Today, I’m going back to my roots: independent art. I started my career as an indie and have always enjoyed connecting with that community.
When Ben Deschamps told me his story a few months ago, I felt that his insights would be perfect for the blog. And boy was I right! When you are done reading this interview, you will understand how to use social media to market yourself the right way, even if you have the tiniest budget in the world.
Hello Ben, thank you for answering my questions. First, tell us who you are.
My name is Ben Deschamps. I’m a musician, producer and entrepreneur. Before making the jump to my present career, I have been an English and Latin teacher, a bouncer, a farmer and a gravedigger. I’m from the Ottawa Valley, from a small farming community on the river.
I remember when I was in grade school, some friends and I decided we were going to start a band. Nothing ever came of it, but I remember saying I wanted to play violin in the band. They told me that there was no such thing as violin in a rock band. I remember years later thinking about that as I was onstage at a festival in England playing violin with the loudest space rock band you can imagine. I play most instruments with strings, and a few without, in as many genres and contexts as possible: classical orchestras, jazz combos, folk acts, metal, space rock, bluegrass… you name it, I’ll give it a shot.
My partner Heather Dale went to school as an environmentalist, and worked in environmental education before concentrating full time on her music in the late 1990s. She writes songs about history and legends, and somehow makes that unlikely subject matter resonate and touch audiences worldwide. In 2004, I joined her for a mad tour of Canada and by the end of the tour we were running a record label together.
What triggered your desire to start an independent record label?
Heather and I have always preferred independence. When you work for someone else, especially in an industry like music, you give up the ability to make your own decisions, and to explore new possibilities. Many musicians seem to think that they will be “discovered”, that a producer or manager or label will swoop in and do all the hard work for them, leaving them free to sip fruity drinks by the pool and write the occasional song.
But it doesn’t work like that, of course… whoever has the largest investment in an enterprise calls the shots, and as soon as you work for a label, they get to tell you what to do and how to do it. Their decisions will be made with their best interests at heart, not yours, and frequently will take a much shorter-term view of things.
This is both short-sighted and ultimately destructive, treating artists as fungible commodities rather than people. But as owners of our own label, we define the parameters of our success and are free to think in much longer cycles. Instead of staking it all on chasing one “hit” we can try different things and see what makes our fans – and ourselves – happy.
In 2014, you ran one of the most successful music crowdfunding campaigns on IndieGoGo. You mentioned to me that social media played a big part in your success. Would you tell us more?
I think that crowdfunding campaigns have a tendency to devolve into people just saying “gimme gimme gimme”, and we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen in our case.
We focused on two things that seemed to help with social media: First, we were careful to make the campaign fun (songs sung by Daleks, Heather jumping in the pool, stop-motion pastry snail videos), which helped with our organic reach on Facebook, as everybody likes having something to bring a smile to their faces. Second, we made it quite clear that what we were trying to build was a musical that mattered to our fans. We wanted to address the sorts of things that our fans care about. Our diverse fan base includes many LGBTQ people, and a very large proportion of women; we wanted to write a musical that really mattered to them, that wasn’t just about a man getting a woman as a reward for his exploits.
I think both these things helped make the campaign a success on social media. Of course, having built up a sizeable social media following before attempting such a campaign really helped too; we weren’t starting from scratch, we were known artists trying to reach further and try something new and exciting.
Your label specializes in the music of fairytales and legends. This seems like a very niche market. What’s your secret recipe to make it work?
You know, when I first started working with Heather, I thought that too, and as a result I made some really dumb decisions about our branding and positioning in the market. What I didn’t understand is that mass marketing is only possible with huge budgets, and that the only way to market successfully on a limited budget is to define the scope of your target audience very carefully.
Fortunately the internet makes this possible. We went from trying to appeal to folk, rock, adult contemporary, and any other audience we could find, to concentrating on the audiences that already self-identified as fans, figuring out what made them tick, and trying to find more of them.
That strategy has paid off handsomely. We have tens of thousands of fans around the world, and because we understand many of the tribes that hold them together, we can find more of them – whether that is in the science fiction conventions, or pagan festivals, or historical re-enactment communities, or YouTube video creators.
Niches enable you to find and embrace these alternative markets. That way our advertising budget – which is about the same as our lunch budget – doesn’t have to compete with Justin Bieber and the other mass-produced flavours of the week.
The two things that strike me about you is how caring and personable you are. How important is it in social media? And should a business owner make friends out of clients? What are the risks and benefits?
Because what we sell is our music, and because our music is, in essence, our souls, I think it’s important to be careful with whom that gets shared.
Many years ago, one of Heather’s songs was taken up by the overtly racist British Nationalist Party. We certainly could have made a lucrative deal with them to sell our albums to their members, but instead we told them that this was not acceptable.
In order for our music to succeed, it has to resonate with people, and in order to resonate with people, it has to find people who make sense to us. In many cases, those people will become our friends, and that’s very important. I don’t want a fascist singing our songs. I want what we do to make a difference, to make the world a better place, by its messages and by the way it makes people feel. But if you put yourself out there like that and people you like and care about maybe don’t respond to an artistic risk you’ve taken, it can be absolutely crushing.
Heather is absolutely brilliant at connecting with people in person. When she talks to someone – even someone she meets for ten seconds at the merch table – she is able, somehow, to make them feel like the centre of her universe. That connection is amazingly powerful, and I don’t know how she does it, but I do know she really means it.
Me, I have trouble with social situations sometimes – I’m very introverted and I find large, loud groups quite stressful – but I was brought up to think that everyone is important and valuable, and should be treated the same. But I’m also quite straightforward, and people seem to appreciate that… so when I say to someone, “Look, I have to go man the merch table, because we need to sell enough CDs to eat” they can probably tell that I’m not trying to escape talking to them, we just really do need to sell CDs to buy groceries! Maybe the fact that I’m a terrible actor helps, because people respond to honesty, and if you can’t act, honesty is all you’ve got left!
On social media, there are so many people shouting and clamouring to show how great they are, that it is somehow refreshing when someone is honest and caring. If people can tell that you’re not trying to sell them something, but are actually interested in them as people, they really respond well… and, funnily enough, they will probably then try to buy something from you!
According to you, what is the number one mistake indie artists make online? And what is one tip you would give them to improve their visibility?
I wish artists of any stripe would stop demanding that everyone pay attention to them. I think “Hey, I made this thing, I hope you’ll like it” said to a carefully selected group of people you have reason to think will be receptive is much more powerful than “Hey, I just picked up a guitar and now I’ve made the greatest song since sliced Led Zeppelin!” shouted across all the social media.
Of course I’m probably wrong about that, since that seems to be the tack that much of the mainstream music industry has taken, but it relies on battering down people’s resistance by application of big budgets, and indie artists don’t have those budgets. So stop trying to use a tactic that is annoying at the best of times, and instead put in the time to figure out who your most likely fans will be, and approach them in a humble manner.
And please, please, please stop spamming people on Twitter. If someone has followed you, treat them with respect, not as a wallet to be marketed to.
Anything you would like to add?
I think it’s essential to remember that art without business is a hobby, and business without art is a job. Balancing the two is one of the most interesting challenges I’ve ever faced.