How an independent artist charted on Billboard without the help of a label

This direct marketing strategy helped me chart at #3 on iTunes and #50 on Billboard.

It was all a dream: “I believe I can chart on Billboard with this album!”

I convinced my producer, engineer, mentor, and—most importantly—my wife to buy into the dream.

The odds of charting Billboard were clearly stacked against me. No major label budget. No national, regional, or even local publicity campaign. I also work more than the typical “40-hour workweek” at a big tech company in Silicon Valley. The list goes on.

Nonetheless, my belief was strong. It was late October 2018, and I had just spent the past couple weeks writing, what would soon become my latest album, Airplane Mode. I had the music. Now I just needed to crystallize the narrative, develop a marketing strategy, and reach out to my fans.

Five months later, Airplane Mode debuted at #3 on the iTunes Top 40 US Hip-Hop Album Chart as well as at #50 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Album Sales Chart. Mission accomplished. Simple, right?

In the midst of people congratulating me on this huge accomplishment, many have also asked, “So, how did you actually make it happen…?”

Establishing the Airplane Mode album narrative

Airplane Mode developed in a very unplanned and visceral way. In mid-October 2018, my aunt— the one who nurtured my love for hip-hop at an early age—passed away unexpectedly in my hometown, Bridgeport, Connecticut (about 3,000 miles from where I currently live).

Days before, my friend and producer, J-Dot Music, had coincidentally sent me a collection of beats. We weren’t thinking about an album then. I just wanted to hear the new sounds he had been working on. After hearing about my aunt though, I needed to artistically grieve. I remembered the beat pack, sifted through until I found the beat that most plucked my heart, and wrote the song, “Hope You Hear Me.” All within the same hour I received the news.

I spent the next two weeks devouring each beat J-Dot sent me. Within each song, I explored concepts and tackled issues I wasn’t even ready to express out loud yet. The writing was nonstop. On the bus. At the gym. During my walks in between work meetings. On my flight from San Francisco to see my family. By the time we buried my aunt, I had the foundation for a new project, which I decided to call Airplane Mode.

The term “Airplane Mode” symbolized three main things for me:

  1. My mindstate: I was in a daze. At the same time, by feeling so disconnected, I was able to tap into my creativity without restraint, allowing me to be and remain “in the zone.”
  2. My lifestyle: combined, my wife and I have visited over 100 international cities across 50 countries. We’re both multilingual and children of immigrants coming from an impoverished background. As such, I have developed a global, cross-cultural outlook on life, which is a core part of my brand.
  3. My music career: two months before I wrote Airplane Mode, I had just booked and headlined my third Bay Area show in 2018. My career growth was feeling even more tangible, so in a self-fulfilling prophecy type of way, I claimed that this new album would elevate my platform even further, as each project had done before.

Why do I share all of this with you? Because for me, the album narrative—replete with passion and vulnerability—was imperative for my entire marketing campaign. I interweaved this narrative throughout my entire go-to-market strategy, from the album cover to the song content to audience communications pre, during, and post-release.

Setting the foundation for the Airplane Mode marketing campaign

Around the same time I completed my album, I also learned about the Nielsen and Billboard charting successes of fellow independent artists, Shannon Curtis and Tyke T via the DIY Musician Blog. With more research on the process plus assumptions of my current fanbase, I resolved to set an ambitious goal of selling 1,000 albums within the first week of release.

Pre-sales seemed to be the predominant way that I would hit this goal. Learning that the pre-sales period may be a minimum of one-week and a maximum of six months gave me the time I needed to mobilize my fanbase.

Because my album had 12 tracks, I was also eligible to set up an instant gratification (grat) track via CD Baby. I chose “Hope You Hear Me” as my track because, not only did an instant grat track give extra incentive for core fans when purchasing, this particular track also gave listeners a deeper, weightier connection to the album narrative, which furthered the word-of-mouth evangelism.

The majority of my fans do not purchase physical albums anymore. Combined with my limited budget, I decided upfront that Airplane Mode would be 100% digital. This decision helped me streamline my preorder process in the long-run. For instance, I only had one UPC to register in Nielsen’s database.

