Christian Pearson

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How to Create, Grow, and Sustain a successful “Artist in Residence” Program (for Musicians)

For artists, a residency is an excellent place to develop your craft and build a fan base. For venues, it’s a great way to participate in publicly supporting local culture. For an audience, a residency can be an exciting journey to follow. Unfortunately, a lot of residencies don’t end up being all they could be. Instead, they turn into a repetitive act playing to a thin or unengaged audience. I recently launched a residency called The Skirvin Jazz Club, and I want to share as much as I can with you about what works and what doesn’t. I hope you find something in my residency journey that helps you nourish a successful residency where your art can flourish.

The Golden Rule of an Artist-in-Residence Program: Consider Others

Always start by thinking about others. This may be your residency, but it’s definitely not all about you. As much as we want everything to be about the art, we do our art a disservice by not first creating an excellent environment for it and surrounding it with individuals who feel appreciated and want the art to be successful. Consider first the venue, your audience, and all of the people involved in making the event happen, then your craft will flourish.

Collaborate with the Venue and Respect Their Vision

The venue is letting you into their space to do your thing, and it’s important to respect that. Of course, you will need to make suggestions and provide your expertise as a performer to make shows engaging and successful, but when you do, remember that there is an entrepreneur or manager who has their own creative vision for their space. Be sure you are considering their vision and crafting an experience that is a good fit.

At the Skirvin, I recommended an immersive live jazz experience not because I’m a jazz musician, but because the Skirvin already supports jazz (and other local art). There’s a rich history of jazz musicians performing and staying at the Skirvin. I’d played in the Red Piano Lounge for years, and I know their clientele likes that type of music. The space I proposed to make a ‘jazz club’ is staffed but generally not too busy on Friday nights from 8-10pm, so there was an opportunity to add to the Skirvin’s business by getting people into the venue for a fun night out. If the restaurant was already packed on Friday nights, I wouldn’t have as much to offer from a business standpoint. I thought through all of this in advance, and when I proposed a performance at Park Avenue Grill, my ideas all centered to how the event would make the venue awesome and successful. The Skirvin didn’t immediately agree to all of my ideas, which was ok. I listened listened first, and took the time to understand what was important to them. We had plenty of common ground to put together a successful maiden event.

Picture the Experience from your Audience’s Perspective

Find the overlap between a live music experience that is good for your art and good for a night out. Imagine who your audience is and how they will feel coming to your show. Are they going to come expecting you to be performing a melancholy ballad, bleeding heart in hand, or are they looking for an uplifting night out with the girls? You can surprise you audience, but you can’t fail to meet their expectations or they will likely choose a different a different experience instead of coming to the next show.

‘The Experience’ refers to more than the music alone. Be intentional about everything from what the audience hears about the show, to what it feels like for them to park, enter the venue, be greeted/seated, and being introduced to the music. When I hear why people don’t go to shows, it’ rarely because they don’t like the music, it’s one of those other things. Be proactive, and make sure everything goes the way it needs to.

Build relationships with your audience. In the moment, the audience will appreciate your art, but it’s the feeling the performer gives the audience that makes them come back, invite friends, and support you. A lot of that feeling comes from how well you connect with them in the room. If your performance is in an intimate space, take time to shake hands, remember names, and say thank you. Make your audience look awesome, and they will make your residency awesome.

Get Everyone On Board

You want the venue’s manager to be proud of the event. Your show should be the shift all the bartenders want to work. The hosts and chefs should feel involved and enthusiastic. You can create an electric vibe in the room by getting these people excited, and they will spread the word to their friends if they’re proud to be part of the event. None of that happens by accident.

Learn the names of everyone who is working the event, make them a part of the show, and give them credit for the work they do. When possible, I like to sit in on their pre-shift meeting and say a few words about what we’re hoping to accomplish with the music. I make sure they know they are important and that I appreciate their hard work. Always give them a shoutout from the mic and encourage people to tip them.

Of course you’ll make the venue and it’s employees really happy if you make them money. The key to financial success is Communication.

The Most Important Part of Starting a Residency: Communication

Don’t start a residency unless you’re ready to invite people to be a part of it (a.k.a. put in the boring office work that no one ever wants to do in music). Getting people to come out and experience the residency is going to take hours of work every week. Those hours are separate from the time and energy you’ll spend working on the show itself. If you’re not ready to sit at the computer, write blog posts, post to social media, tell your story, send press releases, call/text/email people asking for coverage for your event, shoutout your friends’ shows so they’ll shout out yours, etc… it would be irresponsible to start a residency. I see too many artists simply make a few social media posts to their personal accounts to promote an event. That simply will not suffice. The idea that an artist will have a good, consistent turnout relying solely on their personal connections/followers is unrealistic, and will likely cause the residency to end with the venue feeling like it was a waste of time/money. The artist will probably feel unappreciated or blame locals for being ignorant or unappreciative. All of those consequences are unpleasant, hurt the scene, and reduce future opportunity for other artists, so here are a few tips on how to communicate effectively, pack the place out, and make the residency awesome.

