In this video/transcript from CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference, music industry veteran Simon Tam shares some knowledge (and inspiration) on how artists can effectively go about carving out and dominating a niche market.
By Chris Robley of CD Baby from the DIY Musician blog
Music Marketing: How to Dominate in a Niche Market
Finding more creative and focused ways to reach, impress, and engage your audience.
Throughout his music career, Simon Tam has dominated not just one niche market, but many. It’s impressive, it’s inspiring, it’s frustrating (in a damn, I wish I’d thought of that kind of way), and he does it again and again.
In 2019, Simon dropped some of that knowledge and inspiration on CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference. If you prefer reading, our transcript of his session is below. If you prefer video, look up, up, up!
Simon Tam at the 2019 DIY Musician Conference
Re-thinking how you target audiences and create fans.
TAM: Hi everybody. Hope you’re having a good convention so far. So, my name is Simon Tam. I’m the host of a daily music business podcast show called Music Business Hacks. I also perform in a band called The Slants and do kind of a variety of other things. But today this is one of two sessions I’m doing while here in Austin. This one is specifically on how to dominate niche markets, or target audiences. And tomorrow I’m going to be doing a session on social media.
But before we dive in, I want to let you know about a contest. And that’s where you have an opportunity to win a copy of every one of my books plus in exchange I’ll also buy every single release you’ve ever put out as a musician. All you gotta do is tweet at me and use the hashtag for the convention. I’m going to pick a couple random winners and you can get some stuff and sell some music. Because really that’s what we’re here for. I’m very, very passionate about supporting fellow musicians. This is pretty much all I do. So, follow along. If you have a favorite quote, something you really like, something you found useful, let me know. If there’s something that you want to learn more about you can also tag me and let me know.
So, as we’re kind of starting this conversation I’m wondering if we can get a couple of people to participate here. I’m wondering why would you want to focus on a niche market as opposed to like a big, broad market? Yeah.
AUDIENCE: I play Celtic music.
TAM: You play Celtic music. Niche market. So what’s the benefit of focusing on a smaller market?
AUDIENCE: You focus on different types of things, different venues.
TAM: Yeah, focusing is really important. So, I like to make this analogy that if you’re trying to hit a large target, or a target that’s far away like a music business goal, it’s a lot easier to hit a target that’s far away with a laser than with a shotgun. Like you want precision and focus. What about you?
AUDIENCE: Just the specificity as opposed to like kind of a [indecipherable] who your target market is and really support a vision [indecipherable].
TAM: Okay, so yeah, focusing in on those who are most eager to support you. That specific niche market allows you to develop perhaps more of a depth in terms of relationship as opposed to breadth, right?
AUDIENCE: You see better results like with Facebook ads, [indecipherable].
TAM: Better results on Facebook ads, definitely. It’s a lot better than trying to target everybody on the planet.
AUDIENCE: You can make exactly what they want.
TAM: You can make exactly what they want. And I love that. So, people who really practice in this area of niche marketing say you don’t try and find customers for your product, you try and find products for your customers. If you really try and understand an audience and find things that resonate with them, then that’s when you’ll really kind of start seeing that payoff.
So, despite there being many, many advantages on focusing on niche markets we find that most artists do the complete opposite. They think I want to focus on the biggest audience possible. I want to focus on the most number of people. And we think about this all the time. Like I’m going to play this major music festival because there’s going to be a ton of people there. Or I want to play this venue and open for this band because there’s a lot of people there. Or, I want to go on this social medial channel because there’s a lot of people there. Instead of saying things like, are they the right people that are there? Are they the right audience that’s there? And so this is the kind of mindset that we have to train ourselves to break. It’s a lot easier to follow convention.
In fact, convention is so embedded into the things that we do, we actually have to actively train ourselves out of it. This is kind of a funny fact about sumo wrestling is that there’s this move…essentially the rules are the same for every match. You have to push each other out of the ring. But if you think about it, if you are a smaller, lighter sumo wrestler, and you have somebody who’s weighing four to five hundred pounds running with all their energy at you in this tiny ring, there’s this move that’s totally legal. You can just step to the side and let them run themselves right out of the ring. And you know what? It works every single time. But it’s frowned upon. People think it’s playing dirty even though it’s along with the rules. And so, people fall into this tradition and instead of winning they kind of engage and they kind of run at each other like two trucks hitting each other.
I feel like there are a lot of music business strategies that are like this, that we feel like, “Hey, if I just did this thing, if I just step aside and focus on my strengths or my advantages maybe I can actually win here.” But what ends up happening is we follow convention. We start copying the strategies that we employ in our music business by just focusing on what other artists are doing. We go to panels, we go to sessions, we’re like, “What are those people doing?” And then we try and follow along without thinking about that why question or is it the right fit for my audience.
And so, I really want you to encourage you to think smaller is bigger. It is easier to be that big fish in a little pond than to be a medium-sized fish in a huge pond. And yet we find ourselves all the time hearing about an artist that will move to L.A. because the connections, or move to Nashville, or Portland, or New York or any of these other kind of major cities, thinking that they’re going to make those relationships and not realizing that they have actually more of a chance to get lost unless they’re actually connecting with their true audience. Smaller is also better in a lot of other ways. It allows you to be more nimble and avoid some of the pitfalls and expenses of trying to market to a major, major audience.
