Last week the music community of Portland, Oregon lost one of its true gems: Lisa Lepine, the “ProMotion Queen.”
Lisa — in her various roles as manager, festival booker, promotion consultant, and more — helped countless people locate their true artistic voice, build community around their music, and find the right opportunities for their career.
She was also a kind of psychiatrist for the artistic soul, and a music marketing matriarch who sat at the head of many tables: Americana, rock, pop, folk, singer-songwriter, World Music, and more.
Her death at 58, due to complications from surgery for the cancer she’d recently been diagnosed with, has shocked everyone that knew and loved her.
Lisa had initially been scheduled to appear as a speaker at this year’s DIY Musician Conference in Chicago, but she decided to cancel because the event would’ve been right in the middle of her treatment regimen. The week before she passed I talked with her for a couple hours about how Kevin Brenuer (CD Baby’s VP of Marketing) and I might be able to present a workshop on her behalf, with some audio and video assists from her from 1500 miles away.
As we talked, Lisa was as passionate as ever about helping artists who struggle when thinking about authentic branding, and I took many notes while we brainstormed. She was bummed to be missing the conference, but inspired by the idea of leading the session in absentia. That absence will of course be all the more sorrowful now.
There have been many tributes to Lisa Lepine in Oregon, which I’ve missed since I live in Maine now. So I figured I’d use this blog as a venue to show my appreciation insofar as it’s relevant to our usual topics, music marketing and promotion — just two of many areas where Lisa excelled.
Before I start listing the lessons I learned, I just want to say that I wasn’t an easy convert to Lisa’s wisdom. When I first met her shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon I was fresh out of college, naive, entitled, and convinced that the whole world would recognize the undeniable brilliance of my music just because.
So many of the things Lisa told me back then either went over my head or seemed like they just didn’t apply, or were somehow beneath me. Surely she was misunderstanding me. (Yeah, because we’re all misunderstood geniuses, right?) After a year or two of being ignored or worse in the Portland music world, Lisa’s lessons started to sink in. They suddenly made some sense. And in the years since they’ve come to make complete sense, which speaks only to how slow I was to remove my blinders.
My hope in writing this is to pay tribute to someone who helped me become who I am, and also to share some of the foundational concepts that drove Lisa’s work. My hope for you is that you embrace these lessons wholeheartedly from the start.
1. It’s all about the name
Lisa thought that 80% of music marketing was taken care of if you had a good band name that communicated something about your story or your sound to fans, talent buyers, and journalists. Her favorite example was Hillstomp. You hear the name and it conjures a sense of Appalachia, energy, raucousness. You already know what world you’re in. Then any followup information about the band is icing on the cake.
You’re at a disadvantage if you have a name that’s either blah or misleading, because then you need to spend time clarifying what the band is and isn’t, instead of just getting to the goods. For instance, Lisa once managed a band called Thrillbilly, which would’ve been a GREAT name if: 1) they were hillbillies, and/or 2) they played rockabilly. Instead, they were a no-frills American rock band, so every conversation Lisa had with people in the industry began with “Thrillbilly: oh, and by the way, they’re NOT a rockabilly band.”
Lisa was really insistent about the importance of a good name. So much so that if you hadn’t yet reached a certain level of regional or national notoriety, she’d recommend you change your name if you started to suspect it was working against you.
Does your name tell your story? Well, maybe before we can answer that question…
2. You have to know your story
What IS your story? How did you come to music? Is there a narrative about your life or music that will captivate someone even before they’ve heard a note?
[Check out our article on how to create and tell a compelling artist story.]
When we hear a story, a picture comes into our minds. That picture is essential because…
3. Your music is the LAST thing that matters
We live with what Lisa called “the reality of the glut.” There is an abundance (many would say an overabundance) of music being released today. People in the industry, and to a lesser degree music fans, are required to constantly sort through all that music and make quick decisions. If you send an email to a blogger, what separates that email from the other 300 correspondences they received that day asking for the same attention you’re seeking? Your story!
You story leads them to the CD or SoundCloud or Bandcamp; the artwork or packaging leads them to the music; and once they’re there, the music is everything. It’s (finally) the only thing that matters. Without the story though, they never would’ve arrived.
4. Brainstorming will yield both brilliant and batshit crazy ideas
One thing that took me a while to understand is that there’s real power in the process of brainstorming, but you can’t be afraid of looking or feeling dumb. And on the flip side, you can’t be judgmental of someone else’s ideas. Early on, I would leave a conversation with Lisa saying to myself “she’s spot on half the time, and then the other half it’s like she doesn’t even know me!” (Again, because we’re all misunderstood geniuses, right?)
