The stories of indie artists making it big with a viral video on YouTube entice a lot of musicians to take the leap and set up a YouTube channel themselves. They get all excited, create some cool cover or original music videos and do some promotion, only to get discouraged with the apparent lack of interest from YouTube viewers as their first few covers fall on deaf ears and only get a few hundred views.
It’s frustrating. YouTube is one of the biggest platforms for music and one of the top places people spend their time online, but it’s very difficult to stand out from the crowd. There are a lot of mistakes you can make on YouTube that will negatively affect your exposure, like incorrectly titling or tagging your videos or leaving the default thumbnail, but the number-one problem that holds most musicians back from actually finding success on YouTube is focusing on views instead of subscribers.
The music industry seems to have a fascination with views. Bands that get hundreds of thousands of views are thrown into the spotlight for a few seconds of fame, but bands that build up an engaged base of 100,000 subscribers don’t get much attention. This focus on views over subscribers is totally backward and will only end up holding you back.
Views vs. subscribers
So what exactly does a “view” mean on YouTube? Basically, views are simply the number of people who hit your video. YouTube does have some algorithms set up to deter spammers and bots, but to keep things simple, a view is just when the page is hit and the video starts.
So why aren’t views as valuable as they’re cracked up to be? First off, just because you got a “view” doesn’t mean that person watched all the way to the end of your video from start to finish. They could technically click off halfway through but still count as a “viewer.”
On that same note, even if someone watches the entire video, if they click off without subscribing, there is a very good chance they may never find your channel or your music ever again on this crowded platform. So with that in mind, a view is often just a single touch point, and it’s very difficult to win someone over as a fan who will be interested in buying your music and supporting your career in just a few minutes. You see the result of this all the time when bands that get a viral hit on YouTube just disappear after a few weeks.
A subscriber, on the other hand, is someone who has asked to stay in the loop; they want to receive a notification in their subscription feed every time you upload a new video. Unlike views, subscribers are a totally solid metric. Of course, not all of your subscribers will watch all of your videos, but they will at least see them in their subscription feed. This means multiple touch points and multiple opportunities to convert them to serious fans.
Subscribers also have a higher engagement rate than viewers who just happen to stumble upon your video. They typically have a much higher retention rate and watch time than people who just happen to stumble upon your videos through search or YouTube’s recommendation system (check out your analytics if you don’t believe me), and they are much more likely to give your video a thumbs up or leave a comment. In addition to the view count, the number of “thumbs up” a video gets will help determine its ranking, so more thumbs up equals more exposure for your music.
When you have a base of subscribers, even if it’s only a few, you have a solid number of views that you can expect to get. If, however, you’re focusing solely on your tags to bring in new viewers, your views will fluctuate depending on the search trends and the competition on any given day.
How to get more subscribers
On YouTube, it’s easy to get distracted and click off videos without subscribing. We’ve all been lured into watching the inevitable cat video at one point or another and it’s just downhill from there. So here are a few tips that will help you convert those viewers into subscribers.
1. Put in the work
YouTube isn’t like other social media platforms. Between customizing your channel, shooting, editing, creating graphics, adding tags, annotations, titles, and descriptions, promoting your videos, and interacting in the comments, YouTube is a lot of work, and you’ll get out what you put in.
2. Consistency and frequency
People are much more likely to subscribe and stay subscribed to an active channel, so get yourself into a schedule and stick with it. Try to produce a new video once or twice a week and upload it on a specific day. Include your posting schedule in your “about” tab, the description of each video, and even on your end card.
3. Find your niche
Generally, people will subscribe because they like the content you produce. So naturally, if you release a lot of random and unrelated videos, you may have a hard time getting and keeping subscribers. As a musician, there are a lot of cool videos you can make. Obviously, you have your music videos and cover videos, but you can also release vlogs, playthroughs, gear reviews, gear tours, heart-to-heart chats about what your lyrics mean, or live videos. Pick one to three types of videos and stick to that.
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4. Use end cards
If someone watched all the way to the end of your video, you want to give them options of how to engage further instead of just clicking off your channel. An end card is just a clickable graphic at the end of your video that includes links to other videos, a subscribe button, your other social media URLs, links to buy your new album, and any other important info you might have.
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5. Ask for the subscribe
It might seem simple, but just asking people to subscribe can greatly increase the number of people who actually do. Try to weave it into your videos naturally so it doesn’t sound like you’re an advertisement. A simple, “I release a new cover song every week, so subscribe if you want to see more” is perfect.
6. Use subscribe annotations
Especially if they’re watching on mobile or full screen, adding a subscribe annotation or card to your video will help boost your subscriber count. Remember, annotations can easily look annoying and unprofessional. Instead of those colored boxes, edit a subscribe button into your video and add a clear annotation over that.
7. Interact with your fans
People are much more likely to subscribe and stick around if they can see activity going on in the comment section below your videos. Try to get your fans commenting by asking them questions in your videos. Ask them what cover you should do next, and then respond to as many comments as you can.
8. Try giveaways
People love free stuff, and a giveaway is a great way to get some of those viewers to actually subscribe. Come up with some kind of cool prize, like a merch bundle, and create some conditions for entering. Usually they will have to be a subscriber and leave a comment.
If you want to learn about starting and running a successful YouTube channel, you can join the Musician Power Tools social media promotion course for just $97. We’ll go step by step through how to create end cards and thumbnails for your videos, how to title and tag your videos, how to organize your videos into playlists, and how to use your analytics. Or, you can download my most popular ebook, Hack the Music Business, for free here.
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Dave Kusek is the founder of the New Artist Model, an online music business school for independent musicians, performers, recording artists, producers, managers, and songwriters. He is also the founder of Berklee Online, co-author of The Future of Music, and a member of the team who brought midi to the market.