How to Release Music in 2023
On this blog and in our podcasts, we’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing the basic mechanics of a successful music release. This includes things like:
In fact, that stuff is so important to do that we built The Release Plan Generator. It’s a free tool that helps you stay organized and on-schedule whenever you release a new single or album.
But let’s be honest: That’s all just… infrastructure. A series of tasks. And it’s only HALF of any successful release strategy. Which is perhaps why marketing gurus and industry talking-heads lean towards discussing those mechanics. They’re the easy part.
Mechanics without good content is just an empty process.
So what’s the OTHER half of releasing new music? The part that’s often more difficult than mechanics? It’s the part where you need to provide the magic, the story, the journey, the reason, the interest.
Yes, great content without mechanics can get lost. You’ve probably experienced this yourself. Posting a song or video you’re really proud of, only to see it get 12 likes.
But the flip-side is true as well. Proper mechanics without valuable, hooky, unique content — it’s like sending an invitation to a house-warming when you don’t have any furniture or snacks. So today we’re going to talk about why it’s critical to consider the MAGIC side of your messaging.
And just like any magic trick, it takes planning, practice, suspense, sequencing, and execution with a payoff (for both you and the audience). In this article and the related episode of the DIY Musician Podcast, we’ll talk through some examples of how to pull a rabbit out of a hat while marketing your new music.
The most common problems with rote release strategies:
1. Frequency doesn’t invent demand.
Release strategies over the past five years have emphasized frequency over story. Creative habits over actual demand. Yes, frequency can lead to attention, but only once you’ve already built the demand.
2. The GLUT!
There’s so much music coming out every day. We can’t rely on the release itself to capture attention simply because it exists.
3. We only get one chance to make an impression.
Until a decade or two ago, the industry’s primary goal was to motivate fans to part with a lot of cash — ticket sales, album sales, etc.
They did this through forms of repetition and blanket coverage: radio and mass media. This constant drumbeat allowed SOME people to get over their initial bias towards a piece of music they didn’t like or understand. You know that feeling after hearing a song ten times when it finally clicks? (Or you’ve been bludgeoned by it so many times you finally capitulate and say “fine, it’s catchy!”)
Well today’s challenge is different: The ask is relatively small — “Press play… for free.” But the competition is fierce, crowded, and constant. So we usually only have one shot to get new content in front of someone. Pressure is on, because we have to compensate for lack of repetition with exceptionally creative and quality songs, videos, and messaging.
4. There’s a difference between capturing and KEEPING attention.
This is one of the most common struggles for indie artists: We make a huge upfront effort to get noticed, and then we’re exhausted. We don’t have the energy or commitment to follow through, so we squander all the attention we captured. Rinse, repeat.
It’s a bad habit, and one that requires an extreme antidote: Do not do ANYTHING that asks for attention unless you know what you’ll DO with that attention next (even if it’s as simple as “I want someone to leave a comment on this post, and then I’ll reply and start a conversation.”)
5. We seek the WRONG kinds of attention.
You probably have a sense of this tendency, especially if you’re active on social.
“Success” metrics can be a huge distraction. Unless they’re tied to our priority goal. Did you start off by sharing songs on TikTok, but then what drove a bunch of views was a silly skit? So now you spend all your time making skits and you haven’t written a song in two years?
Look for the right attention, even if it feels like you’ll sacrifice reach and engagement. And always ask yourself: “Am I working for social, or is social working for me?”
What should you do to make your music relevant in 2023?
Build proven demand BEFORE you release new music.
Again, with so much music being released now, there’s little point in putting anything out until you know there are listeners who want your newest song(s). That doesn’t mean you need thousands of diehard fans before you release anything. But you should feel confident that there is SOME audience, even if it’s only a dozen people.
This might sound contradictory to what we’ve said in the past — “release IS promotion” — but if you listened to our advice then, it ALWAYS included an emphasis on STORY, JOURNEY, and AUDIENCE. Before your music can succeed, it needs to be relevant, meaning someone HEARS it and enjoys it.
In the podcast episode above, I go into detail about how songwriter Alice Howe built an audience onramp ahead of her album launch and increased her Spotify streams by 4000%.
How one indie singer/songwriter built demand for her new music:
The short version is, she has an album she is excited to release this spring. But she didn’t want to drop it into the void without knowing there were people already hungry to hear the music on streaming services. I worked with her to strategize an outreach campaign that introduced her to new fans, with a clear plan for follow-up that would drive the most engaged part of that new audience to her music on DSPs. Essentially, we needed to build and prove demand.
We did this by first finding a good viral-ready performance video. Thankfully she already had one from a couple years prior that was perfect. It featured a charming live performance of a John Prine song, a great intro where she’s laughing right at the start of the video, and her collaborator Freebo is playing tuba in the background. It’s got everything you need to catch the eye of a stranger on social, draw them in both visually and sonically, and keep them watching with an amazing (and possibly already familiar) song by an Americana legend. The video has been seen more than a million times across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube.
Rather than rush these new viewers straight to her own original music, we decided she should record this cover song in the studio, but keep the same minimalist, charming arrangement the viewers had already fallen in love with. Not only could new fans follow along with the adventure of recording the tune, but they were practically guaranteed to want to hear the track once it was official released. And they did!
This campaign helped her gain massive traction on social platforms, caused the related video to go viral, and 40X’d her Spotify streams in a matter of weeks. And this is just some of the groundwork for her upcoming album.
Be willing to experiment with the mechanics AND content as you go.
