What Writers Can Learn From Music Marketing
Music marketers share what’s delivered their artists to the stages of Coachella, the red carpet of the Grammy Awards, and the Met Gala
I sent an email to a writer I admired asking if we could chat and share the strategies we were using to find success. The writer replied, “I don’t write for money and those who do have no integrity.”
It’s obviously a wack response but still, I questioned myself. I had always thought I was a person of strong integrity, was I a shitty writer because I wanted to earn money writing?
If you’ve been in that conversation before and had someone say this to you, don’t feel shame or self-doubt. Rather, ask yourself this: are you an artist and would you like to create as your career?
A simple switch of words tells you that you want to be a professional writer and that being a professional writer means you will earn income from writing. There’s no taboo on the topic.
Though I never spoke with that writer, I’ve had countless conversations since, learning what does and doesn’t work, and how to iterate on each other’s success.
In Originals, How Non-Conformists Move The World author Adam Grant encourages entrepreneurs to source peer reviews on their ideas. Adopting the same principle, I wanted to learn from marketers across industries that were also creating and distributing their own original works. So, I opened up some conversations with leading members of the music community.
The lessons learned aren’t exclusive for writers, freelance, staff, or copy, they extend to editors, publications managers, and truthfully share general marketing principles and thought-provoking insights. What works in music may be different in vertical but what I found were several parallel extractions that writers can apply.
You Are the Artist
Creation may be a response but it is not a reaction.
The lessons begin with a principle: anyone who creates is an artist, and artists curate their fans’ experience. That means writers are artists, and writers decide what they write about.
This was the loudest and most consistent nugget of feedback I received, and it put me at ease. The difference between a response and a reaction is subtle. A response is a more strategic creation, a thoughtful work of art responding to a current event.
Take MILCK’s Quiet for example. A reaction is creating something fast, in an attempt to get swept into the current of a recent fad. Consider Drake’s Toosie Slide, a 2020 Cupid Shuffle attempt to become a Tik Tok trend. The writer’s equivalent is Julio Vincent Gambuto’s Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting*, a response, compared with the sharp increase of couch COVID-19 experts now offering medical advice, or work-from-home strategies.
Just because something is trending, doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate prompt for you. Have the courage, confidence, and self-belief to create your art.
As a writer that has violated this, this was a sobering lesson.
The ideal is when a writer writes for themselves and readers relate to or are educated by it, so they engage with it and encourage others to engage with it.
Also in an ideal situation would be the writer with such a large and committed audience that they can simply press publish and have fulfillment, growth, and success. For most writers, this isn’t reality. Most writers need a detailed marketing strategy heavily focused on distribution. I mean, your words are an extension of you, so to distribute your words is to honor yourself.
But, where do we start?
The marketing umbrella is quite large. It’s a generations-old family tree that each time you revisit has a new branch. That’s ’cause marketing is constantly evolving, and marketers are constantly innovating. But, with every music executive, manager, and marketer I spoke to there was unanimous agreement that music marketing begins far before one would think.
Yes, Otpor!’s success in Serbia in the early 2000s was a masterclass on branding, anchored in the use of a logo, but with music, the artist is the logo. And the artist is the brand.
As Bina Turner, marketing director for Ultra Music, shared:
“Thefirstthingyou need to do is set your foundation. Do you have your assets, do you have visuals and graphics, is your bio up to date, is your one sheet or hype sheet up to date? These make your skeleton, with them you can build anything.”
Branding is one of the most important things in marketing. Branding tells your story to anyone who discovers you and allows others to tell it for you. “Good branding will increase the value of word of mouth,” Josh Feshbach of Thrice Cooked Media, representing artists such as Pink Sweat$ and Kirby, tells me, continuing, “Not only will a fan share a piece of music they relate to but if they relate to your entire brand, then they’ll really support what you create.”
We tend to think of branding as CPG product packaging or sleek websites, but artists have to consider far more than their Instagram main feed. For Kah-lo, the Grammy-nominated artist that you’ve almost certainly danced to in a club or on Tik Tok, says, “How I dress, the photos I share, my hair color, and even lyrics to my song, they all are reiterating my brand. These are the markers that associate my art with me.”
Having markers make it easy for people to know it’s your work. Like owning a word, owning an image is a 21st-century update to this law of marketing.
As a writer, I thought about my branding. Did I have one? And, if I did, was I being consistent?
For writers, our brand is anchored in what we write about, and how we write. Our subject matter and our style. We can increase the equity of our brand with interactions and engagements. Replying to comments, participating in challenges, raising questions. These interactions will give us writers real-time feedback about what’s important to our readers. This evaluates if you are providing consistent value according to your strengths, answering: am I on-brand?
