business growth

Building an Email List for Fun and World Domination

“Dad, I think that’s the guy from Shadow of Whales.” We were standing in line, waiting to get into the venue to see Catfish and the Bottlemen and Green Day. My daughter pointed over to a red haired guy holding a clipboard and walking alongside the line.

She had her phone out and was swiping through a year’s worth of photos before I could even ask, “Are you sure?” She pulled up a photo of him standing next to her from June 2016. We had seen Shadow of Whales open for Marinas Trench at a bar in Austin over a year ago. Neither of us had heard of them before, but after their set, the bass player wandered through the crowd talking to people and my daughter got a picture with him.

My daughter stopped him as he approached and asked, “Are you in a band?” Yes he was. “Is it Shadow of Whales?” Yes again. He was excited she’d recognized him a year later and introduced himself as Jeremy (@jeremyboyumsow). The three of us talked a bit, then he asked a small, but very important question.

*****

Noah Kagan (@noahkagan) was an early employee at both Facebook and Mint.com and is now an entrepreneur. He has founded a couple of companies focused on business promotion and growth.  On the side, he blogs, podcasts, and makes videos on entrepreneurship, marketing, business promotion, sales, etc.

Noah often advocates collecting emails to create a connection with customers and improve sales. I like to believe I have a pretty good understanding of business and after hearing and reading Noah’s ideas and advice, I thought I understood the business imperative behind email lists.

I didn’t.

*****

I am a huge fan of Ryan Holiday’s (@ryanholiday) books. All of them. Whether it’s about marketing, Stoic philosophy, or creating lasting art, Ryan packs about three lifetimes worth of wisdom into each book, yet makes the topics understandable, applicable, and practical.

He is also a voracious reader and has a monthly newsletter where he summarizes all the books he’s read lately. In a presentation at the launch of his latest book, he mentioned that he started this newsletter well before writing his first book as a way to collect email addresses and build a following. He figured people who like to read (i.e., potential customers) would find the newsletter valuable and once he’d published a book himself, he would have a way to directly reach his customers. His plan seems to have worked: over the years, he’s grown the list to 80,000+ subscribers, while becoming a best-selling author.

Again, I thought the idea was pretty cool, but only in an abstract way, not in a here’s-something-I-need-to-do way.

I was wrong.

*****

It’s easy to forget that bands are really small businesses. They sell products (music) and services (concerts) to their customers (fans). In the Revolver Magazine article The Youth Are Getting Restless, veteran metal vocalist Randall Blythe discusses how technology and competition have greatly reduced the barriers to entry and made it very difficult for new bands to get a foothold. (Sound like what’s going on in other any other industry? Maybe in every other industry?)

He makes the comment, “I encourage everyone to play music – it’s great fun and good for the soul – but I’m never going to lie and say your chances of actually making money from it are anything other than dismal.” In the age of file sharing and freemium streaming music services, bands today make almost no money from selling their music.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine having a business where your primary service or product is not – and never will be – your primary source of income. So, if music sales aren’t profitable, how do bands make money? Randall goes on discuss what he recently saw a few new bands doing right: “They all worked hard to gain new fans, which is how you sell merch, which is the key to making a living as a band today (honestly, that’s it – I am really just a glorified black T-shirt salesman.)”

There’s the formula: Gain new fans + sell t-shirts = $$

But how do you gain new fans? How do you build an audience?

*****

Jeremy asked, “Would you like to get our new EP in exchange for your email address?” My daughter enthusiastically agreed and he passed her the clipboard to add her name and email. We said goodbye and he continued working his way down the line.

In an era when music isn’t profitable but building a fan base and merchandise sales are, Jeremy was out in the hot Texas sun talking to everyone who would listen about his band’s music and trading their music for emails.

*****

I’m pretty far from anything resembling an expert in email marketing. My only qualification is enjoying the work of actual experts like Noah and Ryan. Even though I’ve heard them both discuss the importance and approaches to capturing email addresses as a way of building and selling to the customer base, I realize now that I only understood it at the intellectual level. I didn’t really get it before, not truly.

To really understand it I had to see it at the most real of levels. A guy and a clipboard with the hustle and initiative and dedication to approach strangers and build an email list one conversation at a time.

That’s what he’s willing to do to grow his business.

How about you?

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