This article is intended for grassroots level promotion and will probably not provide much value to nationally-touring artists. It’s aimed at people who might even lack the confidence to share their work, let alone those still finding their audience. Some of these ideas seem simple but are easy to lose sight of after years of experimentation. If this applies to you, I hope this gives you some philosophies to consider before throwing your hard work to the wind like many of us already have. Let me know if you enjoy this article and maybe I’ll follow next week with the “dont’s.”
For many of us, sharing our work comes with countless benefits but is often the most difficult part of being an aspiring artist/entrepreneurIf you ask any professional innovator, they’ll probably tell you that the act of creating is their favorite part of the process - whether that’s writing, playing an instrument or cooking a meal. Those meditative moments that allow us to effortlessly record ideas without distractions eventually become paramount to mental health and overall happiness. Everything that comes after - coming up with merchandise, thinking of logos, promoting a product and reaching an audience - is not always rewarding as it is daunting. Some artists even choose to step back from this aspect completely. While avoiding the stress of investing in something uncertain is understandable, being creative with the products that follow ideas can really help showcase the value of what those artifacts represent.
To start, I’ll go over a few reasons that make sharing work important. If you’re already wanting to share what you make, you might want to skip to the next section.
We Observe Ourselves Differently Through Someone Else’s Lens
People with mindsets and thought processes different than our own help us see things we might otherwise fail to notice. The act of being observed can also make people feel and act differently. This isn’t exclusive to being human. This is a seemingly universal idea: from humans to particles, we all react differently under the observation of other entities than we do being alone. Maybe you feel like you can take over the world rehearsing in your bedroom, but if you never performed with people watching, you might not feel so confident once you get in front of an audience (although practicing at all will always help).
It’s very likely that the art you make will drift stylistically once you consider that other people will experience it. When I started making music it was for myself. I didn’t have to think about being misinterpreted or misunderstood when I was the only person listening to my music. Eventually, after realizing I wanted to play shows the rest of my life, the inspiration behind some of my songs changed. Writing alone in your bedroom with a racing mind is rarely the type of energy that will be accepted with open arms at a dusty dive bar. Other people might have to guess about what you really think if you’re saying something outlandish, even if you feel your point is clear. I was 16 when I started playing shows and I had no notion of what to expect at a bar before performing in one. If you want to do this long-term and consider you’ll eventually be in front of all types of people who feel all types of emotions, it opens up a whole new domain to draw from in the creative process.
We Develop Faster
To build off the last point, growing as an artist is impossible without growing as a person. Learning to receive feedback and criticism with open arms lets people know they can be honest with you without being attacked. If you get angry when someone gives you feedback, whether it’s from a peer, role model or fan who has no musical background, you’re much less likely to get further feedback that can actually help you. Also, do not underestimate the knowledge you can gain from observing your peers. If you stay isolated you not only shield your work from feedback, but you rob yourself of seeing the feedback different artists/styles receive. By regularly attending open mics and events you either consciously or subconsciously expand your own knowledge and horizons.
I also often find that our peers are sitting on nuggets of information that they don’t understand is valuable. A lot of us reach a certain point and tend to think the steps it took to get there are common knowledge, because we’re comparing ourselves to people who’ve accomplished much more. There’s always people in front of you, but there’s always people behind. You can learn from everyone regardless of their point on the path.
We Find Our People
It’s important to find the right people to build with because nobody out here “makes it” alone (and this is coming from a guy called Just Joey). Nobody’s going to work with you based on you telling them you’re dope, or that you sing, or that you rap. You need to have examples ready if you’re searching for people to write songs or play shows with. Finding the right tribe to bounce ideas around can lead to some of your best work, and in some cases may be life-changing. To this day my album with the most listens is Lucid Logic, and (only recently) the most engaging thing I help with is this website. I would’ve never landed either of those opportunities without a ton of groundwork and help from people I love and trust.
If you understand the importance of sharing, it’s onto some approaches we’ve found effective:
1) Word of Mouth:
This has been and will be the most reliable way of getting people involved for the foreseeable future. You have to be excited about your work for anyone else to feel the same way. Excitement alone won’t do the job, but if people hear that spark in your voice you’ll notice them tune in. Set up something in honor of your upcoming project - a meal with friends, a listening party at a local coffeeshop - and get to inviting people who might be interested in hearing the project before anyone else. You probably shouldn’t cold call everyone in your contacts, but rather focus on people who already care and may have an avenue they can move your music through.
Also, when you’re the one telling people about your music you get to keep them as fans. As I mentioned last week, relying on other people’s followings to boost your own will probably lead to problems in the long run. It can make the difference between people who are fans of Just Joey and people who happen to listen to Just Joey when his music plays on Spotify’s shuffle. Maybe you released your first project on Spotify and then decide Bandcamp is the better option for your next album, because it’s better to listen as an entire piece rather than the best singles being streamed. Now it’s up to chance on whether or not those Spotify users care enough to follow you. Aiming for fans who want to listen to your music no matter where it is helps alleviate some of that uncertainty.