But don’t allow this feedback to alter your brand. Feshbach says “One of the most important things is to not to over-analyze and remember that you decide what your fans listen to,” continuing with, “Artists evolve, and if an artist releases art that some fans accuse of being a departure from their brand, remember that the artist is the brand creator and the expert. They curate the fans experience.”
I may be best known for sobriety memoirs and marketing tips, but my lesser-known comedy articles are still part of my brand.
Another way writers can support their words with their brand is via social media. Each post, caption, and comment is an opportunity to work on our writing and develop our voice. Beyond platforms, how we speak on podcasts and how we manage our newsletter also reinforces our brand.
When evaluating your brand, an olive branch supported by marketing research is not to dismiss humor. Humor humanizes people and is one of the most relatable traits we have. When you create humor or have humor as part of your brand, people are more inclined to share your content and tell their friends, increasing what Feshbach calls “word of mouth marketing.”
Part of the brand engineering process is defining your why. With your why you can structure your brand and create targeted marketing strategies for the distribution of an article. For an exercise to help discover your why, Creative Director of Ultra Music & Mastermind of Rocket Pengwin, Eddie Sears, suggests asking yourself: what’s this all about?
What’s This All About?
“The marketing campaign is the end result. True music marketing begins before the public sees or hears anything. It begins with the story. The first question to ask is ‘what’s this all about?’ We ask all artists what is this song, this EP, this album about.Artist responses will surface the message that then drives the marketing down the alleys you want to pursue to reach your audience.”— Eddie Sears
Knowing what a project is all about, helps to manifest something that has been conceptualized for so long.
In February 2020, Sears masterminding Rocket Pengwin displayed a masterclass of understanding what his song was all about with the release of Unique.
When generating ideas for the video, he thought to capture his brand and what this project was about. The song is called Unique, so the obvious answer was to follow a six-foot-tall penguin around New York City and record human interactions. Why? Well, cause a six-foot-tall penguin on the L or in Soho is Unique.
Chad Donnelly, the founder of the music festival Snowglobe, agrees with Sears. “One of the earliest things you need to understand is your why. Why are you doing something? Start there.”
For writers, this begins during the roughest of draft phases. Once we know our story, we have the luxury of using the long-form art of writing to explain it. We don’t need to rely on visuals to tell a story. We are storytellers and inform readers exactly what this is all about.
What we can learn in the behind-the-scenes moments of pre-publish is the step to take once we know what something is all about.
When you know what something is about, then you can build a marketing campaign designed to find those who care about the narrative you’re telling. As writers, where we meet these readers, is through careful publication selection, keyword tagging, images, SEO, and online groups — all levers included, making our stories more discoverable and attractive to readers.
When asked if they would ever aim to optimize a song title, all acknowledged that suggesting song titles to increase discoverability is overstepping. But, this conversation did have me thinking deeper about discoverability and improving the rung of the search ladder a piece of writing might be returned on.
Optimizing Our Titles and Accessing Playlists
If you had a playlist on Spotify or YouTube, and you wanted it to return higher in organic searches, you’d want the first few words of it to be common searches. Well, the same with articles. We already aim to optimize our articles for SEO, but could title word order amplify this?
Consider the following title: A Delicious Banana Bread Recipe For Thanksgiving.
The above has all your keywords and it reads well, but, do users input search in full sentences? No.
A new titled might be: Thanksgiving Banana Bread Recipes That Are Delicious
Most will only search Thanksgiving Banana Bread Recipes and let the most attractive suggestions populate the window before pressing “search.”
On the topic of playlists, most would respond that writers don’t have an equivalent. At most, our stories might be included in a publication’s newsletter or our books on a “best of the year” list. We have lists, not playlists. Then an idea came to me: writers can create their own.
Writers should have their own blog, but even if they only use Medium, they can create a blog that has their greatest hits. I made one so you can see it in action. This allows me to share ten of my best stories at once under one URL. This may not be the biggest mover of the needle, but by pinning this at the top of your profile, Twitter profile, or Facebook page, it’s a dynamite way to introduce yourself to those discovering you.
This is beginning to edge post-publishing, and in the moments before going live we need to decide where a story might go. To best understand that, we need to understand our fans.
Where Are My Fans At?
When creating a marketing strategy, Sears says, “It’s important to know two things: who your fans are, and where they are.”
Feshbach added, “When you know who your established fan base is, you can market to them in an effective way.”
As writers, think of where your fans are: your newsletter, your writing profile, your LinkedIn, your Facebook, your Instagram, your Twitter.