Start by giving your Residency Character

First, develop a personality for your residency. Give it character so people who hear about it can remember it and describe it to others in an exciting way. Is it edgy? Is it classy? Is it a weird place to do something interesting with friends? Or is it a pleasant night out with a romantic interest? Keep the character of the event simple and set some expectations for your audience. You’ll also need to think about who your audience is, so you don’t go chasing people who aren’t into the experience you’re offering.

Remember most people who hear about your residency will not know who you are or what you do, and to be honest, they will barely pay attention at first. Something simple, memorable, and descriptive will allow people to remember your events and build curiosity as they hear the same thing from different people, social media accounts, and publications.

I like to imagine what it would sound like for someone who barely knows what it is to describe the event to someone else. If the description or character of the event is complicated, they will probably not describe it effectively.

For you business-types: effectively defining and communicating the character residency is called branding.

Create a Path of Discovery for you Audience:

Be able to answer for yourself how the public will discover your Event, Learn More, Follow You, Show up at your Event, and Become your best cheerleaders

(I apologize in advance for my non-existent graphic design skills)

(I apologize in advance for my non-existent graphic design skills)

You want to tell the story of your residency in enough places around town that you gradually move people from the left side of the spectrum to the right. If you can get strangers to see your event 7 times, you can probably get them to follow you on social media or sign up for an email list. Post to social media and email your subscribers consistently, and some percentage of your followers will show up at your show, where you need to be ready to tell them exactly what it’s all about so they can spread the gospel for you.

For you business-types: converting strangers who have been exposed to your show into people who have attended your show is called moving people through a marketing funnel.

In general, I like to treat events like people. They have personalities, they have a story, they’re alive and on the move!

Humans are better at remembering people than things, and people like stories. We love to see things be born, grow, develop, and change. That’s probably a nice arc for your art as well, so just be sure you’re communicating well so the busy people out there have what they need to easily follow the journey of your residency and great art that it produces.

Tell the World!

Ok, so your residency has character now, and we know generally that we want to expose people to your event, make them hear about it from different places, follow you (or collect their email), and come to your show. There are hundreds of ways to make all that happen, so I’m just going to list a few channels that I’m choosing to focus on. Click the links to see real examples of me doing this stuff:

  • Blog about the Residency - Create a place where a curious person can peek in and learn about your event. This doesn’t have to be too time-consuming, just be consistent. Make a simple post about your upcoming show, write about what you’re working on, or make a post about how the night went.

  • Guest Post about the Residency - If your site doesn’t have loads of web traffic already, build some traffic by offering to write for a website that does. Offer to guest post to relevant media sites. OkSessions.com is perfect for Oklahoma-based music residencies (email me if you want to guest post). I’ve also had good luck with neighborhood news blogs. For example, I’ve guest posted to Plaza District’s site about Saints Sessions a lot, and I’ve seen lots of new people come out as a result of that effort. This doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking… you can type out a couple concise paragraphs for a brief announcement that links to your full article.

  • Invite Local Media Sources to Cover Your Residency - You can write a press release or befriend a journalist. Press releases are nice because it saves them the time/effort of have a reporter interview you and write a piece, which makes it more likely you’ll be featured. You can also reach out to local radio or TV to see if they’ll interview you on air about your event. Obviously you’ll have a great, simple story to share because you took the time to develop the character for your residency :)

  • Create Photography or Videography - A picture is worth a thousand words, and video is basically a thousand pictures. This stuff can be expensive but it’s very effective. Either invite a friend to do you a favor or hire creatives to make your event look great. Once you have photos and videos in hand, make good use of them by sharing them with people and asking them to post and share. Embedding video in blog posts is an easy way to take things to the next level.

  • Post on Social Media and Build an Email List - This is a good way to get traffic to your blog posts or keep your residency on people’s radar. If you do the channels above, then social media practically takes care of itself. Post your video, get people excited about your guest posts, hit an Instagram story or Facebook live video when you’re in the podcaster’s studio. Be sure you use social media to tell a story; Don’t just post about the event happening a few days before (or worse, the day of).

Like I said, these are only a few ways to get the word out, for example, I’ve completed excluded things like posters and flyers, which can be effective if done right. Different channels work better for different people. The most important thing is that you don’t solely rely on one channel, and that you try to get some feedback on which channels are actually working for you. In order for your thing to grow beyond your immediate circle of friends, you need the average joe to come across your event in multiple places. Pick a few channels, and put the work in to get your residency’s name in people’s conversations.

By the way, you will look awesome to the venue if you get them written about and featured on local media sources or large social media accounts/email blasts. Businesses pay PR companies for that kind of coverage, so celebrate features with the venue that’s hosting your residency. Give managers the opportunity to take good news to their bosses and let them talk up how successful your residency is.

More to come....

My residency at the Skirvin is only just beginning. I’ll update this post as I learn, so keep coming back here and comment below if you have questions, feedback or if you find this article interesting.

I’ll be practicing what I preach in 2019, so watch for more news about The Skirvin Jazz Club on my blog, social media, and OkSessions’ email lists and site.