How to Promote Your Album
The moment you start thinking about making a recording is when you should also begin thinking about how you’re going to promote it. Andrew Ousley concludes his series by walking you through the process step-by-step.
Welcome to The Basics of Publicity: Part 4, the gripping conclusion to my four-part series on promotion and marketing for musicians! In my previous posts, I’ve talked about how to consider your public-facing brand and the key points to hiring a publicist, the ten most important things to know about social media marketing, and the core media assets you need and how to get them on any budget. For this final post, I’m going to talk specifically about recordings and how to promote them. This will incorporate many of the practices and concepts from my earlier posts, and hopefully it’ll give you a sense for how those ideas translate into real-world action. To further drive the points home, I’ll offer some case studies from my more than ten years promoting recordings for EMI and Warner Classics.
ASIDE NUMBER 1
For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to go into the actual recording process—that’s something I’ll leave to the many extraordinary producers, engineers, studio technicians, and others who specialize in translating the glorious sounds of your music into a true-to-life, impactful recording. What I’m going to focus on is how to take that lovely digital file/CD/LP/cassette tape/wax cylinder, and give it the best potential shot at being heard by the most people possible. Because there’s nothing worse than pouring your soul, time, and money into an album and then having no one hear it.
ASIDE NUMBER 2
Also for the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume we’re talking about a traditional “album” that features 40-70 minutes of audio recording. The rise of high-quality digital music files, streaming outlets like Spotify, video distribution platforms, even virtual reality, all open up new and exciting possibilities when it comes to recorded sound. I could write a separate post on each of these, but for most people, the standard is still going to be a traditional recording that can be distributed online but also packaged into a physical CD. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…
Many people make the mistake of waiting until the recording is finished before they begin thinking about promotion, but I cannot stress enough: the moment you start thinking about the recording itself is when you need to also be thinking about how you’re going to promote it. There are a few very important considerations you need to be thinking about the second you decide you want to make a recording:
WHAT IS THE STORY OF YOUR ALBUM?
Gone are the days when a world-class performance of a beautiful piece made for a newsworthy recording. There are simply too many new recordings being released each month, and the only way to cut through the noise is to have a story to tell about your album that will get people interested and engaged before they hear a single note.
As laid out in my first post, having a story that people can talk about and tell others is the beating heart of any kind of modern promotion. The same is true of a recording: Why is this music so important to you that you want to make a permanent record of it? If there are a variety of pieces on an album, what common theme ties them together? If it’s new music, what are the stories and ideas (both musical and non-musical) that might make it stand out in people’s minds?
If the only answer to these questions is: “Because it’s great music and a great recorded performance of it,” then you may end up with a fantastic album, but it’s one that will be very difficult to promote in a meaningful way.
An example: piano duo Christina and Michelle Naughton recorded an album entitled Visions, which featured Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, a Kurtag arrangement of a Bach chorale, and Hallelujah Junction by John Adams (a mentor of theirs). The story of the album revolved around different musical approaches to the idea of spiritual joy – from Messaien’s ecstatic transcendence to Bach’s serene confidence to Adams’s reckless ebullience. Having that story angle in place helped to tie the program together and provide a clear, concise message about what people could expect from the recording, and how they could talk about it to others.
The story of your album should determine all extra-musical aspects of it—the title, cover design, liner notes, and any other marketing materials—and answer the question: “Why should people care about my recording?”
Once you’ve got the story of your album in place, you want to think about organizations that might be interested in that story, and in helping you to tell it. Partnerships can boost sales of an album (if your recording centers around music written in response to visual art, for example, is there a gallery of that artist’s work that might be willing to sell your CD in the gift shop?), help with social media (if you’re featuring the music of a living composer with great social media, can they post about your album?), and can help add to the publicity by further validating and adding additional angles to your story, and making the entire campaign feel like more of an event.
An example here is an upcoming album from pianist Tanya Gabrielian, featuring piano transcriptions of Bach solo cello and violin pieces. Tanya suffered a severe spine injury while doing martial arts as a teenager and spent a painful month in the hospital, where the recordings of these Bach pieces helped her maintain her sanity and get through the low points of her experience. So for the album, she’s partnered with various chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, putting on performances at their various local branches where she’ll play the album music in hopes that it will provide the same support to NAMI patients as it did for her during her time of struggle. It’s an example of a partnership that emphasizes the core story of the album (the healing power of Bach’s music), while also providing performances that can be pegs for local media outreach.
RECORD LABEL – YES OR NO?
There was a time when you couldn’t put out a commercially successful album if it wasn’t on a record label—physical distribution and PR/promo/marketing outlets were simply inaccessible to the common folk. Now the internet has changed all of that, and you can easily put your album on CDBaby and get your music out across all digital platforms like iTunes, Spotify, and more. So why should you even consider a label? Well there are pros and cons…
Pros of a Record Label
- Physical Distribution: While there are fewer and fewer retail music shops with a physical building, if you want to be in them you’ll need a label—or at least label services—to get your CD shipped out and sold in those stores.
