I've been marketing music since I started rapping in 1992. I've recorded 14 studio albums, performed in 18 states, handed out countless demos, received radio play, had my music used on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, and run thousands of dollars worth of ads to promote my music. This post will attempt to give a very broad overview of everything I've learned about marketing music that still applies in 2023. I will update it periodically as the realm of independent music marketing changes, so be sure to bookmark this page and come back to it if it's helpful for you.
TLDR (TOO LONG, DIDN'T READ)
My most important music marketing tools are Bandzoogle (website), Email (Mailchimp), Social Media (my focus is on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube), Ads (Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook/IG), Playlist Pitching (Groover), Distributor (CDBaby), Photo Editing (Canva, GIMP), Video Editing (InShot for Android, VSDC for Windows), Show Promotion (BandsInTown, Songkick, flyers, social media, ads, local music publications), Merch (Custom Ink, Shopify via Teelaunch, Bandcamp), Fans (where all of my success comes from, including having my music used on national TV and a popular radio appearance in Columbus Ohio), Open Mic Nights, and analytics tools (Spotify For Artists, YouTube Studio, Google Analytics).
3. Social Media
6. Playlist Pitching
7. Playlist Curating
9. Photo and Video Editing, and local flyers
10. Show Promotion
13. Blogs and Local Media
15. Open Mic Nights
16. Radio, including XM, College and Internet
17. Gig Swapping
19. PR Firms
20. Mastering Services
21. Helpful Blogs and YouTube Channels To Follow
The short short version: use Bandzoogle.
TLDR: The website is still the single most important thing in music marketing for independent musicians. Bandzoogle is designed for musicians, feature rich, and easy to update. If you don't have a website yet, they are my number 1 recommendation.
Yes, you can make a living without one, but your website is the only marketing tool, other than email, that you own. Social media platforms change in popularity. Myspace was replaced by Facebook. Facebook used to give musicians a lot more organic reach. Now, unless you have a huge following, you'll probably need to run some promoted posts or ads to reach people who already follow you, etc. If you don't have one already, that's the first thing I would do. I have had MissionMan.net since 1998, and plan on keeping it as long as I'm alive and websites still exist. You can either hardcode the website yourself if you like coding, or use a wizard site like Bandzoogle, which has a lot of features, including the ability to sell music and merch directly from the site, maintain an integrated blog, a mailing list tool, social media integration, landing pages, and more. You can also add custom HTML, and easily change the look of your page. They are actually who I use for my web hosting. I used to use Hostbaby, but after Hostbaby stopped hosting, I switched to Bandzoogle via recommendation from Hostbaby (they were CDBaby's webhosting service), and I've been very happy with them.
There are also other wizard based sites out there that don't require any coding, including Wix, Squarespace, WordPress, and more, but they are broader in functionality, whereas Bandzoogle is designed specifically for musicians.
This website is built with Hubspot. Hubspot has some incredibly powerful tools that I haven't even scratched the surface of yet, including email automation, and a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that keeps track of all your interactions with customers, regardless of the platform (email, social media, etc.), and many other things. For most musicians, I think the extra time to use those tools could be valuable, but being a musician myself, I also realize that there's only so much time in the day when you're writing and recording songs, promoting your music, booking and performing shows, practicing your instrument, etc. etc. etc.
TLDR: Mailchimp is a great option and is free until you reach a certain level.
I probably underutilize email in my marketing, but as a consumer, I also tire of endless emails, so I purposely use it less often. I have a MailChimp account, with about 85 email subscribers. With that amount of subscribers, it's still free to use. If you use Bandzoogle, it has a built in email list, and you can simply add a sign up form on your site with it. I haven't maintained my list through it, as I started using MailChimp before I migrated from Hostbaby to Bandzoogle. If you use Bandzoogle, feel free to try out their integrated email list tool first. If it works well for you, then great, you already have a solution! If you're looking into other options, though, I like Mailchimp. The templates are relatively easy to use, and it lets you segment based on geographic location and other factors, and gives you stats on open rates, etc.
I send emails whenever I have a new song or album release, or if I release a new music video that I'm especially proud of, hoping that the increased engagement will lead YouTube to push it more in its algorithm. I also send emails about new merch when I have it, and other major announcements. On average, I send an email every 2-3 months. I'm not an expert on email marketing, so I can't give overly specific advice, but using it for new releases and major announcements is definitely a good idea.
3. SOCIAL MEDIA
TLDR: Be yourself, take a break when needed, use the platforms that work best for you (it doesn't have to be all of them).
At this point, people could write books about social media, its history, its effects on society and self-esteem, the ethics behind it, the privacy battle, the lawsuits, and much more.
I personally have been using social media since shortly after MySpace launched in 2003, and possibly before that depending on what you define as social media. I've been on Facebook since 2005, and launched my YouTube channel in 2006. I've used Reddit for several years. I'm also on Twitter and TikTok and am terrible at both of them, so I rarely use them. Social media trends change so fast that if I were to start typing about them in this blog, they'd be onto something else by the time I published it.
