Silly Facebook Marketing

So one of the cultural realities of being an online musician is the whole routine of trying to find fans. There's all this advice out there about how to not approach finding fans. You're supposed to not talk about yourself, but also sell yourself, but only ask others about themselves, but find support, but not look for them, but make it easy for them to sign up, but don't look too available, and... urf, this reminds me of my dating life. It's ridiculous.

So, this all plays out over in facebook too. About a year ago I created a facebook "fan" page, because it seemed like that was what you were supposed to do. Then I wrote my facebook friends and asked them to become a fan, but you know, only if they were interested! And then I watched the fans roll in... well, not. Because at the time I only had fifty or sixty friends, which translated to about twelve fans.

It's amazing how your first impression of something - a price, any number, whatever - can set your economic expectations. Twelve fans! You immediately make that data point somehow line up to being roughly proportional to your amount of output. So maybe writing another song would mean two more fans. I completely accepted my twelve fans and took that to mean I only had about twelve people on facebook that were interested in hearing more. I'd dreamily fantasize about the days of reaching 20. (I have 19 right now.)

Well a couple of weeks ago one of my college-age buddies got all ridiculous with facebook and created an event for himself and managed to invite 900 people to it. Which led me to look more into facebook's different viral marketing approaches. Here's what I found.

  1. Fan pages suck. They're really only for entities that have a large devoted following already. They're not viral. They get indexed by google which is cool and all, but it's not the way to build your fan base. If you want to write your fans, it doesn't even go to their inbox.
  2. Group pages are great. They don't do as much as fan pages, but you can email all group members, and group members can easily invite others to join the group.
  3. Events are nifty because you can invite every one of your friends to the event, and you can even email the entire guest list - even if they haven't rsvp'd yet

So I figured, to heck with it. My facebook friends are already my friends. They're not going to hate me. (Please don't hate me!) They won't mind getting a firm invitation from me to join a group - it's not like I'm pestering their inboxes all the time with gigs or anything.

And by now I have about 215 friends on facebook anyway - too many to email 20 at a time. So, I created a group, the Curt Siffert Music Fan Club. And I invited everyone to a group, even though that won't show up in their facebook inbox.

And then I created an event giving instructions on how to join the group, and I invited everyone to the event - and then emailed them all with similar instructions. The event is also three weeks long, so it will be in their sidebar for a while until they RSVP.

You can see - I basically decided, to hell with the blasé approach. I said, "I promise I will make you happy!" and "I need your ears to make my fingers work!" To hell with shame, right? And depending on how people have their facebook configured, they're getting pounded with three notification emails (sorry, Kira) in addition to the facebook inbox message.

Response rate is vastly different. Most people are joining the group. More than 3/4 still have yet to respond, and 40 have already joined. Plus, they can invite their friends if they want. So now I have an outlet to send out my next new song, and ask them to add it to their profile or invite their friends if they like it. And I'm looking back at the 12 fans I have on my fan page and scratching my head at the whole thing. Sometimes it really is just about how you ask.

Success Stories

A few years ago I did some freelance work for Derek Sivers.

For those who don't know, Derek Sivers is the founder of CDBaby. He's moved on from the company, and appears to mostly be doing brain work as some sort of musical buddha. I've kept up on his personal site off and on since programming for cdbaby.

His site is like crack, he's got a big font and short paragraphs - it's highly addictive to independent musicians that are looking to find some sort of toehold or advice on how to get ahead. Derek's obviously got a ton of perspective on what works and what doesn't work for independent musicians, and enjoys sharing what he's learned. I enjoy it a lot.

Today he has an interview with Amber Rubarth. This one was interesting to me because she tells her story about how she got to where she is now (a full-time living touring and selling cds), from a period of time five years ago before she knew how to play music.

This isn't really Amber or Derek's fault - some of it is just the undeniable appetite of musicians who "haven't made it yet" to see those who "have made it" as being the source of some sort of wisdom. But sometimes I read these stories and they come across to me as a how-to, as in "what worked for me should therefore work for you!".

And that's clearly ridiculous. Creative success is actually a very funny formula - it's not just luck and talent and work, there's also an element of blissful ignorance, the selfish interests of others, just a lot of things that are out of our direct control.

We all as people have built-in structural advantages, as well - gifts we're born with that don't require work and development, but just jump in to help us during all those small key moments in life. The success we get from these advantages shouldn't be ascribed to work or talent, either.

