5 Part Template For A Killer Music Marketing Plan

Balancing creation with the business of music is essential to your career. Here’s how to build your comprehensive Music Marketing campaign. 

Creating music is art. Each new riff, beat or song lyric is your soul poured into sound. Music is also a business – a billion-dollar business. The recorded music industry was worth more than $19 billion in 2018 and growing. If you hope to make money on your music, it must also be a successful business. Each composition represents another product and products require marketing. The biggest question every artist must face: How do I get my music out there for people to hear? The answer is easy; the method is complex. You must effectively market your music in order to connect with the ears that want to hear it.

The 5 Essential Components of Music Marketing

Many facets of Music Marketing will require your attention in order to maximize returns on your efforts and investment. Selling your music requires a multi-faceted, holistic approach that goes well beyond posting your track to YouTube and spamming your Facebook friends. In fact, that is exactly what you don’t want to do. Marketing your music requires an in-depth understanding of who will listen, how much they will pay, and where they will hear it. Before anyone presses play on your hot new track, you’ll need to prepare and consider every angle just for the opportunity to be heard.

The major areas that demand your focus are People, Product, Pricing, Placement, and Promotion. You’ll need to approach marketing your music with the understanding that each of these areas informs and improves the others. 

  1. People – Your Audience

Start by identifying your intended audience to come up with a plan of attack. 

You can’t sell to someone you don’t know. Who would most likely listen to your music? Paint a picture of your ideal listeners. Know their age, gender, race. Do they have a specific geographic location? Some music speaks to regional tastes and trends. For example, you wouldn’t focus your research on New York City to market your traditional bluegrass band.

  1. Product – The Music

It goes without saying that your first step as a musician is the creation of your music. Your music is the product that you will sell to the world. Although you may be itching to deliver your music to the masses, now’s not the time to rush. You may not have more than one shot to convince listeners that you’re worthy of their time and money. 

Make sure it sounds as good as possible. You sound great, the recording sounds great. Stress quality over quantity. One great track will get more attention than 100 mediocre ones. Have patience. Take a deep breath and trust you’ve done your best. In the writing world, the old adage is that when you begin adding and removing the same comma the work is complete. The same goes for music. When the tinkering focuses on minutiae that the listener won’t even notice, you’re done. (For now.) It’s time for quality control.  

Showcase your music to your inner circle. Tell them you want honest criticism. You can take it, after all. You can suffer the slings and arrows if it means that it will improve your music.

As you prepare to offer your music to listeners beyond friends and family, now’s the time to be absolutely honest about the kind of music you make. 

Once you’ve identified your people and created music they want to hear, it’s time to decide how you’ll deliver your work to a receptive audience. 

Branding Yourself as an Artist

In its most basic form, branding is how a company (or an individual) distinguishes itself from everything (or everyone) else. As an artist your brand conveys an identity to potential listeners. It’s part of your sound, your image, your online presence. Branding informs every single decision you make about the presentation of yourself and your music. In his 2009 book, Start With Why, Simon Sinek suggests that the most successful businesses communicate not only what they do, but why they’re doing it. The “why” conveys your passion and your singular talent – it suggests to listeners that you’re the best at this “thing” that you’re doing. But from where does that “thing” come? That’s branding. Remember, however, that as you embark upon this journey that consistency and preparation are the most important branding elements.

Branding informs every single decision you make about the presentation of yourself and your music. 

Your brand provides a visual representation of your unique perspective. Ideally, your brand is memorable, consistent, and relatable to your target audience. Your music will not sell itself – but a carefully planned brand just might. It’s more important to have 100 devotees than 1000 disinterested followers who don’t even know they’re following you. It’s worth mentioning that your name as an artist or a band should also reflect your branding efforts. Choose a stage name that’s memorable and preferably Internet searchable. The Men is a sold punk-rock outfit from Brooklyn, but they’re not the easiest band to Google. (The first video returned in the search was “The Man” by Taylor Swift.)

To populate your brand, you’ll need a mixture of graphic design (utilized on logos, merchandise, and album artwork) and the language to describe who you are as an artist — your sound, your values, your voice. Don’t underestimate the grassroots value of a buzzworthy piece of album art or must-have t-shirt design.Once you’ve thought through and developed all of these elements, you’ll need to implement them.

The Electronic Press Kit

An Electronic Press Kit is a musician’s digital resume. It tells promoters, venue talent scouts, journalists who you are, what you do, and why they should hire you, book you, or write about you. 

Before anyone in the business of promotion hears your music, they’ll see your Electronic Press Kit.

It’s an absolutely essential piece of self-promotion. You can begin the process by signing up for an account with Sonicbids, Wix, or Bandzoogle.

A great EPK features the following components:

1.     Music. Select your three best songs and place the one most geared for an immediate hook at the top of the list.

2.     Artist biography. Tell an engaging and informative story about yourself and share any information about your career as a musician. Consider this your “elevator pitch.”  Ground it with the facts that any journalist would want to know about you. Don’t bloviate.

