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8 marketing lessons from folk music


After over two years of canceled tours and Zoom concerts, artists of every genre are back on tour. If all goes well, 2022 will be the summer of live music for musicians and the crews who depend on them.


Even New Kids On the Block is coming to Chicago with a "Mixtape Tour."


I wouldn't be surprised if these few years post pandemic earn a title like "Creative Boom." The pandemic is birthing creativity. Turns out fear, isolation and contemplation is a boon for new art, poetry, books, scripts and songs.


For me this means I'll be at every folk music concert this summer that I can manage.


I was raised on folk music, first on family road trips and then at summer camp. I’m raising my own kids on the same tunes, along with so many of the new folk artists I’ve come to love.

We even named our dogs after two of our favorites, Dylan and Ani, who strangely enough seem to personify their namesakes.


This week after attending my first of four big shows this summer, I can say that gathering together outdoors for the shared love of music is the exact balm we need. All of us can use more of the comfort and wisdom of music and art.


In honor of this summer of music, and since this is a marketing blog, I’m sharing what we can learn in marketing from folk musicians.



The best marketing tells a story

At the heart of folk music is story.


And one of the greatest folk singing storytellers is Harry Chapin. Harry Chapin was my personal introduction to folk music. Family lore is that my mom left me as a newborn because my dad scored two tickets to see him live. It was the last time they saw him in concert prior to his tragic death in 1981.


What Harry mastered is the art of storytelling in music. He shares stories of universal feelings and experiences in ballads that can last over six minutes, like Taxi. Harry even added a sequel to that song, aptly named “Sequel” for another six+ minutes (who else does that?!).


Like any good story, Harry’s lyrics are relatable and memorable, just as any good marketing should be. But because he sets it to music, you can listen enough and go on to memorize every word. I’ve spent many nights around campfires belting out lyrics to songs like Mr. Tanner and Flowers Are Red.



I dare you to watch this live on the Tonight Show with guest host John Davidson and keep from smiling.


There’s a reason marketers today are obsessed with storytelling: it works. It’s true in music, and of course it’s true in marketing.


Good marketing is so simple it’s obvious

Woody Guthrie is a father of America’s tradition in protest folk music. I doubt he would have guessed we'd still be protesting the same ideas 80 years later.


Woody wisely tells us:

Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.

It’s sage advice in life and especially in marketing.


Marketing today is more complicated than ever. All you have to do it is get caught up in Facebook’s Business Ad Manager to see how hard it can get. I could do my own marketing for my healthcare marketing business 24 hours a day, never stopping to support my clients, let alone live my life, and I could still come up with more I could do. That’s the nature of the beast.


But figuring out how to simplify marketing while still remaining successful? That’s no easy feat.


Marketing moves quickly so ‘keep your eyes open wide’

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing might as well be the digital marketing theme song. Fifteen years ago when I entered the field, websites were little more than a digital yellow pages and social media was a space to socialize with friends. It’s been changing nearly every day since.


Come writers and critics Who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide The chance won’t come again And don’t speak too soon For the wheel’s still in spin And there’s no tellin’ who That it’s namin’ For the loser now Will be later to win For the times they are a-changin’

Changes in marketing have made it easier for businesses to target their audience, but it’s harder to keep up and nearly impossible to get ahead. But rather than feel frustrated by the rapid pace of change in the industry or to wring my hands over Facebook’s latest algorithm change, I prefer to enjoy the ride. I learn something new nearly every day on the job. It’s what I love most about the industry.


And when I do feel overwhelmed, I turn to my pen. I can’t say I’m able to prophesize, but good writing is a skill in marketing that will never expire, no matter what the future medium looks like.





Good marketing is more art than science

I can’t talk about Dylan without mentioning Ani DiFranco.


They’re not the pair that Dylan and Joan Baez were, but in our house and in real life, Ani and Dylan are “frenemies.”

Meet my co-workers, Dylan and Ani.


Ani’s words, like the best of folk musicians, read like poetry. (Whether you’re a fan or not, I recommend listening to her book.) Her words are stunning and powerful.


Any fan of Ani would recognize the irony of citing Ani DiFranco in a marketing blog. She’s a bit of an anarchist and has her own record label because of her refusal to conform.


For the sake of this blog theme and because she’s one of my favorites, I’m going to share marketing lesson from Ani’s words nonetheless.


She writes in Out of Habit:

Art is why I get up in the morning but my definition ends there. You know I don’t think it’s fair that I’m living for something I can’t even define.


Watch out for the F-bomb in this one. Listen at your own risk.


