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Build Digital Literacy in Music Marketing with a Real Brand or Band

Gigi Johnson, EdD, teams her students with real-world music industry clients to teach them about twenty-first-century digital literacy and tools.


Gigi Johnson, EdD, MBA

Executive Director, Center for Music Innovation, UCLA

EdD in Media Studies, MBA in Finance/Accounting, BA in Cinematic Arts

Not all students at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music have their sights set on becoming rock stars. Others are preparing for careers as music industry executives, producers, managers, songwriters, or publishers. In any of these careers, Gigi Johnson, EdD, knows that they will need to have a good understanding of the Internet and social media marketing—and know how to keep up with a digital landscape that is constantly evolving. This is why she created a course called Internet Marketing and Branding for Musicians back in 2010, in which students use data tools and contemporary digital strategies to develop a marketing plan in partnership with a real contemporary musician, brand, or music venue.

Not only do Johnson’s students emerge from this course with enriched digital literacy and skills but many of them go on to land jobs with the partner they chose to focus on in the course. “Students who have these skills and learn the music industry side get hired immediately,” explains Johnson. “Being able to understand both creative arts and advanced data manipulation is crucial in today’s market. Those jobs are readily available right now.” Below, she shares a few of the key learning objectives that harmonize to create a meaningful experience for students.


Most students are not as digitally savvy as we think they are

In her advanced course in Internet Marketing and Branding for Musicians, Johnson is faced with a classroom full of students with a variety of skills in digital literacy. Many of her traditional college students are digital natives, but others are returning to school in their forties or are deep into performing instead of spending time online. Even the digital natives tend to see the abstract surface level of digital and have never seen the code side of a website or of social media. The rapid pace of technological change presents a further challenge in teaching music marketing in our modern, digitally saturated world. Johnson has to stay one step ahead of her students and keep up with a digital landscape that is constantly evolving, even from year to year and quarter to quarter.


Create a “customer journey” for a real music industry client

While student musical tastes and career interests vary widely, modern digital marketing requires a key component for all of them: attention to the data-rich customer experience. Therefore, Johnson’s course requires that students build out a website and design a social media launch for a real band or other musical client, while keeping the intended customer in mind at all times. “They are hopefully learning life skills for themselves in it, and maybe they go on to get a job with this band or brand,” she says. “This happens every year.”


“Being able to understand both creative arts and advanced data manipulation is crucial in today’s market. Those jobs are readily available right now.”

— Gigi Johnson, EdD, MBA

Course: MSC IND 122 Internet Marketing and Branding for Musicians

Description: Digital has transformed not just how musicians get their word out, but also how they create. Internet marketing has morphed into Internet community crowdsourcing—a very different world for musicians and musical organizations. Studies are driven by project-based work of current online environments for musicians, organizations, and venues. Students dive into best practices around the world, growing brand, finding target markets online, and engaging with communities of practice to build their own connections and online portfolio of collaborators.

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Johnson’s 5 objectives for her music marketing project

To teach music marketing students the up-to-date digital literacy skills they need to successfully market clients in the music industry, Johnson gives her students 10 weeks to learn to use real music data tools, research competitive intelligence on other brands and their fans, and build a marketing plan that meets a key performance index for the current creative entity’s needs—be it for an EP release, tour, social media launch, brand deal, or social impact activation. The student learns to use real data to design a set of possible paths for targeted and segmented audience groups, then build the creative and media content spaces (website, social media, and events) to find those audiences where they already are engaging in the world and have them follow calls to action to build engagement for future brand community.

A central requirement for this project is to partner with a real musician, brand, or music venue to develop applicable skills and industry relationships. In some cases, that brand is the student themselves, as some are already in bands or collectives. (After all, this is Los Angeles.)

Here are some of the learnings her students glean over the course of the semester.

