When I started Crooked Forest (the band), I knew that taking on all the music production, instrumentation and mixing myself in addition to performing was going to be a pretty arduous task, but to me the whole point of creating music is to also share it, so I’d have to spend considerable time on promotion as well.
Because I was working within a very strict budget and much of that was going to replacing necessary audio gear I’d need to track the songs, I wanted to see just how far I could stretch myself (marketing wise) without actually spending anything else.
Just managing these tools is a full-time job (literally), so if you’re an indie artist trying to do it all on top of working a “regular” job to fund it, you might find yourself feeling burnt out before you even get out of the gate. That’s why I’ve put together this DIY Indie Musician Digital Toolkit today to help narrow down the channels or mediums that I find best serve new and upcoming artists.
FYI: None of the following links are affiliated links (meaning, I don’t make any money if you click them, so this isn’t a paid advertisement in anyway), they just help guide you to where you can find more information on what I’m talking about. They’ll open in a new tab so you don’t lose your place while reading.
I’ve broken these down into pretty broad categories and within each I’ll explain the tools I personally use and their cost breakdown, where applicable; Most of them are completely free to use and relatively easy to learn even if you’re brand new to all of them.
I focus on:
- getting a music distributor
- using social media
- creating web graphics or promotional videos
- live streaming and;
- building a website to house it all in
And I’m going to start this from a place of, “I have some songs I’d like to share,” meaning, they don’t necessarily have to be professionally recorded, but that you just have something to get out into the world, even if you just created an audio note using your cell phone.
That being said, if there is one thing that you do need here to make use of all of these things, it’s a smart-phone or a laptop, so if you haven’t made the jump yet it’s worth considering the investment.
Let’s get started.
So you’ve just recorded your first song, great! Now how do you get it out to places like Spotify and Apple Music for people to hear them?
There are a few ways to go about this so it’s important to consider your end goal here before you get too wrapped up in your options.
Places like Spotify work with distribution partners which means you can’t just go ahead and create an account and upload them, you’ve gotta work with a third-party. If this is an important goal of yours, it’s going to come at a slight cost, but it might surprise you to know that it’s actually pretty reasonable, not just to launch your tracks to Spotify, but like, every other notable streaming software, too.
Here’s what I use:
Distrokid is an amazing teammate for any indie artist. In the simplest terms, with the click of just a couple buttons I’m able to get all my tracks uploaded to their distribution network, set a release date, and then be completely hands-free while Distrokid does all the leg work bringing my music out to all the major players including:
- Amazon Music
- Apple Music
- YouTube Music
- Triller (beta)
- Soundtrack by Twitch
- Yandex Music (beta)
Full disclosure, I don’t even know what like half of those music networks are, but what I do know is that people really use them and really discover music on them. And that’s what’s most important to me as an artist looking for a music distributor: How can I get the most ears on my music for the lowest price?
The major platforms I focus in on likely mirror a lot of my Canadian counterparts: Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram/Facebook & TikTok.
Even if you yourself don’t use a platform like TikTok, leaving your music off their library doesn’t do you a whole lot of favours when you consider how many hours people are spending combing through them to add sounds to their videos these days.
Another thing to note about Distrokid is that they’re well aware of this importance, too, so as your release goes live on different platforms, you’ll receive e-mail updates so that you know when listeners are able to find it.
They’ll also send you e-mails if your submitted lyrics were rejected for some reason, so that you have time to fix them ahead of the release, or, if your uploaded music for some reason doesn’t meet one of those platforms’ streaming standards.
For example, with Tidal, I always get reminded that my tracks will be downsized from 48kHz to 44.1kHz unless I opt in to what they call “Tidal Master/MQA”.
We can talk about sample rates another time, but I just wanted to note here that this type of care to ensure my music is actually meeting those platforms is why I put Distrokid above other music distributors.
The other thing I’m able to do through Distrokid is quickly and efficiently verify my Spotify profiles (I have two). You can do this through Spotify For Artists itself, but it’s a bit of a trickier process with more steps involved. We can talk about that some other time, too.
Cost: $20/year to start for 1 band/artist account, but I upgraded to the Musician Plus account for $36/year, which gives me control over two artist accounts and some other stuff, like customizable release dates and track pricing.
There are of course alternatives to Distrokid and I’ll highlight three for you here, including two free options.
With CD Baby you can distribute on a song-by-song basis just to get your feet wet with it, and that option starts at just under $10 a track or $29 for a full album.
A cool thing they also offer is customizability of your release with regards to who it’s sent to, so for example, if you don’t want to push your music out to Amazon Music because you don’t want to support the greedy swine that is Jeff Bezos, you can do that.
