Header for A Musician's Guide to Online Advertising

How to build an audience for your music with online advertising

There’s one thing that every artist wants: FANS!

Loyal listeners don’t invent themselves though. They have to be found, wowed, and converted.

Found, wowed, and converted — by you.

Why should you advertise your music?

There’s a movie where a ghost tells a guy to build a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield, promising that when he does, thousands of sports fans (and a few more ghosts) will show up and the guy can finally earn some money from this whole baseball fixation thing. 

Sounds great, right? 

Except nothing like that has ever happened in real life. Not in baseball, and not in music.

Here’s reality: More music is being made and released than ever before. Competition is fierce. That means very few people will take notice of your music just because you’ve made it.

You need to do SOMETHING ELSE besides simply releasing music in order to:

  1. Get seen 
  2. Capture attention
  3. Drive results 

All the usual promo efforts apply here, from big publicity or campaigns to get your song on a Spotify playlist campaigns all the way down to playing a show in front of people who’ve never seen you perform.

Advertising can play an important part in that mix, and luckily for independent musicians, online advertising is very affordable compared to more traditional forms of advertising. You can spend as little as $20 on an interactive banner ad campaign — or drop a few dollars a day on Facebook ads — and see measurable results.

The listener journey, from stranger to fan

People don’t go right from a blind date to a marriage proposal. The same is true for music fans. 

You need to lead new listeners on a journey, in this order:

  1. Awareness
  2. Curiosity
  3. Enjoyment

First they need to know you exist. Then they need to wonder about your music enough to stop whatever else they’re doing. Then they need to care. 

Advertising can help you achieve all three goals, but not always at the SAME time. 

The Rule of 7 in advertising: It takes multiple touch-points

Back in the 1930s, movie studio bosses wanted to know how many times the average person needed to hear about a movie before they’d buy a ticket. They eventually landed on the idea that it took at least seven different advertisements. 

You should assume the Rule of Seven applies equally to acquiring fans for your music. There will be the occasional unicorn who hops in a single leap from introduction to lifelong fan, but they’re, well, unicorns. 

The Halo Effect for your music brand

Not all seven touch-points (give or take) along the listener journey need to be an advertisement, as long as you’re reaching people through other means: blog coverage, organic social reach, playlist placements, etc.

But those things aren’t guaranteed. 

Advertising your music can help you fill in the gaps or even supplant PR and playlist promotion altogether. When your ads work in concert with other strategies though, it can create a “halo effect” where the sum of your efforts is greater than the parts, and audiences begin to lean into your messaging with greater curiosity and brand awareness.

Imagine you’re trying to build your following in Los Angeles. Someone in LA who likes your kind of music sees one of your videos in their Facebook feed. They take note of your artist name but ignore the video. Then they see your interactive banner ad on Pitchfork, but they don’t click because they’re late for work. On the way to work they’re listening to Spotify and your audio ad comes on: “Hey Los Angeles, this is (your artist name)…” Now they’re REALLY curious and primed to actually LISTEN the next time they’re reminded of your music.

The temperature scale for audience loyalty at various stages in the journey

  • “Cold” Audience: These people have never heard of you. They can’t care. They’re strangers.
  • “Lukewarm” Audience: Maybe they’ve heard of you, watched a video, listened to a song. Meh.
  • “Warm” Audience: They dig you. They want to hear more.
  • “Hot” Audience: These are your diehards. Your 1000 true fans. They want to know about everything you do.

The best platforms for advertising music

There are a lot of ad platforms and tools out there, including TikTok, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but the following is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck:

  • Facebook/Instagram — Facebook has created one of the most powerful ad platforms in human history. Facebook and Instagram advertising gives musicians access to billions of users across the two sister platforms. You have granular targeting options. And it’s affordable to reach new listeners! 
  • Google/YouTube —Between these two entities, you can run ads on the #1 and #2 search-engines, the #1 platform for music consumption, and, well, you get the point. It’s Google and YouTube! 
  • Ad Builder — with Show.co’s ad tool, you can instantly turn any YouTube or Spotify link into an interactive ad that reaches real music fans on major sites like Pitchfork, MTV, RollingStone, and more. The same tool also lets you run audio ads on platforms like Spotify and iHeartRadio.
  • LOCAL print media — While this article is mostly about digital advertising, it’s worth mentioning that traditional media can still be effective and affordable when focused locally. I’m not saying you should run an expensive radio or TV ad, or put your face on a billboard or bench, but if you have a big release or concert, you might consider a one-off ad in the local paper or weekly to emphasize the event and brighten the glow of that halo effect we talked about earlier.

