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YouTube Marketing For Independent Musicians

1In this interview Dustin Bates of the Columbus, OH indie rock band Starset chats about the concept behind the band, and how he has been able to a strong following on YouTube to fuel the band's success, as well as sharing advice for other artists looking to leverage the power of YouTube and social media.

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Guest post by Rick Goetz of MusicConsultant

Starset is a rock band from Columbus, OH, formed by Dustin Bates in 2013. The group released their debut album, Transmissions, in 2014 and a second album, Vessels, on January 20, 2017. Starset has found success in expanding the ideas of its concept albums through social media and YouTube, where they generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from views. Dustin signed a record deal with Razor & Tie in March of 2014 after releasing a few songs on his own. Starset’s single, “My Demons” and its related user-generated videos have accumulated nearly 300 million YouTube views. The band’s most commercially successful song, “Monster” peaked at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard “Mainstream Rock Songs” chart in May 2017. To date, Starset has more than one billion views on their official videos and user-generated content combined. The band’s songs have been featured in gaming videos by well-known gamers including FaZe Clan and others, in anime shorts and in popular games like Call of Duty.

Dustin Bates talked about the concept behind the band and how he has been able to build a strong following on YouTube. He also shared some tips for other artists looking to source high-quality content and leverage the power of social media.

Music Consultant:

 

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Dustin. Tell me how you guys were able to build such a strong following on YouTube.

DB:

 

There have been multiple pieces that have come together to create the growth.
One of major approaches was just knowing that we were a YouTube-centric band early on and that this channel was going to be the home base for all of social media. We realized this because the band makes cinematic music, which marries itself quite well with content – not only our own content, but also user-generated content.

Starset is also sci-fi-themed. So, we have spent a lot of time with the videos. We knew from the beginning that we had a chance to really promote ourselves and the music using the video side of YouTube. We also realized that the user-generated side could be very useful. I had another band called Downplay and had made a lot of inroads with a load of content creators, especially gamers, through that. I gave them gratis licensing to use my music in their montages. With Starset, we reached out to those people and asked if they would like to do that again. So, it would give us a leg up right from the start. And the people that follow those gamers then, in turn, created their own works using our music as well.

Music Consultant:

 

Is there gaming in your background, or did you base your marketing strategy on observations about your fan base?

DB:

 

I don’t really game. I just saw an interest among gamers who wanted music for their games but were getting pushback from major labels who were giving them copyright strikes. I was able to give them gratis licensing with my other band and realized it would likely be a nice marketing strategy for Starset as well.

Music Consultant:

 

Since you’re not a gamer yourself, how did you find this community? I’m assuming you knew, because your music was rooted in sci-fi elements, that you had a product that would appeal to that kind of audience.

DB:

 

Yes. I discovered they were getting copyright strikes by observing what was happening for several years when I was with Downplay. I was getting direct messages from various people asking for permission to use the music.
And I usually said yes, even if they didn’t have a lot of followers. Because I did that, more and more came, until eventually, people with millions of subscribers came around. I saved those big ones in a little database, so that when the Starset project came around, I could reach out to them. That was just the beginning. Since then, a lot of other pieces have helped this to snowball.

Music Consultant:

 

Can you offer up some examples of those pieces that have helped Starset succeed in this way?

DB:

 

Well, for example, when I tapped into the gaming market, it spread into anime and other related markets. And there is also a cinematic aspect to Starset’s music; we’ve always thought it would be a tragedy if our music wasn’t used in synchs for commercials, games or movies. While that hasn’t entirely come to fruition, it has been somewhat fulfilled by kids using it as the soundtrack to their games, etc.

This kind of thing has happened in droves. One of the other things that made what Starset is doing explode on YouTube is that, aside from being about space and science and sci-fi, it also draws from movie marketing. There’s a fourth wall. There’s a cinematic quality to the look and imagery and to the general marketing.

Many bands out there make music for standard use, but there is a fourth wall between us. That actually plays well into the YouTube thing. And then I think the cinematic aspect of our music is symbiotic with all of these things.

Music Consultant:

 

Well, and there’s a big, hardcore, tight-knit community around gaming culture and sci-fi. Those interests are very unifying.

DB:

 

Yes. And another way we’ve pushed our own media on YouTube is that we’ve been very picky with what we put up. Our videos are not just things we threw up on the channel. Because of that, everything we put up trends across the board of YouTube in the 20s.
We really try to keep the quality to that deserving of that level and then push it that way on all our channels.

