Selling Art without Selling Out: Authentic Online Marketing for Artists and Musicians

How to Sell Art without Selling Out

Alicia told me about her favorite part of this year’s Grammys a few days back. The other famous Alicia, Alicia Keys, blew her away by sitting between two grand pianos and using them both to perform a musical montage highlighting some of her favorite musicians. 

“I wish I wrote these songs,” Keys said at the start of the performance. Then she segued to her own song, “Empire State of Mind,” saying, “Finally, you write the song you wish you wrote.” 

Finally, you write the song you wish you wrote.
— Alicia Keys

The number was both touching and exhilarating—best of all it exemplifies some of the central values that will help almost any musician or artist reach a wider audience. 

But first some bad news: this isn’t one of those articles where you get “tips and tricks” for promoting your work. Successfully marketing yourself online takes time, patience, creativity, gratitude, authenticity, and hard work. It can also take quite a bit of luck.

If you’re still with me, I’d like to introduce a counterintuitive principle, one that business owners are quick to deny but artists are just as quick to embrace. We all have this notion in our heads that marketing and advertising are about persuasion. As the thinking goes, you come up with a clever commercial that makes people laugh while subtly convincing them your product will dramatically improve their lives. Your audience sees the commercial and moves one step closer to a purchase. 

But this approach is destined to fail in the internet age. That’s because there’s only a tiny interval in the so-called “buyer’s journey” when viewers are at all open to promotional content. The rest of the time they’ll dismiss and ignore anything that seems to be “trying to sell them something.”

Think about it: unless you’re watching the Super Bowl, how likely are you to watch the commercials? How likely are you to stop scrolling when you see what’s obviously an ad in your Instagram feed?

So, here’s the counterintuitive principle: give up the idea that the purpose of your online content is to sell your products or services. The way to win at web and social media marketing is to forget sales almost altogether. 

Give up the idea that the purpose of your online content is to sell your products or services.

At this point in the discussion, most business executives I present to are ready to go with my competition. And it’s easy to predict what they’ll do instead of following my recommendation. After a few months, I’ll start seeing slick but obnoxious videos on their company’s LinkedIn pages. Each video is essentially a commercial, focused on touting the company’s own products—but it’s okay (they think) because the hosts are just so cool. And, besides, they threw in some jokes! 

These videos will get four or five likes from the company’s own employees. And, over time… well, pretty much nothing—unless other companies see the videos and decide they want some just like it on their own pages. Once they have them, they’ll pat themselves on the back for their sweet marketing. And nothing will happen for them either. (Sign onto LinkedIn and you’ll immediately see several examples of what I’m referring to.)

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Okay, but if you’re not supposed to focus on selling your products, what should you focus on? And what’s the point of doing any of this non-selling stuff if you’re not making more sales? Or getting more gigs?  

Community and Relationships

Different kinds of products may call for different kinds of marketing. But, if you’re an artist, musician, writer, or any other purveyor of entertainment or aesthetic experiences, your success depends on your ability to build an audience and a following. We all fantasize about the day when we release our album (or book, etc.) and sales go through the roof without us having to lift a finger. We all like to think our work is worthy of that kind of attention. As true artists, we may even abhor the very idea of marketing our work.

Part of that is because we have the wrongheaded idea that marketing is mere persuasion. You don’t want to beg and plead for people to pay for work you’ve poured your soul into. That feels like profaning it. Plus, doesn’t art, good true art, transcend such base transactions? If people don’t appreciate your work today then maybe it’ll be rediscovered and found to be imbued with true genius long after you’ve retired. 

This is all very romantic, but it’s also ridiculously self-indulgent. If your art doesn’t reach an audience, it can’t have any impact. If it has no impact, then you can’t really gauge its quality. Art is an act of communication. You can’t claim to have mastered a language if you never speak to anyone in it.  

Okay, so how do you build an audience? Well, that phrase, “build an audience,” is apt in some respects, but what you need to do first is join a community. Of course, when you join a community, you probably shouldn’t immediately start treating your fellow members as your audience—or you won’t be a member yourself for long. And that’s the point. If a community accepts you, it signals to people outside the community that you have something to offer. What you have to do is find a community you can invest in, and then over time that community will come to see you as a valuable member. You have to work your way up, pay your dues. 

