How to build a following on Spotify with singles

How Post Precious built a big audience with just a few singles.

Alex Winston, one half of the new synth-pop duo Post Precious, played a showcase of her solo material at the 2017 DIY Musician Conference in Nashville. Her return to the stage after a long hiatus due to Lyme Disease was energetic and engaging, and I’m pretty sure she won over anyone in the audience that hadn’t heard her music.

With renewed momentum, she announced the following month that she’d teamed up with her friend Max Hershenow (of MS MR) to form Post Precious, and they dropped a single they’d written called “Timebomb.” Then came two more singles, one a remix, and the other a cover of Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times.”

Three songs. That’s it. And with those tracks — plus a little help from their friend Kelli Fannon who has experience in artist management and marketing—  they’ve built a monthly audience on Spotify of over 170k people.

I find it fascinating that indie music careers can now be made (and maintained) through singles, so I wanted to interview them about the process, as well as how those singles might or might not be building towards the release of their upcoming EP.

Thanks to Post Precious and Kelli Fannon for taking the time.

An interview with Post Precious

You’ve both had your share of label hassles and creative obstacles. Can you talk a little bit about that history?

Max: I’m not sure I would’ve acknowledged this a year ago, but I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with my career so far, despite some inevitable bumps along the way. I’ve been half of MS MR since 2011, and we released two albums on Columbia. The first did really well, but (as often happens!) the second didn’t connect in the same way, which led to a bit of an internal creative crisis, and a bit of a disillusionment with the major label structure, despite getting to work with some incredible people. MS MR left Columbia and went on hiatus in 2016, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to produce for a huge range of artists, which got me back on my feet creatively and led me to Alex!

Alex: Unfortunately, I don’t think my experience with major labels has been uncommon.  In fact, I’ve heard my story so many times that it almost feels like a right of passage…or an outtake from Spinal Tap. I’ve been dropped, I’ve had two records delayed for years, I’ve been told what to wear, what my videos should be like, what kind of music to make,… you name it; it truly pushed me so far from who I had known myself to be as an artist that I couldn’t recognize my own creative identity. Once I was freed from all of that crap, I just focused on making music that I loved, with people that I was inspired by — that’s where I am right now. Music feels really exciting again for the first time in ages.

How did Post Precious grow out of that, and what does this partnership let you do that you couldn’t before?

We honestly started Post Precious sort of accidentally – we started out writing songs for other artists and slowly realized that we were maybe the only ones who could bring them to life in the way we imagined. But because we had been writing thinking the work was for someone else we didn’t put the sort of pressure on ourselves that we’d grown accustomed to being under as artists. We realized we could use that freedom as the basis for a new project where we were free to play and experiment.

How does the writing or production process differ when you’re thinking about releasing singles, as opposed to a larger album?

Max: I guess on some level we’re less focused on working within a cohesive sound or overarching themes than if we were thinking on a larger album scale, but because of the Post Precious ethos I don’t know if we’d really be working like that anyway. Rather than singles, I tend to think of the songs in little EP-style packages, which is a really exciting way to work. We get to explore one sonic idea from a few angles and then get to switch to a new one, which keeps things feeling fresh.

Alex: Yeah, there is something about not feeling tethered to one idea for too long that is really appealing to me these days! (ha) I like just following where something sonically different might take you and leaning into it, instead of wondering how it will fit with a record.

Are there lessons for artists in considering the types of singles you released: a cover, a remix? They seem very… searchable. 

Kelli: Both types of singles — a cover or a remix — are great ways that new artists can grow their following! We used this strategy with Post Precious to establish them as a new group and get their name out there. If you’re an artist who is able to do remixes, start by finding someone who’s maybe a little more well-known than you and offer to remix a song for them. It doesn’t have to be Wolf Alice – this strategy works for artists at any level. This lets the other artists’ fanbase learn about you and hopefully become your fan, too.

And don’t forget that this works the other way – another strategy is to have a “better known” artist remix one of your songs. In fact, there’s a few artists that definitely broke through from a remix: Health’s remix of Crystal Castles’ “Crimewave” initially put Crystal Castles on the map. Don’t forget Mike Posner’s hit song “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.” Seeb’s remix of that song gave it a whole new life.

In regards to cover songs, Post Precious’ decision to cover Harry Styles “Sign of the Times” was not really a strategy. They sincerely wanted to present their new take on that song. Where the strategy came in was when we decided to release that cover after their first original song (and their Wolf Alice remix) to get them additional press and visibility before moving into what we’re calling the “focus track” from this EP. Covering a well-known song is an easy way for fans to discover you from keyword searches, and there are a lot of playlists on streaming services that focus on cover songs. YouTube in particular is a key partner where cover songs perform well from searches, and for Post Precious’ cover song, we made sure to upload a video to YouTube to capture that search traffic.

The strategy was a timeline of single releases building to an EP release. We announced the project to each of their respective (prior) fanbases, and released a new song, “Timebomb,” along with that announcement. We then used a remix and a cover song to continue to grow their visibilty and fan base in preparation for releasing what we think is the key track from the EP which will be coming out in March. After that, they will play some key markets on the west coast throughout April right around the EP release.

So with that EP coming soon, you were intentionally plotting your course towards that release with the singles, or is the EP kind of a culmination of that previous work?

The EP will include all the songs we’ve released up to the this point, so it is a culmination and also a rounding out of the sonic landscape we’ve been exploring with a couple of other songs.