3.     Band photos and album art. Hi-res (300 dpi) and lo-res (72 dpi) promotional photos (600 pixel width minimum). Provide horizontally and vertically oriented options. These are pictures chosen specifically for promotion (preferably taken during a professional photo shoot) – not photos of a live performance. If you have compelling live images, feel free to include those as well.

4.     Videos/multimedia content. Journalists love including well-made videos in online-based articles. Likewise, promoters are more likely to book you if they witness a video showing off your killer stage presence.

5.     Vital links. Social media and website links, including where exactly your music can be purchased. Include links to glowing past press coverage.

6.     Performance calendar. This helps a promoter find an opening in your schedule and showcase that you’re in-demand.

7.     Your Tech Rider. This is a schematic that gives venues a sense of the technical requirements and setup for a live performance. This includes the number of people in the band, the kinds of instruments and backline you’re carrying and what you expect to be supplied by the venue.

8.     Contact info. This should go without saying, but it’s easy to forget. Anyone who wants to get in touch with you about booking or media inquiries should have no trouble doing so.

  1. Pricing – How Much To Charge

Artists don’t always think like business people, but artists, as we’ve discussed, must consider their music a product. Selling a product requires an understanding of the fundamentals of basic economics. A lower price means that more people are willing and able to buy the product. It might be more profitable to charge a lower price — especially when considering that products such as digital downloads have a lower cost of distribution than physical releases. Increased sales also contribute to viral growth in listener awareness. Musicians indirectly benefit when people consume their music because each purchaser helps breed familiarity and recognition, thereby soliciting additional album sales, ticket sales, and merchandise. 

By that rationale, it would appear that new artists should always just give their music away — but that’s not necessarily the case.

A low price or no price will encourage more customers to purchase your new single, but it might also prevent them from listening to it at all. Psychologists have proven that people who pay a higher price for an item or experience have a significantly higher rate of utilization. Not only have they invested in the product, but their perceived quality of the product also increases. This effect is important for a musician who not only wants to disseminate their music to as many people as possible but also build a reputation as someone whose music is worth hearing. For what it’s worth, people who purchased items at a known discount also valued those items and their utility at full market price. 

One solution is the “pay-what-you-want model.” Some people might just take the music for free, but there are plenty of people who would gladly kick in $1 per song or $10 per album or maybe even more. 


As a new artist you must be realistic about your commercial viability and match your career progression. You will be giving away music, but 

Any music you give away should be in service of advancing your career, i.e. in exchange for signing up for your email list or purchasing tickets to a show.

Just as important as the pricing is the method by which you begin to release your music. 

Successful independent artists use individual tracks to build buzz before releasing a full-length album or EP. As one case study, the band CHVRCHES became one of the buzziest Internet artists through a totally organic campaign launched from their label’s website. They released three singles over the course of a year before their first EP, Recover, which was then followed by their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, six months later. 

  1. Placement – Reaching Your Audience 

The steps you’ve taken to identity, engage and expose listeners to your music leads to fan acquisition and accumulation. Understanding your audience provides the information required for appropriate product placement and efficient promotion. This includes how they consume music, their spending habits, where they spend their time online, and where they live geographically. 

Learning where they live helps you to plan your tour. If you understand how your audience consumes music, this tells you whether you should release your music on Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, Deezer and/or Google Play. Learning their Internet behaviors suggests which social media networks would be most receptive to your promotional efforts. There are only so many hours in each day, and as a new artist you probably only have so much money to invest. You need to use your limited resources to promote yourself in the most efficient way possible. 

One way to conceptualize these efforts is as the work of a shepherd. You’re not herding a flock of sheep, however, you’re trying to assemble your fans through earned media platforms such as social media and organic Internet searches and then move them over onto your personally owned media platforms such as your website, where you can sign them up as forum members, email-list subscribers, and regular and invested patrons of your art. Fan retention drives repeat sales, and each retained fan decreases the amount of legwork you need to fuel listenership. 

This segues us seamlessly into our next essential topic. 

  1. Promotion

Creating a Functional, Self-Sufficient Website

It’s not uncommon for bands to bypass this step entirely but do so at your own risk. Consider how much you have to do on a daily basis. A working musician must first create music, record music, play their music and if there’s time left tell people how to find and listen to their music. The last thing you need is to wake up one morning without an online presence because SoundCloud or Bandcamp decided to erase your artist page. Remember everyone that invested their time and energy into MySpace?

Creating a website provides a foundation for everything you do online to promote your music. From a website you can sell music, create forums, list tour dates and appearances, and link to all your social media accounts. 

Everything anyone needs to know about you should be located on a website that you create and manage. 

It should go without saying, but be sure that your web domain reflects your band name (ex. or the closest unique approximation.

How to SEO

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, remains an underfed area of web development because musicians tend to rely too heavily on media exposure. In many ways SEO is more important than the design of your website itself. SEO tells search engines how to find your site. If people search for your name or keywords related to your name, Google needs a bit of coddling to point them in your direction. SEO teaches Google to find you.

