What's the best way to get people to listen to your music? For her Monitor Mix blog , Carrie Brownstein at NPR posed the question to a group of industry folks -- musicians, label owners, managers, record store owners, journalists and others . The responses are short on actionable tactics and long on larger issues, but two interrelated themes emerge.
First, word of mouth is a main driver of awareness. Even people knee-deep in music rely on recommendations of friends. Second, people believe good music will eventually be discovered.
A few of the common answers could easily be taken to heart. Make something new and/or unusual. Offer free MP3s at your Web site. Make a great/different/intriguing video.
But the major themes in the responses reveal how difficult it is to reach industry tastemakers.
-- Make Great Music. This is akin to Topspin's advice, "Don't suck."  Unfortunately, sucking tends to be out of the hands of the artist. But let's be honest. Artists are going to release music regardless of their level of talent. Barriers to entry have been lowered to a point where anybody -- from the least sucking to the most-sucking artists -- can commercially release digital music. Listeners, on the other hand, weed out the good from the bad in a variety of ways. If quality is distributed normally  (and that's a fair assumption given the large number of artists, releases and levels of quality in the marketplace) then only a small number of artists will be able to catch the ear of tastemakers.
-- Play Shows. This is where music discovery takes an unexpected turn. Rather than telling a young band it should reach new fans through cost-efficient Internet tools, some people say the best way to get their attention is to physically go to where they live and perform. In most cases, that means playing in a small number of cities where labels, media and fans tend to congregate. Good news for bands within short driving distance, bad news for those unable or unwilling to bear the time and expense of going on the road as an opening band in small clubs. For the latter group, however, there are events like SXSW and CMJ with tens of thousands of tastemakers in one concentrated area - if they can stand out from the thousands of other bands.
-- Be Able to Influence Word of Mouth. That means an artist needs to be liked by the person who tells friends about bands. One wonders if the question should have been, "Since you like to outsource your music discovery, what's the best way to get your friends to hear my band?" Telling an artist to create word of mouth is like telling him/her to create great music. The music tends to be what creates the word of mouth. Assuming quality is held constant, the only actionable advice here is for an artist to enable easy sharing. In other words, allow fans to share emails, video links, Tweets, blog posts and downloads. Once an artist grants that power to its fans, there's nothing left but hope the fans can influence others.
-- Get Media Coverage. Here's where the low barriers to entry run into the ugly reality that gatekeepers still exist. Telling a band to get media coverage is the same as telling it to get a publcist. Getting a review in a music publication usually - but not always - requires a publicist. Yes, gatekeepers still matter. We're often told they don't matter, that in order to gain visibility all a band needs are a few links from respected music bloggers. That's the democratization of the Internet at work. But since music blogs are gatekeepers, too, publicists have the inside on them, as well.