Update, February 2011: With the release of iTunes 10, iMixes are now called Playlists. The terminology and screenshots here may be out of date, but the underlying concept is still very much applicable.
To start, make sure you have the latest version of iTunes, and I recommend creating a Ping profile.
If there’s one small piece of advice I can give other musicians in regards to promoting their music, this is it. This is the one thing I’ve done that has generated more money, reached more fans, and helped me target other types of promotions, all with no cost other than a little thought and time. And that one thing is create iMixes in the iTunes Music Store. I’ll discuss this in three sections: How to make effective playlists, why this works beyond the iTunes store, and how to balance your time between creating and promoting your music.
iMixes are user generated playlists that are published to the store for others to find. It’s a great way to discover new music. To see an example of an iMix, click here to open one I recently published, called Breakbeat Jazz.
To learn how to make an iMix of your own, see the directions on iTunes.
My philosphy is that if you take a very narrow aim at a specific group of people, you’re going to find dedicated fans. This is the complete opposite of trying to get as much radio play as possible, or taking out an ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Instead of trying to convert 0.5% of thousands or millions of people by throwing spaghetti on the wall, I’m trying to get a 50% conversion of 50 people, many times over by catering to their tastes. Those people are excited to discover my music and word spreads organically. One of the best ways to do this is with playlists, or in this case, iMixes.
Before I go further, I must say that since I started doing this and paying attention to the iMixes being created every week, I’ve seen this tool get abused by artists essentially spamming for attention. When iMixes are created with the blatant intent of tricking people into buying music they probably don’t like, I question the ethics of the creator. There are a number of other tactics I frown upon, but in an attempt to avoid dwelling on negativity we won’t discuss the bad apples. Instead, let’s talk about how to do this the right way and the positive effects I’ve seen with my own music. I can only vouch for the results I’ve seen from doing things the way detailed below.
Using the Breakbeat Jazz mix as an example, let’s talk about what goes into a good iMix.
Theme or target audience. Just like you’d make a mix tape or other playlist for a reason, a good iMix is more than just a collection of songs. If all else fails, think of an activity that is more enjoyable with music. Driving, cleaning, cooking, blogging, etc. make great themes. My example targets a specific audience–DJs that love searching for the perfect breakbeat. That’s a pretty narrow audience, but you’ll learn this is a good thing.
The tracks. The most important part of your iMix is usually the part people looking for a quick buck blow through. The tracks you choose must be tracks that are relevent to your music. This is because the iMix has the potential to show up on the Top Rated iMixes section of the album pages you pulled each of those tracks from. In this way, people shopping for those albums are more likely to find your music. Currently, Breakbeat Jazz is listed on the album pages for Roy Ayers’ Vibrations, John Scofield’s A Go Go, and Jimmy McGriff’s Electric Funk just to name a few. People that enjoy those albums are more likely to be interested in my music than fans of Maroon 5 or Coldplay, so just because some bands are more popular doesn’t mean their fans are going to care about your music. I recommend starting with 15 – 25 tracks, and only including one of your own. You simply want people to discover your music, and one track will give them a taste. If they buy it and like it, they can use the Complete My Album option to get more of your music less the cost of what they’ve already purchased. No reason to cram it down their throats all at once.
A good description. You’ll notice I didn’t use this as a place to talk about myself or direct people to my website. I just want them to come across my music on their own and decide what they think for themselves. Instead, I simply shared my thoughts on this music. The only key here is to be honest and interesting. Once I made a playlist of the music I like to listen to on Saturday mornings when I make pancakes. In the notes section, I simply wrote down my recipe! The mix is aptly titled Saturday Morning Pancakes.
Once the iMix is in the store, send it to some friends and ask them to vote on it. Having a higher rating will help get the mix noticed on the connected album pages. Just a few votes will do the trick, and then it’s up to the masses to decide. Again, this is where targeting a specific audience will pay off.
Now dig a little deeper into why this works in a broader sense.
Once you’ve made a number of good iMixes, over the course of several months you should start to see your album turn up in the Listeners Also Bought section. Ultimately, this is the place to be. These recommendations are based on what other customers bought. I don’t know about you, but when I’m shopping online, I’m always taking these sort of links until I find exactly what I want. This is what sets you apart from the next guy, as discussed by Seth Godin in this little antidote.
You should also be seeing some income from your efforts by now. My first CD was placed on iTunes in early 2005. For the first few months, I made $7 – $15 per month from iTunes. Then I made a couple of iMixes on a whim and forgot about them. When my next payment came, it had doubled, and the tracks that I’d put in the iMixes were clearly selling the best. After about a year that album started making an average of $100 a month from iTunes. That’s not a ton of money, but it was enough save up to record my next album.
