I’ve never been a fan of social media and marketing in general, but after realizing that no one was going to call me up unless they knew I existed, I decided to consult some of my friends in the industry to hear how they got onto the map. Here are some wisdoms from an elusive composer, an introverted sculptor, and an empathic songwriter.
GARY THOMAS - guitarist, soundscaper, composer
My first stop took me all the way to Simon’s Town, to a tiny private beach hidden from view from the road. There I found the elusive, but highly successful Gary Thomas hopping around in the waves. Gary was busy taking pictures of the turquoise breakers, with an old, cracked Samsung, and loving it. After trying to match his photographic enthusiasm and getting soaked (luckily I had a Gopro, hehe), we retreated to the sunny rocks and had a chat about social media.
The first myth Gary busted was that social media only works for certain personality types. Many introverts and shy individuals are uncomfortable attracting attention to themselves, even online. This idea that we need to shout louder than our virtual neighbours is a daunting task for any quiet-minded human, and has definitely put off numerous artists in the industry.
However, when I checked out Gary’s online presence, as well as his methods of creating content (being on the beach), all I saw was a calm, quiet man going about his own business, doing exactly what he wants to do. He lives a life of relaxed exploration, spending time each day either on the beach or on the mountain, or both. The fact that he is capturing some content whilst doing this, is just a tiny addition, and takes up a whopping 10 minutes of his day.
Gary’s content is consistent, peaceful and truthful. When you’re sharing what you want to share, speaking your own words, and making this whole process a part of your daily routine, you end up not having to shout at all. The mere fact that followers know who you are, know that you exist, and can see that you are consistently going about your business (passion), is all they need to see. Just being you, on their radar, every day. Even if being you means living in the mountain and hopping around in the ocean :)
“But it’s not real!”, I complained. Myth no 2. Putting content out into the world, showing only what I want them to see, living in a virtual space, getting sucked into my cellphone screen, forgetting that I exist (yes I know my mind spins out sometimes) - it’s all fake, it’s not real! And then I hear the best reply ever: “Do you know what is real? The phone ringing. The bills getting paid.” Haha! This made me reflect quietly for a while. Was I really that person, the girl who wants to get paid doing what she loves, but not being willing to put in the work?
Of course we musicians also work hard. I often spend hours, days and months on end perfecting a composition or production. We practice our instruments. We work on weekends. We lie awake at night planning the next song or gig, getting it just right. We carry gear around. We’ve dedicated our lives to this one thing. But to be honest, sometimes I literally would rather be a toilet cleaner than engage in social media.
Gary looked at me with a knowing smile, and said “You know, we have amazing lives [referring to the fact that we could be sitting on a beach in the middle of the day], but we have to do some work.” Another laugh, although I think I wanted to cry as well. The truth was painful. I had been sidestepping social media my whole life, and it wasn’t helping my career. For me, this is the hardest part of my job, and I’ve been expecting it to just take care of itself. Time to make it happen. But maybe I could approach it in a fun way, incorporating my other passions as well. Maybe, just maybe, I could learn to love this online process too :)
Check out Gary online:
GAELEN PINNOCK - graphic designer, sculptor
A few days later saw me meandering up India Venster with my dear friend Gaelen Pinnock. Although we’re both enthusiastic hikers, we ended up stopping, sitting and drinking tea many times on the steep journey. Priorities. We talked and philosophized about work, social media and sticking it out long enough to get noticed.
Gaelen is a highly successful graphic designer and artist. I mean, he literally has too much work. After studying architecture, and working for a firm for a while, he started freelancing as a designer, doing odd jobs for people in the industry. This started a long, growing career which he has stuck to for almost 20 years. (I’m like ok I’ll stop complaining). And here’s the point I want to make - his work does not come from social media, but solely from referrals.
He had some very valuable advice regarding doing his very first job [graphic design] for a client. “I gave that first job my everything, going over and above what they wanted. They loved it.” He still has the same client, and gets continuous work from them. Furthermore, they have referred him to many others. Gaelen makes sure his work is of the highest standard (this seems obvious but I don’t think everyone lives by this rule), so that his clients keep coming back.
Put yourself in a client’s shoes. You need a job done. It needs to be very good and probably has a tight deadline. Do you peruse the online platforms, hoping for a name to pop out at you? Maybe. I think I’d go with someone I already know, who has done the job for me before, or who I know has done the same job somewhere else.
Gaelen also separates his “commercial work” from his artistic persona. I found this an interesting method of understanding your audience and thus managing them better. His graphic design business is actually called Polygram, and this is where he works on his designs, meets with clients, sends invoices from, etc. His artist name, Gaelen Pinnock, is reserved for art galleries, collectors, and clients of a different nature. Sometimes the two overlap advantageously, but for the most part it simplifies work, time management and online presence to have these separated.