Of course, it's impossible to know where the dividing points are. If I've reached a measure of success and my belief in plaid unicorns has never been challenged, then I might conclude that my devotion to plaid unicorns has been essential to my success. But I might also believe that about practicing at least an hour a day, and maybe that would be correct.

But since we never really know... I think that means it's our responsibility as artists to never let go of that humility. I think there's danger in concluding that any external measure of success is something that we caused and created and that others can learn from. It's just too elusive of a concept, too random and quicksilver. There are some great pointers and suggestions in the interview, but as always, your mileage may vary.

Gig Report, 1/6 @ Thirsty Lion

So I had my first real gig tonight, or second if you count when I performed two songs at a songwriting competition last month.

After my gig last month, I was checking out myspace pages of the various other musicians who performed and saw that one linked to the PDX Songwriter Showcase. I've been curious about these songwriter showcases so I wrote them to ask if they accepted piano-based songwriters.

I only intended to ask for future reference but the guy wrote me back and said he heard my stuff off of my myspace page and enjoyed it, wanted to give me a twenty-five minute slot for 1/6. I hemmed and hawed a bit and accepted.

This last week I felt I was in danger of coming down with a cold and almost canceled but then I took a turn for the better. Plus I knew I'd like if I went through with it. I've got to get over these humps where it feels stressful to gig, it needs to become old hat.

The gig went pretty well. I like The Thirsty Lion - I've walked by on Friday and Saturday nights and it always seems packed. I knew Tuesday night would be different, but was still looking forward to checking out the venue.

There were four musicians total tonight, plus the host - there was one cancellation, but another guy stepped in to replace him. I was third on the list. The other three guys were solo acoustic guitarists. Unfortunately, the sound inside seemed more suited for big acts; it was a bit of a challenge to understand the lyrics on many of the songs.

It reminded me that it can be a bit soul-crushing to go through this process of playing out, at least if you aren't prepared for it. There were about 15-20 people total in the audience, mostly people who came along with the other performers. As for me, I had heard that some of the folks on my mailing list might show up but I didn't spy any of them in the audience. Tuesday night after New Years is a bit of a tough time in the schedule.

The gig went well - I played five songs, I didn't keep my eyes closed the entire time like I did last month, and talked a bit between songs. It seemed the strongest ovations were for I Have A Cold (which still mystifies me), Damn My Eyes, and She Believes, which I closed with. My Favorite Clown was really fun to play with the upright bass, supplied by Chris Gustafson, who also played with me last month. Balancing Above The Air went well too, but it wasn't really the right fit for the venue, I need more of a captive audience for that one. I have a rough sense that Damn My Eyes, Clown, and She Believes are the ones that have the inside track for "moving ahead to the next round" for me.

I listened to the recording I made of it later, and was surprised to find that I played all of the songs at a faster tempo than I usually practice them at. Chris mentioned they seemed faster, too. I'm not sure how much of that is because of nerves, and how much of that is because of me being used to playing on my grand piano, where there's a huger body of sound. With the keyboard it's all attack and then nothing so it might have made me rush a bit so things didn't feel empty to me.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how my voice sounded live, especially since I actually did start coming down with that cold tonight. I no longer think my voice is my weak point - now it's just my songwriting - I gotta come up with some more material now.

Got a couple of unsolicited compliments afterward. Good experience overall. I'm looking forward to playing for larger audiences later, we'll have to see how that goes.

Year In Review, The Year Ahead

Time to take stock. Like many, I'm looking both backwards and forwards tonight, and there is a lot to consider.

Some of what I've done musically this year is journaled on this site. At the beginning of the year, I had managed to form a jazz trio for myself. This was more a practice trio rather than a performance trio, and it went well for a while, but it eventually disappeared due to conflicting schedules and other priorities - specifically, my bass player got way too busy and had to focus on things that had regular performance opportunities. That happens with bass players, I've learned!

I've also been rehearsing semi-regularly with another trio - trippy progressive improvisation - and we're continuing. We're still figuring out our goals, not sure if we're good enough at the straight improvising to justify playing live, still gathering up recordings good enough for a cd, and still figuring out how and whether we can turn the material into actual arrangements we can play from in the future.

I had a couple of mixed-media things fall into my lap, from a soundtrack to some Australian Community Television, to some additional Art Musings paintings (I actually still have more to post), to a soundtrack to a video someone shot of an Art Installation.

