Starter Pack: Digital music marketing

W&M STARTER PACKS is a free series unpacking essential foundational concepts for navigating music and tech.

Every two weeks, we’ll ground a timely music-tech topic in evergreen findings from our research projects. Hopefully, this format will give you more context on everything we’re doing as a community, and serve as a jumping-off point for further analysis as we collectively navigate the rapidly shifting music industry.

If you can market music, you can market anything.

Marketing an artist or new music release in the digital age is both an art and a science — and at times, it might feel like the “science” part is increasingly stacked against the artist’s favor. Compared to other industries, music suffers from an endemic lack of data transparency, an oversupply of content relative to demand (Spotify uploads 22 million tracks a year), and high variability in behaviors across artists and fanbases that makes it near impossible to establish an industry-wide benchmark for what counts as “success.” New “hot” social channels continue to pop up on a monthly basis, forcing enterprising artists and their teams to continuously adapt their marketing strategies to keep up with culture.

That said, as long as music is a deeply emotional, social, and cultural experience as much as it is a “product,” marketing will always be a critical part of building a successful music career. In today’s crowded landscape, the best moat you can invest in as an artist is a strong, memorable brand — which comes downstream of good marketing.

Throughout our research at Water & Music, we’ve explored the marketing challenges that emerging artists face. Across the board, we’ve found that building a future-proof music marketing strategy starts not with a set of tools, but with a mindset — a foundational suite of data-driven principles for approaching marketing and fan engagement that allow artists and their teams to stay thoughtful yet nimble and flexible.

Below, we outline some fundamental concepts around music marketing, that are hopefully helpful guidelines for emerging artists tasked with navigating the complex digital music industry while also setting themselves up for long-term growth and sustainability.

Why is music harder to market than other products?

Music is a uniquely challenging product to market, because you can hear it virtually everywhere. In your room, at the gym, in an Uber, in a Netflix show… the list goes on. This means there are endless opportunities for people to discover new music and become fans of an artist — compared to other products like, say, Tide Pods, which have limited ways to be seen or experienced.

From a marketing perspective, this is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, this means that artists have a seemingly infinite array of channels to choose from to customize their online brand presence, in a way that matches their unique voice while also meeting fans where they’re already at. At the same time, coupled with a near inexistent barrier to entry for releasing music, the omnipresence of music as a format makes it harder than ever for artists to stand out against the noise and make a lasting impact on listeners (even the major labels are struggling).

In addition, an important part of marketing campaigns in any industry is benchmarking — or the process of comparing a product’s marketing efforts to industry standards or competitors, in order to measure performance and identify areas for improvement.

Again, no one artist or fanbase is the same. While this creates an open design space for campaigns, the flexibility makes it incredibly difficult to plan for expected return on investment (ROI) for a given marketing channel like Spotify or TikTok, because no such ROI standard exists for music.

(At Water & Music, we tried making a music marketing ROI standard ourselves, but found the process incredibly complex — we would need to accommodate for over 20,000 permutations for a campaign based on differences in marketing channels, geographic territories, artist size, genre, and other factors.)

Due to these challenges, data tracking and analysis in music marketing at large is less organized compared to other industries — and data processing is uncommon altogether. That said, there are still foundational data monitoring techniques that artists can incorporate into their release planning from the ground up, as we’ll discuss in the next two sections.

What role does data play in music marketing campaigns?

Artist development is a long game — and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to play the long game blind. Even though marketing music is challenging, artists and their teams can go a long way in setting up foundational data practices from the ground up, to understand and lean more into their core strengths and audience needs.

There are four core principles in particular that apply across campaigns:

  1. Building an organic, engaged fan base. This is especially critical for emerging artists, who would do well to prioritize organic growth early on in their careers to maximize long-term sustainability (and avoid the “TikTok trap”). Marketers often work with aligned communities, brands, and influencers like radio DJs and playlist curators to promote an emerging artist’s work, while also investing in channels that allow artists to communicate with fans directly without having to go through paid advertising loopholes.
  2. Benchmarking. As discussed in the previous section, benchmarking, while difficult, is a critical part of music marketing work. One can start by using music intelligence platforms like Chartmetric and Soundcharts to study previous release campaigns from artists in similar genres and career stages, in order to plan out target performance and engagement metrics around areas like consumption, chart placement, airplay, influencer support, and social media impressions.
  3. Engagement monitoring. Surface-level consumption and follower numbers only tell a fraction of the story. Today’s music marketers use data to make sure that their promotional efforts reach the right audience, and that that audience returns to engage with the artist regularly and sustainably. While there is no one-size-fits-all benchmark for healthy engagement, marketers can study the trajectories of similar artists to find potential benchmarks for a given artist.
  4. Testing and learning. In today’s fast-moving marketing landscape, it’s critical to stay agile and structure marketing campaigns as bounded experiments — documenting what does and doesn’t work with a given rollout, in a way that inform where an artist team can focus investments more efficiently for future campaigns. One popular and simple such experiment is A/B-testing different calls-to-action in newsletter or ad campaigns, to see what kind of messaging resonates best with a given target audience.

How can you build a compelling fan journey around a music release?

If standout results in music marketing are downstream of a strong artist brand, a standout artist brand is also downstream of an in-depth understanding of the fan journey around an artist’s music.

Creating a good fan experience is not just about making a good song, nor about latching splashy cosmetics on top of a music release. It runs much deeper, covering how your fans feel when they first listen to your music, and what they do before and after they discover you. If done right, a thoughtful fan experience — and the word-of-mouth promotion that comes along with it — can go a much longer way than a one-off brand partnership or PR placement.

A tried-and-true way that music marketers plan out fan experiences is through a fan journey map — which methodically deconstructs every step fans take when they interact with an artist’s music online, identifying potential synergies between an artist’s marketing needs and how their fans and followers already behave.

Typically, a fan journey map consists of the following three elements:

  1. Artist objectives: A simple bounded statement about what the artist is trying to achieve, and how that ties to fan needs — for example, “optimizing the viewer journey around my YouTube channel, so that loyal fans know to subscribe to get similar content,” or “making my upcoming brand endorsement deal resonate with how fans already identify with my music.”
  2. Fan personas: Fictitious characters who each represent a “typical” fan of the artist, and can be used for humanizing the journey-mapping process and referring to different fan segments more quickly throughout strategic planning. Marketers analyze both qualitative (e.g. focus groups, conversations on social media or online forums) and quantitative (e.g. streaming and social analytics tools) data sources to identify any particular genders, age groups, geographic regions, and cultural/lifestyle preferences that stand out in a given artist’s fan base, and develop personas from there.
  3. Touchpoints: Breaking down how a fan will interact with an artist, song, or brand before, during, and after a given event. At each of these stages, marketers think about what fans are looking for at each step, and research the channels, features, and partnerships that are most effective for delivering on those needs. Early on, it’s critical to focus one’s energy on overdelivering in a few smaller but important steps in the journey, working behind the scenes to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Given the complex landscape of music marketing today, techniques like building a fan journey map are especially effective at ensuring that all the channels you’re exploring as an artist or artist teammate are not siloed or fragmented from each other, but rather are made to work with and reinforce each other in a cohesive whole. With a strong, data-driven approach to building one’s marketing foundations, an artist and their team can focus on what they do best, and what fans are looking for — delivering great stories around great art.

Dive even deeper

Today’s Starter Pack was informed by the following suite of community-driven research reports and events at Water & Music: