Seven things I learned from fifteen years behind the wheel at spinme.com

When spinme.com launched in 1997, we thought it would grow up to be Pitchfork. It hosted "Daily Digital Opinion," J.F. Parnell's album review mailing list, and our original discussion forums. What a precious logo we had when we launched:

Welcome To SPiNME!

While "J.F." got headhunted away to a series of larger media companies, I chased conversations in our forums by musicians who wanted to learn how the Internet could help them grow an audience without the help of a manager or a major label. So I jettisoned the music reviews (something every SEO manager on the planet deserves to kick me over) and refocused the site around music marketing and creative development.

It's been fifteen years since I first signed on to spinme.com. Having spent most of the summer cleaning up the database and getting the site ready for its next fifteen years, seven ideas struck me:

1. A band's half-life remains about seven years.

The Beatles.jpg 500?28 pixels

David Hooper and I have probably spent days talking about how bands, like most relationships, evolve through seven-year cycles. The most obvious: April 8, 1962 until January 30, 1969. That's the almost seven year period from the day the Beatles got signed by Parlophone Records until the day of their last public concert, on the roof of the Apple Records offices in London. By most accounts, those were probably seven of the most influential and productive years in the recorded history of music.

Yet, there's another seven year period to which we don't often pay attention. Back up to August 1956, the month that John Lennon formed The Quarry Men. It took seven years for John to meet Paul and for all the other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. The most extraordinary thing about The Beatles isn't what they did between 1962 and 1969. It's that they came together and struggled through their artist development from 1956 to 1962, then still chose to take that second spin on the merry-go-round.

You have seven years before you get bored, your bandmates get bored, you run out of money, or your spouses kill you. And if you can make it to the end of your seven-year cycle with enough strength to do it all again, you have a shot. This site's been around long enough for me to start getting messages from folks about to enter their third cycles as working musicians. They'll be the first to tell you that they're not rich and that this life isn't easy. But they wouldn't consider doing anything else.

2. Most musicians still hope someone's going to make them a star.

Way more musicians end up on this website when looking for information about songwriting contest and record company scams—after they've already sent away their money. It's our human nature to believe in fairy godparents. It's easier to let someone tell you that it only costs $10,000 to get a record deal and guaranteed radio airtime than to hear the real feedback from critics with the power to push you toward making better music.

It's cheaper than ever to buy airtime, to buy attention, and to buy audiences. When Grow Your Band's Audience first hit shelves, some critics blasted me for suggesting an "inauthentic" tactic to pay talent buyers for risky gigs. What was controversial ten years ago has pretty much become standard operating procedure at the very best (read: remaining) rock clubs in the United States.

3. Few musicians admit they needed (or got) help to succeed.

Kelly Clarkson Home | The Official Kelly Clarkson Site

Nobody likes hearing a musical origin story that says: "we got lots of hands-on help from smart people like Bob Baker and Tom Jackson so we could hone our skills into something you'd love." We still like to think our pop stars emerged fully-formed and perfect from day one.

Even the popularity of shows like American Idol and Nashville Star hasn't made a dent in our collective need for musical mythology. Nobody wants to hear how Lady Gaga spent years honing her craft and studying Andy Warhol's playbook. Like that of the Beatles, her prologue matters little to her audience. You won't see the years of work that lead to "overnight success." Don't let that fool you into thinking your own success will happen without spilling plenty of tears and blood.

4. Your song still sounds great on the radio.

There's nothing like hearing your song squished down into a singularity over a heavily compressed FM radio signal, backed up by a DJ you don't know who's getting paid to say nice things about you. It's such an alluring experience, it still drives many artists to spend lots of their own money on promotional campaigns that won't ever help them convert radio listeners into paying ticket-holders. Only a handful of disc jockeys in the United States still have the power to do this, and most of them work at SiriusXM. The most successful artists I know have held out, allowing those tastemakers to find them instead of the other way around.

5. Audiences matter, platforms don't.

mp3.com logo - Google Images

Lest I sound like an old coot, I can tell you that I've lived through so many "industry-killer" technologies and platforms, they've all blended together into a single blob:

  • Private bulletin boards on CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL

  • MP3.com

  • MySpace

  • Facebook

  • ReverbNation

Guess what? When I write this website's 21st birthday post, we'll have probably seen another dozen "essential" web platforms come and go. What remains the same is the need for artists to develop direct relationships with audiences willing to support them by showing up. Making a living making music means getting your fans off their comfortable seats and out into the world where they can interact with you, and with each other. Don't believe anybody who tells you it can't be done, especially as new scenes and subcultures emerge every year.

6. The smartest musicians I know maintain multiple bands (or brands).

When I started brainstorming the Zone Booking Strategy I outline in More Gigs Now, I wanted to find ways for musicians to spend far less money on hotels and gas without burning out their core audiences. Watching folks like Rhett Miller and Joe Pernice over the years, I've also gained an appreciation for artists who can maintain multiple creative identities. On a practical level, multiple personas let you develop overlapping audiences that don't always compete with each other. While Lori and I sit in the center of the Rhett Miller/Old 97's Venn diagram, audiences at those gigs are remarkably different. Bands only last for seven years because our tastes and our skills evolve. Side projects and a strong solo presence, when handled the right way, can keep bands from their usual violent breakups.

7. The experience matters as much as the song.

When I toured behind Grow Your Band's Audience, I often showed a photo of the bathroom at CBGB's and claimed that audiences don't tolerate things that are nasty for very long. That's why CBGB's became so well known for breaking new acts. You had to be that good to get people to forgive the building's inherent biohazards.

Every audience member experiences your music in a slightly different way, and it's their experience they remember. That's why television shows like Grey's Anatomy and True Blood have impacted record sales: tying your song to a compelling experience can do so much more than weeks of repeated radio spins.

Richard Shindell's song, "The Ballad of Mary Magdalen," stays in rotation at my house because of what Lori and I experienced during a Cry Cry Cry show at the Keswick Theatre over ten years ago. We still remember sitting in Lori's car, parked on a residential side street in Glenside, talking about what we had just seen on stage. Relatively people know the song or its writer, but nobody who was at the show that night will forget it.

Not the actual gig, but as close as YouTube will provide:

It's time for spinme.com's third ride on the merry-go-round.

If spinme.com were a band, it'd be time for its third lineup change or its second reunion tour. You've probably noticed that I spent the summer tidying up and highlighting some of the most crucial information on the site. (Had I instead focused on the most popular, you'd be seeing a lot more about American Idol and Rebecca Black.)

You'll see new essays here focused on growing your audience, booking more gigs, and managing your music career. I'll also answer (polite) questions from the mailbag. Occasionally, I'll dive into popular culture for models of success (and failure) that you can use. Thanks for fifteen great years. Here's to the next seven.