In the first post of this series I told the story of how I loved playing the guitar, lost the love, and then got it back. Basically it was an illustration of an all-too-common scenario wherein the music business chews you up and spits you out. Luckily I figured things out in time to repair the damage to my psyche, marriage and family.
In the second post of this series I told the story of how I went through the same thing as a songwriter. Because of the lessons learned from the previous episode, this time I avoided doing damage to my wife and kids. My wife told me reading it was a little painful; she had forgotten a lot of it - not forgotten, she'd put it out of her mind so as not to be bitter. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick." The music business is full of deferred hope and sick hearts.
In this post I'm going to explain how I'm doing it again! However, there are factors that are different this time around. Yeah...riiight! No, really!
There's a ton of backstory here. I'm just going to give a bunch of links; follow them if you're interested, but you won't have to do that to get the jist of what this post is about.
The backstory involves the 7 years I spent studying with my teacher, John Elliott, and how I wrote and self-published a method book for guitar (Vertical Truth) that contains a great deal of what I learned from him. I obtained his approval for the book and created a network of teachers all over the country that use this method to greater or lesser degrees in their own teaching activities. MasterGuitar.com was created as a vehicle to promote my books. Originally, MasterGuitar.com was built for me by a friend in 1999 or 2000, but I bought some software (Microsoft FrontPage) and figured out how to get into it myself and started tinkering with it. Because of my "tinkering" it turned into a Frankenstein Monster of a website and the original purpose - promoting my books - got buried. In about 2001 I built my first website from scratch using HTML. After that, "website building for dummies" platforms started appearing that didn't require knowledge of HTML. I've built several websites that way just as a hobby. In 2013 I built MasterGuitarSchool.com and moved all my teaching activities to that site - including book sales - and redesigned MasterGuitar.com as the promotional vehicle for everything guitar-related that I do other than my teaching activities.
Concerning the books; just like income began decreasing from CD sales, downloads and streaming in the mid to late 2,000's as internet technology evolved, the same thing happened with book sales.
I became aware that piracy was an issue fairly early on. Within a year of publication (1999), I found out that someone in Singapore was printing copies of Vertical Truth and selling them. I found out because a guitar player from Singapore who had purchased one of these bootleg copies emailed me with a question. I came to the conclusion there was nothing I could do but consider it free advertising. From then on, every copy of the book contained my name and website address on every page! I still get inquiries from time to time from people who have a bootleg copy with questions about technique, methodology and theory.
Another episode that comes to mind is I found some guy selling Vertical Truth coffee mugs, ball caps, bumper stickers etc. from a website - all with MY logo! Again I had to consider what it would take to go after this guy and would it be worth the expense and aggravation. Again I chalked it up to, "free advertising."
When the market crashed around 2008 my teaching load dropped about 40% within a year. It has held steady since then but only because I market the crap out of it. Marketing and advertising were never necessary before the crash - word-of-mouth and referrals from whatever store I was teaching at was sufficient to keep a full schedule with a waiting list. My high water mark in the late '80's- early '90's was 97 students a week and 3 dozen on a waiting list. Those days are gone. I use several referral websites (Thumbtack.com and Lessons.com are a couple of the better ones) that cost money but so far have been worth the expense. I also get a student from time to time through Craigslist. I tried a bunch of marketing strategies and spent lots of money on radio ads, print ads and so on - none of which worked - my load has not rebounded to pre-crash levels. There are many reasons for this, most of which are internet-related, and also the fact that pop music is no longer guitar-centric (and only about 10% human), which could be the subject of another post; the market crash was just the final straw. The same thing happened to my subscribing teachers - the ones who were selling my books to their students. So the book sales dropped off as well. Fortunately by this time, my kids were in various stages of becoming adults, leaving home and marrying. My overhead was decreasing so the ability to meet day-to-day living expenses and bills wasn't really affected; I had been living below my means for quite awhile, the only thing that was affected was my retirement accounts (lost 40%) and my retirement investing which basically came to a screeching halt.
I continued to do what I'd always done - teach students and play gigs.
In 2014 (one year after building MasterGuitarSchool.com) a series of seemingly unrelated events happened.
My wife planned a family vacation with our kids and their families and some extended family members. The plan was to take Amtrak to Disneyland in LA for a couple of days and then she had rented a cabin in Yosemite for a few days. I decided that as long as I was going to be in LA I would do some music biz stuff there and write off that part the trip.
One of the things I lined up was an appearance on Jazz Quest Radio. One of the hosts of Jazz Quest Radio is a former student, Brett Ecklund. He and his co-host, Tommy Benson, generously devoted a whole show to me; my CDs, history, and most importantly, my method book. They interviewed me, played cuts from my CDs, we performed live in studio, and just generally chatted and had a good ol' time.
Behind the scenes: "What really makes the radio show more fun is if we take our pants off."
