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Brand Yourself Like An Artist!

June 3, 2020

Darian: Hey everybody, it's another beautiful day in Hawaii and I'm here today with Hip-Hop artist Mike "Sarge" Manning. He talks about business as it relates to the music industry, products, and services. Don't worry, we tie it all in together, so no matter what kind of business you have all these principals are gonna be really interesting.

So, why don't you introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about how you came into rapping, and a little bit about how branding yourself as an artist all works together.

Sarge: Definitely! Thank you for having me, I'm excited to do this. My artist's name is Mike Sarge and I'm a rapper. For most people, it would be considered positive, hip very clean. So for people looking to look me up, don't worry about it. Your kids can hear me, there's nothing negative going on. I'm originally from Atlanta, Georgia and I've always had a love and a passion for just music in general. Around 2012 I just got to thinking "You know what, maybe I should just try it like this for fun." So I ended up just buying this super cheap microphone, plug it up to my laptop and I was like," Alright, let me try this".

What started off as a fun hobby eventually turned into something much, much bigger, and now I'm here. I got multiple projects on Spotify and Amazon, plus I'm doing performances on YouTube and things like that, I'm just really enjoying the journey.

Darian: So, bringing it down to what's going on right now with the pandemic how has that changed the way you do business? Obviously it's gonna be difficult to have any kind of live performance, but you're also working and collaborating with the local community. So how does that work, when you can't actually be there side by side or have a crowd in front of you?

Sarge: That's a really good question. I've always made it a point to make sure that however, I'm communicating, I have multiple ways of doing it.

So, for example, there are a lot of musicians that are hurting right now, because they can't go to shows. As you mentioned, there's social distancing happening. For me, half of my journey, is the in-person aspect- going out to open shows, but the other half is the digital piece, it's the social media, it's the conversations with people, whether they're in my local area or not.

For me, it's given me a bigger platform or bigger opportunity to engage those people that are leaving comments and that are sharing.

Now, I'm putting more of a focus on my email blasts I have more of an opportunity to put in those strategies that I've planned out. Whether with our fans or with other artists we can all communicate with each other now even if we're not in front of each other. Which is amazing.

So in many ways, it's helped the modern artist, but I will say that Covid19 has put a lot of pressure on artists as well. Now everyone feels like, "Well you're at home now, what's the excuse to not release music or to release content?

And if you're naturally a creative person, sometimes the pressure of expectation is enough to throw you off and almost give you writer's block 'cause you're feeling like, "Oh man, I have to release something, when the truth is you just need to create and have fun with it. So I definitely see the benefits and I can also see how if I add a little pressure.

Darian: I wanted to ask about social media because you were very highly engaged with your audience before the pandemic. You're still incredibly highly engaged with your community and they talk back to you, which is often a really big challenge. How do you actually maintain being productive during this time when there is that creative pressure? What was the importance of being involved with your social media, and with your following that got you started in that direction and then how important is it now? 

Sarge: So social media itself has changed over time, there was a moment where MySpace was the thing. Then it transitioned to Facebook and then transitioned to Twitter and then Instagram and now we have Snapchat so social media is this ever-evolving thing.

Even as a music artist, I still have to see myself as an entrepreneur. And when you're an entrepreneur, it's very much important that you are at where your audience or customers are at. You gotta ask yourself "What's important to them? What's the type of content that I should be putting out based on the market that I'm in?"

I do notice that sometimes it's easy to just go on on social media, and feel like I need to put out pictures and videos, but the truth is if I'm not putting out something that you actually care about I'm probably wasting your time and wasting my time as well. It was about being intentional and figuring out:

  • What the people that are following me want to see or hear?
  • What type of content do they like?
  • What are their interests?

For me, I know what that is. I know that the people that are interested in my stuff also like good music, they're into sports, movie debates and they have some type of religious affiliation. 

I know that it's easier for me to know what type of content to release, but for a lot of people, they just see, social media as a means to become famous, but to be honest, social media is just a tool.

