Making fans care BEFORE your music arrives.

Too much music is being released today for the launch itself to be special just because your music is available.

Or as songwriter Robyn Ottolini said in a panel discussion I recently moderated:

“It’s not their job to care. It’s your job to make them care.”

If you can get them to care BEFORE the music is out, you’ll have laid the foundation for a successful launch. 

So what we’ll be talking about today is the difference between building an anticipatory experience versus conveying information. How to effectively do the former, and why you can’t rely on the latter. 

3 kinds of anticipation:

  • Suspense or mystery (I NEED TO KNOW!!!!)
  • Participation and identity (I CAN SEE MYSELF IN THIS!!!)
  • Affinity, transformation, and triumph (I’M ROOTING FOR YOU!!!)

People have to feel like they’re witnessing or going on a journey. Not simply receiving information. So…

Anticipation is NOT:

  • Sharing a release date
  • Saying “this is coming soon”
  • Pre-save now!
  • Boosting an ad

These things aren’t bad necessarily; information is important. But it’s equally important for you to understand that awareness is different from excitement.

In the old days, labels relied on radio singles, advertising, PR, and touring to build anticipation and spread information at the same time. In the 21st Century, those modes have given way to platform features, playlists, and algorithmic recommendation.

In the new era, your tools for creating anticipation include real-time social, song snippets, participation, collaboration, surprise, and delight.

Sound vague? Or like a tall order? Let’s dig into some examples.

10 approaches to promoting music pre-release:

1. Don’t think of your release date as the starting line

As Cassie Petrey of music marketing firm Crowd Surf recommended in the same panel discussion I mentioned earlier:

“Your REAL release date is the minute you share a clip on TikTok. The release of the full recording should be thought of as more of a remix in the imagination of your audience.”

So adjust your notion of what it means to arrive.

Think of the Apollo 11 mission. Yes, the “official release date” might’ve been them planting a flag on the moon, but everyone watching back on earth cared so much at that moment because they’d been thrilled by the danger and uncertainty up until that point.

2. Know your story from multiple angles

The band Walk Off the Earth is an amazing case-study in building anticipation for a new song.

For their latest single “My Stupid Heart,” they created more than a dozen videos, all with very distinct concepts.

Clearly they made some long lists, set aside massive amounts of time to execute on all these crazy ideas, had great social content to show for it, AND had the additional benefit of testing more than a dozen concepts against one another until one or more of them became true viral hits.

Some of these videos include:

  • The Giant Guitar: with a full band playing it at once. They do a call-out explaining exactly what the song is about and who it’s for. It got 6.6 million views.

If you have a stupid heart, then drop a ❤️ in the comments! #walkofftheearth #stupidheart #lovesong #givingseason #yearontiktok #givingszn #fyp #foryou #music #heart #love

♬ My Stupid Heart Walk off the Earth – Walk off the Earth

  • Up close and acoustic: No call out, just an intimate performance of the chorus. 6.3 million views.

We’re pumped ya’ll are felling the new tune idea! Time to write some verses! Stay tuned and smash the ❤️ to support! #walkofftheearth #fyp #stupidheart #mystupidheart #newmusic #band

♬ My Stupid Heart Walk off the Earth – Walk off the Earth

  • Fruit drum machine: Bizarre, absurd, pointless… which was exactly the point. People loved it. 10.4 million views.

We gettin’ fruity wit it! ‘My Stupid Heart’ coming soon! #walkofftheearth #mystupidheart #newsong #lovesong #fyp #GivingSzn #newmusic #playtronica #producer #producertok #weirdinstruments

♬ My Stupid Heart – Walk Off The Earth

  • Their kids playing the song: Cuteness overload. Went crazy viral with 57.5 million views.

Our boys have been obbsessed with our new song ‘My Stupid Heart’ and wanted to perform it for our TiKTok peeps! What should their band name be?! #walkofftheearth #mystupidheart #romeoeats #wote #wotekids #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #newmusic #musictok #producertok #newsong

♬ My Stupid Heart – Walk Off The Earth

  • Mom and son “official sound” comment video: A casual response to the viral hit. 13.4 million views.

Replying to @Bella so many requests to make this an official sound. Here it is! ps. Full kid version coming soon! #mystupidheart #walkofftheearth #romeoeats

♬ My Stupid Heart Walk off the Earth GRL – Walk off the Earth

  • Acoustic duo punch: Slower version with an unexpected (and controversial) punch. 4.8 million views.;web_id=7137891557260576302

  • Mom and son open verse call out: A direct invitation to participation, and we still haven’t heard anything but the chorus! 13.4 million views on the original video alone, many more duet versions will have been shared.

Replying to @Guelu we can’t wait to hear what y’all come up with! #mystupidheart #openversechallenge #walkofftheearth #musictok #newsong #musicontiktok

♬ My Stupid Heart – Walk Off The Earth

  • Slap bass of chorus. Two guys playing the bass. No singing. 500K views.

