Creation and launch music has never been easier, but promoting your work has never been more confusing. Should you focus on TikTok or touring? And when you don’t have a lot of followers, is online promotion worth it?

To crack the code we spoke to indie musicians, marketers, tastemakers and even a professor. While there’s no guaranteed formula for success, we found plenty of tips and tricks for all types of musicians. Let’s dive in.

Access playlists

Streaming is arguably the most popular way people consume music today, and getting into the right playlists can make your music career. Although anyone can create a playlist on Spotify or Apple Music, only a small percentage have a large following. If you don’t have your popular playlists, how can you access the big ones?

Services like SubmitHub and Playlist Push let you submit to playlist creators, music blogs, and social media influencers. SubmitHub has free and paid submission options, but Playlist Push is paid only. Playlists like IndieMono and Alexrainbirdmusic have free submissions in a variety of genres. Although Spotify does not allow playlist owners to charge for inclusion, it appears to allow (or at least tolerate) appearance fees.

Do these strategies work? Yes, but artists should be prepared “to go through a lot of rejection,” says Jonathan Teeter, frontman of the Charlottesville, Virginia, indie band Films on Song. A single add from the BIRP.FM playlist led to over 10,000 streams for his band’s song “Ritual Day”. “Having to pay $1-3 to submit through SubmitHub isn’t ideal, but learning which blogs and influencers like what can be beneficial.”

Rejection is part of the game and it’s important to keep your chin up. “Music is art. Art is hard,” says KCRW radio DJ Jason Kramer, who was one of the first tastemakers to discover Billie Eilish and Finneas. “Artists just have to be themselves. Play something they need to play,” he continues, “Take chances, don’t be afraid.”

Create your own playlists

You don’t have to rely on someone else’s playlist to listen. On both Spotify and Apple Music, if a playlist is public, anyone can find and follow it. The exact algorithms aren’t public, but playlists with names based on iconic lyrics, new albums, places, or feelings (for example, “New York Autumn Vibes,”) seem to occasionally perform well on Spotify for users as well no existing followers. Seemingly without trying, some users have created playlists that gain thousands of listeners. Artists can post their favorite playlists to their artist profile, gaining new followers and showcasing their favorite songs. Apple Music doesn’t display the number of followers a playlist has, making it harder to judge which strategies are working there.

What playlists are you on? The Apple Music for Artists and Spotify for Artists apps will give you track play counts, information about playlists you’ve been added to, and other useful information.

Use resources from Streaming Services

Apple Music for Artists has a page with tips and tools to promote your work. You can even create your own QR code that links to your song or album. Spotify has a similar resource called code generator, and they even explain how you can submit songs for inclusion in a playlist. SoundCloud also has a page with tips to help creators monetize and promote their music. QR codes related to streaming or social networks are great for placing on stickers, posters or other promotional materials.

Collaborate on songs and covers

Features and collaborative tracks are probably the most common in hip hop, but they can be a great way to expand your audience regardless of the genre. For example, the indie rock band Surfer Blood released an EP called Very boiled, which featured other artists covering their songs. The songs were featured on Surfer Blood’s site in addition to the pages of the artists who did the covers, maximizing exposure for everyone.

Covering a popular song can be another good way to get new listeners. This article is not legal advice, but remember, if you cover a song, you will have to pay royalties to whoever wrote the song. Fortunately, services like DistroKid can handle that for you.

Cultivate your image

Social media has become so essential to promoting music that even artists who died decades ago have an active presence on Instagram. Although it’s a powerful tool for artists, music influencer Ari Elkins warns artists not to neglect their music. “Gaining thousands of followers on TikTok is exciting, but it’s essential that those followers are there for your music and not just because of unrelated viral videos that had nothing to do with you as an artist.”

While social media can lead to success, the game is always changing. Cehryl, an indie pop artist based in Hong Kong, started by uploading self-recorded tracks to SoundCloud and now has a record deal and over 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But she warned that what worked before may not work now. “If I were starting over today, I wouldn’t start on SoundCloud. I would just put it out on all the streaming platforms and promote it mostly on Instagram.”

When on TikTok or Instagram, what strategies should you use? “It’s more than just likes,” says Kas Robinson, a social media strategist in Sydney, Australia, who notes that social media algorithms look at various factors such as “time spent on your content, engagement rate and number of distributions and savings.” If you’re not sure what to do, Kas recommends starting. “Give yourself a starting position and work to improve your content over time.”

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