A new way to think about SEO in the music industry

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear something about SEO optimization in the music industry? The chances are: nothing too positive. Through the past years, we’ve seen a string of “life-hacks” emerge around this music SEO space, most of them falling short of ethical music promotion. With stories like Sony Music releasing a compilation titled “Some Christmas Music” just to tap into the smart speaker traffic for queries like “Alexa, play some Christmas music”, all of us have to take the SEO in the music industry with a grain of salt. 

However, the question still stands: is it possible for artists and music professionals to approach naming their songs and projects in a way that make them more visible on search across all the various social platforms and DSPs? Well, let’s try to figure it out. 

What is SEO — and how does it apply to the music industry?

Let’s start with the basics. SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, generally refers to the process of changing the contents and structure of a website to increase its visibility on platforms like Google or, ehm, Bing, I guess? Today, SEO is a key component of marketing strategies for thousands of start-ups and media publications. However, when it comes to music, SEO is still more of an afterthought than a proper strategic decision. 

(Google) SEO for Artists

To try and capitalize on organic traffic, a company would usually create separate website pages and optimize them for relevant keywords related to their business activity. However, that’s hardly a path that artists can take — I mean, even if you do create a page on your website targeting keywords like “best new music” to try and plug your music there, you’ll be competing with the likes of Pitchfork, NPR, and Metacritic. Simply put, you can find better things to spend your time and effort on. 

Yet, there’s one page on Google that every artist out there can (and should) own — the first page of results for the name of your project. That first page of Google becomes sort of a business card, featuring all of their social and streaming links as well as the latest press stories mentioning the artist. It is a very important touchpoint, a place where a potential fan might deepen his connection with the artist — so owning that first page is imperative for any artist out there.

The good thing is that getting there is quite easy, even for artists who are just starting out. Essentially, there’s just a single (but still very important) step you’ll need to take to own your brand traffic on Google — pick a unique name for your project. I can’t stress this enough. Sure, naming your band something like “Girls” can be a valid creative choice, but trust me, your life will be so much easier if you at least throw an adjective into the mix: 

First page of Google Search of the US rock band “Girls” cluttered with off-brand content

The downside of your “first page of Google” business card is that you won’t have direct control over all of the contents of that page. While artists and their teams generally have editing access to things like their wiki pages and knowledge panels, high domain authority media publications mentioning your artist will also feature prominently on the first page of search results. This press coverage is obviously much harder to control — so it’s also a question of getting the press to tell the artist’s story the right way. However, let’s not get into the intricacies of music PR just yet — besides, Google is not the only place where audiences search for music. 

Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok — all of those platforms have their search engines, used by millions of music fans every single day to look for artists, playlists, and songs. But while all of those platforms are the most important spaces for music, it is also much, much harder to approach those spaces with the SEO perspective. 

On Google, you’re optimizing a rich text website page, full of metatags and titles, links and references to other pages. You have all sorts of tools at your disposal providing you insights on keyword traffic. You have other high-ranking content to draw inspiration from. On music platforms, the property you’re optimizing is a song (and sometimes a video or a playlist), and in the best-case scenario, you have just a few lines of text to work with.

But can these few lines still make a difference? Let’s try and figure it out. 

Song SEO: Can the name of the track make a difference? 

Before we get into it: naming in music is often more of an artistic decision than it is a business one. However, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to consider it from a purely marketing perspective.

The first step to any optimization is to pick out the relevant keywords you’d want to aim for. But how do you employ that approach in music, where there’s no way to tell how popular is a certain word or phrase in terms of search volumes? Millions of people are using the search bars on Spotify every single day — but there’s no platform in music that provides access to the data around that search volume. Well, if we can’t get the data at the source, we can look at some of the top-ranking content — or, if we put it in music industry terms, music charts. 

To try and figure out if this type of SEO mindset can be applied to the naming in the music industry, we’ve decided to take a look at two very distinct platforms for music. First is the celestial jukebox of Spotify, which can serve as a proxy for any major DSP in music. Second is the Instagram music feature, allowing some 1.15 bn users to tap into a vast library of licensed music to pick out soundtracks for their Stories posts. 

Of course, there’s a lot of independent factors influencing the popularity of a given song, but the reasoning goes that if we completely isolate all other factors and focus purely on the naming, it should give us a pretty good idea of what “keywords” are most common on platform-specific charts, and highlight how the difference between those platforms impacts the semantic composition of the charts.