Much like you prepared to build your brand by researching your target audience, you’ll need to plan your website to be SEO-friendly and brainstorm target keywords that you’ll want associated with your web presence. That means linking your pages together and having a good HTML and XML sitemap that you’ve also submitted to Google Search Console. Set up Google Analytics to track and monitor the traffic visiting your website. 

Optimize your content based on those aforementioned target keywords with appropriate tags and meta descriptions. This includes header tags; descriptive URLs; and image titles, descriptions, and alt-text.

Another ranking factor is mobile friendliness. Google loves boosting sites that are optimized for mobile devices. Fortunately, Google has provided a tool to help you discover if it considers your site “mobile friendly.”

The next steps identify you as a band to any computer or website that wants your information. These are the steps beyond everyday web creation and design that often get overlooked. You’ll need to create a Google Brand account and entries for yourself in Wikipedia, and MusicBrainz.

After optimizing your website for search engines, you can look at the benefits of SEM or “Search Engine Marketing.” SEM refers to paid search marketing rather than organic search returns. As an artist you can pay Google to place your website ahead of other returns when a user searches for related keywords that you’ve identified. 

Social Media Presence

It might seem like a good idea to join every single one of the social media outlets to spread your music, but this is where the part about targeting and knowing your audience comes into play. You should only commit to as many social media platforms as you can manage well. Don’t feel pressured to subscribe to the hottest and newest network. Every minute you spend on another network diminishes your returns elsewhere. If you’re successful on Twitter and you try to gain a foothold into Instagram, but your Twitter engagement immediately goes down that means you’ve probably overcommitted.

Focus on the platforms that perform the best for you. Lacking a presence on any of them, however, might be a detriment to your brand visibility.

The best social media platforms for musicians are YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, arguably in that order. Start at the top and work your way down. Focus on the platforms that perform the best for you. Lacking a presence on any of them, however, might be a detriment to your brand visibility.

The Value of YouTube

Not only can you upload your music and videos onto YouTube and share them with a global community, you can use each post to get personal with your audience and further develop that brand. Use the video description to link to your personal website and social media channels and where to purchase your music. An underused utility on YouTube is the playlist feature. Creating playlists garners more views because you can use similar and established musicians in the list and place your own among them. By setting up your Official YouTube Artist Channel you’ll gain access to analytic information about your users’ interaction with your music that could be useful as you learn who watches your videos.

Nurturing Your Tribe on Social Media

Other than the music itself, your brand is the most important component in creating what’s known as a tribe. A brand tribe doesn’t just represent people who merely like your music; your tribe represents brand loyalty. A tribe shares their passion willingly and vocally and feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves. This is free, self-sustaining marketing fueled primarily by social media.

A tribe shares their passion willingly and vocally and feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Nurturing a brand tribe requires you to use your understanding of the audience to feed the tribe through constant two-way engagement to keep them connected and informed. This requires authenticity and consistency. As an artist you’re selling your story, your music, and an image, but you’re not a salesperson or a manager. If you come off as preachy or controlling, you will suffocate your growing tribe.

Make sure to reply to as many comments as possible. Someone took the time to write to you and they also expect that you will take the time to interact with them. Show your love for your followers by responding and sharing their comments with others. Appreciate them publicly. It might seem like a burden, but a few seconds of your time could create a devoted follower or three. Likewise, check your Direct Messages. These messages will contain contact from fans, but they’ll also feature communications from potential business opportunities. Never forget that being an artist is a business and businesses rely on valuable partnerships and relationships.

It might not happen immediately but be on the lookout for a hashtag that your tribe and your followers can use. The right hashtag will generate a lot of free traffic and create curiosity in others who weren’t previously aware of your work.

The most effective social media marketing isn’t the paid variety. It’s an organic, nurtured, and engaged audience.

Orienting Yourself as an Artist in the Marketplace

The term “marketing” might feel a bit misleading because everything you do to develop your brand and your online presence is part of selling yourself. We’re using the term to describe your specific efforts to officially sell yourself as an artist to the gatekeepers of the industry. This includes communicating with the press, promotion, and market positioning. The groundwork that you’ve laid on your own unfortunately can’t always take you to the next level on your own. Let’s start simply and ease into the more complicated maneuvers.

Building an Email List

Artists need email lists to directly contact their fans because fans need to know about upcoming shows, new music releases, specials on band merch, new press features, and anything else you really need to share with them right now. Email connects you directly with your audience more efficiently than social media. You’re not fighting for your followers’ attention against hundreds of others. Email messages are more likely to be seen than social media posts. It’s also harder to convince people to hand over their email addresses. Let’s talk about how to build that coveted email address list.

Whenever you’re attempting to solicit information from your fanbase, be honest and persistent. Explain that in order to build a fanbase for your growing business as a musician you to build a network of communication to spread word about your business. Assure them that you will never sell their contact info or blitz them with unnecessary emails. The trick is maintaining regular but not overbearing contact.

