Friday, August 12, 2011

Avoid the Local Music Scene Trap

Before we start talking about the local music scene trap, we need to establish a few ground rules. Let's all agree that:
  • Every reason someone plays music is valid - you don't have to be interested in making a career in music to decide you want to play in a band with some friends for fun.
  • It is perfectly fine to not have any interest in taking your music, label, promotion business or anything else beyond the local level.
But - while there is nothing wrong with any reason for getting involved in music, if you want to make a living in music, you have to approach things quite differently from the band who simply wants to play some songs and have a party at the local bar on the weekends. You need to be thinking of how to take your local successes to the next level, and that requires some planning and smart decision making. A lot of people think that living in a town with no music scene to speak of is a real detriment to their chances of launching their music career - and let's be honest, it can make things tough. However, living somewhere there is a thriving local music scene has its pitfalls. To get the most out of living somewhere there is a music scene, you need to find a way to tap into the benefits while cutting through the distractions.
Yes, part of what I'm getting at is that you have to become unconcerned with courting the admiration and attention of your lovely and fickle local scenesters and hobby musicians. You know who I mean. They might get the local overpriced coffeehouse buzzing about you, but they won't help you sell records even three towns over. Here's the hard - and harsh - reality of it all: being a local celebrity plus a couple bucks will get you a latte and not much else. Besides, these people are often the same people who will think you're a sellout if you try to make some money selling your music, because after all, their band doesn't make any money and they don't care. Here's a hint - they have day jobs and they never plan to leave them for a career in music. You do. Don't get sucked into it.
Although you will naturally have an affinity and a fondness for your hometown fans - after all, your friends and family are usually in that group - from a business standpoint, you need to treat your local scene as you would any other stop on the road. You want to wow your fans, get some press and keep people talking about your music - and then you want to repeat that process in the next place. Local bands in places where there are big music scenes often invest an inordinate amount of time trying to become the stars of their local circuit. There is the odd occasion when this can make a difference - if a few bands who have made it big come from your town, labels often invade the town to see who else is around - but these occasions are very specific and very fleeting. In most cases, you can put the local scene on lockdown and still be lucky to land an opener for the opener slot at a small club in the next state, simply because your local success doesn't translate outside your small radius. If getting out of your back yard is your ultimate goal, then don't get involved in a popularity contest to rule said back yard. Believe me, your local celebrity status will be cemented when you start achieving things on a larger stage anyway, plus, you'll get to avoid turning into the middle age wannabe musician saddo hanging around the college parties wishing the local scene was just like the...90s, 80s, 70s, or what have you...again, since that is when they ruled the local clubs.
OK, but here is the rub. It DOES makes sense to start locally when building your music career. It all comes down to the approach. Here are some tips to avoid the local musician trap:
  • Follow the Bread Crumb Trail: Everything you do locally can be a stepping stone for something bigger. Follow that trail to opportunities beyond the local scene. If you've got a good local following, try a gig swap to start working on new audience. If you've got tons of great reviews in the local press, add quotes from them to your bio and your website. Press begets press, so demonstrating that people are writing about you will get more people to write about you outside of your area. It will also show promoters, labels and more that you're building a buzz. Always look for how every local success can help you achieve something a little broader.
  • Plan Wisely: When you're booking shows, check the local calendar. It's amazing how many relatively small towns seem to have 25 very similar bands playing on the same night. They're splitting the audience in ways that just don't make sense. Since your goal is to move beyond playing locally, you want to play on nights when you're not splitting the local music fans so many ways.
  • Be on the Same Page: One of the best parts about being in a place with a big music scene is that you lots of options when it comes to finding musicians for your band. However, in addition to being great musicians, the people you play with need to have the same goals as you. If they want to stay local and can't invest the time into, say, going on tour, then you're going to reach an impasse. Start out on the same page, and you'll avoid these problems.
Local music scenes can fun and great places to launch your music career. But if your goal is to make a career out of your music, remember you're going to need a lot more local success.

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