Good marketing is an art, and like any art, you have to make a massive amount of it to create that one masterpiece. Big companies with money and whole teams can nail it, like Nike in their You Can’t Stop Sport ad or REI with their documentaries that subtly promote their brands by not mentioning them at all.


But small business owners doing their own marketing can nail it too with that one piece of content that finally resonates and reaches thousands of people.


We marketers work tirelessly at our craft, and we never really know how our audience will receive it. What we think are our best ideas can totally bomb, while others we throw together on a whim succeed.


Stare at your analytics all you want, but the numbers can’t conjure up the perfect marketing campaign. It’s the fact that you show up every day to create content that lands you on the piece that works.


Do a little and improve a little each day and believe in the process.


Done is better than perfect

At the risk of sounding cliche, I’m going to quote the most well-known song by the Indigo Girls for this marketing lesson, Closer to Fine.


I heard this song at age 12 in 1991 when my cool older sister put her yellow Sony walkman headphones in my ears and said simply, “Listen to this.” I have few memories of childhood, but this one I recall with clarity. A whole world opened up for me in that song, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. There were years when my friends and I saw the Indigo Girls play every concert within a four-hour driving range. I'll be seeing Indigo Girls twice in my summer 2022 line up.


They’ll always be the original IG to me.


When it comes to perfection, Amy and Emily have this to say:


There’s more than one answer to these questions Pointing me in a crooked line And the less I seek my source for some definitive The closer I am to fine, yeah The closer I am to fine, yeah

Marketing is fast and furious, and digital marketing is never done. The minute you launch a website or an ad campaign, there is more to do to improve it and build upon it.


There’s no room for perfectionism in digital marketing. I’ve seen many business owners go down the rabbit hole of perfecting a website before launching it. All the while, they’re losing customers with a lousy site that no longer does the job.


Whatever the digital marketing project, get the dang thing up as soon as it’s “closer to fine.”





Know what to keep to yourself

Not long after I discovered the Indigo Girls, I found Joni Mitchell. In this quote, it’s almost as if Joni predicted the age of social media, particularly Instagram, where users would reveal too much in the effort to “be real.”


There are things to confess that enrich the world, and things that need not be said.

Thank you, Joni. Enough said.


That quote didn’t come from one of her songs, but I can’t resist sharing my favorite song with you below.


In case you’re wondering, she’s playing a dulcimer, an instrument she plays like no other.



Building a brand takes time

Like any habit, the hardest part of creating content to build a brand is staying consistent. But it's consistency that sets the successful content creators from those who quit.


That's because it takes time to hone your craft and build an audience. Any decent marketing experiment, whether it's posting on LinkedIn or writing SEO blogs, takes at least six months before you see any real results.


Most people don't have the patience to stick with anything hard that doesn't yield early results. It would behoove all of us to pay attention to these lyrics from the Lumineers:


It's a long road to wisdom but it's a short one to being ignored


There is power in your authentic voice, so use it

And finally, let’s end with my favorite: Brandi Carlile.


Brandi is a master of authenticity, although she admits in interviews and in her recent book that it wasn't always that way. It took years to get comfortable as herself --a gay kid in the 80s from rural Washington.


One of her most powerful songs with a note that nearly made glass shatter at the Grammys in 2019, The Joke, features the struggle of being yourself even when no one understands.


You get discouraged, don't you, girl? It's your brother's world for a while longer We gotta dance with the devil on a river To beat the stream Call it living the dream, call it kicking the ladder
They come to kick dirt in your face To call you weak and then displace you After carrying your baby on your back across the desert I saw your eyes behind your hair And you're looking tired, but you don't look scared
Let 'em laugh while they can Let 'em spin, let 'em scatter in the wind I have been to the movies, I've seen how it ends And the joke's on them


These are powerful words focusing on how each of us can use our own voice to create change in the world.


It’s true in every area–even in marketing.


Marketing gets a bad rap for being sleazy and manipulative, but that kind of sales pitch is no longer effective. The most successful marketing today comes from a place of authenticity. We as marketers are most successful when we use our voices to promote a product or service that we believe can improve people’s lives in some small measure. Then, marketing is about helping, supporting and connecting. It’s about getting something positive into the hands of those who need it.


We all have a voice. We can use it to promote something that doesn’t matter, or even something that is false or manipulative. Or we can use it promote ideas that improve lives.


I haven’t even mentioned Mumford and Sons, Florence and the Machine or the Avett Brothers, who are a few of my current favorites.


But you’ve got a business run, and I do too.


I’ll be fueling mine with folk music in the background.


Maybe now, you will too.

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