Here’s the crucial point: participating in a community needn’t involve any slick salesmanship. In fact, having that kind of agenda will likely get you flagged as opportunistic and untrustworthy. But becoming a valued member of a community is marketing, a critical first stage of it anyway. 

Let me bring this down to earth with a concrete example. You can spend a bunch of money and use the latest technology to create an amazing video ad promoting your music. It features you talking about your education, how you developed your chops, and how devotedly you worked on your latest project. It may even feature a quote from your old music instructor about how much of a genius you are. Then you post it everywhere: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, wherever you think people might see it. 

Becoming a valued member of a community IS marketing.

Now, here’s the reality: that video is worth a fraction of a single post from a music-lover who gushes over how much she loved your live show, a post to which she helpfully appends some photos of the huge crowd she was engulfed in.

That’s the power of community. 

So how do you get a community?

First, you have to find a crowd of likeminded artists. Where do they hang out? Start going there. Start making friends. Start making contributions. Attend your friends’ shows. Host gatherings. Stage events yourself. Give constructive feedback. Ask for and respond to constructive feedback. Be positive. Be generous. Be self-effacing. Dial back your ego. Look for ways to uplift. Talk about how great your friends are on your own social media platforms. Like and share their posts. Reach out to newcomers who are where you once were. 

One great thing you can do is go online and thank everyone involved in your projects, from the musicians sharing the stage with you to the event coordinators who invited you to perform. Gratitude and mutual appreciation are what community is made of. 

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And the best part: if you don’t want to think of any of this as marketing, well, who says you have to? 

Deep Engagement

You may have noticed that we’ve shifted the conversation from what you need to accomplish online to what you should be doing offline. Your web and social media presence are not the be-all-end-all of your outreach; they’re just the tip of the iceberg, just a tiny window onto all the exciting stuff you’re doing for your community. (That’s probably a good way to treat social media in your personal life too.) 

But what kinds of stuff should you be publishing and posting online? And what kinds of content go where? 

The first thing to keep in mind is that your goal is deep engagement—and social media is designed for engagement that’s shallow. But what Facebook and friends lack in depth they more than make up for in reach. What does this mean for your posting strategy? Well, for one, you can stop relying on individual posts to move any needles. Instagram posts aren’t commercials you run so you can sit back and watch your sales jump up. Spoiler: they won’t. 

Instead, you can think of social media posts as serving one of two goals. The first is to get that shallow engagement, because every thumbs-up or heart your post gets will feed into the platform’s algorithm and make it more likely that your next post will show up in people’s feeds.

That means you’ll need lots of likeable, shareable posts. These can be great pictures, pithy quotes, memes, fun facts, inspirational sayings, or anything else that’s funny or fascinating, as long as it’s at least vaguely related to your art and closely aligned with the values of your community. And don’t forget to post about how great other members of your community are.

The second goal of social media posts is to serve as a breadcrumb trail your audience can follow to content or events that foster deeper engagement. Here, we’re back to the principle that social media’s main role is to point people toward things you’re doing off social media. But what kinds of content and events do people find engaging? 

This blog post is an example of content that may deeply engage—depending on whether you’re skimming or reading for detail. Long, written content serves its purpose, but it usually only appeals to people who like to read (much as it pains a writer to admit). That’s why so many business owners are enamored with short videos; anybody can enjoy a short video clip. Where business leaders go wrong is in thinking audiences want to watch them talk about what they do, how they do it, and what benefits their products will bring. It’s a bit like going to a party and only talking about yourself and how wonderful you are. 

Social media’s main role is to point people toward things you’re doing off social media.

These businesses have an attitude similar to those artists who look down on marketing. It’s like they’re saying, “Hey, what we do is awesome, so everyone should be interested.” But what this stance really shows is that you want the benefits of a community without paying any dues to your fellow members. This isn’t to say what-we-do-and-how content is completely useless, but the place for it is probably on a webpage, not a social media page. 

What content should you post to social media then?

Well, if you’re a jazz musician, you should consider writing a review of a jazz album that was just released on your blog, and then link to it everywhere. Or write about a live jazz performance you attended and what you loved most about it. Write about other local jazz musicians and what you admire about them. Or if you don’t like writing, record yourself talking about these topics on a podcast. Or record yourself discussing them with a camera and post it to YouTube. Or, better yet, do all three. 