Now think bigger. They’re following brands that create the leading products in your category. They follow other writers writing in your category. They follow publications that publish articles in your category.
Knowing where your audience is doesn’t mean they even know they’re in your audience, yet.
Sure your followers are your most committed audiences, called fans, but there are so many others that look like your audience that have yet to be introduced to you.
The question then is how to reach them.
“Expanding an audience is what every marketing campaign to some degree is trying to do. Those who do this best have their finger on the pulse. They’re first to trends, and first to react. To some degree everything has been done before, but you can always do it differently. For example, Livestream is HUGE for musicians right now, those with their pulse on it are now 60+ days in. Think about repurposing what already exists.” — Bina Turner
Another thing you can do is let someone else do it for you.
In Srjda Popovic’s book Blueprint For Revolution, we learned the power of the press. When someone else talks about what you did, not only is that an endorsement from them and their brand, it’s a scalable source of introducing you to their audience. It’s hijacking their audience to a degree. They have an audience because they’re a trusted tastemaker, and now they’re promoting you.
What does this look like and how do you get there?
The most traditional environment of others telling your story for you is the press. In music, a premier is the first look or first listen to a song, EP, or album, and brands reach to get the best fit considering audience interest and media channel size. The obvious association for writers is to submit their work to a major publication and have them publish it. Writers will take these logos all day despite earning less and having less autonomy over their words.
Another role to consider is those of major influencers. Those with large audiences in your space can share your words. This may be an individual or a brand. Managing this is managing strategic relationships, which are difficult to make yet valuable. What makes that easier, is having a brand that educates new relationships on their obvious alignment (see above the importance of having a brand).
I did this with an article titled The Alarming Effects of Alcohol on Immunity that I shared with One Year No Beer via email who then tweeted it, shared it on Facebook, and posted it to their LinkedIn community. This was huge. To encourage a brand to do this you can even create a press release to throw and see who bites. I’d recommend passing along your hype sheet as well.
The next group of people who will tell your story for you are your champions.
When I talked about humor increasing the odds of a piece of work being shared, I failed to inform you that those sharing your work are called champions: someone who reacts to your work so positively that they want to introduce it to their audience.
At the highest level, they have audiences in the tens or hundreds of thousands but don’t dismiss the person with 200 followers on Twitter. They are just as important. Thank them. Retweet them, comment back at them. This is easiest when authentic engagement is part of your brand.
For writers, please do understand that it’s way sexier for people to share a song or video as they are more digestible pieces of content. To increase shareability though, consider delivering your content in a different format. Like a video — more on that later.
A final prong is that of social media.
For Rocket Pengwin’s single Unique, the goal was to get known social media accounts to post about a rogue adult penguin in New York City and track it back to his release. Overheard New York, Subway Creatures, and New York Nico all shared this story to their social feeds.
These are the ultimate endorsements. When cool accounts that your target generations like share a piece of content, they’re endorsing it, and their followers do what their defined label does. They follow. What Rocket Pengwin did was something so new, so original, so unique that the brands known to have their pulse on what’s cool in New York had no choice but to share it.
Am I saying you need to walk a six-foot-tall penguin around New York City? Not unless it’s your brand, which it probably isn’t. But, if you decide to create alternate formats, think about how you could distribute them differently. Could you do a performance piece nude in a public fountain? Could you spray paint a wall with permission in a neighborhood and add a QR code to the piece? Could you host a monthly meetup so cool that tastemakers come then go talk about?
All of these ideas stretch beyond the traditional monotony of write piece, publish a piece, share piece link.
That’s all the power of good PR.
Digital Ad Spend
If you’re going to invest in creating alternate formats of your work, please also consider introducing them to people more than once. Like maybe 10,000 times. The way you do that is with a little bit of digital spend.
Have you ever visited a website, then scrolled on Instagram and seen that exact website’s product? What about a competitor? Well, that’s because you’re in their Custom Facebook Audiences or their Lookalike Audience, both totally legal and easy to create your own with the Facebook pixel in the business manager.
Marketing conversions are a numbers game, you know this. Your newsletter has 1,000 subscribers, 50% open it, 10% click it. Conversions are a numbers game. Same with digital ads. You want to get 1,000 reads so you might very well need to reach 100,000 accounts. How do you do it?
Well, whatever you do, don’t just post your title and cover image. Leave. GET OUT.
Be original, hang a cliff, use a “did you know?”, use shock, use horror, use humor.
Buzzfeed style videos know that readers only have a short attention span, using good ads can drag a person into what you’re creating.
And don’t think I have been doing all this. Josh Feshbach brought this up, asking if I ran ads, and I told him I wasn’t. He asked, “why not?”