I had a hammer but didn't know the purpose of the hammer I will be misusing it. Social media is the same way. If you know what you plan on using it for, you can be successful in any area that you're in.

And that brings up another one. So first, let's get into productivity, and then everything you say I have five more questions that I want a line on it.

Darian: Great! Going back to productivity though, you're in the military. You have a day job, and you have this successful career as a rapper and you have a family. How has that changed for you and do you feel affected by this pressure to be creative, now that you have some time at home?

Sarge: For me, it caused me to be more strategic with my time saying to myself "Alright, so this is what my weeks looking like. These are the things that I know I have to get done, this is where I get to rest, where I can focus on music, etc".

To answer your other question as far as how I deal with the added pressure to get something done and shared. I've almost learned to turn that pressure into a competitive edge almost like "I wanna make this the best stuff, so if it's gonna be something where I know my following the look-it, for something for me or I'm gonna give them stuff but not only am I gonna give them stuff, I'm gonna give them stuff they're not expecting." This is a different situation. So let me give them something different.

One of the very first things that I did was I made a little 30-second parody about COVID. I wanted to do that because all you heard in the news was about death and social distancing. So I said, "You know what, people need something to kinda ease their mind a little bit." plus it was something that was trending, so I hopped on it. I think many creatives can do that regardless of what area of expertise that you're in, you don't have to overthink it, just take a step back and say "Alright, what's something that I would do about this situation? Would I try to console people in the situation? Would I try to release a motivational video in this situation, etc.? Just do what you already naturally do regardless of the situation. Take that pressure, turn it into a competitive edge. I do it this way and it's caused me to become more focused.

Darian: I think that's super smart. You also spoke about really understanding your target market, how does that tie into the lyrics and the kinds of songs that you produce? Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to go faith-based and clean, and then how you're working with your target market to kind of finesse that over time?

Sarge: That's just how I carry myself; clean, fun, enjoyable, open to everyone, accepting of different thoughts and cultures, and things like that. That's me, the person. Originally when I said I was just having fun. That was just who I was, I didn't come ion to this trying to be the "fun" rapper.

There's already a stigma about rappers what rappers talk about, what they look like, what their music sounds like. Well, for me, I wanted something that could be played anywhere. Something that didn't make parents wonder if they should turn off the radio. I wanted to spread my message of positivity with those all around me. with no limitations on where or when my art can be played. 

If rappers can talk about sex, drugs, money, violence, etc. I'm pretty sure I can talk about my work, my family, and the things I enjoy including my faith. I want people to understand that whatever they have a passion for they don't have to apologize for it. They should be able to be truly authentic to it because the truth of the matter is, even though you're thinking about the three people that may not like it, so many more really love who you are and really appreciate your story.

Once I figured out where I wanted to be, it was so much easier to market myself because now I don't feel like I'm having to be fake. I don't feel like I have to put on this personality when I talk to people, it's 100% me.

Darian: I think that's really interesting because we tell people that all the time! Would you agree that by having your story down and focusing in on something that is authentic to you, you actually have more creative freedom and more focus?

Sarge: Absolutely! That's how you actually separate from everyone else. That's when people get the opportunity to go to get to know you on a personal level. They are able to say "Oh, wow. I have more in common with this brand than I thought I did." Or let's just say that they don't have the same value system as you, but they may still go. "I don't believe what they believe, but I really respect that someone willing to stand out and be in line with their story and who they are and being true to themselves".

I would say the moment that you decide to focus on a particular group, you'll have a lot more success than trying to just reach everyone. 'cause the truth is, if you're trying to reach everyone, you're not really reaching anyone.

Darian: Agreed! So, switching gears here a bit, I want to ask you how difficult is it being in the military and being a business owner, what challenges have you faced as you've grown, who an...

Sarge: I think sometimes you feel like you don't have enough time in the day, even when you have a strict schedule of things. Like being in the military, you have responsibilities, things that you have to get done, you're serving, right?

