The music industry is full of mystery. From the complexities of royalty calculations to the fundamental theory behind algorithmic music discovery, there is so much we simply don’t understand or can’t put our finger on. And the so-called experts often speak in anecdotes–highlighting success stories that are often exceptions to the rule–leaving curious indie artists more speculative than before their inquiry.
Active indie artists spend hours surfing the web looking for “answers.” You read blogs–such as this one–and browse the headlines of the most relevant trades to try to figure it all out.
You attend networking events and engage in forums; trading old information for new ones. You’re determined, eager and anxious to get it right and to charge forward to the next level of your career. Besides, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars–if not thousands–trying to get it right before.
So here you are. You’ve written and recorded a new record. You believe it’s good; great even. And maybe you’ve tested it a bit with friends or at gigs and the feedback has been positive.
You’re excited; this is the one that can get the momentum building in your career!
You don’t have a major label budget so you have one shot to get it right. But you don’t know where to start, because one of those great music industry mysteries is the formula–the secret sauce–to successfully releasing a new single.
The truth is, there is no formula.
If there was a formula, major record labels wouldn’t be loosing revenues by the millions. If there was a formula, the term “unexpected hit” wouldn’t exist in music industry lingo.
As disappointing as that may sound, there are some basic principles you can apply to your single release in an attempt to generate exposure and potentially sell records.
The ten steps below are my personal recommendations to help you with your planning. This is not in exhaustive list; nor is it the perfect set of steps for every artist of every musical genre.
I welcome readers to contribute to this discussion; to chime in on what has and has not worked for you in the past. And I welcome my colleagues to add additional steps or elaborate on any of the ten below.
Before you read, let me set the tone. I wrote these ten steps with the assumption that you are an indie artist or band that is unsigned. Although this information can apply to an artist/band signed to an indie label, the idea here is that you are completely DIY with no label support of any kind.
10 Steps To Building A Single Release Campaign
1. Create Great Music. Let’s be honest here indie artists; consumers aren’t stupid. They may not be music connoisseurs, but they certainly have musical tastes and an absurd amount of music discovery apps and website options to chose from. However, studies show that music discovery continues to be dominated by the radio. And we all know major recording artists dominate radio airplay–thanks to promotion departments with big budgets. But we also know that independent artists are selling records and indie artists are winning GRAMMY Awards. This is because their music is cutting through the clutter. Not because a shit load of blogs write about it, but because it’s great music that incites a response. Bad music is shit. Good music is tolerable. Great music incites response; and the response is repeat streams, evangelical shares and downloads.
2. Do Your Due Diligence. Before you begin to promote your great music, you need to secure and protect your rights so you don’t put yourself in a shitty situation later on. There’s some legal work you need to do before going all gung-ho on your release campaign. If you have an attorney, great. If not, there are a number of websites with templates to cover this stuff. Basically, you need to have agreements signed between you and your collaborators–split sheet, producer agreement, collaboration agreement, side artist agreement, etc.–that details how copyright and publishing ownership will be split as well as sales revenue.
3. Set A Release Date & Schedule Distribution. One of the challenges indie artists face in building a release campaign is not giving themselves a sufficient amount of lead time to layout and execute the details of a plan. You need time to do all of the work involved with a release. Sometimes, you’re so excited about your new record that you post it up prematurely. This is fine if you have no intent to commercially release the record. However, if you do want to generate sales–and your fan base has not historically been quick buyers of your music–then you need time to start generating buzz and momentum. Most major labels spend no less than 8 to 16 weeks planning towards the release of a single. Sometimes they push the release date back if they have not reached certain goals by specific weeks (although this mostly happens for albums, and not singles). You should consider giving yourself no less than 6-12 weeks from the start of activating your campaign. Also, the release date you select can also be a factor in the success or failure of your release. Some parts of the year there are a lot of major artist releases. Therefore, radio play, blog features, press/media coverage is focused on these major releases. Holiday season (October-December) and Spring are two of the biggest seasons for major releases. However, there is discrepancy in the music industry on when is the “best” time for indie artists to release music. Some say that the Summer is solid, and that’s because of the major label hiatus (execs going on vacation) and the increase in music events such as summer concert series, indie music festivals, etc. While I agree that the summer months are much better than Holiday season in general, it’s a whole different story if you’re releasing a Holiday themed song. The bottom line is, selecting a release date is part smart and part timely. Once you’ve determined when you want to release, you need to schedule the distribution. If you plan to release a digital single only, you can use a service such as TuneCore to distribute your single to iTunes, MySpace Music, Rhapsody, Spotify, Rdio and many others. If you plan to release a physical CD and digital, you may consider CDBaby.
4. Register Your Works. Once you’ve scheduled your distribution–if you haven’t already done so–you’re going to want to register your song with your performance rights organization aka PRO (ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC), as well as with the US Copyright Office, as well as with SoundExchange who pays the artists when songs are played on digital mediums. Additionally, if you’re really confident about how amazingly great your record is and you expect–or at least, hope–to earn a respectable number of digital sales, you should consider setting yourself up to be eligible to earn a placement on one or more Billboard charts. To be eligible, you should both register the ISRC of your song and register the title with Nielsen SoundScan. And lastly, if you’re super confident in your great song, you should read up on how to get your song certified as a Gold or Platinum selling single by the RIAA as well as how to be eligible to win a GRAMMY Award.
