Listenership, fandom, ticket purchases, festivals, big events, and the excitement around the Texas/Red scene continue to grow inside the region and beyond! Non-Texas/Red Dirt festivals continue to add more of our artists to their bills and the ceiling for our acts continues to be raised. While multi-state runs have been the norm for a lot of our headliners it’s now becoming the norm for mid-tier acts as well. By analyzing Spotify data for the last few years and continually monitoring where our website clicks are coming from, I have no doubt there is a movement going on. People are looking for something different from what’s being played on mainstream country radio, and we’re providing them with a superior alternative. Needless to say, it’s a great time for Texas/Red Dirt music and the opportunities for artists will likely continue to grow…however I think there are some hard truths worth taking a look at about making it as an artist in our scene. For many, these won’t be anything new and my point is not to start your day off with negativity; but I’m a firm believer that having an honest and in-depth picture of a business landscape is the best way to figure out how to navigate it. I want this scene and it’s artists to be as successful as possible, and I think understating the realities of a situation is the best way to prepare for it and find success within it.
So here are a few honest tips, suggestions, insights and truths about the Texas/Red Dirt Scene, I think every new and/or up-and-coming artists should take into consideration.
1. It’s going to take years, hundreds of shows and at least two projects before you make a splash. It’s going to take longer than you expect to get to the level you want to be at. It always does. It’s a slow and steady grind. It’s a marathon and sometimes it’s a sprint AND a marathon. Patience and persistence while keeping the passion is key. The road to success is a long one full of hills, but if you’re willing to learn and grow along the way, the knowledge and experience (and memories) are invaluable. I think there might be a bit of a misconception that some of the newer acts on the scene that are doing really well, didn’t have to earn it like the acts before them and let me tell you, you’re wrong. For everything that’s been made easier by social media and streaming, there’s something that’s been made harder. It’s not easier than it used to be, it’s just different. While other scenes and industry may be able to rely on something going viral to catapult it into instant success, that’s not the way our scene works. Our scene isn’t filled with one-off hitmakers; it’s full of journeymen who are in it for the long haul. Our artists survive off of the bulk of the catalog, not just the hits and there’s no shortcut to that.
2. Constant touring is a must. You have to get out there and play as many shows as possible if you want to build a following in multiple areas. Playing 2 or 3 times a month isn’t going to cut it, but that doesn’t mean you should just take any gig. You have to be strategic. You have 3 types of gigs: ones that help you build a market, ones you can make money off of, and ones that build markets and pay well. The gigs that pay well and help you build markets are obviously no-brainers to take; it’s finding the balance between the other two that’s the key. I know those 3X45’s Wednesday night acoustic gigs for a half-empty room get old pretty quickly, but finding one that pays a couple hundred bucks with no out-of-pocket expenses, is a good way to subsidize those market building gigs that don’t pay much. So here’s what I suggest: use the weekdays to build your revenue stream and use the weekends to build your markets. Make money during the week and make fans during the weekend and relish the gigs that allow you to do both. If the gig doesn’t do either, don’t take it. While the formula is easy, executing it is not. You have to scrounge, ask, email, call, build relationships, and network and you have to do it continually.
3. It’s a buyer’s market. There’s a surplus of aspiring artists and a limited number of gigging opportunities. The market favors the buyer, not the seller. The person who’s providing the opportunity has the leverage. If you don’t want to take their offer, there are a hundred other bands that will. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it goes when you have an oversaturated stream of supply. You can not like it all you want, but it doesn’t change the economics. I’m not saying to accept any terms that are offered, ask for what you think is fair, just realize it’s a big uphill battle. Make peace with it and use it as motivation to push into the next tier. The good news, once you’re packing rooms, you have the leverage. There become multiple buyers, and therefore more of a seller’s market. You get to pick and choose and have more power in dictating the terms.
