I watched so many episodes of Behind The Music on VH1, that I never wanted to sign with a label, so I've been DIY since I started rapping in 1992.
I've been recording music since 1992, and promoting it just as long. I sent in a cassette recording of a homemade song to a local radio station when I lived in Orlando in 1993, at the age of 14, called 102 Jamz. I tried calling the station one day to follow up, but I didn't realize they were doing their “Bump it or dump it” segment, so when they answered and said “Bump it or dump it?” I paused for a moment because I hadn't heard the song they played, but I said “Bump it” because even then I thought that if someone put forth the effort to make a song, that it deserved to be heard.
Around that same time, I gave a copy of that cassette to a talent agent, and she said “Rap is on its way out, and you should do something that's you.” Since then, I have sent my music to countless blogs, booking agents at venues, potential fans, radio stations, playlist curators, friends, family, and anyone else who would potentially listen.
I recorded my first album in 1996, and released it on January 11th, 1997, 8 days before my 18th birthday. I had a website even back then, which I launched on September 1st, 1996. In 1998 and 1999, I ran an electronic magazine called “Underground Music Monthly,” where I reviewed albums, and talked about the latest happenings in the independent music world. I even wrote an article about CDBaby in 1998, shortly after they launched.
In the early 2000s, I started touring, and at the time, the internet wasn't nearly as ubiquitous. Almost all music venues required a physical demo and press kit. The more polished, the better. In 2003, I sent out 200 demos and booked 9 shows. How you look at those numbers makes all the difference in the world, as it will always be harder to get a yes than a no. That's why I choose to focus on the 4% acceptance rate for that tour, and be grateful for all 9 venues that booked me.
Those demos included a full album, a bio, press photos, and I think I even included stickers. Each one cost about $3 to make, and $2 to ship, so I spent around $1,000 sending those demos out. In order to book those shows, the booking agents at the venues had specific times that you could call about booking, and if you didn't get ahold of them during those hours, you just had to wait, sometimes up to a week. Typical booking times were a short 2 hour window in the afternoon, from 3-5 pm for example, at most 3 times per week, and sometimes only on one day. Since you only had a limited time to reach them for booking, you had to keep calling and hope you timed it right because there were several dozen other bands calling during that window as well. You also had to hope you made a positive memorable impression, or the booking agent wasn't going to remember your music and info well enough to book you.
After you booked the show, you then had to promote it. At that time, that was primarily physical promotion. For my out of town shows, the local band was by far the most important part of the show. If it was a local band with draw that promoted the show well with flyers, word of mouth, and maybe Myspace (if it was post August 2003), that was the most consistent path to having good turnout at shows. It wasn't the only aspect, though, so I printed flyers for every show, and mailed them via USPS, in either tube poster mailers, or hard 9"x12" envelopes to make sure they didn't bend, depending on the size of the flyers that the venue asked for. I also sent demos to any local music magazines or newspapers, such as Folio Weekly in Jacksonville, FL and CityBeat in Cincinnati. I even sent a compilation CD with the first 20 years' worth of my music to the Orlando Sentinel at one point later in my career. “An exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, collection…” If I can find the article online, I'll add the link here.
For that 2003 tour, that was still before YouTube even existed. I've had my YouTube channel since November 2006, and YouTube itself launched in February of 2005. In the early and mid 2000s, I performed as often as I could. Sometimes that meant going on tour, like The 17 Days In a Minivan Tour that I went on in 2006, and other times, it meant doing local shows every 3-12 weeks. For the local shows, I would also contact the local music magazines to have them listed in their show pages.
In 2004, I put on Playing For a Cure, with all proceeds benefitting the American Cancer Society, in honor of my mom's memory on the 10 year anniversary of when she passed away. I spent about $1,000 marketing the show, burning CDs and handing them out on UC's campus, running ads in local music papers, printing flyers, etc. I also contacted a local radio station, and was lucky enough to get them to run a ticket giveaway on the air, and for a follow up show, I got one of the bands involved to make an appearance on local TV show in northern Kentucky.