5. Set Reasonable Goals. Now that all the “administrative work” is complete, it’s time to roll up your sleeves, develop a plan and get to work. A good plan needs concrete goals. One of the ways to measure the effectiveness of a plan is to determine if you’ve reached or exceeded your initial goals. Too often, indie artists create music, throw it up on the Internet and are disappointed with the outcome. But, you may be selling yourself short by not setting reasonable goals in advance. In fact, you may have exceeded what the music ecosystem has determined as your demand/worth based on your existing support system. As an indie artist–even with no fan base–there are reasonable goals that you can set that have nothing to do with record sales. Your goal may be to earn X number of video views, or X number of music streams, or X number of shares, or X number of downloads (including free downloads).
6. Marketing & Promotion Planning. Once you’ve set your goals, you need to think about how you plan to reach and exceed those goals. There are a number of approaches. I am a huge proponent of integrated marketing approaches. That is, tactics that overlap and contribute towards the impact of two or more goals. For example, if you have a video on YouTube, at the end of the video should be a download link for the song that was just played (use YouTube’s video editing features to embed links in videos). If you print up flyers and posters to promote upcoming gigs, include your social media links. To reach a goal for shares of a song; consider creating a “Share And Win” campaign on social media. The basic premise is that by sharing your song or flyer, the action represents an entry for the chance to win something such as a pre-release or tickets to an upcoming gig. You might consider gift cards to a retail store like Target–yes, completely irrelevant to your music but incredibly relevant to the listener’s lifestyle–because the goal is to offer the most compelling incentive to reach your goal (a Target gift card may be more compelling than a free download of your music). A cool way to promote your upcoming release is by giving away a previous release or a record you do not intend to release. Check out SocialUnlock, which is a platform that lets you setup a campaign to give away music in exchange for social interactions (such as “Likes” and Shares). Also, look into securing radio airplay on a number of the indie radio sites. You want your song on air no less than 4 weeks before the release. Also, check out IndiePower for resources.
7. Line Up A Few Gigs. When releasing new music, it’s helpful to perform the music in front of an audience prior to release. If the music is as great as you think, they’ll respond. If the response is not what you expect, you’ll have some food for thought in terms of continuing the journey towards a commercial release. SonicBids and Indie On The Move are good resources to find gigs. Reaching out to local coffee shops, bars & nightclubs, small concert halls with indie nights (aka “pay for play”) are also good ways to set up gigs. You also might be able to secure gigs by directly contacting medium sized tour management companies and booking agencies and talking your way into opening up for a bigger act that’s coming to your city. You should also consider doing presales of your single at these events. A savvy way to do it is to bundle your single with a ticket sale. When attendees purchase a ticket, they are also purchasing your $.99 single. Check out this article by ASCAP for some tips on presale.
8. Seek And Secure Publicity. There are an insane number of music blogs generating exposure for new music every day; connecting music lovers with indie artists. Here is a list of over 100 hundred of them. There are three basic types of publicity you want to secure and it’s a good idea to make this part of your goals. First, you want music reviews. If your music is great, the reviews will be amazing. If the reviews are negative, then you might have a rude awakening that will help you evaluate your music. Secondly, you want interviews. Often, music bloggers will simply send you a list of questions via email that you respond to and send back with a biography and discography and they take it from there. The third kind of publicity is features. Ideally, you want to be featured on the main page of the website/blog. Normally, the feature will include a photo and link to a post (either a review or interview). Most websites/blogs have a contact page. Find that page to submit your press release (oh yeah, you should probably write a press release) or click on the author of any given music post to locate the information of a specific writer. Another form of publicity is radio interviews. While it is incredibly difficult to get an interview with a mainstream radio station, it is not that difficult to get an interview with an independent or lesser known radio station. There are a number of independent terrestrial radio stations in and around major markets. Do some research and give them a call about setting up an interview. Also, many of the djs on mainstream radio stations have their own Internet radio shows. Reach out to them to see if you can set up an in-studio interview at their Internet radio show. The idea is to capture your interview on video and to post it on YouTube. Another publicity boaster is a Wikipedia page for your band. Hypebot explains how to get your band on Wikiepedia.
9. Review And Adjust. I know you may think this Step 9 is a cop out to providing some useful information, but the reality is reviewing and adjusting efforts in the remaining weeks or days before a release can be the difference between no sales and many sales. Have you reached your goals with two weeks left until the release? Have you sold any presales? Have you run out of energy and ideas? If so, read “Countdown To Maximum Exposure” by CDBaby.
10. Throw An Effing Party! You’ve worked your butt off. Celebrate with a single release party. You might offer fans a ticket to this single release party as part of the bundle when you’re gigging to raise awareness of your release. For example, Admission/Single/Future Admission For Single Release Party…all for $10. Pretty good deal.