In Search of Organic Discovery. - Bringing Listeners Together with Music that Moves Them.
If you want to hand-off the process of marketing yourself because it feels like a hard problem to solve - not because you have too much success, but too little - then you are guaranteeing yourself a bunch of bad choices. Photo credit: Isaac Davis
We are coming up to the 2 year mark in just a few more months, and the amount of growth we've had here at CHILLFILTR is very exciting. It does not feel that long ago that I was writing this piece after the first year; since then, we have pivoted a bit in terms of our focus - we have transitioned from a podcast to an on-demand lyric video broadcast - while keeping current with a suite of playlists that sync between Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, and finally we also cross-post to the CHILLFILTR Apple News channel the weekly coverage that we write for artists from around the world.
For the first time since I started this thing, I have everything where I want it: we rolled out initially on Squarespace, and transitioned to Ghost which made for a massive data migration over the summer, which feels great now that it is finished. We have well over 1,000 blog pieces published since early 2018, and I have listened to more new music in the last 2 years than the rest of my life combined, there is no question of that: I have personally critiqued more than 10,000 indie songs since Feb 2018. And now that I am putting out tracks again, it feels like a good time to weigh in on what it looks like to be a modern indie musician, and what it feels like to have all the doors of promotion, and marketing, feel closed for no apparent reason.
If we go back to the beginning, when I first fell in love with songwriting many moons ago, it was a combination of spiritual and logistical factors: spiritual, because I felt the massive power of simple melody move through me at a young age, and that sense of how deeply the sound of an acoustic piano can resonate throughout a house has never left me - my dad used to play the one Swedish folk-song that he knew, always around Christmastime, and the 3/4 waltz just felt like holiday voodoo. And logistical, because it occurred to me at around the age of 12 that performance was a smart thing to get good at because you can never waste your time - every moment spent playing an instrument is a productive moment. So I started playing piano, and now years later I play a few different instruments, at varying degrees of prowess; but what always felt the most magical to me was the power of a well-written song. I got immediately hooked on The Cure, and Duran Duran, and Peter Gabriel, and then I moved to the US and caught a whiff of that big 80's hippie-resurgence. Next thing you know, I am listening to CSN and Cat Stevens, and I'm tailgating with the Grateful Dead, and then in the next decade it became about revivalism, and I idolized bands like The Black Crowes, and Allman Brothers, and then Chris Whitley. But then somewhere in college I got turned on to hip hop, and adjacent stuff like G Love, and Soul Coughing; and then the real deal, IMHO, bands like Digable Planets, The Pharcyde, and De La Soul; and grungy stuff like Brad, and Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. But also jazz: Miles Davis, Coltrane, Chick Corea, and my faves Medeski, Martin, & Wood; also bluegrass and roots: Tony Furtado, who I opened for once in Madison, and Leftover Salmon, and Kelly Joe Phelps. This is why CHILLFILTR covers such an eclectic selection of music; my list of musical touch-points is long and messy.
Everyone has their own path to musical taste, and I am not one to say that my preferences are better or worse than anyone else's; but what I do want to discuss a bit is what I would call the elusive evolution of the 'message,' the gospel of indie, if you will, which has changed a lot over the last 30 years. Because right at the beginning for me, and I'm talking mid-80's now, we were still in the last throes of classic-rock exceptionalism, with guys like Stevie Winwood making songs like Roll With It (meh), and guys like David Bowie making songs like Let's Dance (better, but still meh). The indie field was not yet too crowded to the extent that it existed at all, the Punk scene was just starting to come up in SoCal, and the message was 'be great, and they will find you.' I heard this over and over again - your job is to perfect your craft, and do something inspired, creative, and unique. If you do that, you will be 'scouted,' just like all the greats of yesteryear: Jimi Hendrix, or Elvis, or Edith Piaf FFS; the idea was that there are people who's job it is to make the marketing just 'happen.' And, at least in theory, there is room for everyone. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, what killed that was hipster-corporatism, and that was just starting to take over in the 80's.
And look at the messaging now - it is totally opposite. Now they say: 'you must do everything; market yourself, engage with your fans on social media, make your life totally and freely accessible to any who is interested. When you have already proven your market viability, then we will jump in.' Would that have worked for Jim Morrison? Would that have worked for Thelonious Monk? The Go Gos? We have reimagined the entire music industry according to the 'streaming' economy, which values quantity over quality, and according to a modern sense of identity commodification: may the most compelling personality win! But what of those of us that can't be 'on' all the time? Are we disconnecting an entire segment of the art world, just because they don't fit easily inside a world of cut-and-paste, pre-templated, half-assed marketing?
