Most weeks, someone sends me an email like this one:
Hey Jon, I’m completely lost in the streaming/playlist/tagging/pitching/social media connecting digital age. I’m just trying to scratch out some insight, education and perspective, to figure out how in hell I might be able to reach an audience out there… because I’m an artist, and I’d like for my songs to find ears and hearts.
In this particular email, I kind of love the honesty – that line, the “how in the hell I might be able to reach an audience” part, is such a great distillation of the core problem most artists face and the frustration that most of us feel in facing it.
Yeah, music marketing is frustrating.
I think this is true for two reasons.
First (and I’ve written about this ad nauseam, but that’s because it remains true), music marketing is frustrating because there is an infinite list of things that you could be doing. That, coupled with the fact that there’s an unending crowd of gurus who claim that you should be doing this, that, or the other thing – or that you should just be doing all of it, everywhere, all of the time – leads to overwhelm.
And in the face of this overwhelm, you really only have two options: 1) Stop eating and sleeping and blinking so that you can glue your eyes to the screen for the time it’ll take to do everything, or 2) just give up.
I’m kind of kidding.
Second, music marketing is frustrating because most of the time, even when you do the stuff that people told you to do (and, as far as you can tell, did it how it was supposed to be done)… almost nothing happens.
Sure, maybe you get a few streams or a couple new followers. But even though you keep putting time in, for the most part, your progress feels like watching the loading bar on a frozen computer screen. Every so often you can convince yourself it’s moved a millimeter, but it never gets to where you want it to be.
You put in the work and still don’t reach your audience.
Fortunately, I have good news.
I’ve completely figured out music marketing! Turns out it’s actually super easy, once you stop being stupid. I’ve distilled it all down into a simple, three-step plan, that, if followed, will allow you to become more popular than Taylor Swift in less time than it takes for you to say “wingardium leviosa.”
Nah. That’s a joke, obviously.
Look, there’s no getting around it: Music marketing is hard. I’ve talked with plenty of artists who have legit really good music but have never found fans outside of their families.
But I do think that there’s a core set of principles that, if followed, make music marketing more effective. There’s a path that helps promotion succeed.
Anyway, that rather lengthy intro leads me to this:
If you, like the person who sent me that email, want to reach an audience in the digital age, here’s the marketing plan I recommend following. It takes time (and a good bit of work) but it’s the foundation of building meaningful community around your music. And while it’s not as simple as “wingardium leviosa,” it can literally be boiled down into three steps (each of which has tons of potential sub-steps, but hey, I just told you it takes work).
If you understand and master this framework, you’ll generally be able to understand and master your marketing, and you’ll be able to find an audience that cares about your music.
Okay – this is the plan:
1. Clarify your brand.
Here’s the first bit: To get fans, you have to create something that’s worth being a fan of. The overused, annoying, marketing-jargon word for this process is “branding.”
Most artists don’t think about this process; they just skip right to Step Two, which, as I’ll cover shortly, is all about putting your music and artistry in front of people. The problem with neglecting Step One, though, is that the whole “getting your art in front of people” thing is only worthwhile if people have a brand to latch onto when they find your art.
Without branding, all of the marketing in the world amounts to trying to collect water in a sieve. Doesn’t matter how much you pour in; you won’t keep any of it.
Now, there are a million things that go into branding, and you don’t have to do (or even know about) all of them to create an effective brand around your artistry. A lot of successful artists create good brands intuitively – or mostly by accident. But there are a couple things that I think are helpful to understand.
a) Brands stand for something.
A good brand offers a clear, unique perspective on the world. It’s something that other people can easily identify and reject or affirm: “Ah, this isn’t for me,” or “Oh yeah, me too.” If your artistry doesn’t create one of those reactions, the honest truth is that it’s probably not worth being a fan of. You need to clarify what you stand for.
b) Brands are built with context.
You clarify what you stand for through the things you create. In other words, the more art you have, the clearer your brand is. If you only have one song out, yeah, promote it, but also keep in mind that it’ll be hard to develop real fans of your art until you have a catalogue.
Don’t get caught up into trying to craft the perfect brand before you’ve created anything; create more context to clarify who you are.
Branding should be intentional, but it should also happen as you go.
Practical steps to build your brand:
Okay, here’s a bullet list of things that are worth doing to build your brand:
- Get professional photos. This makes such a big difference in convincing would-be fans that you’re legit and not a hobbyist in a basement. (I mean, it’s fine if you’re a hobbyist in a basement, but you get my point.)
- Create legit-looking album covers. If you’re not sure whether you can make a good cover, you should probably get someone else to do it.
