How We Charted In Two Countries With Less Than $100

In 2015, it’s a brave new world for independent musicians. Gone are the days of major labels, A&Rs and charts filled exclusively with household names. Even a decade ago, it would have been almost unthinkable for an indie artist to see their band in the Top 20 on any charts, let alone get there with no help and almost no money.

Last year, we did just that. Australian MC and The Movement Fam/High Season artist Cee was able to position his debut album ‘This Is All I Know’ at #6 in Canada and #8 in Australia on the iTunes Hip Hop Charts – and #66 in Australia and #91 in Canada on the overall Top 100 Charts – on the day of release with practically no money and exclusively utilizing social media and the internet.

Here’s how we did it.

We picked an important date

Release dates may seem like an arbitrary element, but there’s a lot more to deciding when a project drops than one would imagine. If there are other major releases dropping either on the day of or shortly before/after – even in different genres – it could cause your promotion to get lost in the noise. Notion, Cee’s brother, unfortunately released his debut EP ‘Pride On My Cufflinks’ on the same day as Beyonce’s surprise album, which resulted in our message being dampened by the internet losing its collective mind over Queen Bey.

We decided to release Cee’s album on his birthday, April 10th 2014, as he would naturally be receiving higher-than-average traffic to all his social profiles, and his friends and acquaintances would be more inclined to at least take a look at the project than if it wasn’t a significant day for him. 

We had a strategic release schedule and marketing plan

To quote the great Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

We put together a detailed, step-by-step release strategy for the album that encompassed all promotional and tactical elements, their respective dates of execution and how it would be done. This enabled us to focus strictly on the tasks at hand knowing that they had a place in the overall strategy, without being distracted by other elements.

We planned a consistent release schedule and gave ourselves plenty of time leading up to the release to lay out a variety of content (promotional photos, videos, singles and PR). This kept the project in the faces of the target market without drowning them in the same message. By continually giving people new material that generated interest in the album while capturing the attention of the audience, we were able to keep pre-orders coming in without spamming people.

We set up an iTunes Pre-order

This is key. If you have a record deal, ask your label about it; but for the indie artists who use Tunecore, CDBaby or other similar sites, this relatively new service is the main element in the mix that will get you charting. Essentially, you’re able to place your project on pre-order via iTunes so that fans can pay upfront for the album and have it delivered directly to their device (smartphone or computer) at midnight on release day.

The best part? All sales in the lead up to release day count as sales on the actual release day; those early bird purchases will most certainly add up and significantly boost your chart position. You also can chart during the pre-order period, and if it does then that’s a fantastic advertising opportunity for your project.

Cee’s album hit the Top 200 in the first week of pre-orders, and we followed the progress daily, which gave us fantastic social media content which generated more interest as we got closer to the release day.

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We provided additional value

As with anything these days, people want to know they’re receiving value before they will part with their hard earned dough. Another awesome feature of the iTunes pre-order is that artists can opt to give immediate downloads to buyers upon purchase. For ‘This Is All I Know’, we chose to give customers four songs (two singles and two other key tracks) to raise anticipation for release day. This was a great strategy, as fans weren’t left with the feeling that they purchased thin air up front; the anticipation for the full album only grew with the teaser songs.

We also put together a 20-plus-page PDF document with photography and graphics from the album photo shoot as bonus material; whether or not this boosted sales is up for discussion, but it was an additional element we could push in our promotion, and it never hurts to provide more value.

We were consistent in our imagery and message via social media

Branding is everything. People buy into the personality and image of an artist before they even consider listening to the music; so spend time (and money) on photography and design. Our in-house designer/photographer Joshua Telfer handled all visual elements for Cee’s album, so we had strong consistency across all promotion; from the cover art to social banners and profile pics, to web promotion and press images, everything carried the same message, presentation value and quality.

We partnered with a major Hip Hop blog

We have a decent reach via our networks and a supportive fanbase that we have grown over the years, however you can’t just rely on your own resources to get the word out. Partnering with a relevant blog or website will extend your reach, give your project a valuable co-sign and increase sales. The label had a relationship with DJ Z at DJBooth.net, which we had cultivated since 2010. Now that we had a real reason to reach out, Z was cool enough to check out the project and approve it for both an Editor’s Pick post (which helped the song ‘Do Ya Hear Me?’ reach #18 in their Independent Hip Hop Chart) and an exclusive day-before-release full album stream, along with site-wide social media promotion.

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We sent a PR blast to every relevant contact we had

Even if you can’t afford a PR agent, you can do this yourself quite easily. We’ve been building our mailing list since 2007 – including people like Hip Hop bloggers, DJs, press and supporters - and we use FanBridge to manage and send out emails (other great services include MailChimp and Mad Mimi). The fee is about $20 USD each month and it has more than paid for itself. Sending out a detailed email blast was a key element in spreading the word about the pre-order, the video and single releases, and the album release itself.

We decided to put our money up, and buy Facebook Ads

So far, we hadn’t spent a single dollar on promoting the project. This is the only element where we opened our wallets and it was most definitely worth it. We had a budget of $50 for Facebook ads at $5 per day (which was actually a birthday gift that Cee received); we targeted Montreal, Toronto and Melbourne (our specific markets) with a message that encouraged people to pre-order the album. Facebook lets you try out multiple images and then shut down the ones that aren’t performing; within days, we were down to one image that was significantly out-performing all the others so we ran with that for the duration of the campaign.

We received a lot more interaction than we had anticipated, so we extended the campaign an additional 4 days with a total of $70 spent. It’s tough to technically measure whether a click on the ad resulted in an actual pre-order or sale of the record, but at the very least it encouraged awareness of the project and hopefully got people talking.

We simply asked

If you want anything in life, you just have to ask for it; when you put a value on something, people will respect and adhere to that. Cee has been releasing music since 2002, however this project was his debut album. Prior to this, he’d only released free/Pay What You Can mixtapes and EPs so this was the first time he’d ever put a solid value on his music and actually asked people to pay for it. And that they did. He’d generated a decent amount of loyalty as an artist over the years, which when combined with living in three cities in two countries really helped generate sales and inevitably put the project in the Top 10 (Top 40 for 72 hours). Oh, and don’t forget to take screen shots; iTunes doesn’t save any record of their charts so the only proof you’ll have is what you capture. ;)

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