Essay: Locked Down But Not Locked Out – Turning “Nope” into “Hope” How to thrive creatively from your online platform by Katie Cole

Essays Musicians' Posts

by Katie Cole

Starting a new year usually means to refresh, renew your enthusiasm for your chosen career path and to institute a step-by-step plan of what you want and how you’ll achieve it. Success is all about planning and using spirit and sheer will to achieve your dreams right? It’s all about aiming your arrows high and being full of hope, right? Yes, except if you’re referring to this year. 2020, the year of feeling worried and downright uncertain as you hear the same phrases including “I’m not sure right now” and “we’ll see what happens in a few months.” As I like to call it, the year of “nope.”

As a resident of Nashville, on March 2-3 we were hit by a large and quite destructive Tornado storm system. It tore through a few sections of beloved Music City and leveled a few very important live music venues in town. Quite a sad day in history. I’m originally from Australia, so hearing the sirens and test warning sounds always felt un-real to me. Like it was a warning for something that could never happen. “Twister” was just a movie. This storm was only a week or two shy of news of the soon to be labeled ‘pandemic’ took place. I remember sitting in my home that first week of March after the tornado hit, with the power off and I was for the first time in, let’s face it, 4 or 5 years doodling song ideas on a physical note pad with a pen. Like various creative artists, I have found such freedom in the organized chaos of writing on a laptop and storing versions of the same verse in a row with slight variations as they cascade down the screen in a way only I can make sense of. And like so many artists in Nashville, this storm was a swift reminder of how fragile the environment and ecosystem is for creating and distributing music. You need power, internet, co-writers, mgmt, labels, team members, interns etc all working together on a common goal. Looking back, I feel ashamed to say, it actually felt a bit novel at the time. Like I would recall that fleeting moment as I went back to my computer within a few days as a nice break from technology. And yes, I would remember that moment, but not because it was quaint or fun, but because even after power was restored, absolutely nothing returned to “normal.” And come to think of it, what is normal now?

First, sit back and watch what happens. Watch your peers, and analyze this. Do you know your audience?

Within the first 2 weeks of March, I researched / stalked various music artist profiles to watch Instagram stories glow like Christmas tree lights and witnessed artists going live on Facebook daily. Yes, daily. My hopeful internal dialogue was excited for those embracing this technology, and their fears to overcome a show with no audience. But my business brain was telling me to watch the market, first. I knew it would flood, exhaust itself and fans along with it. To me, those early performances for many did not seem planned, but were done as a reactionary measure to the worries of the gig market circling the drain and touring dates wading into uncertain waters. Streams, that attempted to seem like a “fun hang” also seemed forced. So, I continued to note what I saw and liked, and what I didn’t connect with. As hard as it was during those first unsteady two weeks of March were, I also tried my best to watch this unfold like a fan and see that side of the equation. What do they want? How do they feel? What works for them? And why? Then, I could plan my moves, pr, shows, and feel more sure of my approach. This was all un-chartered territory, but this was my plan.

Know the difference between using social media for work or pleasure. And be authentic with your message.

Animal videos, memes and finding yourself engaging in a thread that is argumentative or ongoing…. This is the only downside to spending more time on social media. Actually just spending more of your free time, wasting time. And if I was doing more of this – you guessed it – so was everyone else. Personally, I use scheduling software (Hootsuite) for social media and only on rare occasion for time sensitive posts, will I opt for manual posting. I can plan my posts, make sure they are free from typos you can’t correct (Twitter), make sure they contain active links (FB, Twitter) or point to my Bio or Story for an active link (IG) and contain whichever hashtags or handles that are relevant to the post. Yes, this takes longer, but knowing your post is already planned and meaningful. Then, you can browse apps at your leisure, not seeing what an acquaintance has posted and feel obliged to post a similar message. There is nothing wrong with seeing a quote you like and wanting to post it. But if you grab the first one you find on Google and it’s low resolution and posts slightly blurry, who are you impressing? Find the right quote or create one if you are a graphics whiz, then find something meaningful to say about it. Why this quote, why now? A great, planned, meaningful quote or post will have more chance at being commented on or shared. And remember some web images may be copyrighted material. So if you can use your own photos, graphics, or even stock images you are better off.

Musicians are in a better situation to plan online streaming events, Q&A’s and concerts ahead.

While others go live on whim, or to share a new song idea, I decided it was more appealing to plan an experience rather than a moment. Make fans aware of your show so that they will prepare to attend. Going live to perform with no warning only works for the those few artists hat have a bazillion fans ready to skip a meal to see them perform. So, unless you are Coldplay, plan your livestream! If friends and fans click your event because they notified you just went live are they are just as likely to switch off? Yes. Yes, they absolutely will. Although people are working from home or just at home due to the pandemic, they still may be busy. Even though you may argue that fans can watch it later if they miss it live as you plan to keep it on FB or IGTV, will they? Probably not. It’s much more exciting to take part in a live show, not a replay. If you post about it 2-3 weeks prior and allow time for people to move around their schedule. Then they are more likely to watch some or all of your show, and not feel the urge to leave. Now that you have a planned event and have notified your fans, is your event unique? Why attend your show and not someone else’s? If you can offer a performance, narrative or show that is different, fans can only experience the with you. So try things out and see what works for you.

The movie industry pushed back releases, as did major record labels with music artists. But now is time to plan to release more music and content than ever before. Why?