CDBaby will do a lot of the same stuff as Distrokid otherwise, so this really comes down to how much you need out of your distribution partner. For that, check out their pricing list and see if they’re the best fit for you.
I can’t speak to the ease-ability of their platform from a personal perspective, although I know many who swear by CDBaby, but from a cost perspective you can’t go wrong here.
Cost: No annual fee. $10 for your first track, or $29 for your first album. Read more here.
Of course I did say I wanted to do this marketing and distribution stuff for free at the top of this article, so let’s check those options out before moving on to the fun of social media.
If you’ve never heard of Bandcamp, the best way I can describe it is like a suped-up and cleaner Myspace profile.
If you’ve never heard of Myspace (which is funny cause they totally brought it back but like, nobody talks about it) let me just show you what a Bandcamp page looks like.
Bandcamp is completely free to sign-up on but it requires a bit more work than just firing off your tracks to a distribution partner like I talked about above, and that’s because on Bandcamp, you are the distribution and the partner.
Congratulations, you are your own boss!
This is great because it ultimately gives you more control over every part of your release. Set your dates, load up your merch/physical copies if you have them in addition to digital streaming, set prices to your liking (even if that price is totally free, too, to rival Spotify and others), add your artwork, lyrics, and, the part that I really like about Bandcamp?
They have this little box you can write what your track is about to give listeners a greater understanding of your music and why you created it.
Followers of your page can also subscribe to be notified when you release something new, and Bandcamp gives you the option of sending a personal message out to them when you do this, building a better fan-artist relationship with ease.
What’s really cool about going this route is that your Bandcamp page can otherwise act as your website if you don’t have one or don’t want to maintain more than one page. And since it’s a community built for exactly this purpose, you can find loads of other great artists to connect with on it, too.
Finally, Bandcamp is the only platform that has special days marked off that regularly help further promote artists on the platform and help put more money in their (read: your) pocket. These are called Bandcamp Friday’s and you can find out when the next one is here.
Bandcamp Friday started in March 2020 due to the impact COVID-19 had on artists. You can read a little more about that here.
If you find you don’t need or want to fill out all the info required for a Bandcamp profile, you might be more interested in…
Another free option to distribute your music is Soundcloud, but it’s a bit more of a niche network than Bandcamp and it’s much more limited as far as how much you can include in your profile.
A cool feature of it though, is that listeners can leave comments on your tracks at specific timestamps, so if what you’re really looking for is feedback on your track and you don’t care so much about building a profile/website to drive traffic to, you might want to focus in on this platform instead.
Okay, so your music is available online. Now, how do we get people to listen to it? I’m going to start with the most important avenue, whether you like it or not, it’s social media.
I know there are still a lot of artists that are pretty adverse to social media, but the reality is it’s not that new and if you’re not on it yet, you’re missing out on a ton of potential listeners across the world.
That said, each platform is designed differently, and what works for some artists might not work for you, so it’s important to spend some time getting to know each of them before you go ahead and start building dozens of profiles.
Because of my own experience with them, I’m going to focus this section on what I use and why I use them, but I’ll preface this by saying, it can be a little exhausting keeping each of these updated, so again, if you find a platform isn’t quite working for you, it’s okay to let it go.
All of these below profiles are free to use.
Instagram is the platform that was built with the intention of sharing photos, so bear that in mind here when you’re using it to promote yourself.
Most users of the platform aren’t going to want to follow along if all your posts are written text, for example; They’re there to be engaged visually.
Of course, it’s grown substantially and now videos and reels are incredibly popular, but I personally find this platform still serves me best when I use it for still images.
This way, I’m able to promote my music in a way that also gives potential listeners insight to who I am as a person and how I spend my time, both in and out of the studio, without having to spend too much time editing any of them either to meet Instagram’s ever-changing time constraints or video dimension requirements.
Of course, I also use it to literally promote my work or upcoming events, too, by sharing posters, just like you’d see while walking outside your local live music venue, just now on the screen and reaching a way wider audience.
The best way to decide what type of content to feature on your Instagram or any of the social media channels I’m about to talk about? Follow some of your favourite artists, see what they’re doing, and pick and choose what you like about those accounts and apply them to yourself.
Here it’s important to remember that Facebook was initially popularized as a way to stay connected with your close family and friends and meet new people in your area – literally, your physical area – which is why it’s worth considering opening up a page independent of your personal profile.
I tend to think of it in this way: If Instagram is a global billboard, then Facebook is the flyer at your local coffee shop.
