Three big bombs went off in the computer industry in the 1990s. The first was the browser, our connection to the internet world. Next came tools, compressed video and audio for transmission over this new medium. Then, the music “sharing” site Napster was launched in 1999. From that moment on, the computer provided a single platform on which to record, distribute, and consume music.
Things were just getting started. In 2003 MySpace launched and within months millions of users and thousands of musicians and bands were discovering each other in ways that had never been possible before. These changes gave birth to an entire new music ecosystem. Digital sales ultimately surpassed record sales. Podcasts, streaming, and YouTube marginalized radio. Studios downsized, but every laptop became a potential recording desk. And the artist’s 8×10 promotion glossies were replaced by video links and digital bios.
It’s easier than ever to put your music out into the world, and sometimes easier to find an audience. But building a career is still work, just as it has always been. Researching the topic of how to promote yourself involved studying media research and then talking with several people about how they employ today’s media outlets to communicate. These included solo guitarists Andy McKee, Daryl Shawn, and Adam Rafferty, the duo Mandolin Orange, Vickie Starr of Girlie Action Media, who is the publicist for Kaki King, and Amanda Cagan of ABC Public Relations, who works with acts from classic stars like Styx to new artists.
WHO ARE YOU? I REALLY WANNA KNOW!
The most important question that needs to be answered in any discussion of promotion is: Who are you?
What do you have to say? What do you want to do with your music? What would success look like to you? And, importantly, how do you like to spend your day, because promoting yourself takes time and, for many of us, challenges our comfort zone. Assuming you don’t already have a publicist, management team, and major label contract, you’re going to be doing a lot of this work yourself.
Take a minute to examine your goals for taking your career to the next level. Examples might include things like releasing a set number of songs in the coming year; increasing the number of gigs you play; collaborating with an artist you admire; or finding 20 new students. A specific concrete goal is better than a general one. Instead of trying to release ten new songs this year, a better goal is to release one new song at 3:00 p.m. on the 15th of every month.
Maybe your goal is just to get a few more people to hear your music, and that’s OK, too. Guitarist Adam Rafferty was a dyed-in-the-wool jazzer who threw in the towel on his New York career when he could no longer make a living touring with his band. He was already videoing his practice sessions, so in 2008 he decided to share his arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” on YouTube. More than two million views later, he looks back on that effort as a catalyst of his new career as a solo fingerstyle guitarist and teacher who has found a relatively small but global audience of students and fans who love his music.
Your marketing, whether it’s a killer YouTube video or an event poster on an old-fashioned kiosk, should try to do one of three things: Increase your visibility; build your credibility as an artist; and, provide you with income. The tools for doing that range from print and websites to social media and video. We’ll look at the most essential tools for increasing visibility and building credibility, and how successful artists use them to drive relationships with fans and sell tickets at the door.
THE ESSENTIAL TOOLS
Phase 1 of any marketing and visibility effort is your website. There are some very big bands who eschew them, preferring only to use a Facebook page and other social media. I also know people who refuse to dress warmly when it’s freezing outside. Don’t be one of them. If you don’t have a website, you are ensuring that you’ll lose significant Google traffic.
Your website makes it much easier for new and old fans to find your tour info, songs and videos, lessons, merchandise, personal blogs, gear lists, and more. And, it should always be up to date so fans can depend on it. Vickie Starr comments that “bands should never play a gig that is not on their website.” If you’re just getting started, you should at least go on WordPress.com or Wix.com and build a simple site. You can always improve it as you go, or engage photographers and designers to help you kick up the visuals.
It’s tempting to just use a Facebook business page because you can set up one in minutes.
However, it’s too limited in how you can present information. And, Facebook owns 100 percent of everything you post on it. Guitarist Adam Rafferty says adamantly, “Your website is the only digital property you can create that no one can take away from you.”
Despite the foregoing, you need Facebook, too. Maybe you have friends who have dumped Facebook in light of privacy breaches and other recent crises with social media. But from a business standpoint that’s not wise. With nearly 2 billion users it is arguably the most important social media platform in the world, especially for users over 30.
Facebook shares your posts with friends, followers, and others who have some relation to you based on their algorithm. It’s no secret that Facebook has continually tightened down on sharing of posts, partly in an attempt to force companies to advertise. If your posts aren’t reaching enough people, you have two ways to increase their visibility: boosts and ads. Both can be effective because of Facebook’s targeting capability. If you are performing in Davenport, Iowa, you can buy an ad or boost a post to reach only guitarists of a specified age within a 50-mile radius of the venue. Vickie Starr creates geo-targeted Facebook posts for every show.
I’m not recommending you start with paid ads or posts, because as a musician you have an advantage: Facebook shares video posts more than any other type—which means your video posts are boosted already without you paying them for it. But be careful. Facebook only boosts embedded videos—those that are uploaded directly to the platform, not merely linked to a video hosted on your YouTube page.
