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What’s Working in Indie Music Today: Lessons in Success from New Artist Model Member Shannon Curtis

New Artist Model member Shannon Curtis
New Artist Model member Shannon Curtis

New Artist Model member Shannon Curtis

By Dave Kusek and Lindsay McGrath
Sponsored by the New Artist Model
Turn your passion for music into a rewarding career.

Ask singer songwriter Shannon Curtis about the key to her success as an independent musician, and she’ll tell you — literally — to hit the road.  She’ll encourage you to start touring with the help of your audience.

Shannon knows from experience that touring is the best way to interact with your audience and build your fanbase.  She also knows that performing live can bring in more money than recordings, publishing and merchandise combined.

Each summer, Shannon spends more than four months on the road performing house concerts.  In 2014, the Los Angeles-based artist performed at more than 70 homes around the country for audiences averaging 35 people.  

The idea for an annual house concert tour was born in 2011 when Shannon was struggling to attract new fans.  Her career growth had been “incremental” since she hit the scene in 2006, she says.  So to break through to new audiences, Shannon began working on booking a series of solo club dates in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland and Seattle.

Then something unexpected happened.  A fan called and asked if she would come and perform in her living room.  The gig would pay whatever audience members wanted to donate and her fan lived right in the middle of the circuit she was planning on covering.

Shannon said yes.  She had played the occasional house concert through the years, always booking them as “filler dates” between what she considered more important club engagements.  But this concert convinced her that she might have gotten things turned around.

“I had no idea what kind of success it would be,” Shannon says, adding that she didn’t use a microphone or amplifier.  “In a club you are always competing with noise from the bar or a latte machine or something.  But this show was 100 percent connection.  Someone started crying.  People’s reactions were palpable.”

Palpable and profitable.  By the end of the night, Shannon made more money and sold more merchandise than she would have at a Los Angeles club show. “It was way more than gas money. That was the lightbulb that went off for me.”

Shannon and her husband, music producer Jamie Hill who travels with her when she tours, worked up a financial analysis and realized she could win over more fans and make more money playing houses rather than clubs. Today, they use a simple system to create their annual summer tour.

Shannon typically announces the house tour on her website in March.  She encourages people who want to host a concert to apply on her site and in her emails.  “This year, 85 people signed up within 48 hours of the announcement” says Curtis.  

Requirements for hosting a concert are simple but specific.  Hosts must be able to guarantee an audience of at least 30 people and need to have a backyard, garage, living room or some other space big enough for a “focused listening event.”  “This isn’t a party where there is also some music,” Shannon says.

Once a request for a house concert is accepted, things can fall into place easily if you are organized, according to the artist.  People who host concerts don’t have to worry about having special insurance because their concerts are not open to the public.  Instead, they are gatherings of friends.  Hosts don’t receive any kind of financial compensation for providing the venue or bringing in the audience, Shannon says.  Most often, they simply enjoy the chance to have a fun event and get to know to know the artist better.

“We really leave the structure of things up to the hosts,” Shannon says.  “Lots of times they turn into potlucks.  Our shows become these really connective community events.”

Shannon brings all of her own equipment and only needs “one power source and an extension cord” to put on a show.  She is paid with donations from the audience and merchandise sales.  There are no tickets, no cover charge and no opening act.  Shannon and Jamie often take hosts up on their offer of overnight accommodations.  

“Every house we go to is a brand new market.  It is the living room Tupperware model of music marketing,”  Shannon says, adding that she is continually amazed by the support audiences offer.  “Most musicians feel self doubt sometimes.  But if you show up and give people a vulnerable performance – they are going to support you.  The moment you put down your shield is the moment you find victory.”

Growing her audience using house tours is helping Shannon break through in ways she never imagined possible.  

In 2015, Shannon released a music video for her song entitled “I Know, I Know” that went viral with more than 5 million hits.  Also in October of last year after being contacted by a promoter, she played two opening sets for Shawn Colvin — one at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg, California and the other in Folsom, California.  They were her first large scale public performances in 4 years.

“I definitely want to do more shows like that, Shannon says.  “But I am not ever interested in playing in a traditional club again.”

Shannon Curtis has launched 6 albums in 4 years and was a featured speaker at a TEDx event in Arlington, Va.   She has reached out to her community to successfully crowdfund albums and videos and produced a handbook on how to do house concerts.  Most important of all, Shannon says, she now supports herself one hundred percent with her music.

“I had a talk with myself years ago about what it would take for me to feel like a success as a musician.  It’s never been on my radar to be famous or on top 40 radio  I wanted to make a living making my music — and I’ve made it,” she says.

Shannon uses social media to stay in close touch with her community, noting that Facebook is her most active channel.  She also uses her email list and newsletters to let people know about her new music, crowdfunding projects, tours and more.  During her busy tour season, she contacts fans twice a week.  During quieter times of the year, twice a month.

“The most important skill I’ve learned in my career is to be able to spin a lot of plates all at the same,” Shannon says.  “I juggle a lot of things that require different skills — talking online, planning albums sales, doing business, writing songs.”

“The New Artist Model is such a valuable tool for me.  Before I spent years researching things like ASCAP and BMI on my own.  NAM explains all that we need to know about how to traverse these waters.  That alone is worth the price of admission,” Shannon says.

“When I first met Dave Kusek I expected that the program would be a lot of stuff that I had already learned, you know, the in and outs of building a career.  But I have been pleasantly surprised many times where something I read or a video I watched sparked a new idea for me.”

“One of the things I am starting to learn about in the New Artist Model is sponsorships.  That inspired me to put together a sponsorship application.  I think there may be some companies that would be really interested.  Nothing has happened yet but it will in time — and I want to make sure I am the one who makes the rules.”

As Shannon gets ready for another summer on the road, she says she feels grateful for all the people who love her music enough to come along for the ride.

“I don’t call my supporters fans anymore.  I have a community.  It is a two way street and we support one another.”

 

Learn more about Shannon Curtis here:  http://shannoncurtis.net/

New Artist Model is an online music business school developed by Dave Kusek, founder of Berklee Online. The online school is a platform for learning practical strategies and techniques for making a living in music. Learn how to carve a unique path for your own career with strategies that are working for indie artists around the world. Learn to think like an entrepreneur, create your own plan and live the life in music you want to live. New Artist Model provides practical college-level music business training at a mere fraction of the cost of a college degree. Programs start at just $29/mo. For more info on the New Artist Model visit http://newartistmodel.com

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