A newborn iguana on the beach
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from releasing music in the past three years, it’s that it’s very difficult to get people to listen to your song.
That’s not a complaint — I enjoy the challenge — I just thought it made sense to preface this article like that, because in the next few minutes I want to give you a small insight into the life of a self-declared music marketer, and the upward struggle that constitutes trying to increase the chance that your song will be listened to.
I’ll base the post exclusively on my last month of promotional activities, during which I’ve used Facebook ads to try and get people to stream a song.
Disclaimer: I am not a marketing expert. Everything below is one aspect of my self-taught approach to music promotion, and I appreciate the fact that I may be making plenty of mistakes. (If there is something glaringly obvious please get in touch).
A box of tools and a tattered manual
So — I mentioned I’m using Facebook ads to promote my music. But why, and how?
Well, running ads through Facebook is commonly known to be a great way to drive people over to Spotify to listen to your song. That’s because Facebook’s targeting algorithm is very advanced, and making use of it increases the likelihood you’ll find people who might actually like your music.
However, this approach comes with a couple of big caveats:
a) The majority of campaigns that independent musicians run (I come across them every day on the Instagram app) might as well be peeing into the digital wind. Traffic campaigns, which optimise for people clicking one link on any web or app page, are the most common campaign chosen. They are doomed to yield extremely poor results. That’s because the group of people that is most likely to click on one link on a social network is not the same group of people that is most likely to listen to, let alone enjoy a song. A lot of the time these ‘people’ are actually bots that are programmed to tap on any old button or link they’re shown. Grr, scammers!
b) If “streams” are what you’re after, the best kind of campaign to run is generally thought to be a conversion campaign. A conversion campaign is one where Facebook optimises for people who will actually interact with the page that they’re being sent to. In cases where you send them directly to Spotify from Instagram, Facebook can’t do that. That’s because the data is all in Spotify’s hands — pressing play, listening to the song, saving the song — you simply can’t “convert” for those events. That’s why you need to send them to a page whose data you control, and optimise for people who are most likely to tap through to Spotify from that page. Conversion campaigns have a really high barrier to entry because, to run them successfully, they require several intermediary, unbelievably fiddly steps:
1. You need to register your own custom domain (in my case pinkmario.space). Recent data privacy changes have made it so anyone wishing to advertise with conversions must have ownership of an independent domain. Woohoo / booo!
2. You need to install something called a Facebook pixel onto that website. It’s basically a piece of code that helps track activity on the site, and will signal to Facebook when someone performs a certain action.
3. You need to link your custom domain to a service that provides “hyperlink” pages for streaming music. “Hyperlink page” is a fancy term for a menu of different streaming platforms that people can click through to if they want to stream your song.
4. You need to set up a “custom conversion” through Facebook’s ludicrously-difficult-to-navigate Ads Manager. This means you need to tell Facebook the specific event you’re interested in tracking once someone makes their way onto the page. In my case it’s when someone taps the Spotify button on my Hyperlink menu.
5. You need to test that the custom conversion is actually working, and that it’s firing the events you told it to fire.
So we’re going with conversion ads, and we’re all set up to run them. Brilliant!
But the learning curve hasn’t ended yet:
a2) Ads depend on good creatives. Knowing what kind of creative (video or static image) is likely to perform well on the platform takes time, testing and money. (On that note, you have to be prepared to spend — and lose — a lot of cash on your mission to run effective ad campaigns. $500 is a conservative estimate for how much you’re likely to spend before gaining key insights into content and audience performance for your particular genre of music).
b2) This is all without scratching the surface of audiences themselves — which are crucial components in the success or failure of a campaign. Put it this way — the more you experiment with segmenting people by different interests (I must have tried over 50 different combinations of bands like Beach House, interests like “Dream pop” or “Indie pop” and geographical regions), the more you’re mitigating the chance that your campaign will fail miserably. (By “failing miserably” I mean that you will be paying way too much money for the basic act of getting someone over to Spotify). Each ad campaign you set up requires you to rethink which audiences you should send your ad to. It’s an eternal process of learning and refining. And, once more, losing money.
c2) Speaking of unscratched surfaces, what about ad placement? There are over 20 placements (locations) you can choose from on both Facebook and Instagram, and picking the wrong ones can be catastrophic. Generally speaking, ads for music perform better on Instagram story and reels placements.
d2) Then there’s the nuts and bolts. There are at least five more small things I can think of that might utterly scupper your campaign if mismanaged: a weak CTA (call-to-action), changing your daily budget too radically from one day to the next (the algorithm, shocked by your impulsiveness with the wallet, will re-enter the ‘learning phase’ and basically start finding people to target from scratch), using too broad an age range, cropping the ad badly, writing a poor preview text. It’s taken me at least twenty hours of YouTube binging to aggregate the thoughts of a whole load of music marketers and come up with a decent understanding of Facebook Ads Manager.