Lastly, I knew that over 60% of my fanbase had iOS devices, so iTunes was very essential to my campaign. That said, I did not want to exclude the other 40% of my fanbase from helping me achieve this monumental goal (that’s a lot of fans!). So, I focused on three sales channels: iTunes, Bandcamp, and my online store (which also had Airplane Mode merch for sale).

5 key tactics to enable the Airplane Mode marketing campaign

With a two-month preorder window, I executed several marketing activations. However, there were five that I felt truly moved the needle:

  1. Empowering my brand ambassadors: my “High Grade Society” – my exclusive group of core fans – were critical because not only did they immediately preorder Airplane Mode with enthusiasm but they also encouraged their circles of influence to do the same.
  2. Asking fans to purchase directly: just about every day, I shared the album narrative and sought out support from my fans directly via in-person or direct messaging. With every proof of purchase, I would repost and thank them publicly.
  3. Paying for digital advertising: social media ads are a cheap way to build brand awareness amongst your target audience and fight through organic noise. While I was not depending on ads to generate the bulk of the sales, I did end my campaign with a 3% conversion rate (better than 0%!).
  4. Promoting organically via weekly content production: In December 2018, I started a weekly freestyle series called “Casual Fridays” – a tongue-in-cheek for my fans who know that I juggle both a music career and a white-collar corporate day job. What started as a simple addition to my “Call Me Ace portfolio” soon became another avenue for organic album promotion once I gained traction.
  5. Coordinating a pre-album release party: the Airplane Mode party occurred one week before the album dropped, with an optional “free entry” ticket for those that already preordered. With a full crowd gathered for an exclusive listen to my album, I also garnished the night with additional special touch points to ensure that everyone felt even more connected to the album narrative once they left. Here’s the Airplane Mode release party recap video if you’re curious!

Airplane Mode immediately jumped up to #3 on the iTunes Top 40 US Hip-Hop Album Chart after releasing on Friday, March 22, 2019. This news served as another big social proof point that galvanized more people to organically share and encourage others to listen. Even with the option to stream available, some people still purchased Airplane Mode as a sign of true support.

To top it all off, fans were directly sharing immensely positive feedback with me on the album content. With their permission I would repost, recognize publicly, and use to encourage even more feedback from other listeners.

These additional touchpoints helped push Airplane Mode to the final goal of the campaign: charting on Billboard.

5 challenges during the Airplane Mode marketing campaign

While I’m ecstatic that Airplane Mode hit the Billboard chart, the effort did come with its challenges:

  1. Apple does not provide real-time presales data. Not being able to track my preorder sales on iTunes, where most of my fans purchased my album, forced my total sales count to be more of a calculated guess than a sure fact. I had to assume, for example, that trending at #3 in iTunes Hip-Hop albums to pre-order list was a good sign…right?
  2. Apple is (not-so) secretly phasing out iTunes. Strike two, Apple. Apple automatically reroutes all iTunes links to the “Apple Music” iPhone app. This created unnecessary confusion and frustration, especially for potential supporters that didn’t even remember that the “iTunes Store” was a separate app, probably somewhere in the back of their phones. This definitely impacted final sales.
  3. There were too many clicks at point-of-sale. Although I created a superlink to streamline the preordering process, it still took at best 7 clicks before actually preordering the album. Still, this was a better trade-off than having three separate preorder links to promote…
  4. Not everyone has money to preorder. I naively assumed that all my fans had at least $9.99 of disposable income. However, while there were many cases where supporters spent way beyond $9.99 on Bandcamp to purchase the album, for some would-be supporters, $9.99 was too costly.
  5. Some people just don’t believe in purchasing music. This last challenge wasn’t an issue for my true fans and supporters that understood the larger goal I was hoping to achieve. This was more so a challenge with casual or potential fans that interpreted the ask within the context of their preferred music listening preferences. The reality is that streaming currently dominates music consumption in the US, where over 90% of my fanbase exists. I knew my request wouldn’t be an easy one from the beginning; this challenge only confirmed that I had to rely on my core base in order to reach my Billboard goal under my aforementioned constraints.

And there you have it! If any of what I shared resonates with you, please let me know in the comments below. And of course, if you have any thoughts on the Airplane Mode album itself, I would love to hear your feedback on that too 🙂