Here Chris Robley reveals the DIY success story that is Lance Allen, an artist who doesn't tour or sell merch, but is able to earn a full time living from music through the combined revenue of guitar lessons and money generated from streams on Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube.
Guest post by Chris Robley of DIY Musician
The music career of Lance Allen is a true DIY success story. He doesn’t tour. He doesn’t rely on merch sales to pay the mortgage. He isn’t a household name. And yet he’s earning a full-time living in music by balancing guitar lessons with streaming revenue. That money he’s generating from Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube is a pretty sizable portion of his overall earnings too. It’s enough to “buy a new guitar every month,” but instead he’s using it to pay off his house.
How’s streaming working so well for him? I asked.
An interview with Lance Allen, the Guitarlancer
CR: Your main focus is clear from the calls-to-action at the very top of your website homepage: drive action on Spotify and Pandora. Why those platforms? Why not… touring? iTunes? YouTube? CD sales?
LA: Spotify and Pandora Radio have the largest audience, and that’s the reason why they’re my main focus. Plus it has been a source of income for me.
In late 2015, I was lucky and one of my songs was chosen for the new playlist on Spotify called Acoustic Concentration. A Skype guitar student that I teach told me about this. I didn’t know what to expect really, considering most people in the industry complain about Spotify’s royalty rates. The first payment I received was somewhere in the tune of $700 and I was floored! I didn’t know how long it would last, but I held out hope. It kept going and eventually the playlist switched up songs and I remained on there. This stayed constant, but I wasn’t doing any research until earlier in 2017, when I accidentally stumbled on a short book called The Slotify Method by George Goodrich. This book and the CD Baby PDF on how to get added to playlists put a fire in my feet and I got started right away. I’ve done most of the things suggested in each of the pamphlets, and it has worked greatly.
As far as touring, I don’t need to do that. I have a successful guitar lesson business and a family at home. It’s quite nice to be at home with the family. I do the occasional gig at coffee houses, weddings, or corporate events. It’s at those type of things that I bring physical CDs. I have a box with a hole in the top and lay my CDs around the box and have a sign that says, “Pay the box, take a CD. Any amount is ok. Enjoy!” This seems to work great, because most people pay more for the CD than they would normally.
YouTube is strong for me. I started in 2006 posting videos of my arrangements on guitar. My camera got better, sound got better, and everything else fell into place. I do generate a little income from the AdSense. YouTube is very friendly with Google, so whenever I release a song I’ll make a live performance of me playing it and link to my Spotify and Pandora artist pages, as well as where you can buy tablature or sign up for lessons. Sometimes I’ll do multiple videos of the same song on various guitar brands to get more keyword juice going. Every little bit helps. You just have to keep the content going.
CR: What, if any, are the unique opportunities that Pandora and Spotify offer instrumental music?
LA: I have found that businesses all over the globe are using Spotify and Pandora to stream instrumental music in their shops and offices. Whether it’s a coffee shop, a boutique store, gift shops, or doctors offices, they use these platforms typically to play instrumental music. A lot of them use existing playlists, but some create their own. So there is a lot of opportunity for me in these areas. Still learning about them.
So, you currently have half a million monthly listeners on Spotify, but take us back to Day 1: How did you get those first 1000 listeners? The first 10,000 listeners? Can you walk me through the real foundational steps for driving interest in your music? And how much of your success was the result of engaging your existing audience vs. reaching out to playlist curators?
I can’t remember really what my earliest numbers were like as I didn’t pay much attention until I saw some income from being on Acoustic Concentration.
After reading up on how to get on playlists, here are some of the things I started doing:
- Posting screenshots of my artist page to Instagram and using pre-loaded hashtags for reach. I did this daily!
- Using Twitter to promote the playlist I was already on, as well as encouraging people to follow me on Spotify.
- Finding playlist owners and asking them to add me to one of their playlists.
- Becoming acquainted with Spotify editorial departments on LinkedIn.
Speaking of, how DID you reach out to playlisters? What’s the method in terms of research, pitching, promoting, and so forth?
I did a search on Spotify using keywords that pertained to my genre of music (Acoustic Guitar, fingerstyle guitar, instrumental guitar, study music and so on. There are a lot!) I set about an hour each morning while I enjoyed my single origin pour-over coffee to do this. I searched out the creators of the playlist on Facebook and Twitter. I matched up photos, and requested them to be a friend, along with sending them a message telling them about my music and how it would fit nicely into their playlist. It’s very tedious work and some playlist curators don’t even get onto social media. The key is to stay persistent with it and then the ones that matter end up connecting with you and help you out.
I know from when I met you in person at the DIY Musician Conference that you have a confident way of promoting your music, without it seeming… cloying or arrogant. Is that just your natural demeanor, or did you have to work to acquire those skills of self-promotion? What part do you think that confidence plays in your career successes?
Confidence is one of my major strengths! If you have a dream or are very passionate about making a living doing something you love, you have to be willing to do what it takes to succeed. I’ve learned this through growing my guitar lesson business and meeting people. You never know who is going to be the next person to help you out. They may recommend you, buy a CD, or support your fundraisers. Or… put you on their playlist!
I’ve read a lot of books on self selling, and making friends and influencing people. One that especially got me going was The 10X Rule by Grant Cardone. After listening to that book on audio, I found myself putting in ten times the effort! There are a lot of great books out there on making yourself sellable and influential.
