This article is geared for people who are confident in their music but haven’t shared it, or have trouble when it comes to finding an audience. You’ll probably find this advice applies to other ventures too. If you’ve already found your crowd and have no problem packing venues, you may not find this article very useful.
Releasing music might actually be too easy these days. Many people are starting to realize that “good” music doesn’t automatically make people buy or share it, that “basic” music can take the spotlight if the artist is aware that they’re selling a personality behind the songs and not just music. That’s branding. Many young artists believe they don’t need to think about these things, or that they will make a comfortable living if all they focus on is music - and sometimes that in itself becomes apart of their brand and who they are, and may lead to success in some cases. For the vast majority of us, with increasingly less time and difficult online and social algorithms to work with, these are things we wish we’d thought about when we started.
1) Build Your Own Platform
After releasing 3 or 4 albums, I heard Blueprint speak about this concept on his podcast Super Duty Tough Work. He was citing a book called Platform by Michael Hyatt, which I immediately picked up from the library and started reading. The main idea is to focus on building a presence on one outlet that you own to announce & release your music/service/product. You don’t want to spread your focus on a bunch of different places before you get momentum going at all, especially when they could become inactive or tighten their visibility algorithms. Even though it may be a slower build, you get to curate your own style and audience and keep direct contact with people who want to support you.
When I first started releasing music online it was always through someone else’s platform, whether that was Myspace (yep), Reverbnation (yikes) or any other website my sixteen-year-old self stumbled upon which allowed me to upload music for free. I kept seeing small buildups of engagement over the course of months and sometimes years, until these websites became digital artifacts and I was forced to relocate to new platforms of my fans’ preference. My focus was scattered all around instead of putting it all into one place. When my songs finally started getting more attention than I was used to, it was on someone else’s YouTube channel. Eventually their channel died down, and what felt like my entire audience vanished within the course of a year while I was working on a new album. My music was getting tons of positive feedback with compliments that made me feel great about my art and I assumed I’d keep every fan who interacted with me in some way.
Not how it worked. Some of the fans did follow me onto new platforms eventually, but a majority of them didn’t know where to find me when the channel became inactive because I didn’t have a place to redirect them to when I uploaded the videos. It was years after the fact that I finally went back to the videos and added links to follow me elsewhere. Those were some big missed opportunities. To add to the losses, eventually Facebook tightened its algorithms on visibility and I felt a steep decline in engagement and the ability to reach my own fans without paying for advertisements. I went from one platform I didn’t own to another and it sent me back to what felt like step one.
A better idea would have been owning the way I get information to my fans from the beginning and to focus on growing that, rather than hoping other people who already had established audiences would post my tracks. Every other outlet is a way to redirect fans to your center.
2) Don’t Spend Money - Invest
If you want your songs to reach their full potential, it takes money. Whether it’s for mixing and mastering (I happen to be an audio engineer you can hire), hiring a Facebook ad expert (thanks for the tip Enkay47), experimenting with targeted ads on your own, paying for space on a website for a day or week, or buying a mic so you don’t have to keep paying to record at a studio. Everybody’s position is different and will benefit from investing in different places. If you’re already confident in the quality of your music you’ll probably want to focus on directing people to your platform, whether it’s your website, a link for people to buy your album, a donation button, or something along those lines.
It’s really not worth spending money just to feed your inner consumer, or even to get people liking your page. Beyond buying followers, paying money just so people will like your Facebook page isn’t a viable long-term strategy - even if they’re real people. If you decide to invest $20 into sponsoring one of your Facebook posts, make sure the post includes an opportunity for people to do more than just liking your Facebook page. If Facebook gets sold to Tom and Tom runs it into the ground - you’re out $20 and the only way your new fans know how to reach you is gone.
You don’t have to spend money to make an impact in rare cases, but a decent guideline is to only spend money on things that will allow you to make money back in the future. This can include performing for free or giving out free merch to fans in a city you’re performing in for the first time. If you’re unsure it’s worth it, ask for help - find people you trust to run those opportunities by and see if they’d do it in your position.
3) Spend As Much Time Releasing The Album As You Did Making It
When I was young and completely independent, by the time I was done writing an album I would release it within days or weeks and then start telling people about it. I’d send it around to blogs and people with popular YouTube channels and hope someone would like it enough to post it. That wasn’t such a bad strategy at a time when visibility was virtually organic and people would see what you post as soon as you post it. But that’s not how social media works anymore, and even if it was, rushing to release something gives the impression that you rushed to create it. Having the patience to put thought and care care into the way you present music gives the impression that you did the same with the music.