But engagement doesn’t get any deeper than live events. It would probably be helpful to think of all your online content as a way to encourage attendance at one of your performances, readings, or shows. You could even host workshops or lectures. If you can get big crowds at your events, at least a few people in the audience are going to snap pics, record videos, write reviews, or engage in any of the other online activities that will help your work reach a still larger audience. 


Think about it: you could go on Twitter and brag about how great your work is. But how much more convincing would it sound if someone else was saying how great it is? 

A Shareable Mission

What live events offer is an opportunity for personal connection. Of course, you can only connect with a limited number of people in face-to-face meetings. Those connections are important, but you still need a way to reach the people you’ll never see in person. In other words, you need to grow your community beyond the tight-knit group of colleagues and fans making up your core of diehard supporters. 

The way to accomplish this feat is to stand for something and let everyone know what you stand for. If people can identify with your mission and your values, it will be easy for them to feel included in your work. Are you for diversity and inclusion in your industry? How about animal rights? What about lifting people out of poverty? Green energy? 

Your mission should at least partly overlap with the work you’re doing, or your efforts will come across as less than genuine. But the central value you represent is a love for the art form you’re working in. And, really, if your other values are something you truly believe in, there are probably tons of other people out there who share them. 

The political divide is pretty stark these days, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid politics insofar as it’s possible, but, if you can’t, just be aware of who it is you’re alienating. 

If people can identify with your mission and your values, it will be easy for them to feel included in your work.

Alicia Keys, for instance, advocates for more inclusion of women in the projects that are nominated for Grammys. I suppose some could object to that, but I’d be willing to bet she’s not too worried about them. 

And Now a Confession

We’ve covered the three main elements of a digital marketing strategy, acknowledging at every point along the way that most of your efforts should be grounded in offline activities. You need to have a community, you need foster engagement, and you need to cultivate a sense of shared mission. 

Now I have to confess I’ve personally never managed to implement a strategy that encompassed all three elements. This post is based on my training as a content marketer for a tech firm here in Fort Wayne and on a bunch of my own reading and research outside of work. (Two great books you should read to get started are Killing Marketing by Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose and Known by Mark Schaefer.) 

When I left that tech firm—at least partly because my bosses were frustrated with my content not being promotional enough—and started working with Alicia on PyleStyle Events, I quickly realized she had most of this stuff in place already. She’d done it all herself, without any input from me. All she needed were the finishing touches. Another way of putting this is that she had all the offline stuff in place, along with a lot of the online stuff, and all I had to do was bring it all together. (She’s still far better at social media marketing than me.)

Alicia has been building her community since she was a little girl performing at nursing homes. She recruits old classmates, friends from the Philharmonic, past students and teachers, and anyone who ever worked with her or took an interest in her work. She’s been doing live shows for years, bringing people together to celebrate jazz, classical, and contemporary music. And she’s been making it known that she supports local musicians and businesses. Proceeds from her album sales go to Destiny Rescue, an organization that helps women escape sex trafficking. 

I doubt she ever would have categorized any of these as marketing, and there’s no reason you would have to either. But if you want to make a living with your art, these are the bases you’ll need to cover one way or another. 

The obstacle I come across most frequently—including in myself—is pride. Most artists want to focus on their art, and the rest of the world be damned. And most artists, whether they come right out and say it or not, think they’re too good, or too special, or too whatever to join or serve any community. (Alicia Keys had this part easy because she was paying homage to famous figures instead of members of a less famous local community.) Whether this attitude derives from narcissism or self-doubt, succumbing to it all but guarantees your work will have a modest impact at best. 

You may be content to work on your art in isolation. You may even think there’s something purer about working in obscurity. But when life gets really hectic, it’s the things that don’t serve any direct purpose you’ll have to cut back on first. Only a lucky few get to keep up with their art their whole lives without it ever putting a dime in their pockets.  

Most artists want to focus on their art, and the rest of the world be damned.

And now it’s time for you to get started. If you’re still not clear on how to begin, just go to the website or social media pages of an artist you frequently engage with online. Start liking and sharing their content. And, while you’re doing it, pay attention to how they capture your attention. Then see if you can do something similar yourself. 

Good luck.