In the early and mid 2000s, music piracy was huge. Napster launched in June of 1999, and completely changed everything about how music was consumed, and Spotify didn't launch until 2008. There was no solution for piracy for about 9 years, so I shifted my thinking. I assumed that people weren't going to buy my music anyway when they could just pirate it, so I leaned into it, and burned off demo CDs. CD-R's cost about 50 cents each when bought in bulk, and continued to drop steadily until I could buy 100 blank CDs for about $25. I could get them even cheaper, but the really cheap ones had a high fail rate, so only 50-60 of the CDs would actually work.
The library at my alma mater had a CD duplicator that anyone affiliated with the University could use, so I did. I'd burn 200-500 demo CDs per regional show I booked. I made 4.25"x4.25" flyers to stuff into the CD sleeves, and handwrote my website “MissionMan.net” on the CD surfaces using a sharpie. The flyers had the show date, and my website as well. I went to local colleges, and handed out those demos, sometimes watching people throw them directly in the trash after I handed them out. If I handed out 300 demos, I would usually draw 20-40 people to my shows as a result, and that following grew the more I did it. At $150 in CD pressing costs, hours spent creating and printing flyers, gas money and time spent driving to college campuses to hand out the demos, and bringing in about $100 in revenue, I was definitely still losing money. However, I was gaining a following, and the shows were an incredible amount of fun! I still have friends that I made during those times through my music, which is also amazing!
As the internet became more prevalent, marketing became easier in some ways, and more difficult in others. Everyone had relatively low barriers to recording and releasing music. In 1999, my soundcard cost $1,000 to allow me to record music at home. Now, my USB Behringer soundcard costs about $60, or you can get a 2 channel input Behringer UMC202 for $99 on Amazon. You can get a Scarlett Focusrite 2i2, which is a very clean sounding USB audio interface, on Amazon for about $170. Both of those links are affiliate links, so I'll get a portion of the sale if you buy them through that link.
The amount of music that is released now is staggering, and the ways to promote your music can also be overwhelming. I spent $4,500 in ads for my music in 2022, and generated about $1,800 in revenue, so my ROI is still negative, but the music industry is difficult to make a living in, and I learn everyday what works and what doesn't. I've run ads on all of the following platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit, Twitter, TikTok, Show.co and Bing. Snapchat has been my most effective ad platform for driving streams on Spotify. Running ads for videos on YouTube has been my most effective ad platform for growing a subscriber base on YouTube. In the minimal advertising I've done on Reddit, I've had a little bit of success promoting a Spotify playlist within the subreddit r/spotify. TikTok ads were extremely ineffective for me, as were Twitter ads. I will likely write a blog post with a lot more details about my experience with ads on all of those platforms, so keep an eye out for that if it's something that interests you.
In addition to social media ads, I have also heavily used Groover, Submithub, Dailyplaylists, Soundplate, and The Spotify Indie Bible to push my music to playlist curators. I've had the most success with Groover. On Groover, my acceptance rate is close to 40% versus Submithub, where my acceptance rate is about 1%. Other artists have had more success with Submithub, and from what I've seen, the playlist curators there have playlists with stronger engagement as well. If you're interested in signing up for Submithub as a playlist curator, you can do so here.
The best source of marketing has always been my fans. They've put on great shows for me, adding local bands with draw, and excitedly telling people about the shows. I've also had my music on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in 2018 because a fan sent it in, and another fan told their local morning show in Columbus, Ohio about it, and they brought me in to perform my music at 7:00 am.
This is a fairly broad overview of my music marketing efforts over the last 30 years. I plan on breaking down a lot of it in future blog posts, so if you're a musician and interested in any of it, keep an eye out for future blog posts. This particular blog is mainly for independent musicians, but if you're a fan of my music, you'll also get to see a bit behind the curtain.
See the archived version of my original Geocities website for Mission Man.