I posted a few more Piano Musings, too. I actually have several more to post from more than a year ago, but I guess this eventually fell out of my practice routine as I started focusing more on jazz and songwriting. The piano musings were always intended to serve the purpose of getting me more comfortable with both jazz and songwriting, so maybe they worked. But that doesn't mean I won't do more in the future.

I dabbled with some video of myself (get a haircut!). That's really fun, I hope to do more of that in the future.

Mostly, though, this year was dominated by struggling with and then completing two songs - Not Today and She Believes. I think She Believes is by far my favorite song, and Not Today is my most commercial. It's a little disappointing to me that the two songs took so much effort, but I'm trying to reinforce to myself that it's just because of some combination of inexperience and high standards.

In the latter part of the year, I think things started to rev up a bit - I started attending songwriting workshops more, and I also managed to write a couple of more songs, including Damn My Eyes and I Don't Mind. Damn My Eyes is commercial, I Don't Mind is not.

And this basically culminated in my first gig, a two-song presentation at a songwriting contest. I got good feedback and got some networking in, too - this networking indirectly led to my second gig, which is coming soon.

That's not really the whole story, though. There was a lot that I did musically that wasn't journaled on this site. For one thing, I had a ton of rehearsals and a ton of recordings. According to iTunes, for the year of 2008, I have 357 recordings, for one full day's worth of recorded music - multiple takes of my originals, of jazz standards, etc. That doesn't include one more rehearsal from November that I still have to process, and several additional takes of originals that I've rehearsed on my own. I've culled through all those recordings to create a "Best Of 2008" cd that I've given to my family; that was a lot of fun.

I found some new players and some new skills. I also got some new hardware that will really help with having high quality recordings in the future. And, with my buddy Steve's help, I've started working towards some actual multi-tracked versions of my songs with the goal of releasing an EP or cd of my stuff. So a lot of things have shifted.

But the biggest shift, I think, is in my psyche. It's really, really hard to adopt the identity of a musician, then a songwriter, then a performer. I've been a musician off and on for many years - owning a degree in music helps reinforce that feeling. But to call myself a songwriter, that's especially difficult early on when all you have is the faith in songs that don't exist yet. It's easy to feel like a fraud, or worse, delusional. I cringe along with everyone else when I watch American Idol and see the awful talents that are so sure they are good, except with me it's always with the nagging doubt, Oh my god... am I one of those?

It creates a feeling of desperation, of almost wanting to apologize for the output you've produced so far, but to tell those around you, but just wait... hold on... the stuff I have coming up is so much better...

I think the biggest shift in my psyche is that I've managed to mostly get beyond that. A buddy of mine and I call it Back Pocket Thinking. To always have that secret weapon in our back pocket, so we don't have to face the thought of our public side being a complete representation of who we are.

So it's really only been over the last couple of months that I've gotten more comfortable with seeing myself as a songwriter that is merely represented by what I've written so far.

And I'm okay with it. Depending on how you count, I have six, nine, or twelve songs, and they collectively paint me as a songwriter that writes sometimes sweet, sometimes innovative, sometimes whacked songs. I've been experimenting, but so far I haven't written a song that makes everyone wince.

I have several ideas for future songs, but on top of that, I for the first time have the glimmering of an idea of a direction - a "sound" that I have a very abstract sense of, that I think might fuel the creation of several songs.

But, I'm not putting that in my back pocket or anything. It's just something I've suspected. Doesn't mean it actually exists.

And so what of the upcoming year? Well, I'm still shaking out priorities, but here are the main principles and opportunities.

Songwriting Community - This entails being a more consistent presence out in public, mainly among other songwriters. There's a lot to learn locally, and I might be able to both get and give a lot of help. Right now this involves making it a priority to attend local songwriting workshops and contests, either as a spectator or a participant.

Produce Those Songs - This is probably first priority, actually. I've got three songs multi-tracked and in progress, and another two on the way. There's a lot of work to do, a lot of unknowns, specifically how to find an engineer that is willing to work within Logic Pro using the arrangements I've already put together. But I'm going to do it until I feel like I have a set of songs that feel cohesive and done, and then create the album.

Gigging - I intend to gig my originals more than once this year. :-)

Jazz Solo - I do have opportunity to play out solo as a jazz pianist/singer. Abstractly, I think this would be very good for me. I'm not an A-List pianist in town, but there aren't many that sing and play at the same time. It's a matter of if I can string together enough compelling material to justify a full gig, but I've got ways to get there. The main thing here is time.