So, for this post, I will try to stay relatively simple, and give you a few examples of my most popular posts, and a brief list of possible videos to make, as well as give some general advice that you're welcome to ignore because I'm not a social media guru.
First, the advice portion. Just be yourself. People connect with genuine posts, whether they're serious, funny, or anywhere else on the wheel of adjectives. Take a break when you need it. I've taken breaks from social media when I needed it for my mental health, and I'm very glad that I did.
A fairly brief list of the types of videos that musicians can make for social media: official music videos, lyric videos, live performances, funny nonsense, stories behind the songs, pretty pictures, personal stories, tour stories, travel videos when you're touring, behind the scenes footage, bloopers, pet pictures and videos, basically anything.
One specific bit of information that you're probably already aware of, but short vertical videos are currently the easiest to get a lot of views from. I got 1,900 views in the first 60 minutes of a recent YouTube video being published because my previous short video performed well. I have recorded over 400 long form videos, and probably 200 or so short form now. I still make longer videos when it's appropriate, such as the 26 minute video I made about my marketing efforts over the last 31 years of making music, and it's doing better than many of my longer form videos, but if I were to break it up strategically, I could probably create 20-30 short form vertical videos out of it, and get thousands of views on each, versus the 45 views I've received on the long form video. I use the same source video, which I edit on my phone using InShot (more on photo and video editing software later in this post), and upload it separately to Instagram Reels, TikTok, and YouTube Shorts. I do this to make sure I'm not posting a video that's branded with a TikTok logo onto YouTube. So far, I don't think the logo hurts views when you upload to YouTube and Instagram, but Google and Meta could easily start suppressing watermarked videos in their algorithm because YouTube and Instagram are not TikTok.
Here are a couple of my short videos that have performed pretty well, if you want some ideas:
Recreating my Broke NBA2K Jumper:
I think they bought the wrong lightbulb:
None of my social media profiles have tremendous numbers. As of today, May 8th, 2023, I have 2297 YouTube subscribers, 1270 Facebook followers, 625 Instagram followers, 208 Twitter followers, and 160 TikTok followers. However, I value every connection I've made and maintained on social media. Some of those followers have paid to see me in concert, bought my CDs and merch, and tipped me while I've live streamed, and all of them have had a positive impact on my life.
I'm also on Reddit, but Reddit is more complicated than the others. You can promote your music on Reddit, but you need to primarily be a Redditor, contributing to conversations there, posting things that aren't self-promotion, and less than 10% of the time, you can post on a few subreddits. r/GetMoreYTViews for growing a small YouTube channel, r/Spotify for Spotify playlists, r/Music for music, or if you have a song about a specific topic, like "Playing a Little Basketball," you can post that song in r/basketball. Again, though, be a Redditor first, and post self-promo sparingly.
One last point I'll make about social media. There are quite a few social media networks now. It is extremely rare to be great at all of them, and chances are, some social media networks fit you better than others, based on your personality. If you write a lot of political songs, and talk about politics a lot, for example, Twitter might be a great place for you. Since I don't talk about politics publicly, Twitter is not my favorite social media platform. I prefer YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Others have found tremendous success on TikTok, while I am absolutely terrible at it. I also just don't enjoy using TikTok as a consumer, which means I treat it as an afterthought. I've put real energy and effort into Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. So, in short, use the ones that you enjoy using, and focus your energy on those if you like some more than others. There are many paths to success, but you don't have to take them all.
I will create several posts about the specifics of running ads on social media, search engines, and websites through third party applications. For this particular blog post, I will provide an overview of what ad platforms work, and which ones don't, for musicians.
I have run ads on all of the following platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Twitter, Show.co, TikTok, Google Search, and Microsoft Bing.
Ads that work: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat
Ads that kind of work: Reddit
Ads that don't work: Twitter, Show.co, TikTok, Microsoft Bing
Ads that might work: Google Search (and possibly Twitter in the future)
Ads that work
Let's start with the most important. The ads that work, the circumstances under which they work, and a brief list of pros and cons for each. I'll break down the differences more thoroughly in future posts.
YouTube Ads work very well for generating YouTube views and subscribers. For my best YouTube Ads, I was averaging about $2 per subscriber, and when retargeting previous viewers, I would often get earned view ratios of 5:1. What that means, is for every 5 views gained from an ad, I got 1 extra view, either of another video, or because someone liked the ad video so much that they intentionally watched it again. My ads were technically Display Ads on the Google Ads platform, which means people would see a thumbnail of the video, with the title I chose for the ad (usually the name of the music video), and after people clicked on the thumbnail, the video would play on YouTube. Most of my subscribers were gained by running these types of ads, and some of those subscribers are some of my biggest fans. I've had fans on YouTube leave comments on over 20 videos after watching an ad for one.
This did not translate to many streams on Apple Music, Spotify, or other streaming services, but it was very effective for gaining fans on YouTube.
