10 Tips for a Successful Release
Actionable advice for the indie artist, curated over my years in the music industry.
Updated December 2021
1. If it's early in your career, consider releasing singles or EPs, not a full length album.
There are several reasons for this. In the 2020's, the world is now dominated by playlists, where people consume music in bite-sized chunks. With listeners' ever-shortening attention spans, you are fortunate to get someone to listen to just one of your songs--and even a whole song at that. By putting your time and focus into making one or two great songs, you increase your chances of making a fan on that critical first listen. Once you capture true fans, they’ll be more likely to listen to whatever you put out in the future.
The second reason to release less songs at once is one of self-improvement: Every time you go through the process of finishing a piece of art, calling it done, putting it out, and promoting it to the world, you learn something. The fact is, you get better at releasing music the more you do it. So, by releasing an EP every year or single every quarter instead of a full-length record every two years, you’ll improve your marketing and fan-building skills much faster. Also, when you're starting your career, you are (hopefully) developing at a rapid pace, and these changes can be drastic. Most bands don't achieve a long-term sound, lineup, or brand image after releasing only one song. Many bands go through lineup changes as they start to get more serious. Are all your members 100% committed? Do you want to spend a year and thousands of dollars making a debut full-length, only to have your dynamic lead singer call it quits? Don't let that be you.
At the end of the day, releasing less songs will be more manageable, you'll put out higher quality, and you'll be less stressed.
2. Don’t announce a release date until you have a final, mastered product in hand.
This one should be somewhat obvious, but I’m continually surprised to see how many artists push back their release dates because a delay came up in mixing, mastering, CD printing, or online distribution. You should try and set yourself up for success by hiring people with a reputation for reliability, but the sad fact is that these processes are usually outside of your control as an artist. Years ago, the band I was in had our CDs delivered to us the day of our release show. I don't recommend it.
3. Carefully set your release date.
Nowadays, releases typically happen on Fridays. Many major labels drop albums in November and December to feed the holiday shopping rush, so you'll want to avoid that time to lessen competition. January may not be the best time, because people are pinching their pennies after the holidays. The rest of the year is probably a much better option. Think of your critical fan base, and what they have going on that might influence their buying decisions or ability to get stoked on your music. Consider the competition in your genre/scene: if a similar artist with a bigger following has a release the same week as yours, who’s album do you think everyone will be buzzing about?
Also, pay attention to your own schedule when setting this date. Give yourself a healthy pad of time from first announcement to release date, to focus on marketing and building excitement. There are no rules, but consider 3-4 months for a full length album, 2 months for an EP, or 3-4 weeks for a single.
4. Never release anything into thin air.
One of the biggest mistakes new artists make with their release is that once they get their new shiny, mastered song, they get excited and put it up on Bandcamp without any warning. A few weeks later, they might make some artwork and upload it. Maybe it will end up on Spotify a month after that. The problem with this is that it lowers the perceived value and impact of the music, giving "basement demo," vibes even if it's a great song and a great recording.
There are plenty of ways to hype up your fans in the time leading up to your release. If you’re releasing an EP or album, put out one or more singles ahead of time. Accompany them with lyric videos, visualizers, and music videos if you can. When it comes to social media, put up teasers, countdowns graphics, behind the scenes clips (keep them short and interesting--nobody cares about a long studio documentary until later in your career), run contests, or offer merch giveaways for fans that share your posts. Set up a "pre-save" link via your distributor for your song, so people can save it to their Spotify or Apple music libraries ahead of time. Get the song reviewed on blogs, played on local or college radio, etc. The list goes on. You want people buzzing when you drop that hot track!
5. Your upcoming release is your brand, so brand yourself accordingly.
One obvious part of this is artwork. Finding art that fits your release well is tough and takes time. Don’t be afraid to gather multiple cover options and run them by random strangers. If you have a target demographic or audience that you see yourself promoting to, center it around them. What makes good or cool artwork can be largely genre-dependent, so don’t be afraid to take a look at what other successful artists are doing and use it for inspiration.
When you're getting ready to announce a release, this is also the time to update your profile photos, cover photos, freshen up your website, and update your bios and descriptions across the web. Here's the key to this: all these things must be strategically chosen to build some kind of cohesive theme, image, or vibe around your new music. One band that has executed this flawlessly is The 1975. If you look through their online profiles, you will see how they've taken a minimalist, striking approach to their image that has created a sense of mystique, intrigue, and anticipation in their fans before each release.