A couple of days later while staying in Yosemite, a nephew told me about a book he'd had to read in a marketing class in college. It was "Launch" by an internet marketing guru named Jeff Walker. My nephew told me, "Man, you should buy this book and read it! I was reading it and I said, 'Uncle Jay has the perfect thing for this!'"
I wrote the book title and author down and stuck it in my wallet.
Sometime after returning from LA I sold a book to a guitar teacher in Pensacola named Kenny Salter. Didn't think much of it, just another book sale. I shipped a book to him and then forgot about it. Shortly after that Kenny emailed me wanting to take some Skype lessons just to make sure he understood the stuff in the book correctly. Great! A potential subscribing teacher who could sell my books to his students! He wanted to pay me via PayPal. I told him to just send me a check. He said he didn't have checks, he did everything with PayPal. So I opened a PayPal account just to accommodate Kenny. I figured out how to embed PayPal buttons on my website for the books and within a couple of weeks I had $300.00 sitting in that account. "Hmm." I thought, "I guess there is something to this internet thing."
During the course of the Skype lessons with Kenny I asked, "How many students do you have?" I'm thinking, "How many of my books can you sell to your students?"
"Oh." He said, "I haven't given a personal lesson since 2005, I just sell lessons from a website. One of the things I do is share lists with other guys that do what I do. I sell their stuff to my list and vice-versa."
The significance of that statement sailed right over my head. All I thought was, "Crap! No book sales through Kenny!"
I gave Kenny weekly Skype lessons for several months and then he had some personal issues come up and had to discontinue the Skyping but still wanted me to webcam lessons to YouTube for him to view at his convenience. He continued to pay me so I did that for him. That lasted for a little while and then he discontinued.
Finally, I remembered the book title in my wallet. "Launch" by Jeff Walker.
Subtitle: "An Internet Millionaire's SECRET FORMULA To Sell Almost Anything Online, Build A Business You Love, And Live The Life Of Your Dreams."
Wow. Normally with a title like that I would go, "BS - too good to be true!" and move on. But because of my nephew, I bought the book and read it. My nephew was right, I had the perfect thing. I could create and sell guitar lessons from my website! I already had the content. I'd been creating it for over 30 years!
It took 2 readings, and sections of it way more than that to wrap my head around the basic marketing concept, and what it would take for me to execute it. I'd never really aggressively marketed myself before, I'd always left that to agents, managers, band leaders and promoters. If I hadn't had the website building skills I'd previously learned I probably wouldn't have attempted it; I had to figure out how to upgrade MasterGuitarSchool.com to an ecommerce level. I had to figure out what there was available to handle automated downloads, credit card transactions, direct deposits into my bank account, email hosting and automation etc. ad nauseam. And all that was on top of learning the marketing techniques and psychology that was the main focus of the book.
Sound familiar? 3rd time around; a bunch of crap I wasn't interested in that was necessary to be able to do what I wanted to do - make a living with the guitar.
However, there are some differences from my previous episodes. For one thing, no one else is necessary. No band, no agent, no manager, no club owner, no publisher, no record label; no publishing or music industry infrastructure, no teaching studio, no music store. Just me, my website, and the internet. That appealed to my lone wolf instincts.
I started in on it. It was challenging to say the least. Several things had to happen simultaneously:
1) As I stated previously, I had to upgrade the website to an ecommerce level with all that entails; automated downloads, credit card transactions, direct deposits into my bank account, email hosting and automation etc.
2) I had to create product - guitar lesson downloads. Webpage-based lessons. Video lessons. I created a bunch of webpage-based lessons that had text, fretboard diagrams and demonstration videos. These would be free to site members. For downloads that I would sell I settled on PDF files with the same kinds of content. I already had a book - the problem was that the book was not designed to be "self-teaching" but requires a knowledgeable instructor to apply it. In the online environment the product has to be as self-contained as possible. The book would have to be rewritten and redesigned to be as "self-teaching" as possible. I have serious issues with the whole concept of "self-teaching" something like a musical instrument. It's an oxymoronic concept. If I was 10 years older I would be like (in a cranky old man voice),
"If you don't want to show up at my studio and study with me one-on-one I don't want to teach you! Damn kids with yer clothes and yer hair and yer interweb thingy!"
The thing is, I want 15 or 20 more years of relevance and this is the way things are going - so I'm dealing with it. It will take years for me to reproduce my book. At the time of this writing (January 2018) I've just launched Unit 4 out of 10 so I'm not even half-way yet.
3) I had to build a list to market and sell to. This is a fundamental concept of Jeff Walker's approach. You build a "tribe" of people who are interested and engaged with what you do. We used to call them, "Fans." I figured out how to create a signup form and a "Members Only" section of the website. Sign up as a site member and you get free web page-based lessons, deep discounts on downloads etc. I began spending money to the tune of $200 or $300 a month - mainly on Facebook ads - funneling people to the signup form on the website. My initial "micro list" was mainly built this way - we're talking hundreds, not thousands. It was working pretty good for a while but then Facebook changed the algorithms and the ROI (return on investment) went down - I was reaching fewer people for the same money. That pissed me off. Disgusted, I decided I didn't want to do the learning curve on the new rules - which change every so often, apparently - and quit that approach. I'm still doing ads but not spending as much. Way to go Facebook. I created pages on all the social media sites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest and others that all function to funnel interested people to the website and the signup form.
