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How to Use Substack for Musicians

fogchasersubstack

My name is Matt, and I’m a musician and composer based in the Pacific Northwest, USA. For most of my musical life, I’ve been a singer/songwriter, playing and singing in indie/folk bands.

But for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write instrumental music — to sit in quiet contemplation and create music that embodies and reflects the forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, and coastlines that inspire me.

How Fog Chaser came together

I started writing songs on guitar when I was about 16. A lot of the music I listen to (and have written) is lyrical. But I’ve also always loved instrumental and classical music. In the early aughts, my friend (and gifted songwriter) Kyle really got me into classical music and music theory. After letting me rip his multi-volume “History of Classical Music” collection to my iTunes (remember those days?), I was spinning Gregorian Chant, choral hits, Brahms, Satie, Pärt, Reich, Glass, Mozart, Bach, Bartok, and so much more. 

Eventually, I came across a contemporary group of classical artists — composers like Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, and bands like Balmorhea, who were essentially at the vanguard of a “neoclassical”/“not quite classical” movement. Here was the music I wanted to write someday. 

After some difficult years between 2018 – 2021, I was forced to take good chunk of time off from writing music and take a close look at my priorities. As I re-emerged, and started to feel excited about music again, I followed a newfound clarity to try and understand, and grab onto, the things that enriched my life — music being the primary one. As the fog began to lift in 2021, I experienced a clarity I’d never felt before. And that’s how I started the instrumental-based Fog Chaser project.

Fog Chaser: the newsletter as release tool 

As musicians, we usually start a “mailing list” after we release music or play shows, almost as an afterthought. And then, we send the occasional show announcement and ask folks to go follow us on other platforms. 

I took the exact opposite approach. I started the Fog Chaser project as a newsletter, first and foremost. I share all of my new music via the newsletter first. (I eventually throw some of them up on streaming platforms, but usually it’s weeks or months after they’ve appeared on Substack). 

The newsletter, and the musical meditations I send, are places of exploration for me: Seeds of ideas and experimentations with sonic choices and concepts in music theory, all shared in a way that is wildly different from the typical album/single release cycle.

As the music industry continues to shift — with new streaming platforms emerging almost every week, constant battles over the ethics of music streaming services, and with the overwhelming volume of music being released everyday — I really wanted to try something different. And I was tired of third parties being in control of any audience I could build. If Spotify were to go belly-up tomorrow, where would that leave me? I have no way of contacting my Instagram or Spotify followers. 

So, in addition to being a distinct way to share my music with people, the newsletter format allows me to build a list of people who I can contact directly and take with me if and when things change.

Why I chose Substack

As I started to think about how to best distribute this work, I craved a consistent space where I could calmly share my in-process and finished music, visuals, and thoughts in a more direct way than the usual channels allow for, away from algorithms. The technology never really existed in the way I envisioned it. That is, until I came across Substack, where I’ve been able to send people songs and visuals directly in a clean, minimalist format. And I own my list. I can take it with me wherever/whenever I want.

The idea of a regular newsletter where I can marry my musical efforts to the communication method most in my comfort zone (writing) has become the ideal space to connect with those who are most interested in hearing my music.

I also love taking photos with my old 35mm camera, and I have been looking for a way to share these amateur shots alongside my music — this format has been a great way to bring the two together. I also occasionally dabble with making videos for these songs.

How I use Substack

Sharing music, visuals, and words

My intention was, and remains, simple. Once every month, I email a moment of calm — what I call a meditation — which includes:

  • An original instrumental music composition; 
  • An accompanying visual of my own that inspired the composition (a photo, 35mm or digital, or a video).

In addition, each issue has also included:

  • A poem I find inspiring;
  • A collection of things I am currently reading, listening to, and admiring.

While some of these “seeds” become fully-realized songs that may enjoy a true release, others may not. Regardless, all of my songs are shared through my newsletter first.

To share these songs, I use Substack’s native podcasting feature, which allows me to upload audio to my posts. The platform has also added audio embeds in recent months, so you can also upload mp3s into the body of your post. 

Community, features, and support

One thing that has surprised me the most about the Substack platform is the community that exists among writers on the platform. The Substack company has a dedicated and responsive community team that facilitates conversations and collaborations, takes feedback and turns it into new product features, and offers lots of support along the way. From weekly “office hours” where you can ask questions and connect with others on the platform to individual support when you need it, Substack is much different than any other platform I’ve ever used.

My results on Substack

I just wrapped up my first year on the platform — I shared 12 original songs in 12 months. The results have exceeded my wildest expectations. 

I don’t really need to get into specific numbers, but suffice it to say that I started this newsletter from scratch in September 2021, and one year later, I have grown my list by over 2700%. I have more subscribers now than I’ve ever had to any music project mailing list I’ve had in the past, by a long shot. I have more than 2x the number of subscribers than I do followers on Spotify. And, as I mentioned above, these are people who I can stay in touch with regardless of shifts in the tech landscape. 

The growth I’ve experienced tells me that maybe there’s a genuine thirst for this type of thing, and that maybe this could be a more sustainable path for musicians wanting to:

  1. Develop meaningful connections with an audience, and,
  2. Find other ways to earn an actual living, even if it takes a while. 

And what is happening downstream, on the streaming services, has also been surprising. Since I released my first song on Spotify in September 2021, I’ve been blown away by the fact that the handful of songs I’ve released have collected over 200,000 streams, and 18000+ monthly listeners. While not my primary aim, having a robust and growing email list of people who are engaged with what I’m doing has allowed me to put my work in front of people more consistently.

In sum…

A lot of us are tired of chasing streams, fighting for playlist placements, and feeding the algorithm just to earn fractions of pennies (and collect zero contact information for our “audience”). Personally, I’d rather spend my time and resources writing music and growing my mailing list rather than pitching to playlist “curators” and screaming into the wind on social media. 

Thanks so much for reading. If you have questions about anything I’ve mentioned here, feel free to get in touch! 


Editor’s note:

Big thanks to Matt for allowing us to publish his story! If you’re interested in learning more about his project (and you should be, because it’s pretty sweet), check out the links below.

Fog Chaser links:

Newsletter: https://fogchaser.substack.com   
Streaming: https://songwhip.com/fogchaser 
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/fogchaser__/ 
Contact: fogchaser@gmail.com

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