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The Business of Finding an Audience

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While making good pop music of the electro-influenced variety might lead one to think that My Dear Disco are first-and-foremost a studio band, the truth is that much of their success has come as a live act. Before I’d ever downloaded their album on eMusic (they also sell it at their shows, on iTunes, and give it away for free on their site, I’d spent a year hearing what felt like an endless stream of enthusiastic plugs for the group from friends who’d unintentionally seen them live somewhere and had gotten themselves hooked. I spoke with many people who enjoyed Dancethink LP, as well as the remix work the group has done for internationally-sold dance-compilations, but the awe-filled way people talked about their live-set was startling for a group that plays dance-pop at local venues often more associated with folk acts and jam bands.

This sort of reaction has led to many of the lucky breaks that I mentioned earlier. Their ability to gain exposure outside of Ann Arbor, for example, got a big head-start when their very first shows at the town’s nationally known Blind Pig venue sold out thanks to word-of-mouth. The same sort of thing is still happening, as seen at a show in Brooklyn a few months ago that led to two huge opportunities for the band. An employee of BMI was so impressed by their set that he immediately offered to put them forth for the selection process that eventually led to their upcoming set at BMI’s Lollapalooza stage. They also met Holly Garman, an experienced New York publicist who had never heard of them until the show. “I was so blown away by their performance that I think I just stood there with my mouth open for most of their set,” she remembers. “The room was packed and people were going crazy! When it ended I just ran up and introduced myself. I just knew I had to work with them.”

On the other hand, “you make your own luck” is a saying that never seems to go away. Bruce Houghton, founder of Skyline booking agency and the popular “Music 2.0” blog Hypebot told me that he believes that any “luck” a band experiences is usually the product of hard work. “After talent,” he explains, “it all boils down to effort. How hard are you willing to work to connect with your fans and with the industry?  Will you make the most of every piece of luck that comes your way?” In a world where getting music to the fans is easier than ever before and the range of musicians competing for space on those fans iPods is greater than ever before, an ambitious young band has to leverage every opportunity they get.

For My Dear Disco, that starts with a level of attention-to-detail that the band admits might seem obsessive to outsiders (“We’ll argue forever about whether one hi-hat sound should be on the offbeat or not,” Chamuel laughs). The band makes a conscious effort to think about how songs written in the studio will eventually have to be performed live, which can be tricky given that their songwriting process generally starts with sequencer-based loops and grooves. They also have to worry about their touring setup, which is intimidatingly intricate. This means the band has had to get really,really good at getting the stage ready in the shortest amount of time possible, given that they’re not yet to the point where they can employ an army of stage-hands to do it for them. Luckily, the members all have a passionate interest in the technical aspects of their shows, which leads to a growing, shared reservoir of knowledge which makes the process easier (“I can’t imagine how hard it’d be if Michelle wasn’t able to setup her own rig,” confesses Lester).

This curiosity and ability to learn fast extends to all areas of the My Dear Disco “business.” The band members voraciously hunt down any knowledge that might be advantageous to them, whether through books and blogs like Hypebot, or through their own experiences with trial and error. They’re savvy enough to suggest that PopMatters could premiere a new MDD single along with this piece, and capable enough to produce and continuously revamp their own website. MDD is a full-time job for them (well, almost: the band members all work occasional jobs like teaching bagpipe lessons or DJing to help pay the bills), and they take it seriously. Susie Giang, who signed the band to MDD’s booking agency Fleming Artists (Ani DiFranco, The Verve Pipe), recalls her first appointment with the band, where she was “so highly impressed when at our meeting, they handed me a business plan! I promise you, we don’t get approached by many artists with [business plans].”

While the band members clearly have the competence to handle many of their own tasks, in the end there are only so many hours in a day. They are not signed to a label, but work closely with Garman and Giang on picking shows and increasing their visibility. Not having to handle all of their own booking seems to be a huge relief for the band. “I used to book the band back in the day,” recalls Duncan, “and I would sit there on a computer for hours making lists of venues in nearby cities, then trying to find who the hell you have to talk to about playing there and finally hitting them with a phone call, email, and packet in the mail. Of those, maybe 20% would respond, and about 10% turned into anything. Once you’ve put that work in, anything that comes back is a celebration, and you’ll be damned if you’re not going to take the gig.”

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