The Power Of Putting Community Building First

In the late-90s and early 2000s, when Napster was distributing music for free, many artists took up the legal fight to get paid for their work. Music on the internet was definitely the future, but the economics weren’t sustainable (or legal). While Napster represented a tax on potential album sales to some artists, it represented a resource for unparalleled distribution to others. Without asking a college kid to blow a precious $17 on a CD for a band they never heard of, Napster was letting them explore all music – for free. One incumbent’s tax can be another startup’s resource.

Consider the case of regional college band O.A.R. They sold most of their music at local frat and sorority shows. They had a proven product in their local market, but no distribution into outside markets. Enter Napster. O.A.R. was able to look into the data to see where they were being downloaded and start booking shows in those areas. Beyond selling CDs and getting paid at these performances, they focused on yet another free means of distribution – building a massive email list. More contacts, more shows, more interest, more downloads, and eventually, more than local success.

O.A.R. expanded from Ohio college gigs in the 90s, to charting on Billboard by the early 2000s, and being signed to a major label in 2005. While everyone else was fighting the industry sea change of content distribution, they had embraced it – and it paid off in a big way. Founder Marc Roberge told Cal Fussman that they were never focused on strictly building sales, they were always focused on building up their community first. If they could recreate their local market in enough other places, they could be the career musicians they had dreamt of becoming. By placing community first, the sales – and the careers – would follow.

The lessons for any professional here are clear: community building works. Not product pushing, not utilizing the same tactics as the biggest competitors, but finding our own local proof first and then ways to scale second. The issues of the biggest players in the industry might be related but they are inherently different from what we face on a day to day basis. Just like O.A.R. saw the opportunity Napster created for them, the internet, YouTube, podcasts, social media, local events, etc. create opportunities for those of us who are willing to make something special for the community we seek to serve.

Roberge says, “you’ve got to do it to do it.” Whatever “it” is – really taking care of that client or having the type of conversation with a prospect we really want to have – we have to do it once before we can do it twice, thrice, or a million times over 20+ years the way O.A.R. has done. Build communities, the sales will follow.

Full disclosure: so as not to be a hypocrite, I was never much of an O.A.R. fan and didn’t even know they were still around until recently. I remember hearing “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker,” thinking it was catchy but much too long, and writing them off as a college jam band/flash in the pan. I am both amazed and thrilled to see how they’ve turned a few viral-before-there-was-“viral” party songs into a durable career. Not because I panned their music years ago, but because the work and love that went into bringing their vision to life are inspiring. A crazy game of poker indeed.

The original:

The live at Madison Square Garden version:

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