Jazz Combo - This is more fun, and easier to do - the playing isn't as hard, and the sound is naturally more compelling. So far I'm lucky to have players that are interested in doing this with me.

Marketing - This is the thing I know least about. Granted, it's hard to do this before there's much to market! One thing I think I'll do, however, is write more on this site, despite the sneaking suspicion that I'm oftentimes the only one that reads it. :-)

If I were to make actual goals (aaaaugh! Goals!) they would probably be along the lines of... having a well-mixed/mastered recording out that I can give away (for marketing) and sell (at gigs and online). Have a few new songs. (I know my goal should be to write a TON of new songs, but... sheesh, maybe after I get a manager to handle the rest of this stuff.) Be gigging, and hopefully get some more supporters that aren't existing family and friends. You know, lowering the old Hack Quotient. And, in general, success. Always a good goal to have in this economy.

So that's it! Despite it seeming like a lousy year out in the real world, it was a good year here. And I'm feeling positioned to have an ever better on in 2009. As always, I'll be journaling it here. Thanks to all who have come along so far.

On Music Theater

One thing I am told from time to time about my songs is, "It sounds like it could be in a musical!"

I often feel bad for the people saying it, because many times people mean it as a compliment. But the reason it puts me in a foul mood is because of all the other people that say it dismissively.

"Music Theater" is often code for "not marketable". There's a real snobbishness about it too - I've seen it come up in comments from Garageband reviewers, and it always has a dismissive air to it. And recently I got it from a songwriting judge, too.

There are a whole ton of elements to this.

First, there's people being down on music theater in general. You try to pin down what they mean by it, and it will usually lead to some stammering and "it's just... music theatery". Second, there's a lack of understanding on what music theater even is. Sondheim is not in the same universe as Andrew Lloyd Weber. But third, there's the apparent wisdom out there that it's not good for a song to sound too music theatery... whatever that means, and with no real explanation of why.

Me... I started in classical. And I loved Billy Joel and Harry Connick, Jr. I arranged Top 40 tunes for a cappella singers. I music directed two Sondheim musicals. I am quite involved with jazz. I love piano. I studied film scoring and classical composition. I love Ben Folds, Jamie Cullum, Bruce Hornsby, James Taylor. I like pulling from a lot of different areas, I like the synthesis. I really like the idea of finding a way to combine pop structures, folk/country storytelling, jazz harmonies, and classical technique. But I think to some even that is basically a formula that adds up to music theater.

Honestly I don't really understand this apparent bias against music theater to begin with. Cole Porter? Gershwin? They're not exactly lightweights. But here's the other thing - by now, I actually know a bit about music theater. Music theater pieces serve a grander plot. They don't tend to tell a complete story by themselves. They don't tend to have concise song form structures because they often pull in interludes and recitatives and quotes from other pieces. They're driven by conventional accompaniment patterns, like triadic quarter notes over and over again that don't challenge the melody singer - background music that stays out of the way.

And that description has nothing to do with She Believes. She Believes is not a freaking musical theater piece. It's in 5/4, for christ's sake. You're not going to hire a music theater actor to sing and dance in 5/4! The train wrecks that would ensue. Not pretty.

But I got that comment from a judge - in the form of listing a bunch of compliments, separated by commas, but concluding with "but it sounds like a song from a musical." No other comments. There was nothing constructive about that comment - no examination of what is actually bad about something being music theatery, what was meant by it, and why it would nullify the other compliments.

Rather frustrating, and I'm sure I'll be getting that style of comment many times in the future, because being a piano-driven songwriter is enough for some people to sum the music up as music-theatery. I'll try to remember to take it as a compliment from those that mean well by it, but for those times when I have to swallow hard after hearing it... hopefully this explains why.

Update: Busted! Apparently "Everything's All Right" from Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" is in 5/4. Dammit!

The Musical Middle Class

I'm continually thinking about what it means to "make it big". And part of it is that I've never really felt like I want to make it REALLY big. The concept of the Musical Middle Class is what sounds more appealing: making a middle class salary based off of touring/tickets, merchandise, and recordings.

It's a bit of a depressing subject to think about, because when one thinks about the musical middle class, actual names come to mind, like... Jonathan Coulton. He talks about eking out a middle class salary. And yet... he's, uh, famous. A star! A celebrity! And middle class. Something there doesn't jibe.