Select an email marketing platform to set up your email list before you start collecting. MailChip is the most popular, but many others prefer services like Constant Contact, Drip or ConvertKit.

1.     In order to get the ball rolling, enlist your inner circle of friends, family and vocal pre-existing fans to sign up for your mailing list.

2.     Collect emails from your very professional-looking website. You can do this by using an embedded contact form that your email marketing platform will provide.

3.     Place a signup sheet at your merch table and ask fans to sign up when they visit or make a purchase. Better yet – offer a free incentive to sign up. A band sticker, pin or the promise of free music upon signing up. Something that doesn’t cost you much but will give people just enough of a push to give you their address.

4.     Use your social media network. Schedule regular social media posts that feature requests to sign up for your email list. Slip the request into a post about your music or behind the scenes photos pulling back the curtain on the (not-so) glamorous life of a working musician.  

Now that you’ve got your email list what do you do with it?

Keep your fans informed and engaged. Every contact you make whether it’s through social media or direct email contact should consider potential engagement. Summarize each email in the first paragraph. Any information you definitely want your fans to have should happen immediately. Limit the size of your email. As Polonius said in Hamlet, “Brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.”

Every contact you make whether it’s through social media or direct email contact should consider potential engagement.

Keep your contact concise, but don’t be afraid to add some color once you’ve disseminated all the important information. Every contact you have with the members of your email list should have a specific goal. In the Smartphone era, it’s also essential that your emails are always mobile friendly. Your email marketing platform will have tools to ensure that your emails can be ready on any device at any time.

How Listeners Experience Your Music

Streaming Services

It goes without saying that you’ll want to create artist profiles on the major streaming services so that your music can reach the broadest possible audience. By uploading your music to a digital distributor like CD Baby, TuneCore, or RouteNote, you automatically receive profiles and digital distribution on all of the major streaming services.

Once you’ve achieved digital distribution, you’ll need to claim your accounts on services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Next Big Sound/Pandora and get as many of your fans as possible to follow you on these services.

Streaming Playlist Integration

It’s not always easy to push new music into the ears of listeners. It requires them to find you and engage with your music. But what if there were a few simple ways to place music into streams to which people were already listening?

You’ll also want to submit your music for consideration in curated playlists that are fed to listeners. Editors sift through new music to create their playlists like Spotify’s New Release Radar. Submit your music for consideration through your Spotify for Artists account. Remember that these people are also humans and not drones employed by a faceless company. Make your pitch, keep it short, and go in with the notion that you’re helping them do their job.

Release / Listening Parties

Interaction is a vital component of any successful music marketing campaign and a listening or release party for an album or a video brings you and your fans together. Taking into consideration your established brand, you’ll need to think about the following:

The Venue: Are you also considering some kind of live performance or video exhibition? The venue will need to be able to accommodate these things.

Giveaways/Unique Merch: If you’re using the event as a way to promote sales of your single or album, use that opportunity to provide something unique as a souvenir from your event. Autographed gear or limited-release vinyl or cassette tapes, for example. Consider thematically relevant items that specifically promote your music or brand.  

Public Relations: You’re hoping to make a big splash, but who’s going to know about it unless you make a point to invite and engage the press. 

Playing Live

You’re not going to start headlining from with only a couple of singles under your belt. New artists expand their reach by serving as an opening act for artists with established audiences. Sometimes this happens by chance — more often, however, this happens with persistence and planning.

Meet and engage with other musicians. Yes, even bedroom musicians must step out into the world. Meeting other artists is another form of networking. They have their own built-in fanbase that might be receptive to your music. Artists are everywhere. At gigs. At studios. At radio stations. Everywhere you go as a musician you’ll meet someone else who’s gone through (or is going through) exactly the same trials and tribulations as an emerging artist.

The fans you’ve targeted through your research also listen to other artists. Contact artists with a compatible sound and overlapping fanbases. These are bands in your genre that are a couple steps ahead of you in their career. Ideally, you’d already be acquainted with the artist through your networking efforts, but even if you’re not you can still contact the act’s management team or booking agent and let them know that you’re interested in being on the band’s list for potential supporting acts. Tell them why you’d be a great addition to the lineup and offer to send your EPK. Building these kinds of relationships takes time and persistence. 

Another route involves going through the venue’s booking agent. As you’ve determined which venues engage your target demographics, you can ask to be considered as an opening slot for some of the venue’s upcoming shows. Some bands allow the venue to choose their opening act. It doesn’t hurt to be on their radar when a fortuitous situation arises. Getting these gigs requires luck, but you can’t get lucky if you haven’t established these lines of communication. 

Playing live still remains one of the best ways to engage music listeners. Live shows create income and develop word of mouth. Early on be sure to focus on more than just the music. Stage presence and fan interaction help hook an audience that doesn’t know you from the graffiti in the bathroom stall.


We’ve touched on elements of advertising already, but let’s go over a quick list of methods of paid advertising that might result in new listeners.

