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With one billion active users and its reputation as the social media home for creatives, Instagram glitters as a potential pot of gold for musicians – beckoning artists in with the promise of huge audience figures. Ariana Grande, musical queen of the platform, has 252 million followers. Beyonce comes up second with 146 million, making Billie Eilish look a little lacklustre with 63 million. Clearly for mega stars Instagram is an essential tool to create a home for their huge fanbase. But how does it work for musicians, bands and DJs who want to maximise on Instagram’s potential to generate work, build a fanbase and act as a networking tool?

“It’s a massive part of my promotion,” says touring and recording drummer Emily Dolan (@itsemilydolandavies) who recently suffered an Insta-disaster when she woke up to discover that her account, its 32k followers and all of the content had disappeared into the ether. “I’ve had to start from scratch! What it has made me realise is how important Instagram is to my business.”

For producer and DJ, lau.ra (Laura Bettison), who also has circa 32k followers (@lau.ra.lau.ra.lau.ra), a presence on Instagram is an essential part of her promotional activity. “As an independent artist you can’t afford not to be on Instagram,” she says. Before Laura became lau.ra she was known as FEMME with 60k Facebook followers, but with this creative incarnation she made the decision not to bother with FB at all. “You buy your followers and you buy your likes and it became a popularity match for whoever had the most money to spend on inflating the numbers. People want to connect with something that’s real. Hopefully, Instagram won’t completely go down the same road. I think people realise it’s about genuine engagement and not just the numbers.”

Lau.ra: “As an independent artist you can’t afford not to be on Instagram”. Photo by lau.ra

“Instagram certainly has a higher organic reach than Facebook pages do now,” concurs Chris Williams, a digital media marketing expert who works with artists, events and festivals, including Noisily. “If you post a photo to your fans on Instagram and you have 1,000 fans you will reach half of them on Instagram, while it’s next to nothing, like 1/10th, on Facebook. It’s really low these days.” Largely he explains as a result of the “saturation” of content on Facebook. Has the beast grown too big?

Instagram as a marketing tool for musicians

Success on Instagram undeniably offers musicians opportunities, including an increased fanbase, contact with promoters, bookers, agents, higher record sales and bigger audiences. Lau.ra says that most of her paid brand commissions (including Boo Hoo and All Saints) have come through Instagram, alongside the majority of her artist collaborations – which includes Sasha, Justin Martin and Four Tet.

As a former model with the Elite model agency, Laura has an instinctive understanding of how to maximise on the value of Instagram as a visual medium: “I’ve always had a good handle on how I visually present myself alongside my music projects… I’m not warts and all, but equally I’m not mysterious. I am very aware that it is a tool for me to show off what I want to show.” Alongside direct paid commissions through Instagram, Laura says the wide reach of Instagram can feed into the organic growth of your musical success: "before lockdown there were DJs out there playing every weekend, lots of gigs in lots of cities. If you’re someone in that crowd and you know that DJ always shares a clip, you’re gonna check it out. It’s self-perpetuating engagement."

Emily Dolan performing on drums
“Movement and momentum, especially in the early days, is key”, says Emily Dolan. Photo: Emily Dolan Davies

Emily Dolan – who recently appeared in the Netflix film Count Me In alongside Chad Smith and Cindy Blackman – agrees the grassroots foundation Instagram generates is invaluable, “It shows people me and my studio and my personality. Personality is a massive part of why people hire me. It’s a great place to build trust, if someone is looking for a recording drummer they want to feel like they know you a little bit and they can trust you. I know a lot of remote musicians who expect people to pay them with no social-media proof, no proof of past work, and I’m like, ‘No! Think about how you would buy something’.”

Engaging with your followers and fans

Has there ever been a more egalitarian time in musical history? “When I’d just started out you were lucky to get an email address,” considers Laura, “which is easily ignored. But on Instagram you know if someone’s seen it or read it. Amazing for the person sending the message but not so good if you want to ignore it!” It’s also known that Instagram likes comments, and comments on comments, so it will pay dividends to spend time engaging with your followers in this way. “When you start connecting with people you end up creating these really interesting bonds that go wider than you probably realise,” says Emily who enjoys the autonomy and direct nature of Instagram. “We’re in such a privileged time where we essentially have our own marketing platform. You used to have a label, a manager, PR team – now we can choose ‘This is what I’m putting out there and if I choose to change my mind, then I can’. There’s something very freeing about that.”

Letting people relate to what you’re doing so they can see a little bit of themselves in you is one of the most valuable things that you can give to someone.

For the artists without the major label support of a full-time social media expert – for those musicians and bands who are in the trenches, so to speak, trying to work out what will bring tangible success – the secret of Instagram can feel like a dark art. The good news is that there are certifiable ways to build a good following and increase work potential via Instagram. In terms of approach and mindset, and how that informs what you post, all three of the interviewees for this feature were adamant that genuine, honest content is the foundation to success.

