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How to release your music: the DIY guide to getting your tracks out there

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

Your track is finished, the I’s have been dotted and the T’s have been crossed. The mastering engineer has done their thing, and you’ve even changed the track’s name from “Crazy Idea 8”. Your piece of sonic art is nearly ready to be flung out to an unsuspecting public, but hang on, is it really so simple?

Of course not. Here, another huge job is starting – and it’s not one about dynamic range compression, EQ or synth programming; it’s one about sample clearance, artist bios and press kits. Without the proper packaging and marketing groundwork, your unsuspecting public might be so unsuspecting that they miss you entirely. 

So what on earth should you do now? Or in other words, what should you have started in the days and weeks prior to now? Being ahead of yourself is always preferable, but we’ll give you a way forward, and offer some strategies, ideas and inspiration for releasing your music professionally.

This article is written forwards, but in a way it needs to be read backwards. Without knowing what you’ll do on release day, you won’t know where to focus your efforts of preparation in the run-up and beyond. 

For your music to be heard online, it will first have to be seen. No matter how good it is, combining your music with artwork and video enhances its appeal, and you’ll find that having quality visuals makes it easier to promote on social media and other platforms. Here are some things you should consider.

Visuals

Artwork

Increasingly since music first became a product, it’s gone hand in hand with visual imagery – whether that’s a concert poster, a vinyl sleeve or Spotify album artwork. The visual marketing aspect of your music promotion is the next most important creative consideration after how it sounds, especially in today’s oversaturated online market. 

We’ve all become inured to rapidly refreshing streams of content, and for your music to make an impact on the dopamine-addled brains of today’s listeners, you need it to stand out on newsfeeds, streaming services and digital shop shelves. 

Once you’ve decided upon an image for your release, you’ll need to make sure it’s optimised for the right mediums. For example, the official recommendations for the perfect Spotify cover art size is 640 x 640 pixels. This is an aspect ratio of 1:1 – a perfect square. As well as this, they have certain file size limits and format specifications that you should be aware of before you release your music on the platform. If you want to make a vinyl record cover, you’re looking at a much larger file (say, 3750 x 3750 pixels).

The safest way of making sure your artwork won’t land you in a spot of bother is to be 100% original

To be truly prepared, think about all the places where your artwork will be seen. If it’s going to end up on a platform that mostly displays large thumbnails (like SoundCloud) you may have to make decisions around text and fonts for visibility. By having a large, high-resolution image, you have more room to export to a smaller image size and maintain an optimal image quality. Also you might want to include your artwork in banner images at the top of your social media pages, so you’ll need to consider how you might fit a square image into a long rectangle.

Most importantly, make sure that you have express permission to use every part of your artwork. Obviously, if you’re using a photo or artwork that you didn’t create yourself, you’ll need to find the photographer or artist and discuss image rights ahead of time. 

Likewise, if you’ve cut out even a section of a photo or image that’s protected by copyright (even if you’ve worked some Photoshop magic on it to repurpose it in some way) you’ll still need to gain a licence, or the copyright owner’s permission, to use it.

This kind of thing can end up costing you in the long run if you don’t take care of it early on, so get ahead of it! The safest way of making sure your artwork won’t land you in a spot of bother is to be 100% original, and take the photo or create the artwork from scratch.

Video

The other component of visual music marketing is video. MTV made music videos part of the cultural furniture way back in the early ’80s, and it’s still pretty rare to see a single released without one to this day. Music videos are an integral part of the entire process of releasing music, maybe even more so than artwork, and one of the most effective ways of getting your music heard by as many people as possible.

The contents of your music video are totally up to you, obviously, but you have a few options when creating one. The first option is to film it yourself, or with the help of a friend. Come up with an idea that fits the song, storyboard it, and shoot it. You can rent a top of the line video camera from most camera equipment shops, or if you’ve bought a new phone in the last few years, chances are you already have a quality camera in your pocket that’s capable of filming reasonably high-definition video. 

If you don’t feel you have the chops to produce your own video, try getting in touch with a film student from a local university

If you don’t feel you have the chops to produce your own video, try getting in touch with a film student from a local university. Working on a music video is a great way to build up their portfolio, and chances are you’ll get a more affordable deal. For even tighter budgets, there are services that analyse your uploaded music and video clips, and auto-generate a professional video cut to your music within minutes – check out Videobolt, Wizibel and Motionbox. Sure, it won’t win you a Grammy for best music video, but at least you’ll have some polished video content to pair with your music.

