What Are You Hiding? An Easter Eggs Primer For Musicians

One of the greatest ways to engage your fans is to play with them.

Before you get any dirty ideas in your head, allow me to explain.

On Wednesday, Andrew W.K.’s twitter followers got into a tizzy because their favorite party/animal motivational speaker has started hiding samples of his new air freshener around New York and tweeting clues about where fans could find them.

W.K.’s fun and games might be the year’s first example of an artist sending his fans out on a hunt for goodies, but it’s not going to be the last. Artists have been creating little puzzles and curiosities for their fans for decades, and they remain one of the greatest ways to engage your fans not just with you, but with one another.

Back in the day, these little gems (or, to use the kids’ parlance, easter eggs) tended to be inside the records themselves, either as hidden tracks or secret liner notes or songs recorded backwards. But today, thanks to digital connectivity, the range of options has expanded. Trent Reznor stowed music-filled USB drives in the bathroom stalls of arenas he was playing; MGMT sent fans on a chase across London looking for a tour bus; DJ Shadow slipped copies of his records into random crates in record stores in Eastern Europe; Emperor X literally buried tapes of his songs in random locations around Los Angeles.

On first glance, these artists and their predecessors have a lot in common with themselves, and very little in common with you, the smaller independent artist. But if you dig in, you’ll find that a lot of their tricks can be applied to lots of careers.

Tap Into Your Brand’s Strongest Qualities
To outsiders, these scavenger hunts often look like gimmicks. That’s because most outsiders don’t respond to your brand’s traits: they don’t share Aphex Twin’s sense of humor, say, or Nine Inch Nails’ fascination with dystopia. But if you build something that speaks to one of your core qualities, your fans won’t see a gimmick; they’ll see an additional opportunity to engage with that quality.

By that same token, if you’re a country singer, and you hide instructions for free concert tickets in a message written in Sanskrit on the side of a bouncy castle, your fans are probably not going to be quite as excited.

Timing Is Everything
As fun as easter eggs can be, they’re far less exciting if nobody looks for them. Even though they might sound like a great way to build interest in what you’re doing, the fact is that finding these things tends to require some effort. And unless you’re burying $20 bills with your band site’s URL written on them, people aren’t going to go out of their way to look for free music or merch from an artist they don’t know anything about. They can do that by turning on their computer or the radio.

Even after you’ve built a fan base, you still have to be prudent about when you use easter eggs. If you’re in the middle of an all-out promotion blitz – newsletter just sent out yesterday, free EP posted online last week, three weeks into a blog and press campaign you’re conducting – leave the eggs in their basket. People are already being given multiple opportunities to engage with you. Save them for later, after you’ve let one wave of buzz die down, or right before you want to try and start one.

Go Crazy, But Not THAT Crazy
If you’re very lucky, you may have a small group of fans that will actually get off their duffs and go looking for something you made. These are your super-fans. These are the people who will do anything for you. They are, after your ability to make music for a living, your greatest privilege.

But that doesn’t mean you can abuse the privilege. If you think your fans in Minneapolis might go looking for the remains of your first guitar, the one that you were still playing before that accident outside the Turf Club broke it into a gajillion pieces, then hide it in Minneapolis. But don’t hide it in a park and tell your fans they have to go find it in January.

Use Them to Strengthen Bonds, Not to Build New Ones
One of the things you’ll notice about the examples listed above is that both the egg and the activity required for finding it tie directly to one of the artist’s strongest characteristics. DJ Shadow’s fans are happy to go digging through crates for an undiscovered gem. Trent Reznor’s fans all live in front of their computers already; what’s one more tab to go looking for some crazy news about Year Zero?

If the strength of your brand is your live show, for example, your egg should involve your live show. It shouldn’t involve a song you never intend to play live, or the merch that your cousin designed for you that nobody seems to want.

Easter eggs aren’t about turning vague interest into excitement. They are about turning enthusiasm into obsession. And if you’re an artist who’s starting to gain some momentum with his fans, some of them may be starting to wonder: What are they hiding?

And once they start asking that question, you have to start thinking about where you should hide it.