Music marketing in 2019: content, playlists… and Twitter skeletons


Musicians who are breaking through should be aware of any skeletons lurking in the cupboard of their past social-media posts, according to Andy Varley from music company Insanity Group.

“In a generation where more and more artists are growing up through social media, you might have used Twitter as a conversational playground discussion platform as a young teenager, and you have to remember that as soon as you start to cut through as an artist you really have a responsibility to your audience,” said Varley, in a panel session at CMU’s digital marketing conference during last week’s The Great Escape festival in Brighton.

“That can sometimes lead to artists in a place where their profile’s getting really big, and people can start going back through those tweets [and find] content that taken out of context can be really damaging for your career. So once you’re really starting to break through as an artist, or an executive even, you have to make sure you clear your platforms.”

Or as fellow panelist Camella Agabalyan from MAMA Festivals joked: “Delete everything!”

This was one of the early sessions in the day-long marketing strand, which was sponsored by British industry body the BPI. The panelists had plenty to say about the positive side of social media, too.

Varley talked about a recent campaign run for artist Big Heath – “a real larger-than-life character: a white guy trying to make noise in an urban community and trying to be accepted by his peers, but doing it in quite a comedic way” – in partnership with Instagram meme-account ImJustBait.

“The content was viewed by just under a million people in a 24-hour period. He increased his followers on Instagram by 14,000 in one day… It’s just about creating that sticky and viral content that can push your campaign that little bit further,” said Varley.

Agabalyan agreed that making purposefully-viral content for artists can work well, before reminding the audience to think about each platform’s unique strengths and culture. As MAMA Festivals sees it, Facebook is a good platform for conversion – actually selling tickets – while Twitter is more about news and conversation, and Instagram more about visual content.

Another panelist, Playliveartist’s Marcel Hunziker, also warned against putting too much emphasis on posts with calls to action. “It’s all coming from this basic idea of not just constantly trying to sell to people. You shouldn’t just be talking to your audience when you need them,” he said. “The relationship is 90% giving and 10% taking, where you try to monetise. And maybe even just 5%.”

The panel also offered some tips on Facebook, where Varley is “super-wary of boosting posts” because of the way the platform’s advertising mechanics work.

“In our experience of boosting the post on those platforms, especially on Facebook, quite often Facebook can understand that you’re spending money and try and encourage you to spend even more money,” he said. “Perhaps that’s okay if you’re a record company with a bottomless pit of cash! But if you’re an artist starting out… you can get to this stage where your content only really flies if you’re spending money.”

Varley sees Instagram through a more positive lens on this front: sponsored posts from artists are “a bit cheap and a bit naff”, but there are other ways to boost the reach of posts. However, he said the spend should still be focused away from pure ads.

“Invest your money on creating really decent content in the first place. Ultimately, if you’re content is really really strong, and on Instagram you’re creating content that appears on the discovery page, you’re going to start to attract fans really organically.”

Other tips included making budget go further by shooting video that can be cut for horizontal and vertical use – “Just shoot it in such a way that the majority of the content is in the centre of the camera,” said Varley – and the suggestion from Agabalyan that “at the moment there’s far more traffic for Insta stories than for content on Instagram itself” (referring to regular non-story posts.

Hunziker finished off. “Something that’s not being talked about enough is the importance of tracking,” he said. “It can be done! Where do people come from? Where do they go? What actions do they take? How can I influence this? Obviously, this doesn’t work if you just look at it as a campaign only. You have to look at an artist’s year: Q1, Q2, you have to plan like that. And if you do, tracking is very important, and will excite every independent manager who’s trying to develop an artist long-term. And labels too, obviously.”

A panel later on in the morning explored the topic of ‘content’ further – a word that many people (Music Ally included) grimace at, but which is still probably the best catch-all term for the ‘stuff’ that needs to be produced around an artist’s music.

“It’s important that you’re not thinking of the music in isolation of the artist and who they are as a person,” said Sony Music UK – 4th Floor Creative’s Dorothy Hui. “I would tend to look at artist-centric content: what are the things that are really going to express who the artist is, their story?… and then I think about the assets and content that are related from a music perspective… tools to get the product seen and heard.”

Blackstar London’s Olivia Hobbs talked about the importance of creating and working through a clear checklist of content needs: including good press shots, high-quality video, and a focus on ensuring everything ties together (visually) across the different social platforms. Not least to bolster an artist’s case when looking for support from streaming services.

