Searching Through the Maze of Indie Culture
by Alex Cosper (10/03/2016)

The idea of independent music has been around ever since the recording industry began in the late 19th century. Once the patents on recording technology expired in 1917, a barrage of independent labels sprung up to capitalize on the invention. That should have been the end of big biz controlling the overall landscape of pop music, but that's not how the story turned out.

Many people love to think that it's the people who control popular music, that it has something to do with public taste. The only problem with that fragile theory is that's simply not even close to reality. Nothing in the past century has yet changed the reality that the recordings that make it to the top of the charts usually are the ones with the most money behind them.

At one time cheap recordings for less than $100 could zoom up the charts if the recording was promoted to enough radio stations. By the 80s most recordings cost thousands of dollars to make in state-of-the-art multi-track recording studios, plus the records were assigned promotion budgets that determined how much work would be put into alerting radio programmers about the music.

Getting Around Paying For Fame

So here we are in 2016 after an explosion indie platforms have come onto the scene to eliminate many of the costs that prohibited musicians from the DIY game last century. Now it's not necessary to invest thousands of dollars in manufacturing and packaging, since music can be sold as digital downloads. That fact alone has opened up the floodgates and made it possible for thousands, if not millions more musical acts to get their music to the public without expensive hurdles.

The one expensive hurdle that remains in 2016 is exposure. While there are various platforms that offer promotional opportunities to pockets of listeners, which can translate into new fans, there still has not been a convincing model that helps the best indie artists get the exposure they need to develop a significant fanbase.

Google does offer a chance at wider visibility than if your site happens to show up big due to uncommon keyword phrases that no one else thought of. The site's pay-per-click platform, AdSense, can put your ad at the top of search results pages, which will beat out anyone else who hasn't bothered to pay for your keywords. For many businesses, PPC advertising is the fastest way to reach a target market and get quick results. The problem with indie music is you are competing with so many other musical acts that people don't have time to worry about all the unknown music they are missing out on.

Does Google Search Help?

One of the first big questions that should come to your mind as a musician looking for answers about promotion is: how much does Google help indie artists gain visibility in search engines, at least in 2016? The answer is - the more popular the niche, the less chance you have at getting found. The whole point of the internet is its "long tail" effect. In other words, it doesn't just give you the best links you're looking for. It gives you a long list of links that might be what you're looking for, but can still potentially waste a lot of your time.

Here's an example of how Google does not help musicians with just SEO - unless you're doing something extremely clever. For the search "new indie music releases" in quotes in Google Search on 10/3/2016, the top five links after a paid advertisement for Parachute Music were:

1. CDBaby
2. (2013)
3. Best New Indie Music Releases (2015 video)
4. PanPlus (2016)
5. JP's Music Blog (2015)

CDBaby came out on top, which is understandable since it's an indie music store that's been around a long time and even sells new music. Three of the top five links, however, pulled up old web pages as if the keyword "new" were completely ignored.

In other words, after all this time, Google robots still can't figure out exactly what the user is looking for. You would think the word "new" would automatically disqualify web pages that were over a year old. Perhaps that algorithm will never be adjusted until someone from Google bothers to read this article. But to be fair, this observation is not exclusive to Google. Even the lesser known but widely praised search engine DuckDuckGo gave similar dated results.

Another problem with indexing "indie music" - is the loose definition of the term "indie." As late as the nineties the word had a very clear meaning, relating to artists that created unique music on small labels. In the new century, the big three labels try to capitalize on how the term "indie" has become fashionable, disguising major releases as art with street-level credibility. On top of that many unsigned bands imitate major label bands and still have the nerve to call themselves "indie."

Best Way To Approach Indie SEO

Even though if you bother to build a website, there's no guarantee that anyone will come, since so many people are too busy chasing their own online field of dreams. The key all along, according to internet marketers, has been to develop a special niche that only you can own. That's been the key to all kinds of unique successful products, especially those on sites like Etsy.

It's not good enough to rely on common keywords such as "music" and the name of your city. If you really want to stand out in search engines, you practically have to invent your own kind of music. While that may sound extreme, it's not far from the truth. Obviously the keyword "new" is worthless, just like you're never going to be found if the only keywords you base your content on are terms such as indie, pop, rock, songs.

You'll find that you can string together almost any nutty phrase like "political songs about off-camera bandits" and Google will manage to spit out a list of links. Nevermind that none of the links match what you're really trying to find. Learn from this experience that search engines still don't think like superhumans - or even computers for that matter. They just crank out lists and many times all these lists represent are white noise of trashy sites littered across the internet, waiting to be quickly abandoned seconds after being discovered.

So don't interpret the search engine issue as an invitation to create nutty song titles just to beat out irrelevant web pages. Ultimately, web surfers will most likely find your site if you are doing something very unique that no one else is doing - beyond music. Your site might not be completely about your music. Maybe you're a math teacher who sells ebooks and you just happened to write a theme song for it. That's one way to gain an edge over other indie music websites.

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