Ask the expert: How artists can increase their visibility w/ Stephan Kunze

How can a musician be visible without using social media? Well, let’s ask Stephan Kunze! He worked as Global Editorial Lead at Spotify, creating editorial policies and frameworks, until he left the streaming service in 2021 to continue his career as a music consultant and freelance writer. He now runs the successful Zen Sounds newsletter on Substack. We think it’s time to ask the experts now!

Please tell us a bit about yourself.

Hi! I’m Stephan, a music and culture writer based in Germany. I also work as a consultant for labels and brands. Before going freelance in 2022, I worked for Spotify for five years, first as a music editor in Germany, then leading a global editorial team.

I’m really into experimental music from all sorts of genres, but mainly electronic and electroacoustic music, jazz, avant-garde composition, and some hip-hop – which is where I started my career over 20 years ago.

I’ve lived in Berlin for the longest time but moved into the Northeastern Outback last year, right after Covid. I still go back and forth between Berlin and London a lot, where my clients currently sit.

What else can I tell you? I avoid social media as much as that’s possible in my profession. Instead, I read books and practice meditation. I spend much time outside, going hiking, camping, and trail-running. I don’t drink alcohol, but boy do I love good coffee. Big fan of naturals.

You launched Zen Sounds two years ago. Why did you launch the newsletter?

Working in streaming editorial since 2016, I really missed writing a lot. So I started a blog about all sorts of cultural things, from music to mindfulness. Then I wrote a book, „Zen Style“, which was published in 2021. It was based on some of my blog articles, but I expanded and built a larger narrative around them.

After being done with the book, I needed a new outlet for my writing. Blogs were kind of passé. I’d seen two colleagues starting newsletters, namely Todd Burns of Music Journalism Insider, and Shawn Reynaldo of First Floor. I decided to give this Substack thing a go. First I wrote in my native German, but in 2022 I decided to switch to English.

I still write for newspapers and magazines, but it’s hard doing all the pitching when it doesn’t really pay that well. Also, a lot of the media outlets that cared about niche music have perished. And the bigger ones that are still around, they’re not very interested in anything outside of the Poptimism canon. With my newsletter, I am reaching a very specific audience that seems to be interested in the weird music I tend to write about.

Are there any insights about the creator economy you can share that you gained through self-publishing?

What can artists do to increase their visibility (online)?

One thing I’ve learned is that personal branding seems to be really important , but personally, I don’t want to get stuck inside a box. I’m a multi-faceted human being, not a brand. In general, people shouldn’t aspire to become brands. I think it’s just plain wrong.

But I also think the creator economy provides a lot of opportunities. I’ve learned that all you need is 1,000 „true fans“ to live off your art, and while I reject that wording, I do believe everyone can find their audience, however small it may be, by building their own channels. I very much believe in organic grassroots work. It can be hard cutting through the online noise, and certainly new gatekeepers have emerged, but still – just get your stuff out there, persevere, work on building your profile and you might find people that genuinely enjoy what you do.

Yes, that’s much harder than blowing up off a TikTok or landing a placement in some large lean-back playlist every other week. Then again, social media and streaming have created this crazy form of entitlement. If all you produce are super generic „lo-fi beats“ without having any awareness of the origins of that music and the struggles of true hip-hop artists, or if you still produce boring ambient-by-numbers in hope of hacking the algorithm, I really suggest you first create something of true value to other people, or at least to yourself.

At this point, it might help to look back at the independent music scene of the early 1980s. Back then, cheap recording equipment was made available to a larger group of amateur musicians for the first time. Until then, you had to invest a lot of money to go into a professional studio, and you could only afford that if you had a record deal with a major label. With the advent of four-track portastudios, all that gatekeeping went out the window. Not in reality though, but theoretically.

Experimental music was thriving at that time. Like today, these artists were working in a depressing political climate – in that Thatcher/Reagan era, you had the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war hanging like a dark cloud over everything. There was a lot of racism and sexism going on, and no awareness existed for it in society. Still, artists managed to express their frustration through creativity, and they empowered themselves by building small tape distribution networks and communities around local venues.

I think we can learn a lot from that time for the increasingly difficult situation in independent music and culture. Today, quantifiable metrics have completely captured our idea of success. Art is being measured and commodified to death. I’ve seen the terrifying effects of that mindset from very close distance. Poptimism in culture journalism has also done its fair share to damage and destroy independent structures and the alternative music industry that still existed up until the early to mid-2000s. That system has almost completely vanished.

All that negative stuff being said, I really believe artists that want to work for a change need to help rebuild alternative infrastructures. I don’t have a masterplan, but think it’s doable. Some alternative platforms have already found some success, like Bandcamp for example. Some of my artist friends have started experimenting with Web3 stuff, ideas way beyond those stupid NFT frauds. Decentralization is key. We need more of that, in every aspect of the business. That’s why I support ideas like TRPPN.

What are you listening to on rotation right now?

Oh, I’m always listening to so much music. As we’re speaking, I’m on a Dead Can Dance binge. I’ve loved that band since I was 15 or 16. I’ve rediscovered some of their albums from the late 1980s, and they’re still mind-blowingly brilliant. Lisa Gerrard has the most beautiful voice on the planet.

In terms of contemporary stuff, I listen to a lot of experimental electronic music, mostly from female, non-binary, and queer artists. I love everything that Valentina Magaletti does. Mabe Fratti is frighteningly good, Lucrecia Dalt is as well. I’m diving back into Colleen’s discography, as she has a new record coming out.

Alternative hip-hop has been in a good state for the last few years. I literally love everything The Alchemist produces, my favorite rapper has been billy woods for a while. I’m obsessed with MIKE as well, he’s my favorite from the new generation.

The song I play the most right now is „Virgo“ by Meshell Ndegeocello. It’s eight and a half minutes of Afrofuturist spiritual jazz, featuring Brandee Younger on harp and Julius Rodriguez on a Farfisa organ. It’s such a jam!

Visit Stephans blog : https://www.zensounds.de