Good News, Musicians! There is an Alternative to “Selling Yourself”
By GoGirlsMusic Co-Executive Director rorie kelly
As someone who runs an community organization in support of independent musicians, there is one struggle I hear about again and again from my fellow indies.
It goes something like this: "I'm no good at selling myself. I love making my art and I want to do it for a living, but I just don't feel comfortable with self promotion."
I grappled with this for a long time myself and I want to invite you in on a perspective shift that changed my life and my career.
For many years I tried to "get good at" sales and marketing. I read books and blogs on the subject and tried my best to follow their instructions. I learned terminology like "branding" and "closing" and "call to action". This is all useful knowledge, by the way, but for many years it didn’t help me make any progress in my career. Why?
I was unconvinced of my own value.
Though I was receiving compliments and positive feedback about my songs and performances, I didn't personally feel confident about those things. Though I had a nuanced understanding of the crafts of songwriting and performance, I didn't feel I was "allowed" to make the call that my art was worthwhile. Instead, I sought validation from external sources--friends, fans, venues, press, whatever. If they didn't like me (or hire me or come to my show), I must not be any good. But, strangely, the positive feedback I got didn't make me feel better. It just made me feel like I had gotten lucky.
I pushed myself harder and hoped I'd get lucky again. I tried to learn sales and marketing, believing that it was the key to real success, but my efforts fell flat because I didn't believe in the product I was selling--me.
The first part of my perspective shift was rebuilding my relationship with myself. I want to share something simple with you right now that can change your life if you let it:
It's OK to believe in yourself.
If you struggle with that, it's time to put some energy into your relationship with yourself--the same way you would with a friend or family member. Show up for yourself. Earn your own trust back. Explore what's hurting the relationship and stretch yourself to repair it.
When I began to repair my own self worth, I slowly realized that there was a much bigger picture than simply whether I was "good" or "bad". I was able to look outside myself and think about the reasons someone would give me a gig, or write a review. Those people weren’t looking at me and judging me as Worthy or Worthless. They were just assessing whether I would help them in their own goals. More arts-supportive venues wondered whether I was the type of act their audience would appreciate. Less supportive venues wondered how many humans I could bring through the door and how much they would spend, regardless of whether my music was fabulous or terrible.
One big realization I had when I started valuing myself was that my relationship with those unsupportive venues was toxic. I was letting my own value as an artist be defined by someone who only saw me in terms of how much money I could make them. Gross. I stopped working with venues and promoters who saw me as a number. A fun side effect was that I started making more money at gigs. It turns out that the people who really care about art are more likely to pay for it, too.
Once my sense of self worth was healthier, it freed me up to make choices that were more logical than emotional. Instead of seeking out validation from literally any presenter or music business person who came my way, I began to ask myself who was already looking for someone like me. I realized that I sold a lot more CDs in listening rooms, and started exploring the folk circuit. I thought about who my songwriting really spoke to, and who I really wanted to connect with, and started trying to seek out ways to perform for those people. Instead of desperately throwing my music at anyone who would listen, I made educated guesses about who would actually appreciate it and went right to those people. The result? Less pointless work and more real results.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped feeling that I had to sell myself. It became a concept that just wasn’t relevant to me anymore. I used to feel like I was asking for a favor when I wrote a booking email, or pitched myself to a journalist for coverage. Now, I look at the experience as a collaborative one. I know my work has value, and I seek out people to work with who are likely to see that value. So it’s less a question of selling, and more a question of sharing what I do and exploring how we can work together to create something mutually beneficial. Another nice side effect of this practice? Almost everyone responds much more favorably to a collaborative approach than a nervous sales pitch.
This “sharing, not selling” mindset has extended to my general marketing efforts as well. I’m no longer trying to talk myself up inauthentically or use aggressive promotional tactics. I don’t feel I need to ham it up with a pitch about how great I am--I just find ways to boost my own signal and grow my community. My practice on social media is to be myself loudly and proudly, and to seek out the people who I think will appreciate that self. The result is not just new fans, but new friends. (GoGirl Alex Winters calls these relationships her "frans".)
On a very practical side, choosing to value myself and to connect with others who see my value has gotten me better results in terms of growth and (yes!) sales. But in a less tangible way, it has also made me value every piece of my career more. I’m no longer running myself ragged, dividing my energy between my creative self and my Sales Self. Instead, I’m just my true self, all the time. Rather than trying to sell myself, I consciously try to share myself authentically. The connections and opportunities that arise from this are not just more plentiful--they are more heart-centered, too.