So I’ve gone for Facebook ads, and I’ve braved the long, blustery journey to setting up a conversion campaign.
Surely, on launching the campaign and following all of those steps, I’ve boosted the chance that my song will be listened to to almost 100%?
Remember my point about how Spotify’s data is ultimately out of your hands? Essentially, all I’ve done so far is set up an ad campaign to tell me “Look mate, if anyone is going to try to stream your song, it’s this dude”.
You see — after the dude has seen my ad, tapped on the first link, landed on the Hyperlink page, tapped on the second link, landed on Spotify, picked his nose and scratched his balls, there are still two unlikely things that need to happen for the chance that my song will be listened to to finally reach 100%.
1. The dude needs to tap ‘play’.
2. The dude needs to listen to at least thirty seconds of the song. Only that way will it come up as a counted stream on my Spotify for Artists dashboard (the only source of information I get about my streams).
Even after all this, can I be assured that this person will become a repeat listener of my song, someone I could loosely refer to as a fan?
Absolutely not. There is zero assurance of that. In fact, there’s a high probability that will not happen.
So why am I even bothering?
That’s a blooming great question. In order to answer it, I’ll have to take you on a trip through bullet point land.
Triggering the holy algorithm
- Let’s start with what I’m not trying to do. I’m not trying to build an engaged fanbase with whom I can have a real connection, receive adoration from, or sell branded tote bags to. I try to do that in other ways, but not at the moment, and not through Facebook ads.
- These days, the key to unlocking any degree of social media growth (and for the purposes of this article I’ll lump Spotify in as a social media platform) is a dreaded phenomenon known as triggering the algorithm. Every social media platform has a system that determines whether or not a piece of content (a photo / a video / a song) is worthy of more exposure. If your piece of content gets enough interaction when it’s launched (or later during its lifetime), the platform will show it to more people who it thinks will also engage with it.
- Enter Spotify. It’s no different to Instagram and TikTok in the way that it manages the content uploaded to it. An algorithm is the main agent responsible for exposing music to people via organic channels. It takes songs it likes, and it shows them to more people. (Bear in mind the absurdity that no single human, including everyone who works or ever worked at Spotify, fully understands the inner workings of this algorithm. That’s because it’s a machine that was trained, a long time ago, to come up with its own training regime.)
- What are organic channels exactly? They’re the main areas Spotify has designated for music to end up on by the will of its algorithm. Those places are known as the widely revered, widely envied algorithmic playlists Release Radar, Discover Weekly and Radio. They’re the primary source of music discovery on Spotify. Everyone has these playlists in their library, and for everyone the playlists will look totally different.
- Why? Because everyone has different listening habits, and Spotify is tracking them. The more you listen to music, the more Spotify knows how to curate songs for you. It sees what kind of genres, tempos, moods and languages you enjoy (among dozens of other, more obscure preference criteria), and it feeds you a steady stream of similar music. Your Discover Weekly playlist updates every Monday in the hope that it’s managed to manicure a set of 30 songs that you’ll like even more than last week’s.
- But why is it so important to end up on these organic channels, these algorithmic playlists? Can’t you just grow streams on your song independently of them? You absolutely can. But as per my cautionary introduction (“it’s very, very difficult to get people to listen to your song”), you almost certainly won’t see instant results, unless you already have a large fan base. Algorithmic playlists give emerging artists unique hope—you may have a small fan base, but if your song is picked up by the algorithm, it can be shown to millions of people overnight (quite literally).
- So I want to trigger the algorithm. That’s good to know. But how the hell do I do that? Put simply, I need to give Spotify data. More specifically, data about the kinds of users who are listening to my song. Only then will Spotify know which other kinds of users might like it, and only then will Spotify dump it on someone’s freshly updated Discover Weekly, somewhere in the track list from 1–30. (Incidentally, Discover Weekly is the playlist I’m most interested in ‘triggering’. It’s the Godfather of algorithmic playlists and has by far the most influence and listenership).
- How do I generate that data? You got it — Facebook ads. By sending people over to Spotify in numbers, I can try to teach the algorithm a bit about my song. I can show it the kinds of people who like it, where they’re based, and what other music they like. With enough data, I can increase the likelihood that the algorithm will shove my song in the Discover Weekly of random Spotify users, and get my song heard by thousands of people I’d never ordinarily be able to reach. (Sadly, the audience of actual fans I’ve spent three years growing on Instagram still isn’t big enough to supply this volume of data on its own, which is why I need to look for methods outside of traditional fanbase activation.)