So, today if nothing else, I want you to remember this phrase: smallest viable audience, or SVA. The smallest viable audience is the minimum number of people that you need in order to be successful. Those of you who are familiar with Kevin Kelly know of this kind of idea he projects called the Thousand Fans Theory, that if you can get a thousand true fans, that’s enough. You don’t need a million, you don’t need ten thousand fans, you need one thousand true fans. And he defines a true fan as someone who’s willing to spend a hundred bucks a year on you. It’s the kind of fan that will drive across town to go to your show. If you get a thousand of them and they spend a hundred bucks on you, that’s a hundred thousand dollars a year. That’s a pretty decent career. And of course, there’s not actually a magic number out there, but understanding this mindset that if you can find a way to surprise and delight those thousand people while ignoring everybody else on the planet, you can actually have a career that is thriving and that is quite successful.
Think about the companies like every major company in this world, they all actually started out with small audiences. Who here has heard of TED talks? Like pretty much everybody, right? But for most of its existence they didn’t market themselves, they didn’t make themselves available to anybody. They were just these extremely expensive conferences available for those people who could afford the $8,000 registration fee to go there. They didn’t even have any of these videos online. But people kept talking about it and talking about it and it became this kind of biggest secret available that it just spilled over. So that when TED released some of these videos it just exploded in popularity. I mean think about it, anyone can upload videos. And especially videos of people doing 15 to 20 minute talks or less. But why is TED successful whereas everyone else is just trying to catch up? It’s because they found their core audience, people who are focused entirely on technology, entertainment and design, and those people who get really, really excited they naturally take that same energy and it spreads.
Same thing with Facebook. I mean nearly everybody on the planet who uses social media is on Facebook. Yet Facebook started out at one place, at Harvard. If you wanted to be on Facebook you could only get on Facebook if you were a student at Harvard. And think about it, it’s actually kind of a brilliant strategy. Instead of trying to launch and hit even just higher education, like, “You know what, we’re going to get every single university in the country. Instead of launching there we’re just going to focus on this one university and say, you know what, people are going to be talking bout their friends, they’re going to be uploading pictures of you on this website. But you can only get in if you’re on Harvard.” And eventually when they expanded to a couple other universities everyone wanted to be on there because they had this fear of missing out, like, “Wait, people are talking about me? I want to be on there so I know what they’re saying.” And of course, word spread, and Facebook eventually became this behemoth it was. But it all began with servicing and really modifying and tweaking a product specifically for one small audience.
Think about this logo here. Does anyone know this band? The Grateful Dead, that’s right. So we talk about artists that feel like they need a hit to be successful. The Grateful Dead did pretty much everything opposite of that. They didn’t say, “You know what, let’s make our songs three and a half minutes long because that’s radio friendly.” They decided, “Let’s ignore radio altogether. We’re going to encourage our fans to tape every single one of our concerts and release it on their own.” They actually have thousands and thousands of live albums out there because they’re like, “We don’t care about the perfect studio polished album. We just want our music out there for our like hippie friends.” Instead of going for those short pop hits, they went for long, long jams. And guess what? It worked out pretty well for them. They earned over $350 million in concerts in their career. They earned over $100 million even after Jerry Garcia died. And they continued to ignore radio. They only actually had one hit ever in their entire career, yet they somehow managed to have a pretty impressive career.
So, when we talk about finding the right audience, the smallest viable audience, you want to talk about that right size. There are conventions out there specifically for soap makers. There are conventions out there for people who brew cider. And there are conventions out there for people who like to dress up like pirates, pretend that they’re stuck in a Victorian era where everything’s powered by steam, and those people thrive. I’ve been to several of those conventions by the way, I perform at them. Like if there’s a convention for it, there’s probably enough of an audience to give you a viable career. A smallest viable audience. So, start thinking like what are those things that turn other people off or make their heads turn as people walk into this kind of event or attending this kind of event. That’s the idea. You don’t want to try and include people in this sense, you want to try and exclude them by focusing entirely on this niche market when it comes to trying to dominate it.
So, in other words, you want to make some heads tilt, some heads turn, whenever you talk about the kinds of things that you do. That’s how you get on the radar of people. Because people don’t want to like something, they want to love it. Like you want to find followers who are passionate about you because you understand them, not just you just happen to be one of many, many artists that they hit on Spotify or have on a playlist or they watch on YouTube from time to time. You want the kind of person that can’t wait for your next release. And the way you do that is by really understanding and serving your audience.
So, earlier you mentioned Facebook ads. And how many people here have run Facebook ads? Okay, nearly everybody. So, as you’re running those ads you notice what kinds of questions Facebook asks you. They of course want to ask you about the demographics, right? And so you start thinking like, okay, what’s this broad audience that I can reach, what’s the age range, maybe the gender, the language? Perhaps their location. I want you to forget about all of that. Instead of thinking of your audience in terms of large pools of people, think of your audience as one person. If you could find the one person who is most eager about your music, and you think about the things that excite them, that’s when you’re thinking of enough of an audience. Because that one person, well chances are if only 1% of the planet is like them or even one-tenth of one percent, you’re already surpassing that thousand true fans theory many times over. So, think about that one person. What are the channels that they enjoy? What are the things that they really, really like? What do they enjoy outside of music? And how can you touch upon all those things? So, when we talk about finding audiences, again, it’s about finding not the most people but finding the right people. And it’s all about finding this right connection.
