap into those audiences that aren’t necessarily music audiences but that are audiences who are going to be interested in things you’re saying and singing about because they have those common interests.
Viv: You mentioned benchmarks. It sounds like you’re saying that we need to build local following and hone our act, making sure that we actually have—and I’m saying this as an “our” because I, too, am a performer—so you really need to build local traction where you’ve got a good following locally. What sort of benchmarks do you look for?
Andrew: I think that local following is maybe over-simplifying the case a little bit. Local is what’s convenient and costs us the least to get to. If you’re someone who sings a lot about social justice issues and yet you live in a place where it’s maybe politically really conservative and they’re really a lot more about independence and the independent spirit and all that kind of stuff, you might have a hard time building a local constituency because there’s not as good an overlap. Now, I’m not saying that to be discouraging I’m just saying that we often say that we need to develop a local following before we branch out into something where that might be not the best bellwether. I think what we do is we identify the places that are reasonably reachable and start working at building a little bit of a constituency there. For instance, if you were to take the area around Ashville, North Carolina. Beautiful area, not all that unlike Taos from that standpoint, a really cool eclectic town surrounded by beautiful mountains, all the rest of it, a lot of cool people live there. You ask people who live in Ashville where’s the toughest place to get a decent gig and they’re going to say right there in their hometown. And, yet, they’re flooded with people who might really dig what they do. If you’re coming from someplace out on the piedmont a little ways east of there or one of the pretty rural mountain areas you’re going to find still that it’s more worth your while to put a little bit of effort into getting in front of people in Ashville because they’re more likely to be receptive to your folk singer/songwriter kind of thing than, say, perhaps people in your own backyard. You got to kind of look at what’s within an hour radius of home, two hour radius of home, three hour radius of home, that offers some opportunities to maybe get in front of some of those audiences that will allow you to build bigger things. It may not be right in your own backyard.
Viv: Now I also heard you say, perhaps not to focus specifically on which clubs. To focus entirely on playing particular folk festivals or a particular club that you know will give you a certain leverage in a way. If you’ve played Godfrey Daniels, people tend to look at you a little bit more. What do you think about that? Is there, particularly when we’re starting out?
Andrew: I can really say, honestly and unequivocally, that a lot of us have been doing this, if you don’t know my own story, I definitely do fall in line with folk artists / singer songwriters, you know a lot of us are playing in the same rooms. The hundred, hundred and fifty, two hundred seat kind of church basements, coffee houses once a month, concert series, the occasional listening club kind of thing. The Uncle Calvin’s in Dallas or maybe Swallow Hill out in Denver or places like this. I think that any one of us that have been doing this for a while aspired to playing those gigs, and maybe actually get to go back and do them repeatedly over some interval of time can tell you that those are sometimes the hardest rooms to get a good audience out because they’re saturated with really great music, week in and week out, month in and month out. And they’re not necessarily overlapping with your constituencies that are really excited about what you’re doing. They get definitely some resume, they give you some cache in that regard, but I can say that there are probably a ton of people involved with leading this TeleSummit this week who’ve played places like that to ten, twenty, forty people. In a big, two hundred seat room, twenty people doesn’t feel like very much. You put twenty people in a living room, well-lit with candles and you’re in there doing your thing and everybody feels like they got a Carnegie Hall kind of show. Really, I think that part of the beauty of this is that you find the people who are willing to do maybe those, as I call them. safe houses on the Folk Underground Railroad, whether it’s a house concert or somebody hosting a show in a small, not necessarily known for folk music, kind of venue where you can really connect and interact with that audience for what you do, not necessarily an audience that’s going to hold you up and judge you by how much they like you relative to John Gorka or Robin and Linda Williams or something like that. It’s a balance. It does certainly give you some cache within the industry and sometimes you really do lock into a great constituency for what you do but to put all your eggs in that basket can be pretty disappointing through no fault of your own or the venue’s sometimes too.
Viv: Andrew, what it sounds like you’re doing is you’re crafting a very unique tour system based on self-knowledge of what it is that we bring forward that’s our best work because it contains our deepest passion. And you’re checking your ego with your luggage saying it doesn’t matter if I play the big clubs, it doesn’t matter if I get main stage act at these big folk festivals, what matters is that I’m reaching people who identify with my message.
Andrew: If you build an audience for what you do, those other things will come. That’s really the trick of it. And, you know what, if you’re business and marketing plan isn’t unique you might have a really hard time getting to do that. Then you sort of sold yourself short a little bit because, really, that business plan needs to be for you uniquely to connect with what constituencies are interested in what you do. Not what someone like a Cheryl Wheelers or Megan Peters or whatever does. It’s your audience that you need to connect with and that’s where your business plan needs to be aimed at. To find those venues and opportunities where you can connect directly with the people who are interested in what you’re doing. That’s a tough thing. A lot of people know that people like a particular song of theirs or a particular album of theirs. Well, what is it about understanding your own work from their point of view helps you to kind of see what it is that they’re being drawn to and then to expand on that to find those constituencies.