It may not seem obvious at first, but video ads are a great way to humanize the work of writers and normalize writing. If my brand is wild excitement and I write about sobriety, then video stands a much better chance at making my writings cool.
An additional piece from running ads is insights. Ad managers provide real-time information about what is working and what isn’t.
Something else insight related is on your article, look in your admin dashboard or where analytics are stored and see where readers are coming in from. Are your clicks coming from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn? These organic reactions will give you a good idea of where your audience is so that you can target those channels for the next release.
The Power of Relationships
If I were a musician and I could text the curators of New Music Friday or Hits Today at Spotify, I would do nothing else. If you’re a writer and you can nourish editor relationships, brand managers, and social media managers from the biggest brands in your writing category, do it, but for the love of God, do it right.
Second, if you can get the influencers in this category to care about you, do that. For me, that’s the sober curious movement. There are brands, publications, and people who are normalizing this category and driving it forward, it’s my job to get in contact with them, make friends, hope they share my work.
There are so many nuances in marketing, and some crossovers between music and writing didn’t work, but what I learned from Sears was that marketing levers and technology are always evolving.
“What was once new, has now become a must. Marketing levers and technology are constantly evolving and updating.” — Eddie Sears
When contributing to strategies, it makes him think what else can we do?
One example he gave was in the promotion of the SOFI TUKKER song Johny in 2017.
The album art was a telephone with a number, and messaging encouraging fans to dial it. Every few calls, the band’s Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern would pick up. When fans heard of this, the song took off even more. This campaign is both engaging and interactive.
For writers it makes me think, what could we do?
Well, when we release a story, we should share it to various social media platforms, but we can also go live on each platform, read the story to our audiences, and encourage live responses and challenges. To iterate into social media more, consider running ads on Instagram Story or in Snapchat or Tik Tok. These are all applications that exist that writers have yet to leverage.
It’s all about innovating on what already exists. I never thought a writer could read their story live to encourage people to read it. I was wrong.
Extending the Lifespan of a Body of Work
Once a song is live and really working, I asked each music exec how you know when it’s time to release the next one.
“You don’t want to cannibalize previous work, you don’t want to cut off algorithms or send a signal that you’ve moved on, but at the same time early adopters of the art will be ready for new content so you need to find a balance that keeps core fans engaged.” — Justina Heckard
For musicians, many factors go into this, one of the most common is if a band is touring. Most acts will release a record before a tour, or a major festival look. These are all levers in what Feshbach calls song life extension.
“You have to allow time for your campaign to work,” Feshbach told me. “You need to let the music live. You can tour a project, you can visit new territories and new radio, you can release a music video or a remix or series of remixes.
These are all levers. But you also need to know when it’s time to move on. It’s best to have that next piece ready to go, and once the data measuring engagement is slowing down, you release it. Data provides critical insights, study them.”
With this information, I was observing song life extensions all around me. Just last week Megan Thee Stallion extended the lifespan of her song Savage by inviting Beyonce onto the remix, and Doja Cat did the same with an invite to Nicki Minaj on her song Say So.
Why where they extending these songs and not releasing new ones?
They didn’t need to.
As of writing this, Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage sound has been used over 20,400,000 times on Tik Tok and Doja Cat’s Say So has been used over 20,000,000 times. Both examples of leveraging new technology.
So before you ask when, you need to ask yourself, do I have my next pieces of writing ready?
I found it interesting that musicians want to extend the lifespan of a song. In writing it seems the opposite, it’s as if momentum in writing is so rare that we grip it so tight. I experienced this. In December a story of mine went viral amassing hundreds of thousands of views, and I thought this was MY TIME, but it wasn’t. It was that story’s time.
My newsletter and social media were linked in that viral story and those were growing. I didn’t need to rush to publish again as those new readers were now part of my ecosystem and I was in charge of dictating their experience. The sole action of making my newsletter and socials available increased the odds of me transitioning a passive fan into an active one.
This may be an extreme example, but for writers it allows us to put out great work. Often when we rush to publish it’s motivated in part by fear, and our work suffers. As I write this, I’ve yet to publish in over three weeks and have seven drafts I’m working on. The advantage I have is that this month without publishing recently I have more engagement than months prior and since my decision to release a monthly, not weekly newsletter, I have no pressure to meet a self-imposed deadline each Sunday.
A thought for writers is this: would you rather write ten stories per month that perform well or one story that changes the world?
I know, I know, it’s an idealist approach and it goes against a favorite Ira Glass quote. “If you want to be original, the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work” but that’s what this is for: to create dialogue, to invoke thought.
