Derek Sivers

Interviews → Indie Music Marketing / Richard Hearn

Timeless marketing strategies for artists: Launch before you’re ready, let people see you improve, keep in touch with hundreds of people, remember that marketing is the last extension of your art

Date: 2020-04

Download: mp3



Thank you so much, Derek, for being here and being the first speaker on Indie Music Marketing podcast. It’s a real honor.

Question number one. What do we mean by an artists’ narrative and story?


Well, if you don’t mind, let me turn that back on you. Can you think of any of your favorite artists that have a good story?


I suppose most artists that I think have a story ends up being the trajectory of their career. Everything that started the path that they’re on.


But is that an entertaining story? Do you think that story introduces people to their music? Or do you think that story is reading the biography of someone you already love?

I knew some entrepreneurs who perfected their business card. There are always things we can do to distract us from the things that people actually care about.

There’s difficult emotional work. The stuff where you’re being vulnerable and putting your art out there. And then there’s the stuff that you can do to distract yourself from that, such as saying, I need to make up a story.

Whenever somebody says you need this, you need that, you need to do this, I instantly think that almost none of my favorite musicians do that. People talk about the absolute crucial importance of playing live shows.

I think of every one of my favorite artists. I’ve seen almost none of them live, Maybe I’ve seen two or three of my top 100 favorite artists live. So when people say you have to play live. Well, no, that’s obviously not true.

I don’t think we need a story. I think we need a sentence. We need a phrase. So, you need to have a curious answer to the most common question. People will always and forever ask you, “What kind of music do you do?”

You will always and forever have to answer that question. So, have a good description prepared in advance.

I’ve got a story of taking this to the extreme. I was speaking at a big music conference in the US. A musician in the audience stood up and said, “Derek! Derek!” He raised his hand. He said, “I have to tell you something!”

I said, “Alright, you!”

He said, “My name’s Dave, and here is a story.”

He said, “I have to tell you guys the difference that two words had to my career. Here’s how it happened. We’ve always played in little, tiny bars, but we thought that we were more of a big festival band. But whenever I’d try to reach these festival organizers or bookers, they would never return my calls. They’d never listen to my music. We’d never get booked. We’d been trying for years.

We were playing a little dive bar and a drunk guy in between songs shouts, ‘You know what you guys are? You’re hillbilly flamenco!’ We kept on playing our set. On the way home from the show that night, we started talking about ‘hillbilly flamenco’.

We thought we should start using that. It doesn’t really describe everything we do, but the audience liked it. So from that point on, every time we did a gig, we would tell the audience, ‘If you want to know what music this is, this is hillbilly flamenco.’”

After that, their career took a turn.

There’s the importance of having a good phrase to describe your music. Story? Eh, I don’t know. After people are interested in you as an artist, then you can concoct a story. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to get the world’s attention on you.

If you think of the world’s attention as a big, squishy pile of apathy, you need to be sharp as a knife in order to cut through the apathy. The sharper you can define yourself, the better. And this phrase doesn’t have to contain everything you ever do. Just a few words that make people raise an eyebrow and say, “Alright, I’ve got to check that out.” That’s it.


How should an artist develop ego-less confidence & self-belief?


I think in dating and in many aspects of life, there’s a little truism that confidence attracts, but vulnerability endears. You don’t necessarily need confidence as much as you need vulnerability.

My advice is to develop in public. Let people see you improve. Maybe even deliberately suck at first.

Here are some examples. Benny Lewis is an Irish guy that didn’t know any foreign languages. He only spoke English, but he decided he wanted to do something about that. So, he turned himself into a language learning Superman.

He would pick a language that he didn’t know at all, and he made videos of himself the day he started learning it. Thirty minutes after started studying the Indonesian language for the first time, he made a video and put it on YouTube.

Every week, he would post a video of his progress. You got to see Benny Lewis go from stammering through the basics to fluency six months later or whatever it was.

Jennifer Dewalt decided that she wanted to learn computer programming. She started building one website every single day and shared them publicly. Her earliest ones weren’t great. She shared her learning process even though she had no previous experience.

You can see what she was doing on day one versus day 180. It’s amazing to see how much she improved.

The web is filled with examples of people learning to draw. They show their early drawings and the progress to where they are now. I think we should do the same in music. Don’t think that you need to hide until you’re perfect.

I think people think highly of you when they see how hard you worked and improved. You can build an audience over the course of years if you develop in public.

Tech entrepreneurs have a common saying that “if you’re not embarrassed by your first launch, you’ve waited too long”. The idea is that you’re never ready. It’s never finished. Hopefully, in two years, you’ll be embarrassed of everything that you released now because that means you’re improving.