2) Stay Social
The easiest way of getting the word out is already being in touch with your tribe. This may seem obvious, but at times I’ve been so consumed by my love of creating that I’ve gone years without spending time with people I consider treasured friends.
Speaking from experience, it’s kind of off-putting when the only time someone contacts you is to go to their shows, to listen to their album, to stop by the bar when they’re working, or to ask for money when they’re not doing well. If you only reach out when you need something you probably won’t have the luxury of those friendships for much longer. Pick up the phone and text or call people just to chop it up every once and awhile. Make your friends dinner, buy them coffee - if you aren’t compelled to spend time with them then maybe you should find new friends. As cliche as it sounds, being someone you’d enjoy being around goes a long way when you want something from others.
In the last few years I’ve become a lot less anti-social and luckily have more engagement in life and online as a byproduct. I used to go months and sometimes years without making efforts to maintain friendships and relationships. I’m sure it’d be fine to reach out to those old friends, but I would definitely feel weird opening with what I’ve been working on and that I hope they support it. When I’m staying in touch with people they tend to ask on their own accord and get excited about those things naturally. It helps that I’ve been doing this for 9 years, and by now almost everybody I know is aware to some extent that I make music. I don’t point them all to it, but I’m sure that each of them somewhere down the line will take it upon themselves to see what I do, or they won’t and they’ll miss out! What works for me is being honest about where I’m at while also being proud of my accomplishments. Many things that I write off in comparison to my favorite artists seem really impressive to people on the outside looking in, and sometimes those assumptions alone lead them to becoming a real fan.
This is basically necessary to some degree, and with the right people it’s an incredible experience. Art and music have a long history of bringing us closer, forming connections, and even physically altering and bolstering structures in our brains. I remember flying through a book called This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitan, and reading that our brains actually recreate the frequencies we hear. While the book is wonderfully informative as you might imagine, being written by a producer turned neuroscientist, that bit of information has stuck with me since. It’s wild to think that when Queen was rocking stadiums that the entire audience was unconsciously tuning into the same frequencies at the same exact time. Maybe that’s part of what makes shows so powerful and leaves people feeling connected. Their brains were physically reflecting the experience from the outside and recreating it within. I have no idea what that really means. But I imagine that it has a lot to do with why we resonate so deeply with music and artists we love. It may contribute to why we feel like our favorite artists are singing “to us” or “for us”. There are also studies that show connections between playing music (especially from a young age) and larger groupings of nerves in certain areas of the brain (is this why we’re so goddamn sensitive?). I have so much curiosity behind these ideas that I’ll cut it here before this bird walk finds its way to Columbia.
I love making music in solitude, but now I sit on songs for months and years, and different versions spring out of feedback from different people and depending on reception at open mics and shows - wherever or whoever I feel like getting criticism from helps me in the long run. But at the end of the day, nobody is going to be as supportive or honest as someone who feels as attached to the outcome as you. Work with people who reflect your values. If you’re hoping that fans will house you while you’re on tour, maybe you don’t want to work with the band that likes to piss in people’s bathroom sinks together as a bonding experience.
Be careful about who you work with, know them well, and make decisions based off of reputations. Once you’ve done all that type of work, collaborating will lead to much better results. You won’t find out that you actually hate each other after 10 years of sweeping your beef under the rug just because you both laughed at the same joke in high school. Collaborate with people you truly feel will add value to the song or album. It’s not only about selling more albums, it’s about allowing who has the most relevant input to approach your topic from another angle. The byproduct of that is when it’s time to release your project, your collaborators will almost always be proud to share work they were apart of.
And this doesn’t just apply to making music, or paying someone for a beat or verse…
4) Cross-promotion / Partnerships
This goes a bit further than collaborating with people already involved in your field. As a person who feels changed by Hip Hop and found a lot of my mentors through the genre, I always hear stories painted of Def Jam and Scribble Jam back in those golden years.
I reference these scenes because rapping was only a single element of the events. You also had DJs, breakers and graph writers, beat battles, and it seemed like everyone attending had some sort of skill or outlet that made them interested in contributing as well as attending. People want to spend their time and energy in areas that help them grow and improve. Most of the local shows I see are one branch of people failing to provide more than one reason to attend. If I hear about an art show I probably won’t go. If I hear about an art show based around an empty pool where people are skating, and there’s a band playing on the roof - I’m there. We need to be more creative with involving our communities. This goes beyond asking people to help put up flyers or promote to their friends. We need to be able to see the value in our friends and social circles and empower it. You can also reach out to companies who might be willing to sponsor you, or if the song references another activity there’s a chance for a partnership. Simon Sed and I are working on an EP based on the series How The Universe Works and we want to reach out to some astrophysics websites & journals when we come up with a sensible strategy. Get creative as you do when making songs to propel them.
