Last weekend, I went to a show at a local pizza and music venue.
The musician was Daniel Champagne – I'd never actually listened to his music before, but a friend of mine had extra tickets and invited Mallory and me to join her.
Pizza? Live music? I'm in.
So before the show, I listened to some of his music on Spotify. He's a Verified Artist with nearly 40K monthly listeners and six albums since 2011.
Pretty legit, right??
Moments after Daniel took the stage, we were mesmerized. And that's saying a lot for a solo singer-songwriter!
He was an incredible performer. Not only does he have a great voice with great control, but while he's playing, he's simultaneously playing percussion on the guitar as well!
It's a totally bizarre and amazing way to play the instrument that I've only seen a few times before.
Check it out in this video from his 2015 Audiotree Live performance:
Now, when I listened to his music on Spotify, I couldn't fully appreciate what I was hearing. It would be reasonable for me to believe I was hearing two guitarists AND a percussionist – not one man playing one instrument!
Seeing him perform live brought a much deeper appreciation to his music for me. And this happens to me all the time – I didn't like the Avett Brothers until Mallory took me to see them live. This week I saw Andrew McMahon (aka Something Corporate aka Jack's Mannequin) and suddenly I'm listening to Jack's Mannequin at the gym.
It's one of the biggest reasons I love Song Exploder too (as I told Hrishikesh in our interview):
When you hear the process that went into making something...or you see the process of making something...you appreciate it at a much deeper level.
At the end of Daniel's set, he thanked us for coming to see the show and pre-emptively told us that he would be back in Columbus about a year from now. Then he invited the crowd to come over to the merch table to meet him (or even play his guitar)!
So we walked over to say hello.
And on the merch table sat a clipboard with a paper sheet to signup for his mailing list.
I love going to see live performances – specifically music and comedy. Aside from the pure entertainment value, there is a lot to learn from musicians and comedians – they are the original creators!
Musicians and comedians were trying to build audiences long before we were – and they were doing it on hard mode. Only recently were there discovery tools like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube – even Spotify!
So how did they do it?
They hit the road. They went on tour. Most of them ALL year!
Record an album, tour that album, write a new album while you're on tour, record that new album, and start touring all over again.
They literally did what Daniel Champagne is doing to this day – they went city to city, sharing their art in small rooms of people, hustling to capture contact information so they can communicate with their converted fans, and then hoped those people would come back the next time they came to play in town.
Brick by brick, bird by bird, they built a loyal following that got a little bigger all the time. Not in a period of days, weeks, or even months – we're talking about YEARS of small, incremental growth.
There was almost no way of going viral or capturing attention quickly until the 2000s – not unless they were chosen by labels, Comedy Central, HBO, or put on the radio.
No, for most musicians and comedians, it was an arduous process of constantly moving to where the audience was and basically auditioning for their fandom night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year.
Why should creators today expect anything different?
Instead of comparing ourselves to the very visible, viral success stories – what if we compared ourselves to the performers who came before us?
We've grown our new YouTube channel to about 800 subscribers in our first five weeks. Most of the time, I look at that number and then flip over to the channels of other video podcasters who have thousands even HUNDREDS of thousands of subscribers with less production value.
It feels terrible.
But then I think about the fact that thousands of people have now been exposed to the podcast because of the organic discovery of YouTube.
That type of discovery never happened in audio only – it took many many months to have that reach in audio.
I look at my email list with ~14,000 subscribers and feel proud until I see Tweets like this:
It feels terrible.
Then I remember that when I switched to ConvertKit in August 2020, I had 1,800 subscribers.
Tiago had about 20,000.
That means he's had about 4x growth over the last two years...
And I've had about 8x growth.
Most of us are hoping to get to a point of exponential growth – a place where the magic of compounding takes over. And we think that one piece of content, one viral hit will get us there.
But I think the path looks much more like that of comedians and musicians.
I think about this clip from Comedian a lot:
Most days you're on the road grinding it out. You're playing for a small room that hardly feels like it's worth the time, trouble, and price of gas.
Trust me, I've done my share of podcast interviews that probably fell on deaf ears.
But that's the job.
We do it because we can't help but do THIS. It's a compulsion.
It's not just that you have to ladder up from small rooms to bigger rooms. But the small rooms are where you actually get GOOD at this. It's where you test your material and iterate on it until you have a message that resonates.
Hitting the road as a creator can take a lot of forms:
- Podcast interviews
- YouTube channels
- Hanging out in communities
These can have a bigger impact than you'd expect! I've picked up nearly 1,000 subscribers over the last couple of years through Creative Mornings Virtual FieldTrips.
I spoke with a guy this week who picked up 500+ subscribers by being the #1 product of the day on Product Hunt.
The same guy picked up nearly 1,500 subscribers by hosting a text-based AMA on Hacker News.
No one picked him to play those stages. Those stages are an open mic that's open to the public all day, every day.
They may not have the same impact as being featured on a major blog, podcast, or channel...but you have to build toward getting on those big stages.
Don't get me wrong – I want to get on the big stages now.
I think I'm ready.
...but maybe I'm not.
Maybe the big stages will open up when I actually am ready.
Maybe I'd do fine, but I'd do even better if I had some more patience.
Until then, I'm hitting the road and playing the small venues. I'm going to keep honing my message and putting my clipboard out on the merch table.
Maybe you should hit the road too.
It only takes one person to change your luck. And even the small venues are full of people who can become raving fans.