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Masterclass: Nine $0 Music Marketing Strategies

February 24, 2015

Growing your fan base takes more than just making your music and getting it heard. You need to promote and market your music actively in order to turn one-time listeners into fans. Fortunately, marketing is not as complicated as many musicians think, and, more importantly, there are many strategies that are free and within your reach. When you have a new track to promote, consider the following nine $0 marketing strategies to increase your followers before your next release.

1. STAND OUT IN A CROWD

Most musicians think “I have to get my music reviewed by a big music site or publication.” Don’t start there! Publications and media that focus solely on music are probably the hardest places to get reviewed. For instance, National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered” receives 200 to 300 song submissions each week. Out of those, the program can only feature eight. And those are sandwiched in between other songs, and played just once. The same is true for music reviews. Reviews give you useful quotes for your press kit, but unless you make it into a major publication such as Rolling Stone, a review probably won’t get you many new fans, because your review would be one of many.

Instead, think in terms of where your audience hangs out and then target those sites—especially if the sites don’t normally feature music. For example, one of the biggest sellers in the early days of CDBaby was an album about sailing. Instead of sending the album to music magazines to get reviewed, the artist instead sent the album to a popular sailing magazine.

The editors of the sailing magazine, which didn’t usually receive music, ended up featuring and reviewing the album. Why? The album spoke directly to their readers. By submitting the album for review to a magazine that didn’t normally receive or review music, the artist didn’t have to compete against tons of other music submissions. The release got noticed in a big way. Because the magazine had a large distribution, and the album got a great review, and the review included information on exactly how readers could get the album, sales shot through the roof.

Jonathan Coulton conquered the geek-Internet niche with songs like "Code Monkey."
2. USE THE PIGGYBACKING STRATEGY

One of the quickest ways to get noticed is to piggyback on something that’s already popular. There are two easy ways to do this. First, list other popular artists that you “sound like” on your website; drawing a comparison to music that listeners already know they like can help give them a clue that you’re worth checking out. Second, cover a well-known song. For many musicians, a cover song becomes their biggest seller. But covering a song can also create a gateway for listeners. If they like your cover, they will check out your other material and might buy the entire album that includes the cover.

You can also piggyback on popular culture. For example, our own band, Beatnik Turtle, wrote a song called “Star Wars (A Film Like No Other)” which summarized the original Star Wars trilogy in one song. Around the same time, StarWars. com released a video mashup tool, so we decided to use that tool to make a video including actual movie clips. The video ended up becoming one of the most popular on the site, getting played more than 15,000 times thanks to the active community. That popularity led to it getting picked up by Atom.com as a featured video, which in turn led to it being licensed to air on SpikeTV to celebrate the Star Wars 32nd anniversary.

Current events also provide piggybacking opportunities. When a topic is hot, lots of people will be searching the web for information about it. With a little thought, you can be part of the trend, whether through the title of your blog or YouTube video, or a hashtag on a well-timed tweet.

Charities offer another opportunity for piggybacking. Many artists team up with a charity, not only to raise money for a good cause, but also to help introduce themselves to new audiences. Special live performances or albums where some of the proceeds go to the charity can benefit the artist and a worthy cause. Besides teaming up with a charity, services like Reverbnation’s Music for Good allow artists to sell songs and split revenue between a charity and the artist.

Finally, one of the most effective piggybacking strategies is to use the popularity of holidays. For example, our band’s irreverent un-Christmas album called Santa Doesn’t Like You, with songs such as “Co-ed Naked Drunk Christmas Shopping” and “Smokin’ the Mistletoe,” sells well every December, despite being more than a decade old—and we don’t spend a cent on marketing it. The songs naturally come up when people search for keywords like “Santa” or “Christmas” at digital stores like iTunes and Google Play, or streaming services like Spotify or Rdio, around the holidays.

3. CONQUER A NICHE

Yesterday’s world was organized in terms of geography: You communicated with people who were physically close to you. Today’s Internet world is organized by interests. Each niche spawns websites, forums, and social media that serve its community, and in turn, these focused Internet destinations engender dedicated groups of people seeking information, media, and music that’s aimed directly at them.

Just because a particular niche is focused doesn’t mean that it’s small. Soccer fans make up one niche in the world of sports, yet there’s a huge community of soccer fans in the world. But the more focused the niche, the more dedicated the fan base. Because the Internet allows people to organize this way, it becomes much easier for musicians to reach specific niches in order to introduce music to them. And if your music matches members’ interests, you can use niche communities to build new fan bases.

For example, artist Jonathan Coulton did this in his early days by (naturally) writing the kind of music that the geek community around the website Slashdot enjoyed. With songs about mathematical concepts like “The Mandelbrot Set” or music about computer programming like “Code Monkey,” his music was often posted to websites related to these concepts. And as he conquered the geek-Internet niche, he was able to build still larger audiences that transcended his original listeners—partly with help from fans within the niche who were employed at video game companies or NPR, wrote for music review sites, and more. Opportunities sprung from this, and his music was later used in video games, licensed to TV shows, and played on the radio. From there, he started to tour worldwide and sold out venues—all from focusing on a niche.