It can be stressful but I wear it like a badge of honor, I love it and I enjoy it. There are definitely challenges between juggling family, work, shows, writing/recording, and traveling. Sometimes the schedule will get rocked a little bit and you gotta make adjustments, but honestly, I've learned that you tend to make time for what's most important to you. So I just finally found my group as far as what the most important things to me, my priorities, and then I figured out how to balance them. Sometimes it just takes time.

Part of it is about what's gonna give me the biggest return in the end. That is usually the biggest priority because it's gonna have the biggest impact on my business. Some people think that they need to batch out six pieces of content for the sake of creating content. They never ask themselves "How am I gonna promote this? How am I gonna get traffic to my site using this?

Darian: So, can you talk a little bit about how you've been able to promote yourself better?

Sarge: When it comes to promotion, it's about organic traffic. Things like word of mouth, looking at your connections, looking at who you rub elbows with, who your co-workers are, who your friends and family members are? Basically, who is in your circle of influence? How can you look at the people around you and go? "Alright, how can I help those people and how can they help me?"

For example, collaborations oftentimes can skyrocket what you're trying to do way faster than trying to do by other means. What I mean by that is when I first got started and I was doing music on my own, the moment I started doing music with other artists I got to learn about my particular field a little bit more and how things operate on the business side.

But what was cool about it is when the song is about to come out, I'm promoting it and so are they!

Well now, their audience (who never even knew who I was) is being exposed to me, and my audience (that had no idea who they were) is now being exposed to them. The beauty of this is now you have the opportunity to have your product or your music or your services in front of different demographics, and it's awesome.

Darian: Interesting! So, what kind of strategic tips do you usually give people that are trying to engage in a Facebook group or something like that? How do you suggest they reach out and actually connect?

Sarge: Well, I always tell people to look at their social media and DM equate right?

If I saw you as someone that I wanted to work with and I wanted to collaborate with and I see you on a higher level than what I'm at something that would not help my case is me sending you a direct messaging saying "What's up?" Well from your perspective you're asking yourself "why are you messaging me? What was the point of this message?"

The way that you communicate with people is very, very important. If I would have instead said "Hey how are you? I'm really a fan of your content, I love what you do for the community. I'm an artist myself, and I would love to collaborate on something in the future."

That conversation is way different. I always tell creatives to pay attention to the way that you're communicating but most importantly, before you even get to the communication part, what are you asking for? And if you're that person that you're trying to communicate with, why would they wanna work with you? Be honest with yourself so that you can come up with a plan of action. You gotta know what your end goal is.

Social media is key but it's not just about numbers. Great, you have 1000 followers but does that mean you have 1000 buyers?

There's a clear cut difference between a fan and a follower you can have 1000 followers, but only 10 legitimate fans.

Being authentic is key and putting out content that is engaging is important. Put out something that drives conversation, it doesn't have to be profound. For example, I'm a food heavy person, I love food and I might ask. "Alright, what's the better cereal Fruity Pebbles are cinnamon toast crunch?" People are going to argue back and forth about which is best. They enjoy it and so do I. Just remember to talk about things that they would enjoy and find interesting. 

Darian: I think that's terrific advice. So how do you grab someone's attention so that you can engage with them?

Sarge: There are little things that you can do to drive attention, or to get people's attention for others. It might be saying "Hey we're gonna have a call this week and 10% of 15% off for everyone that signs up to my email list."

Even little things that you can give back to people that don't mean a lot to you. For example, if you have some pieces that just aren't selling well. Giving them as gifts or at steep discounts so you can move inventory while also getting people to have a positive interaction with you.

Another thing I do is calling out people by their name when I'm live. By acknowledging their name, it triggers the same sort of "rush" feelings you might get when you talk to a celebrity.

I'm all about give, give, give, give, and then ask. So I'd rather just give you free memes or offers that give you this or give you that. Then by the time the album comes out, they're like, "I have no problem, buying it 'cause I've gotten all this from him, and he's invested in me, and I love his stuff, I love this story, I love what he's about." So if I can get entrepreneurs and people to understand that it's about give, give, give, give, people will have no problem coming back when you have something that you want to offer.