Out of every channel, I personally use Facebook the least. In my circle, it’s just not somewhere people like to go to discover new music, and most people don’t like to follow too many pages anymore, but this is a reflection of my generation and personal circle and not the platform.
I like many others find myself logging in once in a while to see what my family are up to that I otherwise don’t really have a way of contacting, so I try to maintain a small presence here and keep those people informed with what I’m doing. The best way to do this is to create a page and invite everyone you know to it. Those that want to stay in the loop will like the page, and those who don’t care to, just won’t. Easy.
If you find yourself feeling much like I do about Facebook, in that it’s just not the “place to be” 24/7, I’d recommend making an effort to keep a page running, even if it’s just to cross-post your other social media channels or new music releases as they happen. You’d be surprised how many people can stumble upon you in this way, and cross-posting is super easy to do.
If you’re not familiar with Twitter, let’s start with another analogy.
If Facebook is the local coffee shop for you to keep up with what’s happening in your friends and families lives, Twitter is the conference centre you got a weekend pass for to discuss new ideas, global issues, and keep up with the latest celebrity gossip all from the comfort of… wherever you happen to be at the time.
It’s a little bit of everything all wrapped up in one, easy to use, text-based platform.
It’s also the boxing ring that you never realized you walked into, but you’ll learn pretty quickly how to dodge those suckerpunches when they come at you, which is to say, some people are just on Twitter to cause a stir, so try not to take everything too personally, either.
I use Twitter often, not only as a promotional tool but to keep informed of what else is going on in the world, because I otherwise keep a pretty small bubble.
I use it to learn about other artists, find new music, and keep up with music industry news.
And I use it to spout out about stuff that I want to talk about but don’t have a direct person to talk about it with when the idea comes to me, like this one I just fired off while writing this blog post.
A lot of these things tend to be stuff that I bring up in my music, so it’s important to me that I try to engage in conversation about them. And I’m keeping this broad because with me, I can be talking one second about the most recent SNL skits, and the next about policy changes being put to legislature.
It’s also in a lot of ways a lot like a billboard, but since I keep all the text-based stuff off Instagram, they find a comfortable home right here.
TikTok is the latest craze that every one seems to be pushing on new artists, but to be perfectly honest I’m not totally sold on it yet as a platform that makes much sense for me.
Much like the craze of VINE, I just have trouble seeing TikTok having any sort of longevity, especially as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter quickly move to adapt their own platforms to mimic what draws users into TikTok.
What keeps me off of TikTok is that as a user viewing other videos, I seriously hate everything about the display. When you log into TikTok, you’re immediately inundated with a video feed at full volume; I find it obnoxious, distracting, and frankly, an abrasive assault on all my senses.
I already struggle with focus at times and I feel like this platform was designed literally to distract rather than engage, unlike the others I mentioned above which are rooted in actually building some sort of connection with your followers.
That said, every once in a while I get an idea for a really stupid, but funny to me video, that’s too short or too ridiculous for me to want to waste my valuable Instagram real-estate with, and that seems to fit TikToks platform perfectly given that it tends to cater towards a younger audience.
And you can post videos upwards of 3minutes, which for an artist like me that has several songs that come in under 2:30, that works to post a quick live cut of something new.
So I have an account, but this is really one platform that I’d really suggest you take some time enjoying as a viewer first, to see if it makes sense for the type of content you personally like to create and promote.
Okay, so that’s all I really want to talk about as far as key-social media players in this whole, “how do I market my music” post, but there are still a couple tools you should be aware of that’ll really help push your pages up to the next level.
Graphics & Promotional Videos
You can make your pages look pretty professional with the help of just a couple tools, and seriously, if I can learn how to use this stuff, you definitely can, too.
If not being able to hire a great graphic designer is something that’s holding you back from pushing your work out, because you want to look just as pro as your favourite artists, it’s really a lot simpler than you think.
I’m just going to focus in on two websites for you to check out in this section, because otherwise we’re going to get into this whole thing about video editing or colour palettes and that’s just not what this article is about.
First, let’s talk about graphics.
Canva is a free platform where you can design your own logo, business cards, album artwork, flyers, posters… the list goes on and on. If you need a high-quality image for something, you can make that on Canva.
I design literally all of my graphics using Canva, all my album artwork including the recent pressing of Jestem Krzywym Lasem was all done with a couple quick and easy clicks on this website.
There is a small learning curve, especially if you’ve never designed anything in your life before in this way, but Canva even has a ton of free tutorial videos and templates to help guide you along.
These days, I literally don’t spend more than 10 minutes on any given design and I often create multiple options to compare against. I am genuinely surprised, still, with how great some of these look (because I certainly don’t consider myself any sort of designer), and the fact that they’re all free is just icing on the cake.