Once you have a video prepared, make sure it goes out to the right places. The biggest social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok are heavily visually orientated, and make it difficult to share audio without accompanying video. Let’s face it, few are going to click on the link to SoundCloud that you tagged onto that post about your latest single, are they? Social media apps are designed to keep you on them, meaning users are much more likely to watch a music video that’s integrated into the application. Cut together a trailer from the video, and share it on Instagram or TikTok before releasing the full version on YouTube.

The legal stuff

Releasing music is fun, but there’s a serious side to it too. Music law is a dense area that’s full of potential pitfalls, so although it might seem boring, don’t release anything until you’ve made sure you’re not stepping on any copyrighted toes...

Sample clearance

While sampling has become a widely used technique in music production since its tape-based beginnings in the 1940s, the law around the practice is still often misunderstood. The bottom line is this: if you intend to distribute and make money from music which contains other people’s music, you must first gain written consent from the relative rights holders. 

This is usually the owner of the copyright of the song and/or the owner of the master recording. Getting the correct approval is known as sample clearance, which not only means other musicians retain control of their work, but also has the added benefit of keeping you out of troublesome court cases.

Failure to gain proper consent could land you with a hefty lawsuit, and may make it difficult for you to advance your career in the future. “My track won’t be heard by the original musician,” we hear you say. Well, it does happen! And there are plenty of examples of artists failing to get the proper clearance for tracks which have gone on to blow up, then having to pay the price. 

Baauer’s 2012 viral hit Harlem Shake contained vocal samples from artists Héctor Delgado and Jayson Musson without their approval. Ultimately, the case was resolved thanks to the financial backing of Mad Decent, the label that released Harlem Shake. However, Baauer’s failure to seek proper clearance for the samples cost him huge amounts of royalties.

So, how do you avoid allegations of copyright infringement? The easy way is to avoid using samples of other people’s music in your productions! But for those producers who rely heavily on sampling (as many of us do), there are a few workarounds.

There are countless resources out there for finding samples which are free to use within your work. One resource is the ever-growing selection of subscription services such as Splice or Loopcloud. While it’s worth carefully checking each of their terms and conditions, generally these services license the use of their samples on a commercial basis, meaning you’re free to use the sounds as you like.

Recreate the sample

If there is a specific sample from a track that you are hoping to use, you can attempt to recreate the sample yourself, just using the original sample as a ‘placeholder’. This process isn’t subject to the same copyright laws as just lifting a sample straight from someone else’s production into your own (you only need permission from the copyright owner, not the master owner), but it can slow down the production process depending on your abilities, equipment and the sample you’re trying to emulate. Alternatively, there are paid services such as Sample Replays and Replay Heaven that will recreate samples for you.

Gain sample clearance

The ideal solution is to get proper written approval before you use the sample. In some cases, this will be as simple as sending a quick email to a minor artist and getting a positive response. For samples from bigger artists/labels though, getting the correct sample clearance can be an expensive and lengthy process. There are services out there that will take care of the legal process for you, but again these can be expensive, particularly when you’re releasing music independently.

The plan

Thanks to a little thing called the internet, it’s no longer necessary to press or print your music to physical platforms such as vinyl, cassette or CD if you want to grow your fanbase. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to carefully consider your method of distribution, though.

Music streaming platforms have become the most effective way to make your music available to your audience. While there are an ever-growing number of streaming services, you needn’t upload your work to each platform. Instead, you can use a music distribution aggregator, like DistroKid, CD Baby or TuneCore, which takes care of much of the heavy lifting for you. While aggregator services ultimately offer the same thing, there are some differences in the way they work which are important to understand.

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Some aggregators charge a fee per upload, whereas others allow you to upload as much music as you like for a set annual subscription. Consider how regularly you plan to release music before making your choice. On top of upload or subscription fees, some services charge a yearly retention fee to keep your music online or to allow you to claim revenue from their streams. Check for discount codes! Many services offer discount codes for first-time subscription plans.

Some services don’t offer much control in terms of upload date, and just work on an ‘ASAP’ basis. This might not work if you have a strict release schedule, in which case you’d be better off choosing a service which allows you to specify a date for your music to go live.

Spotify is the most popular streaming platform, and has the best tools available to artists

As well as the usual streaming platforms, you might want your music to appear on more specific services such as TikTok, Shazam or YouTube. While some services distribute your music to these platforms as standard, others charge a fee or don’t work with the services at all. Additionally, getting your music on specialist electronic music platforms such as Juno and Beatport isn’t as straightforward, as their policy means they only accept music from established labels and artists. Self-releasing your music now is just the next step to getting your future productions into the Beatport top 10!

Before release day make sure you’ve claimed your artist pages on each of the platforms your music appears on. This allows you to update your photo and bio and to access statistics on streams, listeners and more.