“Spotify bring up your Facebook page in the meeting. They want to look at your Twitter… so you need to have your branding consistent across your shop window… and it should be really professional,” said Hobbs. She stressed that this does not have to mean hiring an external agency: for artists on tiny budgets, it’s more about thinking through what’s needed and creating that checklist.

(And not getting grumpy about this not being part of your core craft of music-making, while you’re at it. “If you want it to be good, you’ve got to do it: work as hard at it as you do a live show or your music. It’s your shop window: how people come and discover your music, and want to engage with you… it’s your job, so just get used to it!” she said.

Hui offered a note of encouragement to artists. “The good news is with a lot of these platforms, the ones that tend to perform best are off-the-cuff, casual content: you and a friend, capturing it on an iPhone,” she said.

For a marketing campaign, how much content should be created in advance, versus on the fly while it’s running?

“50/50, honestly. You have to get all your ducks aligned, plan ahead,” said Good Soldier’s Mark Butler. “But then once you’re into that single and you’ve released all of those things you’ve got to keep it fresh, and keep people interested and intrigued, and not lose that personal connection.”

Hui said it’s important to monitor the cultural conversation more widely, from holidays to memes. “How can you use content to start a conversation or jump into one? It’s important to be flexible enough to be able to move quickly.”

The panel also talked about the question of when to time the release of content. It’s possible to use analytics to figure out the times of day when a fanbase is most responsive, and post accordingly. At the same time, they thought this shouldn’t become an inflexible rule.

“You can just put it out! The algorithms will take you now,” said Butler. “Sometimes when you put it out and people are engaging with it and being reactive, it’s going to be on people’s feed regardless of what time you’re putting it out.”

How long should an artist (or their label/management company) keep putting content out?

“Forever!” joked Hui, before making a serious point about looking beyond individual campaign timescales. “At no time can you cease, I would say! But in terms of tying back to music releases, it’s a great opportunity from a catalogue perspective if you have relevant milestones, whether it’s celebrating anniversaries of certain chart peaks or video releases, it’s a great time to repost.”

Above all, making content (or ‘stuff’ if you’re still grimacing) that fans will love is about being creative, and thinking beyond each individual piece or post. “If content is king then concept is queen!” as the panel’s moderator, Take Care Management’s Jen Long, put it.

playlists panel

Another panel from the marketing day focused on streaming playlists, starting with the refreshingly self-aware notion that perhaps the industry has been talking about this topic a little too much.

“We’re probably on the cusp o overstating it and everyone’s starting to realise that and wonder what’s next,” said The Song Sommelier’s Keith Jopling. “It started out being a great thing for song marketing, artist marketing, album marketing. Still is, I would say. But it started becoming a bit of an obsession, and when it reaches the point where if you don’t make it into a playlist you think you’ve failed, something’s wrong.”

The panel talked about the changing nature of the spikes (in streams) that artists can see when they’re included in a popular playlist on a service like Spotify.

“Normally when you see those big spikes as a result of editorial playlists… it’s to do with the visibility that a playlist is getting on the Spotify browse page,” said Songular’s Sam Lee. “You’re starting to see a little bit less of that now, it’s a little bit more unpredictable what playlist is going to cause a spike, as you see more personalisation around the playlists and the browse page. It’s harder to predict the impact that placement on a certain playlist is going to have.”

The net effect: it’s a good idea to look beyond the big, most-obvious playlists, on Spotify at least, since smaller and more-niche playlists may be increasingly appearing in the recommendations for users.

AWAL’s Hannah Beeching talked about the pitching process, noting that “each streaming service has a set way in which they want to be pitched to, and they encourage context to be provided around the release.” It’s not just a case of pitching a marvellous song and showing some good streaming numbers: the DSPs want to know what else is going on with an artist.

Lee, who used to curate playlists for Deezer UK, offered a warning: “When I was at Deezer I wouldn’t like to be told what I should be putting in my playlists, and a lot of other editors are the same… so it’s not quite as straightforward as saying ‘This is what we are gunning for’,” he said, adding that artists, rather than expecting to shoot straight into a playlist like Hot Hits UK, should consider the merits of building up momentum through smaller feeder playlists, aided by whatever’s going on with socials and live to build their story.

The topic of personalisation loomed large: not just the algo-personalised playlists like Discover Weekly on Spotify and New Music Mix on Apple Music, but also Spotify’s recent experiments with adding a personalisation element to its programmed playlists too.