I'm curious what kind of activity and success level would actually lead to a middle class revenue stream. Depending on region, $40k - $80k / year. How many tours? How much merchandise? How many cds sold? How many fans? What are the nuts and bolts, what is actually needed?

I saw Derek Sivers post a list about a year ago, of artists that have made more than $30,000 total just from cd sales on CDBaby. If it was the total list, it was... quite the perspective. Because it was only thirty-two names.

It seems the number one thing that is needed for independent music is ways to better monetize good music.


I've always hated scales and arpeggios. Just hated them. I was always a classical music kid - scales were like taking music, and aggressively distilling it down, boiling away everything that was good and true and emotional and affecting about music, and stripping it down to something incredibly annoying. I hated looking at music as something that had annoying elements to it, and scales/arpeggios just shone a big spotlight on them.

I also saw no point. What is the point of being able to play both-handed four-octave Ab-minor arpeggios if none of the pieces in my repertoire have them in their passages? Plus, I had been able to learn particular scale runs when necessary - the G minor scales in Chopin's 1st Ballade. The F# runs in Brahms B-minor rhapsody. I suppose they weren't perfect every time I did them, but they were a heck of a lot better than when I would do them as part of mindless scale exercises. It was the music that motivated me, not some aim of mindless technical proficiency.

And now... it's different. Jazz makes it all different. Now there's a point to practicing these scales. If I reach a confidence point with some altered pentatonic exercise, I can use it. And there are times in my improvising when I know I have a sound in my head - a flourish that I intellectually know how to play, one that depends on some pentatonic or symmetric diminished pattern... and my fingers get tangled.

Damn it.

I've always had good fingers. I've been able to coast on them. But I guess I'm getting to the point where my lack of scale/arpeggio practice is finally starting to limit me.

So, today was the first day I really started pounding scales again, first day in a long time. All the modes in several keys, both hands.

And this time... thinking about the jazz playing I might be able to use them in, it was actually kind of fun.

Crashes and Rehearsals

Well, about a week ago my hard drive died and that was a lot of fun. I didn't lose anything in the way of music - just two revisions of one of my piano musings, when the one I wanted to keep is still around. And some recordings from my jazz trio rehearsals, but I've already uploaded them on a website so I still have them. Still, annoying. I think I've just about decided to invest more in to an actual desktop computer system so I have some redundancy.

The other advantage of that is that I will be able to start getting back into multitracking. Right now the only multitracked song I have is Together, and I'd like to do more of it.

Saturday night, I recorded some more versions of All Aboard and Balancing Above The Air, with the intention of finally getting demo-quality songs that I could put up on I didn't quite get there, but it was still nice to come up with a couple more versions I can listen to and examine. These recordings have piano and drums. I might upload them here in the future - still letting them sink in.

Rehearsing Originals

I just tried playing through I Have A Cold, Balancing Above The Air, and My Favorite Clown, one right after the other. Oy. It's been too long since I've played them through. And I don't think I've ever played them through back to back before. I've got to practice those more regularly. I just put myself on a schedule to do it every three days.

Trio Rehearsal

First rehearsal of the trio went well. The bassist hosts and has everything set up in his basement, so it's really cushy that way - even the drummer didn't have to haul anything. We worked on Where Or When, Ain't Misbehavin', But Beautiful, Comes Love, Desafinado, I Could Write A Book, and Under My Skin. There's so much I don't know! A few impressions, both from last night, and from listening to the recordings today:

Desafinado sounds really good with just drums, bass, and voice. I brought in the piano after the A section was done and it sounded really good that way.

I feel weirdly more creative in my solos on the latin tunes. (We're doing But Beautiful as a bossa.)

Comes Love has been really hard for me to do solo - just voice and piano - but it's really fun as a trio.

It's tough to find a good tempo for Under My Skin. I wanted it to be more peppy, but it just really wants to lay back the way we're doing it.

I gotta breathe more. When I don't know a tune, I don't breathe as deeply, and then my singing tone is thin and I go sharp.

Overall, really fun - I'm looking forward to the next rehearsal. I think this will inspire me to work on jazz a lot more than my last band did - the smaller combo is better for me, partly because the three of us felt comfortable talking a lot about what it meant to play jazz. Lots of learning opportunity here.

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© 2007 Curt Siffert. Some audio protected with a Creative Commons license.
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