Spotify is the most popular streaming platform, and has the best tools available to artists. It allows you to share playlists with fans, set artist picks to be featured on your profile, and has the most in-depth stats of any platform. If you’re going to claim your artist page on one streaming platform make it Spotify. Claiming your Spotify page is easy. 

Head over to Spotify for Artists and follow the step-by-step process they guide you through. Other platforms each have their own artist management portals. You can claim your artist profiles for some of the major streaming services at: Apple Music, Deezer, and Amazon Music Unlimited.

Press shots and bio

It’s a good idea to get a fresh batch of photos for a launch. Preferably this should be from one photoshoot, and ideally make the aesthetic of these pictures relate to your release’s artwork and any videos you may have. Your bio should contain information about you, and your new release. You can then repurpose this bio for your various artist profiles, and for your press kit.

ISRC code

When you upload a song to your distributor, they will generate an ISRC code for your song recording. This is an international standard code for uniquely identifying sound recordings and music video recordings. Make sure to use that same ISRC code when you upload the song again for the album. Doing this will allow digital music stores to link singles and albums so that your streaming numbers are combined.

Press kit

When sending your music out to record labels, DJs and influencers, it’s crucial to provide some context around the release and yourself as an artist. Assume that they have never heard of you or your music – think of it as your chance to make a good first impression. 

Your EPK is often the first thing people look at when you pop up in their inbox

An Electronic Press Kit, or EPK, is a common way to deliver this information to your favourite label or DJ. This is typically a single page PDF document which contains a brief introduction to yourself and your project, links to any socials and upcoming gigs, track names, your album artwork, and any other relevant information. 

This is often the first thing people look at when you pop up in their inbox, so it’s important to make it concise, engaging and exciting. It should make readers want to go on to listen to the music you’ve spent so long on, so really sell yourself!

Your EPK and associated materials should look and sound professional. You wouldn’t send music out without listening back to it, so proofread your EPK, proofread it again, then have someone else proofread it too. A badly written or presented EPK can really detract from the professionalism of the overall project.

Finally, do you have any innovative project-specific means of promoting you and your work? Big labels and artists receive hundreds of demos a week, so how are you going to stand out amongst them? Technology is your friend here: creative design, videos, animation and exclusive versions of your tracks are some ways in which you can go above and beyond when releasing your music.

The release

The short window before, during and after your music goes live is critical to a well-delivered release. You want people to know about it ahead of time, hear it when it comes out, and be reminded of it in the coming days and weeks. That’s a lot to stay on top of, but don’t worry, this section covers what should be on your radar. 

Before the release

We’ve spoken already about EPKs, which are a way of presenting yourself in a neat package to those who may be interested in the music you’re making. You should also have a press release prepared in advance of your release, which you’ll send to relevant publications and digital media outlets in the hope of them getting the word out there. 

A press release is a document that outlines the pertinent information about the music you’re releasing, whether there’s an accompanying music video or gig etc. It should contain all the information a press contact needs to do their job properly, so there are a few crucial things to include. 

Landing a spot in a Spotify playlist will make your streams and followers skyrocket

First, give them the bare essentials: your artist name, the title and date of the release, and a press photo. On top of this, you should supply a ‘capture statement’ about your release that gives context to both the music and your career to date. Make sure to include a personal quote as well that the press contact can use in their article. Follow that up with specific details about where to find the music, links to your social media and notice about any upcoming gigs or tours. 

The next step is to make sure your ducks are all in a row for the streaming platforms your music will appear on. You should have already claimed your artist pages, but now it’s time to prepare the ground for the thing that can potentially have the biggest impact on your streaming numbers: playlists. 

Spotify’s editorial playlists are the biggest and most visible playlists on the platform, so landing a spot in one will make your streams and followers skyrocket. The trouble is, they’re fiercely contested as a result (Spotify have playlisted 20% of pitches since 2018), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t throw your hat in the ring. 

To give yourself the best possible shot of landing an editorial playlist spot, pitch your song for playlist consideration at least seven days before its release date. Spotify for Artists’ playlist pitching tool asks for some key details about the release to improve the likelihood that it’ll land on the most suitable playlist, so make sure you get your genre and mood tags right. 

To improve your chances of getting on Spotify’s algorithmically driven playlists, you’ll want to incentivise people to pre-save your song ahead of time. Think of a pre-save like the streaming version of a pre-order, where everyone who pre-saves your release gets a notification when it’s out. Pre-add is Apple Music’s version of a pre-save, which is only available for albums and not singles. 

Pre-saves are perhaps the only engagement signal you can build up before your music goes out, which feeds into Spotify’s decision process for which tracks to feature in playlists.