Maybe you’re releasing an album that has a song about skateboarding. Maybe you team up with some local skaters and make a music video that features their talent. Maybe you team up with a local comedian for a sketch series that has to do with an upcoming album. Maybe you partner up with a local food truck to cater the event. Form partnerships. Involve your community. We all have talents that could be put to use, and if we’re going to be leaders we need to identify the strengths of our supporters and help them flourish with us.
5) Recruit/Hire Extra Help
Depending on how much support you have, you may realize one day after 3 years of touring that you actually do have people in different cities willing to spend an hour to help propel your next project. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and if they’re busy then so be it! Maybe you have great friends who will support you regardless of how popular you are (cherish them). I used to be hesitant to ask for help, partly because of a now-fading childlike pride and also because I didn’t want to burden my friends and fans. First off, anytime I’ve asked a friend to help with anything music-related they’re usually happy to. I’m lucky to know friends/fans who insist on helping for free, including album art and shirt designs and things I really didn’t feel right about not paying for. They had to insist after hearing my whole “this is a an ecosystem and you’re a part of it” spiel. Many people see it as an opportunity to showcase what makes them valuable, whether it’s a skill or plain loyalty. If you’ve made any progress on a local or national level, a lot of times it’ll be worth it for people just to be involved in your vision and get some free promotion out of it.
On the other hand, it never hurts to hire professionals as long as they aren’t your only plan. I was once contacted by a publicist who worked for Weezy, Wu Tang, Snoop Dog, Earth Wind & Fire and an incredible list of artists on that caliber. I couldn’t believe they reached out to me, I thought it would change my life, and we even negotiated on a price that was so discounted it probably led to what happened next.
Before that project, each of my albums had some level of underground attention. Either locally, nationally, on blogs, getting picked up by college radios - it was all done myself, sending email after email, reaching out to everybody I could find, and after getting a submission accepted to Uncle Tairy’s YT channel I was getting more attention than I was used to. A lot of those outlets really helped gain new fans.
This time, because I had help on a tier I never would’ve dreamt, I decided my own promotion campaign would be pointless. Whoops.
Long story short, the publicist’s campaign did nothing. A short article landed on some blogs that had no real following or engagement. It looked like the guy took some of my money and paid some whack platforms to post my music. There were typos all over the information I sent, they got a bunch of things wrong, and it all felt so impersonal that I ended up saying no to the “radio interviews” I got because of it. These “stations” were the type that had thousands of posts and no likes or comments, and there was no thought being put into the post. If it made my stomach turn, I felt that my fans would react the same way and probably wouldn’t be a good look. The lesson is this: when you hire a promotion company you’re guaranteed nothing no matter what their credentials say, just like you’re guaranteed nothing from doing your own campaign. But it’s more likely that you will treat your own project with more care than a random promoter who’s known you less than a year and has a bunch of high-profile artists to manage who’re actually making him money.
Given that it was my first album with Museum under a brand new moniker, first album in a year - I definitely should have done my best to let people know it was coming. Once you tell your fan base about an album after it’s been out for 2 weeks and 3 people bought it, nobody’s going to be very anxious to press play. I had a close friend tell me they didn’t want to listen because they didn’t want to hear something from me they didn’t like, then ended up loving the album. It’s hilarious, and just an example of how people make impressions based on your first wave of support. If I had the same amount of people pre-ordering and buying on the first day as my last few albums, I think it would have been easier for the promo company to land me better interviews and features as well. I made a big mistake letting someone else fully manage how people received my project and it was 100% my fault.
On a side note, I remember the same thing happening when working on food trucks and doing events. When people had the choice, they almost always chose the truck with the biggest line of people if they didn’t have their mind set on anything.
So if you’re hiring help, be sure you’re still promoting as hard, if not harder than without help. To this day that was the only album I’ve ever hired a professional to help with a release. It even did worse than the EP we released (Ok Txt Me) to hype up the album, which was the very first Modern Language music released on a wonderful label called Romeda. For that EP I did do my own campaign along with Romeda’s, uploaded the project on my own Bandcamp but let them release a version on their platform where they could keep the money. Tom and I did this because nobody knew who Modern Language was, and most people still don’t, but we felt that the promotion would be well worth losing out on a small wave of income in that scenario if it was going to good peeps. Every now and then I still see Dave getting that EP spun on the radio. To top it off, it was also the first (and so far only) time I managed to get a review from Impose.
So, I really hope you were able to laugh and learn from some of these mistakes. Many of the times I fell on my face were unavoidable, but some came from a sheer lack of critical thinking in times when I should’ve made a better plan. Maybe this article will help you consider things you haven’t given much thought - usually we’re all just trying to maintain and don’t have time to.
Thank you for reading, please like if you enjoyed and let us know what you think in the comments.