In this post, I answer a pretty loaded (in a good way) question from composer Justin Childs. He asked this question in VGM Academy’s private Facebook group, and I wanted to respond personally because there’s a lot to unpack in this question and I think it’d be beneficial for the whole VGM Academy community to hear some thoughts. Enough about that – on to the question!
“My name is Justin Childs. I’ve been writing music since 2002 and I’m just now prepared to do music in the way i want to, without distractions or too much input. I still have a lot to learn though. So I’m getting ready to release my first instrumental album. It’s simply titled, “the videogame soundtrack.” It’s hip-hop based with original compositions over drums and contemporary classical, similar to what you may hear on Final Fantasy soundtracks.
I’m wanting to release this in a logical way and I’m looking for some suggestions/advice. I was thinking blogs but I’ve never dealt with bloggers before. Is there a good way too approach them? What other ideas do you have to effectively collect a strong market or listeners for a boutique project?”
Ok, so let’s start breaking this down. There are two main questions in here:
1) How do I market my independent album release?
2) How do I build an audience for my music?
Before You Begin Promoting Your Music: Clearly Define your Goal
I’m going to start with a bit of a side-step. Before you try to answer Justin’s questions for yourself, it’s important for you to clearly define your goal for the album release. This is critical to maintain focus on the right activities, keep realistic expectations, and to generally know if what you’re doing is working or not.
For a solo album release, your goal may be to make money. Alternatively, you may be looking to “get your name out there,” and create future work opportunities for yourself. Or maybe you’re just looking at the whole thing as an education opportunity because you wanted to learn how to [insert musical skill] and now you want to get some practice promoting as well. All of these goals are 100% acceptable, but focus on ONE of them and make sure it’s appropriate for where you’re at. If you have no audience/following yet, you’re going to have a hell of a time making any substantial revenues from your first album. If 95% of your income comes from freelance contracts and you HATE promoting albums to “fans,” then change your goal to help you win more freelance contracts.
Just make sure your goal makes SENSE and is SPECIFIC. No “I want to get my name out there,” bullshit, please; be SPECIFIC. Why do you want your name out there? To land more paying gigs? Fantastic! Make THAT your goal and think about how your completed album can help you accomplish that mission. Be even more specific by saying that you want to start new relationships with 10 game developers you haven’t met yet. Also, be realistic for sake of your own sanity. If you go into an album promotion campaign thinking that you’re going to squirm your way into a AAA project, you’re probably going to end up massively disappointed. Be mindful of where you’re at in your career when defining your goal for the project.
If You ALREADY Have an Audience…
When looking for an audience for a new album, one of the most useful things at your disposal is – wait for it – your existing audience (if you have one). If you have even a small following of fans on social media and/or an email list (you have an email list, right?), these will be your best assets for marketing your new music. Why? Because they already know you and like you. You have their attention, and you have a bit of their trust.
If you have an audience already for yourself or your team or project, start there and start early. Build some buzz around your upcoming project. Create content that lets your audience see behind the curtain into your creative process. Share things that you’ve learned that you’re applying to your work, talk about your thoughts and feelings. Be yourself and share openly. Give sneak previews of part of the final product before it’s done. All of these things will help generate interest in your album leading up to its release.
For those of you who are looking to promote an already-completed album or project, you can still retroactively provide insight into your creative process and experience. Offer a special, limited-time offer to your current e-mail subscribers or give away a free track to spark their interest and ask them to share your work with others. You’ll be surprised by how helpful fans can be if you provide value to their lives and you ASK for something!
If You’re Building an Audience from Scratch
I’m not going to sugar coat this one: If you don’t have any kind of audience or following already, it’s going to be a looong uphill battle to promote a new album. Nobody knows you, and everyone is constantly having things thrust in front of them vying for their finite attention. What to do?