Darian: Thank you for saying that! I think people get stuck on the idea that they have to make money from an ad in order for it to be worth their time, but when you're in the brand awareness stage and people don't even know who you are you need time to build that trust factor.

We see a lot of people say that they're not ready to make ads. They're not ready for shooting videos or to put out content. They feel like because they don't have the right software, hardware, lighting, or camera they just can't do it. What do you say would be the right time to start? Do you have to wait for all this stuff or how would you get started like that?

Sarge: I speak to artists that ask me about this all the time. They say things like "I don't feel like I have the right equipment, and I don't have this and that". My question is about where they want this to go. If they are just looking at this as a hobby, then you don't need anything more than basic and free equipment. If however, you're trying to actually be competitive in your space than you need to invest accordingly.

There used to be the days where you could get away with having a pixelated video, and you could get away with your audio not being that great.

Today, not so much. The reason why people aren't able to get away with it is that now there's so much access to entry-level stuff. That sounds great. You don't have to go out there and spend $1000+. You can buy a USB microphone for less than $80 brand new.

So, if you're someone that's concerned about their equipment, what I would say is, do your research figure out what you need to get the job done. Don't let backlighting and filters stop you from connecting with your audience!

Darian: I think that's great advice! All of this has been really inspiring and helpful. Did you have someone who inspired and helped you take those small steps in the beginning?

Sarge: I had a friend who was a rapper as well. He was someone that allowed me to grow under his wing. He taught me so much about hip hop, production, branding, etc. He also taught me what I didn't want to do. Not that he was doing anything bad, but I was able to see what he was doing and say to myself "hmm, maybe there is a better way, or that wouldn't really work for my niche but maybe I can figure out something similar." 

Darian: I think we talked earlier about a particular person who inspired you, right? Someone that came to you and kept pushing you. I would love for you to share that story because I know it really impacted me when you told me about her.

Sarge: Oh, absolutely! At my job in a previous office, I had someone that was very much a free spirit, and this person checked up on me every single day. When she realized that I was a music artist, she would ask me, "When is the album coming out?". Even though I'd tell her that I wasn't sure about realizing it yet she'd bring it up every time we saw each other. This really pushed me to get it done because I had someone that believed in me.

I was so hesitant because there were things that I had written about that were very cathartic. I just wasn't sure if I wanted to share my story with the world, but she reminded me that if I don't share it I'm preventing someone else from getting through it. She told me that whatever I was in the midst of, I got through it and now someone else needs to know that they can do it too.

As I said, she kept pushing and that made me finally realize it. She left to go out of town and I dropped my album on iTunes. It actually gained steam and I was suddenly trending! I was so excited and was going to tell her all about it. 

Unfortunately, I received a phone call from her sister letting me know that she had passed away, I felt destroyed! 

Her sister told me something HUGE,. She said, "Mike, I want you to know that she knew that you were trending". I was heartbroken but I also knew that she was proud of me, and she inspires me every day. I wrote a song for her titled "Little Red Bird". I could never completely say what her support meant to me, but this was my way of grieving and praising her spirit. 

I also want everyone out there that's reading this to know that if you're scared to death to put yourself out there I would encourage you to sit back and go say "I can do this." 

Darian: That's a beautiful story, Mike. You have a new single out right now, right?

Sarge: Yeah, it's called No-go. If you're a workout person this is for you. It's full of high energy beats and positive messages. The term No-go itself is a message of positivity. It's like "Hey any doubt, any fear, any type of feeling like I can't accomplish my goals this year. That's a No-go." It's about accepting myself, my life, my family, anything like that. It's about keeping the pressure on so you can push through.

Awesome, is there any other things you wanna share anything else that... Before we go in to sign off, and I ask where people can find you and follow you?

You can find me on just about every platform. Just search for Mike Sarge on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. You can also visit my website

If you need help with anything, even if you just need someone to hear you out on what you're trying to accomplish things. I have a contact form on there, just fill that out and I would get back with you.

Darian: Thank you so much, I enjoyed having this great conversation with you!