One example is this post on Reddit on "how to help your band grow" where the 2 key points are "Play local gigs, and get more fans." and "Branch out to shows beyond your hometown." Barely anybody there questioned this, and when it was questioned, the original poster said "It's about creating a network of support, and nothing beats the live experience". Is this true? Is the live experience the best way to build that network of support? (Let's ignore how inappropriate it is for many genres of music that don't lend themselves to live gigs, too.)
Another is this video on YouTube which suggests that if a band has $10,000 and wants to spend that on promoting itself, the best approach is to spend it on travel costs so that you can get out on the road, show you're not a local band, and get out in front of new fans and other professionals. At this suggestion my mild scepticism turned to outright disbelief. To my mind, that way will result in you playing gig after gig to empty or near-empty rooms, because who's going to come and see an unknown band from out of town?
More anecdotally, I've often heard it suggested that bands need to be gigging regularly to get anywhere. Some bands play tirelessly up and down the country, seemingly getting nowhere while their fans and advocates lament how odd it is that such a hard-working band is still overlooked by the musical powers that be. But I don't actually think it's surprising.
Basically, I believe that playing lots of small gigs has little to no bearing on whether you make and keep new fans, in 2013. In past decades, local gigs might have been the main way fans got into new music, once you filter out pop bands appearing on TV and radio, and already-established acts appearing in specialist press. Smaller acts played the pub and club circuit hoping to catch the eye of the right person and get signed, which would give them access to bigger tours, magazine coverage, etc. But I don't think that is how it works any more. I don't get the impression that label A&R men are still prowling tiny gigs looking for a gem in the rough, and I certainly don't think that as many people go to underground gigs as was the case in the past, because they have a more compelling alternative in the form of The Internet™. Sites like Last.fm, YouTube, and Spotify let people discover new bands based on their existing taste, at zero monetary cost and in very little time, without needing to leave their own home or put up with substandard gig sound in the local dive bar, drinking semi-poisonous draught beer to try and make the evening more palatable. And based on my own experiences as an occasional live performer, I don't think most live gigs translate into a significant number of new fans at all.
In short, my hypothesis was that today, most people do not discover the music they listen to through live performances; they are most likely to discover it via internet-based promotion of some sort.
So, I did a small informal experiment, and asked my Facebook and Livejournal friends to pick 5 artists at random and tell me how they discovered that artist. The mechanism of selection was supposed to be a media player of some sort, to remove human bias from the selection and to weight the results towards the music people are actually listening to.
I got about 20 responses, although not all did the whole 5 bands, and some provided more than 5 bands - in the latter cases, I'll choose the group of 5 which most strongly contradicts my hypothesis to minimise my own bias here.
In total I got 86 results, and here's where we (claim to have) discovered these bands:
- Recommendations from a friend: 27
- Last.fm: 10
- Seen on TV or in a film: 6
- By association with another band that is already known and liked (eg. shared members, side-project): 5
- Magazine review or article: 4
- Heard on radio: 4
- Heard at a club night: 3
- Seen at a festival: 3
- On a label or magazine compilation CD: 2
- Based on packaging or artwork seen in shop: 2
- Web forum: 2
- Heard on podcast: 2
- Seen at a gig (presumably not a festival, but not specified): 1
- Rateyourmusic.com: 2
- eBay 'similar items' list: 1
- Based on photo seen online: 1
- Assigned to review for print media: 1
- Review (no explanation of where): 1
- Newspaper review or article: 1
- Checked out due to name similarity to other band: 1
- Part of (presumably unauthorised) download of several items: 1
- Same label as another band already known and liked: 1
- Appearing at a future festival I will attend: 1
- "Internet" (no explanation of where): 1
- Looked up "after internet-stalking someone I rather fancied at the time": 1
- Bought due to cool name: 1
- Worked with band as a sound engineer/producer: 1
In my opinion, this result is strong enough to refute the suggestion that live gigs are the primary way to get new fans. It seems clear that, as I suspected, people are getting into new music via other means. However, I don't think the evidence is clear that the internet plays as large a part in this as I had expected. If we take out friend recommendations and leave only the independent discoveries, 35.6% of the bands we discover come from internet-based promotion and exposure, but almost twice that figure come from a variety of other sources. But then a lot of the friend recommendations might only be happening due to the ease of sharing YouTube videos and Spotify playlists on Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, etc. It would be interesting to dig into that further.
I was surprised at how overwhelming the value of recommendations by friends was. Our group of acquaintances are either sharing a lot of music, or know our tastes extremely well, or both. It would seem that bands need to make it easy for their fans to share their music and convert new fans as a result.
I was also surprised to see so few people citing podcasts (2) or internet radio (0) as sources of new music - although this tallies with my gut feeling that there aren't many listeners to these shows. Is this an attention span issue, where people would rather check out individual songs via YouTube than listen to a show that may go on for several hours?
I was not surprised to see that magazine cover cds didn't make much of an impression. My band was on such a cd, and we didn't notice any increase in listening habits, purchases, downloads, or Facebook fan count. It's common for magazines to charge aspiring bands for the privilege of being featured on these cds, and given the data here, I'm even more inclined than before to declare it a bit of a scam, exploiting bands who feel they should be investing in their act but who don't realise how little effect this particular route will have.
Although I think this is quite negative regarding the value of gigs as promotion, there are obviously second-order effects to consider. How many of the recommendations came from friends who had seen the band live, for example? And perhaps playing live significantly increases a band's chances of getting onto TV, or into a magazine, or to be played at a club night. These are possibilities - but I think that if live bands were making much of an impression on our friends, we'd have seen a higher showing of them making an impression on us directly. I think it's also significant that more people got into bands through seeing them at festivals than at individual gigs. This supports my hunch that simply playing small gigs across the country is not much use - ideally you play at festivals where you get in front of more people. But obviously this is easier said than done.
Final notes on demographics etc: obviously my friends skew towards being fairly technical, and more so since I asked people via internet sites, so there is likely to be an overrepresentation of internet use here. But I think I also have a larger proportion of gig-going friends than the average person, so either the chances of getting discovered via a gig are even worse than these very pessimistic results suggest, or I have friends who are suckers for punishment and attend awful gigs. I suspect a little of both.