Five Iron Frenzy: A Musician’s Guide to Staying Alive

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“If you help us raise $30,000 we will record a new album.”

Let’s be honest, that strategy doesn’t work for most bands. Why did it work for Denver based ska-band Five Iron Frenzy?
There’s been a lot written recently about Five Iron’s rise from the grave via Kickstarter. Their incredibly loyal fans are responsible for shattering a “help-us-record-a-new-album goal” of $30K. “Shattered” is not an exaggeration. In the first day they raised $60,000. They finished fundraising with over $200,000.

What inspires this kind of rabid loyalty in fans? To help answer that, come back in time with me to 1999 and let me tell you a personal story.

As a youth-group going, punk-rock listening teen I have two favorites: Jesus and Five Iron Frenzy. I wear thrift-store corduroys and a wallet-chain. I spike my hair and keep a bible in my backpack. My first “real concert” is at City Auditorium, where I see Five Iron Frenzy open for P.O.D. in some sort of stylistically schizophrenic show where the only common thread is that all of the bands are “Christian bands.”

Jeremy Circa 1999

I have carefully studied all of Five Iron Frenzy’s album art, learning every lyric, all the band member’s names and what they play. Because of this, I am able to shout all the words along with the other sweat-covered high-schoolers jumping in time to the pounding music.

When their newest album comes out, I am nervous with anticipation. I tear the packaging off Five Iron Frenzy’s LIVE! Album, and push the CD into my stereo. I lean back, lick my lips and close my eyes, head bobbing. This is “sweet.” I turn it up. Suddenly Reese Roper, the lead singer, screams, “To hell with the devil!”

My face pales. I nervously laugh. I look around to see if my parents heard the loudly screamed profanity. “Well, technically that IS where Satan is destined to go…” I say to no-one in particular.

It shouldn’t have bothered me, but I am a good rule-follower at this age, and it seems to me that it’s wrong to swear. There is no grey area, either you’re saying something positive, or you’re swearing. So, I decide to write them a letter.

Dear Five Iron Frenzy,

You are my favorite band. I have all of your albums so far, and listen to them all the time. Your music is really great.

I was a little concerned, however, when I listened to your live album during the part where Reese yells “to hell with the devil.” I think we need to be careful about words we say. It says in Jude 1:9 that when Michael the Archangel fought with Satan, he did not “pronounce the blasphemous judgment, but said ‘the Lord rebuke you.’”

Anyway, just wanted to let you know, and see what your thoughts were about saying that.

You guys are still my favorite band.

Sincerely,

Jeremy Grant

I push my glasses up my nose, lick the envelope, flip it over and wrote “to: FIF” (with one backwards F) on the front. “That should do it.”

A month or two later, I receive a hand-written response.

Dear Jeremy,

Thanks for writing!

Yeah, sometimes Reese gets a little carried away on stage.

[…]

We appreciate your thoughts. Keep reading and thinking about this kind of stuff.

We’re definitely not perfect. Thanks for sticking with us!

Leanor “Jeff the Girl”

So, why does Five Iron Frenzy have such a loyal following?

-The Act of Listening

Five Iron Frenzy started in a time when listening to music was still “an activity” and music was still “a product.” Growing up listening to music, I had tapes and CDs. There was a different kind of consumption of music, it was about an experience, not just background noise. I would sit down and listen to music; it was an activity. Now I think most of us put on music while we do something else. We keep music on our iPods and computers, we buy it digitally, and there are no lyric sheets.

In a time when the physical product of music is no longer popular, how can you, as a musician, develop a personal connection with your audience? Here are some ways I’ve seen artists build loyalty with their fans:

-Releasing special editions, on tape or vinyl only.

-Creating an experience that goes beyond listening: Derek Webb created an experience with a collaborative album featuring work by a photographer and painter. You could choose to buy their art along with Webb’s physical CD.

-Making engaging music videos: This is a classic way (also collaborative) to keep people engaged in your music. If they cannot do something else while listening, they are more involved in your music.

-Personal Connection

Five Iron Frenzy recently announced that they were reinstating their P.O. box, so that fans could write them. They have always made an intentional effort to connect personally with their fans, as evidenced by Leanor’s gracious and humble response to a self-righteous teen.

To keep from being white-noise in today’s saturated market, you have to make a personal connection with fans. Time, place, and experience are becoming much, much more important. If fans can connect with a band, not just online but in person, like no one else can, they will develop a loyalty that won’t be easily broken.

-Create an amazing concert experience, and you will win loyal fans.

-Write a personal blog: Band members from Mumford and Sons are a great example of this. They each have a different blog that they regularly post to. Their subjects are photography, food, band news and a book club, all things the band members love, and they’re great ways to connect with their fans beyond their music.

-Create one of a kind events: House concerts or impromptu shows are great ways to make fans feel special. And with social media platforms like twitter, it’s really easy to spread the word about an impromptu show. (Incidentally, Five Iron did an impromptu surprise show after a recent Switchfoot concert outside of Denver)

Five Iron Frenzy has really set an example in many of these things, in particular through being intentional with their fans. And those fans have responded, stepping up in a big way to fund a new album. Love it. Good luck Five Iron!

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To download Five Iron Frenzy’s new single for free, visit their website here.

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