There is Always Room for More Great Coverage
As an artist, I've had my share of bad experiences with publicists. The thing is, if you are looking for a publicist before you really need one, then you are opening yourself up to the bottom-of-the-barrel people that are really just out to take your money. I won't get into the details, but 2 years ago, I realized immediately that I wanted very much to be on the other side, and be the blogger 2.0 that instead of ripping people off, actually writes quality coverage and finds a way to make it work without fleecing vulnerable indie-musicians as a matter of course. So that is the redemptive element, and became the seed concept for what is now almost 2 years of obsessive work towards a new indie-music discovery service. I spent a big part of this year fleshing out a podcast that I just closed down for a lack of growth; I have gone through a lot of time and energy in this space, and I think it might be useful for some to hear about my conclusions in the grail-like quest for organic discovery.
Exhibit 1: SoundCloud
Putting out a podcast is no small feat; if you want to be available everywhere, you need to go with a service like LibSyn (as opposed to Anchor, for example), because you want to be available on every possible platform. That's important. But the other problem is that podcasts are everywhere now, and it is very hard to get noticed. After putting out 2 seasons of Indie Music On Tap, the ONLY place I got found was SoundCloud. Season 1 was half a year ago, and I still get the odd notification from SoundCloud for an episode that someone liked; I was on Spotify, and InTune, and Google Play, and Radio.com, and the only place I found new listeners was SoundCloud. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I want to give SoundCloud some props for having good organic discovery; it is no wonder they are a goto for new indie music.
Exhibit 2: Apple News
I am a huge fan of Apple News headlines as a sort of virality test; the stats look good, it is full of detail, and it is a great way of seeing how much a headline gets noticed by the algorithm, and then how much real engagement that can generate. It is a spike-heavy and volatile market-test for music shares and it has become indispensable for me; I know that some content partners get preferential treatment, and it must be nice to be them, but even as a layperson the access to new users is amazing and it often drives traffic to the homepage. Apple News gets big points for organic discovery. And sure, a few likes, a few follows, doesn't sound like much per week - but the thing is that it goes on every week, and is powerful in aggregate, as well as the fact that splitting it up according to popular content can be very illuminating, and then when you can easily calculate click-though-rates it makes for some awesome monthly best-of stats.
Exhibit 3: Vimeo
Vimeo turned out to be the open marketplace that I wanted podcasting to be; I am very pleasantly surprised by how my Vimeo content channel is integrating with CHILLFILTR right now. Aside from the seamless push to Roku TV, the stats are really good and I have a good handle on how to get Vimeo content to list favorably on the topic lists. And the presentation is really straightforward; between Apple news, Google analytics, and the Vimeo dashboard, I have a lot of information to help me see what is working and what isn't. I went to video from audio-only because it felt inevitable; and it is clear already: that was the right move.
Moving Towards Self-Centric Marketing
I mentioned once in a podcast episode that the internet is a Facebook scam; and with regard to a discussion of organic discovery that is very relevant because the point is that what was once an even playing-field has turned into a wasteland of paid marketing. So what do we do? Well, first we stop taking the blame, as independent music-makers. And we go beyond blaming the shitty publicists of the world, who still need to make a living, when we realize that this is a world that is now largely hostile to organic discovery; to organizations like Facebook and Google, organic means unpaid, which means un-monetized, which means worthless. Self-Centric Marketing is the idea that without a well-understood market share, your attempt at enlisting outside help can easily amount to nothing more than a financial dice-roll, with very limited prospects for meaningful success. Not because the world is evil, exactly, but simply because those that can really help you won't be willing to step in at that point, and you will be left with subpar choices competing with each other to under-deliver. It boils down to this concept: If you want to hand-off the process of marketing yourself because it feels like a hard problem to solve - not because you have too much success, but too little - then you are guaranteeing yourself a bunch of bad choices. In that situation, you are not yet ready for more.
So, we start with the concept of it is not your fault. This does not mean you have no work to do; it just means you don't have to feel inadequate. For me, it works in a hierarchy: is the timing wrong? Am I working hard enough? Have I adjusted well enough to the feedback I am getting? Because if you are not yet finding success, and you are looking for a magical partner to swoop in and just make it work, remember the three pillars.
You never need help with those things. Keep tuning until you get there - all you can do is keep knocking on the door. And if that's what you are doing, remember that the best parts of life often lie between the accomplishments; it is the ability to be present that will yield the most benefit over time.
Back to Organic Discovery
Whenever you hear the overly simplified message that popular music is just too homogenized now, and none of it is any good; that is the problem that CHILLFILTR is solving. The issue is not, and has never been, that the music isn't good enough; it's just that no one is trying very hard to put new listeners together with great indie music. Why? Because it's complicated; it doesn't always make a good commercial; and it is a shifting landscape. Just in the last few months, we've worked with Nettwerk Records, Atlantic Records, BMG, Republic Records, Majestic Casual, Universal Music Group, and Big Hassle; as well as unique indie artists from around the world. Lyric videos made by CHILLFILTR are some of the most engaging lyric videos available anywhere, and we will always be searching for organic channels to promote our artists. Send in a song for review here.
And as always, thanks for your support.
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Read this story on Apple News.