The Writer’s Advantage
A major difference between writers and musicians is that a musician could retire off one song. Writers can’t. Well, bloggers, can’t. And, extending a song through a remix or tour doesn’t seem within reach.
What do writers have?
A great way to extend the life of a piece of writing is to use backlinks in future writing to direct traffic towards it. You can also include your article in the signature of future stories, and feature it in your newsletter. On top of this, you can share it multiple times.
When you publish a story, pull out 10–15 quotes from it, and over the course of the next two months use each quote to reshare the story, experimenting with new locations. You can even set calendar invites to do this and include the quote in the body of the invite. You might say you don’t want to annoy your followers but most platforms only share a small percentage to them anyway so chances are they don’t even see it. On top of that, the insights from social will tell you when enough is enough.
Discouraged By Expectations
Everyone wants that big song to take off. Everyone wants an Old Town Road to propel them from Tik Tok-ing at their parents to being on stage at the Grammys. I’ll be the first to tell you it can happen, but also the first to say it’s rare, so don’t expect it. Easier said than done.
The best advice on releasing expectations came from a woman who has been at the Grammys before. Nominated in 2018 for her song Rinse n Repeat, Kah-lo said: “You can’t predict engagement. You can’t predict virality. You can’t predict any of it. You can prepare for it, and react to it, but for your health, expectations will only be damaging.”
For writers, I don’t think much needs to be said other than, fall in love with your work, but once you publish, understand it’s not exclusively yours anymore. Release it, run your campaign, prepare for the next, and react if things blow up.
Many might say, preparing for low engagement is a failure, but it’s not. Having the expectation that your next story is going to make you a millionaire and retire is a terribly short-termed thought that lacks any strategy.
Picks up mic.
Evolving Into New Marketing Levers
Of the ever-evolving marketing lever conversation are nuances specific to music. One being the rise of text-based marketing. If you’ve been around social media recently, you’ve seen artists saying you can text us now. I text them. Then I realize they are part of this program, community.
Community allows musicians to send mass texts directly to their fans. The way a newsletter grants you access, texting only increases engagement. So as musicians, when you have a new song and 10,000 contacts, then you can send that song and have 10,000 listens at the push of a button. Most likely more because those on your texting mailing list are probably your champions.
Imagine if 10,000 people read your article within minutes of publishing?
Yes, a writer’s newsletter does that, but why can’t a writer text?
A similar barrier exists with touring. Musicians release music, an album or EP, and then tour it, visiting old and new markets, existing audiences, and activating new ones. As writers, we might not be able to justify a full tour, but consider something else — two things actually.
What can be everywhere while only being one place? A digital show.
A podcast or webcast is a brilliant place for a writer to elevate themselves into a thought leader and use it as a way to meet other leaders in their field to learn from. As a podcast/webcast host, you should always be inviting in guests that are more established than you. I recently heeded this advice and began hosting The Rough Draft, a weekly web series with Medium’s top writers and editors.
“Collaboration allows you to tap into local ecosystems.” — Justina Heckard
Writers don’t often co-write an article they publish on their blog, but I thought how else we could involve other writers. This goes back to strategic relationships. A great way to make relationships is to shoutout others doing great work. Highlight them, tag them, draw from them, and mention them in your articles. Organically, they will share these with their audiences and you get to activate their fans the same way an artist activates fanbases of who they collab with.
Bet on Yourself
In the conversation with Chad Donnelly, who also manages young artists, we talked about betting on yourself, the temptation of dollars, and momentum. Donnelly believes, with conviction, that “Investing in yourself is the most important thing you can do.”
For writers, we think about being “independent” as abstaining from publications in general. At the stage I am in, still growing, I believe in the power of a publication, but not blindly. I understand writers don’t have autonomy over their work but the compromise for the logo is important enough. Today, I do this because it drives my price up, and hopefully builds momentum.
With momentum, you need to always go bigger and better, you can’t be unprepared to blow up. Betting and investing in yourself isn’t always about money, it’s about staying the course, and being in this for longevity. Some have a larger appetite for this than others, and that’s a personal decision.
Posting a new blog on Facebook or LinkedIn a decade ago might have been taboo, or been viewed as too much self-promotion. Now, if you don’t, you’re doing yourself a disservice. As new tech arrives, we first learn how to learn it, then how to leverage it. With marketing, our tools are constantly updating and it’s our jobs to learn them, then leverage them. A great way to do that is to ask how others are using them.
Writing this was uncomfortable. I learned so much from an industry so foreign to me. Usually, in a new room, I have comfort, but exploring the world of music marketing left me with my tail between my legs, and there is strength in that. We should aim to be in a room where everyone is smarter, and become the sponge.
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