4. You’re worth what the door says your worth. Here’s a simple way to figure out if a gig is worth it: ask yourself how many people are coming to this show specifically to come to see you. Multiply that by the ticket price and then by 80%. If the offer is more than the estimated number then it’s a more than fair offer. If the offer is less, then ask for 80% of the door.
5. Tickets sales are the most important number. Social media followings, blog articles, streams, radio spins, etc… mean little if nobody is willing to pay to come to see your show. Butts in seats is what matters. No one breaks you in this scene except the fans. It doesn’t matter who you’re working with, who’s talking about you, or who’s playing you if the fans don’t come out.
6. Drama doesn’t need to be public. Miscommunications and misunderstandings happen. Things change at the last minute. Band members fight. Not everything works out and shit happens. Opinions are given and business decisions are made that may not be to your liking, but think long and hard before you publicly vent about a venue, station, blog, festival, former band member, someone in the industry or another band. I’m not saying to let someone just screw you over, I’m saying just to handle it privately. Public drama is not a good look.
7. There are a couple hundred bands trying to make it in this scene all one time. The inbox and cell phone of talent buyers, booking agents, management, stations, blogs, playlist curators, etc…get pounded. You’re not going to receive a reply to a big portion of your correspondence. It’s not personal. It’s not meant to be disrespectful. There’s nothing wrong with being persistent either (just don’t be pushy). The vast majority of what you’re seeing gets read. I promise. The lack of reply is just someone’s way of saying “I don’t have an immediate yes to your request or an immediate answer to inquiry”. The good news is, almost everything is circumstantial and temporary. A “no” today could be a “yes” tomorrow. A “no” to this single could be a “yes” to the next one. A “no” from this venue could be a “yes” from the same one next month.
8. You can create a healthy tour schedule and buzz on your own. We live in the social media and music streaming era. You can DIY so much these days; that includes creating a buzz and a decent tour schedule. We are scene full of not only independent musicians, but also independent venues. It’s tough and you’re going to have a high rejection rate, but there are plenty of decent venues you can get in to in the region without a booking agent if you’re willing to continually try. I’ll be the first to tell you that after a certain point it becomes really tough to get into bigger, better and more places without a booking agent, but you can certainly set a decent touring foundation on your own. I know it’s possible, because I see, and have seen, plenty of artists do it. Use your socials, go network, put yourself out there, play what you can, build your Spotify following and use radio to build your markets outside of your home market.
9. It’s 10 times harder for female artists to break through. I think the structure of the scene and music industry, in general, is changing in a way that’s going to open up the pathways though. It’s becoming direct to consumer, fan-dominated, consumption-based industry which is paving the way for organic and grass-roots fan base building almost exclusively. While there will certainly be some old schoolers with outdated mid sets, for the most part, the success of artists in our scene is now being controlled by the fans. If you make good music that people want to come out and see live, the obstacles preventing that from happening I believe will continue to dissipate. I’m not saying it’s not still going to be harder, happen as quickly as it should, or that there are some things that aren’t still going to be unfair for female artists, but I think things are now starting to trend in the right direction.
10. There are great non-traditional gigs and non-traditional opportunities to land gigs that many artists overlook. Some of the best fan building gigs for up-and-comers are not from venues and festivals. They’re house concerts, backyard parties, sorority/fraternity parties, campfire jam sessions at LJT, hotel room guitar circles at Steamboat, reputable songwriter competitions and battle of the bands. These avenues get overlooked, but a lot of times these have a higher fan conversion rate and can lead to a gig or two at a related venue or festival. Ask fraternities and sororities if you can come to play a few songs at their meetings and then let them know you’d love to play for them for any parties (formal or informal) during the semester. Go hang out at the venue you want to play in and meet people (especially if you can find a big group of people who came together), tell them you’re a musician and that you’re looking to play a house concert or backyard party. Take any opportunity at any big music event that allows you to pass around the guitar. Find a few competitions with other musicians on the rise and network with those people. See if you can trade shows: you come to do a show with me in my home market and I’ll do one with you in yours. There are a lot of shows that pay little or nothing, if you’re going to do one, make it one that’s likely an investment; and don’t overlook it because it’s not a traditional avenue.