Facebook and Instagram Ads are probably the most effective for gaining streams on Spotify. Meta's ad targeting is very strong and can be incredibly specific. You can target fans of musicians that are similar to you, and their algorithm is smart enough to know who is most likely to click through and listen.
Hypeddit has a new AI based solution that integrates with Facebook advertising to make it super easy to use, and still generate good results. If you've used it and had success, please leave a comment and let me know how it's worked for you. Here is a quick video that walks you through the process.
If you really want to find out more about advertising on Facebook, Andrew Southworth has a ton of videos on the subject on YouTube. Here's a playlist of those videos if you want a full breakdown: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZM8P5xQw3RZzbfibSPnceu-yYf_R4uhi
So, Pros of Facebook/Instagram Ads are that they are effective, and highly targetable. The biggest con, to me, is the level of negative interaction you could receive. Some of my Facebook Ads definitely had some trolls on them. People were extremely rude just because they got an ad, and while Meta's ad algorithm is very good at getting people to comment on ads that are aimed at getting engagement, it's not so good at distinguishing negative engagement from positive. If someone tells you that you are the worst musician on the planet, that is the same thing as someone telling you that your music is the best music that person has ever heard. Either one is a comment, and therefore engagement. Facebook doesn't distinguish between someone listening to your music because they want to make fun of it, or because that person loves it. If the algorithm catches enough of this type of engagement, you could have countless negative comments on your posts, and that can have a real impact on your mental health. If it catches the right commenters, you could also have countless positive comments, which usually results in feeling pretty good.
That brings me to Snapchat Ads. In terms of generating Spotify streams, I'd estimate they're about 30-50% less effective than Facebook Ads. However, since Snapchat Ads don't have a way for people to leave comments directly on the ad, you also don't have a slew of comments, positive or negative. Some of the fans that I've gained from Snapchat Ads have searched for me on YouTube after listening on Spotify, just to leave positive comments on my newest videos, but they aren't super common. It's even less common to have people who hate my music, because they heard it in a Snapchat Ad, to find me on YouTube to leave a negative comment, though it has happened a few times. If I run Snapchat Ads at $10 per day, I usually go days without comments on YouTube from people who found out about my music because of Snapchat Ads.
For Snapchat Ads, my single best ad got 115 streams (4 people listened to my entire album "25" which has 25 songs on it) for $5 in ads, back when traffic ads on Snapchat still generated streams on Spotify. Traffic ads are ads that link directly to a Spotify link. They stopped working for me in October of 2022, so in the short term I shifted my focus to playlist pitching (which I'll cover later in this post) for a little while, until I started running conversion ads on Snapchat. Conversion ads require a landing page (see an example landing page here) and a tracking pixel, so that the ad algorithm knows when someone clicks on the "Stream on Spotify" button on my landing page, after clicking the "Listen Now" button in the Snapchat Ad. Conversion ads haven't yet caught up to what traffic ads used to deliver in terms of streams per dollar, but they're in the same ballpark. Interestingly, though, they're in different countries. With traffic ads, my best countries were Finland, Greece, Portugal, and Japan. I averaged 2-4 streams per dollar with those ads. With conversion ads, I average 2-3 streams per dollar in the UK and Ireland. In both cases, I average(d) about 1 stream per dollar in the US and Canada.
Because I've had a lot more recent experience with Snapchat Ads than Facebook or YouTube, I can run Snapchat Ads for you, for the cost of the actual ads, plus a little extra (about $20 as of May 8th, 2023) for the labor involved in setting up the ads, and reporting the results back to you. You can see more details for that service on the Underground Music Marketing homepage, if you're interested.
Ads that kind of work.
Reddit. I spent about $10 running an ad for my Spotify playlist "Great Indie Hip Hop" on the subreddit r/spotify. r/spotify is a subreddit for sharing Spotify playlists, so my ad looked just like an organic post, except for the small "ad" written on the post. Because the ad blended in very well, and was completely on topic for the subreddit, it performed well in terms of the playlist gaining new followers. I believe the playlist gained 5 followers for 10 dollars. I don't know how active, if at all, those playlist followers became, and it is a very limited use case, but if you're looking to grow a Spotify playlist, it could work for you.
Ads that don't work.
Twitter, TikTok, Show.co, Bing. Twitter was recently bought by Elon Musk, and the ad platform went through some changes, including conversion ads, so I gave Twitter a chance about a month ago. I spent $5 in one day, got around 80 clicks, and got 0 conversions. That is, 80 people clicked on the ad, yet 0 people clicked on the "Stream On Spotify" button, even though the ad said "listen now." If I had 80 clicks on a Snapchat Ad, I would expect closer to 50 or 60 conversions. This tells me that Twitter ads still get a lot of bot clicks. They may figure it out one day, and I'll keep an eye out and let you know if they do.
TikTok has a similar problem to Twitter (and Snapchat traffic ads), in that I spent around $40 in ads on the platform, and received 0 conversions, meaning that no one clicked on the "stream on Spotify" button after clicking on "listen" in the ad. That tells me the conversions don't work. I ran a separate $40-$50 on traffic ads, with 100 or so clicks, and 0 streams on Spotify. That tells me that TikTok Ads don't interact properly with direct Spotify links.
