October 19

The Localist: Marketing Music to Perfect Strangers, Part 2

In the last Localist article (link), I suggested asking friends how it was that they got into listening to a new artist. As a result of this, a few Big City Folk musicians went out and asked their friends how they found out about new music. I provide a broad general ranking based on an unofficial tally of the responses, below.

  1. Spotify / Streaming Algorithms
  2. NPR Pod/Videocasts
  3. Major Music Outlet Review
  4. Major NPR-Affiliate Radio
  5. Local College/Community Radio
  6. Licensing/Sync
  7. Facebook Posts
  8. Family Members
  9. Festival
  10. Local Business Streaming Music
  11. Other

The first thing to note is that for an artist to get onto any of (1)-(5), they need to pay a top publicist a fair bit of money. These avenues are definitely prohibitive for truly independent artists. Getting onto an NPR pod or videocast, like Tiny Desk, requires a substantial money investment. Moreover, major label artists are taking up a bigger share of the attention at such outlets, with NPR increasingly showcasing artists like Weezer, the Jonas Brothers, and Iron and Wine. (There’s interesting questions as to why a community and government-funded entity like NPR is using resources “breaking” artists like Weezer and the Jonas Brothers, but I digress).

Similarly, getting a review in a major music outlet is increasingly impossible without paying a major publicist, as I’ve noted in previous posts. The same can be said with major NPR-Affiliate radio. Take a look at people who do a featured performance for KEXP, for instance, and you’ll find it filled with artists who have management, a booker and publicist, or label support, all exceedingly expensive investment costs that most people can’t afford. (Even smaller acts were local to Seattle, and were either on a notable label or had management with ties to outlets).

To appear substantially on college radio and community radio, artists generally need to hire a prominent college radio promo specialist. (Someone has to send out hundreds of CDs under the imprimatur of the promo company, along with follow-up calls to the designated contact at each radio station). And even going through this process is not a guarantee that your music will appear anywhere of note, as college radio promo companies will tier the quality of radio stations your music is sent to, in favor of bigger name artists, who have taken up increasing bandwidth at college stations.

Perhaps the thought is that Spotify’s algorithm pushes out the music of truly independent artists through its recommendations? I would suggest taking an actual close look at the recommendation algorithms that Spotify puts out – the Daily Mix Algorithm, Release Radar, and Discovery Weekly.

The Daily Mix Algorithm, at least on my Spotify list, is almost exclusively big name artists. Of the 50 artists that showed up, only one artist had under 10K Facebook Fans. The other artists included The National, Alvvays, Mitski, Whitney and Rufus Wainright.

Spotify’s Release Radar did have some local acts that I recognized, but the local acts were not new acts that I had never heard of – they were listed in Release Radar because I had previously followed the band in question. Other acts who I didn’t recognize were playing shows in large format music venues in NYC, and had big name management and label support. So the likely reason they showed up involved the fact that they had other services they were paying for providing a boost. Discovery Weekly also had no new music from truly independent artists, with big name artists like David Bowie, Brian Eno and Elton John on the list.

I should point out that my Spotify account follows a fairy large number of independent and local artists. So if your typical perfect stranger follows fewer independent artists, then they are even less likely to find music from a talented local band. I was told that streaming platforms typically take into account current streaming numbers as part of their formula for determining recommendations to listeners, meaning the less people who’ve heard of you, the less likely you’ll be recommended to people – making streaming not so much a tool for discovery of unknown artists, so much as a tool for expanding the reach of known artists.

The upshot is that if you are an unknown artist with music on Spotify, chances are that Spotify is not a good tool for getting discovered, as it is just not pushing your music out to new listeners. (In fact the only local artist that I thought got discovered on Spotify turns out was actually paying one of the biggest indie publicists in the biz).

Getting back to our list, numbers (6)-(11) are actually more prohibitive to independent artists than they initially appear. Not only are they much less frequently mentioned as avenues for discovering new artists. But many of these avenues are typical avenues for discovering major label or heavily trending artists. For instance festivals of note are now highly unlikely to feature artists who don’t already have an established draw and social metrics. So discovery via that route heavily disfavors independent artists.

Even Facebook posts, which registered pretty low as a method of discovery, oftentimes results in discovery of a high profile artist. Say, if someone posts the latest Lizzo Tiny Desk performance on Facebook.

In fact, one person even stated that when they see local music posted on Facebook, they are highly *unlikely* to ever listen to it, on the assumption that it got posted because someone was “doing their friend a solid.” So Facebook appears to be a difficult avenue for exposure, even beyond issues related to monetization of word of mouth.

I don’t have many solutions here. Aside from putting out a bona fide album and investing money into a good publicist and management, which is still always a gamble, and not in everyone’s reach. But it’s good to see how people typically hear about new artists, just to get an idea of what the playing field looks like.


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.”