- But is there any way I can actually guarantee that my song will appear on Discover Weekly? I tell you what — you ask a lot of good questions. No, I can’t. But what I can do (you guessed it) is increase the chance that it will appear on Discover Weekly. And now I must introduce you to yet another concept in the world of modern day music promotion: the Popularity Index. Still with me?
- Every song on Spotify comes with a Popularity Index. You can find the Popularity Index of all your songs using online services that leverage Spotify’s API to extract the data. It’s a score from 0–100 that indicates how “popular” your song is, and thus how likely Spotify is to show it to people through its organic channels. There are many factors that go into its measurement, but — as you’d imagine from the focus of this article so far — the main metrics are “number of streams” and “number of listeners”. Not exactly mind blowing stuff. What’s interesting, though, is that these two metrics are interdependent. A song which received one million streams from one user would almost certainly be overlooked by the algorithm as a freak occurrence that was probably caused by a bot. A song that received one million streams by one million listeners would be equally eyebrow-raising. Are you telling me that all of those people only deemed the song worthy of one stream each? Doesn’t sound like a very good song. The sweet spot is somewhere in between — a song that a large number of people just can’t seem to stop listening to.
- Now. What precise Popularity Index does your song need to begin triggering Discover Weekly? Some wizards I follow on YouTube did an enormous amount of research to find this out, and I’m very thankful to them because it means I never, ever have to do that work. Their conclusion is that a Popularity Score of roughly 30% and above “qualifies” your music for inclusion on Discover Weekly. 30% is the golden number.
- So there you have it. I’m using this entire campaign to see what happens if I try to take a song from below the 30% popularity threshold to above the 30% threshold. Facebook ads are a crucial part of that, because they can send good quality traffic over to Spotify and feed the algorithm useful information about my listeners.
- I’m choosing a song of mine called If I Ever Find You, which was on a score of 18% before I launched the ads.
Maybe, maybe, maybe
Phew. That was a lot of bullets.
I’ve gone through how Facebook ad campaigns work, how I can only ever increase the chance that someone will listen to my song, and why (and how) I’m fixated on triggering the Spotify algorithm.
But I’ve still left one question unaddressed. And it’s a big one. What if, after all of these arduous steps, after meticulously increasing the chance that my song is listened to, after it’s actually listened to, it’s not liked? What if it ends up in that scary camp of songs that have a million streams from a million listeners?
Well, there’s no simple answer to that question. Actually — there is. I’m totally screwed.
The thing is — if I spend €500 on a well constructed Facebook ad campaign which miraculously converts to real listens, I’ve still only done half of the job. The next half of the job relies on factors completely beyond my control — someone liking the song so much that they save it, add it to a playlist, or listen to it again of their own accord. If I don’t see data appear on my Spotify for Artists dashboard that somehow proves the liking of my song, I need to face up to some gritty facts:
- Maybe my song just isn’t good enough. It can’t rev the engine of liking by natural means and is condemned to obscurity.
- Maybe the campaign was actually badly constructed and this whole article — this tutorial of sorts — proves that I know next to nothing about how to market my music via Facebook.
- Maybe it’s Facebook’s fault — maybe it took the wrong people over to Spotify, people who were destined not to like my song in the first place. But that probably means that, through bad audience management, it’s back to being my fault.
All things considered, the campaign feels precarious to say the least. A total long shot with little to no chance of success. Borderline irresponsible.
Naturally, I’m excited to begin.
See you later, all-the-data
Fast forward two weeks, and I find myself in the astonishing position of seeing real results.
Firstly, my campaign for If I Ever Find You is delivering a good cost-per-conversion (CPC):
That’s good news — it means I’ve set up the campaign well, and it’s delivering solid mathematical results. Paying just €0.30 for someone to tap on the little Spotify button means I’m getting great bang for my buck in the scheme of increasing the chance that my song will be listened to.
Secondly, I can actually see data in my Spotify for Artists dashboard that shows an increase in streams for the song since I started the campaign on January 1st.
That’s excellent news. The volume of streams I’ve generated shows that I actually managed to raise the chance that my song will be listened to to a very high percentage. People listened!
But hang on a minute… People not only listened, people actually saved the song, and added it to playlists! People are… liking …it!
Before this campaign started, in the previous 28 day period, I only had around 100 saves and 60 or so playlist adds for the song. That means I’ve added roughly 1,200 saves and 820 playlist adds in the subsequent 28 day period.
