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I hear there are some artists who are content to slave away in obscurity. To create great art that precious few ever get a chance to experience. To chase their artistic vision, keep it pure, and never worry about whether anyone else understands it.
But who wants that? If you’re here, reading this article, then you probably feel the same way I do, the way that most musicians I’ve spoken to feel. It’s true, we create music because we love to do it, and perhaps we couldn’t stop if we tried. We create music that feels like a unique expression of our soul. But when it comes down to it, nothing beats the thrill of knowing that somebody else is hearing that piece of your soul, and enjoying it. That your music is making someone’s day better. That someone could happily call him or herself a “[your name here] fan.” That somebody would check up on your page, waiting for updates and releases. And, dare we dream? That your music could bring new joy into somebody’s life.
Everyone Can Have an Audience
Well, there’s good news. Any musician can have this. In fact, it’s probably the best time in history to achieve this dream, with more tools at your disposal and more potential fans than ever, just waiting to discover your music.
But there’s bad news too. Which is that it’s complicated, and it’s not easy, and it’s not that fun for most musicians. Of course, because if it was easy, we’d all have tons of fans right? Guides like this often feel overwhelming. Many times I personally have scrolled through one and thought, “ugh, is this worth it? Am I even capable of this? What if I try and nothing happens?”
My friend, it is possible, and you can have it. Just take it slow. Bookmark this page and come back to it. Get more and more familiar. Recognize that this is not simple, like going to the store and buying music gear. It’s more like learning a new language. But if you persist, I guarantee you will see results!
YouTube is an incredible resource. The world’s second largest search engine. Billions of viewers. Using YouTube, you can build a following, get new fans, deepen your current fans’ love of your music, and even make money directly! Think about it- you’ve probably found new music through YouTube before. Almost everyone has. You’ve also probably gotten more into music you already liked using YouTube. Now you can be on the receiving end of that experience.
The New Music Industry
Okay, you can skip this part if you want to jump straight to action. But I think it’s useful to understand how things have changed in the music industry, in very broad terms.
We are at a really crazy turning point in the music industry. Everything about the way music works has shifted in our lifetimes. Yes, music is always dynamic. New genres come and go. LPs are replaced by cassettes and then CDs. New technology like drum machines and synthesizers make music sound different than before. But we are in the middle of a paradigm shift on the same level as the very invention of the radio and recorded music a century ago.
The Digital Age
Two huge innovations have changed everything. Digital recording of music, and the internet.
Before digital music recording, audio engineers were so-named for a reason. Between tape machines, pre-amps, mixing boards, and other physical recording gear, you basically had to be technical to record music at all. And now, a laptop and audio interface working together can take the place of gear that used to fill a room. It’s never been easier to learn how to produce music, and at professional quality levels at that. It’s also never been more inexpensive to get started.
And the internet changed the way that people find and listen to music overnight. Before, physical copies of music was the only way to listen to music, unless you wanted to be at the mercy of the radio. Now, anyone can pull up spotify or youtube and stream any music they can imagine, for free or almost free. It’s an amazing time to be a music fan. Every record store in the universe is at your fingertips, and compared to the past, it’s essentially free.
But herein lies the paradigm shift. I have heard it said that before music recording existed, musicians provided a service, not a product. After all, the moment a musician stopped playing, the music stopped. The invention of the phonograph and radio turned music into a product. Musicians were now like authors, with record labels acting like publishers. If you were good, your music could be heard all over the world, and you could reach unprecedented levels of fame and fortune. The Beatles stopped playing live halfway through their career, but they sold records. They sold a physical product that people could own.
And now, musicians are more of a service once again. Sure, music is still a product. People do still buy records and CDs, but it should be no surprise to learn that physical music sales have taken a crazy dive. And as you may know, the income from streaming platforms like Spotify is extremely minimal.
Supply and demand used to apply to music. Musicians supplied the physical copies of music, and the general public demanded it. Now, with the combination of the boundless music on the internet, and the ease of creating more music, the supply of music is effectively infinity. But the demand has not changed much. The general public is about the same size and needs about the same amount of music. And that’s the rub. So much music goes nearly unlistened. That’s just the mathematics of the situation.
