Music Industry Essentials : Andrew McKnight Talks Growing Your Audience
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: Well, this is really interesting to me. You’re definitely mining of that which is right around you and building, using your skills and gifts as a songwriter, to craft things that enhance your business as a songwriter.
Andrew: That’s correct. And, Viv, I should point out, maybe during the last fifteen minutes of the call, we should probably take some questions if people have been waiting and hoping that they would get a chance to ask them. Yes, indeed, we would love to do that because I would love for people to take away something that’s sort of personally relevant to them. Understanding what’s you’re own specific business plan and how you market what you do is one thing but, for other people, it may be the first time that they’ve really thought about it in this kind of context. It really is a big picture puzzle. Understanding where the passion is for the things that you do musically, or your entertainment value on stage, or whatever it is. Where the opportunities to connect with those people are. It’s a science unto itself. It’s about marketing. It’s about planning. It’s about budgeting. I know that Tom is going to talk in the next day or so about making a recording on a budget. Nowadays the world has almost gone full circle. We’re back to the days of the old waxed 78-RPM records where you have a single on one side. Instead of making a whole album of songs now we can go in and record a song or two or three and release them over a period of time and help stay engaged with our audiences. Every time we do something like that it opens up an opportunity for connecting with those constituencies. And, more important, for somebody like me, who puts out an album of folk tunes once every three years whether I need to or not, it really allows me to kind of stay connected to them a little bit more. Three years is a long time in the current climate. It gives people ample opportunity to go, “Who the hell is that again?”
Viv: “Andrew who?” So making a viable tour within the resources in reach. I’m just going to recap a little bit, you’ve talking about understanding, first and foremost, understanding where your music, life, and business intersects for you personally. And you call that your zone of opportunity. And, going out from there, you find out your constituency, and you locate them in space. You find out where they live, where they hang out, where they go.
Andrew: Right. Right. They reveal themselves. But, yeah, you definitely have to have some open doors for them to walk through.
Viv: And you develop your act as a performer so that it’s not entirely geared toward the audience. I mean it’s coming still from your passion as a creative person. But you build your act so that it will be of value to those people so that they’d be willing to separate themselves from their time and their money. Am I going on the right track here?
Andrew: Yeah, pretty much, I’d say, you know, my show, for me, the big revelation for me was to understand that people were coming as much to hear the stories before the songs and they were to hear the songs. Personally, I get tired of the sound of my own voice pretty quick. To me, the idea of telling stories, I enjoy doing it but I was very self-conscious about it at first. And it took a lot of validation of people in the audiences saying, “That’s a great song but to hear you do it live where you tell the story” and maybe I do it in a somewhat dramatic or poetic way sometimes or humorous way. I guess I’ve sort of approached when I’m up onstage now almost like a one-man show and it’s how the words, and the music, and the spaces in between those things all work together. At the end, hopefully what you’ve had is a very moving experience and you’ve gone on a journey where at the end of it you come to some place different than where you were when you started. The songs are the places where people connect emotionally to the show. For a lot of people there will be certain songs that connect very deeply for them and for other people there’ll be other moment along the way during the show and it’s not the same moments for everybody. But the idea is that I’ve already done the work of connecting with those constituencies that are interested in the kinds of things that I am because they’re the ones that are motivated enough to come to the show.
Viv: The thing else that you said in the talk in this conversation that I’ve found really wonderful is that if you focus on your real constituency, I’m paraphrasing, but if you focus on your real constituency and play the rooms that have meaning for you and play for people that find value and meaning in your music, the bigger acts and the bigger gigs will come.
Andrew: I believe that.
Viv: Can you go into that just a little bit more because I think sometimes we loose faith in that. Can you just talk about how you kind of just chugged along from the very beginning?
Andrew: Let me actually turn you towards a different angle.
Andrew: What you need to understand is how much does it cost me to do what I do and how much do I need to make to be able to really do this? Whether you’re doing it on part-time basis, take a leave of absence from work or take a few days off here and there to do it. Or you try to do it full time. What goes out has to be less than what comes in somehow or other. It’s real easy to say, ok, well most of my shows, people are paying $12-$15 a ticket or $10 a ticket in rural areas and stuff like and if I’m going to go out on the road and I play four shows in four days and the ticket prices $10 we’re going to see, let’s see for the sake of argument 25 people at each show. So that’s $250 minimum coming through the door at each of those shows, that’s $1000. How much is my travel? Am I staying with people so I’m not having to go to Starbucks in the morning but somebody’s actually making me a real cup of coffee? I know what gas is going to cost me roughly. What the sort of budget is for everything. And so on your $1000 maybe you wind up actually bringing home $1300 or $1500 or $2000 and CD sales on top of that brings in a bit more. Of course, CDs cost money to make so they’re not just free money but you make a profit when you sell them. So, when you’re doing that you kind of have to understand those things as well. There’s the kind of the concrete accounting details to it that you sort of need to understand where your bottom line is. Now sometimes I’ll do a tour, for instance I’m going to Charleston, West Virginia tomorrow, to do a concert as I’m part of the lineup for a CD release concert for this album called “Still-Moving Mountains: The Journey Home” and it’s the second of a release of albums against mountaintop mining. The first one came out in 2004 and a lot of people across Appalachia heard my song “Company Town” which led that record off. I’ve gotten to know a lot more people in that world. A lot of people who are living in the shadow of mountaintop mining in West Virginia, and Southwest Virginia. Well tomorrow I’m essentially going to Charleston, West Virginia six hours away on a promise of not much more than gas money because I feel like I need to be there. There’s a lot of people who contributed songs to that record. Kathy Mattea’s on it, Del McCoury Band, Blue Highway. But the people who put it together are regular people who really are trying to stop something that’s going on in their backyard and amongst their families. For me, if I looked at that at a purely economic standpoint of, does it make sense to do that? I’d say no. On the other hand, does it make sense for me to re-connect with a lot of these people who have grown pretty enthusiastic about what I do and very appreciative that I’m helping share what’s going on in their backyard with my audiences all across the country. Yeah it makes sense. There’s this kind of balance between the nickel and dime day-to-day stuff and the when does it make sense to take a hit on something. You’re the best judge of that in your own life and your own career. Because so much of what I’ve done has been related to environmental issues and, certainly, my connections with the mountaintop mining community have gotten, it’s been quite a few years now. It makes sense to do that. I need to do that.