Given the fact that I’ve spent €550 on the campaign so far, that translates to approximately €0.46 per song save, and €0.62 per playlist add. In the context of it being very, very difficult to get people to listen to your song (let alone save it or listen to it again), I see that as an incredibly positive result.
Thirdly, the Popularity Index…
… has only gone and increased to 29%! That’s an improvement of 11%, which means that I have paid exactly €50 per percentage point gain.
It’s now my second most “popular” song, sitting on the same score as Na Zare. Na Zare has had a good streak of hitting Discover Weekly in the past, but that was before I knew what I was doing. I estimate that in a couple of days If I Ever Find You will reach and even surpass 30%, the golden number.
I’ve given the song every chance of triggering Discovery Weekly and continuing to grow organically on the platform.
And then, just as I think there’s little more to do other than wait, just as I move to publish this article, my Spotify for Artists dashboard updates once more.
A huge spike on Monday. A doubling of daily streams and listeners.
The song has triggered Discover Weekly for the first time.
It actually worked.
That odd, empty feeling. It’s back again. It comes to me when I close my laptop, walk onto my balcony and notice cold air filling my lungs for the first time in three hours. My eyes are burning.
I look back on the whole project. What have I really achieved with all of it?
I’ve solved some kind of annoying puzzle — that’s for sure. I’ve come to a decent conclusion in a fairly long, tedious assignment. For those things, I can surely be proud of my dedication and work.
But beyond that, what about my actual music? What about the thing I love making, sharing, and performing?
Have I seen 2,474 listeners enjoy If I Ever Find You in the last 28 days? No. Have I seen a single person bop their head to the beat, or hum its melody? Nope. Have I received messages from the people that ended up saving the song on Spotify, telling me how much they loved it? Sadly not.
On the other hand — have I invested money in a series of abstract numbers? Yes. Have I somehow conflated the “Popularity Score” of my song with its intrinsic artistic value? Yes. Have I commoditised my art, only to make a net monetary and emotional loss? Yep.
All these things — “Boosting streams on Spotify”, “triggering the algorithm”, “increasing monthly listeners” — they’re such important goals for independent musicians nowadays.
They’re actually even more than that — they’re the very indicators of success, sources of validation and worth, markers of “popularity”.
But they’re just numbers.
Every day I get a stronger and stronger feeling that obsessing over numbers will not lead to a fulfilling career in music.
For example, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve performed to a live audience in the last three years, and yet those five occasions alone have provided me with more fulfilment than the total sum of streams I’ve accumulated in that same time.
Seeing people dance to songs I never knew were danceable-to, hearing friends chant the choruses to songs they know, having people I’ve never met come up to me and tell me that they love my music — all that stuff has felt so much more real. It’s felt like stuff worth pursuing.
Succeeding in this one ad campaign has — ironically — only solidified my belief that focusing on things which aren’t ad campaigns might just be a better plan for the year ahead.
I don’t want to devalue my work, or claim that I’m not happy with the results of this ad campaign.
But I also don’t want my entire worth as a musician to be determined by a percentage score.
How’s that for a plot twist?!
The reason I wrote this article was not to boast about the fact that I finally ran a successful ad campaign.
It was to illustrate the many, many ways this could have all gone wrong. And indeed the ways it did go wrong. From the initial decision to use Facebook conversion ads, to the many things I had to implement before attempting them, to the unlikely journey my song had to make before it was actually listened to and liked. To the realisation that I was in pursuit of something totally abstract all along.
It was to show you how complex the work of a musician in 2023 can be — how easy it is to be sucked into a vortex of financial loss, artificial validation and self doubt. How much time investment is needed just to get to the point where failure is an option. How little genuine fulfilment is to be gained from growing a digital following.
It reminds me of a clip from a David Attenborough nature documentary. In the clip, a dozen newly hatched iguanas emerge to a beach filled with ravenous snakes. Their first few seconds of life are characterised by a wild, nightmarish chase, in which they must avoid a pack of slithery predators to reach the safety of a rocky ridge.
Being an independent musician can feel a lot like that. The path to success is full of snakes— some structural, some psychological. Navigating that path can feel utterly thankless, and the rocks can feel they’re like absolutely miles away.
And yet we keep trying. Why, though?
I think it’s because we all once heard Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune and realised that — if we didn’t dedicate ourselves to something as unfathomably beautiful as music — we might as well just spend our lives with our bodies forever buried in the sand.
I’m Lazlo, a writer and musician based in Berlin. I release dream pop as Pink Mario.