Show.co gained me about 5 streams for $50. Maybe they'll improve on that in the future, but for now, they are very ineffective.
I got a $25 ad credit to try Microsoft Bing Ads, and spent about $25 of my own money as well. I got about 30-40 clicks, and 0 streams as a result. This makes sense to me, as they are search based ads, so people are clicking on them without hearing any of the song as a preview, and are therefore more likely to stop listening before the 30 seconds is up.
Ads That Might Work
Google search. This one, I just don't know, because I ran Google search ads one day, for a few dollars, and don't remember the results. Based on my experience with Bing Ads, though, I would expect similar results, and I am unlikely to try Google Search Ads again any time soon because of this.
Like Grogu, ChatCPT is still in its relative infancy, and is already very powerful.
I have used ChatGPT exactly once. I asked it for similar artists to Mission Man, so that I could potentially target ads on Facebook sometime to fans of those similar artists. This is the result it gave me:
My "Great Indie Hip-Hop" playlist already included 5 of those artists. I'm completely unfamiliar with 3 of those artists, and the other 2 artists I've listened to and enjoyed, but don't have on that particular playlist. ChatGPT did this extremely well, and nearly instantaneously, without live access to the internet. It is actually much more spot on with its assessment than Spotify's algorithm is when it comes to similar artists. Using ChatGPT to generate a very well targeted audience is just one example of its ability to change marketing in a profound way. Artificial Intelligence in general has already changed a tremendous amount about marketing, and will only grow in exponential, and unpredictable ways.
For now, you could ask it for similar artists to yourself like I did, and target fans of those artists on Facebook, or you could take the red pill, follow Alice down the rabbit hole and use ChatGPT for all sorts of marketing advice, and more.
6. PLAYLIST PITCHING
TLDR: Groover has given me better Spotify streams per dollar than any other marketing I've done. I average about 10 streams on Spotify for every dollar I spend on Groover now. If you click on the Groover link, you'll save 10% on your first campaign, and I'll get 10 free Grooviz (about $10) to use to submit to playlist curators myself.
I've used Submithub, Groover, Dailyplaylists, Soundplate, IndieMono, Playlister.club and The Indie Bible for pitching my music to curators.
Poor Performers, skip to Submithub and Groover if you want
I'll start with the ones that have performed poorly for me. Dailyplaylists lets you submit to 25 playlists per week for free. I have about a 3 percent acceptance rate there, and of the 5 or so playlists that actually resulted in any streams for my music, 0 of those playlist curators still use the service. The playlists are all fan gated (you have to follow the playlist as part of pitching to the curator), so the follower numbers are greatly inflated. I used them for over a year, and have stopped using them because they never came close to returning enough streams to make it worth the time involved.
Soundplate.com allows you to pitch to playlists one at a time. It's a very time-intensive process, the playlists are all fan-gated, and there's no guarantee your song will ever be listened to. I've submitted to several hundred playlists that way, and got added to maybe 1 or 2 worthwhile playlists. I won't use them in the future.
IndieMono.com allows you to submit quickly and easily. I have never received a response from them, but it only takes a few minutes to submit a new song there, so I'll probably give them a try whenever I release a new song.
I signed up for Playlister.club for a month once at $40. It's an interesting concept in that you don't pitch directly to curators. You pay to have your song listed, and if the curator likes your music, they'll add it to your playlist. The service then gives you an alert any time your music is added to a playlist. Their service can't distinguish between whether or not you got added to a playlist directly on Playlister.club, or because of a submission somewhere else, so it's difficult to know if it really results in anything. However, from what I saw, every playlist that the system alerted me to which added my music, was a playlist I had submitted to elsewhere. It was neat to see my song get added to playlists in what seemed like close to real time, but I don't think being on there actually gained me any playlist placements.
The Indie Spotify Bible has contact information and playlist details for hundreds of playlists, sorted by genre first, and then alphabetically. The information is very organized, which is helpful, and overall it seems like a good resource. However, I'm bad at using it. I would contact the curators without them knowing who I was, and pitch my song to them. Most of them just ignored me. A few of them politely declined after listening to my music, and I think I got added to 1 or 2. I've read that the better way to approach curators from this resource is to start off by following them on social media, interacting with their posts, contributing to their social media growth, making a positive impression that way, and then, after they know who you are and have some kind of connection with you, you mention your new song. If you have the patience to do that, it could be a great resource. You pay a one time fee to buy the PDF file, but after that you can contact as many of the curators there as you want. They do also update the listings based on your feedback, and you get free updates to the PDF for a year if I remember correctly.