Defining some basic terms in digital advertising

Before you build out your music marketing plan, you’re going to need to know a few of the basic concepts.

What is an impression?

While we WANT new fans, what we first NEED is reach.

Reach is often measured in the form of an impression, which is defined as any time your ad renders on someone’s screen. An impression doesn’t necessarily mean the person SAW your ad, mind you, let alone cared or clicked, but the total number of impressions is a decent way of understanding at quick-glance how many people are encountering your message, music, artist name, video, or whatever other content you’re serving up.

Combine reach with great music and a message that makes people want to click and a smart advertising campaign CAN sometimes lead a listener all the way from cold to hot, from first introduction to lifelong fan. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; REACH — in the form of impressions — is the one thing you’re guaranteed in your advertising. You’re ushering someone to the starting point of the listener journey: awareness.

What is an engagement in music advertising?

Engagement can be measured a few different ways, depending on your goals and the platform you’re advertising on. In general though, you can define an engagement as some action the person took while viewing the ad, giving their attention to the ad, or even clicking the thing you want them to click on.

Examples of “engagement” are when someone:

  • watches a certain duration of a video ad in their Facebook feed
  • plays the YouTube video embedded in an interactive banner ad
  • clicks your ad to subscribe to your mailing list

What is a conversion?

Like engagement, there’s no single way to define conversion. Sometimes it’s taking the action you want them to take within the ad itself, such as a click or providing an email address. Sometimes it’s an ADDITIONAL action beyond the call-to-action in the ad, such as a vinyl purchase, a Spotify follow, etc. To make a clearer distinction between engagement and conversion, you could think of conversion as arriving at the ULTIMATE goal of your ad.

Realistic expectations: Even winning ads fail most of the time.

In baseball, even the best batters strike out more often than not. While building an audience for your music, you have to remember that not everyone will love your songs. MOST people won’t. Your job is to find the RIGHT listeners, say hello, prove your worth, and give them a clear path to becoming a fan. 

When you interpret the results of your advertising, remember it’s a numbers game. A winnowing game. An upside-down pyramid game. Lots of impressions. Fewer engagements, clicks and conversions. But those are still your wins, your fans.

I recommend for your own sanity that you don’t spend too much time counting up the losses (impressions who don’t engage). Taylor Swift doesn’t count the million people who stayed home when she plays the local Enormodome. She sees a sold-out arena.

As mentioned above though, failing at your conversion goal more often than not still creates awareness, so maybe those little losses lay the foundation for future connections.

What is ROI?

Return on Investment. In other words, what are you getting back for the amount you’re spending?

When you think about ROI, keep in mind that start-ups expect to lose money for a long time before they turn a profit. It’s built into their business plan as “customer acquisition cost.” So if you run an ad campaign that actually drives as much revenue as you’re spending out of the gates, you’re off to an amazing start! That’s unlikely to happen in your early advertising. 

Advertising is an investment in your music career’s long-term growth, but one where you need to be very intentional about the goals you set.

What should your goal be with advertising?

There’s no right answer here. It could be to boost streams on Spotify, to grow your email list, to get people to your website, to sell merch. You SHOULD measure your ROI though, even if you know you won’t make back what you spend. It’ll help you focus on the right goal — because NOT ALL CLICKS ARE CREATED EQUAL.

For instance, I recently ran two nearly identical interactive banner ads, one that drove people to Spotify and one that drove people to my website. The page where they landed on my site had an experience for the listener: a YouTube video, essays, a Spotify player, pictures. Oh, and an email capture pop-up. Guess which one yielded more tangible results: Yep, my website. 

Whenever possible, use your advertising to drive results and build audiences you can RETURN TO by owning the relationship with your audience. 

Building custom audiences and owning the relationship

The most effective online advertising gives you a way to understand who has engaged with your ad and at what depth. You want to be able to serve up additional ad messaging in the future that is appropriate for each individual, based on their previous actions and engagement.

