Mannheim Steamroller

Back on December 5, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Mannheim Steamroller in concert at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was a special treat for me since I’ve been a big fan of this group of musicians since I first heard them way back in 1974. It was also a special treat because my youngest daughter was part of the choir selected to greet concert goers on their way into the show.

Now, I should note that I didn’t originally discover the Mannheim Steamroller musicians AS Mannheim Steamroller. Like many people I first heard them playing as the backup band for a country artist named C.W. McCall, whose hits at the time included such songs as “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” C.W. McCall, in turn, was the nom de guerre of ad man Bill Fries. I’m still a fan of C.W. McCall, and in fact the space pirate story I posted this week at my Patreon site is inspired by “Convoy.”

I learned about Mannheim Steamroller as a separate entity from C.W. McCall when I went to college in 1984. My dorm’s RA was a fan of both groups and introduced me to their four albums at that point, the original Fresh Aire albums. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out that very year and really defined the band for many people. For me, Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental mix of renaissance, classical, jazz, and modern instruments was great music to study by and it’s still among my favorite music to write to. They currently seem to refer to themselves as a neo-classical group and the classification fits pretty well.

One of the first things I noticed when I got the program was that there are two touring groups for Mannheim Steamroller, nicknamed the Red and Green groups. This seemed quite fitting for a concert in New Mexico. The group that played for us was the “Green” Tour group. Most of their names were unfamiliar and when they came out, I realized that many of the people on stage were too young to have been playing since 1974. I came to realize that Mannheim Steamroller is now more like a classical ensemble with players who change out with time and less like a rock or a country band where you see a set of specific personalities.

The one personality who seems indelibly connected with Mannheim Steamroller is composer and one-time drummer Chip Davis. I gather he no longer tours with the group, but they showed videos during the concert where Davis spoke. They were interesting from a marketing standpoint. In one of the videos, Davis spoke about the band’s history and success, including clips from various television shows. Another was a direct appeal to visit the merchandise booth. The videos combined with the band’s performance brought to mind some great points about artists marketing themselves.

  1. First and foremost, create something your passionate about.
  2. Collaborate with experts in the craft to make your art shine.
  3. Tout your successes.
  4. Remind people to support your art through purchases.

Point one, should be pretty obvious. For a writer, point two can be as simple as working with a good editor or a good cover artist to breathe life into your work. It can also take other forms like working with a narrator on an audio book, or a team on a short film. Numbers three and four require some balance. To be honest, I was almost turned off by the video of the successes, but I came back around because the group in concert showed me what wonderful music they perform. That’s why the order of the list is actually important. You have to do as well as you can with steps one and two before you move on to steps three and four. What’s more, you need to remember that the art itself takes precedence.

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Marketing Buzzwords

One of the things that drives me crazy about the publishing business is that as writers and editors we strive to be clear, concise, and avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases. Yet, when it comes time to market books, many people including some very talented writers and editors will fall back on some very tired and overused phrases to describe the process. One phrase in particular that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it is “building buzz.”

The idea here is that when a new book comes out, an author should make a concerted effort to get word out about the book. Because there are only so many people an author can interact with personally, the author wants to encourage others to talk and write about their book. And just to be clear, this is a good thing and authors absolutely need to do this. My problem is with the hackneyed phrase used to describe this activity.

My first problem with the phrase is that it sounds horribly egotistical. It’s like what you’ve written is so totally amazing that everyone is going to drop what they’re doing and talk incessantly about it until it becomes a drone, like the buzzing of bees. Let’s be real, no one has ever written a book that’s set people talking that much before they even read them. The closest I can think of are the Harry Potter novels. Of course, these books were discovered, read, recommended and discussed enough that they became best sellers, then had movies made of them, and remain popular years after they were written.

“Buzz” is earned through engaging writing. It’s not something manipulated and built artificially after the book has gone to press. People talked and wrote about the Harry Potter books because they liked them, not because J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Publishing, or some marketing company told them to talk about them. The buzz happened because the books touched the imagination of the audience.

What’s more, I think clichés like “building buzz” do a disservice to writers and publishers trying to navigate the complicated and ever-changing world of book marketing. It lends credence to the notion that there’s some magical recipe that will make your book so successful that everyone talks about it. If you didn’t successfully “build buzz” with your first attempts, you’ve failed and you should stop trying. As I implied earlier, the hard work of “building buzz” happens when you write the book and create something people want to read. Once the book is out, your job is to find creative ways to tell people about your book without droning on like the buzz of a bee.

When your book comes out, do tell people it exists. Tell them what it’s about in concise, clear words. Find creative ways to get that message out. Talk to other writers and find out what worked for them. Those almost certainly include such things as newsletters, blog posts, sending out free copies to reviewers, book trailers, social networking, bookmarks, and lots more. That said, don’t limit yourself to those things people have told you work. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try new things. This is not a recipe. It’s a process.

Finally, if I ever use the phrase “building buzz” as a shorthand for getting the word out about your books or mine, you’re more than welcome to call me on it!