Live in Conversation: Mike Warner

Mike Warner

Author / Founder - Work Hard Playlist Hard

This episode’s guest was Mike Warner, Author & Founder of Work Hard Playlist Hard

Mike Warner is an independent artist, educator, author, speaker, music executive, curator and the go-to person when it comes to playlist strategies on music streaming services. All of his experiences in the music ecosystem have informed the writing of his acclaimed book, Work Hard Playlist Hard in which he teaches artists, at any level, how to grow their audience on streaming services through profile enhancement, data analysis, automation and creating value as a curator. Mike likes to set the record straight as far as what playlists really can do for artists’ careers. Mike discusses how he made his way into his position at Believe, USA,  and how music streaming became his biggest focus and expertise. Dive in and you will find some tips and tricks on customizing your artist profiles on DSPs; building a playlist and growing followers, pitching to independent curators, and releasing music catered to playlists. 

Streaming: Tools for Musicians to Succeed

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Mike Warner took place on Tuesday, March 28th, live from California.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In part one, find out how Mike Warner got started as a DJ in Australia eventually making his way to California. How unemployment can lead to some great ideas and even a book, plus Mike’s path to ending up working at Believe USA. And if you do not live in the USA, go see what Pandora has to offer.

Marc Brown: Welcome, Mike, welcome to #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation! 

Mike Warner: Hey, Marc! Hi everyone.

Marc: Before we get into it, You’re based in California, right?

Mike: Yes! I grew up in Australia, but I’ve been living here in the U.S. for 8 years.

Marc: Did you start working in music when you were in Australia?

Mike: Yeah! I was always involved in music,  one way or another. What I originally thought I was going to be doing completely changed over time – as it does. At age 20, I just wanted to DJ and play music. Flash forward 20 years and I can’t think of anything worse than living out of a suitcase. 

Marc: I would love to know how you ended up where you are today, short overview. What’s the lowdown there?

Mike: When I first started out I was DJing. Then there was a year and a half of setting up equipment for other DJs at venues, spending time after gigs practising and learning from them. After a year and a half, I finally got my first gig.  I ended up being the MC for the night. So I did that for a bit and then one day a DJ couldn’t play, needed a last-minute sub, and I was asked to fill in. Over the course of about 5 years, I think played at every venue in my hometown.

What was my next move? I knew I loved to travel so then I got into music production. That led to me and my friend playing all over the country. We soon came to realize that the music we were making was different from just your average festival or nightclub DJ music. So we decided to record an album, but no record labels were interested in our music at the time. That led to us just going independent. Once on that path, many things came together and eventually led me to meet my wife… and then I moved to the U.S!

 I did not have any work when I first moved there so I started spending all my time researching and looking into this new thing, streaming music. I was looking at all of these platforms that were popping up. Spotify was still relatively new so people weren’t paying too much attention to it. I was fascinated and I went down the rabbit hole trying to understand music from a streaming perspective. I started doing a lot of outreach and then all of a sudden things changed. It went from me putting out music for myself and my friends to me starting to share all of the things I learned with other artists.

Flash forward to now: up until last year I was working for Chartmetric which provides analytics to artists, labels and basically anyone in the industry. Late last year I started working with (France based & also owns TuneCore) Believe, which provides services to artists and labels in addition to doing distribution, all in order to help artists get heard. 

Marc: So a normal independent artist has many ways to release music, but a company like Believe doesn’t necessarily just work with newer, smaller artists but also with larger companies who have a bigger catalogue, while actively helping them grow that catalogue? 

Mike: That’s right. I should mention the different options as well. If you’re a new artist and you just want to pay a fee to get your music on streaming platforms there is DistroKid & CD Baby and companies like that. Then there are companies who provide other services on top of that, like The Orchard, InGrooves and where I work, Believe. These last services give you access to a whole team who can help you find and develop additional opportunities for your music. 

Marc: Every one of these companies or platforms is constantly working for new opportunities for artists all the time. I think it’s super interesting that you have all of this artist knowledge and you use it in a different way for your day job, like working both sides. 

Mike: Yeah. It seems like a perfect fit since I spent all of these years doing this myself and then actually being a part of a team, able to implement these learnings. Simultaneously I am also learning more about what’s coming in the music industry. Honestly, to be a part of a team and surrounded by people who think the same as me and can recognize how important these things are has been so much fun.

Marc: Agreed, a lot of people just think about what’s out there now instead of what’s coming.  You have both perspectives. So out of the blue, did you just decide one day that you needed to write a book? 

Mike: Going back to when I moved to the U.S., I was part of this music group called Date Night with my two friends. I had a lot of time to do research and outreach. As we started to have more success, different artists would come to me and ask how we were doing it. At the time I was driving about 5 hours a day, commuting back and forth in my car to get to my day job. People would ask me questions and then while I was driving back and forth to work, I would make audio notes, save them to my phone and then I would email them to the musicians who had asked me for advice.