Within the Facebook ecosystem, for instance, you have the ability to “pixel” your website traffic and know what pages they’ve seen. You can create custom audiences based on specific engagement with your content. And much, much more. Show.co’s Ad Builder tool will soon introduce its own “pixeling” solution too, so you’ll build ad audiences knowing you can reach them again at any time.

If the previous paragraph sounded like a bunch of confusing jargon, check out this video about retargeting, remarketing, custom audiences, and the Facebook pixel.

What makes a good music ad?

There’s no ONE FORMULA to make an effective ad, but here are a few things to keep in mind:

STOP THEM in their tracks!

You want to grab them right away, get them to stop scrolling, scratch their head, turn the sound on, click the button. That means you need more than an impression, you need a pattern interrupt: Something that is so shocking, strange, thrilling, or laser-beamed at their heart that they can’t ignore it.

Think like the viewer and be IMPATIENT

In order to get attention, your ad needs to strike immediately. If it’s a video ad, no fade-ins or long intros. The visual hook that grabs them needs to happen in the first second or two.

VIDEO IS KING, but it takes more than a king to rule a kingdom

Think about how you consume stuff online. You respond to video above all other forms of ad content, right? If you have a good video, you can do some really effective advertising on a budget.

But not every music video is gonna work as an ad (lyric videos, long videos, videos with preamble, etc). Plus, video content can be cost-prohibitive and time-consuming to create. Lastly, not every platform is optimal for video. On Spotify, for instance, an audio ad is far more appropriate.

All that to say, don’t put all your eggs in the video basket. Banner ads and audio ads can also be effective, and they’re much easier to build. With interactive ads, Show.co will make your ad FOR YOU in minutes — just drop in the link to your music on YouTube or Spotify!

Share a MYSTERY that only your “call-to-action” can solve

Once you’ve grabbed attention, you want to KEEP it. Can you heighten the drama or plant the seeds of a question that can only be answered when someone clicks the button? You want the person engaging with your ad to feel compelled towards that call-to-action (the text on the button or ad that clarifies the action you want the person to take).

You already create tension and release in your music; now build it into your advertising.

One of my favorite examples is Smalltown Poets’ call-to-action: “Hear the song that got us kicked off stage.”

Is it bad? Offensive? Too loud? Even if I’ve never heard of the band, I want to hear the song.

Play to their sense of identity

You have a hard job as an artist. You’re not selling a solution or essential product. Not really. It’s music, and there are millions of other musicians out there who can appeal to a listener. So the way you advertise has to be more about personality and connection.

Make the language, look, and purpose of your ad speak directly to someone’s sense of self. Anti-social EDM fans? Outlaw country for white-collar workers? Steampunk soccer-moms? Know who you’re talking to and how your music helps.

Keep your ad content casual

How do you respond to something appearing in your feed that is obviously an ad? You ignore it, skip it, mute it, scroll past. Things that LOOK AND SOUND like ads feel manipulative and cold.

The world of online advertising now aims to create viral content that looks communal, quirky, “authentic.” Sometimes a conversion goal hides — like soldiers in the Trojan Horse — within a piece of content your friends might share on social. Other times you know it’s an ad, but it just HITS right, so who cares.

This works in your favor as a DIY musician because you don’t need a big budget, fancy tools, or mad design skills to create an effective ad. It can be rough around the edges as long as it feels real and interesting. What kind of things would your friends share? That’s probably a good ad. Keep it cas’ ftw. 

Ad content should feel “organic”

This is perhaps another way of stating what was mentioned above about being casual. But with specific focus on the vibe and culture that’s native to a particular platform or placement.

For instance, if you advertise your music with Instagram Reels, your ad should look and feel like… a Reel!

That means it should feel viral, fun, communal. You might even consider NOT having a CTA or link in an ad format like Reels. Which means the norms of the environment should shape your strategy, and where certain placements fit in your funnel.

What’s a marketing funnel?

“Funnel” is just a fancy term for your fan’s journey from stranger to diehard, or from prospective customer to the person who owns every album on vinyl. It provides a kind of map for how your true fans move closer and closer to completing your objective, as well as a structure for you to vet your messaging, tools, and tactics.

At the “top” of funnel (TOFU), you’ll have a large group of people you target with your music or message.

Those who are interested take some step that brings them closer to you. (They click, they listen, they watch, etc.) They’re now further down the funnel. You’ve moved them from simple awareness to something more like curiosity or consideration. That’s “middle of funnel” (or MOFU).