First, you need to DEFINE your target audience. What kind of person is going to listen to and enjoy your style of music? How old are they? What other music do they listen to that is relatable to yours? When and where do they listen to music? Heck – HOW do they listen to music? Smartphone? YouTube? Or are they older and still relying heavily on CDs for their music? Knowing and clearly defining your audience by answering questions like these will help you FIND them and CONNECT with them.
I’ll use Justin as an example: Justin described his album as a hip-hop-meets-classical sound, and compared it to Final Fantasy soundtracks. I think that’s a pretty interesting description that could get me intrigued enough to click on a link, but I would challenge him to dig even deeper. The soundtracks from Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns are pretty different from one another. If Justin were to hone in on 1 game – I’ll pick Final Fantasy XIII as a random example – he could be much more targeted about who he’s going after.
People who have purchased FFXIII’s soundtrack, “Like” both FFXIII and Video Game Music on Facebook, or download/request the sheet music on forums are highly-targeted potential listeners. This is just one possible segment of the audience that Justin could go after for when he promotes his new album. Another could be people who follow specific artists who also create similar music on Twitter. When I was building Video Game Music Academy’s Twitter following, I focused my efforts on sharing with/connecting with people who followed brands similar to VGM Academy or people who talked about composition and game audio. Super specific FTW!
Just keep in mind what will be appealing to your audience. Game developers will be interested in learning about implementation and how they can use music/sound to make great games, other musicians will be interested in learning from your process, fans of VGM music will want to be entertained more than educated, etc. Whoever your audience is, make sure that you set up a way to collect their email addresses and start an email list to stay connected with your adoring/interested followers.
If You’re Promoting Your Album to Influencers (Bloggers, Podcasters, etc)
This can be either a great strategy or a low-yield strategy depending on the relationships you’ve built. See, the biggest mistake that a lot of new would-be promoters make (and veteran promoters, for that matter) is that they send cold-emails or – even worse – email “blasts” (does that even sound pleasant to you?) to a bunch of people they don’t know. Aside from the fact that this is actually technically illegal in the USA thanks to the CAN-SPAM act of 2005 (prohibits sending commercial email to recipients who haven’t given you permission to email them), it’s also massively ineffective. And press releases? Forget about ‘em, in my humble opinion. They’re most appropriate for media contacts who are bombarded on a daily basis with other press releases.
Keep in mind the way that YOU handle unsolicited email asking you for favors. Do you stop to thoughtfully read each of these messages? I don’t. I mercilessly delete/archive/SPAM these messages on sight and move on to the next of my 20-30 daily emails. If you’re going to get past the filter of scrutiny, you’ll either need to be remarkable or – even better – have some kind of relationship with the recipient. By taking some time to build relationships with major influencers in your space, you’ll multiply your chances of grabbing their attention the next time you have a project you want to promote. Go make some friends.
Or, if you don’t have any blogger/podcaster/review site/radio host/etc friends, think about how you can HELP them and add value to their mission. Again, I’ll use VGMAcademy.com as an example:
I often get contacted by total strangers informing me of X latest game/project/album, and I can group them into two main types of message:
1. If it’s a mass-message (meaning that it’s a template being sent to many, many people at the same time) then it’s usually very press-releasey and not personalized at all and isn’t actually asking anything of me: it’s just providing me with an update about a developer/game or composer/album I’ve never heard of, and a link to learn more/listen/play the game that I’m not yet interested in. Unless it looks/sounds like an AMAZING project, I’m probably NOT going to click the link IF I even open the email in the first place. Spoiler alert: If I’m opening unsolicited emails like this one, 99% of the time it’s to find the “Unsubscribe” link.
In summary, if I don’t know you and you’re not OBVIOUSLY AMAZING, I’m not opening/reading/clicking your email.