Over time, I kept all of these notes. It was a friend of mine who eventually suggested that I put all of those notes into a book, and lots of the work was done. There were tons of books out there about music, but I realized that there wasn’t one specifically focused on streaming. So I decided to pull it together and I ended up putting a PDF online. In a strange twist, I quickly realized that people thought that an online PDF was some sort of marketing gimmick and wouldn’t take it seriously. It had to be a physical thing with a price tag. So, even though I had been giving it away for free,  I set myself up as a publisher and self-published it for people to purchase. As soon as I did that, it completely changed and led to a whole lot of opportunities. 

Marc: I think that’s fascinating – it’s true that people take things more seriously when there’s a price tag attached to something. It’s similar to #HowWeListen – we started it because we were fed up with hearing people say playlisting was the only way to get heard these days. We wanted to share information but it’s true people are so sceptical. 

Mike: I can definitely understand that a lot of places just want artists to spend their money on this and that. That’s one of the reasons I always had a day job. I’ve never really made money from my book. If I make money I always reinvest it to make my book better. For example, invest in making an audiobook or translating the book into other languages. It’s nice to not feel like I need to sell something in order to survive. Then I can say yes to speaking opportunities that don’t pay since I love doing it. I never really thought that the book was going to mean that I wouldn’t need a job. The goal was to just get all of my research out of my head. Then share that information with people who needed it.

There are so many things that people just assume we know. Things we don’t see value in when in fact, there is actually huge value. I just wanted to make people aware of all of those possibilities. Allow people to pick and choose what they see value in for their careers. 

Marc: You mentioned to me that you didn’t really want to write an inspirational book. You wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty of it all.

Mike: Yeah. For me, it was about telling people what I have done. What has worked? What has got me to where I am? I wanted it to be more informational versus about me and my story. 

Marc: OK, so let’s get into it! My first question is – what is the form? It is something you often talk about. 

Mike: This comes up a lot in conversations. People ask me what the most important thing they should do is when they have an upcoming release. For me, and I’m, of course, talking about the playlist side, the most important thing to do is go to your artist pages on Spotify & Amazon and pitch your release. Lots of people get frustrated. They say they’ve done it before but haven’t gotten onto playlists. However, there’s so much more to this submission process than just getting on a playlist on release day. 

Spotify has gone in the direction of personalized playlists within its algorithm. When they ask you what the mood, genre and instruments used are when you submit it, all of that information is then permanently attached to that song. Yes – it’s being pitched for potential consideration but it also allows it to be delivered to specific people. By filling out this form you’re making sure that your music is going to reach the right listener. Also with Spotify, by submitting music at least 7 days before release day, it’ll go into the release radar playlist. This makes it directly available to everyone who follows you or the artist. That’s a win in and of itself. 

For Amazon, one of their benefits is that they’ll send out a push notification to people who have enabled notifications. So just by filling out those two forms you’ll potentially reach people in various listening modes. The other thing I really want to add with Spotify is that they don’t playlist most people. Only 5 of the 28 songs my band submitted ever made it onto other playlists. Our biggest driver of streams on Spotify has always been Discover Weekly. A lot of the songs that we’ve submitted have found their way into this algorithmic playlist just by filling out the form with that information.

Marc: This form, has it grown over the years? Are there more questions to better categorize your release and feed the algorithm more data?

Mike: Yeah for sure. The songs that aren’t being submitted through the forms are absolutely lacking the reach they could be getting. The form first started out as a few basic questions. Now they’ve really expanded it to be very genre specific. 

Marc: And an editorial playlist is a playlist curated by a human?

Mike: Yeah. To go one step further, I’d say a human that works at that streaming platform. 

Mike: Something to remember is that Spotify will only allow you to pitch one release at a time. If you’ve uploaded a few songs and set future release dates and have already pitched one, it will lock out the other releases. Once the one that you’ve pitched is live, you can go pick another one to pitch. 

Marc: With all these different platforms,  should we have any biases towards certain platforms?

Mike: My take is that people will listen where they listen. There are different platforms that are more popular in different parts of the world. At the very least, you should know that most of these platforms provide tools to help promote your music. One example in the U.S. is Pandora. It was available in other countries, but now it’s only in the  U.S. A lot of people say they don’t pay attention to it because it’s not in their home country. With that said, I always ask: “There are still millions of people who use it that you could be reaching in the U.S., Don’t you want to reach people in the U.S.?

Pandora also offers up artist tools that you can use. One tool allows you to choose a track to feature for up to 8 weeks. You can submit up to 6 tracks per year. A featured track means that the curators listen to it and figure out where it would best suit. Then they start to feed it to listeners through Pandora’s radio programs. Pandora is playing your track to listeners who are interested in related artists or genres. The curators are also paying attention to whether or not people give it a thumbs up/ like it. You can potentially get a few hundred or thousand streams from this!

I should also add that when you go to the artist marketing platform on Pandora, they actually have a chat button where you can chat with the team. They also host webinars twice a month. Here you can ask questions and also network with other artists and even send through your music. Kind of fantastic, and not to be ignored. 

Marc: None of the other platforms do that, right? 

Mike: Not that I’ve seen!

Want to read on? Head to Part II here!