Twitter has 340+ million users and a good representation in the music community. But it’s not as crucial as your website or Facebook. Starr says, “It depends on the artist, but we consider Twitter to be least important of all the social platforms these days. People tend to use Twitter mostly for news and gossip, and less for discovering music or planning their weekend.”
Most of the guitarists I’ve examined basically repeat Instagram or Facebook posts on Twitter. But not all of them. Daryl Shawn creatively posts up to five times a day. He offers a lesson and a free chord shape each day. This reinforces a key point about Twitter. It’s an intense medium in which frequent posting is rewarded.
If you decide to invest significant time on Twitter, do it right. Have an indelible photo shot—because it’s like a logo—and write a crisp bio, since part of it will appear on your page. You should also follow industry contacts whom you may want to know in order to see what they are talking about. That can be invaluable. To encourage more followers, retweet content that interests you. Use hashtags and follow those, such as #fingerstyle, that will help you see what others are doing.
Instagram recently passed one billion users. Seventy-five percent of its users are under the age of 35, and 58 percent are female. If that is not your demographic, you might ignore Instagram for now. But compared to Twitter, which as a text medium tends to be intellectual, critical, and gossipy, Instagram is a supportive, friendly, environment. Starr says, “Instagram is the most important social media site for marketing bands and music right now.” Guitarist Andy McKee (@therealmckee) says he was late to the game with Instagram but has started putting more effort there and less on Facebook. Perhaps the most successful solo guitar poster on Instagram is Sam Blakelock, who has amassed more than 400,000 users on his #pickupjazz and #pickupguitar Instagram feeds, mostly by showing short educational clips from amateur followers. He turns this visibility into money by selling lessons from a variety of teachers at his website of the same name.
On other social media, hashtags are merely useful, but on Instagram they are crucial. That’s how posts are surfaced for you. Look for hashtags other musicians use and follow those to find new content and see what’s working. You can also change hashtags strategically. If you’ve been posting songs with the tag
#bluesfingerstyle, changing to #travispicking or #deltabluesguitar may surface your images and posts to more potential fans.
RULES FOR SOCIAL MEDIA POSTING
Always use images. Social media attention spans are about eight seconds long, according to people who measure such things. You want to connect with your audience at a glance, whether posting a promotion for your music, or just sharing something happening in your musical life.
Posting patterns are crucial. The ratio of promotional posts, which can be self-serving, to more personal, casual posts, has a big impact on whether fans and followers decide to stick around. Experts recommend one promotional post to every four non-promotional posts.
Follow a schedule. Daryl Shawn says, “Having a predictable time for what you’re posting is very important, because users know when you’ll be online.” He posts a daily micro-concert on Facebook at 5:00 p.m. He also posts a new video each Wednesday at noon. Others are less dedicated, but still note the importance. Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange says, “For the most part we try to keep it loose. When announcing tours and ticket on-sales, we have to be a little more intentional about a schedule.”
Experiment to see what works. Unless the idea of sharing parts of your musical self with strangers online is unbearable, you need to give it your best shot. Idealism makes the best marketing, so don’t be afraid to show your authentic self. Those quirky waltz arrangements you thought no one wanted to hear may be just what some people are hoping to find.
Play the Game. To succeed at social media you must play the game. For example, if you rarely comment on the posts of others, or visit your site only infrequently, Facebook’s algorithm won’t share your posts as much. Follow other artists and your most rabid fans. Or curate a list of what you like, something that’s easy to do on YouTube or Spotify. What gets traction for them in terms of the number of times it is shared? And, just as tellingly, what doesn’t work? You don’t have to copy others. You need to learn from them.
Analyze. The beauty of the internet is that you can get very precise data about how people respond to your music and to your outbound marketing. Once you master posting to your audience, use the tools in search, email, and social media apps to improve your efficiency. Learn why some of your posts fall flat and some are shared 200 times. I know a friend, an instrument builder, whose posts get 600 or 700 shares for a post of a new product, while a competitor of similar size gets only a few. Is the difference due to timing? Photography? We know for sure that creativity is rewarded, as it is in all marketing. My friend doesn’t just post a great photo of a new instrument he’s built: He tells a compelling story about it.
EMAIL IS KING
Adam Rafferty says, “I’ve got a couple of million hits on my cover of ‘Billie Jean.’ Sometimes I find that younger guitarists think the goal is to get a million views on YouTube. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to build the email list.”
Email is even more crucial if your niche is small. When you are selling lessons or supporting small club dates, you need to reach dedicated followers, not casual readers. Someone willing to receive and occasionally read your email is more likely to see a show, download a lesson, or buy your guitar, than someone who merely clicks “Like.”