PPC or “Pay-per-click.” Pay-per-click ads differ slightly from SEM because these are the ads that appear alongside search results (not within them) and direct Internet users to your website. You bid on keywords that trigger the appearance of your advertisement. 

Streaming Ads: The most popular streaming services allow artists the ability to create ads featuring your music and your voice. Since you’ve already targeted demographics through your ultra-important branding research, you can use that information to target listeners who fit your intended audience and are listening to artists like you. Services such as Spotify Ad Studio and iTunes Connect provide analytic data that describes how users interact with your music.

Social Media Ads: All of the social media platforms offer the option of pushing posts and ads to targeted audiences. Facebook and YouTube seem to provide the most return on the dollar, while Instagram and Twitter, don’t always engage their audiences. Don’t be afraid to try some targeted advertising to boost some of your most buzzy videos. And don’t be afraid to quit if it’s not paying dividends. 

Public Relations (PR) – Media Coverage 

While there are many more outlets looking for content, that also means there are many more outlets competing for airtime. Do your homework. Part of this holistic approach to self-promotion means working smarter rather than harder on marketing your band. Identify publications that fit your brand and cater to the music you’re making. Don’t forget to investigate local press outlets a resource like Indie on the Move, which maintains a large database of press contacts sorted by state. Each major city has tabloid-style entertainment and culture magazines and each one needs new angles and new content. Unless your music’s gotten some serious press, you’re probably wasting your time with the major music blogs like Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound and this very blog, MusicMeetFans. Keep those tucked away in your back pocket as a future goal.

Unless you’re personally familiar with the writer you’re contacting, it’s best to reach out via email. Messages on social media are more often dismissed or overlooked. Address your contact by name and consider the email a personal correspondence. Show that you’re doing sincere work to promote your music and the writer will more than likely respond in kind. Resist mass emails to many different outlets. Even if you use the BCC feature, the email will reek of generality and won’t inspire an individual to act on your behalf.

Provide as much information as possible to make the writer’s job easy. The more work they have to do, the less likely they’ll follow through. Just like anyone else. Tell them who you are, why you’re sending the email and include all relevant links to your website, social media, your music and any relevant articles written about you. Mention any personal connection the blog in question might have with your band, i.e. a past feature or coverage of a related act. Pack it with information but once again err on the side of brevity and trust that the time and effort you’ve spent on branding and creating your EPK and website will tell the rest of the story. Don’t be afraid to follow up if you’ve not heard back within a few days. Journalists, like musicians, are busy people who occasionally need a friendly reminder. Don’t be pushy. Be respectful and then let your work do the talking and the writer do the writing. 

Collect and nurture the contacts you make along the way. Writers, editors, agents, artists, bookers – you never know when someone will be in a position to help you in the future.

Work with a Publicist or PR Agency

Publicists are in the business of selling your brand. Just as a booking agent negotiates live performance opportunities, a publicist or press agent pitches you as a buzz-worthy artist to media outlets such as blogs, newspapers, TV, satellite radio and regular radio. 

Labels will have their own in-house publicists, but as an independent artist you still have the opportunity to obtain the services of a publicist or a PR agency. How do you get an agent’s attention and convince them that you’re worth taking on as a client? You’ll be selling yourself based on your work as an artist to date, but it’s more important to build a relationship. Are you compatible personalities? Do you have a story to tell? 

This is also where we return to the importance of networking and building long-standing relationships. Publicists generally find new clients from referrals from industry contacts and existing acts on their client list, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring yourself to their attention by sending a short email detailing your music and your story. Explain the specific reasons why you think they’d be an ideal business partner. Explain your future plans and your accomplishments. Conclude by politely requesting a meeting and invite them to an upcoming show or event. 

Demo Submission

Being an independent artist requires you to fill many roles. You’re a musician, agent, booker and marketing team. It’s thrilling, exhausting and you’ll love it, but sooner or later you’ll hope to sign that record deal so that you become more than one-person show.

This requires working and networking with A&Rs or “Artists & Repertoire.” A&R roles once worked exclusively identifying and developing talent for the record labels. Since the advent of file sharing and streaming services, A&Rs now tend to work independently, partnering with artists to manage their careers, refine their music or even run small record labels. The traditional role of the A&R as a gatekeeper for major labels remains, just in a diminished capacity. 

Select only your best work for demo submission and target ears that would be receptive to your genre. 

If a record label representative wants to hear more, they’ll ask. While the quality of the recording is important, your potential is more important. Create an attention-grabbing subject and a sleek and entertaining brief about who you are and what your music is about. Include a streamable link to your uncompressed music stored on Soundcloud, Dropbox, or you own website. Do not send attachments and feel free to follow up on your original email once.

If you’ve established yourself as an artist and have a decent fanbase, it’s best to have your agent, manager or entertainment attorney approach an A&R since most of them already have pre-existing relationships with labels and publishers. If you’re killing it as an emerging artist, it’s likely that an A&R representative will come to you. This is the best case scenario because you maintain leverage. 

