I’m not someone who regularly uses tags to discover new music on discovery platforms such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud, so I often forget to or let laziness overcome my ability to tag my own music to make it more searchable. But, like any other kind of metadata out there on your band, tags are a simple and important tool in helping potential fans find your music.
As a musician with quite a few active projects, I use Bandcamp every single month to upload new tracks, albums, and live recordings. And if I’m going to be on the site anyway, why not take advantage of every opportunity the service offers — not just to share new content with my existing fans, but to make my new recordings as discoverable as possible?!
The truth is tags work incredibly well, and can (if used properly) have a massively positive effect on how people discover your music. DJs, music supervisors, and radio hosts, as well as their interns, use tags all the time to find extra tracks to fill playlists or sets, score video projects, and pitch to clients. Bands exploring tags to categorize their own music will often discover similar local acts they can perform or tour with. Labels might peruse tags to find bands that fit their sound. And fans use tags to explore new bands similar to their favorite artists. And beyond people literally engaging with the tag links, tagging feeds information into Bandcamp and SoundCloud’s search and discovery algorithms that help the sites feed your music into the ears of the fans who most want to hear it — people with a demonstrated history of loving just the kind of music you make.
Tagging is also the easiest way to force-associate your work with those who influence you, and communities to which you want to gain access. So here are some pointers if you’re like me and are kind of lazy about maximizing your search terms.
Genre is the obvious starting point. Say you make blues music. It’s only natural that you strive to attract an audience that loves the blues. General tagging of your typical blues-related search terms will help get your tracks in front of the eyes of blues lovers right at the moment they’re looking for new music to put on. But remember that genre is very subjective, and with general search terms such as “blues,” “rock,” and “pop” you’re almost guaranteed to be lost in a sea of options.
So it’s important to talk about your genre as clearly and specifically as you can. General tagging casts a wide net, but specificity helps you zoom in on the communities that really matter to you. Tag your primary genre first, but then try and define the most accurate sub-genres your music fits into. If you use the tag “blues punk” there may only be a handful of bands in that community, but their fans are probably hardcore blues punks. That kind of specificity really helps you access the truest fans your band might ever collect.
Here’s something to keep in mind if spending hours pouring over sub-genres is piquing your desire to abandon the effort and turn on the TV… There are almost definitely artists in your sub-genre who are even better than you at using metadata and other digital tools to maximize their discoverability. And by thinking beyond the “blues” and adding “blues punk” as your subgenre, you reap the benefits of the work all other blues punk bands are doing to build hardcore blues punk audiences online.
Bandcamp blogger, William Robin wrote a recent article exploring the wealth of diversity in the Baltimore music scene through tagging. It’s a Bandcamp pitch for sure, and he editorializes politically, but the point is clearly made that smaller artists are made highly visible to people interested in “other bands that have come from where Animal Collective and Beach House are from,” for example. Tagging the name of your city, state, country, or even neighborhood, and non-geographic communities, helps put your name alongside others operating in a range of genres and tastes, all representing that shared location.
There’s also, for many, a sense of pride that comes with helping to inject taste diversity and creative musical work into their city’s digital reputation. Place is an often overlooked and under-recognized aspect of a band’s appeal and identity. (I often use location tags to seek out and contact bands to write the ongoing Flypaper series, The Compass: Musicians Introduce Us to Their Cities!)
I’ve seen arguments for and arguments against making up your own tag terms. The main consensus is to stay away from it, citing that because we have a limited number of tags to use, you’re actually doing a disservice to your ability to reach ready-and-willing audiences. But, much like how I feel most times after reading blog posts written by music marketing agencies, I strongly disagree.
If you’re confident in your music, your independence, and uniqueness, make up a tag to describe your music and OWN THAT SH*#! Make sure you use the same term time and time again, in press releases, in interviews, in your bio, and across every platform you upload your music. “Proto-gospel” – that’s your thing, it literally describes nobody else.
A particularly industrious bandmate with whom I’ve played in two bands, made up words to describe our music in both instances. We used those terms for everything (and still do). When I go back and search those terms, one of them has only our albums. It’s a secret-not-secret hive for all of our music in one place. To me, that’s positive, since if you can find ways to drop that term in public, it becomes a space with no competition (unlike, say, “bebop” or “minimal house”), almost like having a second band name, a back-up. The other term has since become appropriated by other bands who use it to describe themselves as well. That’s an even more positive outcome, since it means the term is spreading and catching on. It’s a way to track your influence on other bands. And it’s also just tons of fun to all of a sudden find yourself at the center of a global community of, uh, Proto-Gospelists?
Look for discoverables. Every band, yours included, has something unique that nobody else does quite like you do, even cover bands. This might be a particular instrument or accessory you use, unique aspects of your performance and persona, the release format of your album, or things you just think are cool like whales and zombies. You can even use tagging to target the focal point of your instrumentation. After making sure you are well represented in your genres and sub-genres, your city and state, and any special terms that you commonly use to describe your music, this should be your last effort in reaching shared-interest groups with whom you want to be associated.
All in all, I need to push myself to be less lazy with tagging and so should everyone. This feature works incredibly well, I now actually do use it as a listener on both SoundCloud and Bandcamp, and have started to notice the difference it makes as an artist. So next time you upload a new album, take your time and be sure to use every option your music platform gives you to help fans find your music.