1. Gain a better understanding of Google Search algorithm drivers and economics

“I have multiple generations of students who don’t have basic digital literacy skills in how to discover, research, and store information,” says Johnson. “Most of my digital natives lack an understanding of how Google Search works. The majority of students believe that when they search for something, Google finds, right then and there, the best answer or the most popular answer. Neither is true—Google crawls the web based on keywords and back links all the time.” They also tend not to save their search results, she says. “My students don’t store [information they have researched], because they assume that they’ll be able to find the same search again.”

During this module, students do plenty of what she calls “digital ferreting around the web.” They learn to use keyword and search engine optimization tools. They learn to use web stats tools to map fan traffic and engagement, as well as to build customer journey maps for competitive analysis and for the brand itself. Available (and free) tools change quarter over quarter, and often students will find the best new tool or will find ones that have been purchased and are now part of an expensive business model. In these ways and more, the class explores the business models behind all of the data patterns, APIs, web hooks, and other building blocks of modern media data management.

2. View the web strategically

As Johnson’s students learn web traffic and data tools and business models, they come to understand who is making money off of all of our behaviors. On the positive side, they also learn how creatives can build and expand their potential fans’ paths to discover a musician, brand, or music venue. They use that knowledge for their projects by not just putting out social media content (à la a Field of Dreams approach) but by discovering where the target audiences and potential fans are online and learning how to work with other brands and algorithmically driven web services and advertising to help make their content discoverable and engageable. They realize that they do not have to simply depend on YouTube, Spotify, or TikTok for the content to be found.

Johnson’s Launch of Rethink Next

In 2018, Johnson launched Rethink Next, a nonprofit that creates co-learning environments between local creators, thought leaders, and innovators. These programs can be thought of as graduate school versions of her classes, where adults co-teach each other about real-world case studies and change projects in their own communities.

“My students come to understand the customer journey, which has become highly manipulated,” she says. “They go on to craft it for a band or brand in [just] 10 weeks’ time. They learn how to look at the web differently through understanding their own pathways when they search online.”

There is math and statistics under the hood of all of this, as they look at conversion rates, engagement rates, and extensive active outreach that is needed to create basic awareness and convert to engaged fans who will take action in the future. They also learn how fleeting this all is after watching new songs hit playlists, then disappear if the audience is not carefully developed for current and future engagement.

3. Gain a clearer picture of web data

In addition to examining the nature of back links, advertising, and influence on the web, Johnson helps her students understand how to conduct data analysis. “My students learn to look beyond a pretty website to use basic online tools to see traffic, behavior, and audience tracking systems. They also need to know the difference between follower count and engagement,” she says.

To help students develop a deeper understanding of the customer journey, Johnson uses freeware or free versions of paid software, such as SimilarWeb, which creates visual outputs of web analytics and traffic patterns. “These tools synthesize some other data sources, so you can see inbound links, social and email sources, and monthly visitors. And they have visualizations, too, so it’s easy to see the data,” Johnson says.

4. Use tools to tell stories and map competitors

Johnson also has students share and visualize their own analysis in the presentation tool Prezi, so they can inform their classmates. “Students map the audience flows and customer journeys for two artists that are similar to the kinds of brands they are working with. Then they teach their classmates what they found in the outside world,” Johnson says. This helps students learn from each other across many real examples and current research, multiplying their exposure to real case studies and teaching them to teach others.

5. Grease the wheels of client outreach

To support students as they venture out into the real world and work with industry partners, Johnson provides some support structure while pushing students to explore different outreach strategies. Some students cold-call their favorite band; others work with companies that are friends of the program and have worked with prior classes.

However, ultimately, she wants students to do as much of the outreach as they are able. “A lot of it is letting go, giving students the freedom to explore—but also enough structure that they feel comfortable exploring—and having faith that they can go out into the world and talk to people,” she says.

Johnson’s secrets for keeping it fresh

Integrating the latest tech tools and requiring real-world, applied skill building is a challenge, but Johnson says her approach infuses the course with the newest and most relevant information. It also spurs her to bring in cutting-edge experts from music and data into the classroom and into UCLA’s podcast Innovating Music. “It’s a different way of course building in that I have to stay a half step ahead of students, which is really hard. But it brings fresh material into the classroom all the time,” says Johnson.

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