Remember that this is a journey that takes not only talent, but time, effort, and planning. If you approach your music career like a business and carefully build your brand and identify your market, you’ll see more immediate returns on your substantial investment. 


How to Sync License Your Music for Film, TV and Beyond

The ever-increasing number of new video productions means greater opportunity to sync license your music for film and television.

You’re a new artist. You’ve produced music you think people want to hear – so you’re probably looking to tap into every opportunity to make that happen. One of the most underappreciated avenues for the monetization of music for emerging artists is music licensing.

 If you place one song in an advertisement, you can make as much money as you would after 1,000,000 streams on Spotify. 

Which seems more obtainable? For every song that’s licensed, you get money upfront and royalties every time your track is played in public.

Simply put, music licensing or sync (synchronization) licensing is an agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted song that grants permission to use the song in some manner of video format. If you’re reading this, you want to know how to make this happen. How do you go about placing your music in a television show, movie, video game or even perhaps a YouTube video?

How do TV shows, movies and video games find and select music?

A music supervisor artfully selects and licenses pre-existing songs and recordings for use in movies, TV shows and video games. Though it seems like their job merely requires an expansive knowledge and love of music, they must also negotiate and clear rights with licensing representatives and licensing libraries. It’s not just about having exquisite taste and a feel for the juxtaposition of sound and image – a music supervisor resolves rights and pieces together ownership puzzles.

Their music discovery process likely mirrors your own. They surf Spotify, curate playlists, collect recommendations through friends and social media, and actively scout new talent. It’s a demanding job, which is why you want to make licensing your music as straightforward as possible. In order to obtain the rights to a perfect song from a commoditized artist the music supervisor would jump through as many hoops as necessary; an unknown artist, however, must make their work instantly accessible and available without obstacles. 

How to submit for music licensing as an unsigned artist

There are a few different opportunities for an emerging artist to sync license their work. Ideally, you’re going to simultaneously seed a few of these, but it’s important to understand the benefits of each so that you’re maximizing the return on your efforts.

You’ll want to limit the number of non-exclusive partners. Some libraries offer content at lower rates and you don’t want to create an environment where you’re undercutting your own price. Look for different types of licensing partners to cover as many potential revenue streams without much overlap. Find a catalog that specializes in licenses for TV, another that administers micro-licenses (like MusicBed) for YouTube and web-videos, and another traditional partner for film, TV and advertisements. Now, let’s examine your options.

  1. Music Publishers such as BMI and Kobalt require you to sign a publishing deal. While they will provide a cash advance and remain proactive in pitching your work and finding licensing opportunities, they’ll also demand co-ownership of publishing rights, which perpetually entitles them to a share of your licensing royalties.
  1. Sync Agents seek, pitch and negotiate licensing deals on your behalf, usually for a percentage of royalties.  
  1. Licensing Libraries are companies that represent a large catalog of music for the purpose of selling their clients’ music to music supervisors. In the most basic sense, they resemble a business-to-business version of Spotify. Music supervisors search the database and request music they need. Artist agreements with these libraries come in different flavors, and it’s important to understand how these companies handle your work.

i.     Exclusive: Only one music library is allowed to represent your content. This is a restrictive agreement that limits the number of companies shopping your work, but one that typically results in higher sync fees.

ii.     Non-exclusive: You’re allowed to place your content with as many companies as you want. These are larger databases in which its often harder to stand out, but if you don’t like how an arrangement is working out, move on to the next opportunity.

Sync licensing libraries make money by retaining a percentage of upfront licensing fees from placement or a percentage of licensing fees and a percentage of public performance royalties stemming from the licensing of your material. Fees are usually based on a flat rate with no negotiation.

Some examples of popular licensing libraries are SongTradr, Jamendo Music, Marmoset, Artlist, Pump Audio, Rumblefish and Taxi. Each company has their advantages and disadvantages. Research artist satisfaction, website traffic, composer/library financial split, and the library’s re-titling practices (which tend to affect your royalties) before taking the plunge.

Licensing libraries are an efficient online marketplace connecting the music rights owner and the music buyer. The music is pre-cleared and easily licensed, eliminating those aforementioned hurdles that might deter a music supervisor.

  1. Direct Relationships. This is a method for licensing your music directly to music supervisors and other potential licensees such as ad agencies. It is an ideal way to avoid splitting royalties or ownership with a ‘middleman’ because you would be acting as your own agent dealing directly with the buyer. However, it takes time and patience to build these relationships and it requires some experience (or legal assistance) to negotiate such licensing deals. Nonetheless, as you build a catalog of music and test the waters with licensing libraries, you should still continue to build this network of contacts.

i. Music Supervisors

SongwriterUniverse and TuneFind are useful resources for locating supervisors and identifying their needs. Each submission must be personalized and tailored to the individual. First impressions are everything. Make sure your visible media profiles such as LinkedIn and your personal website are up-to-date and highly polished. Only send supervisors links to quality streams, never attachments.

ii. Ad Agencies

To build the necessary networking, attend trade shows and conferences such as Ad Week. Ask questions at panels. Network at meet-and-greets. Receive as many business cards as possible and leave a brief but memorable impression. Do not hand out CDs like candy at Halloween. 

