The biggest question I get asked is "how do I get started." The easiest answer is "with your friends." Even rock stars started by playing shows in front of their friends at their local club. At your earliest shows you're not going to have "fans," you're going to have friends coming out to your show. If you're good enough, some of your friends, or friends brought by your friends, will turn into fans. But you can't expect this too early on because most likely you're not that good at your first few shows. I know I wasn't. It takes experience to get good.
So, start by playing as much as you can. Anywhere and everywhere. You need experience more than anything early on. Get on stage whenever you can. You won't be getting paid for these early shows, but you don't deserve to be just yet. You deserve to get paid when your act merits it and when you can consistently get crowds out to your shows.
I started by playing coffee shops and dorm lounges on the University of Minnesota campus. From day one, I promoted the bajeebers out of every show. I think I put up about 200 posters around my dorm, the music building (where I was a student) and elsewhere around campus for my very first coffee shop show. I didn't expect anyone other than people I personally knew to come out to the show, but by making posters and promoting the show like it was the biggest thing ever legitimized it and helped my friends feel comfortable coming out to the show. I also did this because I had the grand vision in mind from day one. I knew that the first three times someone saw a poster with my name/photo on it they wouldn't think anything of it, but by the 4th or 5th time they may ask their friends if they'd heard of this guy who they keep seeing posters of and maybe they'll even go online and listen to the music and maybe, just maybe, they'll get out to the show.
I was right.
After playing open mics, talent showcases, coffee shops, dorm lounges, campus bars and college events (all for free and for just my friends), and putting up 8.5 x 11 black and white posters around campus with my name and photo everywhere for each one of these, I finally had an album ready to release. I promoted this show a little differently. Instead of the small black and white posters, I got about 200 full color, 11 x 17 posters printed up and plastered the campus with them for my CD release. I think the fact that these posters were larger and in color tipped those over the edge who had been wondering for the past year who the guy on the posters was. The larger, color posters with "CD RELEASE" not only legitimized this show, but made it an event - not just another show. So, people felt comfortable paying $5 to see a buzzed about event.
I also printed up about 2,000 flyers that I threw under dorm room doors and passed out around campus during high traffic times (with the same image from the posters). I had 1,000 demo CDs made (again, with the same image from the posters) that included one full song and clips from other songs on the album (this was before YouTube, Twitter, Soundcloud or Spotify). Finally, the night before the show, I spent a couple hours with some friends and sidewalk chalk marking up the campus mall sidewalks where the majority of students walked every day.
I played enough shows prior to the release that enough people were talking about me and friends kept coming back and bringing more friends because I was actually getting good and they actually enjoyed the show and weren't there just to "support their friend."
I remember the week of the CD release a friend called me and said "Oh my god Ari my friends just asked me if I wanted to check out 'this Ari Herstand guy this Friday' because they were getting tickets. You're famous!!"