The authors' anti-Christmas album, Santa Doesn't Like You, sells well every December, thanks to keyword searches.
4. START A STREET TEAM

Today’s artists are more connected to their fans than ever. And in these days of social media, every fan you have can reach hundreds if not thousands of people via a single tweet or Facebook post. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask in order to get their help to spread the word.

The key to a successful street team is to be specific when you ask them to do something, and make it easy to share your work. Videos on YouTube are the most shareable media. Second best are songs that are posted to music platforms like SoundCloud, which allows for easy sharing. Give your fans clear direction: Ask them to post your work to their social networks—directly, in the descriptions of the songs, and as a call-out at the tail-end of videos.

You never know what opportunities your fans may be able to create for you. Jonathan Coulton’s fans began hooking him up with opportunities in radio, TV, and video games after he asked for help to make connections for his music. Make sure that you ask your fans to find opportunities for your music.

5. GET AN AGENT

Most independent artists represent themselves; they get their own gigs, make their own deals, and negotiate for themselves. But one trick that’s helped us and many other scrappy artists is to get someone to represent, sell, or negotiate for you—even if you’re just starting out. Why? It’s human nature to think more of someone when there’s a third party acting on his or her behalf.

Plus, having an agent is very useful during negotiations, because they can be as tough as they need to be without tarnishing your image. If you negotiate for yourself and you give the other side a difficult time, the individuals you’re dealing with may not be able to separate the business from the artist.

Normally an agent only makes a cut if they make you money. But keep in mind, for this strategy to work, you don’t need to hire a professional. It’s enough to just have a friend or family member act on your behalf when dealing with journalists, bookers, licensors, or other businesses.

6. BORROW CREDIBILITY

When your name isn’t well known yet, you can have a hard time getting people to check out your music. To boost your chances, it helps to have your music associated with someone or something that already has credibility.

One way to do this when you’re starting out is to get reviewed. This shows potential fans that someone else thought your music was worthwhile. Other ways include citing awards that you’ve won, well-known places you performed or your music was played, or media where your music was featured.

For live music, you will want to talk about other venues you headlined, major bands you’ve opened for, or festivals you’ve played. In terms of music licensing, you’ll want to talk about any other commercials, movies, or shows that have used your music.

Cross-promotion becomes even more effective when your links are part of a creative collaboration, such as Epic Battles of Rap History.
7. CROSS-PROMOTE YOURSELF

Once you have an audience, you can start exploring cross-promotion possibilities with other artists, creative people, and businesses—after all, everyone is looking to reach new audiences. To do this, offer to promote the other individual or business’s name and work to your fans in exchange for exposure of your music to their audience.

This cross-promotion can be done via links to each other’s work, but becomes even more effective when you collaborate on something creative. For example, this happens in nearly every release of the Epic Rap Battles of History, where all of the musicians, comedians, or actors who participate in creating the song and episode get a credit at the end of each video, including links to their YouTube channels.

But cross-promotion doesn’t just have to be online. Our band became the musical accompaniment for a sketch comedy group called The Dolphins of Damnation, at Chicago’s Second City. Besides playing behind musical sketches and in between scenes, we played a song or two in the middle of the show, similar to what artists do on Saturday Night Live. One of the reasons why the comedy group won the time slot was because the band came with an established fan base. In return, we got to play in front of their fans as well as for the people who attend comedy shows at Second City, exposing our music to a brand-new audience. Plus, we got to add Second City to our live show bio (as in strategy number 6 above).

8. CROSS-SELL YOUR MERCH

All the musicians we’ve interviewed over the years have something in common: They don’t just rely on playing live, selling albums, and selling merchandise; they do plenty of projects apart from their own music creation and sales. They have podcasts, record videos, write blogs, perform in other bands, create apps and games, write books, create comics, and more.

As a creative person, it’s likely that you too are working on other projects in other media. No matter what they are, find ways to tie them together with your music. This is especially helpful if you are working with other creative people on projects. Once you have done some work to develop an audience in any venue or project, find ways to cross-sell your music to fans of that project. Once listeners are familiar with some of your work, it’s likely they will want to check out other things that you’ve done.

9. STICK WITH IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Many musicians emulate the major labels and try to create something that will get them noticed in a short time-frame. But while major labels have sometimes profited from a one-hit-wonder business model, most other businesses use a much longer-term strategy: They build a reputation over time and eventually grow consistent income.

A long-term strategy also applies to building your fan base. With each release, album, video, or promotion, you can grow your audience a little bit more.

Try as many of these techniques as you can, and see what works. This is about being smart with the amount of time and resources you have, and can put into each project and marketing effort. In the past, major labels had enough money to flood a market with their marketing, to create buzz and make an artist seem successful fast. But if you can’t do that, use our strategies and try placing little bets on smaller releases and marketing efforts. This way, you can build your fanbase and your income with little help, and almost no money.

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