So, Blake Mycoskie, before he founded Tom’s Shoes, most people don’t know about this but he actually started a different company. It was called EZ Laundry. When he was in college, he found out this dirty little secret, and that was that most college students living in dorms don’t do laundry. Like they don’t know how to do laundry. It’s kind of gross. [laughs] But despite the fact that there are actually laundry facilities in the building, people were ignoring these things because they just didn’t know how to handle it. So, he thought, I’m going to start a laundry company. And think about it, like there are already a lot of laundry companies out there. There’s dry cleaners, there’s professional laundromats. There were laundry machines in his unit. And each of the units on the college campus. But he knew his audience. And you know what? The audience was not the students. It was the parents. So, at freshmen orientation he gets up and he says, “You know what? Your kids aren’t doing their laundry. They don’t know how to do it. But for a few bucks every single week I’ll pick it up, I’ll wash it, I’ll fold it and deliver it. And then you don’t have to worry about your kids wearing dirty clothes.” He made enough money to just essentially drop out of college, start another company, started another company, eventually got his way to Tom’s.
AUDIENCE: He didn’t have time to go to class.
TAM: He didn’t have time to go to class, he was too busy making money. Like six figures before he turned 21. [laughs] Exactly. And I mean if you think about it, Tom’s Shoes also comes like it’s now dominating as this global brand. But it also began as a very, very niche market. He didn’t begin having his shoes in Nordstrom or Sax Fifth Avenue or any other kind of store. He began with one store in Hollywood. And he was just like, “Okay, these people get the kind of thing I’m doing.” This idea that you buy one pair of shoes and this will also give one pair to somebody in need. And the look was very unique for the time. It’s like, “Well, this one store gets it.” What happened was he kept stocking the store and it did okay, but one day someone from Vanity Fair showed up, took a picture of it, posted it as a pic, and then all of a sudden he had more demand for shoes than he could possibly supply. In fact, he was working with a family in Argentina to make these shoes. It’s just a family, and they were like, “Okay.” And he’s just like, “Muchos zapatos rapido,” was what he says to this guy. And he’s like, “Okay.” So they called in all the cousins and they just start like sewing as many shoes as possible. One store was all it took for him to basically take over this kind of market and completely change the trend in shoes.
Think about this: Starbucks. What made them special? There were a lot of coffee shops. People could buy coffee at their gas station. People get coffee in their own homes. What made Starbucks special? Well, they decided that instead of just trying to play to this market of people who need caffeine immediately when they wake up, because that’s a whole lot of people, they wanted to focus on people who wanted quality. And they decided to serve this audience, an audience that was seeking something different, a third place is what they called it, the place that’s in-between work and home. They didn’t focus—like yes, they made coffee. That wasn’t their product. Their product was an atmosphere. It was an environment. A place where people could meet. It basically replicated Howard Schultz’s experiences when he was traveling in Italy where people would just hang out at a coffee shop, something that didn’t really happen that much prior to the Starbucks era. And of course, they became the largest coffee company in the world as a result. But it all began with just focusing on this strange need. The product was just a byproduct of it. Coffee was just there, but the need was much, much different.
I’ll give you a personal example as well. A number of years ago, my band was performing at a bunch of anime conventions. In fact, we kind of launched our career playing at anime conventions. And so much so, where NPR’s first story on us on All Things Considered, this is in 2008, said that our band, The Slants, was touring around the country while building a geek army. I mean they called it a geek army because we were playing anime conventions. We were already getting some momentum and a bit of interest from press. So, as we were kind of working on filming another music video, I thought, why not film at one of these conventions? And I came up with this story line where it was basically a music video in a music video, like where people are in a karaoke bar. And we were actually the karaoke video. And in that video we’re getting beat up by a bunch of cosplayers, you know, kids dressed up as their favorite video game and anime characters, while everyone else is just in the bar singing. That was the video with the bouncing ball and lyrics. It was kind of a fun, novel thing, and I sent it to my publicist. And he said, “Oh, this is great. I think Alternative Press is interested in picking it up.” I’m like, “You don’t get it. This video isn’t for them. It’s not for Alternative Press or Rolling Stone or anyone like that. This video was made as a loving homage to the audience that supports us. I want to debut this on a cosplay website.” My publicist was like, “Are you crazy?” [laughs] “Why would you do this? That’s a waste.” And I’m like, “No, no, no. Look, you can have any other video, but this video that involves that community, it really should be debuted in a place where that community goes to. And they go to cosplay websites. They don’t go to like Pitchfork or Spin.”