2. If it’s an individual message (written by a human, addressed to me personally), the formula is usually…
(a) a generic compliment about VGM Academy,
(b) perhaps a brief disclaimer/apology (“you probably get a lot of these, but…,” or “I don’t want to take up much of your time, but….”),
(c) a description of the thing they’re promoting,
(d) an out-of-the-blue request for a favor (“What would it take to get my album featured…?,” or “Would you be interested in writing a review?”)
Keep in mind that these messages are almost always from people who I’ve NEVER had any contact with before, yet I’m being asked for a favor? Hmmm… Well… No. All these messages care about is what THEY want from ME, not what value THEY can deliver TO ME or my COMMUNITY. They have not considered that there is little-to-no benefit for me to fulfill their request, and so it will not be fulfilled.
RARELY, I will get a *third type of message* that really hits the nail on the head. If you’re reaching out to any type of media including bloggers and podcasters, this is the sweet spot that you want to hit:
3. The third type of message introduces the sender, and maybe gives a compliment to some recent piece of content I’ve created on VGM Academy (not terribly different from flavor #2 yet, but read on). They may also reference my bio/about page from the site if they found it relatable. Most importantly, they explain how they can PROVIDE VALUE TO ME, or to YOU – the VGM Academy audience. The latter of the two is most interesting to me, because I’m always looking for ways to provide more value to new and apsiring video game music composers.
Let’s use an album release as an example:
My name is Dan Hulsman. We haven’t met yet, but I’ve been following VGM Academy for a while now on Twitter (loved the recent guest post on Agile project management for composers).
I wanted to reach out to see if you’d be interested in a guest blog post about my mixing process for fusing classical instruments with hip-hop style beats. I just completed a new concept album: “RPG Battle Royale – a Compiliation of Battle Themes”[link]). It’s an entire album exploring different battle themes using a fusion of classical elements with hip-hop beats and percussion. It was a huge challenge to learn how to create a well-balanced mix in this style, and I thought composers may find value in some of the most valuable techniques and tools I learned about while I wrote the album.
Here are a couple of possible titles for blog posts to give you an idea of what I’m thinking:
If you’re looking for new guest content, and you think this would be a valuable topic for VGM Academy followers, let me know and I’d be happy to send you over a first draft. The only thing that I’d ask is to link to my album at relevant points in the post. Let me know if you think this would be useful to your audience!
See what I did there? I kept the focus on the email recipient’s needs and interests and kept the focus OFF of me. While still technically a cold-email, I’m much more likely to read and respond to this one because it could potentially serve my audience and solve a problem that I have (finding and producing new content). You’ll want to cater your “pitch” to whomever you’re writing/speaking to so that you’re relevant to each of their audiences, but the main point here is to keep your focus on how you can HELP – not what you WANT.
But Dan! That sounds like a lot of work! Yep. But if you don’t already have a relationship with someone you’re going to have to do the extra work to make it worth their while. The better the relationship you have with someone, the more likely they’ll want to help you without the need for a huge offering. For example: I was recently asked to help out last-minute with a PR campaign for a live concert event and was happy to help out because the person who asked me had given me a couple of recording opportunities and hooked me up with a couple of great interviews for VGMAcademy.com. I also knew that this specific project was a big deal to him personally. Happy to help him out when I can, because he’s helped me out and because I like the guy. If a stranger asked me to do that kind of work, I would’ve responded with a price quote because everything and every relationship you have centers around an exchange of value. When reaching out to the press, remember the human on the other end who has a job and responsibilities that they’re trying to fulfill with their work. Connect with the human, not the blog/podcast/etc and find a way to be helpful to them.
So, in summary, you’re either going to put in the work upfront by building a relationship or you’re going to have to do the extra work if you want to stand a chance of getting someone to help you out.
These are core fundamentals for promoting ANYTHING unless you have an advertising budget to burn. If you’re promoting your services, all of this stuff still applies. You need an audience OR an advertising budget, and my preference is the audience. If you don’t have an audience already, focus on building your audience first and then intelligently promote to them as you work on your projects and when they are completed.