John Drake: The Main Drag, RBN, and Promotions at 30,000 Feet, Part II

John Drake and I email each other all the time.  Some emails get responded to quicker than others.  This interview is a good example of emails with HUGE lapses in time.  It’s been almost 5 months since we posted the first half of this RBN interview with the ever elusive and always hard travelling Drake, but the advice that he gives to up and coming bands looking to promote themselves through RBN is just as relevant now as it was before his band The Main Drag became T-Mobile’s Artist Of the Month.  Read on, because who knows how long you’ll have to wait for the next Drake interview!

John Drake: So, it’s been 10 days. In those 10 days, we’ve:

  • Launched RBN and seen it be demonstrably awesome 
  • Announced the existence of Rock Band 3
  • Debuted the first live gameplay of Green Day: Rock Band 
  • Watched me sing Lady Gaga’s "Poker Face," Eric Cartman-style, in front of games journalists
  • Hung out with the Mystery Science Theater crew at a benefit for Down Syndrome 
  • Flown from Boston to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to San Francisco, and now San Francisco to Phoenix, where we’re meeting up tonight.


But back to the thread at hand, and halting all the excuses for why I haven’t replied!

Your metaphor for a theater is AWESOME and right on the money for why Rock Band works as an exploratory vehicle. Music fans are drawn to the platform and then find themselves banging around inside it looking for more and further specialized content. Now we’re lucky that we have a steady stream of songs from RBN, all while continuing our weekly magic from our internal team! Win!

In terms of getting the word out about your band, it depends on how far you want to take it. First and foremost, the most important thing is to get to know people in your scene, whatever that means. For our band, it could mean other bands at Harmonix, bands in Boston, pop bands in Boston, bands that play in Central Square, or a million other subgenres. Regardless of what classification you’re in, find bands that you like/that like you and play shows together. Get your audiences to mingle and get some cross-pollination going! This’ll allow you to build up a local following, hone your chops, and get used to the idea that there are people that will like your band and show up, and not just because youowethemmoneyandborrowedtheircarandtheyarealsoyourmom, HI MOM!

Concurrently, you should consider entering what I call the ENDLESS PIT OF BAND-BASED PROFILE PAGES. Like it or not, getting fans to find your music on the “internet” means maintaining social networking presences wide and far, large and small. So, like it or not, you should probably get to work setting up a MySpace page, a FaceBook page, a Twitter account, an official email list, a ReverbNation page, a PureVolume page, a Bandcamp page (just to name a few)...basically you should have a presence wherever you can get your band and your music in front of people. But don’t just set these up and walk away: post to them, engage with your fans and generally keep these sites healthy and current. You never know when someone will stumble along a page from 2005 and think your band still plays crab-core zydeco when you’ve OBVIOUSLY moved on to progressive modern indie folk metal. 

(A quick aside: one area a lot of bands neglect is a YouTube presence. Assuming you own all your rights to your music, a ton of fans listen to bands by searching YouTube and streaming music there. Regardless of your opinions on the audio fidelity of this option, throw your tunes up on YouTube with some rotating photos or album art for the will hit up these pages and, after reading your descriptions, hopefully head over to your website or sign up for your email list!) 

Lastly, though it sounds WICKED UNCOOL TO SAY IT, build your band’s brand! It sounds “markety” and not genuine, but here’s all it means – pick a band name, get an artsy friend with a camera to take your picture, get an artsy friend with a pen or a computer to make you a not stupid logo, and start using that name/photo/logo wherever you can! If fans can associate your awesome music with a set of faces and a style of art, it’ll make them that much more aware of what you’re trying to do. And then you can make t-shirts and stickers and buttons and all the “stuff” that bands get to make other than music.

There are a million further things you can take on: Hellion has a pretty good, (if TOUR MADDENED) tour diary if you’re looking to take to the open road as a next step and “with these newfangled computers nowadays”, you can actually make a pretty decent lo-fi video yourself with a bit of work. Of course, two years later you’ll be outdone by a good friend of yours who dresses your band up in an homage to Calvin and Hobbes ...but whatever, being in a band is about expressing yourself, having fun and getting good music out there to the world by any means necessary. 

PS. When in doubt about how to get your music out there, I learned a new tip from our Director of Production (Mike Verrette) during this GDC. Growing up in the Northeast, Mike’s band rewired a convertible to have quarter-inch speaker jacks in the back seat ashtrays. They then wired a huge power amp into the car and would drive around blasting a FULL PA from the backseat, disturbing everyone with their amazing '80s metal. This is how viral marketing was born. If you have a mechanic in your band, you should do this too*.

HMXHenry: Wow, welcome back Chatty Cathy.  That’s kind of a huge info dump, but I think it’s also a helpful reminder that being in a band can be a lot of work.  

But if someone is willing to work hard enough to learn an instrument, record a song and get it authored for RBN then I think your round-up gives folks some great suggestions for next steps.  