Writers, computer programmers, athletes, painters, language learners, and academics – I think in all fields, people are embarrassed of their previous releases. I think the only thing you can do is to start releasing and keep improving. In English, I like that say we’re going to release a new song or album because there’s a nice double meaning in there. When you release something, you need to disconnect from it a bit. It’s already in your past. So, move on and don’t worry too much about how it is. Just keep putting stuff out there.


Can you describe a great music marketing strategy in 2020?


[Laughter] I’ve never been a very timely guy. I’ve been doing this since the ’80s. I’ve been speaking at conferences since the mid ’90s.

I was always trying to get the conversation away from technology. It’s not about which buttons you’re pressing or what thing you’re buying or subscribing to.

After doing this for decades, I’ve learned that it’s the timeless stuff that’s actually the most important.

A hundred years ago and a hundred years from now, people will always love a really memorable melody. But you can’t know what instrumentation or production styles are going to be in fashion at any given time. So instead, focus on the craft of making great melodies.

People always want an emotional connection. This will be true 100 years from now too. Fans will always want an emotional connection with the artist. But you can’t know what technology is going to carry that communication. So, focus on the essence of how to connect with an audience.

In the book, Made to Stick, the authors studied tons of research about what makes certain messages stick in our head better than others. I recommend you read that and other books that might not be music related to learn what it takes to make an emotional connection.

Lastly, you never know what song is going to hit. If you read an interview with the artist or the writer that wrote a hit song, they’re almost always surprised by it.

Why did that one become a hit? Well, they were in the right place at the right time. Somebody who was making a movie wanted to put it in their movie other little stories like that. Now, that song is a hit.

But you can never know which song is going to be a hit. So, the smart thing to do is to keep writing lots of songs. Try to think that any one song or any one thing you do is going to be a success. Write as many songs as you can. Try as many things as you can.

I think a successful music career is the equivalent of having a handful of Yahtzee dice that give you 6’s all at once. The only way that’s going to happen is if you roll a lot. Throw those dice every minute of every day. If you keep doing that, at some point, you will.


Independent musicians and music are the lifeblood of the music industry. But it’s difficult for independent artists to know if sustainable independent career for musicians exist?

Do you believe in that? Is it realistic a career choice?


Is it a realistic career choice? No, but neither is being a Hollywood actor. There’s the thing that we pursue, which is not always the thing that you might end up doing. I was pursuing the path of being an artist, but also a record producer in New York City.

I built this little thing to sell my CD, and I was not expecting it to turn into CD Baby. But in hindsight, I can say that everything I did up to that point was leading to that path. It was a weird little fluke of random luck and timing. But it led to something else.

For example, Talking Heads never set out to be musicians. They were all in art school together. They said, “Let’s make a band just to get away from drawing and painting.” The made a fun little artsy band. They were just being art nerds. But their songs became huge hits.

You never know what path is going to hit.

If you really want to go this path and do music and nothing else, you’re probably going to have to branch out and do every different aspect of it.

The last time I had a day job was 1992. I was working at Warner Chappell Music Publishing. I quit my job in September 1992, and I haven’t had a job since. The way I was able to make a living as a full-time musician in New York City was to say yes to everything.

Somebody wanted a jazz pianist to play at an art opening. It pays 600 bucks an hour. “Yep. Then I’m a jazz pianist.” I quickly went and practiced my ass off for two weeks before the gig because I wasn’t actually a jazz pianist.

Somebody said they needed a heavy metal guitar solo on a dance record. “Yep, I’m a heavy metal guitarist. I can do that.” Somebody needed a singer to sound like George Michael. I’m like, “Yep, that’s me.” Whatever it took, whatever it would pay, I’d say yes. That’s how I was able to make a living as a musician in New York City.

But, there were two things hidden in your question there.

One is the advantage of being small. As an independent artist with only 100 or 200 fans or something, you can do things that Lady Gaga can’t. I don’t know what those things are because it’s different for everyone. I don’t know what genre of music you play. You might be a cellist in Moldova or a punk band in Brisbane.

But you’ve got your own version of something that the famous people can’t do. You can make more of an emotional connection with your audience. You can send an email to your mailing list that says, “How are you? Are you affected by Covid-19? Are you OK? Can we help in any way?” I think Lady Gaga can’t do that. You can.

There are examples of this in the entrepreneur world too. A lot of people look at Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. They think of how they can be the next Amazon or the next Tesla. But when you’re small, you can do things that Tesla and Amazon can’t.

I think there’s also a timeless aspect of what you can do for your career. And that’s saying in touch with people. No matter what branch your career in music takes, it’s going to be really important that you stay in touch with hundreds of people. You want to stay in the forefront of the minds of people who are in the music industry or are music fans.