Let’s start with Spotify. Observing keywords within the charts can give us an insight into some of the naming trends that marketers could leverage. To try and get an idea of what are the most used keywords in music, we’ve gathered the data on all tracks that ever made it onto Spotify daily charts, going back to 2014 — providing us with a sample of over 6,500 song titles to work with. Here’s what we found:

Tag cloud of most occurring keywords across Spotify charts (2014-2021). Source: KWORB

Or, if we visualize the frequencies on the graph:

Top 50 most occurring keywords on Spotify charts, by frequency (2014-2021). Source: KWORB

Love songs, huh? I mean it probably won’t come as news to you that there’s a lot of songs on the charts with the term “love” in their name. However, this dataset is still very important, as it allows us to establish a reference point. As we’ve mentioned before, Spotify can serve as a proxy for any major music DSP out there — and so the list you see above can be treated as a sample of the general song naming convention in the music industry. 

By grounding the analysis with that initial dataset, we can then cross-reference it with more platform-specific Instagram Stories charts — to try and build a list of keywords that are popular on Instagram, but NOT on Spotify. That should give us a good idea of whether or not there are Instagram-specific search patterns that can be leveraged to get more exposure for music, and, ultimately, build a list of keywords that will (on average) increase the song’s visibility on the platform.

Instagram Stories Music

As you probably know, Instagram introduced their music sticker feature back in 2018, allowing users in selected markets to add soundtracks to their stories. With Instagram’s general status as one of the most important social platforms for music, Instagram stories are a massive opportunity for artists. Besides, a song featured in a story post is going to reach not just that person, but all of their active followers — which means that a song that performs well on Instagram Stories is likely to reach a massive audience, and have a good chance to spillover onto streaming platforms.

To establish a list of most frequently used words on Instagram stories, we’ve accessed data on the most-used songs on Instagram in March 2021 (across English-speaking markets), amounting to over 1000 unique song titles.

Top 25 words by marginal frequency on Instagram charts vs. Spotify charts. Source: Soundcharts, KWORB

Straight away, we can detect at least three distinct groups of keywords that are more common on Instagram Stories charts vs Spotify charts:

  1. Nature & Weather, characterized by keywords like “sunshine”, “ocean”, “island”, and “summer”
  2. Life Occurrences, characterized by keywords like “birthday”, “work”, “ride” and “party”
  3. General Positive Terms, characterized by keywords like “good”, “happy”, “pretty”, “beautiful”, “lovely”, etc.

So, what does it tell us about how people engage with Instagram’s search engine, as well as the search intent behind their queries? First and foremost we have to keep the use case in mind. 

In a way, any Instagram story overlaid with music can be viewed as a micro-sync deal. The purpose of music is not to stand on its own, but to complement and elevate the underlying visual content. In other words, when people search for music to add to their story, they are looking for a soundtrack for their life — or, rather, a soundtrack for the part of their lives they share on Instagram.

So, if we follow this logic, we can map some of the keyword topics we’ve established to a specific type of content popular on Instagram stories: 

  1. People sharing shots of nature: sunsets, sunny weather, seascapes, etc (Nature & Weather)
  2. People sharing their life events and routines: gatherings, parties, road trips, working environments, etc. (Life Occurrences)

And then, of course, you’d rarely want to share a video of a mediocre sunset. Instead, you’d want to share a sunset that’s “lovely” or “beautiful” — which can help explain the clear dominance of such positive keywords on Instagram Stories charts. 

Another important thing to mention is that while our dataset for Spotify included all songs that made it onto charts in the span of the last 7 years, our Instagram charts data covers only March of 2021 — and so particular keywords we’ve found are likely influenced by the early-spring season we’re in right now. However, the same underlying themes of Nature will probably be present in the fall or winter — yet the particular keywords like “sunshine” might be substituted for something along the lines of “leaves” or “snow”. Regardless of the exact keywords, the topics identified are likely to feature prominently on Instagram Stories — and so including related keywords into your songs’ titles will likely increase their visibility on the platform. 

One thing I have to admit is that this article is just scratching the surface of the song SEO. The same research logic can be applied to different platforms, from TikTok to Twitch Soundtracks and beyond — and since today we focused solely on music charts, so far we’ve only explored the tip of the music industry iceberg. 

Yet, there’s one thing we can say for sure. While there’s no one-size-fits-all advice we can provide, the fact is that song naming can be approached with the SEO mindset — and I’m not talking about releasing a song titled “Among Us” (or whatever the next biggest video game on the internet is going to be) to try and piggyback off the search interest for that brand. Instead, song SEO can be adopted in a meaningful, non-intrusive way, and integrated with the overall artist strategy to make sure that the song has the best chances of occupying its destined space on the market.