So we made this bet that if it did all right he could have the very next video. We launch it on a cosplay website and within a week we had hundreds of thousands of views. The video went viral—I mean back then it was like a really big deal. Now it’s like nothing. [laughs] But like it caught the attention of Ryan Seacrest and Rolling Stone and Pitchfork were all arguing over the rights for our next video just because they saw how much momentum, how much traction was growing from this obscure video in the middle of nowhere. An anime convention in Everett, Washington. But that audience found us. They loved us and they spread it. And on top of like getting, you know, we actually ended up making a deal with Conan O’Brien and that was our next appearance. But on top of that, I started getting booked at conventions all over the world. And you know, the thing is like when I started the band, I made that’s what I saw, I was like there’s a great market here. I want to book it. And everyone thought I was crazy. But I was like, “Let’s just try it.” We played one anime convention and made 10 grand in merch in three days. It was enough to pay for our van, our trailer, for a studio album. And then I just built for many, many years careers, our whole career around playing anime conventions. We got flown to four different continents, played them all over. In fact we have played more anime conventions than any other music act in the world. And the funny thing is, we don’t have a single song in any anime. Like we have nothing to do with anime. We just became the band that was associated with those conventions. So now conventions are like, “Oh yeah, of course, we know The Slants, we want to bring you in because of that. You are part of the community.” And I was able to build a sustainable career and have six full-time musicians with me just from this one thing. Yes, we would play club shows while we were trying to build up the rest of our career. I was playing those dive bars for 30 to 50 people a night, getting paid like maybe a couple hundred bucks. And then going to four-star hotels on the weekend where like we had all of our needs taken care of and playing for crowds of like 15,000 to 20,000. So like you can find that right audience. And if you take care of them, if you’re relevant, they will take care of you.
Remember, marketing doesn’t solve your problems. I can’t emphasize this enough. So many artists think like if I’m just on that TV show, if I just get my ad in front of more people, it will launch my career. But that’s not true. Because just because every single person hears of you, doesn’t mean they’ll care. You want to find the right people, not just anybody. Because if anybody could fill that spot on their playlist then anybody will. You want somebody who’s looking for you and what you do very, very specifically.
And so, we talk about how you can find your niche. It’s really about finding your people. And so finding your people looks like this: you want to chase after the things that really there’s the most energy. Like the things that you personally get excited about, that’s the kind of stuff that makes sense. The kind of stuff that you have a lot of passion for. And of course, things that resonate with your own personal values. Things that you truly want to advocate for. Because if you’re just doing it to just if you’re targeting like the soap makers convention because you’re like, oh, that’s a very niche area, I’m just going to go for it, people will see through that. You don’t want to be placating an audience, you want to be a part of that audience. They want to be like connected with you in a very, very genuine fashion. And of course, you want to go for an area that has a lot of momentum, things where you’re already getting some traction.
So, when we talk about this idea of like who are your fans, like when you start thinking about this, imagine this: You’re setting up your next Facebook ad, you’re setting up your next gig. You’re trying to create your next press release. Who are your fans? Like think about this very deeply. Because you really shouldn’t be thinking about demographics so much. Like it’s not about those broad categories of like age and gender and location. Like those things matter, but not nearly as much as psychographics. Psychographics are the things that drive people. They’re the things that people are really passionate about. So, things like values. Things like their hobbies that they absolutely love. Because that’s the stuff that people actually will act on. If you think your audience is, let’s say, 13-year-old to 30-year-old girls, how much in common does a 30-year-old woman really have with a 13-year-old? I mean really. They’re probably not into the same stuff. They probably don’t even interact with technology the same kind of way. So, don’t think of these really, really broad categories. But if you think, “My audience, they’re the kind of people who are really, really excited about like whatever thing.” Celtic music. Like people who love Celtic music with a rock twist. That’s a niche audience and that’s where that passion will overcome any other demographic barrier. So, focus on psychographics.
And again, think micro, not macro. The thing is, people think of social media as this mass market system. But it’s really not. Social media is not about mass market. Yes, there are massive markets on there, but social media is really about micro markets because all of a sudden you can curate your own feed so that you only hear about and you only see stuff that looks just like the stuff you want to hear and see. It’s not…if it was mass market then you would just get anything and everything on there. But people are selective. They choose who to friend. And they absolutely choose who to follow. So, it’s not a mass market system. So, if you treat it like one, if you treat an audience like any generic person, like, “Hey if you see this ad for my show coming into town, like as if it were a poster being hung up on a telephone pole, how many people actually go to a show because of that?” Unless they know you. If you walk down Sixth Street and you saw all these flyers for artists you never heard of, what’s the likelihood of you going out to one of their gigs and shelling out 10 to 15 bucks and watching the band? Probably not very likely. Not unless something about it really strikes you. So why do we treat our social media this way with these broad, generic messages or these updates that have no relevance to the people following us? Think micro.
So, I’ll give you another example of how I kind of utilize the same tactic. So, my band is actually really, really passionate about several different things. But the thing that we’re probably known for really is being really passionate about food. Like, seriously, a couple years ago we had a chance to decide if we wanted to go to Chicago or Kansas City. And while we had more fans in Chicago because we played this huge anime convention there, we actually chose Kansas City because they had a restaurant that was on Anthony Bourdain’s 13 places to eat before you die list. Like that was where our priorities were. Our fans knew this because we actually filmed ourselves going to these restaurants and talking about them all the time. And I knew that kind of content would do pretty well. So, instead of just blasting it on YouTube or Facebook or Twitter—Instagram wasn’t around back then—we decided to go toward the micro, this social media site that focused exclusively on foodies. On Yelp. So, I created an account and I started reviewing restaurants where we went. Everywhere on tour I would just leave a review and said, “You know what, if you like this review, check out my profile. I have a link and you can download my band’s music for free.” This led to about 20,000 downloads. So, I thought that’s pretty cool. [laughs]
So the next year I decided to do it again. But this time I noticed something. You see in Portland, Oregon where we were living at the time, they would put out these releases, like the best restaurants list. And I always got frustrated because they talked about the best Asian restaurant, but it was never any of the restaurants that I liked. Like they only talked about things that were downtown, very, very centered around one particular community. They didn’t list a single Asian restaurant owned by an Asian family. And I thought that was wrong. So we put out our own release, the PDX Guide to Asian Eating. I linked to it in my profile. And you know what? That led to 45,000 downloads. It’s just like download this free thing. And on top of that, I started getting free food whenever I went to these Asian restaurants. [laughter] So it was awesome.
