Releasing Music in the Digital Age - The Essential Steps
Published on 30 September 2021
When we cast our minds back to simpler times, thumbing through records in our favourite stores it's easy to worry that the glory days of music are behind us. Many of the record shops we made pilgrimages to have closed their doors forever and while vinyl sales are seemingly on their way back up, the reality is that the majority of us listen to music in the most convenient way possible - streaming.
After Napster changed the musical landscape (sorry Metallica), Apple commercialised it and subsequently streaming giants such as Spotify took over, the path of a musician is very different to what it used to be. However, nostalgia aside, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Look at it this way, recording and releasing music has never been so straightforward. You no longer need a huge record label backing you to start your music career, nor do you need to pay a fortune for studio time or recording gear. While there are challenges that come with life as a musician in 2021, it's worth remembering that you have so much more control over your first releases than your favourite musicians of yesteryear did. So, let's run through the basics and see if we can't help you drop your first single or EP.
To sign or not to sign?
While there may not be the same money in selling music that there used to be, there are plenty of incredible labels out there who genuinely do help out up and coming artists. Indie labels are still scouting for new bands to snap up and although they may not have the marketing power of a major, they're almost certainly more invested in you as an artist. For the majority of this article, we're going to discuss going it alone, but it's worth keeping in mind that your music just might appeal to someone at a label you love. There are pros and cons to signing as an artist but if you want to go down this route, why not shop about and send your tunes to a few different ones? You never know whose ear you might catch and at the very least, it's worth hearing what they have to say, even if it's just some fresh feedback. Develop relationships with them and keep in touch, it could be the right option for you and will almost certainly put your music in front of a whole new audience.
Keep your initial contact professional and make sure your music is presented in the best way possible. That means a proper master, album artwork that you haven't made on Microsoft Paint (does that still exist!?) and a biography of yourself, including any and all social media channels you have a fanbase on. Most importantly, don't be offended if you don't hear back. These guys are likely bombarded with talented artists and struggle to keep up. Don't get disheartened, or take it personally, it only takes the right person to hear your songs and take a chance on you. Just triple check everything you sign and make sure it's a good fit for you before you get locked into anything.
Time to get your music on streaming sites
Okay, so the label route wasn't for you. Welcome to 2021. These days, most up and coming artists are multi talented individuals who have to masterfully navigate the digital landscape. But where do you start? Well, distribution would be a good first step. To have your release listed on channels such as Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and similar, you'll have to use a distribution company.
Essentially, you'll pay these guys to list your music on these sites in the exact same way a label would. Now, there are plenty of options out there, with notable examples being Distrokid, CD Baby and LANDR, among many others. It's very important you shop around here and read all of the finer points of the service they offer as the right choice will vary from artist to artist. Some charge per release, while others will take a subscription style fee annually. If you've finished writing a prog masterpiece, you're in a very different position to a producer who releases 20 techno tracks every year. Similarly, it would be sensible to consider whether you plan to release your music as singles or as albums/eps as you may be limited to how many tracks you can upload at a time.
Many of these charge a flat payment, while others take a cut of your royalties as well - do your homework, you want to get this part right so you have as much say as possible over how you manage your music.
Alternatively, sites such as Bandcamp allow you to fully take control of your own releases, set prices and take money directly from customers who order your music as a download, or indeed as a physical copy if you choose to sell them. The downside of this is that most people do listen to music on their streaming service of choice, rather than on a specific site or app, so you may be putting yourself at a disadvantage. That said, many artists will release via a distributor and on Bandcamp, or indeed their own website to offer physical copies, merch etc. Make the right choice for your needs and do your research.
Work out your plan of attack
Now that you have your distribution set up, it's time to plan how you're actually going to release your music. This is not as simple as just uploading it and waiting for the paparazzi to crowd round your house though. In fact, you'd probably be disheartened and amazed at the amount of artists whose streaming figures are almost non-existent. So, rather than just throwing all your best material up and hoping that it is picked up by a horde of screaming fans, plan how you're going to release it.