How to prepare your music for licensing

Most productions aren’t looking for the next hit single. Supervisors search for a specific kind of music based on the nature of their medium. Film and TV supervisors require a different kind of music than someone searching for a choice commercial clip. For film and TV there’s a broad range of moods and emotions, whereas commercials, with a maximum allotment of 15-30 seconds, require a hook and immediate energy.

Here’s how to ready your music for licensing opportunities.

1.     Submit music without lyrics or music featuring broad lyrics without mention of a specific time or place.

2.     If you’re using a pre-existing song, provide an original version, an instrumental version and stems for the tracks. Producers might love your song but need it to shine behind spoken dialogue.

3.     Instrumental versions of older material are best suited for a license library. Value your music appropriately and craft a licensing strategy that reflects that value.

4.     Create more music! Successful artists suggest uploading upwards of 80 songs/120 instrumental cues per year.

5.     Write new songs to fit themes you’d expect to find in a production. Create theme lists and tag each with emotions you hope to evoke. For example, you could focus on a “Romance” theme, crafting music to fit the various stages of a relationship like “new love” or “broken heart.”

Once you have your music written and professionally recorded, you’ll need to nail down the details. This means getting your metadata and credits in order. Detail who wrote the song, any album artwork, the year it was recorded, publishers and companies attached, who owns the master, and most importantly your contact info. Put all this into the grouping notes, if necessary. Sync licensing databases are gigantic and without all that information at a supervisor’s fingertips, they’ll just ignore your music because it’s not worth the hassle.

Another avenue into this business is scoring directly for film, TV, and video games. When creating instrumentals for moods and emotions, you’re essentially scoring a movie that doesn’t yet exist. Once your music is out there and you’ve built a network of connections (filmmakers, producers, etc.) you never know how those connections could pay off. You could become the next John Williams (who didn’t even score Star Wars until he was 45!).

The Role of Publishing Administrators

A publishing administrator helps artists navigate the music marketplace, but in some instances they can also assist in licensing your music. A publishing administrator is not the same as a publishing company. They do not actively pitch your music or own a percentage of your fees/royalties. This is an important distinction. Having a publishing administrator can be an advantage, but it’s not necessary for opening up a revenue stream through licensing opportunities. Likewise, aggregators/distributors like CDBaby also offer sync-licensing services. If you’re already using a publisher, you should see what other services they offer.

Like every other aspect of your music career, preparation and persistence are the most important factors in breaking into the business of music licensing. Audiences are inundated with new content from every possible angle. New streaming services. Film. TV. New YouTube channels. Independent movie production. It’s up to you to take advantage of this deluge of opportunity.


Billie Eilish and the Cautionary Tale of Christopher Cross

Meta: Billie Eilish’s Grammy sweep rewards a fresh voice in the pop music landscape, but did the Academy do her a disservice? Christopher Cross would like a word. 

What does a Grammy Award mean? What do four Grammy Awards mean? To the artist, that little gold gramophone represents the blood and sweat of artistic creation. In that respect, the value of the award comes without comprehensible value. No one succeeds in this business because they woke up one morning and, on a lark, decided to record hit track. That might be the spark, but that’s not “success.”

In the days and weeks surrounding the Grammy Awards, the industry elevates the nominees and ultimate winners above all others. They’ve been singled out among their peers. The Recording Academy has passed judgment. The winners get their nom de guerre etched in granite and a boost in recognition and sales.

This year, as you might have heard, Billie Eilish became the first woman to take all four major Grammy categories – New Artist, Record, Album, and Song – and the second artist to achieve that elusive clean sweep.

In one night, the industry crowned the now and future queen of popular music. Can you name the other artist to achieve the sweep? His name, now obviously synonymous with “the King of Rock and Roll,” is… Christopher Cross.

Christopher’s Cross To Bear

Christopher Cross became the surprise winner of the Big Four at the 1981 Grammy Awards. The newcomer went up against heavyweights Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand in Album and Record of the Year. Cross, then 29, a craftsman of middle-of-the-road contemporary “pop ‘n’ roll,” a style of music later christened “Yacht Rock,” shocked pundits and even his own record label. Warner Bros. didn’t even plan a post-Grammy party, as would be customary for a label with lofty award expectations.

Cross’ self-titled debut album produced four top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. “Sailing,” the song for which he’s best known, reached #1. Four gramophones later, expectations for the artist reached a crescendo, but fate conspired against him.

