How to Use Ads (for Musicians)

I asked three questions to my email list last week:

  1. Have you run ads for your music?
  2. What were the results?
  3. What’s your best piece of advice on running ads?

Here’s what people said:

“I have not ran any ads, yet. Mainly because I have read that simply paying to boost fb ads and IG ads is like setting money on fire.”

“I consistently had problems with Facebook not approving my ads… In total I had submitted and been rejected almost 40 times.”

“I ran some ads via CD Baby’s contacts. Didn’t make any difference…

Did some on Facebook, and they drew a few hits and likes/listens.”

“I’ve heard that in the beginning you need to just collect a lot of data with your ads, and for that you need to pay a bigger amount.”

“I bought a course and studied it like a hawk and had a friend who’s very good with ads mentor me through them. I realized you’re not going to get it right directly off the bat but I ran four different campaigns with 4 different songs and target audiences and regions and got absolutely zero positive response from it.”

Also a bunch of you responded and said something to the effect of, “No idea about ads, but can’t wait to hear your inevitably brilliant solutions!”

Well, bad news, guys: I’m not sure I have any brilliant solutions and I’m definitely not an expert at ads for musicians.

For transparency, I’m not a newb, either. Humble brag, I have managed hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad spend. But don’t let that actually impress you, because most of it has been for businesses (rather than musicians) and most of it has been put toward Google Search Ads (which I think have limited usefulness for musicians).

Anyway, from what I’ve found, ads (like pretty much everything else) are a long-term game, and the “hacks” that promise quick results are usually overrated.

It’s a game I’m still learning. But here’s what I know.

 1. Audience is everything.

In my mind, your target is more important than your content because it has a lower margin of error. If you create a subpar ad for metal music and show it to someone who loves metal, you’ll still have a good shot at engagement. If you create the best ad for metal music in the world and show it to a country music fan, they won’t click.

You have to get your audience right.

This is why ads are a long game (and why so many of you are justifiably hesitant to enter it). To get a good audience, you need to get data on what makes a good audience. Doing this requires that you spend money – upfront, and then basically forever.

That said, two tips:

The current best way I know of to get a good audience on Facebook / Instagram is to retarget engaged video viewers.

From Business Manager, you can create audiences of people who’ve watched 50%+ of one of your videos. These people are far more likely to engage with you, since they kind of already have before.

Eventually, once this audience is built out and performing well, you can use it to branch into lookalike audiences.

This is similar to what Indiepreneur teaches, and it works. It’s also a good sidestep around the death of cookies / the iOS 14 update.

(If you don’t know what that last sentence meant, definitely Google it before you start any ads. Here’s a quick primer.)

Where you’re targeting people really matters.

You can drive cost-per-click way down by targeting cheaper regions. Here’s a list of countries that cost a lot less to advertise to than the US. (There are also plenty of countries in kind of a mid tier.)

If you only hit cheaper regions, the results can be crazy. I just ran a campaign for an artist where we were at $.70 per click in the US and $.07 per click outside of it. Yeah, that’s literally 10X more results for the same cost.

If you don’t care where your fans live, this is definitely worth thinking about, but you should probably never rely on low-cost countries as a primary audience – in the long run, it’ll mess with how algorithms perceive you.

If my artists are okay with an international audience, I generally set one up, but I put a cap on it so that cheap countries don’t eat all of my spend.

 2. Ads that aren’t directed toward a goal are a waste of money.

I think a lot of artists get frustrated with ads because they’re not really sure what they should be getting from them.

Should your ads result in Instagram follows? Video views? Spotify streams? Pre-saves? Playlist follows? Email signups?

If you’re not sure what you’re putting money toward, it’s really hard to justify spending it.

My take: Ads are most useful as a way to get in front of new eyes, but they’re not a great way to get people to take big actions.

In other words, someone who’s seeing your ad probably isn’t going to pre-save your track unless they’re already a fan – and if they’re already a fan, you can probably reach them with your pre-save link without having to pay for ads.

Personally, I’m focusing on using ads to grow my artists’ Instagram and Spotify followers, using Instagram story ads that link to either the artist’s Instagram profile or a track on Spotify.

Remember: Everything should be directed toward building your community. Instagram and Spotify are only gateways to a deeper fan-artist relationship.

Okay, I’ll close with a few quick tips:

Video. Use video. Doesn’t have to be a professionally-shot music video. My highest performing ads are usually an artist talking to their iPhone camera. If you want a little polish via editing, Canva is super easy to use. If you’re linking from Facebook / Instagram / YouTube -> to another app (usually Spotify), you need a deep link so that it’ll open automatically. I’ve been using URLGenius and it’s worked well. If you don’t use a deep link, Spotify won’t open easily, and your clicks / money will be wasted.

If you’re trying to get Spotify streams, you’ve got to make sure you’re targeting Spotify users. Sounds obvious, but I’ve seen people forget to include Spotify as an audience interest, then wonder why their clicks aren’t translating to streams.

Get targeted with your placements, rather than letting the ad platform push your ad everywhere so they can charge you more money. On the Facebook platform, I’ve found Instagram Story placements to generate the lowest cost-per-click (but I’ve heard from others who’ve used in-feed ads effectively, too, so don’t count them out).

Boosting a post on Facebook or Instagram is a waste of money. Learn how to use Business Manager. It’s not very intuitive, but it’s also not incredibly difficult. You’ve just got to put the time in.

If you don’t want to pay for a course on ads, I’ve found this article pretty helpful and this video pretty helpful. If you’re willing to spend $37 to learn ads, Indiepreneuer’s course is my current favorite option (but there are a ton out there, obviously, and I’m sure others are good, too).

If you want to skip the learning curve altogetherToneDen is an automated platform that basically puts together effective campaigns for you.

If you want to skip ads altogether – well, that’s not necessarily a bad call, either. Jesse Cannon has a kind of annoying / kind of funny video where he roasts Facebook ads for musicians as a scam. I think he’s over the top, but I also think ads are only one way to get in front of people, and they’re one of the riskier / less personally rewarding ways. You don’t need them. 

All right, that’s all I’ve got for now.

That was kind of a hodgepodge of stuff, I know. Sorry.

Honestly, this email was kind of tough to write – there are so many little technical things that make a big difference in this, which makes it hard to boil everything down. But I hope some of what’s above is helpful.

If you’ve got any specific questions, let me know.

Bottom line: I’ve found that ads can be effective if you use them well. And they’re best used toward the end goal of building a community.

Now get out there and try not to burn your money.

Want to build a meaningful community around your music?

The Bundle

I’ve packaged years of experience running Two Story Melody (a top-ranked music blog) and Two Story Media (a music PR firm) into a book called How to Promote Indie Music.

It lays out a roadmap to better indie music promotion – promotion that doesn’t suck. You can check out the first chapter for free.

Get Chapter 1 for free.

Want a sneak peek? Download the first chapter here. It’s called “The Problem”, and it’s an honest look at the difficulty involved in successful promo. Promo can kind of suck, but understanding why it sucks is the first step toward making it not suck.

Check it out in .pdf form.