I also wanted to tie it in with like kind of offline stuff as well. So, what I did is I went to Vistaprint, I paid $35 and I got ten window clings saying it was the Best of the Best list of The Slants, and I gave them to the restaurants so all these restaurants had our name right on the front door where they could download this food guide and of course lead to our music as well. And it didn’t just stop there because a couple of years later when we decided to tour Asia, we’re like, “You know what, Portland might be a foodie city, but Taiwan, yo, that’s a foodie country. So we want to do like a film around this.” So, we decided to crowdfund it. And Taiwan also has some interesting dishes that maybe western audiences might not feel so great about, like this coagulated pork blood on a stick that’s rolled in peanuts and cilantro. It’s actually delicious by the way. [laughs] But this kind of thing. Or like grilled duck tongues, like just the tongue of the duck. Or this dish that I can’t stand called stinky tofu. Like it’s in the name, it’s not good. And of course their infamous bull penis soup. So, we allowed our fans, who knew that we loved eating food and we like to try new things. We said, “You know what, you can be a food producer on this documentary and make sure that we eat these things if you kick in some dollars.” It was more than enough money to pay for our band’s tour across Asia. And we created a film and it was actually just released on Amazon Prime this last week. [applause] So, it all gets funneled back in. And of course, it was because our fellow foodies wanted to see us trying this food. And yeah, there’s music in there. We film our shows. But the way we even describe our DVD, I say it’s like No Reservations but with a better soundtrack. Like, watch us eat food on our way to this big festival that we’re playing.
And fans loved it because we were thinking just like them. We weren’t thinking about us. Like yeah, music was just the byproduct, much in the same way that coffee is the byproduct of Starbucks, or like the shoes—like Tom’s shoes doesn’t sell shoes. They sell goodwill, the good feeling you get from helping someone else in need. You get a pair of shoes, they get a pair of shoes. Like you can buy any pair of shoes out there, there are an endless number of shoes. But people choose their shoes to make a statement about who they are so that when people see those shoes on your feet, they could say, “Oh, you like to help people in need. You care about the planet.” So the music was just the byproduct of that particular relationship.
And again, smaller focus, like I talked about how I rocked anime conventions for many, many years. Well, our band is actually not known as the anime convention band anymore. We’re not even known specifically for our music even though we have seven albums out. Our band is mostly known for something else, and that is going to the United States Supreme Court. You see, we got into a battle with the government over the rights to use our name, a battle that took seven-and-a-half years, and yes, did take us to the United States Supreme Court. And as a result of us winning this landmark case—by the way, this case was fighting against a law that was used primarily against members of the LGBTQ community and people of color, primarily artists, nonprofits and small businesses. We took that law down, canceled it, declared it unconstitutional. We won. [applause] And so guess what, what kind of conventions do I play now? Yes, I know a lot of lawyers. In fact, we do about 100 to 150 dates a year across 13 countries, playing for lawyers. [audience talks] Like that’s how I roll now. We do a couple anime conventions, like maybe five or six a year. But the reality is I go to law schools, I go to law conventions. I play in the offices of law firms. And we do it for like a really, really good pay. They pay a lot better than those anime kids, I can tell you that. [laughter]
And it’s a great relationship because I didn’t just show up and just drop my guitar and started playing some songs for them. I knew the law inside and out so I thought I have a story to tell. So, when we go to these law events, yeah me and my guitarist we play music. But I also get up there and do legal training for an hour. I train judges and lawyers on the law and I talk to them about creating systemic changes to the law and how they could be better served thinking about things from an equitable point of view. There’s all this kind of stuff. I made it as part of the package that I offer for my part. And I even released a book about it, a memoir about our journey to the Supreme Court, starting the band and that sort of thing. And it’s opened up so many doors. So it didn’t just happen once or twice for me, it happened all the time. Just thinking like who are those niche audiences? Because the reality is, a lot of people would be kind of bored hearing about the nuances of Section 2A of the Lanham Act from 1939, but I can tell you about every one of those little bullet points that came from that and all the Supreme Court courses related because my audience cares about that.
And so, you know, here’s another way to think about it. What’s something that you really love that maybe will turn off five people that you know of? People who will question your sanity, people will question your taste? Like what’s the thing that people kind of find questionable? That’s the kind of stuff that you should be focusing on when it comes to these micro, these niche kind of markets. And of course, when we talk about these kind of smaller markets, you always want to be giving value to your audience. You don’t want to just be taking from them. We don’t create these communities because you want them to support your career. We create communities because we want to support one another. So, give the kind of stuff that people care about. Do the kinds of things they care about. And I would say, yes, creating music, great music is a gift to the world. It’s a gift to these communities. But find ways to connect with them based on their values and their passions.