- Grammys: Getting a Grammy Award is a long, complicated, and opaque process, and you’re VERY unlikely to have it happen unless there’s a label handling it and managing the process, not to mention advocating for your recording within the industry.
- Recording/Packaging Support: Some labels will help defray some or all of the costs of recording (depending on your contract) and possibly the packaging design, photo shoot, video production, etc.
- PR/Marketing: Major labels—and some of the boutique ones as well—have dedicated PR and marketing teams, with the contacts and experience to help with the work promoting your recording.
- Prestige Factor: This one is more amorphous, but there is a certain degree of prestige in having a respected label release your album—it shows that other people believe in you, and you’re not simply doing everything on your own. This is especially true of a major label. If you self-release, realize that some of the larger media might not take you as seriously as they would if your album was on a label they knew and trusted. (Of course, if you’ve already had previous albums that they’ve covered in the past, this can be less of a concern.)
Cons of a Record Label
- You make no money: If you release on a label, don’t expect to ever see a return on that investment. The most wildly successful niche recordings sell a few thousand copies, and even with the best record deal ever, you’ll only see a fraction of that income.
- You lose some control: Depending on the label and the deal with them, you might lose artistic control over the presentation, title, story elements, etc. of your album.
- All labels are not created equal: Some are better at some things, others are better at other things. You want to learn the ins and outs of each and determine what you need from them before signing on, otherwise you can get stuck in a relationship that isn’t beneficial to either side.
PROMOTING YOUR RECORDING
Okay, you’ve got a story, partners, maybe even a record label. Now it’s time to start putting a promotional plan in place.
Since you’ve already (I’m sure) read my third post on assets, you know all about photos, videos, and more. But you should also consider these in the specific context of your album, as they can be vital when it comes to promotion and telling the story of your album. Will you create music videos (even just having a two-camera setup in the studio during the recording, which you can pair with the studio audio track)? Can you make an intro video that features some performance footage, as well as interview footage of you telling the story of the album? Are there any “bonus tracks” that won’t be on the final album, but that you could offer exclusively to media outlets in exchange for a feature on the album?
An example of this is a video we shot with violinist Ariana Kim around her self-released album Routes of Evanescence—a recording entirely of contemporary violin works by women composers. We wanted to get some exposure around International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, so we shot the video quick and dirty in her apartment, and offered the exclusive to a major violin blog, which ran this great story as a result. It was an example where an asset led directly to promotional exposure because it was tied into the story of the album.
This is an area where many people fall short when planning their album. I cannot stress enough: having performances of your album repertoire (even if it’s a few pieces within a larger program) is a VITAL part of a successful promotion plan. Fewer and fewer media outlets will cover an album release on its own, but if you have a live performance that features the album, then they can cover that and talk about the album in the context of the performance. Plus, performances open up the possibility of post-concert CD sales and signing sessions, which are where the majority of album sales happen these days.
At the very least, you want to have a record release performance—ideally in as established a venue as you can find, in a market where you have an existing fan base. You want it to be packed, and you should invite as many media outlets from the area to come as possible.
The ideal setup is one where you have a full tour that includes as many major cities as possible, and that starts off with a record release performance. (Do NOT have the release “street date” be at the end of the tour. Please don’t do that.) If that’s not feasible, then as many performances as possible featuring as much of the album repertoire as you can fit in, is the next best thing. Contact each venue to set up CD sales/signings after each performance, and bring a stack of albums along with you so you don’t run out! Square card readers or similar allow you to process credit cards so you’re not just relying on cash.
Regardless, get the music on your album performed! If people enjoy hearing it live, they’ll be far more likely to want to take it home with them.
3. Social Media Timeline
Since I’m 100% certain you’ve read my second post about social media, and that as a result you’re now a hyper-engaged, digitally savvy social media maven, let’s talk briefly about how to promote your recording on social media. You want to put a timeline in place from start to finish, with as many different assets as you can, leading up to the release. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Photos of the scores you’re preparing
- Video of you practicing for recording sessions
- Photos and videos of you in the recording studio
- Pre-order links when they go live
- Release a single track to give a taste for the album
- Unveil the cover image in a post
- If you did a photo shoot for the album, reveal the new photos in a gallery
- When you first get your advance CDs, share a photo of it
- Video of you talking about the album’s story, and why you’re excited about it
- Livestream of you answering followers questions about the album
- Advance media coverage
- Share all of the buy links for the album in a single post (or link to a website page where they’re all present)
- Video of you inviting everyone to listen and pick up a copy
- Photos/video from the release performance
- Share any media coverage that runs at the time of release
- Share intro video
- Share album reviews with pullout quotes
- Photos from your tour, CD signing sessions, etc.
- Highlight specific tracks, tell the stories behind them, record videos of yourself performing them, etc.
- Roll out music videos for work on the album
These are just a few ideas to get you started. Anything you can think of related to the album can be fodder for social media.