“Which I think is a good thing for listeners and for artists. The stuff that I see get added into one of those playlists performs better,” said Lee. He suggested that the model here may be that an editor chooses “500 or so” tracks, which are then used as the pool for a personalised playlist of up to 70.

Beeching hoped that the personalisation trend will still leave plenty of room for human curators. “They are the experts in their field, and I don’t want to lose them. With algorithms you run the risk of being trapped in an echo chamber. Yes it [algo-personalisation] will grow, but we still need those people,” she said.

“Spotify has set its stall out, and the personalisation thing is a major investment for them, and they’re moving in that direction. I think it opens up a gap for other people to go down the curation route,” said Jopling.

“There are multiple audiences, and there are lots of audiences that [personalisation] would never work for. There’s definitely scope for growth in curation. The other thing is that we kinda assume algorithms are wholly objective and they are not. If you use the radio service on Apple versus Amazon versus Spotify, you get a completely different scope of music, because the algorithms have been created in a certain way.”

trad marketing panel

The morning also saw a panel on the state of music media, and how music-PR and online promotions is evolving. Among the topics: whether professional reviews of music still matter, in the streaming era.

“It depends on the artist. Obviously if you’re an Americana artist or a folk artist or a singer/songwriter then the culture of reviews still has currency, and the recommendations of big names or credible critics who’ve been working in the industry for 15 years is still important,” said Debbie Ball from Create Spark, while acknowledging that the emphasis on tracks is changing things.

“The power with us as music consumers is we can all be music journalists now: we can all review on our social profiles or on our podcasts,” added Alice Beal from Insanity Group. Ball also made the point that reviews are less of a priority for some media outlets.

“The value of the review is going down, because people are constantly measuring the performance of the content that they’re writing” – so a few news stories might do much more traffic than a longform review, for example.

Jo Hart from HartMedia talked about broadcast radio, which remains relevant even with the growth of streaming. “You’ve got the smaller community stations, and BBC Introducing which is extremely important for new acts coming through,” she said, of the local-radio scene in the UK.

“You’ve got to adapt and build around it. However much certain stations have dwindled in that the younger kids don’t listen to radio as much, it’s still an important marketing tool. It’s still relevant.”

Radio-plugging is well-understood, but podcast-plugging is emerging as a related area, with companies like the recently-launched Blueprint Pods focusing on getting music placed in podcasts.

That company’s Sophie Paluch talked about the strategic process: working out an artist’s likes outside of music, from food to football, and then pitching their music to podcasts in those areas.

“Podcasts have a really good interactivity rate: anybody who listens to a podcast, they tend to have an action after it: they go and share it, or buy a product, or listen to a piece of music,” she said. Paluch also suggested that pitching to big American podcasts will be an increasingly-common element in marketing campaigns trying to break international artists in the US.

The panel talked about budgets and spending plans. “Gone are the days when you sign an act and blow a load of money and run out the door and go to press and radio,” said Beal. “We sign acts and they’re in development for two, three, four years and our spend and activity is staggered throughout that period…. It’s steady and consistent rather than slapdash large spending at the start.”

tim armoo

Another session from the Great Escape marketing strand saw Timothy Armoo, CEO of Fanbytes, share some lessons from running campaigns for artists on TikTok and Snapchat.

“The number one difference with TikTok is that everybody can be a creator. In a world of Instagram or YouTube, you have your influencers and then everyone else. But it [TikTok] gives everyone their own remit to be their own creator: short, funny videos in which anyone can be a superstar, and that’s cool.”

Armoo talked about a campaign that aimed to get artist RuthAnne’s track ‘Love Again’ to blow up on TikTok. Fanbytes enlisted four popular TikTok users to make clips using the song, where they held up pieces of paper that they’d written their biggest insecurities on. Within a week, there were more than 1,100 videos following suit: “And then the Spotify streams just went crazy… This started off with an insanely-small spend to just get four influencers, and then 1,100 people got involved. So you do require some spend at the beginning to just seed… but that pays back in spades.”

Armoo looked ahead to the possible next big thing in influencer-marketing. “Is there going to be a podcast influencer network or some sensory influencer network?! I don’t know! And no one else here knows. But the key things you can do as a marketer is firstly to be obsessive over the current platforms and really intuitively understand them. They’re always a precursor to the next thing,” he advised.

“And secondly, surround yourself with very young people. I’m 24, but the average age at the company is 21… The idea is that most of these new platforms always stem from the younger audiences. So if you have this ear to the ground with that audience, you would always be able to fortune-tell, and be ready to adapt.”

Written by: Stuart Dredge