So, there’s a couple of examples of companies that have really done this, like Slack. They went from 16,000 users to over 2.7 million users in two years. I mean that is phenomenal. And they did it by keeping their product free. All along, you know, when they hit 16,000, when they hit 50,000, when they hit a million, all these venture capitalists were coming in saying, “Let us invest money into you. You should start charging for this product. You have more than enough customers.” But they said, “No, that’s not what our users want.” They wanted to just keep on growing and growing and delivering value to those audiences by giving them something they were passionate about. And the product was perfect. Because the product doesn’t really work unless your friends are on Slack, unless your coworkers on Slack. So it just moved very, very organically and naturally. And of course, after that two-year period, they cashed in. They did all right.
Dropbox, very similar story. You know, back in the day when you signed up for Dropbox it would say, you know what, you can get an extra 50 megabytes of space if you invite one of your friends. And if they join, both of you get 50 megabytes. Now, sorry, 500 megabytes. All the way up to 16 gigs. So, really if you were to fully utilize this system, you just got 32 extra customers for Dropbox. But you cared about it, because it was a safe, secure place to store your stuff. And Dropbox knew that. In other words, they didn’t spend all this money in marketing, they spent all their time, money and energy on serving their community. The people did the marketing for them.
So, when you think about like your niche audiences, you should be thinking of course who, who is that person, but also what they’re interested in and why. For many, many years there was this popular concept in the world of sales that when people come to your hardware store and they buy a drill bit, they’re not buying a drill bit. They’re buying a tool to get a hole in their wall. They’re essentially buying an eighth-inch hole, is what they’re buying. But if you were to really extract this a lot more, they’re not buying a hole. They’re buying a place that can hold a screw that’s strong enough to hold a shelf. And they’re not buying that shelf, they’re buying the space off the floor to get all their junk off the ground to put it on that shelf. And they’re not buying that space, they’re probably buying it because they’re tired of getting nagged at by their partner or roommate like, You got too much stuff on the floor.” They’re buying convenience. So start thinking about your music and what you have to offer in these kinds of terms. Are people buying a song, or are they buying a connection with a message they really care about? Are they buying something fun to drive to? What are they buying? Start thinking about it in those kinds of terms and how you can frame up your music, your services, or whatever you have to offer based on this who, what and why question.
And I can’t emphasize this enough, but you should flip that megaphone on social media. You see, we get on social media thinking that it’s all about us, that it’s all about this megaphone that we’re broadcasting all the time. But I always encourage people don’t treat social media like a megaphone. Treat it like a telephone, an exchange. Who are you going to talk to? You’re not there to talk from one to many. You’re there to talk like it was one on one with each of these fans, the fans that are in your audience. That’s what social media ought to be. And of course, if you imagine if you walked into a conversation, you met somebody, and all they did was talk about themselves the whole time. What would you do? Like if they’re like, “Hey, come to my show. Hey, check out my music. Hey, look at this thing I like.” Of course you’d be like, “When’s the chance for me to engage? How come it’s all about you?” Yet we treat our Instagram, Twitter and our Facebook pages just like that, as if it was one giant megaphone. Start thinking about it like in terms of this engagement tool to actually connect with your audience.
And I would really encourage you as you start thinking about social media and start applying these concepts to your music and to your career, think of these three words: gym, plants and rain. You see, I like to treat my music career and my goals like I would the gym. Because no amount of working out in a single day will get you a six pack. At best, you get that one pack thing going on, right? Like the only way to get fit is to show up consistently, to be persistent about it, to sweat. Same thing with plants. If you put six months or a year’s worth of water on your house plants, guess what’s going to happen? [laughs] The only way to do it is by watering it a little bit each day. How much? Enough. Find that smallest viable audience and water it each day. And from that, you can actually see results. You can see it grow.
And finally, rain. I was thinking about this the other day because sometimes like when I come up with podcast ideas, I do a lot of that while driving or traveling. And I remember just about two weeks ago, I was driving and Nashville had one of its many like sudden thunderstorms where it was like a flash flood within a few seconds. And it was just pouring. And as I started thinking about the rain, I started thinking about the phrase, “Make it rain.” Like people say that all the time, “Make it rain, we’re going to make it rain.” Like, well, you know what’s interesting about rain is that it’s not one drop. It’s not one thing. Rain is comprised of billions and billions of tiny little drops. If you want to make it rain, you have to make concentrated effort in many, many different ways. Concentrating it in one area. Because if you had like a billion drops of water falling, but they were falling all over the planet, people wouldn’t even notice. It would just be considered vapor. But if you put it in like a square foot area, you better believe people will notice. So focus in on that key audience and watch those results instead of trying to spread out those efforts all over the country, all over the world, all over the Internet. Focus on that niche audience and show up consistently and be persistent about it.
And if you’re interested in more kind of tips about social media, tomorrow I’m going to be doing a session at 11 a.m. in Salon F on social media hacks that defy trends. It’s kind of a follow up on my session if you came to it last year on how to be a social media rock star, because a lot of things have changed since then. And just as a kind of a reminder that if you’re interested in winning every single one of my books plus selling all of the records you’ve ever produced, tweet at me. Use the hashtags. So, wanted to leave some time for some questions. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: If you don’t know where your niche, you actually do something that drives you, you play a type of music, [indecipherable] you don’t know where your people are, how do you find [indecipherable].
