Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar... and How to Build a Brand
For nearly 15 years, Dan Smith has plastered New York with fliers promoting his guitar lessons. And in the process, has become a cult icon -- and successful entrepreneur. Why even John Mayer is taking notice.
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For those of you outside New York, these are the simple words seen on ubiquitous fliers that have enabled Dan Smith to follow his musical muse and become Gotham's most widely known guitar teacher. By combining the basic tools of paper, printer and photocopier, with a free introductory lesson, Dan Smith has created a brand that keeps him flush with 20 to 30 students at a time, soaking in his relaxed go-at-your-own-pace approach to teaching guitar.
At his west side studio, Smith took time out from his lessons to explain what it's like to be the man who is not a myth, but is definitely a local legend. After all, do you know of any other music teachers who've been the parody centerpiece of a Mike Meyers guerrilla movie marketing campaign?
It's nice to meet you in the flesh after years of seeing your face all over town.
It's funny. I get stopped on the street a lot, and every now and then, someone will say, "I can't believe you're a real person," or "I thought you were some kind of company."
How did you get started teaching guitar?
I've been playing guitar since I was 13 and would always give friends lessons, something I continued doing at NYU. After college, I worked a lot of odd jobs, mostly in the restaurant business: waiting tables, tending bar and ultimately managing a place. But I always I wanted to be in business for myself, doing something creative. That's more of who I am.
It was always something I wanted to do. One of the main reasons I love teaching is because I learn a lot from it. Not just about playing guitar, but about the process of learning and how to make music overall. The distinction I am making is that my teaching is about more than how to put your fingers in the right place -- it's about how to develop a personal musicality. I use teaching to do that for myself.
However, I no longer teach people who are friends of mine. To be truly effective, I think there needs to be some professional distance. To that end, I don't hang out with my students. It tends to muddy the waters.
Were you performing at night with designs of becoming a rock star?
I'm always writing songs and hoping something will happen with music and film in the future, but I don't want to do anything in a public way until I feel I have something really cool. I tell my students, "Don't waste your bullets." A lot of them have rock star aspirations, so they join a band just to say that they're in a band. To me, collaboration is like a marriage. It's not a good idea to get married just to tell people you're married. Be as independent as possible.
How does that teaching theory translate as a small-business owner?
Well, I'm as independent as it gets. It's all me. The picture on the flier is me and it was taken by me. It's a one-man show, but even if I hire somebody, it will be to help promote, not to teach.
When did the flier campaign start?
I started teaching full time around 1996. I had been fliering heavily to get to a point to be solely a teacher, but they weren't the same ones you see today. The fliers have evolved. I put myself on the flier in 2003, but people say they've seen my face for 20 years. We all have exaggerated perceptions of things.
Did they always have the simple "Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar" slogan?
Some form of that. I wanted to be as simple and straightforward as possible, but also set myself apart by having something that nobody could copy, like my name and face. Nobody can out-me me.
They seem to be everywhere. How often do you put up fliers?
They seem to be everywhere, but there are large parts of the city I don't flier. I am only one man wearing out shoe leather. I hang them whenever I can, on an ongoing basis. It's a bit of a dilemma because it works, which means I'm teaching, but then I don't have time to put up fliers. It's a nice problem to have.
Where do you put them up?
Wherever anyone can see them. I've been told fliers have been seen in Brooklyn even though I have never put one up there. People hang them for me out of their own enthusiasm, I guess. Some storeowners don't want the fliers, but others want them because it's a conversation piece, and I've been told it's a "stamp of approval" that makes a new business legitimate. All I want is a good spot.
The fliers definitely have a cult following.
It's got a strange life to it. There's a legion of blogs out there, John Mayer copied them, and people have posted a bunch of YouTube videos. Generally speaking, the reactions are positive. If nobody were paying attention, I wouldn't be teaching.
What is it specifically about the Dan Smith fliers?
That's an easy one -- the fact that they're everywhere. I'm consistent, and people know that this isn't a lark. I'm creating a brand. Everybody knows Coke, but it never stops advertising. Week-in week-out, month-in month-out, year-in year-out, I'm out there. The fliers penetrate people's perceptions, so all kinds of mythology have grown up around them. Consciously or subconsciously, people think of every other one they've ever seen, even if it's partially covered up.
How does it turn into sales?
Like any business, I get a lot of tire-kickers. Unlike other businesses, I probably get a lot more drunk and stoned teenagers leaving long rambling messages. Fortunately, I get a lot of people interested in playing guitar. It's not a school, which appeals to people who want to learn at their own pace. The lessons are focused and results-oriented, but it's a non-pressured relaxed atmosphere. Some people want to become great guitar players; others want to learn to play a single song at their wedding or to sing to their baby. It's great for me because I get to meet all kinds of people.
What is the financial set up?
There is a pay-as-you-go option for $100 an hour, but I also offer lesson plans, which are pay-in-advance and come with a discount. For example, there's a 10-lesson plan for $800. It's been a very successful model because the plans have a workable schedule with flexibility for real world encroachments. People know after 10 lessons they will learn something, although you get back what you put in.
It seems you've had quite a ride.
I have people dressing up like me for Halloween. I never would have imagined that. And it all starts with this low-fi, low-tech grassroots campaign. A two-year-old recognized me. Couldn't even say "guitar man" yet and was too young for me to put a pick in his hand, but who knows? Kid might needs lessons one of these days.