At the same time, concert attendance is up. In this alienated digital age, it turns out people are craving experience more. Musicians make a much bigger share of their income from live performances than they used to. Many musicians sell make almost all of their physical music sales at live shows too.
Be Your Own Promoter
What does this all add up to? Gone are the days when you just have to worry about writing great music, and letting it speak for itself. Gone are the days when you could rely on someone else, like a label or manager or promoter, to worry about distributing your music. The best way to get people to listen to your music in 2019 is to learn how to market it. To learn how to get it in front of new and receptive ears.
But as I said, don’t be glum, because once you get acquainted with the new reality, it’s never been better! It’s easy for us to forget the horror stories of the old music industry. Bands trapped in terrible recording contracts, where they lose artistic freedom. An unfriendly contract famously allowed 30 Seconds to Mars to sell millions of copies of an album without seeing any personal profit from it. And if you were a musician in a more remote area and you were never “discovered,” you could have been obscure your entire life. Now, no matter where you are or what your genre is, you can have more control over your own destiny, and you can promote yourself no matter where you are located. Yes, when it comes down to it, we’re in an age of enlightenment for musicians. You just have to learn the game.
Preparing to Promote Yourself
First, you have to get the fundamentals in place.
Make Amazing Music
It always needs to be said, and it always needs to be said first. When it comes right down to it, the music is the most important thing. Fans are responding to the music at the end of the day. So your music has to be amazing! Yes, there are lots of novel ways to get people to listen to your music. A flashy video, a funny hook, a surprising twist. But good music has staying power. So much music from the 60s and 70s is totally forgotten, but The Beatles and Queen are still played on the radio, and every generation re-discovers their genius.
The Power of Amazing Music
This is one of my favorite stories to tell, because it makes a great point and it’s also 100% true. I was working on something at a coffee shop a few years ago, as I often do. A wonderful band I had never heard of before was playing over the PA. I went over and asked the barista, and they told me the name of the band. (For the record, it was Summer Salt.)
I found the band’s music online because I enjoyed it so much, and I got so excited about it that I told all my friends who I thought also deserved to discover this great music. Within a couple of months, a group of four of us had bought tickets to see them perform. I think two of us also bought merch at the show.
Over the past few years, I have watched the band’s following gradually grow and grow. They play venues now that are several times the size of the one I saw them in, and they got signed to a record label. I overhear their music more and more often when I’m out and about. And all of this has happened because the band makes great music. Music so good that people want to hear it, they want to tell their friends, they want to go see them live. Good music has this power!
Maybe you’ve heard terms like “brand” thrown around. Considering we’re musicians, I don’t like that much. I prefer persona. But it should really be one of the first things you consider, and it should always be on your mind. I’m being a bit vague, but let me explain.
Persona is like a combination of brand, genre, artistic statement, and overall presentation. It’s the world that your music creates. And when new fans come across you, your persona is the first thing they will experience about you. If they like your persona, they will want to hear more, and they will stick around long enough to start actually loving your music.
Focus on Affecting Your Audience
I once heard of a musician who was rehearsing. Instead of starting with the notes on the page, learning how to play them beautifully, and just trusting that that would be enough, she thought through the situation in reverse. She started by asking, “how do I want this performance to make the audience feel?” And then she worked backwards from there to plan her performance.
Great entertainers and artists of all stripes think this way. And that’s what I mean by persona. Instead of just making music based on whatever you feel, it’s about learning to think about your goals. What kind of genres and subgenres do you want to fit into? How does your personality fit into your music? What is unique about your music, compared to similar music that exists? How do you look, and how does that fit your sound? What kind of art do you have on your albums and tracks, and what about font? How does it all work together?
You don’t have to worry about putting music on hold and nailing this all down. Your persona can grow and develop over time. But it’s good to have ideas as you get started. It helps every step of self-promotion be more effective. It’s kind of like meeting a new person with a strong, confident personality. Someone who knows what they are about and broadcast it fearlessly. Other people tend to be drawn to that, and want to get to know the person better!
Set Up Your Channel
Start by making your channel look great. That doesn’t mean it has to look boring and generic and “professional.” But it should be intentional, and it should reflect your persona, and it should be pretty easy for new visitors to navigate! Use a photo of yourself for your profile, so that people feel more connected to your persona instantly. Upload a banner image that looks great and continues to bring your persona together. And plan your channel page with easy-to-navigate playlists. New visitors might see a playlist of your original songs, another one of covers of other artists, etc.