Submithub and Groover
These are the 2 main websites that allow you to pitch your music to curators. Their core functionality is the same. You pay anywhere from $1-$10, with most curators being about $2, to submit to a curator. In exchange, that curator reviews your song, and if they like the song, they'll add the song to their playlists, usually for 28 days. Submithub was created first, and has a lot more data about how many streams you can expect per playlist. The playlists themselves also seem to have more listeners on average than on Groover. According to their data, the average acceptance rate is 19%. My acceptance rate there is less than 2% and I have all but given up on using them in the future, but I know other artists have had tremendous success there. In addition to my acceptance rate there being lower, the curators there have been, on average, ruder to me than they have been on Groover. Some of the feedback can be soul crushing, so if you're new to Submithub, start small and see how you react to their feedback.
Groover is based in France, so their default currency is Euros. What you'll pay in US dollars, or whatever your local currency is, will depend on foreign exchange rates, so if your local currency is not Euros, the price will fluctuate day-to-day. My acceptance rate on Groover is about 35%. I've also organized the curators into groups based on how often they've accepted my music. My core playlist group contains about 50 curators that accept my music 95% of the time. Anytime I promote a song, I'll send it to either that entire group, or the 10 playlists that perform the best for me, if I have a smaller budget. It costs me about $100 to submit to all 50 curators, and in return, I'll average 1,000 streams from those 50 playlists. The top 10 of those playlists with get me about 500 streams for $20. From a streams per dollar standpoint, this is by far my most efficient Spotify marketing effort.
If you use my service to run Snapchat Ads for your music, I can also submit your music to playlist curators on Groover, for the actual cost that Groover charges, plus about $10 for the time I spend pitching to them. You can definitely submit on Groover yourself, and organize those playlists yourself, in order to generate a similar list for your music, if you have the time to do so, and I absolutely recommend doing so if you have the budget and time. You'll get rude feedback from some curators, but it's been less common on Groover for me than it has been on Submithub.
There is no fan-gating on Groover and Submithub, though the playists may have grown because of fan-gating on another site.
7. PLAYLIST CURATING
If you already have a playlist with strong organic listenership, you can signup as a curator on Groover and/or Submithub, and earn money from that playlist by accepting submissions from artists. You can use that money to run social media ads for your playlist, and continue growing it. Assuming at least one of your songs is on that playlist, you are also marketing your music.
TLDR: CDBaby, Tunecore and Distrokid are the big 3 independent music distributors. All 3 get your music on streaming services and available for use in social media, and all 3 have a ton of resources for promoting your music. I love CDBaby, but I've heard good things about the others as well.
I've been using CDBaby to distribute my music since 1998, and I love them, but there are other options out there, including Distrokid (save 7% by clicking on this link), and Tunecore.
They all have different pricing plans, and features. They also have different marketing services. For example, CDBaby has a profile on Spotify, and they could potentially put you on one of their playlists there, though they do represent more than 1 million independent artists, so there's a slim chance of that. They do have a podcast, though, and all sorts of guides, including a release plan for new singles and albums. They share highlights of their podcast on YouTube. I just peaked at their website to add the link in this paragraph, and saw they were on weekly episode #333. They go in depth with their information, so if you enjoy learning through podcasts, they're a great resource.
I can't really give an unbiased review of them here, as I've been a CDBaby artist since the year they launched, a quarter of a century ago, but I love them. Distrokid does have a blog with news about updates to their services and ways they help promote you as well. Tunecore also has a blog aimed at helping independent musicians.
So, the big 3 independent music distributors all give advice and do what they can to help you learn how to promote your music, and all 3 get your music onto streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, and others, as well as social media so that you can make money from your music when people share it in Reels, TikTok, YouTube and Facebook videos.
I will likely do a post at some point with the differences between the platforms, and all of the benefits I can find using any of them.
9. PHOTO AND VIDEO EDITING, AND LOCAL FLYERS
TLDR: GIMP, Photoshop, and Canva are 3 great photo editing options. I use InShot to edit videos on my Android phone, and all are a big part of promoting your music.
GIMP is a free, open source, pretty powerful photo editor. I've used it for over a decade, sometimes for still frames to create special effects in videos by manipulating one frame at a time.
Photoshop is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud, and is the industry leader in photo editing. It costs about $20 per month, but if you do a lot of editing and are looking for powerful features, it's a great way to go.
Canva is a relative newcomer compared to Photoshop and GIMP, but it has greatly increased in popularity recently, for good reason. They have a ton of free templates for creating YouTube thumbnails, album covers, and more. They're super easy to use, and the free version is quite powerful. If you need more from them, they have a pro subscription, but I've used the free version on both my mobile phone and my laptop for everything I've needed to use them for.
There are a ton of video editing options out there. I personally use VSDC on my Windows based laptop. I usually use the free version, though I upgraded to the professional version for one month when I was creating YouTube videos that needed considerably more editing because I was essentially cloning myself in the videos to make it look like I was a full band, playing each instrument at the same time.
I use InShot on my Android smartphone for basic video edits. It's convenient for editing videos that I recorded on my phone, and is my primary video editor because of it's convenience in editing videos on the same device I recorded them on.
