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Getting Social Series: I Fight Dragons on Using Social Media to Connect With Fans

For the second installment of our “Getting Social” Series, we interviewed Brian Mazzaferri of Chicago’s I Fight Dragons. The band has been together for over 6-years, playing catchy pop rock tunes that incorporate chiptune music from Nintendo Game Boy/NES. After only two years, I Fight Dragons had the honor of being signed to Atlantic Records, but in 2012, they fought to get out of their deal in order to regain control of their music and revenue.

After a very successful Kickstarter campaign, they released The Near Future (distributed by TuneCore) in December of 2014. TuneCore was honored to be able to help them continue their musical journey after they departed from the label system. While I Fight Dragons has garnered attention from sync placements in TV shows (including credit for writing the theme song for ABC’s The Goldbergs) and commercials, the band has always maintained an attentive and effective social media strategy. Building large communities on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, maintaining a blog and regularly engaging with their fans through all of these channels, we felt they were perfect candidates for sharing advice on how independents can best utilize social media.

Read our interview below with lead vocalist Brian Mazzaferri, who fills us in on the band’s musical journey and how their social presence has played a role in it.

Congrats on the release of The Near Future! Where do you feel the band has grown the most over the past 6+ years?

Brian Mazzaferri: Thank you!  We’re definitely psyched that it’s finally out; we’ve been working on it for the past 2 years, and it’s a bit surreal to talk about it as something that actually exists out in the world.

Growth-wise, I feel like our main focus has been in our arrangements.  Back when we started, we sort of just threw chiptune on top of what we were already playing, but over the years we’ve learned more and more about chiptune, and also grown as instrumentalists and a band.  These days, the four of us speak a common musical language and it’s always a blast to work on arrangements.

On a practical level, it’s been really cool to see that we’ve had a pretty regular fanbase-growth level over the 6 years. We haven’t exactly had any “big breaks” where we picked up our fans, just a bunch of small and medium sized breaks that we always tried to keep pushing with.

You guys went from local to being signed to Atlantic in just 2 years. Tell us about how you initially went about grabbing the attention of listeners and press outlets.

Yeah, that was a crazy time.  I think we were obviously helped by the fact that our music fit really well with the zeitgeist of the early 2010s, with geek becoming chic and nerd becoming cool. A band that played rock music mixed with retro video game sound cards fit right in, which is not to be underestimated when it comes to labels and folks trying to guess the next big thing.

Beyond that, we also just worked our butts off non-stop – hustling, playing local shows, networking with other local bands, and trying anything and everything to connect with people who might like our music and create meaningful moments and relationships.

It was a lot of constantly trying new platforms and tools too, we had early success on sites like thesixtyone.com (which used to be a ridiculously awesome rpg-style music discovery site), jamlegend.com (which was a really cool online free guitar-hero type game), and others.  We did a lot on MySpace (which was important at the time), and a fair amount on Twitter in its infancy, as well as of course more and more on Facebook as time went on.  We did battle of the bands competitions in Chicago, and played any and every collaborative event we could find.  We used platforms like TAXI and SonicBids to get placements too.  I don’t think the exact path we followed is totally relevant today, but I do think the key philosophy of constantly trying new things and learning as you go is still applicable.

Twitter is a platform that has progressed almost parallel to I Fight Dragons’ career. How has the band utilized its relationship with fans on Twitter? What have you found to be beneficial from your early days through 2015?

It has indeed. Back in 2009 when we started to use Twitter it seemed like a brand new frontier, and it was a huge part of how we grew back then, how we found and connected with more people who might like our music and made new friends along the way.

The best advice we ever got in the early days was actually from Leah Jones, a marketing wizard in Chicago who actually did some social media consulting / coaching with bands back in the day.  She taught us to use social media as a conversation tool, and not as a promotion tool.  Especially with Twitter, it’s not about pushing your message out to the world, it’s about finding the conversations that are already happening out there and joining them in meaningful ways where you actually have something to contribute.

Mostly, just being a human and interacting in real, honest ways provides the most meaningful return.

With 52K Facebook fans, what kind of content helps fans feel connected with I Fight Dragons? 

It’s funny, we’ve never particularly had a growth spurt on Facebook, it’s always just been a slow and steady climb.  I’d say we’ve gotten somewhere in the realm of 10,000 fans per year for the past 4 years or so, and it’s not that we post any specific kind of content; although I will say we do try to do things we think our fans will find interesting, and to post them on a regular basis.  Just showing up regularly and trying to add something seems to work for us.

I will say that social media, and Facebook specifically, seems to work best for us when it’s bridging the gap between what’s happening in the real world and the digital.  When we post to Facebook just for the sake of posting to Facebook, it’s usually a lot less effective than when we’re out doing something in the world and we then connect that through the digital world as well.