4) The list has to be nurtured and engaged. I send out a newsletter every month - each newsletter contains a free lesson that is not part of the Vertical Truth products I'm creating as downloads. The newsletter lessons are web page-based and free. So on top of everything else, I have to produce a lesson every month for the newsletter.
Jeff Walker says the only asset of an online business is the email list. I can see why he says that, his focus is marketing - he takes the product for granted. But what good is a list if you ain't got no product?
My product is the sum total of my knowledge and experience with the guitar. My approach is methodical. The method is comprehensive. My product is special. That's my focus and it's what I'm really interested in; my list, and monetizing my product, comes in second. Just like playing the guitar - I love it in-and-of itself. A well-ordered, and logically presented method is a thing of beauty to me and is an end in itself. That's the first thing. Marketing and monetizing it is second.
Anyhow, I worked hard on these things for over a year - all while doing my normal 40+ private lessons a week as well as 2-4 gigs a week. During the course of that year the significance of the things that Kenny Salter had casually dropped in our previous conversations began to dawn on me. Apparently what I was just now attempting he had been doing for over 10 years!
He was watching me. He signed up as a site member. I would occasionally contact him with questions. Every once in a while he would contact me with suggestions on software, website hosting, email hosting, list management and so on. He was very helpful. He was also pimping me on his Twitter feed - called me his "personal guitar coach" and said I had the best method he'd ever seen. I'm very appreciative of all that. I sent him free copies of my products in appreciation for his help. Things would have been much more difficult without him.
Finally the time came that I was ready to attempt my first launch. I began to foreshadow the launch in my social media activity and through the newsletter. Kenny contacted me and said, "You know, I can help you promote this, it's what I do." I said, "What do you mean? Do you mean sell my product to your list?" He said, "Yeah."
A joint venture like this can be a win/win thing. The guy with the list reinforces the goodwill of his tribe by offering them a superior product - and gets half the money. The guy with the product not only sells product but grows his own list since everyone who buys the product is now his customer as well. The guy with the product provides the infrastructure for the transaction - credit card processing, automated downloads, direct deposits - he gets the email addresses of the buyers and the money from the joint venture gets split 50/50.
"Well," I said, "I'm definitely interested in that, but I've got to do this launch to my own list first. I don't know what I'm doing - I've never done this before - and I've got to make sure my infrastructure is in place and working before I do any joint ventures. If I screw up I want to do it with my list, not somebody else's."
"By the way," I said. "I'm about to do a Jeff Walker-style launch. Do you know anything about that?"
"Oh yeah." He said, "I know Jeff well. As a matter of fact, I'm one of the case studies in his book."
I'm not going to tell the story of the first launch; maybe some other time. It was a roller coaster from hell. Technical problems delayed the opening by 24 hours during which time I went from deep dark depression and excessive misery (a whole years worth of work, time and money down the drain!) to realizing a couple of hours later that people were sitting at their computers waiting to download this lesson series and I'd better stop the pity party and get to work on a solution. I was up till 4:00 in the morning building an alternative infrastructure and opened the launch 24 hours late. Kenny was very helpful and encouraging during this crisis. In spite of the problems I still made enough money to conclude that this thing was worth doing. And I realized I already had the makings of a tribe. The people who bought had to try more than once if the first scenario didn't work. They were interested and committed enough to click-through multiple times to get the download!
A week after the launch I had a road trip booked. A wedding in Fort Lauderdale, a couple of gigs in St. Augustine, a meeting in Atlanta, and stuff in Nashville. I told Kenny, "My wife and I are coming through Pensacola on our way to Fort Lauderdale and I'd like to take you and your wife out to dinner. Pick your spot." This was the first time I'd met Kenny in person. Kenny invited us to his house for brunch the next morning before we left town.
Just as we were leaving I asked, "By the way, how did you find my website? How did you know to buy my book?"
"Oh, I heard you on the radio."
He'd somehow heard the Jazz Quest Radio show I did in LA - the same trip where my nephew steered me to Jeff Walker's book, which book had caused me to embark on this venture in the first place, and which book contained a certain case study of a guitar teacher from Pensacola, who bought my book because of the radio show.
Sometimes I wonder...
P.S. Since the time of this story I've done several product launches and, unlike the first one, they have all gone relatively smooth and met or exceeded expectations. So I'm continuing to build and nurture the membership list and am continuously creating guitar lessons for my site members.
I have not yet reached the point at which the fun has gone away...
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