The photo editors are useful for posting local flyers on bulletin boards when promoting local shows, in addition to editing images for sharing on social media, and occasionally for creating special effects in videos.
10. SHOW PROMOTION
TLDR: BandsInTown, Songkick, putting flyers up in local businesses and university bulletin boards (if you're performing in a college town), social media, Bit.ly, Facebook Events, local music publications, and ads are all great ways to promote your shows!
For local show promotion, I used to hand out demo CDs to get people to come out to see my live performances. While that won't work as well anymore, with the increased ease of streaming, promoting local shows in person is still important. Creating and printing flyers, at minimum, to hang up in the venue where you're playing will help attract local followers, and will show the venue that you're serious about your promotions. If there are local businesses that allow you to put up flyers, it's also a good idea to keep a list of those. Just remember to not put up flyers at a competing venue.
If you live in a college town, check with the local university to see their guidelines for posting flyers. Most won't allow you to mention alcohol, due to the majority of students being younger than legal drinking age. Some will require permission in the form of a stamp that they use to mark approved flyers. Others will allow almost anyone to post. Some bulletin boards will be reserved for specific departments. When I promoted my music locally in my hometown of Oxford, Ohio, placing flyers on Miami University's campus was a major part of my strategy. The flyers would often stay up all semester, allowing for multiple impressions from a single flyer. Adding a QR code to the flyer can make it easy for someone to find your website, Spotify Profile, or anywhere else you want to send them.
Generate a free QR code at Bitly.com. Bit.ly will also give you a short URL, so instead of open.spotify.com/reallylonguntypablestring/ you can use bit.ly/artistname. It'll even track how many people scanned your QR code, and you can create a QR code that you only use on your physical flyers to see if people are scanning them. You could even create a landing page with links to your best YouTube music video, your best songs or playlists on Spotify and Apple Music, a link to download on Bandcamp, some of your merch, and your show details.
Speaking of show details, I suggest using Songkick and BandsInTown for all of your shows. Both give you details on where your fans are, and both automatically populate showdates to other platforms. BandsInTown auto-populates to your Twitch, Shazaam, Bandzoogle, Shopify, and Linktree pages. SongKick auto-populates your tour dates to Spotify, Bandcamp, Deezer, Soundcloud, and YouTube.
Both have widgets that you can put on your website, and both have tabs you can add to Facebook. You can also create Facebook events and invite your friends on there, when promoting local shows.
Other methods for promoting local shows are what I've mentioned above with social media, as well as ads. Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google Search, and others can all be geo-targeted, so you can run ads on those platforms to bring more people out to your local shows. You can use ads and social media for shows anywhere, of course. And, if you can, I also suggest printing flyers and mailing them to the venues you're going to play as far in advance as possible so they venue has time to put them up and get as many people seeing them as possible.
BandsInTown Promoter even has a promotion, where you can mention your show in an email that gets sent out to a local audience. You can choose similar artists to yourself, and BandsInTown will send an email to followers of those similar artists, in the town you're playing, with details about your show. I have never used the service, but I've often considered it. If I do, I'll definitely post my results here.
I have setup a draft of a campaign, aimed at similar artists to myself, and based on that draft I can see that sending an email to 1,000 fans of those artists in a nearby city costs $50, which is 5 cents per email. $50 is the minimum order. You can also get $50 off your first campaign by clicking on this link, and I'll get a $50 credit to use towards Promoter.bandsintown.com as well, which I will do the next time I book a show.
TLDR: I use Teelaunch to print merch on demand, which they make and ship for me. I integrate Teelaunch with Shopify to sell on Spotify, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and my website. I take Venmo and credit cards (via Square), and include that info on a merch display board at shows. I use CustomInk (or a local merch designer) for t-shirts before touring. I roll my shirts up, tape them, and mark the size on that tape, and then sort by size in clear plastic containers to make it easier to find when selling at shows.
I will go into the details of how to setup Shopify to integrate with Teelaunch, Instagram, Spotify, and YouTube in another post, but for selling merch online, that is my current solution. Shopify recently added a $5 per month tier for musicians in order to sell your merch on Spotify. Teelaunch prints merch on demand and ships it to your fans, in North America and Europe at the very least. You do have to pay the wholesale price before they actually put the order into production, but then they send you the sale price (minus payment processing fees) so you keep the difference as a profit.
You can then use Shopify to sell those products directly on your Spotify profile, YouTube page (once you're eligible for monetization), Instagram and Facebook. They also have a widget, which allows you to sell merch on any website, so you can run ads with links to landing pages with your music and your merch.
When adding merch to your Spotify profile, you can specify what merch goes with which release, so you can sell a t-shirt with your album artwork on it, directly on that album's Spotify page.
Since you can also sell your merch directly on Facebook and Instagram, you can tag posts with that merch. I highly recommend buying at least one of your own merch items, so that you can get a feel for the process and let fans know what to expect, and so you can post a photo and or video of you actually wearing the merch, because it allows people to see it on a human, instead of just as a preview image.