- Fill out every platform and social platform you use. This isn’t rocket science – I’m just talking about the obvious stuff, like the bio, the links, the cover photo, whatever else. Basically, when you use a platform, fill out the space it offers so that people who find it can tell you have a pulse.
- Post regularly on at least one social media platform. More on this in Step Two.
- Create a press kit with a well-written artist bio.
- Have a website. It really doesn’t have to be that complex. But it should exist.
Obviously, there’s a ton more that you can do to build your brand (I actually have a whole course to help you think through stuff in detail).
But do what makes sense for your artistry. You don’t have to do everything under the sun; if you do the things I’ve listed above, you’re on the right track.
2. Get your music in front of the right people.
Okay, Step Two of our marketing plan is what most people think of when they think of marketing: getting people to hear your music / see your artistry. Marketers call this “traffic generation.”
This is the step where things can get overwhelming very fast.
The truth is, there are a million and one ways to drive traffic to your artistry. Here’s a quick bullet list of potential traffic-driving tactics to prove my point:
- Spotify playlists
- Google ads
- Facebook ads
- Touring / live shows
- Whispering your lyrics in people’s ears at the grocery store
- DMs / Messenger
- Messenger pigeons
Okay, let’s cut it there. Intimidating, right? There’s a ton to do, and literally nobody is an expert at using all of these things.
But here’s the good news: While that got overwhelming quickly, all you have to do is create one source of traffic to create fans of your artistry.
Does having more sources of traffic help? Well, sure. Turn on one faucet, and you’ll get one stream; turn on two faucets, and you can fill a bucket faster; turn on three faucets, and I’ll start to question what kind of sink you’re using.
But you only need one faucet to fill a bucket.
For most artists, as of 2023, I recommend using one social media platform – usually either TikTok or Instagram – plus Spotify.
Here are a few tips to help.
Find fans on TikTok
- Follow accounts that are similar to yours. Use their content as inspiration (or as fuel for collaboration).
- Duet with other accounts.
- Interact with your followers and with other accounts.
Again, we’re just skimming the very top of the surface. If you want to go a little deeper, I’ve got a whole post about how to grow on TikTok here.
Find fans on Instagram
- Communicate what you’re about in your bio.
- Follow accounts that are similar to yours.
- Collaborate with another creator each month.
- Post reels.
- Go live.
For more tips on Instagram promotion, check out Tom’s article here.
Find fans on Spotify
A bit of an explanation is appropriate here, because Spotify is primarily a place to listen to music. But I’m including it in Step Two because it also works as a traffic generation source. It’s partly a social platform – they’ve got an algorithm for music discovery and you can follow other people – and I’ve seen a bunch of artists use it as a primary traffic driver for legitimate fanbases.
Okay, a few tips to help make it work:
- Release songs regularly (every month or so is ideal, but the more, the better). This is the most important thing you can do.
- Pitch Spotify editorial playlists every time you release a song.
- Run Facebook ads to your Spotify profile.
- Find third-party-created Spotify playlists that match your artistry and pitch the curators asking them to include your music.
If you consistently do this stuff over the course of a year or two, Spotify’s algorithm will start showing your music to new people. It takes time – but man, it’s awesome when you start to see it happen.
And if you want more detail on the how, here’s a more detailed article on growing a Spotify following.
A few final thoughts on getting your music in front of people…
Regardless of the platform(s) you use to get your music in front of people, there are two key practices that will impact your success:
Consistency: Most artists don’t see success getting their music in front of people because they get discouraged before the going gets good. It’s not uncommon for things to feel like a grind for years – but if you keep creating content, eventually, you will start to see some traction. Consistency is undefeated.
(This is why I recommend focusing on one social channel rather than spreading yourself thin trying to do everything; more channels can lead to burnout, and burnout kills consistency.)
Collaboration: The fastest way to build an audience is to get in front of other people’s audiences. The more you can collaborate on the platforms you pick, the more eyes and ears you’ll find.
Each platform has its own opportunities for collaboration; Instagram has shared posts, for example; TikTok has duets; Spotify has features and shared releases. The best thing you can do to create more traffic is to understand the opportunities for collaboration on the platforms of your choice – then start using them.
3. Offer people ways to engage more deeply with your artistry.
Last (but not least), once you have a brand worth being a fan of and you’re getting your art in front of people, you need to offer the folks you’re finding a clear next step to support your artistry.
This is very important: Fandom, at its core, is demonstrated (and strengthened) through sacrifice.
Fans are people who give something up in support of something else. It’s about more than streaming a song or clicking the follow button on a social channel; a true fan will drive three hours to your show, or buy every CD you put out, or name their firstborn kid based on some obscure lyrics from a deep track on your first album.