Singles have traditionally been used as teasers to albums, while EPs are a great way to showcase more of your work early on. Releasing singles or short EPs will also mean you're dropping new music more regularly, which is never a bad thing. Platforms such as Spotify allow you to submit tracks for consideration on playlists and these can give your listening figures a huge boost, while opening a door for new fans to discover you. If they won't accept you? So be it! Take matters into your own hands and create playlists yourself with tracks from the bands who inspired you on them. Then, share them around relevant groups, music forums and wherever else you're likely to find someone who will listen!
It's well worth taking the time to find, or indeed create playlists which are the right fit for your sound. On top of this, a good bit of promo goes a long way, bringing us nicely onto our next section...
Promote your music if no one else is going to!
Promoting your music can take so many different forms. It can be everything from handing out flyers, to selling merch at gigs, to posting on social media. The more creative you can be, the more likely it is that someone will take notice. Being active on social media is one of the most essential ways to build a following who genuinely care about what you do. As much as it may not be the traditional 'cool' musician thing to do, it's really, REALLY worth being mindful of throughout your whole writing and recording process. Back in the good old days, your labels PR teams would do all the promotion and leave you free to smash up your hotel room and crash motorbikes, but these ain't the good old days anymore.
Realistically, almost every up and coming artist is hustling their way to a dedicated fanbase on social media in any way they can. That means regular updates on your writing, recording, gigging and everything in between. Look at it this way - rather than paying for traditional advertising (which you may choose to do online anyway), you have a free platform where you can promote yourself. Once you put it in that perspective, it starts to feel a lot more useful really fast.
Speak to your audience every day and connect with them, build your following slowly and when you're ready, let them know about your new releases and where they can find them.
Video Killed the Radio Star
Or did steaming kill the video star? MTV has become the place where you check out the hottest reality shows, not the hottest bands BUT there's still value in shooting videos for your singles. This can be as simple as a live performance, so don't feel like you need to go out there and make the next Thriller. A lot of people still come across artists on YouTube, plus it gives a whole other angle to your songs. You don't have to spend a fortune either, a simple camera at a gig and some clever editing will go a long way. Alternatively, lyric videos are still a favourite online and are relatively easy to make, or indeed to get your tech savvy mate to put together for you!
Having professional looking videos out there will give your listeners a well rounded package and if nothing else, it's another chance for you to put a fresh spin on one of your tracks. Have a brainstorm and work out what you can do to add a new dimension to your release, you never know it might just go viral. Aussie punks The Chats home shot video for Smoko became a cult favourite for its intentionally lo fi, half cooked aesthetics and showed off their sense of humour. It doesn't have to be a Speilberg production!
Get out there and play it
If anyone tells you that gigs don't matter in modern music, they are absolutely full of it. Music is a living, breathing, explosive thing and allowing your fans to experience yours in a live setting is the most powerful way to build a truly passionate following. Even if you're only playing a small venue, or bagging yourself a support slot on the bill with some local talent, we reckon that it's an absolute must to gig your new material whenever possible. How many times have you been at a show and happened to catch a great support band? Or gotten lost at a festival and stumbled across someone absolutely brilliant on the smaller stages. Everybody starts somewhere and it's a good idea to remember that.
Besides being the perfect way to reach new people and give your listeners the chance to see what you're made of, gigging is the perfect way to hone your sound and road test new tracks. The song you might think is your strongest could absolutely flop in front of a live audience while the one you thought about dropping off your EP could absolutely wreck the place. You're the writer, so you get the final say BUT don't ever look past the fact that you're making this music for people to listen to - their opinion is valuable.
So there you have it, rock superstardom awaits! The musical landscape we live in may have changed drastically in the last couple of decades, but there are benefits to its new digital look. You may not be able to retire after one track hits the big time, but there are more people than ever out there looking for new music and it has never been so accessible. It doesn't matter how niche, or even straight up weird your songs are, you can undoubtedly find a scene that they fit in with and through doing that, you'll be able to start connecting with the right people.
Each step we've mentioned here is important, but what's even more important is your own creative journey. Find ways to stand out amongst a sea of musicians... the best way we've found, we hear you ask? By being yourself. Use your personality to your advantage - there's going to be someone out there who digs what you're doing and who knows, you might just become their new favourite artist.