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Tips, Tricks and Road Stories


When Perception Becomes Reality

September 21, 2012; Zack Starikov

When I first started in the music industry, I heard a story of how Mercury Records rented out a stadium and filmed a music video for Bon Jovi playing to a packed stadium crowd to break their new single off the album “Slippery When Whet.” Funny thing about this was that at that point Bon Jovi was still touring in a van and trailer, playing in mid-level clubs. The label rented a stadium and brought in a crowd for the video shoot. The crowd was nowhere close to a crowd that could fill a stadium. There were probably only a few hundred people for the video shoot. But they were able to make it seem as if it was a packed stadium. Bon Jovi was made to look bigger than the band actually was and hype from the video took them to the next level. People saw the video and assumed there was this already famous and hugely popular rock band that they hadn’t heard about and yet everyone else already knew and supported.

People naturally want to be part of something perceived to be big and special. We crave to be accepted. We care about being popular and we go out of our way to be part of the “in crowd.” The plan behind breaking Bon Jovi was so brilliant that I decided to follow this same model to break my unsigned band. Just like the model worked for bringing Bon Jovi to the next level it worked for my unsigned band. By making my own band seem bigger than we actually were led to us becoming an established, international touring band. We made people who had not heard about us before want to be involved with our band. They wanted to be involved not just because they liked the music and us (the guys in the band) as individuals. These people who supported the band assumed we were already becoming popular and wanted to be part of what they thought would be something big that they could be a part of.

What happens is that so many people start believing that because you played this festival or that festival with other bands they heard and love. Even though you played a tiny side stage to maybe 20 people at this popular festival, the photo that people saw was a photo of the band playing to what looked like a huge crowd. Amazing what the right angle can do. Makes you wonder what the real reason was for not allowing personal photography at venues back in the days when cell phones were not allowed. Was it because the labels didn’t want people to see what was behind the curtain of the acts they were developing? Was it because the labels wanted to be in full control of the way they wanted the bands they were breaking to be perceived?

The band I was in performed at tons of popular festivals. CMJ, NXNE, CMW, Bamboozle, Warped Tour, you name it. I played side stages, main stages, up and coming stage. I got to share the stage with well-known acts as an opener only to roll through the same town and play the same stage as a headliner a few months later. Here is what a lot of people don’t seem to grasp though. When you are the opening act there are about 60 – 200 people in the crowd who get there early to make sure they have a spot up front for the band they purchased tickets to see, which 99% of the time is the headliner. So when you are the opening act you are not performing in front of a 1000 people that the headliner will play to when they take the stage. You as the opener will be playing to 100 people if you are lucky. This of course refers to mid level touring when baby bands are being developed.
 If you are good and your music is good then the people that caught your performance at the show will start supporting you and will wonder why you had no one watching. They will go as far as to tell their friends about you which is the best marketing you can get. You’ll also have photos of your band playing a good size professional stage and people would have heard the band’s name when reading about various tours coming through town. Getting to the next level in the music industry is not an easy task. Even though it might seem that a lot of these bands become famous over night I can assure you there is a lot of hard work and time that went into breaking those bands.

Look at what was in the news recently about how President Obama and Lady Gaga’s twitter follower numbers are not real. These fake twitter followers were made in order to add to the popularity and the hype. The music industry was always about smoke and mirrors. It wasn’t until new technologies that the curtain slowly began to fall. With my band we made sure to be as professional as possible. We literally did what labels did for bands. We had a professional recording made with a well know producer. We had nice gear that was in road cases with our band’s logos. Instead of buying 3 pairs of jeans I went and bought one pair of really expensive nice jeans. People notice the little things. What really made my band stand out was that we stayed on the road and kept playing even though we literally only made enough money to cover expenses and buy food. We got rid of our apartments, cars, furniture and lived out of a van and trailer. People had no idea that we had no place to live other than our van and trailer. People had no idea that when we went home we stayed with family, friends or girlfriends. They all assumed because we kept touring we were making lots of money. They assumed we were riding in limos and staying at five star hotels. They assumed that back home we were living in fancy apartments. By touring and playing non-stop we became one of the tightest bands in the industry. We really developed our skills. This led to us being able to win over fans easily and helped build our fanbase. The promoters and folks in the music industry saw that our fanbase was developing well and this lead to bigger shows with bigger crowds to TV and radio play, which eventually led to licensing of the songs and sponsors who gave us money so we could stay at those nice hotels.

Perception will help you get the attention that you need to get to that next level. Perception will draw more people in to check out your band.

People want to be part of something bigger and something special. It’s just how we are human beings are designed. Once you get the peoples’ attention you have to keep it. Before you even try to get the attention of the people your first vital step should be to practice and make sure you are good. The product is everything! You can use smoke and mirrors to build your hype but once all eyes and ears are directed at you, make sure your product is top quality. If you are looking to be on mainstream radio you better make sure your recording sounds of the same quality as the songs on the radio. Also people don’t want to see average Joe up on stage. People didn’t want to see be Kurt Cobain or Johnny Cash cause those guys were average guys. People wanted to be those guys because those guys were cool. They were rockstars. If you want to be perceived as a rockstar you better dress the part.

I’ve seen guys buy three cheap guitars just so they can look cool on stage while switching from one guitar to another. Your instrument is a big part of your sound. Remember this and don’t forget it. You want to sound good on stage live? Then instead of buying three guitars that might look cool and only cost $600 each maybe you spend $1800 on one nice guitar that sounds amazing. I’m not saying buy an expensive instrument to sound good. Just don’t be lazy and do the research. I’ve seen guys go and buy a beat up guitar for $400 that sounded better than a $2000 guitar through any amp. Those guys searched and played god knows how many guitars to find that one perfect one. And even if you are unsigned and local, do yourself and the band a favor and show up to the gig in a van and trailer even if you have to rent one. When I started a new band our first show was opening up for a signed established mid level band. We dressed up like rockstars and we showed up to our first ever show as this new band in a van and trailer. We unloaded our gear, which was all in road cases and tagged with our logos. We were polite to all the staff and followed all the club’s rules. The sound guy thought we were the out of town headliner. We dressed the part, we had the gear and we showed up in a van and trailer. We were being asked by kids to take a photo with them and selling merchandise before we even hit the stage. We had kids who wanted to meet us even though they had no idea who we were. We were already rockstars to them just by perception.

Zack Starikov is currently managing The Blackboard Nails:

You can contact him at:

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