11. You need an album. As I’ve stated earlier, touring is what puts you on the path to success, and most sets you will play are going to be 45-90 minutes. It’s hard to build a significant touring base if you only have 20 minutes’ worth of original songs people know, or can get to know after they see you live. I understand that there are a lot of good reasons to make your initial release effort an EP, but the next one needs to be a full-length album, and if you’ve gained any traction off of the debut EP, the album needs to drop in the next 9-15 months. Now, don’t just put out an album, to put one out. Every song on there needs to be at least decent. We’re in the playlist era, if songs aren’t good, people will just skip over them. A good full-length album though is the foundation of any successful artist in this scene because knowing the songs makes the experience of the live show that much better for fans, which in turn leads to more successful touring.
12. You have to put out new music more often than ever before and it’s going to provide less of a financial return. You have to stay in front of the listener these days. The days of going 2+ years between new music releases are over. There’s just too much quality content out there for listeners to consume. If you wait too long, you jeopardize losing your momentum and fans leaving you behind. However, it’s obviously tougher to make money off your releases, as purchasing gives way to streaming, so you need to always have a financial plan about your next project. There’s definitely some merit to stretching out the release process by releasing it as two or three EP’s and releasing something that combines them all or releasing a lead single 4 months out from the drop, another one 2 months out, and another 1 month out. Then dropping the album. Also, just because it’s your debut EP or album, doesn’t mean you can’t drop a lead single or a “grat track” or two.
13. In 2019 you must have both: a strong recorded catalog and a good live show. Bands used to be able to get away with just having one of those things; those days are over. A supplier surplus almost always raises quality. There are too many bands now that have great albums and killer live shows, to think one might be able to compensate for the other – at least for a significant amount of time. You need a good product; which means you need to record at a quality studio with a quality producer and have some quality songs. You don’t need to spend a fortune though either. There are plenty of studios and producers in our scene that are budget-friendly, yet put out a quality product. Your band needs to practice… a lot. You need to be tight. You need to have your transitions down. You need to be able to talk, engage the crowd, and have banter with the audience. You need to have some well thought out covers. I also encourage everyone to have a vocal coach. Continuing to improve your voice is one of the best investments you can make. But also remembers these things take time. You don’t have to have the complete package at the beginning (and is unreasonable to think you will have it), but you’ll need it if you’re eventually going to break through.
14, If you haven’t hopped on the Spotify train, you’re behind. With the gap social media is leaving behind in regards to making your fan base aware of your new music releases and new music discovery, Spotify is picking up the slack. The more people who follow you, stream your music, and save your tracks the more of a potential impact your next release can make.
15. Social media has never been more volatile, unpredictable, unreliable, and tiresome. Yet, it still provides a necessary and lucrative connection to your fans and for the most parts still has its moments. You have to do it. The return on free posts is just too valuable. Don’t make it all promotional, but don’t make it too personal either. Promoted/sponsored posts are not nearly as effective as they used to be, but can still offer a cost-effective way to reach your fan base(not sure how much longer this will be the case though). Facebook still provides the best return, but who knows if Facebook will even matter by the end of the year. Be smart about the money you spend on social media advertising, it has very little residual effect these days. Instagram and Twitter are obviously the place to be but don’t fool yourself, they’re never going to come close to offering what Facebook used to offer as far as reach, impact, and sharability. Unfortunately, nothing new seems to be on the rise either. It’s going to be interesting, to say the least
16. You’re going to put your body through hell. You’re going to eat fast food, gas station snacks and bar food a lot, you’re going to get little sleep, you’re not going to get a lot of exercise, and you’re probably going to party while you’re on the road. Take care of yourself as much as possible. Try to take nights off from partying, bring your own meals, rest as much as you can while you’re off etc…
17. You need to do your homework before hiring someone. There are some great producers in this scene and there are some that not. There are some great radio promoters and there are some that are not. There are some great publicists and there are some that are not. Ask around and do your due diligence.