Around the time I started seeing the effects of creating iMixes, I read Chris Andersen’s 2004 Wired article on the Long Tail. Many people have written further on the topic and how it can apply, including the previous link to Seth Godin above. While the concept is geared towards companies that own or sell enormous amounts of content (iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, etc.) it can still be embraced by those of us that are part of the content. For starters, we’ve overcome the battle for distribution. Our content is now available through retailers capable of wharehousing longtail content, whether physically or digitally. If we can use our heads and come up with some creative strategies to make people aware of our music, availability is really all we need.
On the surface (sans marketing, publicity, and budget), the only difference in retail between content of an unknown independent artist and an unknown major label developing artist is placement. iMixes are a great way to make up for lost placement. In fact, it can be more valuable in some respects. Imagine walking into a store and seeing a display for some artist you’ve never heard about. Sure, you might stop and look at the CD, but you’ve got no idea what they’re about and are not likely to buy it. Now imagine the same scenario except this time some people you met at one of your favorite band’s show the other night are all hovering around that display. In the presence of other customer’s with similar tastes to yourself, this new artist’s CD is more attractive. That’s the “Listeners Also Bought” section. New music is also more attractive when put in some context with artists you already know, and that’s exactly the purpose of playlists and iMixes.
Furthermore, you don’t have to control a huge catalog to benefit from the long tail. While I don’t own an enourmous amount of content, I DO own all of my own content. And I’m not trying to run a huge company, I just need to make enough money to cover my own costs and help carve out a living. When somebody buys my music on iTunes, I’m paid 2/3 of the retail price. That’s better than any artist with a record contract. As I continue to record and expand my little catalog, my income will continue to increase. To make $1,000 a month from downloads, I only need to sell about 1,570 tracks (or the album equivalent, which is roughly 157 albums). That’s actually not very difficult once you have several albums available and things start rolling.
It’s the “things start rolling” part I find most interesting. These are things that tell me people are buying, listening to, and sharing my music. I’ve seen more plays being counted (or “scrobbled”) on Last.fm. Other people include my music in their own iMixes (if people use iMixes to find music, it makes sense they would make their own). What excites me most are the occasional emails from people that realize I’ve made several iMixes they’ve found. These people loved my mixes, felt they had similar tastes, bought my albums, joined my email list, and have come to shows. They’ve become one of what Kevin Kelly calls the 1,000 True Fans.
The point is, once you get some momentum going, the rest will start taking care of itself.
Being an independent artist is a lot like competing in a decathlon. To be successful you need to be more than competent at many different skills, from the creative process to the business side. But most of us spend more time perfecting the artistic side of our craft, so much that we can’t even comprehend the rest. I’ve heard people say most musicians spend more time practicing their craft than brain surgeons do theirs. Think about that next time you have a headache.
The key to making this work is to NOT think like a business person or marketer. Instead, think like a fan. When you’re writing songs or practicing, you’re trying to reach the level of the artists you love. You’re looking at the target from the perspective of a fan. If you want somebody to buy your music, why not use the same approach?
When an easy, effective resource for promoting your music comes along, a lot of artists sort of flip out. When MySpace allowed band profiles, everyone started making profiles and adding as many friends as possible. It went so far as to create a market for automated friend adders. To me, this misses the point completely. I hate getting impersonal requests from bands on MySpace. It’s immediately obvious when somebody hasn’t looked at my profile or listened to my music.
iMixes are similar. It’s so easy to do many people run the risk of getting a little obsessive. It’s easy to start thinking that, if you just connect your album to more popular artists, or perhaps the MOST popular artist, then you’ll reach all their fans! But in reality, you’re missing your true fans by not using the music that is most like yours. Stop worrying about how many people you reach, just try to have an impact on everyone that you do reach.
Furthermore, iTunes did not create the iMix feature to help me promote independent artists. I’ve had a few people tell me not to tell anyone else about this strategy. They are paranoid that iTunes will pull the plug. Why? What are you going to do that’s harmful? If you find yourself questioning your own ethics, then stop what you’re doing. This isn’t a competition, it’s not about having the top rated mixes on the top selling albums. This is about connecting with people like you. People who like the same music as you, who have yet to discover your music.
Finally, the business end of things can be a big distraction from the creative process. When an artist with a record deal isn’t selling records, they usually point their finger at the label. They think the label is doing something wrong. But most of the time the label drops the artist, not the other way around. The problem is usually the product, not the marketing plan. In contrast, if you have a really great product you don’t need much of a marketing plan. So focus on what goes into your product before you worry about selling it.
Make the best music you can, nudge it towards a very specific audience that’s probably not too unlike the fan within you, and let the momentum start building. This is a great way to kick off a career as an independent musician.