Get Your Subscriber Base Started
Maybe you’re starting with no YouTube subscribers. But you probably have friends and family, and maybe music fans on other platforms. Bring all these people together, contact them, and ask them to subscribe. You can even film a short video introducing your channel, or send them a video showcasing what kind of content they can expect to get by subscribing. It’s always encouraging to get a jump start on things!
Now that we’ve covered the foundations, we can talk about how to act on it! Read on for advice about what you can actually, you know, DO.
Using YouTube to Effectively Promote Your Music
Plan to Post Content Regularly
This one is a good idea from a general artistic standpoint, but platforms like YouTube like it too. Even if you have to make some videos much more low-effort than others to make it happen, plan to post regularly. This boosts your rankings, and your subscribers will be more aware of you as they are notified every time you post something new.
Create Varied Content
You don’t have to be a musician for long to realize a few fundamental truths about the way people listen to music. First of all, people like music that they already know. Second, they’re more interested in music created by people they have heard of. Third, if they don’t know you and they don’t know your music, getting them to listen to your music is like pulling teeth!
There are lots of ways to get people interested in you- in your persona- without directly trying to get them to listen to your music cold. And once they’re interested in you, they will be more interested in your music- hey, that’s like the second principle I just mentioned above.
I can think of a few great examples of this off the top of my head. Jeph Jacques is a webcomic artist who has been drawing and writing Questionable Content for over sixteen years (!!!) now. The comic has a large dedicated following; in fact, Jacques makes his living off the comic and associated merch. But he has also released music with his own metal band. His webcomic fans donated the money to fund the recording of one of his albums!
More recently, Bill Wurtz developed a large fanbase on YouTube when his unique and hilarious video about the history of Japan went viral. He releases music on his YouTube channel too, but it was the Japan video’s popularity that seriously boosted his stature and got people interested in his music. He has loads of music fans now (myself included, incidentally.)
These are extreme examples. You don’t have to create a successful webcomic or educational video. But the message is clear: Create varied content on YouTube. This will get people interested in you and your channel, and will also help you post more regularly. And it all builds out your persona too. After all, there’s more that’s interesting about you than just your music. You have lots of other thoughts and interests and unique attributes.
Ideas to Vary Your Content
Here are a few potential routes you could take:
Cover songs by popular artists. Try to choose artists whose fans might like your music too. Sure, a death metal Bieber cover might be fun, but if you play metal, you might want to cover an Ozzy or Maiden song instead. When choosing songs to cover, try to find songs that people are searching for, but that don’t already have lots of covers- that’s your sweet spot. For added impact, try to add some unique angle to your cover. Integrate a unique sound or instrument, or re-imagine it with an original approach. Anything that might make a fan of that song ask “I wonder what that’s like?”
Related to this, post videos that are sound-alikes of some of your favorite artists. For example, post a video of a “Lil Nas X type beat” or a “Lorde type instrumental.”
People love to use search engines like Google and YouTube to learn new things. Whatever you know how to do better than most people- music-related or not- create a tutorial! Since people are already trying to learn how to do things, you don’t have to work to convince them to click your video.
Another angle is to create videos showing people how you make your music. Track breakdowns are popular right now, especially in hip hop and electronic music (although it works for all genres.) Talk about how you created a particular track from start to finish, and be sure to include keywords in your video. Like “How I Made the Lo-fi Hip-Hop Track ____.”
Finally, you could post videos about how to play popular songs. Teach a guitar, piano, or bass part, and demonstrate how it’s done. Of course, once again, choose songs whose fans you want for your own music.
Create videos reviewing and/or demoing some of your favorite music gear. While the music industry has changed, it seems like the music gear industry is bigger than ever. Make suggestions about what kind of gear you like to use for the types of music you create. And in fact, you can even sign up for the Amazon affiliate program and direct viewers to those products’ pages, and receive a commission every time someone buys something after watching your video!
Fans of bigger artists also love to read and hear more about those artists. So, create reviews of some of your favorite albums by bigger artists. One more way to direct fans of similar artists to your channel!