I think another thing that’s contributed to our success is that our fan base is very global. There’s almost uniform distribution around the world, which sets us apart from a lot of our contemporaries and means that we’ve been able to be successful on YouTube, since that is where global fans go to consume music. In that regard, it’s not even really about the video itself. YouTube is a streaming music service, just like any other. And we have managed to have random videos with 80 million plays on them.

Music Consultant:

 

When you dig into your analytics, where is most of the traffic coming from?

DB:

 

Our label has access to a lot of the deeper analytics, but I can certainly comment on where many of our traffic comes from geographically. Our top three cities are Bangkok, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. We’ve been chatting about how to pull off a tour to some of these areas. It would definitely be a gamble, but we really want to try it.

Music Consultant:

 

It sounds like so much of your traffic has been organic. When you started realizing that user-generated content was a big factor in your success, what did you do to inspire people to engage with your content even more?

DB:

 

The label has been really helpful in that they’ve launched contests to create content. They’ve actually also created a toolkit for people to download. It allows them to incorporate unique Starset assets into their videos. They just added some new elements pretty recently. Those two things have really pushed us forward. Also, the label’s reception to the idea of giving out gratis licensing was really smart for both us and for the label.

Music Consultant:

 

It can be sort of counter-intuitive when you have traditional label stamps, for sure. What is your advice for someone looking to replicate what you’ve done?

DB:

 

Outside of making music with a cinematic, symphonic aspect, I would say that strong branding and finding certain communities within YouTube or within whatever social media platform you’re trying to build up really work. And you really have to be creating high-quality content that is uniquely your own, which means having a strong understanding of what your brand is and who you are. And once you have clarity on that brand, you need to strengthen it and make it tangible to people so they can latch onto it. Those have been some of the most important aspects of our work and what have made what Starset is doing really work.

I think it also helps to keep an open mind. When you see something connecting a certain way with fans, learn as much as you can about who they are and why it’s working and then embrace it. Let them know you appreciate what they are doing and look for ways to expand on it that are not only good for the band, but also for the fans. Starset has incredible, dedicated fans. Many of them are also very talented and creative.
Music Consultant:

 

Obviously, there’s no replacement for high-quality content. How were you able to source such great video content in a way that was sustainable?

DB:

 

It’s about the “elbow grease to dollars” ratio, which started out very high on the elbow grease side in the beginning. I borrowed the camera we used for the official “My Demons” video and shot it myself. The basis of my band is the spaceman, and I built the space suit. I shoveled guano out of a factor attic to make the Tesla laboratory. I built all the props and edited it and found a friend who could help me do the effects. It was a lot of work to keep the budget down, to be honest. It was about really tapping into our creativity and searching for things that could look cool. The Tesla scope that I created was mostly a really, really old tube TV from the early 1950s.

After that first video, keeping things moving was about maintaining the quality and always striving to increase it and keeping an eye on the budget. Keeping the quality up is about finding people who can take the vision and the stories and create while you are on tour or working on something else. It’s about always striving for something better. The label has been pretty instrumental in helping to do that with us.

Music Consultant:

 

How have you maintained and driven traffic to your other social media platforms? Obviously, YouTube is your bread and butter.

DB:

 

We’ve used social media in various ways. Twitter has been a place where we set the tone and direct people to various media and different locations in order to promote content and events. With Twitter, we mostly re-tweet, always keeping that fourth wall up.

If you think of a band as a group of actors, when the band is the band, they are the characters. Our own personal social media channels are where you can exist parallel to an actor. Facebook is a place where there’s a little more communication as well, and the other social media channels like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook allow more frequent dialogue than YouTube allows.

And our own personal social media is where you can be the sort of parallel to an actor. But Facebook is a place where there’s a little more communication that happens, as well. And the other social medias such as Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, they allow, I guess, more frequent dialogue than YouTube. Still, as I mentioned before, we only really put things up when we have something fantastic.

Music Consultant:

 

It’s really interesting that you’ve created that fourth wall – similar to the concept of “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” There is an anonymous kind of quality to that that keeps it exciting.

DB:

 

It was actually initially much more anonymous. I am just a piece of this, and we’re always trying to cultivate that fourth wall. It’s fun to do interviews like this one with you, but they are actually quite rare, because we don’t often talk about the man behind the machine. Sometimes it’s fun to let people see inside.

To learn more about Starset, visit the band’s website and YouTube channel, which includes a special section for fan-made videos. The group also released a Marvel comic, The Prox Transmissions and a new video for the rock single “Satellite.”

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