With the introduction of features like Spotify lyrics search, artists and their teams can afford to put less emphasis on things like showcasing the most memorable line in the song’s title, and engage with new strategies and tactics when it comes to naming. Sometimes, it might be a question of switching an adjective in the song’s name to increase the chances of such search-mediated, organic discovery — but one thing you have to remember is that the music industry is a multi-faceted environment made up of dozens of different platforms. Each of those platforms offers a unique consumption context, and unique search patterns to go along with it. Instead of spreading yourself thin and trying to be everywhere at once, a wiser strategy might be to single out a specific space to make sure that the song really shines once it gets there. 

So, here’s a set of questions you should ask yourself if you want to try and optimize the song title for search:

  1. What is your target platform?
  1. What is going to make up the social zeitgeist when the song comes out?
  1. How will that social context affect the search intent on your target platform?
  1. How will people express their search intent in keywords?
  1. How can those keywords be seamlessly integrated into the song’s title?

Written by Dmitry Pastukhov for Music Tomorrow

TikTok Analytics: How engaging is your music on TikTok?

ElyOtto SugarCrash

Following up on our recent article about how music professionals read into artist engagement rates, we wanted to focus on TikTok and its particularities. The social app is now essential for many young artists to promote their music. However, measuring fan engagement and success for artists on TikTok – or any other UGC (user-generated content) platform – differs from other traditional social media platforms. We not only measure how fans engage with their favorite artists but also measure to what extent their music gets used in fan-produced videos.

Whether you are already a legend like Queen, or producing music in your bedroom like ElyOtto, your songs can become TikTok phenomena. To understand how engaging is your music on TikTok, you can look at two main metrics:

  • Total number of TikTok videos created featuring your music

This number will tell you how many users created videos with your sounds, therefore telling you how many people actively engaged with your music. It’s a number indicating your reach: the more the better. While megastar like Megan Thee Stallion or Drake quickly reached billions, TikTok’s global Top 50 highlights songs with video counts ranging from 200K to 5M.

  • Top Song Share 

Here’s how you calculate it:

Top Song Share = 

Number of videos created with your top song on TikTok / Total number of videos created with your music 

This share indicates whether you have a one hit wonder that got viral, or produce music that regularly engages users to create videos. There is nothing wrong with any of the two. This percentage will tell you in which category you tend to fall.

Top song share > 90%: One (viral) hit wonder

ElyOtto, 17, produces music in his bedroom in Canada. He has been posting it on SoundCloud for the last three years and more recently, he started sharing about his process on TikTok:

His hyperpop song Sugarcrash! became a trend this year in early January, counting over 5M videos created up to this date.

Sugarcrash! videos account for more than 95% of videos created on TikTok featuring ElyOtto’s music, therefore demonstrating how his top song outshines by far the rest of his catalog. There is plenty of time for him to build up on this trend and further his catalog.

Top song share < 60%: Established among creators

Imagine Dragons or The Weeknd are good examples of overall established artists, but also among TikTok creators. For example, the song “Believer” accounts for about 36% of the total 8.6M videos created using Imagine Dragons’ catalog. 

Emerging artist Flo Milli gets a total of 1.7M videos created featuring her music. Among those, her title “May I” has a count of 981K videos, establishing her top song share at 57%, an indicator that is promising regarding her ability to create music appealing to TikTok users.

However, getting music featured on videos doesn’t necessarily mean that your artist has an active audience on TikTok.

How engaging is your artist on TikTok? 

Is your artist a TikTok influencer? Definition of engagement rates vary from one analytics platform to another. Some will divide post engagements (likes+comments+shares) by followers, and others by video views. Both approaches make sense. If you do compare rates on several platforms, just be careful that you are looking at the same number.

Overall, TikTok fans are more engaged than on Instagram or Youtube. According to Hypeauditor, the average engagement rate (per video views) on TikTok in 2020 is 17.5%, a rate much higher than Instagram. Usually, engagement rates decrease as follower bases grow. On TikTok, it does happen but to a lesser extent: 

  • 1,000 to 5,000 followers – 21.10%
  • 5,000 to 20,000 followers – 18.40%
  • 20,000 to 100,000 followers – 15.64%
  • 100,000 to 500,000 followers – 15.53%
  • 500,000 to 1,000,000 followers – 17.02%
  • 1,000,000 to +∞ followers – 17.28%

Here, we’ll look at engagement rates per followers to compare them more easily with other platforms:

TikTok Engagement Rate = (Likes + Comments + Shares) / Followers * 100%

Megastar Megan Thee Stallion demonstrates a 20.9% TikTok engagement rate “despite” her 7.4M follower count, versus 5.5% on Instagram and 2.3% on Youtube. Emerging artist Flo Milli reaches 23.6%, versus 8.8% on Instagram and 13% on Youtube. The immersive video experience of TikTok is to factor in to explain such a difference with other platforms. 