“It’s all about having an authentic voice. The most popular accounts and the most engaging ones are the ones you know the artist is writing and it’s got personality, and they don’t take themselves too seriously,” says Laura, who also adds that engagement counts far more highly than followers.

“Engagement is everything,” agrees Emily. “As we all know in the music business it’s about relationships, and it’s exactly the same on Instagram. Letting people relate to what you’re doing so they can see a little bit of themselves in you is one of the most valuable things that you can give to someone.”

Tailoring Instagram features to your goals

Engagement comes via quality content, which should be tailored to the different ways you can post on Instagram: your feed, which is permanent; Stories, which last 24 hours; or short videos, called Reels. “It needs to be an even mixture,” says Chris. “Stories are meant to be a live snapshot of what’s going on in your life. I wouldn’t expect high quality stories all the time. You could be backstage yacking to another DJ, so get it on your phone and post it. I would keep your feed at a higher quality as people and bookers check you out.”

Reels, which can now be one minute long, are the musician’s friend as it’s an opportunity to showcase an, albeit short, sample of work. However useful this can be as a snapshot, when you’re considering your content don’t make the mistake, advises Chris, of thinking that this is a platform for people to listen to your music. It’s not, “This is very much an engagement tool to let people know what you’re doing,” he says. Instagram doesn’t like links diverting people off to YouTube or Spotify, so “you have to write ‘link in bio’ and have a Linktree as an expanded source of your back catalogue,” he advises.

It’s also worth knowing that Instagram values certain kinds of content over others, and will always push its latest technology. “There are different types of engagement that it values better than others,” says Emily. “There’s engagement via Stories, then if you go live that brings you up. And if you use Reels on your profile that will bump you up even further.” “Absolutely,” confirms Chris, “Instagram gives a huge amount of organic reach with Reels that goes beyond your actual audience. It can go out on the whole of Instagram. If you get your content right, you can go viral.”

Experimenting to find out what works and what doesn't

“I know from being a drummer” says Emily, “that to get good at anything you have to do it a lot”. And as an artist who is having to start from scratch with her Instagram account, she’s committed to regular posting. “Movement and momentum, especially in the early days, is key. I’m back at that stage!” Overcoming the fear of being judged and thinking more in terms of “how can I help my audience” is what Emily believes has bought her a good following and work from Instagram. While Chris considers well-targeted ad spend is something artists should consider, Laura disagrees. “Most artists don’t have a marketing budget to promote, and to be honest it’s not that great a look to be an artist who’s constantly got an ad.”

If you get your content right, you can go viral.

Of course, trial and error is inevitably part of the journey, but what musicians and bands can’t ignore is that as an artist you need to put the hours in. Laura estimates she spends as much time working on her Instagram as she does writing music. “Unless you have very major label support, you have to have done the leg work yourself I’m afraid,” says Chris, “You have to engage with it. Music is a business, and you have to play every part of that business.”

Instagram’s perks and challenges

With Instagram playing an increasingly large role in musicians’ professional lives it’s worth spending time getting to know what it does and doesn’t like. Note that this is a social media platform that has a picture of an egg as its most liked image.

“It’s really hard to promote music on Instagram because the algorithms don’t really like it that much,” says Laura Bettison, who set up a page for her dog at the same time as her own. “It was very interesting because I grew that to about 30k followers in about half the time of my music one. It’s easy to grow an animal account because they’re cute and you just use a load of hashtags.”

Research and follow the latest algorithm trends and changes that Instagram makes as it will affect your success on the platform. Inevitably this will affect your content: “No one wants to put something on there that only reaches two per cent of your audience. You always want to reach as many people as possible. It’s crazy that they have so much power over what we are making as creators. Really we just want to make music, but these platforms have become such an integral part of how we present this stuff they have real power over what we present.”

Quick tips to maximise your Instagram engagement

1. Hashtag & tag

Look at similar artists and labels and who they’re hashtagging. Make sure that you are on all those hashtags and that will naturally expand your audience. You’ll start reaching the right people.

2. Connect with data analytics

Get a professional account to connect it to Facebook. This will enable you to post across the platforms, have access to analytical data and Facebook Ad Manager.

3. Cater your content

Never repost wordy statuses from Facebook. Instagram is very visual, and the attention span of your average Instagrammer is a lot less than Facebook.

Direct engagement with your own Insta community will pay dividends. The platform’s users prefer personal messages to corporate PR posts.

4. Use Linktree

Use Linktree to collate all your important links onto one page so that interested parties can check your music out on a more suitable platform.

5. Keep up with Instagram features

Pay attention to the latest Instagram products, which will always receive increased bandwidth so more people will see it in your fanbase, and further.

Photo ofKatie Nicholls
Thanks to

Katie Nicholls

Katie is a freelance journalist and editor whose features and reviews have appeared in titles such as Mojo, The Guardian and Kerrang!

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