Those who didn’t take the initial step either fall out of the funnel entirely, or you retarget them to see if you can warm them up a bit more.

But, just like an actual funnel, volume decreases as you move downwards. Far fewer people will reach the middle of your funnel than you target at the top. Even fewer will move towards the bottom of funnel (BOFU), which is the place where they’re more likely to take the desired action: joining your email or SMS list, a ticket purchase, a monthly subscription, buying the signed vinyl, etc.

Again, like the Taylor Swift reference up above, your marketing funnel is a winnowing process.

It helps you identify where fans are at in the journey so you can communicate with each of them appropriately. Best of all, it helps you find those lifelong supporters.

Targeting the right audience for your music

So we’ve talked about how to create a compelling ad, but how do you determine who’s going to respond to it?


Targeting is the act of limiting the audience who’ll see your ad based on:

  • Demographics (age, gender, etc.)
  • Geography (country, city, etc.)
  • Interests (genres, artists, etc.)
  • Habits (when they’re online, whether they watch videos or not, which websites/platforms they visit, etc.)

When you advertise your music to people based on the artists and genres they like, be sure you ACTUALLY sound similar to those artists and genres. I envy the hell out of Radiohead and Lizzo, but I don’t sound anything like either of them.

Also, when you target people based on interests, don’t (necessarily) limit it to JUST music. Your songs might find another kind of interest alignment, such environmental activism, cycling, relaxation, personal empowerment, vandalizing freight trains, etc.

Mine the subject matter of your songs for connection points, not just the SOUND of the music.

Advertising your music on an indie budget

Can DIY musicians effectively advertise with small budgets? In short, yes. The key is how you allocate your small budget.

Budget during the testing phase

If you’re running Facebook ads, for instance, it’s helpful to spend about 10-20% of your total budget on testing. You want to test different audiences, ad content, and so forth, until you find the best combo (which usually means the cheapest cost per the desired result).

In Show.co’s Ad Builder, you can run similar competing ad campaigns, often referred to as A/B testing, for as low as $20 per campaign to determine the highest performing ad.

Ad Builder users saw an average of:

1.9x the impressions for their spend than Facebook Ads
6.7x the impressions for their spend than Instagram Ads
14.8x the impressions for their spend than Premium direct
16.9x the impressions for their spend than Google Ads

Note: Comparisons are based on the average CPM of Show.co Ad Builder ads in January and February 2021 compared to Ad Stage’s Q1 2020 advertising benchmarks for Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories and Google Search Ad. Premium averages are based on observed averages from major label deals on premium publisher sites. Remember! Ad results can vary and impressions / CPM are not guaranteed.

Budget during the optimizing phase

Once you’ve determined the winning ad(s) and winning audience(s) through your initial testing, it’s time to put the rest of your money behind that winner.

Whether you spend smaller amounts per day over a long duration, or use up the budget quickly for saturation is up to you; just be aware that if you set your daily budget too low, your ad might lose out to other possible ads in an “auction” — which is how a platform or website determines which ads to show when there is limited space and lots of “inventory” (potential ads to display).

However, just because you’re putting your budget behind a winning ad doesn’t mean your work is done. You can still make tweaks to the ad or audience to get better (cheaper) results every time. This is know as “optimization.” Machine-learning (AI) within Facebook’s ad platform gives you a great assist in optimization, practically automating the process for you. The more results you get from your ad, the smarter Facebook gets at finding similar results for less money. That helps you stretch your budget even further.

The easiest way to advertise your music

All that being said, most independent musicians don’t have tons of time to nerd-out on ad optimizations all day. Nor do they have the money to run endlessly optimizing campaigns.

Sometimes it’s a matter of saying to yourself, “I have a new album coming out Friday, only $100 to spend on ads, and I want to blanket as many big music sites as I can with my music over the next 3 days.” With Ad Builder, you can put a small budget to work placing your Spotify music player or YouTube video on sites like Pitchfork, RollingStone, MTV, Billboard, and Paste.

Help your music break through the noise with online advertising

Every artist wants to grow their audience, but we forget that “grow” is a verb. It takes effort, and sometimes money.

As this article lays out though, you don’t have to be spend big to get real results. Thanks to digital advertising tools like Ad Builder, you can launch an engaging ad in minutes, target the right listeners, and build your fanbase one click at a time.

Build Your Audience Today