October 18

The Localist: Marketing Music to Perfect Strangers

One of the big difficulties with building a music career is learning the difference between marketing to acquaintances and marketing to perfect strangers. Many musicians perform a great number of live shows in their respective hometowns and manage to get a good crowd of friends and acquaintances out to an event, but simultaneously see little uptick in their Spotify audience.

There’s a lot of questions there, as to why local live listening doesn’t translate well into online streaming. For instance, it may be that listeners value the concept of live listening per se, and so the draw of live music doesn’t translate into a desire to listen to the underlying music absent that live element. Regardless of the cause, it’s worth thinking about that gap, because it reveals something apparently very important about the psychology of listeners.

In any case, much of the intended listening audience that a musician wants to get, is ideally an audience of strangers. Just as a numbers matter, it is impossible for even a moderately sized indie operation to forge a personal connection with every person who listens to their music. But beyond that, if the hope was that word of mouth from friends and family would help propel one’s music across the globe, the phenomenon of monetization of word of mouth has essentially made that impossible. Facebook intentionally prevents such word of mouth from happening, so that it can charge for it, by converting your friends’ and family members’ reach into their own ad space. That said, regardless of Facebook’s strategies, in the end getting your name out still requires being able to market yourself to perfect strangers.

How do you market music to perfect strangers? I think probably the best place to start out is to just imagine that someone doesn’t know you at all. How are they going to hear about your music? If you know anything about people in general, they won’t go to a live show of a perfect stranger. Besides, if you don’t know them they won’t even see your post about it.  In fact, they won’t see any of your posts on your Facebook page about your music that you post.

So maybe you pay for ad space on Facebook. Even then, is a perfect stranger going to go to a show or listen to music that randomly appears in a Facebook ad on their screen? I know that many definitely will not. I listen to at least some of the streaming music of almost all of my musician friends, and even I skip over most of those paid Facebook ads if I don’t know who the musician is.  Imagine how that can look – *some random person* that they don’t know has paid for ad space, with a link to a video, and says “Please listen to this!”  Would you click on that link?  I don’t think most people would.  (And you’re paying for the fact that they just saw that ad, btw).

A simple but expensive answer is that this is what publicists are for. Because despite people’s insistence that they aren’t driven by known music outlet writeups about artists, the majority of times my friends post about music, it is from a known music outlet. Even then, much music that gets publicized these days gets left by the wayside.

Are Spotify playlists the answer? Maybe. But playlists generated through unofficial channels don’t get very much play. Even official playlists can get middling traffic. The last St. Lenox Christmas single, for instance, was playlisted on NPR’s All Songs Considered and barely got a bump in listens. Beyond that, you have to consider that many listeners who put on a *playlist* are putting it on to have music in the background while they do other things. The convenience of the playlist is partly to remove the unbearable burden of having to choose what to listen to every 3-4 minutes. The idea that someone reaches to an indie playlist and sits down to listen to each one intently is romantic but probably a myth – though there are certainly a few virtuous listeners who do this. But not your typical perfect stranger.

So what to do? Two obvious and non-comprehensive suggestions. The first is that regardless of how you get your music into the hands of a perfect stranger, you need to make sure that the content you provide is unique and memorable.  It goes without saying, but you are competing against thousands of other singer songwriters for the perfect stranger’s attention.  You are also in all seriousness competing against Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen.  And you are also in all seriousness competing against the entire back catalog of the history of music.

The second thing is that it’s a good exercise to ask your friends how it is that they started listening to new music.  I think their answers will surprise you, and may change how it is that you approach perfect strangers.  You should also ask perfect strangers who happened to have come upon your music how it is that they got to your music in the first place.  These are two slightly different pieces of information.  But I think both are a good place to start.


The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”