[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Shannon Byrne.]
If promoting yourself makes you uncomfortable or if you feel like it challenges your integrity, now is an excellent time to find what feels right. If you’re a career musician, you have to sell your work and you have to grow your audience. You are a business. But you can do so in a way that feels sincere and authentic to your values and goals.
Your fans want to support you and want to feel connected. This is an opportunity to work on new art projects, learn new skills, grow your audience, and have some fun—all while connecting through your art. Here are some thought-starters on how to market and promote your work without sacrificing your integrity.
First, the basics
These first couple of tasks are less about being authentic and more about laying the groundwork. If it isn’t already, your music should be available online for fans to listen to, share, and most importantly, buy.
Get your music online
On top of using TuneCore for digital distribution, set up a Bandcamp page or online store for selling your digital and physical music and merch ASAP if you haven’t. Your fans who’d typically support you by attending a show will be happy to have a new avenue to do so online. (There are varying predictions but it’s fair to say large-scale touring won’t resume until sometime in 2021.)
The more places your music exists, the more opportunities there are for new fans to find you. Spotify has nearly 300 million users, Apple Music has nearly 70 million, Amazon Music nearly 60 million— the list goes on. TuneCore makes it easy to distribute music across platforms.
Get your merch online
Put the records, CDs, tapes, stickers, shirts, posters, anything you would’ve sold on tour up for sale online. You can always get more made when you’re touring again. You need the support now. Make sure your merch is available everywhere you have a presence. In addition to Bandcamp, you can also add merch to Spotify via a Merchbar integration. Other online store options for selling products include Big Cartel and Shopify.
Then, let your fans know your merch is available via social media, paid ads, and your newsletter, all covered below.
Ok, now for the fun stuff.
1. Tap into all skills when developing merch
If you’re good at making something, consider creating an art item to offer in addition to traditional merch. I’ve seen artists sell paintings, risograph prints, posters, notebooks made from recycled test prints, zines and magazines, photos, books of poems or lyrics, and more.
Not everyone has the motivation to make or create right now, but if you do, what a great way to get out of your brain for a bit. You can always donate the proceeds to a cause important to you.
Merch presents an impactful connection point for fans. When they buy your merch, they feel like they’re a part of something. Consider sharing the concept behind your work and how it feeds into your music practice with your fans. Some artists opt for using their merch to spread a message they believe in rather than their name or likeness, as Tasha has done.
2. Put your personality into your merch photos & promo
Have some fun with your merch promo so it doesn’t feel like such a chore. With touring halted, musician Thor Harris recently put all of his merch online. He and his partner had a photoshoot with their dogs and he enjoyed every moment of it. It also weaved his personality into his page, creating a deeper connection to his fans. The result is a merch page that stands out from the normal sea of black vinyl against white backdrop photos.
Whenever Thor has a new release or merch announcement, he puts up a commercial on social media also dripping with personality. He connects directly with his fans and they respond with support.
You don’t need a fancy camera if you have a smartphone. Find some nice natural light and turn your apartment into a studio for a day. Or, if you want a more professional look and have a friend with photoshop skills, make a barter. If you don’t have a smartphone with a nice camera, surely you have a friend or neighbor willing to help out or lend theirs to you for 20 minutes.
3. Inject your voice into paid ads
Whenever I see a paid ad for an artist I like, it’s abundantly clear their label or manager wrote it. It’s usually as simple as “Album Y by Artist X out now. Buy it here.” That’s fine. When I read that, I understand that the paid ad wasn’t the artist’s idea and that it’s just business. But paid ads are a fan touchpoint. Is that the message you want to send? Consider writing your own ad copy or working with a representative who’s aligned on your voice.
What imagery or words will get your fans excited about your latest work? Tell them why you’re excited about your release.
If you’re against paid ads, I understand. They feed the social media machine and can be intrusive. The reality is, they’re also effective. And you’re not manipulating people into buying your record, you’re simply letting your fans know it’s available.
The cold truth is, social media platforms are businesses out to make revenue. So they prioritize paid ads over organic posts, kind of forcing one’s hand if you’re trying to connect with your audience on social media. Sometimes paid ads are the only way to connect even with the folks who follow you already.
Take a holistic view of how all these elements work together. There’s value in building owned channels you can control like newsletters, but that takes time and work. In the meantime, if you want to reach your audience and overcome algorithms, paid ads can give you a boost. They’re a means to the end.
Remember, paid ads are most relevant to current fans so target folks who already follow you. If a record label is boosting your message under their own name, that’s a different story. Their followers see them as a taste-maker and will likely check out an artist they don’t know if recommended by them. If you’re new to paid ads, here’s a guide to getting started.
