SXSW: What rockstars can teach authors
Here in Austin, the SXSW Music Festival kicks off this week. From now until Sunday, things will get a little crazy: Psyched music fans from all over descend on the city. Music gods like Lou Reed mix among mere mortals. And rockstars will do what they do best: party, trash hotel rooms, and leave a thousand besotted groupies in their wake.
At least, that's what they'd have you think.
In reality, being a rockstar is a lot of hard work - and especially in a competitive music scene like Austin. Take rock / indie outfit White Denim. In 2007, they were named "Band of the Year" here in Austin. In 2004, I met the bassist when the band was just getting started, and he taped his glasses together (he may still do this - more on that in a minute). When this individual wasn't practicing with his band, he certainly wasn't trashing hotel rooms: as a matter of fact, he was a teacher. And nearly three years - three years! - since his band's first gig, this talented little trio is finally getting the recognition they deserve, in such illustrious music publications as - wait for it - Rolling Stone.
Rockstars work very hard to get their name out to the public, and since few have the luxury of a publicist, they learn promotion tricks along the way. Here are a few tips you can borrow from their playbook.
1. Nail down your image.
My friend the bassist, in all likelihood, probably still tapes his glasses together. Why? Because he's in a garage band - not a strings quartet. It's "cool" for him to look a little bit messy. Amy Winehouse is also a SXSW veteran - talk about a distinct image. So what's yours? When you make author appearances - whether it be to an agent, a publishing company, or a book signing - remember the power of first impressions. Selling your message involves more than words: it involves an image of you, as an author, that people will remember.
2. Book gigs.
Bands typically book at least a show a month, or up to 10 if they're touring. If you are lucky enough to have a published book ready to show to the public, do not underestimate the power of live appearances. Think of it like market research: who's stopping by your table? Who's attending your talks? Are they young, old, somewhere in between? Mostly men, or mostly women? This brings us to...
3. Listen to your fans.
Sometimes, that sweet guitar riff a band busts out on stage falls totally flat with the audience - um, hello? That's not in the song? If you've got critics - readers, editors, or just trusted advisors to whom you've shown your manuscript - be open to suggestions for improvement. Why? As an author, you're building a platform, and as fantastic as your message is, no one will read it if the words aren't appealing.
4. Rock the festivals.
Over 1700 bands play here in Austin for SXSW. Can you believe that? And of those 1700, a handful create the kind of buzz that eventually launches a successful music career. Maybe you've heard of Norah Jones? So, even if your manuscript isn't complete yet, start attending your nearest book festival, and get a feel for the atmosphere there. Where does your message fit? How are authors presenting themselves? What promo tricks work really well? Are they handing out bookmarks? Signing copies? Giving talks? This is key knowledge to gain as an author: publishing is one thing, posturing is quite another. And some of the most engaging authors I've ever seen just flat out know how to work a crowd: Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers.
Being in the music industry involves a lot of self-promotion at first. Sure, once you get signed, get an agent, get a manager, etc. it's cake, right? Maybe. But even rockstars have to overcome hurdles at first, just like Cordozar Calvin Broadus, Jr. - better known as Snoop Dogg. ("Cordozar?" Seriously?). But, awful names aside, great rockstars, just like great authors, know how to play the promo game. Do it well, and maybe someday, you too can have groupies.