The ugly truth about music discovery
Music discovery is the buzziest buzzword in music today, and for a good reason. Everyone wants to get ahead, but few know the truth.
Every artist I meet dreams of being discovered. They imagine themselves receiving a phone call or a direct message from someone in a position of influence with money and power who offers them whatever they want to create their art. It’s the same fantasy held by every musician and creative since the dawn of time, and despite our best efforts to streamline the process, discovery remains a dream for many.
But what is music discovery? In the simplest terms, discovery refers to finding and/or hearing an artist for the first time. It refers to the moment an artist goes from being a complete unknown to someone the listener may later recognize. The moment of discovery is when connections are made, fandoms launch, and artists first begin to see the fruit of their label.
In 2022, there are more ways to discover music than ever. Listeners can utilize multiple streaming platforms, dive into artists’ playlists, enjoy algorithmic internet radio, find songs playing in public via Shazam, and—as always—exchange mixes with their closest friends. That doesn’t account for countless music blogs and publications, charts, and other social metrics one could use to learn who is hot in entertainment right now.
As the avenues for music discovery have increased and the barriers to accessing music decreased, the number of artists vying for your attention has reached an all-time high. That in itself isn’t bad. Everyone who desires to make and promote music should be able to do so easily. However, the impact of that demand for attention on consumers is something we still don’t fully understand.
Think about it for a second. As a consumer, you always want to find the next great thing. It’s instinctual. We cannot help being this way. It doesn’t matter if we’re discussing restaurants or bathroom cleaners; people want the best. The same is true in music. We love the artists we love and have preferences, but a part of us is always looking for the next song or album or person or group that can make us feel alive all over again.
So, consumers want the next thing great song or artist as fast as possible, and more artists than ever are promoting more songs than ever to meet that demand. What could go wrong?
In short, burnout. On both ends.
Artists are becoming so conditioned to the constant churn of the modern industry that they abandon material almost as soon as it is released. It’s as if the three-to-six-month promotional cycle that precedes an album’s release is the only push the songs will receive outside of the artist’s subsequent touring. When those shows end, they will release more music, and it too will be largely forgotten in a few months.
Meanwhile, listeners look to playlists such as Spotify’s New Music Friday and Discover Weekly as the go-to destinations for new music. If an artist doesn’t make it into one of the very limited spots on this list, they have to hope an influencer with a decent playlist following or a massive brand uses their song. Otherwise, it’s up to fate and luck and whatever good word-of-mouth that artist has been able to build.
But that is an incomplete picture of discovery.
Music discovery extends far beyond release week. The long tail of music promotion is never-ending, and the proof is everywhere. Catalog streams are on the rise, as are catalog sales. Industry professionals realize that all material has value in the digital age, and they are scrambling to find ways to promote the content they’d previously left to rust.
Before you fall victim to thinking your opportunity to be discovered has already come and gone, please remember these five cold hard truths about music discovery.
1. Discovery Takes Time.
How many tweets do you see on a given day? If not tweets, how about Instagram stories? You probably don’t know the answer, and neither do I, but we can estimate it’s a lot. We flip by dozens or even hundreds of updates every day from friends and strangers alike, but how many can you remember? I’m willing to bet the answer is not that many.
The digital age has programmed us to believe that momentary, flash in the pan success can be leveraged into a career. We think that all we need is one good tweet or post or song or TikTok to take before everything is gravy for the foreseeable future. While there may be some truth in certain rare cases, it is far from the norm.
Let’s pretend a new listener hears your song via their Discovery Weekly playlist, which is algorithmically generated by Spotify based on a user’s previous consumption. That first listen is of the utmost importance. It has to grab their attention and hold it long enough to make them look at who is behind it. That alone can plant the seed of fandom, but it may still be weeks or months, or even years from development.
Winning fans in 2022 is an ongoing effort in engagement that spans virtually every aspect of your career. You might send a great tweet that leads to 100 new followers. Of those, maybe half will click a link to your next single. Perhaps one-third of those that click will listen to the full song and—if you’re lucky—check out other music. This process repeats with every tweet, post, and TikTok you share. It happens with every gig you play, song you release, and behind-the-scenes photograph that makes its way online. The process is never-ending, and you never know how far along someone is in their journey. All you can do is stay on the path.
2. Discovery is not linear.
The first time you hear a song is rarely the moment you become a fan of the artist behind it. Fandom is something deeper than general admiration, and again, it takes time to develop. I may like your song the first time I hear it, but it could take years for me to hear another track or see you live.
Many artists get frustrated with the way social media has busied their schedules. Rather than focusing on songwriting and performance, most artists now also need to consider marketing, branding, etc. What these artists don’t realize is that message they share and any piece of content they create is a reminder to everyone who ever heard their name in passing that they exist. Like Billboards, the stuff you put into the world does as much to introduce you to people as it reminds them you exist. Your next tweet might remind someone you have an album out. It sounds crazy, but it’s true!
3. Going viral isn’t enough.
I hear from musicians every week who dream of going viral. “If I can get that kind of attention,” they tell me, “I won’t let anyone down!”
Music discovery and going viral are not the same thing. Anyone can go viral. It may not seem that way right now, but it’s true. Platforms like TikTok recognize the value in catapulting random accounts into the spotlight, and they’re engineering their algorithms to look for opportunities to highlight otherwise unknown creators.
That said, going viral probably won’t change your life. You may get a boost in streams and general meetings with labels or management, but unless you’re prepared to respond to your viral moment most of the hype will come and go before you can blink. The boost in streams will be nice, no doubt, but it won’t last.
4. Consistency Matters
Getting people to notice you takes at least three things:
- Quality content (photos, videos, tweets, etc.)
- Catchy Songs
- A consistent presence
Making quality content is as easy as logging online in today’s world. There are hundreds of sites that will tell you what to post, when to post, and they can even help you post it.
Catchy songs are slightly more difficult, but technology has advanced to such a point that recording your track can be done from virtually anywhere.
Consistency is a skill that only time can develop. Making one great piece of content is hard. Making one-hundred pieces of content is equally hard, but there are tricks you’ll learn to simplify the process.
For those getting started, don’t rush anything. Release one song at a time to maximize the value of that track. Create lyric videos, music videos, alternate music videos, behind-the-music vignettes, behind-the-scenes photos, lyric sheets, and anything else you can think of to make people look at your music.
Through it all, remain consistent. If you’re going to share photos, make sure they look good. Double-check that your videos are always exporting in 1080p or higher. Check your grammar. Etc. Etc. Etc.
5. Algorithms are your friend, not your foe.
In a world where artists fight to make people believe a song is worth more than $0.004 per stream, it’s easy to understand why many take issue with streaming services and the algorithmic recommendation engines behind them. However, I think that mindset blinds us to the unique opportunity of the modern age. Everything is everywhere, and almost everyone has access to it all the time. The distance between learning of an artist and consuming everything they’ve made is almost nonexistent.
Nobody has time to sort through everything, and most wouldn’t know how if they did. Algorithms help us cut through the noise to find music closely resembling what we already enjoy. Whether it’s recommending you to three or three thousand people doesn’t matter as much as the fact it’s recommending you at all. Streaming services could easily charge for that kind of exposure. Instead, they understand the value in discovery, even if they don’t care to admit it.
Try reframing your relationship with algorithms like this:
Every day, at all hours, there are computers worldwide working to match people with songs they might enjoy. Those machines promote you while you eat, sleep, shower, and go to the movies. They do not take holidays or weekends off, and they never have to leave early for a dentist appointment. Algorithms work for you even when you’re not working on music at all, and honestly, who or what else in your life can claim the same? Nothing!
James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company’s podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.