Yeah… by its nature, fandom is intense.
Your fans might sacrifice money, or time, or common sense, but unless they take some sort of sacrificial action, they aren’t really a fan. That’s why Step Three of a good marketing plan involves creating the possibility of deep engagement with your artistry. Put simply: you should offer clear opportunities for your fans to support your work.
The possibilities are, very literally, limitless. But here are a few things that are probably worth doing.
a) Create an entry experience.
You should have a clear next step for new fans – something that gets people to take action but doesn’t require they name their first kid anything weird.
Here are a few classic examples of entry experiences:
- Sign up for an email list
- Buy low-cost merch (a t-shirt, a CD, a sticker, etc.)
- Attend a show
Importantly, you should also think through the follow-up experience for entry-level fans. After someone signs up for your email list, for example, what happens? After someone buys your CD, what happens? After people see you play a show, what happens?
There are obvious answers, but tactics aside, the general idea is to celebrate the people who’ve taken entry-level action. Make it clear you’re grateful for them; make it obvious they belong. By affirming their support, you can help them to feel engaged with your artistry, and set the stage for them to become super fans.
b) Create one-off VIP experiences.
This is where things start to get intense – but it’s also how you can start to develop really deep fandom. You should offer actions that are clearly not for new fans, with the intention of honoring the people who are really into your work.
A couple of examples:
- Ask your top fans to support your next record on Kickstarter (or something similar).
- Give your top fans a “secret mission” – send them on a scavenger hunt, or get them to send in their own art that plays off of your art, or ask them to donate to a cause.
- Play an exclusive show for top fans where you hang out with them before or after.
- Sell really expensive merch (your guitar, a collection of every record you’ve made on vinyl, a very very very fancy sticker, etc.).
The idea here is to give your fans more access to you through literal interaction with you, through engagement with the causes you care about, or through special stuff that captures the spirit of your artistry.
c) Create a recurring context for community.
Finally, you should also give fans some sort of regular place to support your artistry. At their best, recurring contexts foster relationships between fans – and that’s awesome. When your fans become friends with each other because of your artistry, that’s when fandom is at its deepest.
It’s also incredibly fulfilling as an artist.
Here are a few examples of what this looks like:
- Set up a Patreon. This is the obvious example of a recurring context for community, but to be honest, I think it’s pretty hard to do well, because you have to commit to delivering content with pretty intense regularity. Before you launch this, think it through and make sure you’re up for the commitment.
- Build a “street team.” This is just a buzzy way of saying “identify your super fans and then ask them to do stuff for you.” Usually, it involves getting people to stream your album or share your release on socials or run the merch table at your shows.
- Offer investment opportunities in a new release. This is a newer tactic. The idea is that fans buy a share of royalty revenue for a song, and then you offer them a place to regularly communicate about how the song is doing. I’m also realizing that it’s kind of complicated to explain what I’m talking about in a bullet point, so here’s a link to a more detailed explanation.
The platform is secondary. I’ve seen Facebook groups work for this. I’ve seen Discord servers do well. I’ve seen artists set up a texting line, where they “go live” at a certain time each week and take the time to type back and forth with anyone who texts in.
However you do it, the point is to get people to buy into being on the journey with you, on a regular basis.
A recap of everything
Well, shoot. This post ended up rambling for longer than I thought it would. I think, at this point, a recap is appropriate.
Here’s the music marketing plan I recommend:
1. Clarify your brand.
To this end, you should…
- Define what you stand for.
- Make a lot of art that aligns with what you stand for.
- Have a website, a press kit, and proof of a pulse.
2. Drive traffic to your artistry.
To this end, you should…
- Regularly engage on one social media channel (probably Instagram or TikTok).
- Release music consistently on Spotify.
- Run ads to your music or get on playlists. Or both.
- Collaborate with other artists as much as you can.
3. Offer your fans ways to more deeply engage with your artistry.
To this end, you should…
- Build an email list.
- Create entry-level experiences for new fans.
- Create special, VIP experiences for bigger fans.
- Create a recurring context for community.
That’s it! Now just do all of that for 10 years, and bam – you’re famous!
Told you it was easy.
In all seriousness, I recognize that, even though it’s technically a three-step process, doing all of this stuff takes a ton of time and effort.
But it’s worth it.
Yeah, music marketing can be frustrating. It can feel overwhelming. It can be a grind. But the whole point of it is, as my correspondent noted in his email, “to find ears and hearts.”
Ultimately, music marketing leads to meaningful relationships. In the face of the required effort, take encouragement in knowing there’s nothing better than that purpose.
It’s hard, but you can find ears and hearts. Don’t give up.
Here’s wishing you good luck.