You’re creative. You’re making original music after all. So be creative! Anything that’s fun to watch is, by definition, good content. Like a comedy skit? A video of yourself attempting a challenge? A video of yourself reacting to a meme or video in a funny way? Get out there and do it!
Be Smart About Planning Content
Know thy enemy. And know thy YouTube. The more you know about YouTube’s algorithms and inner workings, the more you can plan your content to take advantage. Do keyword research, and learn and implement YouTube SEO (search-engine optimization). Basically, plan content based on what people are already looking for, and then make it easy for those people to find.
This is the process of finding what keywords people are searching for on YouTube so that you can make videos on those topics and get traffic. When planning keywords to make popular content, you’re looking for a combination of high search volume and low competition. Meaning lots of people are looking for something, but there’s not much out there yet.
Does this keyword have a fair amount of search volume? To judge this you can simply search the keyword to see how many average views the top 2-4 videos have on a particular subject. That being said, this is not a perfect measure of the search volume, because the videos could have traffic coming in from other sources (like channel subscribers.) Another thing you can do is install the fabulous browser extension Keywords Everywhere to display estimated keyword data on the search page.
Is the keyword low competition? This is very important and also easy to evaluate on YouTube. All you need to do is search the keyword, and see how many videos there are on that exact topic (less than 6 is generally good). Then see how good the videos on those topics are at matching the searchers intent for that keyword. Meaning, if a few videos pop up, but none of them are really that compelling, you have a golden opportunity to fill the void!
If you do this keyword research, and make high quality content about high search volume, low competition topics, then you WILL get traffic. It’s as simple as that!
Once you’ve got your content, you want to make it very easy to find. That’s the basis of search-engine optimization: making it easy for search engines to find your videos. Search engines speak their own language, and you have to speak it to them! Here are the factors of your video that YouTube looks at:
Be sure to include your main keyword in you video title, description, and video tags. This helps the algorithm understand what your video is about.
This refers to the audience retention of your videos. You should try to get people to watch all the way through your videos.
Click-Through Rate (CTR)
Click-through rate refers to the amount of clicks that your video got divided by the number of impressions. Out of all the people who see your video, what percentage actually click? You can help raise this by putting keywords and enticing statements in your title, the first line of your description, and thumbnail.
YouTube wants to judge how people are reacting to your videos and comments is one way to do it. You can attempt to get more comments by asking people to leave you a comment regarding something in the video. Once they leave you a comment you should also respond to them to further the engagement.
Subscribers After Watching the Video
Since you want subscribers anyway it is a good idea to ask people to subscribe to your channel in your videos.
Longer videos imply that your content is more in-depth and this is a ranking factor on YouTube. I recommend that you determine the average length of the other videos that are currently ranking for your target keywords and make your video a little longer than that.
Keeping People Connected
So you’ve got great content, and people are finding it. But it’s no good if they don’t stick around and stay connected to your channel! Now you know why popular YouTubers are always saying “Like and Subscribe!” It works. That’s called a “Call to Action” and people are WAY more likely to do it if you, you know, command them to. Now’s not the time to be modest.
Also try to urge people to leave comments. Ask open-ended questions, or ask for your viewers’ opinions (for example, what kind of video you should make next), and direct them to leave their answers in the comments.
Make use of annotations as well! These can be used for calls to action, or to direct people to other videos on your channel they may like.
When people do leave comments, respond to them and engage with them! All of these tips make people like you more and feel more connected to you, and they also boost your search rankings. Double whammy.
Sharing Your Content
So far, I’ve discussed lots of ways to do that classic “If You Build It, They Will Come.” Ways to create desirable content, and sit back and wait for people to come to you.
But this is not the only route. You can also actively promote your own content. As you may expect, it’s more work, but with the potential for greater rewards. And of course, if you’re smart about it, your effort is less likely to go to waste.
When you collaborate with another artist, you can create a win-win situation, because you’re both exposed to each others’ audiences! Collabs can take many forms. Maybe the two of you work together to produce a track, or you feature on each others’ tracks, or you cover each others’ original songs.
Be realistic about your stature when you do this. If you are small-time, try to collab with someone who has roughly the same size following that you do, or a little bigger. But don’t expect artists who are much bigger than you to have any interest in collaborating with you until you get bigger. After all, it sucks to admit, but what would they get out of it? Bigger artists put a lot of work into maintaining their content and growing their own following, so they probably don’t have time to work with people unless it will actually benefit themselves in some way as well.
