I played a show this Wednesday. Earlier that day, I got an unsolicited text from a former singer, who informed me that he would boycott any future performance which include me playing kazoo. It is, for the record, dismaying when one's art is not fully appreciated. Nevertheless, the major thing about which this got me thinking (other, that is, than this guy's obsessive grumpiness) was about branding.
Once you move from the couch to the stage, you automatically enter the great debate between commerce and art...whether you like it or not. Selling out really isn't the issue, as next to none of us make any measurable amount of money anyway. For Indy musicians at my stage, this mostly entails marketing and branding. Both of these are rife with problems...problems beyond not generally being the strongest suit of Indy musicians.
Marketing is a toughie. Flyers are a necessity (and a cool keepsake), but where to hang them? Around here, we've got the bar itself and not a whole lot of other places. Social media would seem to be an easy one, but Facebook only sends out like 10-15% of a band's posts. Screw getting a decent return rate if hardly anyone gets to see it in the first place. Zines are a no-go, as the aforementioned ineffective social media has already driven them out of business. And advertising in any other sense costs money, and that is something us Indy musicians don't tend to have.
This leaves branding. In story, this means, "how do I distinguish myself from the great swaths of musical humanity who also bash on guitars and wail depressing lyrics?" Talent, unfortunately, does very little to get anyone noticed. This is unfortunate yet still very true. Breaking out of the pack really means making one's self distinguishable in some way. It might only be a way to move from "I saw that guy who plays songs" to "I saw that guy who plays songs dedicated to antidepressant pharmaceutical manufacturers." And this might not seem like all that positive a move. Yet for some of us, it's all we've got.
My approach is to play to my main strength, namely that I'm a reasonably clever weirdo. This is the logic to the dedications to Zoloft's creators. This is the logic to my cool logo/sticker. This is the logic behind incorporating humor and interesting metaphors into my lyrics (an approach which surprisingly few songwriters use). And this is also the logic behind the kazoo. Yeah, I play it because I can't play harmonica. Yeah, I think a sonic change is good. But the main reason is that it's hard to forget a kazoo solo or the person who plays it.
Last Wednesday, I played an open mic night. Instead of the expected 4-5 songs, I got 8-9. I got a great response. People both clapped and "woo"ed. I got complements on my beard. At one point, I even had people singing along (to the chorus of The Isley Brothers's "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." And yes, I played my kazoo.
I played pretty good...and I think I gave the audience plenty of reasons to remember me. It didn't lead to any album sales, though, and what impact it will have on attendance at future gigs is uncertain. But what else, really, can I do?
Of course, I'm open to hearing other ideas on self-promotion. And if any of y'all want to rent me a billboard to advertise my next gig, well, I think my ego could take it.