In November 2022, rappers Drake and 21 Savage embarked on an extravagant campaign to promote their latest collaborative album, “Her Loss”, which included distributing fake copies of Vogue magazine featuring the artists on its cover, as well as broadcasting a fake Tiny Desk Concert and NPR interview of themselves. While the publicity did wonders for their new release, it elicited admiration and adverse backlash in equal measure.
Effective strategies for promoting newly released music typically require investments of at least a few hundred dollars. Zero-budget promotional strategies involve organically building music brand and visibility; without a well-established online audience, this may require 3-6 months of groundwork.
Obviously, planning a big-budget publicity campaign guaranteed to make a splash requires calling in the professionals and following their advice to a T.
But how do you plan a successful music launch on a slim budget? Is it even possible to create a buzz around your new release without burning through the $$$? The rest of this article outlines 7 hacks guaranteed to enable you to make some noise with your next album/ single release. Let’s dive in!
Hack #1: Pull a crazy stunt to publicize your release
When entertainment giant LiveNation announced the line-up for the 2022 emo and punk rock festival‘When We Were Young’, the alt rock band I Set My Friends On Fire were aghast at being excluded from the performers’ list.
Determined to be included, the band organized a series of publicity maneuvers; these included creating a fake festival website (whenwewereyoungfest.com) that closely resembled the original name (whenwewereyoungfestival.com), as well as photoshopping festival posters to prominently feature themselves as headliners. Their strategy naturally created a lot of publicity for ISMFOF’s next concert tour (although they didn’t play the WWWY fest, after all).
Tip: While executing PR moves like those of Drake and I Set My Friends On Fire, it is important to tread carefully around potential legal pitfalls. On the plus side, Drake’s stunt earned him an invitation to perform at an actual Tiny Desk concert from the original organizers… but on the other hand, he and fellow artist 21 Savage have been sued by Vogue publisher Condé Nast for $1.4 million!
Hack #2: Time your release around a relevant, high-profile event
In 2015, a mass movement was gaining momentum throughout the United States that eventually came to be known as Black Lives Matter. At one of its earliest public gatherings in the summer of 2015, the recently released Kendrick Lamar song ‘Alright’ was played for a crowd gathered on the Cleveland State University campus. Soon, the track became an unofficial BLM anthem, owing to its ability to inspire feelings of strength and solidarity across the African American community.
The list of songs that have come to be associated with important political and socio-cultural movements is long, and includes some of the most well-known tracks by the artists (/bands) in question, for example:
- ‘Respect’ (1967), the Aretha Franklin cover of Otis Redding’s 1965 song, was subtly adapted to showcase a woman’s right to respect from her partner, and became a powerful expression of the growing feminist movement
- ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy (1989), which served as the theme song of the Spike Lee-directed movie, Do The Right Thing, turned into a rallying cry for justice for the black community in America
- ‘American Idiot’ by Green Day (2004), with hard-hitting lyrics condemning political leaders and mass media for inciting xenophobic discrimination gave voice to Americans’ rising frustration at their government’s reactionary policies
- ‘Born This Way’ by Lady Gaga (2011), whose lyrics affirm an individual’s right to equality and acceptance, irrespective of sexual, racial, ethnic or bodily profile, was quickly adopted by the LGBTQ movement
Of course, your music could go one better than being associated with a movement for social or political change – it could be the harbinger of the change!
In 1983, Jerry Dammers, keyboardist and frontman for the tottering UK ska band The Specials (later known as Special A.K.A) was inspired by an anti-apartheid concert to write his own song. The 1984 release, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was not only a chart-topping number (the band’s only one ever), it also spurred anti-apartheid activism across the global music scene, whose crescendo was the landmark 1988 Wembley concert to end apartheid that marked Mandela’s 70th birthday.
Hack #3: Court controversy through your music (or its release!)
In August 2022, rising UK rapper Aitch (birth name Harrison James Armstrong) came under fire from the British public; an ad for his newly released album “Close to Home” had painted over a mural depicting the late Ian Curtis, erstwhile frontman of the band Joy Division. Aitch’s apology on social media garnered much publicity, as did his team’s prompt action in erasing the poster. (The site for the mural’s restoration is still under discussion in early 2023, however.)