I’d like to reiterate the fact that Gaelen has been in the industry for 19 years. Every time I have a meltdown, threatening to upend my career by 180 degrees (engineering, nature conservation, toilet cleaning), he calmly reminds me that I’ve been at it for 5 years. And even though that sounds like 5 years too many, he’s right. You need to keep at it, and keep at it, until you get that first proper job or lead or opportunity. And of course it will still be tough (keeping clients happy is another skill altogether), but I think at least it will feel like you’re doing the right thing.
After one of these meltdowns I actually wrote a song inspired by Gaelen’s advice, and about not giving up. It’s called “Albatros”. I borrowed the melody line from "Not my Father's Son" from the Kinky Boots musical, but the lyrics and arrangement is my own.
Find Gaelen online:
ALANNA JOY WELLS - singer/songwriter
Alanna and I didn’t go for a hike or a swim, but we had a great conversation over the phone sharing social media stories, laughing at the daunting tasks of being your own boss and the general uphill battle of the music industry.
Alanna’s career began in true singer/songwriter style - with busking. She started performing music at open mic nights in 2016, went on to busk at the Waterfront, and quickly realized she needed to be on social media as well. After a few years of toughing it out solo in restaurants, bars and wine farms, she decided to form a Folk Rock band and share her music in this way. They have performed at markets, picnic shows and live rock venues such as Mercury, but Alanna still sometimes performs solo when the opportunity arises. (We met at the Barleycorn songwriters competition).
At the beginning of her career Alanna actually got many of her work through busking. She would get approached by soon to be wed couples, who fell in love with her style and music, eager to have her perform on their special day. Whilst she undoubtedly stayed active on her online platforms, her clients were people that had just seen her perform - a powerful sales tool.
Her online platforms, however, were working as well. Alanna’s approach is simple: be authentic. Don’t just post a pic and say “hey guys, here’s the next gig”. She tries to engage her audience in an entertaining, quirky way (I mean, if you’re being yourself, this isn’t hard), because she believes everyone is a little bit weird and deserves to live out their true self, in real life or online.
This didn't happen overnight however. For a while she presented herself in a certain way, not being completely real online, for fear of being judged. "A lot of overthinking went into it and it was quite draining" she remembers. "But when we released a single that was essentially about opening up about mental health, I realized that I had to bring the same sincerity I hope my songs have, to my online presence. I needed to be able to explain my songs and talk about these topics without overthinking and filtering myself. That's when I really started to enjoy engaging on social media".
Being unfiltered is a powerful point of departure. Alanna apparently uses those golden few minutes after waking up to write most of her posts, because she feels her most true self. “I wake up, and write whatever comes to mind, before I get a chance to think about it too much. Then I save it and post it later”. Kind of like using the subconscious a bit to help out ;)
Having presence online is a powerful tool (I know I keep saying “powerful tool”, but it’s working to a point, I promise). This was made evident during our recent lockdown. Fans want to see that you exist, and that you exist consistently. Gone are the days where you need a MTV style music video for every song. Now you just need to show up on people’s radars. Sometimes daily, sometimes weekly. Famous music videos are being filmed on cellphones, in portrait mode, for Pete’s sake!
We agreed that social media has its dark side too. And with cellphones being supercomputers, you can just stare at that thing the whole day. (Being both productive and non-productive). I read a line somewhere about a famous artist who felt anxious when he performed, because it was the only time he was away from his phone and couldn’t “engage” with his fans online. Bringing me to my last point and another quote (can’t remember the author): “Technology is a powerful tool, but a dangerous master”.
Whether you engage with your fans online, have a solid client base built up over the years, or if your phone just can’t stop ringing cause you’re so awesome - the online world is our present, and it is our future. If you can make it your friend, and your tool, you can reach more people from the comfort of your couch than ever before. Which is great if you you’re like me and love a good comfy couch.
However, the most authentic online strategy still won’t come close to the effect you can have in real life. When a future client sees you perform, or meets you and likes your personality there and then. Relationships like these are forged over time, with trust and respect, and therefore they will stay strong, and always return. It is a long and lonely road, but pays off in the end.
There are days when I ask myself why. Why did I study music? Why not something where I can disappear into a job I love without having to sell my art to the world? The reality is, this is the world I find myself in. Wishing for something else is not getting me closer to my dreams. If I can make it work for me, not against me, I might have a chance. And I’m not alone. There are tons of artists out there who struggle with the online medium, but they have decided to push through that challenge, and have come out the other end.