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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written April 1997


Mailing lists "101"

At the conference in Toronto last February, I had the pleasure of helping to facilitate the Artist's Peer Group. Many good feelings and deep thoughts came from the session. One of the things that I was reminded of was the sprawling nature of our Alliance. While some of us performers are long in the tooth and gray of beard, others of us are just getting our feet wet in this business of folk music.

So I thought from time to time I would use this column to address a few of the nuts-and-bolts issues that face performers, and shed some light on some possible strategies to stay afloat as an artist.

Who was it that said the artist needs an audience more than the audience needs the artist? I don't know, but it is true that building and nurturing an audience base is a necessity for a real career in the arts. One of the best tools for this is maintaining a mailing list. Keeping in touch with your fans, and letting them know where you will be playing is the surest way to see their smiling faces in the front row at the gig. And letting your most ardent admirers know about your latest recording is a must!

Their are three basics: 1-- Gather Data. Let people at your gigs give you their addresses. Include ZIP or postal codes -- that's very important. Try to get them to write legibly ("Let's see. Is that Dan or Don or Dom... or Pam?"). 2 -- Store Data. Transfer all those names and addresses to some system of recording and reproducing. 3 -- Use Data. When you want to inform your fans of something noteworthy, you send them a piece of mail.

That sounds pretty simple, but lets look at these basics in more detail. Getting the raw data -- names & addresses -- can be either low-key friendly or high-tech aggressive, depending on your style and just how you want to handle your list. It can be as simple as a blank piece of paper or a legal pad on the CD table at the back of the coffeehouse. A slightly more organized approach is to have a preprinted form which has a line for each entry and a reminder to include ZIP codes and an injunction to PRINT clearly. Some artists like to use a stack of cards to be filled out and dropped in a box. At clubs, a table tent could be placed at every table with a nice graphic. You could exhort your audience at every set to sign up. You could have a drawing of cards and do a giveaway at half time.

At some point you will need to address the question of how large you want your list to be. By encouraging everyone who ever hears the sound of your voice to sign onto your list, you will very quickly have a very large list which will include a lot of people who may-or-may-not be your real fans. Are you prepared to mail notices to some people who don't really want to hear from you? It CAN work for you that way, if it's your style. But it's not especially frugal. Some performers I know go to the other extreme. They seldom announce from stage that they have a mailing list, but keep a list by the CD table. People who are buying or looking over the merchandise are quietly offered the opportunity to sign the list. This list will be smaller, but will be "denser" in it's ratio of wheat to chaff. The downside is that there may be solid fans you are missing with this strategy.

You will need to decide some other issues as well. Will you record addresses from checks which people have given you for your product? Will you "sell" or loan your list to someone else -- say to a folk club who wants to promote you, or to a fellow performer with a similar style? By how you gather and manage your data, you will determine the size, shape, depth and ethics of your mailing list.

As to storing the data, nothing beats a computer for this task. Some years ago, I kept my addresses typed on mailing label masters. These I would photocopy onto label sheets at my local copy shop. This works fine until you get past a few hundred names. If you can't afford a computer, or are just getting started, this could be an option. If you just don't want to deal with computers, and your list is sizeable, you will need to persuade or hire someone else to do it. There are a lot of folks out there who can handle all this for you for a fee, and do a good job of it. If your list is large and your time is precious and your cash flow is good, then a mailing service is the way to go.

But if you are willing to do a little keyboard-time, you can most likely handle this yourself with a modest PC. You will probably want to use a data base program of some sort, rather than a word processor or spread sheet. There are dedicated mailing list programs on the market, as well as some general data base programs with mailing list templates. Whatever you use, be sure to save your data in several separate fields. First name, last name, street address, city, state, country, and ZIP should all be separate fields. You will want to sort this data by locale at times, or retrieve a particular name. You might want to add other fields as well, such as date of entry, venue, purchases, etc. Most data base programs can be configured to print straight to labels, but you might wish to augment that with software to add bar codes, according to postal rules. Many dedicated mail list programs are on the market which automatically figure the bar codes from the ZIP and address. This can be an important factor if you wish to bulk mail in the US (see below).

If you enter these new names on a regular basis it won't be such a chore. Get into the habit of entering names into your data base at the same time you record your sales and receipts. Also get into the habit of backing up your data on a regular basis. As your list grows, it becomes more valuable to you. Besides keeping a backup disc in your office, you might consider keeping a backup in a safe deposit box, backed up quarterly or semiannually.