Social media

When social media platforms are used well, they can provide simple, powerful ways to network and engage with current and potential audiences for your music. The internet moves fast, so you should have a well-thought-out social media strategy with engaging, on-brand posts that keeps your music visible during the crucial weeks before and after the release.

Choose the right platform

Each social media platform has its own demographic, or at least its own approach, and you should take this into account when deciding where and how to promote your music once it’s been released. 

When it comes to reaching new fans, we think that currently the best platforms are TikTok and Instagram

When it comes to reaching new fans, we think that currently the best platforms are TikTok and Instagram. TikTok is designed specifically to provide content to users from creators they don’t follow, but whom the TikTok algorithm thinks the content will be well suited to. That means, if your video catches the attention of TikTok users, it’s likely to keep getting served to people who have a good chance of being fans of your style of music and garner thousands of views.

TikTok is also designed around pairing sound with video, and so it’s perfect for posting content featuring your music. Instagram have mirrored this video format with their ‘Reels’ feature. Like TikTok, Reels are served to Instagram users who don’t follow you and so they’re great for expanding your reach.

Instagram is also a great way of cultivating your brand image and engaging with your followers in different ways. The platform allows for photos, longer form videos and stories which can each be utilised in different ways. Let’s look at some ideas for content in the next section.

Vary your content

Everyone knows that posting regularly on social media is important when it comes to promoting music, but it can be really hard to think of ideas for posts, especially when it’s been a few weeks since a release. Here are a few ideas for content you could share in the weeks and months after a release, besides from the obvious release announcement posts.

Behind the scenes videos and photos are excellent content. Perhaps, if you’re a band, you share videos of jams or writing sessions or if you’re a producer you could post short tutorials on techniques you’ve used. 

If you, or your music gets any press coverage make sure you shout about it on social media. In the fickle world of Instagram and Facebook things are only as big a deal as you make them. It may feel like you’re showing off when you post about a positive review of your music two or three times, but other people aren’t thinking about it like that. To them you’re just one of the hundreds of people they follow, and if you don’t tell them what’s going on with your music, they’ll have no way of knowing (or caring).

Whatever content you post, make sure you’re interacting with fans who comment or reply to you. Fans are very different from followers; you don’t want to just be shouting about your music to a room full of people, instead pursue two-way conversations and build relationships with the people supporting your music. 

Work out a schedule

When it comes to how frequently you should be posting on social media after you’ve released music, a balance is key. You want to appear on people’s news feeds as much as possible without becoming annoying. Strike while the iron’s hot – if you released your music a week ago, it makes sense that you’d be popping up with regular promotional posts. If your release date was a year ago, it makes less sense. 

If you’re going to be busy with gigs and other engagements post release, don’t overlook the value of social scheduling tools. There are a large amount of social media marketing and management dashboard services that will handle your posts in advance, making sure they go out at the right time. This leaves you free to get on with the fun stuff!

After the release

Crack a bottle of your favourite tipple and raise a glass to yourself for turning a musical idea into a fully-fledged release. Now, back to work! Even though your music is now out in the world, you still have to make sure you’re maximising its potential. 

Your main job today is to promote the hell out of your release on all possible platforms and social media channels. Any page that’s got your artist name on it should be updated accordingly, with links to the streaming platforms where your devoted fan base can find it. It can be helpful to collate these links into a smart link page, so that you can direct people towards a central destination rather than multiple ones. 

The time period after your release is all about staying visible, both to the people who know about your track and those who don’t

If you’ve uploaded your music to alternative music platforms like SoundCloud and Bandcamp ahead of time (which aren’t typically included in an aggregator distribution roll-out), make sure they’re public. Log on and manually set the draft or private track to public and your followers will get an email that it’s available. SoundCloud allow you to schedule this process, but it’s only available for Pro Unlimited users.

The time period after your release is all about staying visible, both to the people who know about your track and those who don’t. Any basking in your own success should be done on your social media, which at this stage should be reflecting any positive feedback you’ve received, and signposting fans to the accolades that are no doubt rolling in. By accolades we mean features, playlist spots or reviews – the promotional showcasing that you’ve worked hard to get in the lead up to your release. 

You should also be continuing to push your music out to people and publications in the hope of gaining further coverage. One avenue to consider is influencer marketing, whereby an individual with a large social media following would share your music in some form. 

On Instagram, for example, your songs can be embedded so that they automatically play in their stories function, with a Spotify link included (you’ll need to be opted in for monetisation on Facebook/Instagram through your distributor to be eligible). It might seem like a small thing, but appearing in the story of an influencer with thousands of followers can translate into new fans that mightn’t have heard you otherwise. 

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