Creation and distribution music has never been easier, but promoting your work has never been so confusing. Should we focus on TikTok or tour? And when you don’t have many followers, is online promotion really worth it?
To crack the code, we spoke to indie musicians, marketers, trend setters, and even a professor. While there’s no guaranteed formula for success, we’ve found plenty of tips and tricks for all types of musicians. Let’s dive into it.
Access to playlists
Streaming is by far the most popular way to consume music today, and picking the right playlists can boost your music career. Although anyone can create a playlist on Spotify or Apple Music, only a small percentage have a large number of subscribers. If you don’t have your own popular playlists, how can you access the bigger ones?
Services like SubmitHub and Playlist Push allow you to submit to playlist creators, music blogs, and social media influencers. SubmitHub has both free and paid submission options, but Playlist Push is paid only. Playlists like IndieMono and Alexrainbirdmusic have free submissions in a variety of genres. Although Spotify doesn’t allow playlist owners to charge for inclusion, it does seem to allow (or at least tolerate) submission fees.
Do these strategies work? Yes, but artists should be prepared “for a lot of rejection,” says Jonathan Teeter, Charlottesville, Va. frontman of indie band Films on Song. A single addition from playlister BIRP.FM led to over 10,000 streams for his band’s single “Ritual Day.” “It’s not ideal to have to pay $1-3 to submit through SubmitHub, but if you get to know blogs and influencers who like what, it can be helpful.”
Rejection is part of the game and it’s important to hold your head up high. “Music is an art. Art is hard,” says KCRW radio DJ Jason Kramer, who was one of the first tastemakers to discover Billie Eilish and Finneas. “Artists just need to be them. Play something they need to play,” he continues, “Take risks, don’t be afraid.
Create your own reading lists
You don’t have to rely on someone else’s playlist for plays. On Spotify and Apple Music, if a playlist is public, anyone can find and follow it. The exact algorithms aren’t public, but playlists with names based on iconic lyrics, new albums, locations, or sentiments (“New York Autumn Vibes,” for example) sometimes seem to work well on Spotify, even for users without existing tracking. Seemingly without trying, some users have created playlists that are gaining thousands of listeners. Artists can post their favorite playlists on their artist profile, gain new followers and show off their favorite tracks. Apple Music doesn’t display the number of playlist subscribers, which makes it harder to judge what strategies are working there.
What playlists are you on? The Apple Music for Artists and Spotify for Artists apps will give you song play counts, information about the playlists you’ve been added to, and other useful information.
Use streaming services resources
Apple Music for Artists has a page with tips and tools for promoting your work. You can even create your own QR code that links to your song or album. Spotify has a similar resource called a Code Creator, and they even explain how you can submit songs for inclusion in a playlist. SoundCloud also has a page with tips to help creators monetize and promote their music. QR codes related to streaming or social networks are perfect for affixing stickers, posters or other promotional materials.
Collaborate on tracks and covers
Features and collaborative songs are perhaps the most common in hip hop, but can be a great way to expand your audience, regardless of genre. For example, indie rock band Surfer Blood released an EP titled hard boiled, which featured other artists covering their songs. The tracks appeared on the Surfer Blood page in addition to the pages of the artists who made the covers, maximizing exposure for everyone.
Covering a well-known song can be another good way to attract new listeners. This article is not legal advice, but remember that if you cover a song, you will have to pay royalties to whoever wrote it. Fortunately, services like DistroKid can handle this for you.
Cultivate your image
Social media has become so essential for promoting music that even artists who died decades ago have an active presence on Instagram. While it’s a powerful tool for artists, music influencer Ari Elkins warns artists not to neglect their music. “Gaining thousands of followers on TikTok is exciting, but it’s crucial that those followers are there for your music and not just because of viral videos unrelated to you as an artist.”
While social media can lead to success, the game is constantly evolving. Cehryl, a Hong Kong-based indie pop artist, started out by uploading self-recorded tracks to SoundCloud, and now has a recording contract and over 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But she warned that what worked before might not work now. “If I had to start from scratch today, I wouldn’t start on SoundCloud. I would just distribute it on all streaming platforms and promote it mostly on Instagram.
When you are on TikTok or Instagram, what strategies should you use? “It’s more than likes,” says Kas Robinson, a social media strategist in Sydney, Australia, who notes that social media algorithms look at various factors such as “how long you spend on your content, the rate of engagement and the number of shares and saves”. “If you don’t know what to do, Kas recommends you start. “Give yourself a starting position and work to improve your content over time.”