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Few films seem to have had as lasting an impact on my adolescent mind as did Ghostbusters.  Yes, in my later teenage years, like many of you, I spent hours pondering over works by Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni,  but well before discovering them, I thought Ghostbusters was one of the greatest things ever (and to be honest, part of me still does!). From the (then advanced) special effects to Bill Murray’s ridiculous delivery to the images of an idealized city that would eventually become my home, the film blew by juvenile mind (even if I may not have understood half the jokes at the time).

I have been thinking a lot about Ghostbusters lately–not just out of nostalgia–and the more that I think about it, the more that I believe that there is a lot that independent musicians can learn from the film.  Seriously!  Thus, our new series: Ghostbusters and The Modern Musician.  While we are going to focus on various parts of the film in the coming weeks, today I want to consider one of the key subplots, a tale of passion and love that transcends time and all obstacles. Yes, today I want to talk about the relationship between Zuul and Vinz Clortho.

Of Keymasters and Gatekeepers

Of course, Zuul and Vinz Clortho are the names of the two demons who end up possessing Sigourney Weaver’s Dana and Rick Moranis’ Louis, also referred to by their titles, the Gatekeeper and Keymaster. The two of them must “hook up” in order to open the portal that will bring their omnipotent, creation-destroying master Gozer into the real world.

In the music industry–especially with regards to new, developing and independent artists–we often speak of the “Gatekeepers,” or those who can expose our music to a larger audience, whether that be though radio & video play, inclusion in a video game or booking an artist in a large festival.  However, we rarely discuss the Keymasters, and I am convinced that one of the main reasons more musicians don’t make it past the Gatekeepers is because they have not spent enough resources with the Keymasters.

Who Are The Keymasters?

“Are you the Keymaster?”
“Yes, actually–I’m a friend of his. He asked me to meet him here.”

Think about it–who is it that is going to convince that head of programming or that booking agent that they should pay attention to your music?  In the past, you could count on a major-label-backed promotions rep or big-name manager to convince the gatekeepers to give your music a chance.  But in a world where even the most well-established of media companies are having a hard time making themselves heard, who is going to get them to listen to you?

You are.

Look at many of the most successful new artists who have emerged in the last five years–Lil’ Wayne, Danger Mouse, The Decemberists, Mastodon, Animal Collective, Soulja Boy Tell’em–all of them focused on building massive scene-based and/or online followings, having so much success at that level that the established gatekeepers could not ignore them. (Yes, there are the exceptions like Lady Gaga and the Idol-affiliated singers, but odds are if that is your thing, you’re not reading this anyway.)  In a world where you can force your music in front of the formerly-untouchable Gatekeepers with enough YouTube views or a sold-out club tour based on nothing but public radio play and some good blog write-ups, who else but you holds the keys?

The New Gatekeepers

Your fans, of course, are also important, but not in the way that you may imagine.  Yes, you can mobilize your fans to act as Keymasters via petitions and letters and other noise to make the local commercial radio station pay attention to your band, but you could have done that in the 80s and 90s as well.

No, the real importance of your fans today is in their new role…as Gatekeepers!

As Bob Baker put it in his Music Think Tank article on this topic:

But now there are new gatekeepers. You can also call them “filters.” And it’s these new filters that help weed out and determine who is to be highly successful, moderately successful, and not very successful at all…One type of new gatekeeper are music consumers. You must get a response from at least a small slice of people in the marketplace to gain traction and grow your career.

In an interview with Hypebot, iLike’s Ali Partovi stated something similar, expanding on the consumer’s role as Gatekeeper or filter:

“I believe, that if your music is great, we’ll find it, and it’ll get played. Help us find it!”
- Kevin Cole, KEXP

Consumers have more influence not only on getting a “personalized” experience for themselves, but also impacting what gets “programmed” to other people with similar tastes.  A social network is a very natural mechanism for this: if I discover a new artist that I love, I have a natural desire to share that with my friends on Facebook…the consumer is also creating “new content” in the form of commentary. Seeing what normal people (especially your friends) have to say about a song is just as much part of the experience as hearing the music.

In other words, the new Gatekeepers are your fans and potential fans, which makes what you need to do relatively obvious if you accept that you are the Keymaster and want to bring your version of Gozer into the real world–hook up with the Gatekeeper!

(And yes, for the purposes of this article, we are assuming that Gozer is a good thing–imagine him destroying the world of the old-school music industry if it makes you feel better).

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Now, however, knowing which key to use when and where can be the real challenge. Again from Barker’s article on Music Think Tank:

…there’s another new filter that has become more obvious to me in recent years. And that has to do with effort and workload…In fact, a large percentage of artists have disdain for most marketing activities and curse the long list of things they must do to promote themselves effectively…

“Where do these stairs go?”
“They go up.”

Again, the real challenge now lies in knowing which keys to use when and where.  Every artist has different time constraints and commitments, and no two fan-bases are identical, so I am not sure that there a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, so now I open it up to you–how do know which keys to focus on, or in other words, how do you determine your priorities as an independent artist? Let us know in the comments below.

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Further Reading – the ideas that inspired this article:

and, of course:

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Comments? Thoughts? More suggestions? Share in the comments below or via Twitter.

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