By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

Too often I see artists playing over and over again with diminishing returns.  They’ve essentially worn their friends out, and haven’t done the thing that is most essential to the success of any band: shifted the burden of promotion from themselves to their fans.

Without doing this, all bands (or products) eventually fail.  There is a ceiling quickly hit when the creator of/company behind a song/product does not shift the burden of promotion from themselves to the fans.  They can do all the advertising, marketing, promotion their budgets can withstand, and—for some period of time—will see some impact from this.  However, bands/businesses don’t ever break through the ceiling in earnest until some group of these initial fans (call them “early adopters”) begin turning their friends on to the band/business. We call this word of mouth.

The promise of social media has always been that this word of mouth marketing can be accelerated via technology.  Obviously, as is proven by anything that “goes viral,” it can happen.  Something “going viral” is just an extreme example of fans sharing and spreading the object of their fan-dom to their friends (via their social networks, typically) at a heightened rate.

It’s not possible to manufacture something that goes viral.  Viral-ness, by its very nature, is no longer being promoted by the creator of the product/song/etc., and, therefore, the creator is not in control.  If we could manufacture viral products at will, we’d do it every time.  Additionally, if we could do it, it wouldn’t come as such a surprise (I’m looking at you Double Rainbow) when something explodes virally.

Part of the nature of something spreading in a viral manner is that it’s unexpected.  This unexpected quality aligns closely with a key element of something going viral: it must be remarkable. Pulling that word apart you get its root: remark.  We must always remember, that as is stated in The Cluetrain, “markets are conversations,” and conversations require topics of interest; topics that are remark-able.

All of this leads to the concept that at its core, social media succeeds only if: 1. You shift the burden of promotion from the creator/business of the product to the fan. 2. Your product/business/band/service is remarkable; if it’s not, people will not share it.

Once this is understood, you can begin articulating strategies that—while not guaranteeing what you do will “go viral”—will increase your odds of being spread by fans.

In his still-relevant book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, borrowing from Robin Dunbar, articulates the idea that the maximum number of authentic social relationships any person can maintain is 150.  If you look around at the various clubs in your area, you’ll likely find that many of them tend to have a capacity of somewhere around 150 people (could be 200, could be 100, but you get the idea).  This is why it’s not surprising that a band who does not shift the burden of promotion from themselves to their fans will have a painful downward trajectory of playing in these 150-capacity clubs for some period of time, until their friends get fatigued and stop coming.

To avoid this plight, bands need, what Gladwell terms, “weak ties” to bridge the gap between one social group and into another.  “Weak ties” are people that introduce an idea/business/band to an entirely new circle.  Consider, for example, that you’ve been on a job hunt for some period of time.  You’ve talked to all your friends, and none of them have provided you with any leads.  This is because all your friends are within the same circle, and basically share the same information/contact base.  One day you board a plane, and strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you.  You tell this person that you’re looking for a job in a certain field, and, much to your surprise/delight, this person says something along the lines of, “You know, I have a friend who is working in that industry; I should connect you.”  This is the power of the “weak tie.”  It introduces you into an entire new community.

Using this thinking, bands can strategize to increase their odds of breaking out of their circle of 150.

Here’s an example.  There is a very fine band by the name of Guster.  As they were emerging in the late 90s/early 2000s, they were a student band at Tufts University in Medford, MA.  Prior to holiday breaks, they would gather their fans and arm each fan with several copies of their recent releases.  They’d give these fans the following mandate:  When you return home for the holidays, and you meet up with your hometown friends, who are also returning from college, give them copies of our release to take back with them to their colleges after the holidays.  In doing so, Guster was able to utilize “weak ties” to build a network of fans throughout numerous universities.  This is, of course, the very definition of social networking—long before either the term or the internet architecture (i.e. Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) were invented.

This method worked for Guster not just because they shifted the burden of promotion from themselves to their fans, but also because their music was (and is) remarkable.  They, like all bands, had to start by playing in front of their friends, but, because the music was (is) remarkable, the fans wanted to spread the word.  Guster, understanding this, created an architecture of participation that enabled and empowered these people to do so.  Note, Guster did not have to give incentive for these fans to spread the word; rather, the fans wanted to spread the word because they were passionate about the music. The sharing of something they loved, was reward enough.  Guster just gave them tools and direction.

It’s also important to note that Guster’s gambit worked because there was something physical/tangible about it.  While the Internet and digitization allow us to share things more rapidly (and more cost effectively), there is an important element of physicality that is lacking.  This tangible item is often referred to as a “social object;” something that can be held, looked at, shared, put on a wall, talked about, explained…something that can be remarked on.

Artists, even in an era of digitized files, must understand that fans crave the physical experience.  No one can hang an mp3 on their dorm room wall—as an external manifestation of their internal values—in the way you could hang a vinyl jacket on a wall.  And remember, the person hanging this vinyl jacket on the wall wants more than anything for someone to ask about it, and thus give them the opportunity to remark upon something they are passionate about…markets are conversations.  This provides them the opportunity to be an evangelist—to turn someone on—for something they love.

Can this happen online? Of course.  Music, films, books, businesses spread online at a pace that no one could have conceived even fifteen years ago.  However, in order to increase your odds, it’s essential you understand how these things occur.  They occur when you shift the burden of promotion from yourself to your fans; you provide them with an architecture of participation; and your work is remarkable.

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George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650

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