FIG. 1: Chertkow (left) and Feehan (right), who''ve spent the past 11 years in the band Beatnik Turtle, have lots of advice on promoting your act on the Web.
Empowered by the Internet, independent musicians have more opportunities to build their careers than ever before. But with so many tools, sites, services, and other Web-based music entities beckoning, it's not easy to decide which are best for your career. To get an in-the-trenches look at Web-based musical self-promotion, I turned to Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan (see Fig. 1), authors of the new book The Indie Band Survival Guide (St. Martin's Press, 2008).
Over the course of their now 11-year career as members of the Chicago rock band Beatnik Turtle, Chertkow and Feehan have picked up countless tips and tricks for using the Net to promote themselves. They've put out 18 albums, written music for TV shows and films, licensed a song to Disney, produced one song a day for a year, and gigged extensively — all without the backing of a label. Although their book and Web site cover a range of tips for the DIY musician, in this interview I focused on how to use the Web to promote your music.
Do you have your own MySpace site?
Feehan: Absolutely. And we have our own Web site as well.
Chertkow: We've never really loved MySpace, so you're never going to see our page looking really fancy compared to some others.
What don't you like about MySpace?
Chertkow: Competing with ads. But there are also many reasons to be on MySpace that we actually talk about in the book. Chief among them is that it's really easy for your fans to find music, because the songs are always in the same place, over in the upper right corner. You know exactly where to hit the play button. But, of course, you only get a handful of songs.
So what is the most important online vehicle for promoting a band or musical act?
Feehan: In our book we talk about the importance of having your own Web site. There's no such thing as a local musician. If you're on the Web, you're global. And that means that the most important thing you have is your brand: your image and your music. So you want to have a home base for that — and that is your domain, that is your Web site. You can print up T-shirts with “myspace.com/beatnikturtle” on them, but it's a heck of a lot better, and more effective, to have it be “beatnikturtle.com.” A domain name says so much in such a short way. It's branding, constantly reinforcing the name.
What about Facebook? Do you think a Facebook page is also important for a musician to have, even though it doesn't have a music player?
Chertkow: It goes beyond Facebook. We have an entire chapter on something we call “Web Presences.” Facebook is just one place you should be. MySpace is certainly one, but ReverbNation [reverbnation.com] is an excellent one, as is Eventful [eventful.com] — both offer many free tools. Twitter [twitter.com] is highly recommended as well to stay in touch with your fans. You really should have a blog. You might want to think about being on Virb [virb.com] and other online music-hosting sites [all listed at indiebandsurvivalguide.com href="http://indiebandsurvivalguide.com"]. They're all free, and beyond the services they provide, the other reason why you do it is that it helps the SEO [search engine optimization] rankings of your Web site.
As long as it's free, all it takes is time.
Chertkow: Right. Again, what do musicians want? It comes down to having fans. Any way you can get fans that's free, do it.
Feehan: The key is definitely to build your presence on the Web and refer everybody back to your home base, where you can give them whatever you want to give them and send them the message you want to send them.
Talk about other Web-based ways to develop your fan base.
Feehan: Last.fm is a great example.
How does it work?
Chertkow: Last.fm is what's called a social playlist. They let you install a program that's almost like an automatic blog of everything that you listen to. But it goes a step beyond that, because it's looking at my collection and it knows that I listen to, say, They Might Be Giants, and then I listen to Beatnik Turtle, my band. Eventually, [the program] gets to know that people who listen to They Might Be Giants might also like Beatnik Turtle. So you can go to Last.fm and search on any band that you like, and it will play other bands that are related based on the listening habits of millions of people. In this way, your own music can get “found” by users of Last.fm.
You guys advocate giving away your songs online, right?
Feehan: It depends on your goals, but yes. If anybody is going to discover who your band is, what you're all about, the best way to actually get that picture is through your music. And, therefore, it comes down to both selling your recorded music and making it available at the same time.
So you have stuff for free, but people are buying your stuff as well. Why do they pay if they don't have to?
Feehan: I think it's the emotional connection to the band that generates the support. It's the relationship that they end up having with the band.
Chertkow: It's also the fact that our music has actually made it out there because it's not locked up, so we get more fans. We wouldn't have nearly as many if we didn't give the songs away.
Feehan: They wouldn't know about us. In the past, first you had to impress a record label and you had to impress certain businesspeople. Then they let you into the club. And then you had to get onto the radio — and they had that locked up. And now, thanks to the Web, you can get directly to your fans, wherever they may be, through so many new-media channels. It's unbelievable.
Chertkow: And once you get fans — and remember, they can be all over the world now — you have more of a chance to sell CDs, more music, T-shirts, or get them to come out to gigs.
One of those new-media channels that you recommend reaching out to is Podcasting.
Chertkow: It's the new radio of the Internet.
How do you let Podcasters know that your music is available for them to use?
Chertkow: There are two primary ways to do it. The easiest way is to use what's called a Podsafe collective. You can upload your music onto those [sites] to make it easy for Podcasters to find — they often troll the collectives looking for new music. And because Podcasters are rather twitchy about copyright — everybody is nowadays — they know that if they go to the collectives, they won't have any trouble. PodShow [music.podshow.com] and PodsafeAudio [podsafeaudio.com] are two examples of Podsafe collectives.
But Podcasters must get inundated by tons of bands, right?
Chertkow: Not necessarily, and here's why: in the book we have a chapter that talks about lessons we've learned as a band. And one of the things that has worked for us is a lesson that we call standing out, which means that you try and put your music in a place that doesn't have music. So while music Podcasters are sometimes inundated, we've worked with people who have Podcasts about all kinds of other topics.
And they need music?
Chertkow: They do. It's not like radio, where they could just pick up any CD from their collection. They need permission and are looking for music. For example, one that has featured a lot of our music is the Gigcast [gigcast.nightgig.com], a Podcast that covers Web comics.
What keeps a Podcaster from using your music without crediting you?
Feehan: Usually you offer your music under a license that limits the Podcaster. By registering your music at a Podsafe collective, you automatically give them a license. You could also issue your music this way on your own, under a Creative Commons license [creativecommons.org]. When the Podcasters use this music, they agree to attribute it to you and provide a link to a band's Web site or a link to iTunes. So there is a legal mechanism to make sure that people play the game correctly.
But do you think that people would want to do that anyway?
Feehan: Absolutely. Attribution is the currency of the Web.
Chertkow: The entire Web is based on what they sometimes call link love.
Feehan: Yeah, it's cross-promotion. So if they use somebody's music and don't link back to them, it's a big faux pas. They know that the entire reason musicians are letting them use the music free is to get new fans, so they nearly always link back to the band. But we also suggest that you blog about it after and link back to them, so your fans can find their Podcast. After a while, we found that the Podcasters will start asking you for music to play. Just think — when was the last time a radio station asked you for your music?
Mike Levine is EM's executive editor, senior media producer, and the host of the monthly Podcast “EM Cast” (emusician.com/podcasts).