Because you can. Now it’s become “every man for himself”… you really can. Major label artists and Indies are all in the same soup bowl. Attention spans are lower than usual. No, I mean really low. Playlists are booming, videos are going viral, Tik Tok is doing whatever that does. Ok, so I haven’t jumped on that bandwagon yet. I have limited myself to Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook. And for the most part…. I just send out my messages/posts and reply to comments. I actively seek out friends post to support them. All social media is highly addictive and it can difficult to have healthy relationship with it. This must be established now. If all we have in ONLINE… then you should….no… you MUST find that balance. Major label artists still have a team behind them to separate the work portion. But independent artists must draw their own lines and create their own boundaries. Ok. Once this is done, create. Anything. Everything. There is no need to draw out massive marketing efforts to support an album that precedes a tour. Another “nope”. Just plan enough to market to your audience within a 4-8 weeks, raise awareness and get your music uploaded to your digital distributor.

Ok. You have created music. Now the work really begins…

I’ve heard that said from artists and creators on every level. It’s painfully true. It used to be a lot simpler in many ways. The focus and attention would all go into crafting the material, practicing, and performing. Getting over stage fright, building fans and creating ground level buzz with actual people. Now it’s a very different field.
If you don’t have the art -> then what are you doing here?
If you don’t have the fans already -> then what are you doing here?
If you don’t have high social media numbers -> then what are you doing here?

Basically… do ALL the work, then somebody might be interested in what you are doing enough to sign you, manage you, book you etc. But the hardest thing, I have come to terms with over the years – and more recently realized the relevancy of my epiphany – if I have done all these things and built an empire, do I still need a label, mgmt, agent etc??? The short answer is yes. But you must have built enough momentum to warrant these people’s attention. There is so much more risk on their side to sign an artist and spend oodles of money. I understand that now. Going to national Country radio can cost tens of thousands, going to national Pop radio can cost millions. And then there’s marketing and press, and so forth. So unless you’re related to someone extremely famous, then your story, art, branding and foundation must be pretty impressive. So, have you done all of this already? If not, get cracking!

Adaption is the greatest tool any artist ever needs.

The beauty of lockdown is a chance to reflect, build further, or do what I did, which is pivot. If you call yourself a “creative person” or an “entrepreneur” then you must be not only willing to pivot, but constantly seeking out avenues of change.

Being able to adapt is vital to this new climate. Financial pitfalls and struggles cause many artists to panic. Literally and visibly. This was clear to me as I mentioned earlier, as musicians scatter and scamper to go live on socials with no plan. In an effort to look relevant and maintain engagement.

Adaption is a tool to be honed. It means knowing How to change, and When.

How – you are creative, so create. If you need graphics or to make videos and can’t afford to hire someone, learn. It’s a skill you’ll use. Currently I use iMovie (free) and Picmonkey, rather than Photoshop (as it’s cheaper). These are affordable tools. You now have the time to learn a skill. So if there’s something you think is hindering your progress, there is. It is you. I haven’t hired PR in 2 years. It’s extremely expensive. A worthy tool, but …pandemic. So, I started building relationships with those outlets that have previously published articles on me or showcased my story or work. And furthermore, seeking out additional outlets when I have a new release. Let’s do some math. If I seek out 2 x dozen media outlets and hear back from 3 of them ..and land 1 feature… was that worth 5 hours straight of my time? How much would a PR firm charge for that same feature in that media outlet? I’m not saying to cut corners. If you can afford PR, by all means hire the right company and have them roll out a plan. It’s much easier to have a pro working for you on a focused goal. But if there is something you can try, try it. If there is a way to think outside the box, then have a swing at it. You never know what will happen. I used to talk myself out of emailing managers or media as I thought “they won’t respond” or “I’m not famous or important enough”. Really? So you’ve spent years honing a craft, making music and now is the time you’re going to be shy? No. Now is the time to be brave and do the thing, others won’t. Be smart, write your own script and be fearless.

When – now is the perfect time to truly tackle being adaptive. So if you have new music or art to release and are waiting til this pandemic is over…. you might want to re-think that plan. Make a plan now. Be aware that in this online environment what you release has to be not only very high quality, but the verbiage you use should be engaging. The photos and graphics you use should be visually stimulating. People read with their eyes, but they also listen with their eyes. If there is a picture to see while listening to a song… great. If there’s a video to watch while listening to a song….even better.

Fear not, this is a learning curve for everyone.

Let’s discuss one last thing. The elephant in the room, as it were. It’s anxiety. Wait it’s Anxiety with a capital A. Little changes in life are hard to grasp. Big changes cause most people – myself included – to emotionally grind to a halt. Big changes to daily routine can be incredibly disruptive emotionally. Example. What happens if you don’t feed your dog or cat at the regular time? This is the same x 1000. Patterns have changed, possibly forever, therefore we are disrupted on multiple levels. Everything from social interactions being curbed, eating or sleeping habits changing, exercise and more. These day to day mundane activities give us a sense of normalcy that we may never get back. I know what was hard to read. I mean, this is hard to read “erevry thnig wLL be arlhgt”, but it’s true. If you can see past the obstacles, every thing will be alright. You have to look past the confusing stuff, the sense of isolation and fear of the unknown and realize one simple truth, everybody is going through this. We are all alone, but together. If you can manage your new day-to-day existence and curb anxiety, you’ll be fine. Creative people seem to have the ability to convince themselves that one piece of art can change the world. And it’s true. It can. So if you think your work is special, be brave. Take one day at time and one task at a time. If you are brave and persistent, you can literally accomplish anything you set your mind to. When everyone else has become tired or given up, if you are still fighting for your art to be heard or seen. You can be the last one standing. Or sitting. After all, we are all wearing sweat pants.

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