After writing the Academy Award-winning theme for Arthur (“Arthur’s Theme”) with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Peter Allen, the inevitable backlash arrived. His second LP, Another Page, peaked at 11 on the Billboard 200, whereas his debut had lingered in the Top 10 for months. None of his subsequent records sniffed the Top 100. Cross’s career stalled a hot minute after launch when MTV hit airwaves on August 1, 1981. The doughy, soft-spoken vocalist didn’t stand a chance at stardom in a new pop-culture landscape driven by youth, image, and appearance. MTV immediately downgraded the importance of music in evaluating an artist’s cultural relevance. Hindsight also reveals the permanent folly of his Best New Artist victory over the heavily favored future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Pretenders. The Recording Academy has a poor track record of evaluating new talent, so it’s always a questionable outcome when all the major awards fall into the lap of a new artist — even when that artist may have been as deserving as Christopher Cross in 1981… or Billie Eilish in 2020.

As much as things change, the more they stay the same-ish.

Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell connects with a teenage fanbase that sees her as more “real” than other stars, like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry or any of the other hundreds of carefully curated public personas. They see her as a rule-breaker and an anti-pop trendsetter. She speaks to the insecurities of their high-school entropy in many of the same ways that the grunge movement of the 1990s (and the punk scene before that) struck a rebellious nerve.

“I have taken out my Invisalign and this is the album,” she says after an unbecoming slurp on the prelude to her Grammy-winning debut album When We All Fall Sleep, Where Do We Go? It doesn’t get more real for a teenager than the sound of someone suffering through the weapons of orthodontia. There’s no arguing that she’s given pop-stardom a new dynamic. The teenager comfortable being herself. The teenage fashion-icon that fancies lime green hair, crafts patchwork skater-chic from mismatched thrift and glam and still lives with her parents. This is real — but this also demonstrates the continued importance of youth, image, and appearance. 

In a recent Vogue article, Eilish says, “That’s great, if I can make someone feel more free to do what they actually want to do instead of what they are expected to do. But for me, I never realized I was expected to do anything. I guess that’s what is actually going on—that I never knew there was a thing I had to follow.” This is healthy. This is a perspective that kids absolutely need to counterbalance the false perfection peddled on social media. She’s also used her Instagram fame and international stardom to marshal teenage voter registration and raise interest for environmental activism rather than as a showcase for #JustWokeUp pics. 

She’s the first artist born in the 21st century to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the first teenager to record a James Bond theme for the upcoming No Time to Die. (Doesn’t this gig eerily echo Christopher Cross’ post-Grammy foray into soundtrack music with “Arthur’s Theme”? Cue her 2021 Academy Award.) Isn’t she also, at the moment, still just another zeitgeisty pop phenomenon until proven otherwise? How difficult must it be for a teenage singer/songwriter to hone her craft while hanging onto the side of a runaway train? 

Backlash, Expectation and the Future

Billie Eilish peddles the gothic and macabre through her videos filled with black tears and spider snacks, but she also giggles and hums and most importantly, experiments. When We Fall Asleep is immersive and remarkably focused, but it’s intermittently raw and doesn’t stray as far from traditional bubblegum sensibilities as most of her fans believe. It’s more a score for a scrapbook made up of darkside Lana Del Rey doodles and Billie’s favorite TV shows (The Office and Sherlock) than a sincere reflection of teenage angst. She’s crafting fictions (genuine fictions, but fictions nonetheless) and playacting like any other teenager forced to inhabit a place of expertise before she’s really lived. Teenagers look to her as a mental health icon. Her ability to be a functional, individualistic teenager while sharing deep, dark thoughts through her music inspires self-worth. 

One could easily argue that Lorde’s 2017 Melodrama (released when she was 21, but reflective on similar adolescent themes) succeeded as a more fully formed example of teenage introspection. Specific celebration of one album does not require the denigration of another and both can be enjoyed for exactly what they are. Billie Eilish has more unrealized potential, and this first homespun DIY avant-pop album marks the coming of a refreshing new perspective in mainstream music, but it might also be a disservice to elevate this particular offering to the rare echelon of supposed perfection. Anointing her with a Grammy sweep doesn’t do her any more favors than it did Christopher Cross 39 years ago.

Objectively, When We Fall Asleep features a number of creative choices that don’t quite pay off. The pitchy vocals and ukulele on “8,” for example, should never have survived the demo stage. I would never fault a good sample, but “my strange addiction” would have been better off without the jokey and conspicuous clips from The Office. Compare these two minor production foibles with the oversized confidence of a banger like “you should see me in a crown.” Her image, appearance, and justifiably devoted fanbase perhaps supplied fuel for the Academy’s valuation. 

The connection between Eilish and Cross might only be a coincidence, but it might be more. It would be a shame if Billie Eilish’s career turns out to be nothing more than another example of some destined-to-be-forgotten music of our moment. (Though we’re all pretty sure that Lil Nas X has that niche covered.) A teenage girl rebelling against conventions and striking a chord with a population that’s been lacking a voice. She’s not someone poised to fade away, and we should all feel a vested interest in her continued success – but it’s just hard to shake the feeling that maybe she’s been painted into a creative corner by those most interested in her success, that a Grammy sweep for this almost great record could render stifling expectations on a new artist that still needs room to grow and space to live.