Despite the hype around this platform, TikTok is not necessarily the one platform for your artist to get in touch with their fans. It all depends on the story your artist wants to tell and the type of social media content he or she feels at ease creating. Whether or not your artist is active on it, you should distribute your music there and pay attention to what is happening. Trending TikTok songs come from current stars as well as emerging artists and come quite often to a surprise!

3 Music Data Resolutions for the New Year

Happy new year everyone! Let’s start 2021 by sharing what we would like to see this year in the music & data world. Here are our goals:

  1. Develop data literacy
  2. Tell more data stories about emerging artists
  3. As an industry, be more mindful about how we use technology.

Wish #1 – Develop data literacy and critical thinking skills

In Cherie Hu’s words, “as much of the music industry remains online, data literacy has become more important than ever across all sectors”. Managers and marketers have plenty of information to analyze, and it’s sometimes difficult to extract the right insights from the abundance of available data. Now that I’m almost done writing our series about how music professionals use data – check it out on Cherie Hu’s Water & Music publication – I’d like to help professionals develop their critical thinking skills.

Here’s an example: Correlation doesn’t mean causality.

While the left example is fairly obvious: we all intuitively know that ice cream sales don’t increase murder rates (- hopefully). We wouldn’t jump to that conclusion even if someone was showing us data backing up that story. We would keep looking for another factor. Sometimes, it’s not that obvious: while Instagram growth is often paired with listeners growth on streaming platforms, it may not be the full story.

Wish #2 – Tell more data stories about emerging artists

There are a lot of success stories written in traditional media about artists hitting the billionaires club on Youtube or breaking charts records. These metrics are impressive and artists and their teams should indeed be praised for such achievements.

However, becoming a TikTok star or getting high volumes of views or streams matters, but it is not the only end-game. I discussed that topic in previous pieces focused on A&R and talent scouting, definitions of success vary widely from one case to another. Among the 25M music creators, about 43,000 artists account for the top 90% of streams in the world on Spotify (therefore belonging to the top-revenue generating artists on the platform). Not all of them are Youtube billionaires, and I’d like to see more coverage about non-billionaires and their strategies to achieve success. 

It’s not just the hits industry versus the long tail, there is a whole world in between.

Wish #3 – Be mindful about how we consume technology 

My last wish is for us to be more mindful about how we use technology, both as consumers and as music industry professionals.

Discussions about the environmental footprint of the music industry should focus as much on waste produced during music festivals and concerts, as on the digital carbon footprint. Technologies are great but they’re not neutral, even when they’re labelled renewable or green. 

On the consumer side, the dematerialization of music consumption has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music. Audio and video streaming are the biggest drivers of data consumption growth, and they are expected to account for more than 80% of Internet data traffic in 2021, according to Cisco. Streaming music videos from Youtube without watching them is an example of digital waste we could easily avoid by streaming audio only. 

On the business side, we can be mindful about when carbon-intensive technologies like HD-video streaming, VR or AI are relevant or not to solve our business problems. There are many discussions about whether tech efficiency gains can offset the carbon impact of online services’ rising demand. The answer is “it depends”, but it’s not very likely that efficiency gains will be enough to keep up with an exponentially rising demand. Here are the 2 best reads I could find about the topic: 

Data Cheat Sheet: A summary of data ownership in the live events industry

Guide by Julie Knibbe & Marie Cebrian

Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP

A study from PwC forecast that the live music industry would be worth $31 billion worldwide by 2022 if it weren’t for the pandemic. In the U.S., the live sector alone accounted for 48% of total music-industry revenues in 2019, outpacing the recorded-music sector. Long story short, the live sector is an industry within the music industry. 

I recently wrote a piece for Cherie Hu’s Water & Music publication, How the touring industry will use data in 2021 — even in a pandemic, providing guidance about how professionals use data in the live sector. During the research phase, I realized how data flows in this sector were even more complex than I thought. Ticketing platforms, promoters, venues, festivals, agents, bookers, and artist managers all collect and use data. On top of that, hybrid virtual events, live streaming and privacy regulations are now reshaping relationships between them: who owns what? Who needs access to what data? I even got lost at some point 🙂 That’s why I summed it all up in a Data Cheat Sheet to help you navigate this live universe within the music industry. 