It’s really cool to see just how much Rock Band actually sets people up for that, and builds an awareness of the benefit of designing a logo, finding the right band mates to FC a song, promoting yourself via your profile on the forums, etc.  Some bands are already kind of building their brand in game, and you can see which Rock Band players hustle to get themselves recognized.  It’s a very interesting parallel between in game promotions and real world promotions. 

JD: Surely. I think the spark that one can get from playing Rock Band is really similar to that spark one gets from sharing music with other people via a band. It starts of as a curiosity, grows into an interest, then into a passion and finally becomes a full blown compulsion. Being in a band is really fun and really exciting a lot of the time, but that’s punctuated with long stretches of hard work and dedication if you want to grow your audience. 

With regards to the in-game world, there’s a similar level of randomness to being a breakout band in the community. Having the #1 score total isn’t the most impressive thing if your band has a mediocre personality or is constantly griefing everyone else they interact with. The bands that stand out bring great talent but also a solid identity and (usually) a sense of fun to share. Some of those bands have been able to flip that notoriety into competitive wins or even into businesses running their own Rock Band nights! All in all, it always comes back to enjoying the act of rocking out with friends and working hard until you catch a lucky break...just like being in a band.

I wish you and I had time during the day to respond to these emails. I feel like my 2-3am responses are always filled with run-on sentences and confusion!

HMXH: Dragging this thread back up to the top of your inbox after a few days.  We can continue via IM when you get back in the office tomorrow but I just wanted to put this back on your radar.  I think if we can get one or two more solid emails out of this we can pull the trigger and publish another article in the ‘Zine.

You mentioned a ton of different ways for bands to promote themselves electronically… be it through RBN, on forums, via social media sites, band networking sites, etc.  What are some of the more hands-on or traditional means of promoting your band?  We had dozens of RBN bands send us thousands of demo cds and stickers to give away at our Rock Band Lounge at PAX East and every time we refreshed the swag table it was wiped clean within an hour.  Is that still an effective way of promoting your band?  Are flyers, shirts, patches, etc. still useful tools or have all the cool kids gone digital now?

JD: That’s a good question. Digital promotion is easier and cheaper than physical promotion, and it’s way more convenient for fans and bands. But on the flip side, digital promotion lacks the tangible and real connection that we ironically find through hands on time in situations like Rock Band! A personal connection greatly outweighs a passing digital reference, especially in the streaming age. Whenever you can (and if you have the resources) hand to hand exchange of music and message is the best way to grow a fan base organically.

There are caveats, of course: Flyering, postering, and handing out demos means you’re going to be wasting a lot of physical material on folks who take your info, but don’t actually care. So, you have two things to keep in mind: 1) keep your costs down when you’re doing this guerilla physical promotion (which is probably a good path always), and 2) make sure your stuff is where it’s most effective. The RBN band CDs at PAX East are a great example of people throwing dispensable product to us at a place where they knew that the people taking them were going to sincerely check out the music. It still means there’s a high rate of hit and miss with that random audience, but at least people aren’t snatching flyers out of your hands and immediately throwing them (and your Kinko’s money) into the trash.

Better yet are cool band items that fans want to have which help promote your band. Whether it’s pins, stickers, or even [something] as high value as shirts and hoodies, if a fan has affection for the thing with your name on it, they become a walking evangelist for what you’re trying to do. So maybe don’t mark your t-shirts up to 30 dollars at shows and consider giving your pins or stickers away for free to fans who engage with you. If you give them to the right people, they’ll get your band name in front of a lot more people than if you throw them in a pile by the door or if you make people pay two dollars to wear your bands name on their guitar case.

An anecdotal story that’s always told is of the Arctic Monkeys.  The story is that the band broke after giving away demo CDs for free outside of shows. Fans loved the music and  shared the tracks online...the band spread like wildfire and because the fastest selling debut in UK history. Your band probably won’t turn into an overnight sensation by giving away a few dozen CDs, but it’s a good lesson to learn: treat your fans well and make it easy for the people who will like your music to find you, and enable them to spread the word to others. Giving away free things (songs, buttons, CDs) isn’t about bribery or devaluing the work you’ve done: it’s about priming the pump with fans that truly care about your music.          


HMXH: I’m tempted to publish this interview with the title “Priming the Pump with John Drake”, but the ESRB is always lurking so we probably won’t be doing that.  

So I think this back and forth (along with the first half that we already published) should give bands a good leg up on what tools they can use to promote themselves in addition to having songs in Rock Band Network point.   Hopefully it’s also a look at the kind of hustle and enthusiasm that upcoming bands need to foster to take the next step in hyping their band.

JD:  My last words are just “Persistence persistence persistence.” RBN is an ongoing sales thing, so you can’t just throw stuff up there and ignore it. It takes ongoing promotion and management, so keep at it! And participate: Being a part of the community and meeting new people working in this medium is one of the most rewarding parts of rocking out in RBN

And we’re always here rocking, so don’t be afraid to reach out via the forums, Twitter or email. RBN!


* note, Harmonix does not endorse actually doing this if it’s against the law or whatever.