Also, it’s a given these days, but responding to every message or post on your own wall has always been an important thing to us.  If a fan takes the time to reach out to us, we take the time to reach back, even if it’s just to say thanks.

the near future

Some artists choose to hone in one particular social platform. Explain why I Fight Dragons chooses to make themselves available across the board and how you keep it organized.

I think people should do as many platforms as they feel like they can handle effectively, and no more than that.  For some people, they’re just Twitter people, it’s their natural ecosystem, and that’s all they need.  Others are 100% YouTube, or 100% Tumblr, or even Instagram.  We’ve always used a fairly diverse mix, but in actuality the only ones we really use on a daily basis are Facebook and Twitter (and our own blog).

Not unlike artists, it’s common to see fans who are loyal to just one social channel. Do you notice differences in the way your fans choose to interact on Facebook vs. Twitter?

Absolutely.  Twitter is like a big cocktail party, with tons of different conversations going on around different topics, hashtags, groups, etc.  It’s very casual, and very easy to join in a conversation.  Facebook is much more connected to a real person, and people tend to resent intrusion much more.  I think that’s a good reason to make yourself available on multiple platforms, even if it’s just to have a place for people that are on that platform to reach out and tag/message you.

Having landed some great sync placements in TV shows, commercials and even a WWE Pay-Per-View, do you find fans heading to I Fight Dragons’ social channels in the early stages of discovery?

I’d say that social is very typically a part of how new fans find out about IFD, pretty close behind hearing about us from a friend, which is the main way that I think almost everyone hears about new music these days.  In some ways your Google search has become your new homepage, because people will just Google your band name and see what pops up, and often that leads them to our Facebook or Twitter feed.

You guys aren’t afraid to get in front of the camera and chat with your fans. How do you think YouTube can benefit independent artists beyond just music videos?

I think that being willing to just go on camera is essential these days.  We actually don’t use YouTube as well as we could, folks like Kina Grannis, Hoodie Allen, Watsky, and more have built insane touring bases through true dedication to YouTube. It’s such a personal channel that offers a deep connection far more powerful than others since people can actually see you and feel like they’re hanging out with you.

A lot of times if you look at those artists profiles, they have a TON of video content that is much more causal, not necessarily a produced music video. Maybe it’s a casual cover song video, or even just a video blog, and I feel like that type of stuff really helps deepen the connection between artist and fan; but obviously it takes much more effort to make a video (even a casual one) than it does to post a tweet, so it takes a lot more time and energy commitment, especially if you want to make sure all of your videos are good (which should of course be the goal).

TuneCore was psyched to distribute The Near Future. Tell us a bit about your departure from the label system and what kind of role social media played in the release and marketing of the new album.

We were psyched to be using TuneCore!  We did our time in the label system and learned a ton, but ultimately it wasn’t working out for us.  The way that system is structured, it’s sort of all-or-nothing, because you give away all of the income from your album sales in exchange for the label fronting the money to record the album in the first place.  This is extreme, a lot of folks don’t realize that artists actually have to buy their own CDs from the label in order to sell them at shows, and even at wholesale pricing they’re generally paying $7 or $8 for each copy of their own album.

Especially with Kickstarter entering the fray a few years back. It’s more possible than ever for a band to find other ways to raise the recording costs, and then start having a steady stream of income from album sales as you continue to play out, make more music, and grow.  It’s so much more organic, and you don’t have to start from scratch every time.  Plus pressing up your own CDs for $1 apiece makes it much more feasible to actually make money at live shows.

The truth is, we never really got any marketing spend from the label anyway, nor any radio promotion, so we were essentially doing all of our own promotion via social media even when we were on a label.  Labels are understaffed these days, and the big acts tend to get all of the staff’s time.

Long story short, we’ve always sort of been a “we’ll do it ourselves” kind of band, and social media is the natural promotional vehicle for that mindset.

I Fight Dragons is a great example of an indie band doing social right. What advice can you offer likeminded artists who are hoping to utilize social in advancing their careers?

First of all, thank you!  I can honestly say that I’m constantly wrestling with how to use social better, how to get more out of it, and how to work it more seamlessly into my life.  It’s constantly evolving, and I don’t think it’s something you can ever solve 100%.

I know it can be a tough balance when you have to choose between time spent working on music and time spent working on social, but I think they’re both important.  I think the difference between doing music purely as a hobby and approaching it as a career is largely in how much time you’re willing to devote to the career aspects of hustling, networking, marketing, and promoting yourself.  Finding that balance is never easy, since if you go too far into the career side it’s easy to get burned out and forget why you’re doing all that work in the first place.

That said, I think that the worlds of art and marketing are bleeding together more and more, and there’s a sense in which a band or an artist’s career is becoming a sort of narrative art form in and of itself.

On a purely practical level, I find habit and regularity to be my absolute best weapon in the battle to stay on top of all your social channels.  Establishing daily habits and brute forcing them feels really hard and annoying at first, but soon enough it just becomes part of your routine, and your mental energy is free to work on more creative endeavors.