Even if you think it’s bullshit, people who like music and art tend to care about aesthetic and are either consciously or subconsciously deciding whether or not they’re going to listen to your song based on a number of different factors. Album art, the description, your bio, and your personality all play roles in whether or not someone will give your music a chance. It’s natural to be excited about creating something new and want to share it as soon as possible, but every person will experience your music differently and you want people to listen to it with intent. The important thing is realizing what about you as a person makes you stand out and using that to your advantage.
Spending time with your songs once they’re finished also gives you more opportunities to think about promoting in a sensible way. For example, I’m now finished with a new album called Sink Or Swim which I’ll be releasing this year. For weeks I knew I had the order and track list where they needed to be to flow cohesively, but I really struggled to find an overarching theme that connected the songs together as one piece. I wanted every piece from the title to the album art to the beats to the lyrics to the promotion to be connected, important and meaningful. I wanted everywhere a listener looked (or listened) to have some sort of tie to every other aspect of the album. Why not give yourself time to experience your own music from different angles and mindsets to make sure there aren’t connections that you’re missing yourself?
Once you’ve spent time with a group of songs and came up with an overall theme or mood, think of a way to talk about it which fits the theme. Maybe you’re writing an album about food, and the promotion is a series of videos where you make your favorite meals. Maybe you sell a cookbook with the album, or make the track list a recipe book. The more connected your strategy, the more thoughtful you appear, the more likely someone’s willing to experience that thoughtfulness in your music. You might not need to be that meticulous - it just depends on what you’re going for.
Now I want to make an album about food without biting DOOM.
4) There’s no such thing as networking
This was really just a flaw in my personal mindset. I love meeting new people and making new acquaintances, but I’ve always kept a few close friends that mesh like family. So I despised the idea of politicking with what I believed to be, and what sometimes is, an inner-circle culture. It’s the same shit that leads to creeps being exposed for taking advantage of underage girls at shows - that kind of trash is really rare but can happen when there’s a lack of transparency.
In order for transparency, you need to trust the people you’re coming up with. If you don’t feel like you’re working with family - that you can communicate exactly what you’re feeling and get your ideas across effectively you either need to rethink your friends or your ideas. Running your ideas by friends and rethinking them based on criticism isn’t bad, that’s a sign of having good friends.
Don’t vouch for people you don’t know, and don’t ask people to vouch for you if they don’t know you. It’s on you to build trust and connections with people, and to interpret who they are through their music and the way they promote themselves. Trust can be established before you even meet, like when Bryan and Sean Ostrow let a group of us stay at their home in Colorado Springs on our first tour. We’d never met until they put us on a couple shows and gave us a spot to sleep and collect ourselves while they had to leave for their own tour early in the morning. Clearly, if we would’ve mistreated their house while they were gone, we would be shitty human beings and wouldn’t be getting any more shows. It’s an easy way to weed people out in a community where everybody ends up knowing everybody.
5) Making Music You Don’t Feel Is Pointless
This should be basic, but I’ve forgotten this through periods where I saw a little success and got scared of where to push the momentum. I had no guidebook other than the songs my heroes made. So when I got back from my first tour, made a bunch of new connections and had a few eyes on me, I went straight to writing. I think I did that part right.
Onto what I did wrong: I was having a falling out with a girl I’d been seeing and was having trouble moving on. I was doing my best to push the pain down, instead of talking or writing about it and being able to organize how I felt into something that made sense. I should’ve focused on writing songs based on how I was feeling until I was feeling something else, rather than write about things I wasn’t emotionally invested in. My heroes were writing songs about touring after they toured, so I wanted to try writing about that even though my mind was elsewhere. It wasn’t like I was being dishonest but the songs I wrote just didn’t turn out well. I wasn’t happy with the lyrics that came out and the producer I made it with, knowmadic, wasn’t happy with his production either. We decided to not release the album. Its focus was too scattered, and that was about a year’s worth of writing and recording and mixing that essentially was for nothing other than this lesson: write about what you feel, no matter what you feel.
6) There’s an Audience For All Types Of Music
Some people get wrapped up in jealousy and get mad at the garbage that sometimes finds an audience. I agree that it’s trash but it only inspires me further to believe that there’s an audience for what I do. There’s such a lack of genuine people and creativity in the world that you will stand out to those looking for that honesty. That’s the type of audience you want to appeal to: people who would already be listening to you if they knew you existed.
