March 08, 2021

To say that the music business has changed in the last 50 years would be a gross understatement. Same goes for the last 20. Even in the past 10 years there have been such seismic changes to the way money is made with music that some have gone so far as to say the music industry is dead. Others claim that this is the best time in history to be a musician – especially an indie musician.

There’s way too much to unpack to get into the music business at large here, but one piece of it – music marketing – is worth looking at briefly, with an eye to the state of marketing music and where it may be headed.

Websites, social media, and ads, oh my!

At this point it would be trite to say that the advent of the internet changed how music is promoted. Obviously, websites and social media have become so important as to have all but supplanted terrestrial radio and print magazines. For indies, the web was supposed to be the field-leveler to beat all field-levelers.

When Facebook and YouTube arrived, it wasn’t necessarily clear how big a role they would play in music promotion, but these two venues quickly became the go-to places for indie musicians to find and monetize an audience (outside of actually playing in real venues).

Along came Instagram, Twitter, and Patreon – not to mention a myriad of other social media platforms and music specific services such as Reverb Nation – and as of 5 to 10 years ago, it did start to look as if the playing field had levelled.

There were a few new ways to monetize music that we hadn’t had before – YouTube’s advertising model and Patreon’s subscription model gave any creative person a means to directly monetize work – if they were able to produce great content regularly. It was still difficult to find new audience though.

Enter Facebook ads, and now anyone with a small budget and the wherewithal to experiment had access to basically the whole world, and a powerful tool for targeting the right people. These tools represent a sea-change in music marketing. In the old model, huge corporations pour millions of dollars into blanket branding, with extraordinarily little targeting involved. This is impossible for a low budget, 1-to-4-person operation. Facebook ads has been a game changer because this sophisticated targeting reduces ad cost exponentially.

Facebook ads have quickly become the main way to find new audience members directly. Other new avenues for finding music such as Spotify make it easy for the fans to find music, but near impossible for musicians to find fans. So, new gatekeepers have come into play in the form of playlist managers and streaming promotion services.

Independent music publications such as the ‘zines of the 90’s have been replaced largely with blogs. College radio still exists, even though submissions to stations are mostly online. And now there are any number of online radio stations, streaming hybrids, and various web services that present music. 15-20 years ago, many of these services sold downloads – now downloads have nearly zero value. So, streaming in various ways is the norm. Spotify leads the way there, but there are literally thousands of alternatives.

The Bleeding Edge in 2021

There have been further shifts in the last few years. Facebook targeting has gotten more sophisticated in some ways, but users are getting used to recognizing ads, so the power of the space has diminished with some audiences. Add to this Apple’s new restrictions, and Facebook ads are starting to lose their luster. However, this doesn’t mean Facebook advertising has become irrelevant for music promotion – quite the contrary. It’s just not the magic bullet it once seemed to be.

Instagram, which had been largely irrelevant from a musician’s point-of-view, is now dominating younger audiences – and musicians are finding ways to utilize it. Meanwhile new platforms such as Twitch are giving musicians new avenues for finding and monetizing fanbase. Depending on the demographic musicians are trying for, these new platforms are often preferred. And some musicians are finding success by focusing entirely on streaming – sometimes even focusing promotion efforts on Spotify alone, using playlist promotion services and leveraging data.

 

Music marketing is in a wide-open place right now, with old models struggling to maintain their position, and creative new ways gaining traction. Still, the fantasy of a truly level playing field is far off. Even when it comes to cheap advertising like Facebook ads, or ostensibly free promotion like Instagram – people or companies with big wallets still hold a distinct advantage. Still, there are more and more musicians finding an audience and carving out a niche using new technologies, which is why some are saying this is the most exciting time yet to be a musician.




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