90% of my merch sales come from playing live, so it's also important to have physical merch. I use CustomInk for my t-shirts as they have a great online design tool that makes everything easy. If you have a local t-shirt designer, that's an even better option as you can cut out shipping times and costs. I've definitely done that as well, but I live in a different city now than I did the last time I had merch created, and CustomInk has a local store here where I can pick up the shirts in person.
You can also print shirts yourself if you're extra motivated and thoroughly enjoy the process of screen printing.
When selling merch live, it's very helpful to have a display of some kind, even if it's just a collapsible cardboard one that you pick up from a local store, that has merch prices and payment options. Very few people use cash these days, so taking Venmo is a great option. I also have a Square reader, which allows me to swipe credit cards using my cell phone. I used to sell a decent amount of merch using Square, but Venmo is even easier for most people, and has usually been quicker. Accept both, and mention it (and the merch prices) on the display board, as sometimes you're selling merch in a loud environment (during another band's set, or even just while the venue is playing their own music after the bands are finished and people are heading out the door) so people may not be able to easily communicate without yelling.
You can also sell merch on Bandcamp, so if you have some merch leftover after touring, set up your merch there, with sizes, colors, etc and keep track of your inventory to make sure you don't accidentally sell something that you don't have.
On the subject of keeping track of inventory, I will usually roll my shirts up, and place a small piece of tape on them to keep them rolled up. I will write the size of the shirt on that piece of tape, to make it easy to sort, and then find when selling merch live. This keeps you from spending too much time looking for the right size, which could lead to a missed opportunity because the next fan didn't want to keep waiting. I also usually sort them in large clear containers, with small, medium and large in one, and XL and above in another. It gives me a quick inventory estimate, and makes it easier to find what I'm looking for.
Fans are the single biggest reason for any success I've had. They're also why my music has been used on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, and why I performed on Dave and Jimmy's Morning Zoo on WNCI in Columbus, Ohio.
13. BLOGS AND LOCAL MUSIC PUBLICATIONS
The increase in popularity of the internet shut down a lot of local music publications, while others switched to being online only. If you have a new release coming out, and you're touring a city that one of these papers is located in, it's definitely worth sending them an email with a link to listen to the song, or to watch your newest music video, as they may do a blurb on the show, and will likely list your show on their events page.
For blogs, you can submit to them on Groover and Submithub, just like you can with Spotify playlist curators. You can email them directly, but you're likely to go into a sea of endless emails that they can't keep up with. Submithub and Groover pays them for each submission, whether they review your music or not, so at the very least they'll take a look at it. Just like for local music papers, though, there should be a good reason to contact them. Playlist curators will accept songs regardless of how old they are, but blogs want to cover something new.
You can also contact influencers through Submihub and Groover to use your music in their Instagram stories or TikTok videos. I used 2 or 3 smaller influencers at about $10 each. The videos got a few thousand views, but no one else used my sound organically as a result, and I saw no increase in Spotify streams. It did nothing for me, but I worked with a very small budget and very small sample size.
There are other methods of contacting influencers as well. Usually they'll have some kind of contact info on their website, or you can try directly reaching out to them via Instagram, etc. The ones I contacted that way all wanted at least $1,000. I'm happy for them that they're able to make a living doing what they love to do, but that's well out of my price range.
If you already follow an influencer that you think would work well with your music, that's probably the best place to start, if you're going the influencer route, but I'm not an expert on the subject.
15. OPEN MIC NIGHTS
TLDR: Open mic nights are great for debuting new songs, overcoming stage fright, filling in weekday tour dates, networking with other musicians, and establishing a local following.
Open mic nights have been great to me for many reasons. In 2004, I started playing at open mic night at Stadium Bar and Grille in Oxford, Ohio. After going to it regularly for a few months, I generated a large local following, and booked a full show. About 120 people came out to that show. It's a great way to network with other musicians, and make new fans locally. It's also a great way to debut new songs in front of a crowd, whether it's your first time ever performing and you're working through stage fright, or you've performed hundreds of times and want to get more comfortable with a new song.
I used to fill in weekday tour dates with open mic nights to start establishing myself in new cities. This was a decent solution when I was in my 20s, and was comfortable sleeping in my car, because I would occasionally get tips if I mentioned that I was touring and put out a tip jar. Sometimes that meant the difference between eating applesauce and raisins, or getting an actual meal, on the road. It also meant being able to afford gas to get to the next city.
I used openmikes.org to find open mic listings. It's a great starting point, but be sure to confirm with the venue before adding in open mic tour dates. If there's a Facebook page for the event, you may even be able to talk to the host about being a featured act since you're touring, and play a longer set.
16. RADIO, INCLUDING XM, COLLEGE AND INTERNET
"97X! Bam! The future of Rock and Roll!" Words uttered often in Rain Man. That was also the first station to play my music, as WOXY was based in Oxford, Ohio for many years before the independently owned and operated station was sold to a larger company. They primarily played independent music, and I was so excited when they played my music! I still have the cassette I used to record the radio broadcast at the time.