Here are some other examples of some of the things I’ve managed to put together on Canva.
What I also want to note for you here is that this is one of the only other platforms other than Distrokid that I pay for; I upgrade to Canva’s pro account which comes to $16/month (pretty steep compared to my annual sub for Distrokid), but I swear by it for the “Resize” tool alone.
Since I use so many different platforms, and each of those platforms have their own requirements as far as image dimensions are concerned, I often have to create multiple versions of the same image to match. With Canva Pro, I’m able to resize to any dimension I need within literal seconds, and then I can save those image in multiple formats depending on my needs, whether it’s a .png, .jpg, .pdf… you know where I’m going with this.
It saves me so much time and energy, it’s insane.
It’s become arguably the most critical tool for me, so as much as I’m super not stoked on monthly fees, this one is worth it.
As great as it is to be able to just put out a still image with my music, I know people love having something to look at while they listen, and the reality here, if VINE and TikTok have taught us anything at all, it’s that it doesn’t have to be anything complicated; Even the most minimal movement in the frames is enough to keep someone’s attention long enough to at least give them an idea of your song/sound, which is what we’re looking for here.
There are lots of great artists who put out incredible visually stimulating lyric videos and as someone who tends to be driven more towards great lyrics than anything else, this was an important consideration for me as an artist.
Of course, when I started looking into what people charge for this, I wasn’t surprised, but I was a little bummed out. Great graphic designers will start their fees for this kind of thing at like $200, and when you’re someone like me who has very few coins left in the piggy bank, this is a lot.
So I wanted to see if I could find an alternative that allowed me to do the legwork; I’d almost always rather cut the cost by doing the work myself as opposed to trying to cut down another artist’s rate to suit my (lack-of) budget.
And I found one pretty quickly after some Googling. Kapwing!
Kapwing is a super easy to use browser-based software that, just like Canva, offers free tutorial videos to help you learn how to use it.
With Kapwing, you can easily import videos of your choosing and then easily caption them as if you were putting together videos for Kareoke night.
I did this for a lot of my releases from Tape Deck which you can view on my YouTube page.
Mine are not terribly fancy, but it’s a much more interesting way to learn the lyrics while they listen and serves to fill that visual stimulation void I was missing.
I’m also going to quickly mention iMovie here although I know not everyone uses a Mac, but if you do, you know iMovie comes preloaded in your machine and it’s actually a really cool video editor that on its most basic level can help you create your first music video without shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a pro video team.
Again, I’m not going to get into all the things you can do on iMovie here (honestly, I barely know how to use it yet) but the best way for me to show you what you can do with it is to show you what I did with it.
I grabbed some free stock video footage from the internet, compiled them into iMovie, and within a couple hours I put together the music video for “Driveway”, including lead-in graphic titles, and I gotta say, I think it turned out pretty good.
Check it out here:
Next up I want to talk a little bit about live-streaming because I really think more artists are going to want to get on this wagon sooner rather than later.
It should really come as no surprise that during the pandemic there was an increased demand for live streaming concerts and events. Afterall, we were all stuck at home with nothing to do other than watch Netflix or read and there are just only so many times you can watch Arrested Development.
Really what happened though was artists who otherwise had tours booked to promote their music for the year found themselves suddenly without an audience, which for many meant, without any income. The major label success stories were suddenly back in mom’s garage drawing up blueprints for how to push their most recent release in territory they were unfamiliar; They already knew that they were making pennies to the cent from popular streaming service providers, so they needed a new way to drive traffic to their websites and coins to the NFT-walletbox.
Enter the great livestreaming boom of 2020.
I’d like to say I found this comical given I had spent the 7 years prior working in the livestreaming events and conferences space, but, in reality it was something I also had neglected to give the appropriate time and attention to as far as it concerned live music, because I don’t think any of us had ever really considered a reality where you simply couldn’t go to shows.
And although much of the world seems to slowly be creeping back into in-person events, livestreaming is not only here to stay but it’s going to keep growing.
This is a GOOD thing. Do you know how many people you can reach with a single livestream event, how many countries? It’s not small stuff.
That said it’s difficult to do live-streaming well and you need to understand that it’s a completely different experience than playing to a sold-out crowd at (preferred venue of choice).
At first it might feel a little awkward, but that’s no reason to shy away from it.
I could get into a whole thing about why livestreaming is so important now, but I’ll save that for another day. Instead, let me just introduce you to two platforms you’ll want to know as an indie artist looking to get started with it all.