Many times, a big breakthrough in my own music career came the day after I contacted somebody out of the blue. I would call up some agent that I had met once through a friend of a friend and just ask, “How’s it going?”

The next day, even though I hadn’t talked him for months, he’d call me, and say, “Hey, it was good talking to you yesterday. You know what? I think I got a gig for you”

Many things are going happen in your career because of someone you know. If you’re keeping in touch with the people you know, then no matter what surprise thing comes up, you’re going be well positioned to be at the forefront of their mind.

Michael Levine, a publicist in Los Angeles, wrote this book called Guerrilla P.R. He had great advice to separate everybody you know into an A-list, B-list, C-list, and D-list.

Your A-list are your very important people. Contact them every three weeks.

Your B-list are your important people. Contact them every two months.

C-list, where you’re going to keep most people. Find a reason to contact them every six months.

D-list, let’s call those demoted people. Contact them once a year to make sure that you still have their correct info. Just in case they end up climbing up the list to another position.

You make these systems to keep in touch with hundreds of people because we don’t know what the future holds. But these are ways to stack the odds in your favor.

I talked about technology earlier. I think that we focus too much on it. Many musicians think they’ll get more successful through some technology. But if you’re focusing on the technology, it’s the red herring. It’s not about the technology. Ultimately, it’s about the actual people – the individual people and not the crowd.

Don’t forget, these are individuals who want to connect with you. Hearing from you might be the coolest part of their day. If they subscribe to your mailing list and you say, “Hey, Dave. Saw you subscribed to my mailing list yesterday. Thanks. Where are you based? Can you tell me anything about yourself?”

You might have just made his day. He heard your song and liked it enough to subscribe to your list, Now, you’re emailing him. OMFG. That’s the coolest thing that happened tonight.

Don’t forget. It’s all human stuff. It’s not technology.


I want to put something together that may become a recipe book of music marketing tactics for independent musicians.

Can you discuss one marketing tactic in detail that independent artists could use to advance their career today?


What I’m going to share is not the “today tactic.”

But here’s how you find today’s winning tactic. You have to use the tricks that work on you.

Turn off your musician side for a minute, turn on your phone or browser, and just be a music fan. Go look for some new music. And see what a normal person would do to find new music.

If you do this, you’re going to come across, for example, a media outlet that writes about new musicians or a listicle of the “Top 10 Artists You Must Hear Now.”

You’re going to read about many artists who you’ve never heard of before, and out of all of those, only one or two is going to really catch your attention. Ask yourself why?

I don’t know who or where you are or what genre you do.

So, I don’t have the answer. You do. Notice what tricks worked on you. Get specific. Ask yourself why. If a certain photo or a description caught your attention, what was it that intrigued you? Analyze it and use it. Adapt those techniques and use them when promoting your own music. And do this often.

I think of these as tools for an unknowable future. We don’t know what your future has in store, and we don’t know what’s going to be hot next week or next month.

So, think about what your approach can always be and not just about what works now. I love that you said this is that business is creative. Marketing to me is the furthest extension of your art. It’s the last extension of your music.

You had an idea for a song at some point. A little snippet of a melody, a phrase, a riff, or a groove. You took that little seed of a song idea and you fleshed it out. You added some parts to the arrangement.

You made a creative decision on the instrumentation. While you were recording it, you made creative decisions on the production values. Is this going to sound like live musicians in a room with a nice earthy, echoey sound? Or are you going to go for a distorted, electronic, twisted, very deliberately artificial sound?

Then, you put it out to the world. You made creative decisions with your photos, and you made a creative decision on what you’re going to call yourself. Are you going to call yourself “Mark Smith” or you’re going to call yourself the “Crunchy Bastard”? These are all creative, artistic decisions.

But then, what a lot of musicians do with that final step of marketing is that they turn off their creativity and they say, “I don’t know. Just tell me what I should do.”

No! Do not turn off your creativity. The marketing is an extension of your art. It’s just like those decisions you made about which instruments to use or how much distortion to put in the recording or the photos. This is just yet another creative decision. This is purely artistic. You should be as creative on the business side as you were in every other step of the way.


That is a wonderful way to finish, Derek. I wholeheartedly agree with you.


I care about this so much. So, thank you for letting me talk about it.


I love that. That’s so expansive. And taking it from the riff, the chord, the melody, the whatever, to the whole world.

Thank you so much for being here, Derek, and being in the first episode of the Indie Music Marketing podcast.


Thank you.

You’re helping more musicians than I am right now. I really admire what you’re doing, and I’m happy to be here. So, anybody, any musicians, especially if you were listening to this, please send me your music. I answer emails all day long, and I really like listening to music in the background.


And your book?


Oh, yeah. It’s called Your Music and People: Creative and Considerate Fame.