I've performed my music on Dave and Jimmy's Morning Zoo on WNCI in Columbus, Ohio because a friend of mine at the time told the station about my music. They played "Chillin at the Papa" on their morning radio program daily for awhile, and then they brought me in to have a chat and perform the song at 7 am, back in 2007.
This resulted in a couple of people buying the song on iTunes, and would have resulted in more downloads, but iTunes had Chillin at the Papa mislabeled, so when those 2 people bought it, they ended up with a very obscure song of mine. The mislabeling was eventually fixed, but I missed out. Regardless, the radio station exposure obviously gained me some fans.
In terms of approaching radio stations, things get complicated. If it's a major station, they're unlikely to respond to you, unless they have a special program dedicated to local artists. Then, you can look up that radio program's information.
College radio is much more likely to play your music, but obviously has fewer listeners. It can still be a way for new fans to find you, though, and if having your music on the radio is exciting for you, it's definitely worth contacting a few of them, especially if you're touring in a new city. Sending your music to college radio stations could bring in new fans in those cities, and you could even be interviewed on the college radio station the same day you perform in the city, which is an interesting experience.
There are services out there which will send your music to hundreds of college radio stations at once, but I haven't submitted my music to college radio recently, so I don't have a specific service that I recommend.
For XM Radio, you can mail in your CD. Here is the link with their address:
17. GIG SWAPPING
Setting up gig swaps with other bands can lead to more shows for both of you. If you're a fan of an artist with a similar level of popularity in another town, consider contacting them about swapping shows.
Indie On The Move is a great resource for this. You can setup alerts for when a band posts an available show, and if you have a show you can put them on in return, you can get a gigswap that way. Indie On The Move is also a great resource for finding venues to play while on tour, as they sort them by location, size, and genres.
Spotify For Podcasters (search for it on iOS and Google Play) used to be called Anchor, and is a pretty easy way to get started from a technical standpoint. There are other ways to get started as well, and regardless of which way you get started, there are several things you can offer your listeners. Maybe each episode could be the story behind a song, and then a live performance of it. You could also simultaneously film the podcast and put it on YouTube as well. If there are particularly interesting moments, you could make short vertical videos out of those moments to use as TikTok videos, Instagram and Facebook Reels, and YouTube shorts, and maybe even ads.
I have not run a podcast, but that's where I'd start if I did. I have been interviewed on a few podcasts, and they can definitely be fun. Sometimes they bring new fans, and often they provide a deeper connection with existing fans.
19. PR FIRMS
I know almost nothing about PR firms, but I do know they exist for musicians. I vaguely recall Macklemore finding fame through one, but I'm very fuzzy on the details. I do know that they can be very expensive. So, even if you have thousands of dollars to spend on one, research it thoroughly. Look at reviews. See if you can find any artists that had experience with that particular PR firm, and ask them about their experience.
20. MASTERING SERVICES
Part of marketing music is the level of quality of the actual music itself. Mastering and production can play a large role in that. I record my songs myself, at home, using a Behringer UM22 soundcard, but for several albums, I went into Refraze Studios in Dayton, Ohio to have a sound engineer with decades of experience record my vocals in a soundproof environment. It makes a big difference. Ideally, I'd finish every album that way. However, I moved to North Carolina 4 years ago, and shortly thereafter COVID hit, and I have not researched local music studios. For my most recent album, "Gummy," released January 19th, 2022, I recorded everything at home, and used a combination of Discmakers Soundlab, and Cloudbounce (AI Mastering software). I paid $20 for a one month subscription to Cloudbounce to master all of the songs on the album. Then, for the songs I knew I was going to promote heavily, I sent those tracks to Discmakers to have sound engineers with decades of experience get the best possible sound out of my finished tracks. The Discmakers track still sound better than Cloudbounce, but at $20 for the entire album using Cloudbounce, vs $59 (at the time, it's now $49) per track with Discmakers, I am very happy with how the album cuts sound. I'm also very glad I spent the extra on the standout tracks with Discmakers. In the future, if I have the budget, I'll always send songs to Discmakers for mastering, or get into a professional studio to record the vocals and finish up the album. If I have a smaller budget, I'll use Cloudbounce to master my tracks.
21. HELPFUL BLOGS AND YOUTUBE CHANNELS TO FOLLOW
Follow this one, of course. Bookmark this page, as I'll update this post periodically to try to keep up with the changes in the music industry. CDBaby's podcast is great. Also, Ari's Take, and Andrew Southworth on YouTube for advice and tutorials on running ads to grow your Spotify streams.
There are many paths to success for independent musicians. The TLDR at the top of the page gives a quick summary of my most important tools for marketing my music. Some of them may be different for you than they are for me. I will update this blog post periodically to try to keep up with the changes in marketing for independent musicians, so bookmark this page and come back to it if you'd like. I'll also write more in-depth posts on some of the topics covered here. My next post will be about revenue streams for independent musicians.
I wish you success, and incredible experiences!