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
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.
2. USE THE PIGGYBACKING STRATEGY
|Jonathan Coulton conquered the geek-Internet niche with songs like "Code Monkey."
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.
4. START A STREET TEAM
|The authors' anti-Christmas
album, Santa Doesn't Like You,
sells well every December,
thanks to keyword searches.
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.
7. CROSS-PROMOTE YOURSELF
|Cross-promotion becomes even more effective
when your links are part of a creative collaboration,
such as Epic Battles of Rap History.
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
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
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.