Why artists use gimmicks and try writing songs for people they don’t relate to… I’ll never understand. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence in who they are as a person, or as an artist, maybe it’s not that deep and they’re just having fun. I don’t get why people choose to hold songs hostage for retweets when they could spend their energy finding an audience who will be hungry for the music they make on their own. Fake Four is an example of a label doing a great job of involving fans to share and push the label’s music without anything feeling gimmicky - they simply make music that makes their community hungry for more. People want to support the things they like naturally.
None of my favorite artists ever pressured me into supporting them, I’m already waiting on their next album. Most of the time I’ll pre-order without even listening to a song, and I might not listen to the album for months after. It will sit there until I have time and interest to give it the attention it deserves because they’ve already won me over.
7) Opening For Bigger Names Doesn’t Actually Help As Much As Building Your Own Following
This is another personal choice in strategy, really. People tend to assume opening for bigger names and touring artists is always a benefit, but I disagree in certain situations. I’ll start with what I see as the cons since many young artists jump at the chance to open for more established groups.
Again, this is for people still building a scene or fan base. Establishing a local scene and then bringing out a well-known act is often a great strategy.
Bigger names don’t always mean bigger crowds. Especially in local scenes that you’re still building, sometimes the same 40 people who would’ve come to support you regardless of who’s on the bill will be the same 40 people there when you pay a certain group I won’t name out of respect $300 when your only income is from music. You got them in front of your crowd and somehow owe them the money you made after booking the show and selecting and reaching out to all the artists involved, making the connection and putting the down payment on the venue, working the door, the sound, hosting and performing all while knowing that they brought 3 people who got in for free. And then when you ask for a show in their city, they may want to charge you $800 and you may have to laugh and end the relationship. This is just one example, and was my first unfortunate experience in bringing out an artist I once respected to a city where I introduced people to their music. Yes I’m still salty! Haha.
You will probably never make money on these shows, and unless you bring a lot of people those headliners probably won’t jump to work with you in the future. Money isn’t the biggest priority, but when you put money down you might not eat if you don’t at least break even. I used to only want to open for Rhymesayers and Fake Four artists shortly after I was building a tiny bit of momentum. I probably should have just done more grassroots promotion and searched for my own fans before that. Even though I often brought the most people out to these shows, the impact would have been much greater if I brought 80 people instead of 20 or 30. Some artists are genuinely cool people and will work with you regardless of your popularity, but this goes back to mutual trust and how you’re portrayed through your music. Anyway, most local shows where there is no headliner will make me more money and a much bigger impact, maybe because there isn’t an artist who’s been playing shows for decades to judge me next to. It may be better to wait until you can pack small venues before you open for (or book if you’re a promoter) bigger artists.
The flip side is that many seasoned artists are cool people who can offer you advice, wisdom, or will work with you regardless of how popular you are currently. They’ve been in it long enough to see a spark in someone, and you may have that if you’re opening the show for them.
Also, opening for bigger names and working with bigger artists can help get you more opportunities. After opening for ILLOGIC in San Francisco and he wanted to work on an album together, I made new fans, got hired by multiple people to mix projects of theirs (currently working on one for Ethan!), was asked if I sold beats or sold verses more than ever, and also got added to the Cyne 10-year reunion show in Portland, OR. I had been trying unsuccessfully to book Portland for years, and by the time I finally got there it was to open for a group I’d been listening to since high school. Not only was it one of my favorite shows I’ve ever played, I’m really glad to have met Freddy, Clyde, Michael & the rest of Cyne, and all the other artists and people who came out to The Liquor Store (and I may or may not have something in the works with Cise Starr…). But in hindsight, it took 7 years of playing shows, writing and making beats, recording and mixing music until I started getting opportunities like these - and they rarely came to me. I saw the shows listed or announced by promoters and venues, asked for slots and put in work to get people out.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed the article and found some wisdom in here to help prevent you making the same mistakes I made. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, if you have any questions regarding things to consider before releasing music, please comment below. And keep an eye out for Sink Or Swim on the website this year!
Please send any questions about collaborations, interviews or inquiries about mixing/mastering to firstname.lastname@example.org and remember to sign up to the mailing list in the contact section of the website. Peace everyone.