Part of what made Alice’s introductory campaign successful is we adapted along the way. She wasn’t precious about everything needing to be about her original songs. She was willing to shoot funny videos, play a cover song, and try new things. She was even amenable to my suggestion that we run that older video (more than two years old at that point) as her primary outreach ad.
And once the John Prine cover proved to be a winner, she was also happy to create lots of additional content allowing new fans to follow along as they searched for a tuba while on tour, headed to the studio, and more.
@alicehowemusic Come with us on our Tour de Tuba. #tuba #tubatok #freebo #johnprine #alicehowemusic #alicehowe #johnprinecover #tubaplayer ♬ original sound – Alice Howe
Most artists would’ve shot down these ideas: No to the cover song, and no to the old video. “It’s gotta be about the art!”
Alice was confident, smart, and adaptable enough to realize there are multiple roads leading back to her own original music. We just let ourselves stumble upon the approach that got the biggest engagement for the cheapest price. And, as I’ll address more in the next section, we also weren’t married to our assumptions about platforms either.
Look at social networks differently
Artists always put emphasis on the newest, cool, shiny platform. And we have preconceptions about where we SHOULD be doing the best.
I admit, I wanted to see Alice’s video ads performing better on Instagram than Facebook. Why? Dumb reasons. Because Instagram and TikTok are supposed to be the hipper places to be.
But her ad was killing it on Facebook. Massive views (actual views, not ThruPlays), comments, shares, and — most importantly for the purposes of our campaign — low-cost clicks to DSPs which drove algorithmic playlist pickup!
So it’s good to remember: Not every platform is the same, and each can have their own distinct use.
For Alice, TikTok seems to be a great place to get big organic reach that remains on-platform. Instagram is a place to present a more curated version of her career, brand, and image. And Facebook has been, hands down, the best place to advertise her music to strangers and get them off-platform.
Always define yourself as an artist first
Artists who define themselves, or at least “brand” themselves, have a huge advantage. And if you want help with this, check out our Authentic Artist Branding Bootcamp.
But what I want to stress in this point is more about CONSTANTLY defining who you when you communicate with your audience. Don’t dilute what you do or confuse people.
As I warned earlier, if you chase metrics or lean too far towards gimmicks and trends, you may get that quick hit of attention, but the bulk of your audience won’t care about your music when you need them to.
The social content you create needs to be about YOU and your personality, not just engagement.
This might mean you sacrifice views and follows and likes, but you’ll be sacrificing them in favor of the RIGHT views and follows and likes.
It’s more important than ever to understand who YOUR audience is
The music market has expanded and become far more nuanced than just “mainstream” versus a few dozen niche genres. Your average music fan today has diverse tastes AND listens to music in an array of mood and activity-based contexts. So you’ll want to understand more about them than simply the genre(s) and artists they enjoy. This includes affinity, interest, and identity-based groups.
What ELSE can you know about your audience? What do they do? Where do they go (IRL and online)? What are they looking for? How can you meet their needs? Answering these questions will be a big help to your music marketing, and open up opportunities for discovery in places you might not have originally considered.
Build anticipation AND participation
It’s always been important to get your fans excited beforehand, but it’s now equally important to make them feel included.
How can you leave room for the story of your music to unfold in real-time, or in ways that YOU didn’t script?
Brittney Kellogg built her following of 1,000,000 people on TikTok by employing a tactic of both anticipation and participation. She shared a video of her singing along to a demo. Questions and conversations followed in a number of subsequent videos: Do you like it? Should I record it? Should I release it? Will you listen?
This frequent interaction lead to a groundswell effect where the fans feel like they’ve shaped the destiny of the artist and music, and so OF COURSE they want to go over to Spotify right this moment to hear the results!
Strip away distractions
Attention is scarce. Our own, as well as our audience’s. So it’s time to streamline!
Can you prioritize a SINGLE goal for you new release? You should. Not because music can’t achieve multiple things at once, but because that lazer focus will help you allocate attention and resources in the smartest way.
For you audience, can you help them quickly consume and act upon your messaging? Put just ONE item in your email. Add just one call-to-action on your homepage. Tell your fans at a show about ONE merch item they can’t go home without.
If you only require people to grasp and DO one thing at a time, they’re more likely to do it. This will also make it more likely that a sequence of messages (such as a marketing funnel) is more likely to have the desired (and measurable) outcome.
Own your audience already!
It’s time to stop giving all our time, talent, and attention away to platforms!
Instead of obsessing about TikTok (which could lose steam to a newer app, get banned in the USA, etc.), or worrying solely about your music’s performance on Spotify (when your fans could also be on YouTube, Apple Music, Amazon Music, etc.), we should learn from the past — and the steady churn of platforms — and prioritize OWNING our relationship with our audience.
This means email and SMS captures via lead magnets that are WORTH the person’s contact info — such as giveaways and contests, behind-the-scenes or VIP experiences, secret content, or private lessons!
It could also mean music NFTs which give you airdrop access to a fan’s wallet. It could be getting people from Twitch to Discord. The point is: you want your audience as CLOSE to you as possible, so you don’t have hurdles to reaching them again.
You won’t be able to do it all, so do the most important stuff.
It’s a long list of things to consider above. And unlike the more infrastructural checklists such as our Release Plan Generator, the stuff in this article is… difficult.
But once your music is finished, keep your creative hat on a little longer and do the hard but rewarding work of making people care.
Your music deserves it.
Credits: How to Release Music in 2023