4. Make playlists and ask to be on others
We’re in the age of playlist listening, whether we like it or not. (I hope we see a return of full-album listening at least among certain cultural subsets, but that’s beside the point.) Some artists are seeing a significant jump in streams and royalties after their music is placed in a Spotify-curated playlist. Ideally, playlist features lead to long-term fans for those who listen actively.
Keep in mind, Spotify-curated playlists and the success they’ve brought for some musicians have also had negative effects on the industry as a whole. That said, there’s no harm in pitching your music or Spotify’s coveted curated playlists.
A more fun option—in my opinion—is to create your own playlists or collaborate with fellow artists on mix-tapes. They could be literal, physical cassettes, which would be laborious but fun, or streamlining playlists. On Spotify, you can make curated playlists available to fans on your artist page. I’ve seen musicians create playlists of their friends and heroes, influences behind a new album, songs of importance, songs to meditate to, music to run to, etc.
If you rather use music from Bandcamp, buymusic.club is an excellent option.
Don’t hesitate to include your own music. If you share it with featured artists, they’ll likely share it with their fans. Talk to artists about collaborating on playlists for audience cross-over. Consider starting a playlist club.
Playlisters have become taste-makers in a similar way to music journalists and receive pitches like the press. Make a list of folks (or talk to your PR rep about it) who dig genres or music types similar or adjacent to yours. If they accept submissions, go on and submit! If that feels gross to you, submit a friend’s music too.
5. Write fan letters via email
Newsletters are an effective way to engage with your fans directly and build a long-term relationship without having to worry about algorithms. You still have to navigate spam filters and sender reputation, but those are solvable problems.
If your newsletter is really good, people will share it with their friends. In Nick Cave’s weekly newsletter, The Red Hand Files, he answers a fan question with topics ranging from identity to the meaning of a specific lyric, and beyond. A friend coach told me about these letters and I’m hooked. Their thoughtfulness made me want to spend more time with his music.
Your email newsletters can be whatever you want them to be. An advice column, a place to answer fan mail, a simple way to share updates, a curation of other music and art. They are a blank canvas for your creativity and voice. Here’s a guide for getting started.
One fun tip to build your email list is to offer pre-release tracks to subscribers only. Share a link to sign up on social media.
6. Send snail mail
Postcards are pretty cheap to print. I like StationaryHQ but finding a local printer or even printing them yourself could be nice (and cheap). They do use paper, but they also support the USPS!
Be selective. Maybe just send them to your most supportive fans or industry people or press. Use them to announce a new release or tour (when that’s a thing again). Include a download code to pre-release tracks so you can measure their effectiveness.
7. Lift other artists up on social media
If you’re not sure what to share with your fans on social channels, consider sharing artists you love. Fans will be interested to know who you’re listening to and it’s a fun way to support the greater music community.
8. Rethink press opportunities
It feels like so many artists release half of their album as singles via premiers and exclusives before releasing the entire thing. As a fan, this approach takes away from the luster of listening to the entire record for the first time. Maybe you feel the same.
Don’t get me wrong, traditional music press and Pitchfork reviews can be helpful. With fairly diverse and massive audiences, they provide a worthy opportunity to grow your fanbase.
There are so many other ways to reach new fans. Consider getting on podcasts you love (which are typically fun for everyone involved), doing an AMA on Reddit or another platform, taking over the Instagram of a brand or publication you respect for a day, etc. I bet you can think of an even better way to partner with someone with a large and relevant audience.
9. Focus on impactful 1:1 relationships
Not only do you want to grow your audience, but you also want to pay rent. Sometimes a one-to-one or one-to-agency relationship can be the most impactful for earning a living. Consider carving out time to explore opportunities like hiring a sync rep to pitch your music for film, TV, commercials, and video games.
If you don’t have a manager or label yet, maybe it’s time to look for one. Think about what relationships are going to help you grow your business in the long-term.
10. Contribute to compilations and splits
Compilations are old school cross-promotion. If you have 12 tracks from 12 bands, that’s potentially 11 new audiences hearing one of your songs. Comps are often put together for proceeds to go to a good cause, giving you an opportunity to give back with your art.
Similarly, doing a split (you record half the record and another artist records the other half) is another way to cross-promote while splitting the costs of pressing vinyl.
11. Live streams
I honestly don’t know much about live streams, but Kevin put together a thorough guide that also includes some ways to make them fun.
I just threw a lot at you. I suggest picking one or two activities at a time and trying to have some fun with them. If they don’t feel right, move onto the next. You’ll find what sticks!