One word sums up music industry trends in 2018: Consolidation.

Across the board, independent venues, promoters, and industry professionals have faced an onslaught of corporatization. The message — or threat — is clear: Be swallowed up — or be forced out. For committed independents, neither option is particularly palatable.

In spite of it all, independents continue to survive — and thrive. Independents may lack the clout (and the deep pockets) of their corporate competitors, but independents also have something money can’t buy: their brand. In a world where everything looks a little bit same-same, standing out from the pack — with bookings, service, and pricing strategy to match — is worth its weight in gold.  

Remember: Independents have freedom to make choices and chart paths that corporate competitors simply can’t. Use the following strategies to lean into your brand as an independent and ensure your fans have an experience they just can’t get elsewhere.

Book local, book independent: Don’t try to beat corporate players at their own game

The fact of the matter is: small- to mid-size independents simply can’t beat corporate players at their own game. The solution is to play a different game altogether.

“Fighting over hot bands with tour deals that every talent buyer is chasing is a waste of time when you’ll only lose the show — or overpay so much that it isn’t worth it,” says Steve Chilton, the namesake owner-operator behind independent Arizona promoter Psyko Steve Presents. “Instead, focus on smaller acts before everyone else sees them.”

Marquee headliners will always sell tickets, of course. But as the live music market is saturated even further, space for differentiation emerges.

“We spend time and effort on shows that bigger players might see as a chore. We show these acts real value by giving them the kind of attention they don’t see every day,” Chilton says. That goodwill goes right back into his booking strategy. “A big goal for us in 2019 is spending more time on these local shows, and not letting them go overlooked because of touring national acts.”

And even though budgets — and turnout — might be smaller, focusing on booking local can pay dividends. At Rebel Lounge, a Phoenix venue run by Psyko Steve Presents since 2015, “Many of our local shows have bar sales that far surpass those of the national shows,” Chilton says.

In other words, bigger does not always mean better.

Build an authentic connection with fans: Be relatable and  fan-focused

For Ian Orth, Creative Marketing Director at independent Texas promoter Margin Walker Presents, being able to engage closely with fans is key to success as an independent.

“We’ve done a great job building a brand voice that is relatable, real, and timely. Customers know that when they reach out, their question, concern, or opinion is actually heard and considered,” Orth says. “Being independent allows us the freedom to book a little bit all over the place, to be more creative in our marketing strategies, and to be more personable in our social media output.”

Keep fans coming back to your venue: Employ creative pricing strategies

One of Margin Walker’s creative marketing strategies was instituting a Fan Club, which allowed fans to pay an up-front annual fee to gain one pair of free show tickets per month. “In tracking our customers, we saw that some folks went to 70, 80, or 90-plus shows per year,” says Orth. “We designed the Fan Club exactly for these hardcore fans.”

Do Fan Club buyers feel a closer affinity with Margin Walker’s shows and venues? “Definitely — one hundred percent,” Orth says. Although they only recently instituted the program, it’s already a smash hit. “Austin Fan Club passes sold out in 15 minutes. Houston and San Antonio sold out in less than 24 hours.”

In live music, pricing is more than just pricing. Staying nimble and connected with your fans will earn repeat business. Don’t be afraid to experiment to encourage sales and brand loyalty.

Turn your independence into a competitive advantage

Independents might not have access to the resources that the elephants in the room do, but they’re also free to maneuver in ways their larger competitors aren’t. Use this freedom to connect with fans deeply.

If you own or manage an independent venue or throw your own shows, it’s essential you stay on top of industry trends. Read 2019 Music Trends: The Top Predictions From Industry Pros to stay one step ahead of the competition.

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