Part Two: Is Touring Really Necessary in 2008?

Posted by Justin Boland on Feb 13, 2008 | 0 Comments


Here’s a refrain I’ve heard several thousand times since I started researching this series: “Nothing beats a live show for connecting to the audience-you have to actually be there with them, sweating and rocking out, to get anyone’s attention.”

Yeah, bullshit. I would wager that 99% of the artists I buy tickets to see live, I’ve never seen live before. For instance, Tinariwen, the desert nomad Afroblues-rock band from Mali, have been on constant rotation for about 2 years straight, and I never saw them perform until December of last year.  On the other hand, if I had seen Ghostface Killah perform live before, I sure as hell never would have paid out $25 to watch him do karaoke versions of his own material, berate the crowd, and occasionaly step out in front of his 20+ hypeman entourage to rap a damn verse.

I would wager that 99% of the music I listen to, I discovered because a friend of mine had to tell me about this new album. Don’t worry-this is not another article about social networking, word-of-mouth, or viral marketing.  I just want to point out that doing shows and touring has less to do with reaching new listeners than most people think. Believe me, I just did quite a number of shows in towns where nobody had ever heard of me-not surprisingly, nobody showed up.  Before you sell tickets, you need to get people listening to your music and curious to know more about you.

So here’s a much more valuable and realistic question: how do artists get your attention like that in the first place?

The Core Elements

1. Great Music
2. Easily Accessable
3. Prolific Output
4. Evangelist Fans
5. Low Overhead

That’s it.  I could have put the “secret formula” at the end of the post, but there it is.  Feel free to stop reading.

1. Great Music. I’m never going to stop repeating this: most of you make mediocre music and that’s your main problem. Not your MySpace strategy, not your website layout, not your SEO score, not your mailing list, not your lack of sponsorships and placement on iTunes.  Seek objective feedback from as many people as possible-be as honest with yourself as you possibly can. 

2. Easily Accessable. I am an outspoken and habitual advocate of giving music away for free.  I believe the benefits exponentially outweigh the potential loss of revenue.  Of course, in 2008, pretty much everything is “easily accessable”-from software to albums to movies.  I often have new artists ask me: “If everything is going to get pirated anyway, why should we give our music away?”

My simple answer: because right now, nobody cares about you enough to pirate your music.  You’re not on filesharing networks and you’re not listed on torrent sites, because nobody has heard of you, and unless you start putting your music out there yourself, that won’t be changing this year.

3. Prolific Output. This is definitely a topic for an entire article, and that article will definitely happen.  I’ve already had a few interesting email exchanges with musicians (and listeners) who disagree with me on the importance of making lots of music. I’ll explain my bulletproof, single-sentence logic a couple paragraphs from now.

4. Evangelist Fans. No faking the funk on this one.  Your music either authentically moves people or you’re making interchangeable background noise crap.  I feel very fortunate to have the fans I do-World-Around Records has “street teams” in several cities and we’ve never organized any of them. 

5. Low Overhead. Ah, yes…the money. Remember, the single most reliable method for increasing profits is reducing overhead.  No matter what business you’re in.  All the changes and upheavals that the music industry has seen in the past decade are going to accelerate in the future.  You need to keep your operation flexible in order to experiment with new approaches and adapt to new trends.

The creation of music is a production chain-and the more points on that chain you can control, or better yet own, the lower your costs will be.  David Byrne recently dropped a much-discussed manifesto on the new music business for Wired magazine, and a number of artists questioned his claim that the costs of recording were approaching zero.  You can find the discussion over on Byrne’s website-it’s worth chewing over no matter what genre you’re working in.

Remember Pareto’s Law…and remember The Mantra: Engage in no expansion until you have eliminated all the mistakes from your current operation.

Underground Famous

C Rayz Walz live

Now here’s the synthesis.  Consider an artist like C-Rayz Walz, who made his first impression on the world with a truly remarkable song: Great Voices, a 10 minute long tribute to dozens of rappers, with constantly shifting beats and vocal styles.  Sure, it was just an imitation track-but it was so energetic and polished that people had to pass it on.

If anything beats “being there” in front of people, it’s a truly remarkable song.  I believe that a great mp3 beats the greatest live show you’ll ever play, in terms of reach, longevity and impact. Hip Hop is full of artists who made a name for themselves off a single great concept, and failed to deliver anything worthwhile for the rest of their career.  They might not be breaking new artistic ground, but what they are doing is making money off music.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the single.  This is a major reason why I advocate “Prolific Output”-you never know what’s going to catch with people.  Bruce Warila has written some excellent and visionary material about the song-testing algorithms of Hit Song Science, but the fact remains that random chance is the primary cause of more or less everything in this Universe.  Music is no different.  Speaking from personal experience, I never would have thought that a sloppy joke instructional song about anal sex would have taken off-but it sure as hell did, and now I’ve got a very promising side gig as Humpasaur Jones

You can devote years of work to your masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean people are going to like it.  You could just as easily make a few goofy “throwaway” tracks that everyone but you falls in love with.  The more music you produce, the greater your chances for reaching new audience. If anyone seriously disagrees with that formula, I would love to know why.

Best of all, it’s easy to produce.  As music genres go, it’s impossible to beat hip hop for “Low Overhead.” Beats can be created on easily stolen software and you only need an improvised vocal booth to record lyrics-get some decent levels, do minimal mixing, treat the finished product with some VST mastering software, and boom: you’ve got a new asset for your portfolio.  Purely “electronic” music is easier still: that’s how Richard James, popularly known as Aphex Twin, became so prolific in the late 90s that he was signed to over a dozen different labels, all under different names, all constantly releasing new material.

…wait a second…

I’m sure a few people will raise the question: doesn’t your list of 5 ingredients contradict itself? Can you maintain a prolific output and still have the quality control to be making great music?

Yes, you can.  Most of the effort and work involved with the production chain isn’t from making music-it’s from making mistakes. Once you get your studio signal chain set up properly, you don’t need to change the settings and recording becomes a smoother process.  Once you realize that you actually need to practice your material before you record it, you’ll be wasting less time on doing shitty takes, over and over.  Once you get a visceral sense of the elements a song needs to be “finished,” even your casual experiments will sound more polished and album-ready.

Experience is the only qualification that matters.  Don’t worry about making mistakes-plan on making mistakes, lots of them, constantly.  If you don’t get them out of the way now, they’ll show up and cause more damage down the line.


Me, I happen to like doing live shows.  I’m pretty much a fan of my fans.  So up next, I want to keep walking on both sides of the fence, focusing on innovative approaches to doing shows and planning tours, all from the perspective of a grumpy and jaded dude who would rather be having sex than working out budgets and contacting venues. 

For now, I’m curious: am I off base with this article? It was through examining my own relationships with the music I love that I came to realize live shows have nothing to do with it. I can think of exactly one exception: I saw Brother Ali play live before I’d heard of him, and he put on the most remarkable empty-house set I’ve seen, before or since.  He absolutely earned the respect of everyone in the room and if memory serves, he sold a copy of his CD to everyone there. 

How much does a live show matter to you?  Have you seen most of your favorite artists play live?  Are you in the habit of regularly going out to see bands you’ve never heard of before?  Let a mammal know. As always, thanks for reading.

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Music by Justin Boland