Speaking of sonic landscapes, Post Precious seems to have a clear grasp of who you sound like when compared to other artists. You’ve got your RIYL details thoroughly locked down. Did you have to do some soul-searching to figure out relevant artistic comparisons, or was it always clear to the band?

Kelli: I think the project came from such a clear place – for Max and Alex to have fun with music again. After both being on and off major labels, to be able to make music for themselves was liberating and free — thus the name, Post Precious. The music they’re making is fun pop music, but it has definitely got a little bit of a sad twist to it. It’s clear who the leaders of that sound are: Robyn, Kylie Minogue, and so on. They are making big fun pop music that just feels like what they want to be listening to and creating right now.

Why is that kind of self-awareness important?

The self-awareness aspect of this project is coming from a place of being TOO self-aware in other projects and just letting that fall to the wayside to make music that feels good to be making. Post Precious is about not being precious with the project, not overthinking things, and letting the music lead the way.

Many bands want to show off their eclectic tastes and range. Is there a benefit to staying focused on one sound? 

Kelli: Definitely. I see a lot of independent artists wanting to show off a wide range of sounds and what they can do musically, but when you sign to a label, that’s one of the jobs of your A&R person – to make sure that the record is consistent and cohesive. A&R folks do a lot of things, but helping to choose the songs is one of them. I think more indie artists could benefit from taking a birds-eye view of their own music and asking if the package they’re presenting on who they are and what they’re about is one that is clear to fans. That includes the visuals too: videos, photos, bio, songs, merch, album art – it’s all part of your identity as an artist. It should all be consistent and on brand. Further to that point, in today’s music market, streaming music lives in playlists. Playlists are often curated to a specific sound, whether it’s a mood or a type of music – so it would be beneficial to be very clear on “where you fit in” as an artist musically and visually.

On the topic of visuals, because music is an auditory art, lots of artists neglect their “look” and how it’s transmitted to the world. How important is on-point visual branding?

Kelli: Visual branding is key to any music project. Alex and Max are both interested in fashion and wanted this project to reflect the reason that they started it – for the love of making music devoid of any pressure or obligation. The videos and imagery have an element of fun — like fake fur coats! — but they have a very futuristic and stylish look that is modern and slick just like the music they are making. The images for this project reflect what the music sounds like. I often find that artists don’t think that all the way through. If I see a picture of five bearded guys wearing all black and leather motorcycle jackets, I think they’re a rock band – that’s just the way semiotics works. I wouldn’t think those guys would be making power pop. And while it would be fun if that were the case, the truth is that in today’s world, things move very fast. An artist’s visual appearance should indicate in some way what kind of music they’re making, and often you have a split second to let listeners make that decision. When I’ve worked with artists who didn’t have as strong of a sense of who they were (Max and Alex definitely do!), I’ve had them answer questions and find images and color palettes that they want to stick with for their branding. Create a template, and stick with it. Is the artwork dark and moody? Bright and colorful? Whatever it is, have it be consistent.

How do you think about your place in the music world the way things are right now … like, you’re indie, but you have label experience. Is it the ideal place to be? Are you happy? Are you aiming to build back into a major deal?

Alex: Yes to happy! We’re having so much fun. Otherwise honestly we’re just taking things one step at a time. It feels amazing to feel a little excitement building around the project but we’re just going to see how things go little by little.

How does CD Baby play into your release picture, and what does CD Baby allow you to do that you couldn’t do before?

CD Baby’s been super supportive, providing creative ideas around the release of the music. The Post Precious perspective relies on a really artist-driven approach, and we couldn’t do it without a platform like CD Baby.

How would a band begin to develop relationships with people at Spotify? It’s not the type of thing where you just knock on the door, right? Any advice on getting from A to Z? 

Kelli: I think Spotify is just one place people get music. A few years ago, all anyone cared about was iTunes. A few years before that, it was Best Buy. Back in the stone ages, it was all about WalMart; artists even made special art and edited songs just to get their albums into WalMart, and now I don’t even know that they carry more than a few CDs in their stores. This is a cyclical business. Who is on top today won’t always be who is on top tomorrow. I worked at a streaming service myself, and we championed a lot of indie artists. I can point to some that I think we had a hand in breaking in the U.S. market, but I also felt like labels and artists didn’t want to work with us at the time because we were not the biggest game in town. There were probably a lot of missed opportunities. I had marketing vehicles and a really cool userbase of music fans looking for new music, but people weren’t focused on that service at that time. There are a myriad of streaming services now, even with the recent consolidation of the market.  Pick the one that your fans use. From Pandora to Amazon to Earbits to Tidal, find your fans and go from there. 

In regards to relationships, Max and Alex have both been doing this for 10+ years. In fact, I think Alex has been playing in bands since she was in middle school! They do have connections and prior successes that helped them. But everyone has a connection that they can use. Whether it’s the guy who books the open mic night in your town and his kids go to school with your kids – or it’s the woman who works at your local record store and can put your CD on the counter with a nice review. Use the connections you have. Alex and Max have taken whatever connections they’ve made in the last decade plus and ASKED for help. A lot of people don’t do the first step which is just asking for help from people they know. The worst thing you will hear is just a “no,” and you won’t hear it unless you ask first!

What else is in the works to coincide or build upon the release of your upcoming EP?

Alex: We’re going to play some shows! We have a few on the books and are just going to see how they go. Again, it’s one step at a time.

Listen to Post Precious’ music on CD Baby or Spotify.

[Photo credit: Catie Laffoon]