18. Once you have a little success, leaches, backstage wannabes, and “friends” will come out of the woodwork. Always remember the people who were there before the success and the people who didn’t show up until afterward.
19. You need to find your OWN sound. Almost everyone learns music through imitation, so more than likely the first songs you write will sound like a copy of someone else’s. That’s fine. But you have to make sure you push beyond that and find YOUR sound. Don’t TRY to sound like someone else. It’s 2019 there’s room for all kinds of a different signature sound if it’s lyric-centric, played with real instruments, and authentic.
20. A partner helps ALOT. It’s hard to do this on your own. If you have someone who has just as much skin in the game, like a band member or manager also making sure everything is on track and organized it makes it so much easier. Another person bringing ideas to the table, holding you and other members accountable, networking, etc… is a huge advantage.
21. There is no machine, power structure, or blackballing entity in the scene. Every once in a while I hear something about the “powers that be” of the Texas/Red Dirt scene; but I’m here to tell you that they/it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that some sort of gate-keeping power structure didn’t exist at one point, because we’ve only had the ability to really see behind the scenes at a significant level for a couple of years, but in 2019 I can say undoubtedly nothing like that exists. Sure there are some powerful talent buyers, station PD’s, booking agencies, management companies, radio promoters, etc… and of course there are times when they talk, work together, brainstorm, and exchange ideas, but the idea of them being able to erect strong barriers to entry for incoming artists is not feasible these days. Just look at the top-tier acts. They all have different managers, booking agents, radio promoters, publicists, and have differing radio play and touring schedules. Almost all of the venues and festivals are separate entities. Almost all of the stations have different people deciding what Texas/Red Dirt tunes to play. Look at the acts that have broken through in the last few years (Koe Wetzel, Parker McCollum, Shane Smith and the Saints, Flatland Cavalry, Read Southall etc…). All of them have taken different routes to get to the next level. I’m not saying that bands don’t get a reputation and that word doesn’t spread around the industry, but no one is powerful enough, or dumb enough to try to, control who breaks through and who doesn’t.
22. Networking and building relationships are a must. A cold call or unsolicited email to a venue, booking agency, festival, blog etc…usually blends in the with all of the rest. The best advantage you can have is already having a connection in place or somebody that can refer you. Get out there and network, shake hands and strike up a conversation.
23. You can work months or years trying to get into a venue but can lose it in just a few minutes by acting unprofessional. I know everyone at the show is there to have a good time, but if you’re hanging out, the opening act that night or it’s one of the first times you’re headlining a place, don’t be an ass. That should go for anyone at any time at any point in their career, but it’s especially true for artists on the rise. Show up on time. Treat the sound guy, bartenders, the other acts, and anyone else who is working, with respect. Don’t count heads (at least not in an obvious way). Hang out afterward. If you or somebody from your band can’t handle their alcohol, don’t drink. If you’re trying to get your foot in the door of a venue, or recently have, don’t do anything stupid to lose it.
24. 90% of it is the music. You can do everything else right, but if the music isn’t there, your chances of success are slim to none. In fact, you can do a lot of things wrong, but if the music is there, there’s a good chance you can still skate by. Great music speaks for itself and opens its own doors.
25. Don’t take this scene for granted. The fact that we have an industry, community,, and infrastructure that can support so many music acts is a blessing. There are tons of people in other states that would kill for the ability to put 100 dates on their calendar without having to leave their state. Make sure you appreciate what we have here. It’s special.
I know this may present your task at hand as a trying one, but if you are fortunate enough to make a career in this scene, it’s one of the best jobs you can ever have! Good luck to you and may 2019 be a great one!
Music addict, a sucker for heartbreak songs, and avid Houston sports fan! I’am also the Editor-in-Chief of Texas Music Pickers.