6. Get organized.
Put all your audio files (masters, instrumental versions, stems, etc.), written materials (album credits, lyrics, liner notes), and promo materials (like photos, bios, artwork, reviews, press releases, and press kits) into a centralized, safe place. Secure cloud storage like Dropbox or Google Drive is your friend here. This way, you and your bandmates will all have access, and you can easily split up promotional tasks that require sharing these files (such as reaching out to music blogs, radio, etc).
7. Plan a release show.
Nothing will solidify the hype and buzz going around your fan base more than a special event, often a “one night only,” that is the culmination of all your hard work. You should plan the show on the day of (or close to) your release. To get more people in the door, announce that you’ll be doing some cool giveaways at the show and give a big discount on your album to those who bought advance tickets. Find some other solid, hard-working local artists to be your openers, and incentivize them to pre-sell tickets by giving them a cut of the doors. If you’re not going through a booker at a club for your release show and instead opt to rent a club, coffee house, church, etc, I highly recommend using Brown Paper Tickets for your ticketing needs. You can create various packages, merch bundles, VIP options, and they offer both online and physical tickets.
8. Register to gain your royalties.
The money-making potential in your music comes from two main assets: the composition/publishing (music and lyrics) and the master (sound recording). They are separate assets, each with multiple avenues generating residual income. If you write your own songs and release them independently, you should be collecting virtually all of both income streams, minus certain fees here and there. You'll want to get set up to do this, even if the income is not significant when starting out. It will make sure that if and when things do pick up, you get paid.
The world of music royalties is somewhat convoluted. My friend Duncan did a great podcast breaking down the different types of royalties stemming from both the publishing and master. He lays out the four main organizations you'll want to register with to make sure you collect as an independent artist:
A Performing rights organization (PRO) like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC (if you're in the USA) or SOCAN (if you're in Canada). Typically, you can only be a member with one of these organizations at a time, and only need to be with one. Unless you have a deal with an outside publishing administrator, make sure to register with your PRO both as a writer and publisher.
The Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC), a fairly recent organization created from the Music Modernization Act of 2018. They help make sure you are paid the mechanical royalties you are owed as a songwriter/publisher.
SoundExchange, which helps collect and pay you from any online radio or non-interactive streaming platforms (such as Pandora).
A distributor (aka music aggregator) such as a Distrokid, CD Baby, or Tunecore. They are the ones who get your music into places like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Tidal and more. If you've released anything on those platforms, you probably already have this.
There are even more options to pursue for residual income outside of this, such as sync licensing your songs and instrumental versions of your songs to indie filmmakers, but these four should get you started.
9. Reach out to music blogs, reviewers, playlist curators, etc.
This could be considered part of section 4 above, but reaching out to sources like these should be a regular practice both before and after your release. These days, getting even one song on a big Spotify playlist can do great things for your career, if you capitalize off of it properly.
Submit your song to Spotify editorial playlists using Spotify for Artists (accessible through your distributor), once it's scheduled for release. Submit to third party playlists once the song is out (check out SubmitHub). Beware of fake, scammy promoters who "guarantee X number of plays for X amount of money".
10. Work on your social media game.
Knowing how to captivate your audience online is key to a successful release (and career). In the 2020's, people connect visually more than ever before. This means you should be posting alot of pictures, videos, graphics, and things that catch the eye of someone scrolling through their feed (I bet that meme below catches your eye)!
People have a constant appetite for new content, so after you’ve released your album, make a game plan for the next few months to keep them interested post-release. Consider doing acoustic versions, live videos, collabs, remixes (you could hold a remix contest), and cover videos. Stay away from low quality graphics, cat videos, memes, controversial topics like politics, gun control and religion (unless you’re specifically a religious artist), and instead focus on interacting with your fans! Get to know them, and give them the chance to get to know you too. As a result, they will feel more invested in your art and will actually want to buy your record and see you live.
I hope these tips have been helpful for you. If so, feel free to pass this page along to any artists you know who are releasing new music. If you have questions or wish to discuss release strategies further, feel free to hit me up at email@example.com or on social media (links below).