What have been some of the letdowns or failures you’ve experienced along the way, and how did you pick yourself back up?
The letdown is not being able to reach someone with a user generated playlist I know will help me. I’m focused on getting onto the playlist that users create because that in turn gets my name on the Spotify curators’ radar.
Something that I do to help with keeping persistent is having a goal sheet written in bold sharpie just above my computer. I try my best to keep at it, regardless of a failing outcome. I have seen results from my efforts, so I just keep with it. I find that I learn new things and techniques along the way. This hasn’t happened yet, but getting pulled from a playlist would be a disappointment. Especially a Spotify playlist, as their independent curators are ghosts and difficult to have direct contact with. However I would keep pushing, because it is my goal to succeed with my music.
Taking a look at your discography, you put out albums every few years, with two related albums in 2017, but you also started dropping a bunch of singles over the past year. What effect did putting out music more frequently have on your music’s streaming performance?
Releasing singles has been the best thing for me. It keeps listeners engaged with my artist profile. I started releasing covers too, because CD Baby makes it so easy to do. That has been a game changer! People love hearing cover songs. And because mine are all instrumental, they get put on big playlists, like Instrumental Pop Covers.
The two related albums are String Poet and String Poet Guitar Solos. One of the releases has the violins and cellos in the mix and the other is just solo guitar. I did this because of a playlister who only wanted solo guitar. It got me on the playlist, so it was worth releasing them that way.
In August 2017 one of my songs got placed on the Peaceful Guitar playlist, which is a Spotify playlist with half a million followers at the time. I’m quite confident that this happened as a result of being prolific on the platform. The pay from Spotify streams is big for me. I could easily buy a new guitar each month if I wanted, but it’s paying my house off!
In October I decided to record a song just for the Peaceful Guitar playlist. I didn’t know how it would go, but I did it anyway. I listened to the playlist and created a song that would fit. I took into consideration that most of the songs on there were nylon string and quite peaceful, so I got some new strings and went to work. I even gave it a title in the same manner as the other tracks in the playlist, “Raining Slowly.” It wasn’t a lot of work really. I sat in my living room with my laptop, GarageBand, a single AKG microphone, and a Focusrite preamp and recorded one take of an idea that I had. I took an iPhone photo of my guitar and used Font Candy to make a title on the photo. This ended up being my cover for the release. I got the song uploaded on Spotify and on day one it was placed on the Peaceful Guitar playlist!
Took me about 1.5 hours to do this tune and now it’s a part of my income. Holy Cow that was awesome. I’m doing what I can now to replicate that.
What’s the basic checklist of things you do to promote each single?
Make sure you are ready to post in every social media outlet, tagging people, messaging your friends who have created playlists (you know, the ones you met from doing the research).
Make a YouTube performance video, linking everything together. You can also make a video with the audio layed underneath your cover photo of the release. That seems to help as well. Don’t forget to put links in every video.
Besides frequent releases and pitching to playlists, what else are you doing to drive Spotify engagement?
Creating and promoting my own playlists. I’ve created a playlist that is growing quickly called Acoustic Guitar Cafe.
It’s a lot of my friends who play guitar similar to me. I just recently asked every artist on there if they would be interested in chipping in $20 for a Spotify ad to promote the playlist. I was able to get a decent budget on a Spotify ad to promote the playlist. This will hopefully help find new followers and listeners of our music. It’s also started a discussion with some of the artists where we’re sharing stats and techniques of what is working to get our music heard.
What are you doing to drive Pandora streams? Are you using AMP?
I use AMP every day or every other day. I try to post artist messages that are personal, sometimes funny. The key is to connect with people that are listening. Being that it’s instrumental, I can provide a short blurb about why I wrote the tune. Things like that generate thumbs up, which in turn brings your music up more often.
What role does data play in shaping your strategies? Do you make a habit of looking at analytics?
I look at the analytic all the time. In fact I can’t wait until 11 CST to see the artist.spotify update. That tells me if I’ve gotten on any new playlist. I also used the data when creating the Spotify ad to promote my playlist. I’m eying the AMP data as well, to see if my artist messages are working and possibly making conversions or new listeners and fans.
So what are some of your big picture goals?
I’d love to earn a complete living with streaming revenue, and in fact I’d love to say that I paid my house off with streaming bucks. I’m well on the way.
Also, I’d like to see my music in the movies or TV eventually. I know in the music business it’s all about who you know. I’m already in a library, so just hoping a music supervisor picks it up and hears it.
I didn’t quite make it, but I tried to get nominated for a Grammy this year. Although I don’t need a Grammy to succeed with this, it would be neat to get a nomination. So I will continue to submit every year I do album.
Who are your musical idols — and have your songs appeared alongside some of theirs in curated playlists?
Yes! One is Phil Keaggy, and it was a dream to have him on one of my songs, “Blue Ireland.” Tommy Emmanuel is another big influence, and I hope to one day record something with him.
What’s the next year look like for you?
Next year Pandora will have increased, as well as Spotify numbers. I will be releasing more Christmas music for the holidays as well as an album of cover songs. I may even do an original album of peaceful guitar music or possibly a Volume 2 to my String Poet album that everyone has loved. I may even look into doing an electric guitar album or something in the smooth jazz style of music. That elevator music pays too!
Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby's DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songsthat've been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.