But the truth is that in order to arrive at the three or four ideas in the conversation that really sparked something in me, that really felt right, that really motivated me to put more energy into my music, we (and mostly Lisa) had to come up with a bunch of stuff that was whacky, or that might’ve worked for a different artist but wasn’t going to feel authentic for me. Eventually you’ll get to the winnowing process. But brainstorming is the time to generate wheat AND chaff.
5. You need a reflector
Not a shiny thing to wear while bicycling (though you might also need one of those). What I mean is, sometimes we don’t see what makes us unique. We lose perspective. We live our whole lives inside our thoughts, bodies, and habits, so nothing about us feels particularly noteworthy.
Lisa would look for the Gestalt: the holistic picture of a self, both surface and soul. She could look at someone’s artistic life in 3D, see the potential and weaknesses, and then help identify what sets each artist apart. It’s the same reason why you’d hire a producer for your music, or why a writer has an editor. When it comes to marketing or branding, you need someone else to be your mirror and sounding board.
6. What makes you different is your most valuable asset
Be fearlessly unique. Lisa was. She was the first at any club to get up and dance when the music moved her (this in the hipster HQ of Portland, Oregon where most people would listen to music with arms folded and head nodding almost imperceptibly). She wore outlandish hats. She greeted you at the front door by ringing a gong. And she valued what made others unique. Which is why she was so skilled at helping artists identify it, cultivate it, and communicate it more effectively.
You know that famous quote from Lincoln about not being able to please all the people all the time? Your music shouldn’t appeal to everyone. As Lisa said, you don’t want to be the Quaker Oatmeal of the music world. Maybe you should aim to be the preserved lemons or the kohlrabi fritters of the music world. Marketing is finding a way to draw those people towards your music who SHOULD be drawn to it, not about casting the widest possible net.
7. You don’t stand a chance unless you stand with others
Perhaps Lisa’s best gift was as a builder of community. She connected people. She connected the right people with the right people. She knew that any effort you make could be enhanced by collaboration, or that overused term “synergy.”
Without a fellow tribe of musicians, you’re not likely to build a tribe of followers. Lisa really emphasized the importance of going out, listening to lots of live music, introducing yourself to people whose music resonates with you, and then seeing what unfolds from there. Of course, be strategic about how you’re spending your time and WHAT shows you’re going to. But don’t attend with an agenda. Make the connection as a way of expanding your community.
8. Find your artistic persona
“Persona” is another word for image, branding, packaging. It’s the thing that carries your story into the world. It’s the “wardrobe” for your soul. Lisa could really help an artist uncover their persona by searching for that unique, authentic element that set them apart — and then brainstorming ways to dramatize or supersize it so it connects with an audience (in a live setting) and with industry people (on paper or online).
How do you tell your story to the world? If you’re not sure, spend the next few weeks getting introspective about your “persona.” Then find someone to brainstorm with, because remember, you need a reflector too!
9. Promotion is about growth, not conquest
Lisa’s nickname was “ProMotion Queen.” Pro: “Professional?” Yes. But mostly “in favor of moving forward.”
The whole promotion process for Lisa was really about self-discovery. We engage through telling stories, and you can’t tell your story until you know it. So there’s an element of digging deep, and of reflecting on the past — but all as a means of motion and growth.
ProMotion isn’t about shouting on Twitter to buy your new album. It’s about friends, community, story, connection, meaning, purpose — all the big, vague words and concepts that make life worth living.
10. No one will do it for you
Because Lisa had a reputation as a real connector (as well as a manager, consultant, festival booker, etc.), people would come to her with expectations that they’d receive some immediate career benefit: a booking, a review, whatever. For most artists, that wasn’t her job. Her job was to empower you to get your own bookings, reviews, etc. It’s that whole “teach a man to fish” thing.
She helped so many artists embrace the idea of “DIY,” but with the support of their fellow community. I know many musicians who, with Lisa’s guidance, were able to go from hobbyist to full-time artist. The recipe was simple: work hard, work smart, be yourself, identify your community, and prepare for the long haul (because it can take time for authentic art to find its truest audience).
Those are just some of the things I learned from one of the most authentic souls I’ve ever known. A few of these concepts are articulated by Lisa in an interview we did with her way back in 2007 for our 2nd episode of the DIY Musician Podcast.
I’ll be posting more of Lisa’s wisdom here as it comes to me, and Kevin and I will be leading a workshop in Chicago at the DIY Musician Conference that draws upon some of Lisa’s branding exercises and concepts.
She is missed by many. I’m grateful to have had her as a mentor and friend.
As she would say at the end of every email: “Dream.Do.Dazzle.”