Aitch’s apparently unintentional affront has other parallels in recent music history: current soul-RnB sensation Lizzo as well as pop diva Beyoncé both provoked outrage for the use of the derogatory term ‘spazz’ in their hit song lyrics in 2022. The artists responded quickly by redacting the offensive word, with Lizzo offering a public apology for the ‘unintentional’ mistake.
Hack #4: Release a song, then win a popular contest (or vice versa)
Alt RnB singer Hailey Knox began attracting notice in late 2021 for her single ‘Gucci Prada Balenciaga’, which proclaimed her penchant for expensive, designer wear. Cementing this success in early 2022, Hailey expanded her audience by submitting her own verses as an entry in indie rapper Russ’ “open verse challenge”. Russ liked Hailey’s submission enough to include it as the second verse when remixing his track, ‘Remember’!
Perfecting this recipe, European alt rockers Måneskin used their triumph in the Eurovision 2021 music contest to boost their 2017 cover of an old track, ‘Beggin’’ (1967) by the US rock band Four Seasons. By mid-2022, their cover rendition had crossed the big billion Spotify streaming mark!
Also, be strategic: know when to release a single, and when to release an album, as De Novo Agency co-founder, Elliot Tousley, explains in this video.
Hack #5: Feature a celebrity in your music video, at your release event, or in a remix
Nigerian rapper CKay’s song, ‘Love Nwantiti’ blew up after TikTok celebrity Tracy Joseph used a slowed-down variant of the song as the background track for one of her viral dance videos. Although mistagging prevented CKay from getting credit initially, the artist and his music eventually got the limelight that was their due.
Other artists who’ve seen their music similarly take off include the Ghanaian artist Amaarae and upcoming rapper Kay Flock. Amaarae’s 2020 release ‘SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY’ gained critical acclaim, but made it to the charts only once the remix featuring Kali Uchis came out in 2021. Drill rapper Kay Flock’s 2022 release ‘Shake It’ likewise made waves by featuring popular artist Cardi B, who played a prominent role in promoting the song’s release.
Hack #6: Get your track onto a popular show, ad or game
By now, of course, everyone who hasn’t been living in exile on a distant galaxy has heard how being featured on Netflix hit series ‘Stranger Things’ propelled UK artist Kate Bush’s 1985 track, ‘Running Up That Hill’ to the top 10 charts, four decades after its initial, lackluster release.
Shows on television and more recently, DSPs, have been responsible for turning the spotlight on many a song. From standalone hits like ‘I’ll Be There For You’ by The Rembrandts (theme song of sitcom ‘Friends’) to successful career launchers like ‘I Don’t Want To Be’ by Gavin DeGraw (featured on family drama ‘One Tree Hill’), popular shows have spurred many songs on to chart-topping success.
In the same way, critically acclaimed games have earned accolades for their music composers. For example, the 2011 game ‘Bastion’ brought newcomer Darren Korb center-stage as a video-game composer, just as ‘Cuphead’ released in 2017 catapulted its newbie composer, Kristofer Maddigan, to stardom.
Hack #7: Use a popular cultural moment or meme
The YouTube channel Schmoyoho specializes in creating wildly popular music videos in a series called ‘Songify This’, as evidenced by their runaway hit song, ‘It’s Corn’. The videos are built around already well-known content such as interviews, documentary footage and candid clips, but create an entertaining take on the original video’s message.
One of the best examples of using trending memes to hype a music release comes from ‘Old Town Road’, for which rapper Lil Nas X created a series of short video clips (over 100, claims the artist!), using them to garner attention and interest on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
When it comes to promoting new music, be it a single, an EP or a full-length album, artists must typically use a judicious blend of strategies to achieve maximum visibility for their releases. While there is no magic formula or one-size-fits-all solution, the hacks described in this post offer tried and true solutions to the problem of boosting audience outreach for your next music release.
Besides implementing the strategies outlined here, musicians working seriously on building their music brand and promoting their music would do well to check out this helpful DNA post on promoting bands and artists. (While the case examples in this article are directly relevant to rock musicians, the insights contained are generalizable across musical genres.)
While you're gearing up to launch your new music, you would definitely benefit from our super-detailed guide to Spotify promotion, which gets into what works, what doesn't, and what you definitely should NOT be doing. If you've already got Spotify going well, you might want to check out our guide to free music video promotion (that actually gets results).