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, Marie and I designed an illustrated version as well to describe data relationships between players of the live sector. As lines get blurrier between them and the recording industry, it’s a good time to review our basics to understand this ever-changing landscape.

How to read this chart

Ticket sales sit at the very center of this chart. It’s a goal and KPI shared by any player involved in the sector. All parties must define:

  • their own strategies to achieve ticket sales (outlined colored circles) 
  • data they own (colored circles)
  • external KPIs they need to get their job done effectively (outer circles)

Thanks to all the ground work done in the industry, data is now accessible and made actionable by several data tools that I will mention below. For more details regarding how to use these KPIs and tools, read the full guide on Water & Music.

Ticket sales

Incumbent ticketing platforms provide not only primary KPIs about sales, such as:

  • Tickets sold, 
  • Capacity percentage, 
  • Seating chart, 
  • Gross revenue,
  • Time of purchase,
  • Buyers personal information,
  • sometimes ticket transfers. 

but also secondary KPIs regarding the event marketing (see below) 

Tools: Eventbrite, Ticketmaster, Seated,…

Event marketing

Ticketing platforms like Eventbrite and Ticketmaster enable promoters to add pixels to track where sales come from, so that marketers can optimize their digital advertising investments according to which channel shows the best conversion rates. 

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the event promotion structure. It gave more power to artists and labels, who often act as the promoter as well, through live streaming events. Data collected from virtual events can provide significant leverage when physical shows will happen again (email, D2F stores, advertising…).

KPIs include: 

  • Pre-sale registrations,
  • Ad campaigns performance,
  • Sales channels, 
  • Sales channels conversion rates.

Tools: Audience Republic, Audiencetools, Arenametrix, ….

Touring history

Cherie Hu wrote about this in how booking agents use (and don’t use) data (highly recommended reading). In her words an artist’s touring history is “by far the most crucial kind of data that agents reference in their day-to-day decision-making. 

However, depending on the granularity you require, you may find out that complete touring history (ticket sales, time of sales, sales channels, attendance, fan contacts, artist contracts, fan behavior during the event, …)  is dispatched between at least three players.

For example, while managers and agents “know about tours months in advance of them ever going on sale …  promoters are often the last ones in that chain owing, in the most part, to the bidding processes, despite being the folks with the biggest job to do” said Sammy Andrews, Digital Marketer, in Music Week

Tools: Pollstar, Bandsintown, Songkick, …

Fan behavior during the event

Data collection during live events primarily serves several purposes:

  • Making sure that logistics and operations are running smoothly, and that the event is profitable,
  • Learning more about fan behavior during the show to optimize future shows and to develop targeted marketing campaigns after the show,
  • Complying with sanitary regulations with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic.

KPIs include: 

  • Attendance
  • Time of entry
  • With whom the fan attended
  • Contact tracing (COVID)
  • Seating plan
  • Purchases
  • Merch purchases
  • Time of purchases

Tools: TicketMaster SmartEvent, Aloompa, Appmiral, atVenu, …

Artist fandom and local footprint

Gauging and anticipating demand for shows remains a challenge. Understanding where fans are and what makes them willing to see a show can go a long way to anticipate and build demand.

KPIs include:

  • Facebook, Instagram fans per city
  • DSP Streams & listeners per city
  • Local airplay

but also secondary KPIs such as:

  • Bandsintown trackers
  • Local charts
  • Local playlists

A side note about live streaming: the meaning of ‘local’ marketing takes a different shape online: In Diana Gremore’s words, Business Intelligence Analyst at Paradigm Talent Agency, “instead of events being geographically local, they are local to online communities.”

Tools: Social networks analytics, Soundcharts, Chartmetric, Google Trends, ..

About data sharing and ownerships

In the chart, arrows represent data that is potentially shared. Data that is actually being shared depends on the promoter’s relationship and contract with the ticketing company, and on the artist management / agent relationship and contract with the promoter.

It is imperative that data collection be organized carefully, as exchanging data between third parties is under GDPR/CIAA regulations to protect privacy. Artists and their teams need to make sure that they have the right to use the data collected in the contracts they form with their partners, at least for their own marketing purposes. Partners also need to make sure they comply with data protection laws, so that the artist can be legally granted access that they need.

The Music Managers Forum (MMF) published a Fan Data Guide, which is a great support to understand where fan data flows from ticket sales to event attendance. They also built a data checklist to highlight items you should be aware of when dealing with promoters as an artist or a manager.