You’re probably more familiar with Twitch as the go-to platform for video game live streaming but it’s actually built up a significant following in music communities, too. What’s great about Twitch is that, like much of this list, it’s completely free to sign up and get started, and, if you have absolutely no live streaming background whatsoever and just want to get a basic stream up and running, Twitch offers you Twitch Studio. This is their own live-streaming studio that helps you learn exactly how to do it, all housed neatly within itself, kind of like how you can put together YouTube videos directly on YouTube without having to purchase additional software.
For a slightly more advanced live streaming experience with a bit more flexibility, there’s OBS, and this is what I use.
OBS is touted as one of the best free live streaming studios (it’s acronym literally stands for Open Broadcaster Software) and for good reason. With OBS you can easily customize your stream to suit your needs, adding multiple video or image sources, text on the fly, and separate profiles for all the different channels you might be broadcasting to.
That last point is why I really like OBS. It’s one piece of software but by simply selecting one of my alternate profiles, I’m ready to live-stream across whatever platform I choose to do that day, including Twitch (my main channel). I also use OBS for Sessions Live and I’ve tested it out for some other streams, too, like to Facebook.
I personally find it pretty user friendly, although watching some free tutorial videos via YouTube certainly help, but I’ll note again that I come from a live streaming operator background so my learning curve might be a little different than yours if you’re just starting out; Don’t get discouraged if it seems a little overwhelming at first.
I’m not saying you have to build your whole career on live streaming shows, but I really think it’s worth spending some time exploring, even if you just spend some time watching other peoples’ live streams to see if you enjoy it as a viewer; if you do, chances are someone will have that same reaction to your stream, and that can really open a lot of potential doors when it comes to hitting the physical road and touring your record.
Okay, one more thing!
I know this has been a bit of a lengthy post, but I really wouldn’t be doing my due diligence here if I didn’t talk about websites.
After all, if you’re someone like me that uses many of these platforms/channels, at some point you’re probably going to see a benefit in having one single page to at bare minimum house all your links.
Which brings me first to…
It’s a lot of work maintaining all those different pages, so building a full website yourself might seem a little daunting, or just overkill, but it can really be helpful to be able to direct listeners to one page instead of several, and that’s exactly what Link.Tree does.
It’s free to start a Link.Tree account and what you’re getting out of that is basically a single page with, if memory serves me, space to display up to 6 links.
You can also swap out those links regularly, and Link.Tree tracks the analytics of who’s clicking those links, which is beneficial if you’re trying to suss out if it’s worth keeping that Facebook page or not.
But 6 links also go pretty quick, so you might want to consider upgrading to Link.Tree’s pro account for $6/month.
Before I saw the need for a full website myself, I used Link.Tree Pro for some time, and honestly it gets the job done, quickly and effortlessly.
With Link.Tree Pro you can even embed a YouTube video to feature your key video, and the page itself is customizable and super easy to direct your traffic, so definitely check it out as an option.
But, if you find that it’s just not quite enough for you, or you’re ready to develop a website that mirrors your favourite pro artists, I’ve got good news for you.
Those are also free. Like this one:
I personally use WordPress for all my website needs, and I have for years now. Honestly, I swear by it. I’ve tried a lot of other platforms over the years (I was one of those kids that used to build Geocities pages for fun before Myspace took off…. I know, I know).
WordPress has changed a lot over the years but ultimately I think it still stands above all the rest as far as customizability and affordability.
You can start a wordpress page for free, but you might find it’s worth upgrading over time.
I bought two custom domains ($8/year each) and also pay for hosting since I run so many pages through it, but you don’t have to go that route.
Again I could spend a good chunk of time just talking about websites but this is supposed to be more of an overview.
My best example of what you can do with a super cheap WordPress package? My website.
All in, outside out the domain fees, the hosting runs me like $60/year, and I pay to have my fancy professional e-mail address email@example.com, which is just over $5/month.
Cost: like $150/year.
As a DIY indie musician, Distrokid, Canva and WordPress are my highest expenses, but I use them all every single day.
My full cost breakdown for everything I use to promote my work:
Now, if only I could actually sell some records, I’d have my yearly fees paid off in no time…
I hope this has been in any way helpful if you weren’t sure where to get started with all of this or what any of these platforms are useful for.
A lot of “industry folk” would use this type of blog to plug their expensive consultation services to learn more about this stuff and say that it’s necessary because their time is oh so valuable, but if you have any questions just feel free to throw them in the comment box, because someone else might have the same question as you and it’s easier for me to respond that way.
Otherwise, feel free to hit up the inbox using that address I told you about a couple paragraphs ago.
Good luck out there, it’s a jungle.