Some Thoughts on Self-Promotion

Last week, I found myself participating in a Twitter discussion (now there’s a phrase that I never thought I’d type) on the merits of self-publishing vs. working with a legacy publisher. (I self-publish in part because I want to keep my copyright on my work and also in part because Boosey and Schirmer have yet to call me.) This conversation gradually evolved into one about self-promotion during which many composers expressed their angst at the prospect and their lack of ability to do so effectively. I’m not naturally good at this sort of thing, which has led me to invest a great deal of thought towards creating a set of guidelines to help myself navigate between the Charybdis and Scylla of either having my music languish or forcing myself into awkward situations. Here are some hints:

1) Never engage in self-promotion. Instead, promote the wonderful projects with which you’re involved.

No wonder you’re shy about self-promotion! You’ve been taught from a very young age that it’s not nice to brag, and you’ve watched eyes glaze over in social situations the moment you start talking about your accomplishments. You’re right. It’s not good to self-promote. But I also presume that you’re involved with some amazing projects, that you’re working with other incredible musicians, that you have pieces that you want people to hear. Instead of self-promoting, explain these points. Tell people about the fabulous concert that just happens to have a piece of yours on it. Expound at length about how much time the talented musicians have spent learning your piece. Tout the fact that this particular piece stands out from all of your others.

2) Do your research.

If you’re anything like me, you probably write music with a specific niche. If it’s amplified and rock-based with a nice dance beat, you won’t get the classical critics very excited about it. Conversely, the rock critic won’t have a lot of fun at your solo vuvuzela recital. Find confluences and promote your projects to people who might have a natural interest in them.

3) Check, double check, and triple check.

Just as you can’t have any errors in your scores, you can’t have any in your promotional materials. Don’t give people an excuse to dismiss what you’re saying.

4) Don’t be shy.

Remember, you’re not talking about yourself, but about an interesting project. So you’re not being rejected, it’s that people just aren’t as into that particular project as you thought they might be. That’s okay. Don’t accept half answers and avoidance techniques. Instead, make certain that people understand what you’re proposing and that they don’t want to be involved. Accept a clear answer, but don’t assume that an unanswered email means that the person hated the idea. They might just have forgotten to reply.

5) Show genuine interest in what other people are doing.

The best way to find people who might be excited by what you’re doing artistically is to find others who have similar tastes. Go to any concert you possibly can make, listen online to anyone who seems at all similar to what you like, and buy the music of those artists who you most admire. Those people might be interested in working with you if they think that you know and respect what they’re doing. And you might find that other fans of the same music are interested in what you’re doing and want to collaborate or listen to your music.

6) Promote others as strongly as you promote yourself.

Think of yourself as part of a scene. The more you can help the scene grow, the more people will want to hear what the music from that area is all about. If you like what someone else is doing, drag people to their shows. If those people like what they hear, they’ll be more likely to want to hear what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if the other artists reciprocate or even if they’re total jerks to you. If you like what they’re doing, promote it.

7) Be quick to praise and very slow to criticize.

You want your name to stick out, but in a good way. Be remembered as the nice person who functions as a hub for a larger scene instead of as the polarizing element turning people away from experiencing music. And don’t forget that all of us feel pretty strongly about what we’re doing, and the person to whom you’re talking may not share your tastes and instead may adore the music you’re denigrating.

8) Involve others.

When you get people excited about what you’re doing, ask them to help amplify your message. If you’re the only one sending Tweets or posting to Facebook about what you’re doing, people will eventually tune out. But when a larger circle of friends and acquaintances join in, it spurs more interest. If you’ve been following rules 5, 6, and 7, you should ideally be able to find lots of people willing to join forces with you to help.

9) Be gracious.

Don’t forget to thank people! If someone helps to spread your message or replies to one of your emails, thank them for their time. Thank the musicians who work with you. Thank your family and friends for their support. Just to be safe, thank strangers on the street.

Thank you for reading.

8 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Self-Promotion

  1. jeff harrington

    This is a really comprehensive set of suggestions. One other suggestion – Teach – that is when somebody asks a question online about software or websites or things that you have experience with, be forthcoming, spend the 15 minutes to craft a good response and spread the knowledge around.

    Thanks! (The saying thanks hint just reminded me of an email I never sent!).

    Reply
  2. Ryan Chatterton

    I really like your article. I find a lot of correlations in small business and creative project development.

    I think one thing I would add is that contributing to other people’s projects in the first place is an excellent form of self-promotion.

    When you help somebody, teach somebody, and promote them, you’re not only promoting your work, you’re promoting yourself as an authority and mentor.

    Thanks for your insight. It was awesome!

    Reply
  3. Joseph Holbrooke

    Great suggestions. Let me add one: hire a publicist! You spend your whole life working on this spending unbelievable amounts on instruments, education, travel, etc. you really owe it to yourself to spen a few extra bucks to hire a professional to get the word out.

    Reply
  4. pgblu

    An excellent list of suggestions. I’d like to add one: know the medium that you’re using. Facebook and (even more so) Twitter are great ways to let people know what’s happening. If you are a member of a discussion forum, you have to be a bit more cautious about using the forum to promote your work… when in doubt, refrain completely. If you join a discussion forum with the sole objective of letting the group know about your music, then that’s in most cases one killer whale of a faux pas.

    The ‘be slow to criticize’ is, I think, an American thing. In a lot of places criticism is much more blunt and acceptable, I think. That doesn’t contradict what you’re saying, of course: criticizing will never actually be more polite than keeping it to yourself. If instead of criticize, though, you had said ‘rant’, ‘trash-talk’, or the like, then of course that’s pretty universally accepted as good advice.

    Reply
  5. danvisconti

    Hi David, great article and very to the point. I’d just like to second your item #1 and venture that it’s likely the *most overlooked* point (and also an apparent source of the shyness roadblock). A lot of people seem to feel frustrated by their inability to morph into a fast-talking, CD-pushing, humorless ass, when their strong hesitation is in fact a singal that this is the WRONG WAY to go about things.

    Another angle on this is the idea that you don’t have to actively promote yourself so much as keep busy and cultivate good things to talk about when asked. People become interested in you when you have something interesting going on, and it’s only then that promotion can begin to come into play.

    Reply
  6. S.Standing

    a nice practical non-arrogant way of promoting. I especially like the reassurance from the angle of making the promotion about the project and not about yourself. I, like most, hate being the noisy kid with the big stick. Furthermore, I regret that I did not received this bit of help in my undergraduate music studies: grappling the practical demons of the business/scene in which you are involved. Thanks for helping me now.

    Reply
  7. Smooke

    Thanks to everyone who responded! I’m glad that this advice resonates. Good luck with all of your endeavors, and thanks to some of the people who I’ve long admired (Dan and Jeff) for dropping by.
    - David

    Reply

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