I had an interesting conversation this morning with a PR-friend of mine about the nuances of coverage for more experimental, underground music. About why it’s trickier now to get seen if you’re a band trying to break new ground. And it led me to think about how independent labels specifically need to have a solid SEO and online content plan for their business.

I’m talking specifically about indie record labels because that’s the conversation I was having. But this can be easily applied to many other industries. I’ll pick out the key points at the end.

The other reason this is focusing on independent record labels is that I know they work on a shoestring marketing budget. They are often DIY-ing everything in-house. I should know because that was once my proper, full time employed job before I danced off into the world of freelance.

OLD-SCHOOL WAYS NO LONGER WORK

There are two ways of thinking about online marketing. That there are the old school, traditional marketing, PR and sales techniques that are no longer fit for today’s world of music.

Or that the techniques are pretty much the same but given fancy pants new names and adapted for the online market place.

I’m a bit in both camps here.

Yes, a lot of what happens in online marketing is very much grounded in marketing techniques that have been around for decades. But we call them different things. The whole point is to build a brand and sell a thing. Nothing is new there.

And we do this by creating communities, developing connections and understanding the primary needs and motivations from our customers.

Again, nothing new. The delivery method has changed, that’s all.

NEW WAYS OF CONSUMING MUSIC

But trying to fit that into how our behaviour and attitudes to music have changed over the years, is entirely different. What worked five or even three years ago, will no longer work now.

We’ve had huge monumental shifts in how we consume music over the past 20-odd years, and it is still rapidly changing.

Remember when we thought everyone would just stop buying music because we could get it for free online? People still bought records. But perhaps they were more discerning about where they spent their cash.

The other night, my other half was watching one of the Metallica lockdown videos on YouTube. Lars was doing his introduction; I was half watching, half working on my laptop. And something caught my eye that I’d not seen in years: an iPod.

Remember those? They were great. But went out when smartphones became that bit smarter. I’ve still got mine upstairs, loaded with music that I’ve either bought online from a much unused iTunes account or records that I helped release many years ago.

It’s 8GB of external storage that’s gathering dust in a box somewhere. You simply don’t see them any more. Hands up if you are still listening to digital music on your iPod?

These are all nice examples of how behavioural changes happens incrementally over the years and impact the way we think about and discover music.

But what has this got to do with marketing and online indie labels and SEO?

WHERE WE CONSUME MUSIC

There is still a thirst for people to buy records, support bands, and be part of something. That hasn’t gone away. That drive to be the first to hear a sound, to discover something new is still with us. And that is potential we can tap into.

There is more music available to us now than there ever was before. But there are fewer publications both off, and online are writing about it.

And I don’t believe that there are fewer people out there into new and exciting music. I think we all still exist and are buying music. You only need to look at New Weird Britain and John Doran’s excellent work around this subject to see that there is still a thirst for music that stretches boundaries and doesn’t quite fit into the ‘norms’ of what sells.

And the pull on the publishing industry means we’ve had to get creative with how we learn about music, how we discover it and, more importantly, how that gets in front of people who may not yet be actively discovering it.

STREAMING ECHO CHAMBERS

A lot of us will get out music from Spotify and other online streaming platforms. I love it. You start listening to some of your favourite records, it tells you related artists, and then the AI magic leads you down a path of discovery.

But there’s a slight problem. That path is laid out by AI and can be incredibly limiting to the scope of what you discover on there. Yes, it can throw up a few gems (Black Midi was a particularly good Spotify recommendation for me), but it can keep you from seeing what else is out there.

And maybe there is too much music out there for you to sift through and find the beautiful, challenging and interesting stuff.

I still go from recommendations of friends and the other half as a starting point. And I think that to be true for most music fans. We get our inspiration from the places we’ve always found it, from the labels themselves, our peers, and our trusted tastemakers.

The other problem with the streaming services is that they don’t pay the artists properly for their work. That’s a whole other discussion point and not for this blog.

BACK TO BASICS WITH YOUR AUDIENCE

Which leads me to think that going back to basics with reaching the fans is the best approach to take.

Those underground conversations that happen offline, the sharing of recommendations, seeing an unexpected support act who blows your mind. Following the record labels who hunt out the best acts.

And it’s this last one that I think is the most powerful, the one that can have the best marketing leverage.

The beautiful thing about independent labels is that they have a core group of fans. You know that specific labels are going to sign a particular style of music. Or take a risk in a certain way, that their tastes are aligned to yours. It’s essentially auditory branding.

You know that when a label releases a new act, you’re probably going to like them. You’re going to check them out and then make a decision on whether you’re picking it up on vinyl or adding it to your playlists.

You become part of their world.

One of my favourite examples of this is Supersonic Festival which (usually) takes place in Birmingham every year. Bands are playing who I want to see, but there is also an incredible journey of discovery. The festival puts on artists who I first discovered in the run-up to the festival. Then I watch them live and buy their records and start the wormhole digging around the music.

Tastemakers like Supersonic are a rare find, but they do something incredibly valuable and important. And because they do it well, it opens up a sphere of listening into something richer than it otherwise would be.

And it all comes from cultivating a community. Chatting with the future fans and showing them what’s out there.

WHY INDIE LABELS NEED SEO

This is why indie labels need good SEO. They need websites that are accessible and easy to navigate. They need a marketing mailing list to nurture their super-fans. The people who keep them in business by loving the music they put out.

Why SEO in particular?

Because there are lots of new fans out there, who don’t realise yet how special the independent label is, they’ve not understood that for many artists, who they are signed to is an important part of their identity. And likewise, the artists on a label’s roster form part of their identity.

Making sure when that new fan finds their favourite band on some streaming site, they also find the label, makes good business sense. It helps you find more members of your community.

BACK TO THE CONVERSATION

This whole blog and thinking came about when my friend was telling me about the difficulties in any publication or website covering new bands that challenge or push boundaries in some way.

We were brainstorming what the answer could be; her from her expertise in PR, me from my cup of tea.

We talked about the magazines (and fanzines/podcast etc.) we read both in print and online, what we liked about their music coverage and what we missed about print magazines long gone. We chatted about what was filling the spaces left like gaping chasms.

And we concluded that there should be a new way, a different approach to this.

When I worked at an indie label, SEO was never a thing we looked at doing. And this was a record label ahead of the curve on many things online marketing. We were creating podcasts over 15 years ago, understanding blogging, and the value of an online community when Facebook had only launched in the UK.

So that’s not to say SEO or content marketing was not a ‘thing’ back then. It looked and sounded very different.

But I’m willing to argue that web content and how its used to communicate to those who buy the records from the label should form part of the strategy as the PR. Getting this right will bolster any PR efforts and vice versa.

WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

If it’s harder to get coverage with zines, podcasts, magazines, newspaper, blogs, what-have-you, then take the music to the fans yourself.

This applies to any industry. If you have people out there who are part of what you do, then bring them in closer.

Get thinking about other ways you can reach them. SEO and an online marketing strategy forms only a part of this. But it’s one that can often be missed or worse, misunderstood.

And that strategy shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter approach. What works for one label doesn’t necessarily work for another. You just need to get creative with it. Because the fans are out there, the people who have yet to get their ears on your releases.

So, if you can take one thing from this article, it’s to think of your PR, Marketing, release strategy as a whole coherent plan that works seamlessly together.