Counter-intuitively, the number of people who open your email usually goes up the more frequently you contact them. Rafferty has an effective program to generate email followers by offering free downloadable lessons, and then he follows up with a tailored program of frequent emails to keep students interested. Acoustic Guitar magazine’s most fervent list receives daily lessons via email. At the other end of the spectrum, if you tour sporadically and know your audience, infrequent emails can shoulder the load. Guitarist Harvey Reid, who has 32 albums and numerous books to his credit, issues but one newsletter annually with his wife, violinist Joyce Andersen.
‘Instagram is the most important social media site for marketing bands and music right now.’
MULTIMEDIA AND MONETIZATION
YouTube is hugely influential as a place to find new music, and has played the biggest role in uncovering new stars today. Andy McKee’s life flipped 180 degrees because of his YouTube fandom. “I don’t know if I can overstate how much my life changed after the response on the internet,” he says. And YouTube continues to mint new stars. But it’s not highly social. The platform seems to be a natural home for snarky and sophomoric comments instead of useful interactions. Many artists use it as a storage device for video that is embedded elsewhere, and don’t respond much on it, except to answer serious questions.
iTunes and Amazon are the most important outlets for physical media and downloads. Spotify is the most important audio streaming site for music discovery, and, like Pandora and other sites, it can provide royalty income. Many artists also use platforms such as Deezer, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp. Middleware sites such as Tunecore save time and do the heavy lifting of formatting and uploading to all of these distribution outlets for a fee. You can use all of these outlets to ensure new releases reach the maximum number of people. To promote recordings, Starr of Girlie Action Media says they often use bite-size 30- or 60-second audio or video clips to promote new releases on social media, and then link to full songs on YouTube and all of the streaming platforms.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
You don’t just want to change the world with your music. It would be nice to make some money on the way. The best methods are direct sales of recordings; streaming fees and royalties; sales of lessons, tabs, books, merchandise, and related products; direct donations from fans; and, of course, gigs and touring. In addition, artists who achieve enough views can monetize videos on YouTube through advertising. Patreon enables you to ask fans to directly support your music. Shawn is a popular curator of Spotify playlists. As listens climb, so does his income.
The iron rule of the internet is to create more value than you take. You can build visibility and credibility by showing respect for your audience and your fellow musicians. Despite the chaotic and sometimes nasty tone you can encounter online, social media is also a medium where high ideals and authenticity have an impact. Try to solve the problems you have as a guitarist, artist, and human being, and then share that with the audience. They’ll reward you for it.
Which of the monetization strategies you pursue depends on your skills, temperament, and aims. If you’re only after followers and interaction, you may need a few of them. If you want a full-time career, go back and read about developing your goals.
The emphasis on social media does not mean giving up on traditional media and other outlets. Everyone needs one item in their arsenal that used to be common: the promo pack. It can be digital-only but it needs to include: a press release about current activity; one-page bio; physical CD or digital download link; proof of other press coverage you may have gotten; a photo; and your contact info.
A good press release cuts through the noise, convincing writers, editors, or promoters of your credibility and seriousness. “Everything has to be cultivated and everything has to be developed,” says Cagan. “It’s about longevity and establishing a career for yourself.”
Let’s say you release your incredible ’50s cool-jazz-arrangement of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” You can shoot your promo pack to jazz magazines, guitar websites, music bloggers, and also heavy metal sites such as blabbermouth.net or metalsucks.com. Starr says all these outlets are categorized as “press” in her office. They might do a story on you, or at least share a social media link to your audio. And, unlike social media, your press release is a message that you create and control. You’re not dependent on others defining your work.
Press releases for tours should also be sent to local entertainment weeklies and to the person running their social media arms. Cagan says, “I still work local media. If I know an artist is from Tallahassee, I’ll contact the local paper.” And, she adds, she works all the little music-specific websites around the country. “The Houston Press no longer publishes in print, but it covers a lot of music online.”
TIME CAN BE YOUR ENEMY
Every artist I talk to mentions the time commitment of personal marketing and social media. It’s a struggle to keep up with the needs of a career on one hand, and the need for a real life and private time to create on the other. This is true even for those with full managerial and publicity support. Prioritizing one’s aims and utilizing posting schedules can help you maintain control of your life. Rafferty swears by SmarterQueue, a social media scheduler that lets him dial up his next day’s posts ahead of time. Record companies use similar tools. Just because you can communicate any time, anywhere doesn’t mean you should. Your fans and even business associates may try to use Twitter and Facebook like email, but if it doesn’t work for you, then ignore it. After all, the most important person in the equation is you. Your music comes first. Marketing just gets it out there.
The following are the key tools used by musicians, according to multiple research firms.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.