Introducing the slappy bass riff from ‘My Stupid Heart’. Full song this friday! Who’s pumped for this tune? #bass#walkofftheearth#mystupidheart#acoustic#acousticcovers#fyp#foryoupage#foryou#bassguitar

♬ My Stupid Heart – Walk Off The Earth

  • The boys excitedly announce the song is out now!!! More cuteness. 11.7 million views.

The day has come!!! Thank you to our tiktok community for blowing up this song! Go have a listen now. Ps. Kids version coming soon. #walkofftheearth #mystupidheart #musictok #newmusic #newmusicfriday #romeoeats #fyp #viral #foryou #acousticcovers #foryoupag

♬ My Stupid Heart – Walk Off The Earth

  • The squeaky door: Funny in-studio moment where some squeaky door hinges seem to be singing the melody to the chorus.

Even our door is singing My Stupid Heart! Stream the full tune now!! L!NK in B!0. #walkofftheearth #mystupidheart #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #music #musictok #trending #weirdmusic

♬ My Stupid Heart – Walk Off The Earth

3. Inspire participation! 

Can you get your audience to shape the music or artwork in some way?

Can you drive your community so they feel invested in the outcome?

You want them to feel like “We’re doing this together!” 

Some examples include:

  • Walk Off the Earth’s open-verse challenge (duets, stitches, etc.)
  • asking for people to contribute lyric or topic suggestions in the comments
  • using Questions or Polls tools on social
  • or even something more intensive, such as the way Emma McGann invited her audience to help her design the 3D-modeling for one of the monsters in her Monsterverse videos and RPG (as discussed in a previous episode of our podcast).

4. Tease like a film trailer

This one is a lot harder for you to do than it is for me to recommend, since… I can’t think of a great example off the top of my head. Haha.

But you know the feeling: A preview comes on in the theatre, or an ad plays before a YouTube video, and you say to yourself, damn, I can’t wait for that movie!

Can you create that same feeling for your music? Good luck!

5. Explore unfinished things

Not everything has to be complete.

Our mind both hates and loves mystery, so we keep obsessing on the thing that’s left undone.

Maybe you shoot a TikTok where you hype up the new music in an interesting way and then fall down a manhole before you can say the release date. (Not legal advice).

Do something incomplete. Like a TV cliffhanger. Like the way creators intentionally clip off the ends of their TikToks. Like a…

[sound of splash, thud, crack]

6. Investment in the story

Fan loyalty is partially about the music, but also about identifying with the artist on a more personal level. 

This is true for even the most aloof bands of yesteryear. We loved Pink Floyd because their remoteness felt cool, and we saw some part of ourselves in the heady enigma of it all.

On the flipside of aloof, we’re now in an age of “transparency” and “authenticity” (in quotes on purpose). Can you reveal a deeper part of yourself so fans buy into your story of rejection, triumph, or transformation? Can they celebrate how you’re overcoming a struggle?

Whether that’s a change of genre, or “this is the new me no matter what the world says!”

7. Hook them with the hook!

Again, this worked super well for Walk Off the Earth.

Share that hook over and over until it’s an earworm.

Want the rest? Well here’s the full song on Spotify!

8. Sometimes DIFFICULTY boosts value

When it comes to listening, almost everything is abundant, easy, and quick.

So make it difficult. When there’s already a sense of investment, fans love rarity and the adventure of the hunt.

Can you make your music launch resemble geocaching? Can you gamify things with a leaderboard where only the winners can hear the songs? How about making the medium less convenient, the way CD Baby’s Cristina Cano talks about her cassette-only label as offering “analog NFTs.”

There is a way in which difficulty and scarcity enhances interest. When you work harder for something, you often value it more.

9. Don’t make it all about ONE thing

Don’t rely on a single content piece to do the work.

Build a journey the way songwriter Alice Howe did for her cover of the song “Big Old Goofy World.”

Essentially we’re talking about a marketing funnel, but one that feels subtle and fun, so you can lead fans towards an objective without them realizing they’re on a structured path.

10. Contests!

Contests are hard to do right, but they can work well.

If you have a great prize, one that’s worth winning, and one that’s tied in with your music in a meaningful way, you can get a ton of participation and buy-in before the music is out.

I’m talking about a lot more than just “2 points for a retweet, 10 points for a follow, 30 points for an email” type stuff. That sounds like a lot of work for the fan with a slim chance of winning.

Make participating in the contest its own reward, the way Smalltown Poets created a coloring book content, or how Ellie Dixon created a whole video game where the top scorers would get a limited-edition merch bundle.

Have you created anticipation for your music before it was released?

I’d love to hear about it. What did you try? What worked, or didn’t? Let me know in the comments below.