TAM: How do you find your people. Well, I would say go back to those ideas, like the things you’re most passionate about, the things you’re most energetic about. Like what’s the stuff that you want to write about, that you wish you could write about? Or like if you are currently writing about something, like how can you dissect it in a way that is relevant to one person? Or just a few, just a few people? Like, again, it’s just finding a way to narrow down things. Like for example, instead of just saying like, “I play rock.” “My band plays synth pop music.” I thought, what’s a way that we could distinguish ourselves? So, because we’re an all-Asian American dance rock band, I had decided to call our music Chinatown dance rock. I focused on our media that was entirely related to Asian Americans. And I built enough of a following there to create some momentum. And of course did the same thing again and again with anime conventions, with foodies and with lawyers. Those are all like separate categories. And all parts of communities that I find myself in. But like I just started thinking what’s something that sets us apart?
Another way to think about it is like if someone were to ask you to describe yourself, like what your pitch is, your pitch should be able to be something contained in this idea of like if you could answer, like, “We are the first…” or “We are the only…” Like if you could say one of those phrases you already found yourself in a little bit of a niche. So for me, it was like we were the first and only all Asian American dance rock band in the world. That immediately set us up differently. Another way to think about it is like is there a convention for it. If you’re not sure, just Google it, search for it. Chances are there probably is like a very specific convention, festival or gathering. You can go on Meetup.com, look at how people group themselves together. That’s another way to think about like how people see themselves. Like they basically label themselves in that particular community. Other questions? Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Hi, I am also in a niche, I play wizard rock, I play music about Harry Potter.
TAM: Oh, right on.
AUDIENCE: And it’s been going pretty well so far. And I’m wondering at what point do you try to reach the maximum, you know, what you can get from that niche and how do you know if you’ve reached that point and then what do you do and what would you do after that. After you’ve kind of sucked out all the things from your niche and grown your community?
TAM: Yeah, so if you start seeing results kind of plateauing, and you’re thinking like okay, I’ve gotten everything that I can out of it, so like with wizard rock in particular, you think, I’ve already played a Leaky Con, I’ve already played all these Harry Potter conventions, I’m playing libraries and other kinds of gatherings, what else can we do? Well, you can either think about other things you’re passionate about or kind of these corollary audiences. So, for example, if you’re in wizard rock and there’s a couple of bands out there in the world that are, like you can easily play other types of fan conventions and events because there are people…like the people that are really passionate about like Harry Potter and kind of wizardry probably are passionate about other things as well. So, there is it depends on like your individual passions and interests, but let’s say you’re interested in metaphysical stuff, like it’s a natural fit, then you can kind of start building off of that particular community. Or you know, those other kind of fan conventions. So, there’s certainly ways to do that.
Or, if you feel like you’re getting all of the support that you can possibly get from this audience, then you might consider broadening of that scope a little bit. So just like we were able to kind of move from the world of anime conventions into the world of like law conventions, and kind of create this sustainable career for ourselves, we didn’t necessarily like abandon that audience, we just pivoted to a new audience where we saw the momentum, where we saw things happening because there seemed to be a lot of interest. And if you’re not quite sure that, you can always ask your audience. Like you can do a survey. Treat it like a focus group. I don’t know why more musicians aren’t doing this, but you can certainly ask people what they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about, what things they read, what sites they use and so on, and use that information to help inform you for your next career steps. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you had any advice or experience dealing with impostor syndrome within a niche, because I’ve been involved in niche communities before and one thing that I always struggled with was that these people are all much more experienced and have much more expertise on this specific subject, so it’s like, “What am I actually doing here?” And I’m wondering if there’s a way or like any advice that you have with dealing with that kind of feeling, that mentality?
TAM: Absolutely. There’s a lot that I would love to say about like feeling imposter syndrome. In fact, I just did an episode on it where I kind of broke down a ton of resources on it. If you go to Musicbusinesshacks.com and just scroll down a little bit, there’s a bunch of resources there. So I would say for the in-depth answer you can go ahead and listen to that episode and there’s links to books and things that I recommend. But in terms of dealing with impostor syndrome, it’s like a much bigger thing that I think is beyond just kind of niche audiences, and that has to do with confidence, it has to do with wellness, there’s a lot of facets to this thing. I would say there’s a couple of things that I do recommend. If it’s an audience that you feel like you’re genuinely a part of, demonstrate that. If it’s one that you are kind of moving into, like for example I was moving into the world of law and I was like, “Are you kidding me? I gotta teach this district judge how to do law?” I didn’t go to law school. I thought, okay, “What is it that I have to offer? What do I have of value that I can give them, and really, really leaned in on that while I was still growing.” And at the same time, being completely transparent about it. Like, “You probably know the law better than I do, at least in this area, but let me tell you my story.” Or I would ask a lot of questions before just assuming that people would think like I’m a fake. And it worked out really well for me. So there’s a whole bunch of other tactics, but I would definitely recommend checking out the resources, there’s a lot of great books and free stuff out there for it too. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: So, thinking about expanding your market, you love food, I love coffee. So, I’m sitting here thinking, okay, so in addition to talking about my music I can absolutely talk about all of the really geeky coffee shops that I’m going to. And then I’m thinking about, okay, when I’m putting that on in Instagram I’m obviously using the coffee hashtags. When you’re doing food, when you’re hashtagging or when you’re tagging it wherever you are, are you tagging just food related tags or are you including your music-related tags as well?