Also, as I mentioned in my social media post, you want to think if there are people you can ask to share some of your more significant posts. Obviously any partners in the album should share, but even the recording studio, related music publishers, composer societies, your conservatory…the more the merrier, and many will share if you just make the ask!
4. Promoting Your Recording
This is where the rubber hits the road—trying to get media to cover your album. Of course, you can consider hiring a publicity/promotion company to do this for you (and you know how to do that, because you read my first post which gives advice on hiring a publicist), but many don’t have the budget for that, in which case you’ll have to do it yourself. Here are some tips to get you started:
- You should plan to start promotion eight to twelve weeks out from the release date. Any smaller of a window and you’ll risk missing opportunities.
- You’ll want to have the finished recording in hand when you start promotion, so work backwards from there when planning a street date, performance, tour, etc.
- In planning the recording, editing, mastering, album package design, etc., always build in a week or two extra for buffers in each step. Trust me.
- I know press releases have lost some of their impact in the digital age, but it’s still useful to have all of the info in one place for a promo mailout, when pitching, etc.
- Put together a document that has the album cover image, name of the album, names of performers (or just you as the album artist), release date, label (if applicable), a paragraph or two introducing it and saying what the story is, a track listing, and links to any videos, photos. Put your contact info (or the info of whoever is promoting the album) at the bottom.
- Spend some time brainstorming a list of possible media outlets—blogs, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, etc.—that might be interested in your album. If outlets have covered you in the past, add ‘em to the list. If you have a possible direct connection to any writers or producers, add ‘em. Again, read my first post for more general media strategy advice.
- If you have a label, they should have a list of outlets they send promo CDs to. Get that list, and add your contacts to it.
- Put the whole list into a spreadsheet with media outlet name, contact name, address, email, any notes about past history with them, or possible angles unique to the individual or outlet.
- Six to eight weeks out from release, you’ll want to mail out copies of the CD to as many of the media outlets on your list as possible, so that they can have a chance to listen to it well ahead of street date.
- A NOTE ABOUT UNSOLICITED MAILINGS: If you aren’t on a label and aren’t in the habit of just sending out CDs to people, then you need to be careful here. While ultimately the most efficient way to go about a promo mailing is to send out the CDs to everyone who might be interested, and then follow up with an email or phone call after the CD has arrived, just be aware that there will be the occasional person who will take umbrage at having a CD sent to them without their having asked for it. If you come across someone like this, just apologize, and then if they’re still listening go ahead with your pitch.
- In addition to CDs, you should have a digital version of the album to distribute as well—even just a Dropbox link to a folder that contains Mp3 and WAV files of the music, a hi-resolution JPEG of the album cover, a PDF of the liner notes, and a Word document of the press release. That way, you can send that to people if they say they prefer digital versions.
Once you’ve distributed the music to each of the outlets on your list, you’ll want to email and/or call them with a pitch on how they might cover your album. Some tips on different outlets:
- Newspapers: If it’s a newspaper that runs reviews, pitch them to review it. If they don’t run reviews but have concert reviews and are in a location where you’re giving an album tour performance, pitch them to review the concert, but also send them the album so they can include a mention in their review. You can also pitch for an interview feature to run before the performance, talking about the upcoming concert and album release.
- Magazines: If they review albums, pitch for a review, otherwise pitch for an interview feature around the recording. See what different sections they have.
- Websites/Blogs: You can pitch anything from an album review to a video exclusive, interview feature, guest post where you tell the story in your own words, etc. The sky’s the limit here, and many online outlets will be willing to work with you if you’ve got creative ideas and compelling content.
- Radio Stations: Pitch for airplay if they program music similar to what’s on your album. If you’re touring to their area, you can pitch local stations for on-air interviews, pre-recorded interview segments, or in-studio performances. Some stations have websites or social media that offer possibilities for album promotion if you can’t get it on the air.
- TV: If you’ve got a really compelling human interest story around your album, then you can pitch local TV channels around your tour markets to have you in for an interview or performance segment—particularly if they have cultural news coverage segments.
This is just scratching the surface. Ask your colleagues where they’ve gotten album coverage and see if you can secure similar hits for yourself. Find albums that have a similar repertoire or story to yours and check Google News searches to see what kinds of media coverage they received. Check the social media feeds of comparable artists (or their record labels) to see if they post about media coverage that might offer leads.
Pitching is an ongoing process, and you might find out about leads months after the album is released. Don’t be afraid to still reach out and see if they’d be interested, as you never know when a big feature might be right around the corner.
When it comes to album promotion, you get back what you put in. The more work you do, the more results you’ll get, and while you might not have unlimited time to spend on it, you should at least budget a solid chunk of time for planning and execution. Again, there’s nothing worse than putting out a recording and not having anyone listen to it, so I hope that this guide will at least give you some guidance on things you can do to get your music heard by as many people as possible.
Thanks for reading this post and my other ones, feel free to stop by www.unison.media and drop me a line!