The third issue is the trickiest -- and the most expensive. Mailing. You must decide whether you want to mail all your info to everyone at regular intervals, or to be selective and just mail to certain areas at certain times. If you have a string of dates in California, do you need to tell everybody in Ohio? Maybe. Maybe not. Think of your mailing list postage as advertising, which is what it is. The old adage is "It PAYS to advertise!" And it does. On the other hand, consider how much of your own daily mail goes straight to the dust bin. My best advice is to be frugal but not stingy. Think it through and plan a strategy that will work for you. 

The cheapest way to mail is usually by post card. The top rate for a normal-sized post card in the US is currently 20 cents for first class, cheaper for bulk. Be advised to check with your post office before you plan on bulk-mailing. In the US you may be required to have a bar code on labels for some kinds of bulk-mailing. You may need to have plus-four ZIP codes as well for a deeper discount. You may need to pre-sort. The laws change frequently, and are quite byzantine, so pay attention to the rules! One advantage of first class mailing is that you will get your mail returned to you if the address is bad, or the forwarding address has expired. Even if you bulk mail normally, it is smart to do an occasional first-class mailing to weed out the bad addresses. 

You may wish to rent a post office box, if you haven't done so already. Use it for all your mailing list correspondence; the reasons should be fairly obvious. If you have a choice of post office locations in your area, try to choose one which is handy and friendly. Free parking is a plus -- if it's not within walking distance -- since you will be making lots of trips there. Get friendly with some of the clerks. They can help you with the rates and rules of the postal system.

Labeling and affixing postage can be a time consuming chore. Not to mention folding and stuffing. Again, you can hire out these tasks, or you can make a party of it. Entice your family or friends into a "postage bee," with some beverages or pizza. Or rent a corny old movie and do two mindless things at once. Whichever, plan ahead and set aside some time to do this (or some money to have it done). Don't try to do it all the night before you leave on tour.

Some artists print up a newsletter for their fans. This can be a major expense, but it certainly does create a bond between artist and audience. If you choose to go this way, you might want to think about starting a "subscription" sub-list. You definitely don't want your hard efforts and big cash outlay to wind up in the trash. Even if the subscription is free, only people who WANT your newsletter will get it. Then spend some time on the format. Consult your local print shop. Check out the competition. Make sure there is a space that tells of your itinerary, lets people know how to order your recordings, and how to contact you. Be creative. Make it attractive. What you mail to people tells them who you are.

Of course now we live in the electronic age. If you are on-line you should definitely augment your mail list with an e-mail list. The frontier is wild and woolly out there on the internet. Without getting into all the possibilities of promotion with a website, simply starting an e-mail list is much like starting the postal variety. Ask for e-mail addresses at gigs. I like to have a separate sign-up sheet for e-mail, but you could just add a line to your data cards. 

Your own software will determine exactly how you manage your e-mail list. You can set up a dedicated list server if you want to get REALLY serious, but with a normal e-mail program you can send out multiple copies of a piece of e-mail to your own list. But one bit of advice: when you send e-mail to multiple addresses, send them as "Blind Copies." At the top of your e-mail form, you have a "To" slot. Put your own address in there. Then down where it says "Bcc" put in all the addresses in your e-mail list. This way the people who receive your bit of e-mail won't see dozens or hundreds of other people's addresses. It's good security and good manners to keep all those addresses hidden.

E-mail is cheap and quick, but junk mail is junk mail. Be considerate and don't send your itineraries to other mail lists (such as FOLKDJ-L, for example) where they might not be welcome.

Along with your normal mailing list (whether electronic or postal) you will probably want to keep other, more specialized lists. Separate lists (or sub-lists) for venues, press, family, fellow musicians, etc. might be a good idea.

One last penny-wise tip concerning labels. A couple of years ago I upgraded my computer's printer from an impact pin-printer to a nice inexpensive laser printer. I soon learned, however, that the blank laser labels are much more expensive per label than the old tractor-feed, 5000-to-a-box kind. So I got my old pin-printer out of retirement, bought a simple "A-B" data switch box, and made my old printer a dedicated label printer. With a tractor feed of the cheaper labels loaded in it at all times, I'm ready to spit out one or a thousand labels fast and cheap, with just the flick of a switch. It's something to think about when you upgrade your gear.

'Til next issue -- keep me posted!!

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