TAM: So, I haven’t really been tagging food-related things. I just focus on the channel. I haven’t been doing as much on the kind of foodie audience thing, at least for my band. I do it just because I love food and I want to know what to eat. [laughs] But there’s a couple different things you can do. Tomorrow I talk more about hashtagging strategy. But one quick tip on doing this is like when you think about hashtagging, thinking about it in sets of three. So, you want to aim for about nine to twelve hashtags, three of your hashtags are what we’re going to call the mega hashtags. These are hashtags that have over 5 million posts on them. So, those are the like very, very broad people are like, everybody’s tagging it. Then you’ve got you want to do other hashtags about three or four hashtags in what we call the medium category. So that’s between 500,000 and about 2 million posts. And obviously, as you’re posting on Instagram, assuming you’re using Instagram, you could see the number right there. But you can also Google this. And then you want three hashtags to five hashtags on what I call the very niche or small. And so that’s like less than 50,000 posts on there.
What ends up happening is if you do really, really well with the niche category, like clever hashtags or the things that people aren’t using quite as much, Instagram and its formula will float you up into the medium category a bit more where a lot more people are searching. And if you do well there they’ll get you up to that higher echelon. So, thinking about like hashtags not only in terms of the audience and the things that they want to use, but also how you can likes get into the audience effectively, is really important as part of that kind of mindset.
On top of that, if you’re really into coffee culture and you’ve got songs about coffee and you’re in that coffee world, then I would say like definitely focus. There’s like entire magazines, websites, just dedicated to coffee. And perhaps consider that as a way to pivot and say, “Okay, how can I develop relationships with these coffee shops? Maybe I’ll make a list. Maybe they’ll include me in return on their playlist in their coffee shop. Maybe I could partner up with a roaster to create my own unique coffee blend based on all these things because I write about coffee all the time, I’m always constantly tasting, people follow me for my coffee like expertise.” You have something of value to offer in that world, give it. And you know, I’ve done the same thing. Like I’ve gotten, like we have for a couple of years our band had our own custom-made smartphones. I had my own signature line of guitars with Fender. All these things just from like what can I do to give value to them and create a partnership around that? So, there’s other ways to think about it as well, not just like in terms of accumulating fans. So, I would say like think micro market but think bigger in terms of that micro market. You had your hand up for a little bit, so.
AUDIENCE: I can talk loud. I wonder if it’s possible…thank you, thanks so much. My name is Ellen Allard. I’m wondering if it’s possible to niche down too much. My niche used to be early childhood music, and I did that for a really long time. And then I niched down quite a bit further to Jewish early childhood music. And I’m wondering if that if it’s possible to actually niche down too far.
TAM: It depends. And so that’s what we call, the phrase, smallest viable audience, that audience has to be viable, it has to be enough to be able to serve you. As we mentioned, if you find a thousand people, that can be enough. So, if you’re worried that it’s like too laser-focused, then don’t be afraid to broaden up a bit. But I would say like given the population of this planet, it’s very, very hard to be too narrow in its focus. And in fact, one of my friends is a Jewish pop star and he plays youth camps. Like while he’s playing in this indie alt-rock band that’s what he does like in his nights and weekends. So I’m like, “He’s making it work.” [laughs] And he actually wears, like many musicians, multiple hats. So maybe you can lean into a couple different areas as well. I think we have time for one more question.
AUDIENCE: Hey, Simon. Mine is kind of a technical question. When you’re a musician and your media is starting to go up but you want to switch to keynote, how do you make that transition? Are you still a musician and a keynote speaker at the same time? Or you just let the music go and go to keynote?
TAM: It’s a great question. So, I actually do both these days. And in fact, I’m very, very passionate about the music that I create. But I realized that it’s not paying the bills as much as like me speaking at these law events. So, what I do is I offer me speaking at a discount if they book my band and fly out my guitarist. And of course, all these lawyers are like, “Yes, we want to be able to say the band played here too.” And I basically sell them on this idea, like “No, your law convention will be a lot cooler if you have a band than if you don’t.” [laughter] And they all do it. And again, it gives us a living wage. I’m able to provide for my guitarist and my singer who just had a baby. So, we’ve been able to bring that in.
And the way I do it is just like this is a part of my whole self, this is a part of my story, it’s a part of my art. And so, yeah, I travel as a speaker, I write and I play music. And I just figure, if I could find opportunities where I can blend all those things, awesome. And if I can’t, at least I can still do one of those things and still be able to practice those other things and serve audiences in a different kind of way.
So, if you’re interested in being a speaker, by the way, there’s this podcast called Side Hustle School. Chris Guillebeau does it. I did an episode with him and talked about how I was able to earn over 30 grand a year just speaking while I was in my undergrad program just by pitching myself as a speaker. I also have the world record for most number of TED talks. Which I’ll talk about tomorrow because that’s another niche audience.
But thank you so much for being here. If you’re interested and you have more questions, I have a speaker’s table out there. I also have a couple of books that are available, like these ones right here. So if you’re interested in learning how to get sponsors and endorsements, if you want to learn about daily practices or you’re interested in that memoir, I’ll be right at that speaker’s table. Thank you again. [applause]
Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby's DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songs that've been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.