Many independent musicians are whining about how difficult it is to promote their own music even if they’re giving it away for free.
In my opinion, this is simply a symptom of a much bigger problem. But my point would probably be much clearer if we get a few points out of the way first.
Here’s the thing: with today’s software and technology doing a lot more for much less, there’s probably never been a better time to be an independent musician.
A simple laptop can completely power an entire studio that you can carry with you on your backpack.
It doesn’t cost any more than a few hundred bucks to get a crystal clear condenser mic, a latency-free audio interface, and a powerful DAW like Logic.
No longer do you need to pay thousands of dollars for hardware synthesizers to make your own beats — nowadays, virtual instruments can provide you with almost any sound that you need.
And with websites such as Bandcamp, distribution is no longer a problem — anyone can buy our music at any time of the day anywhere in the world.
This was not at all possible a little over a decade ago, when someone would have to spend thousands of dollars in studio equipment and computer hardware to set up a home recording environment and hustle hard for distribution.
If this isn't awesome, I don't know what is. Personally, I love the advancements that technology has made over the last decade. But it’s also the very reason why it’s harder than ever to be a musician today.
Yes, it’s true — I love that I have the complete freedom to create the music that I want to make, and put it out for the world to hear.
The problem? So can everybody else.
Now that the costs of recording music have drastically decreased, it seems like everyone and their grandmothers are making their own songs and releasing songs for free download.
It makes sense. I mean, they’re already downloading MP3s… We might as well get an email address out of it, right?
But soon enough, offering free music became the norm. 50 Cent got huge after releasing his mixtapes on the streets for free. Radiohead released their last album using a “pay-whatever-you-want” model. And Skrillex puts up his EPs on Youtube, and offers free downloads as well.
Now, don't get me wrong. Releasing free music isn’t a problem in of itself. I have no beef with it, and in fact, I advocate it.
The problem is when the ONLY reason to download and listen to your music is “because it’s free.”
Audience Attention Is The New Currency
“Free” all by itself is no longer an attractive selling point. It’s a harsh reality, but one that we musicians must face and accept.
Let’s take a look at how the casual music listener decides to spend their free time. At any given moment, he or she can choose to:
a.) watch funny videos of someone’s cat on Youtube
b.) spend hours playing Call of Duty on their Xboxes and Playstations
c.) chat with their friends and stalk their exes on Facebook and Twitter
d.) catch up on their favorite blogs and read celebrity gossip
e.) download and play with apps on their iPhones and Androids
…And a bajillion other things that isn’t “download and listen to (insert your name here)’s new and supposedly amazing song.”
With so much entertainment media available out there, the problem is no longer finding music to consume — it’s finding out which songs are actually worth our time to listen to.
When you throw in the massive amounts of free music into the huge ocean of options for entertainment, then one thing becomes clear:
A DIY musician’s main challenge isn’t how to get people to pay for their music — it’s figuring out how to get potential fans to pay attention.
I would argue that for an independent musician, time and attention has become almost as valuable as the money itself.
The reason why a lot of crappy musicians are selling more music today is because they are better at getting audience attention than everyone else.
Audiences might have more options on how they want to get entertained, but we all still have the same 24 hours in a day.
While their demand for music will never die, it’s more important than ever to convince them that it’s worth throwing some time and attention towards in our direction.
Not only is it our job to make the best music that we possibly can, but as a DIY musician, the responsibility of marketing it also falls on our laps.
So Your Music Exists? Congrats, Here’s A Hero Cookie
At the very core of every successful music marketing campaign is the ability to get people to pay attention first.
Not by spamming their Facebook feeds and trying to entice them with free downloads. That no longer cuts the mustard. You can’t expect people to listen to your music just because it exists and you say it’s good.
Instead, you have to constantly give them reasons (yes, plural) to make them want to listen to your art.
It could be through the message behind the song that they believe in and want to share with others.
It could be the emotions you felt that drove you to write it that connects with them on a deeper level.
It could be your artist persona that makes them root for you to succeed.
Hell, it could even just be your looks that makes them want to watch your video over and over, getting them attached to your music in the process.
Give them several reasons to pay attention and, with some luck, they’ll like what they hear and become a fan over time. Fans happily give you their hard-earned money when you offer them something of value in return.