And when you reach out to strangers, some good advice is to show them that you are actually interested in them and their music. Be personal. Make some specific compliments about their music, that show you actually care about it. Ask them questions about how they did something, or why they wrote something, or what something means. Wouldn’t it make you feel good if someone did that to you? Then, segue into a suggestion to work together.
Comment and Respond to Popular Videos
Find videos that are popular, and have the kinds of fans you’d like to have. Fans who may be interested in your persona and your music. Leave a comment talking about what you like about the music, and how it inspired your own music. You can even leave a video response, a chance to show off one of your own videos directly.
Get Posted on a Bigger Channel
Find a YouTube channel that posts music similar to yours, and has its own large following. Reach out to the channel owner and ask if they’d like to upload your video too. This could expose your music to a huge new audience. Depending on the channel and its size, they might want payment for the opportunity- but again, this could be worth it. Some people might fret that the views won’t count towards your channel’s total, but I assure you the trade-off is worthwhile. Getting that kind of attention is so valuable, and anyone who really likes what they hear will search for more, and find your channel.
Get Posted on a Playlist or Mix
Lots of people curate playlists and mixes on YouTube, often labeled by genre. This is a wonderful situation for everyone involved, because fans of a genre (or of certain artists in that genre) can discover similar music- including yours. Reach out to channels that post mixes and playlists that seem relevant to your music. Alternately, nothing is stopping you from creating your own playlist! Feature popular artists whose vibe matches yours, and sneak some of your own tracks in.
This is a creative and potentially very effective idea! Think of popular artists who match your vibe. Find strangers on Twitter, for instance, who have lots of followers and who have shared videos from these artists. Reach out with a friendly and succinct message saying you saw what they shared, tell them they might like your video too, and invite them to share your video if they like it. You might not hear back from many people, but just a few shares can go a long way!
Post to Other Platforms
Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook. All are huge platforms with giant user bases. Post your videos on these platforms, and you could get lucky and get loads of views through one. Each platform has its own vibe, and its own rules (spoken and unspoken) for engaging, so do further research to make sure you are not just shouting into the void. How you present your video to each of the platforms depends on your genre as well. Try to find popular postings on each site with similar music styles to your own, as a starting point!
At this point, you may be getting leery. You never imagined being the kind of person who paid to get people interested in your music, perhaps. It feels like cheating. Well, you might as well get over any reservations, because the payoff can be big.
Facebook ads can be really powerful! But you need to plan your approach to make sure you aren’t wasting money. Facebook advertises with figures like “100,000 views for $300!” But their language can be deceiving, because if somebody sees 3 seconds of your video, and it’s on mute, and they then continue scrolling and never engage further- Facebook will count that as a view. After all, how often do you click on sponsored content on Facebook?
But it can be effective if you make it enticing. I found a page that recommends this strategy: buy ads for three different videos. Market each one to fans of a given artist, and have the video run with the caption: “For fans of _____.” Your video will then be shown only to people who like the artist you chose, and since you connected your music to something they already like, they will be much more likely to check it out.
While researching this topic, I found several articles recommending YouTube’s native ad system for the same basic reason. Apparently, YouTube ads are a good deal at the moment, inexpensive and effective and underutilized. You have the power to direct your ad to run before other videos related to your genre of music, and best of all, you only pay per ad that someone actually clicks on (or watches the entire 30 seconds)!
First, set up a Google Ads account and link it to your YouTube channel. Then you can create a video campaign in the Google Ads dashboard.
Well, I warned you. There’s a lot there. Marketing yourself is a whole new world. There’s a reason marketing gets its own major in college. And people do music for the passion, but very few people have a passion for marketing. That’s why most musicians stop short of marketing themselves.
But take things slow, and get in the habit. Once something is a habit, after all, it’s easy to keep doing. And rest in the knowledge that if you’re even trying to promote your music, you’re taking things further than most musicians. Keep at it, and you’ll start to see results!
If you’re having trouble getting your music totally polished and professional-sounding, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional mixing and mastering service. These services can be more affordable than you’d expect, while also being a powerful tool to learn by example. Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.