Are you sick of making “content” when you’re supposed to be sharing songs? 

Tired of chasing social trends when you should be mining inspiration? 

Have you almost forgotten you’re a songwriter, because the world keeps insisting you need to be a “creator” first?  

Well I have some good news for you:

Songwriter Katie Dahl’s two best-performing posts defy most of the conventional wisdom around social media and music marketing. She saw the highest engagement when she decided to simply… be herself!

Vulnerability as a superpower in songwriting AND music marketing

As a marketer, I found this story fascinating. As a songwriter, I found it liberating. And if you’re tired of grinding on the social-media hamster wheel, I think you’ll find Katie’s story encouraging as well.

Which is why for this installment of Why It Worked, I asked Katie Dahl to tell us more about her two biggest content successes. Both of which lead to genuine interest in her music, a boost in Instagram followers, and a host of new Patreon supporters. 

To set some expectations though, these posts didn’t go craaaaaaaazy viral. They didn’t reach billions of viewers and translate to millions of streams or anything like that. 

But for a touring DIY songwriter who normally gets dozens or hundreds of likes per post, something is working noticeably well when you suddenly see tens of thousands of likes and thousands of comments. 

So, what exactly WERE these two posts? 

The social content that works well for singer-songwriter Katie Dahl

Here’s what’s so surprising to me about Katie’s highest-performing posts:

  • They are not videos. They are not flashy. They are not instantly eye-catching. 
  • They’re simple photos. Packed with emotion if you care to stick around long enough to find out why. 
  • The accompanying text is not quickly digestible. It’s not punchy copy. It’s not a battle-tested caption filled with “power words” and promises. The words are patient and plentiful. These are long, vulnerable essays. 
  • Lastly, these posts are not about a song. Well, not at first. They’re not trying to “hook” you. The content, at its core, is about life and living. It’s about feeling, so it doesn’t FEEL like marketing. 

Of course, in a way, it IS marketing. Both the posts relate back to Katie’s songs and artistry. And that’s what directs people from the social platforms to her music on Spotify, or to her Patreon, or to a gig. And she discusses some of that audience journey in the interview below.

But I think what makes this “content” work is that it allows other people a space to feel seen and understood. These essay+photo posts are connective. Which endears total strangers by the thousands to Katie’s story and music. 

So let’s have Katie tell the story…

An interview with Katie Dahl

Can you tell us who you are — as a person and as a songwriter?

I’m a touring songwriter. I play about 125 shows a year around the country and especially in the Midwest, where I’m based. 

I’m a musical playwright. I’ve had two musicals produced and am currently working on four more. 

I live in Door County, a very rural tourist community in northeast Wisconsin. My town is about 250 people in the winter but swells to many times that in the summer. 

I’m a queer person. Being public about my queerness in my art and on social media has become really important to me in recent years. 

I’m a mom. Navigating the balance of work and parenting is an ever-evolving art. I live next to a cherry orchard with my partner, our eight-year-old son, and a black lab/golden retriever mix named Rosie.

Can you describe your trajectory as a performing songwriter?

I’ve made a living off my music and plays for about 15 years. 

In the 2010s my work structure was centered around playing 4-6 gigs a week here in Door County in the summer and fall, touring a bit in the winter and spring. Most of those gigs were in wine bars or restaurants, so some people were listening and most people weren’t. I built my performance chops that way, and I always had a mailing list signup out at the merch table, so I built my audience that way too. 

I built my out-of-town touring gradually based on connections I made at conferences like Folk Alliance and at my gigs (which drew mostly out-of-town tourist audiences) here in Door County. 

I loved those hometown gigs for lots of reasons but eventually started to realize that writing for a happy-go-lucky, vacationing, not-always-listening audience was inhibiting the songs I wrote. During the pandemic I started a Patreon page, and that gave me the cushion I needed to quit those bar/restaurant gigs. 

I now play non-listening gigs only if they pay me a lot of money—otherwise I’m playing all listening rooms, which means a lot more travel. And it also means that my songwriting has deepened to treat subjects I always wanted to explore in my music but was worried my tourist-heavy audience wouldn’t respond to.

What’s your attitude towards “social” and its place in a musician’s toolkit?

For my work, I basically only use Facebook and Instagram—and feel a little guilty about how much I enjoy them. Work gives me an excuse to engage in these platforms that I think I would enjoy regardless. 

One thing I love about being a musician is that I have a platform to talk about things I care about—but you can only talk for so long onstage before you have to play another song! I value the opportunity to explore issues more deeply on social media. 

I think I went into music partly because I wanted to be witnessed more truly. Social media can be a veil or mirage, for sure, but in my case it feels like it actually gives me a chance to pull *back* the curtain.

Biggest struggles or disappointments about social?

The biggest struggle is definitely controlling my habits around social media. The more successful a post of mine is, the more I tend to check the comments and likes. Who doesn’t love a little dopamine rush every couple minutes? I worry about how much that habit ties me to my phone. 

The other main frustration I have with social media is people whose comments make me mad or hurt—either because they’re mean about my appearance or sexual orientation or whatever, or because they mistook a post with vulnerable content as a cue to praise or reassure me. I hate feeling condescended to by commenters on social media. 

Your two best performing posts worked in surprising ways? What’s different about those posts?

My two best-performing posts were: 

(a) a mini-essay about my lifelong struggles with body image, paired with a picture of myself as a little girl; and 

(b) a selfie of me crying—with an accompanying paragraph of thoughts — after listening to Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman’s Grammy performances in February.

Can you describe the specifics of the post about body image? 

This was a post expanding on a song I wrote called “Since I Was Eight,” which is about being eight and seeing a picture of myself and being unhappy with how my body looked—and the way that burden of self-loathing has followed me throughout my life. 

The picture that upset me so much (which I remember throwing away, but my mom must have printed doubles) is actually a gorgeous image, me in silhouette on a dock at sunset with someone else diving into the water next to me. 

Not every song can have the perfect image to promote it, but this one did:

How much effort or revision did you have to put into the essay that appeared in the “caption?”

I’ve never spent more than half a day on a social media caption essay, and that was true of this one. I usually come into them with a sense of inspiration and work on them for 1-3 hours. 

I do often continue making changes after I post. In this case (as has been the case for some of my posts about being queer) being able to share the visual image—along with a link to the song—gave me an opportunity to explore thoughts that I’ve been harboring for a long time. 

The post and the song are “about” the same thing (how much time I have wasted on the pain of hating my own body) but prose writing is such a different animal than songwriting. I love the freedom of a plain old sentence! 

What did that post accomplish?

Metrics-wise, the post got more engagement—likes, comments, shares—than any post I had made to date. But the more important effect was deeper. The song I was talking about was part of an album whose de facto tagline was “things Katie Dahl finds hard to talk about,” and I’d been bandying that phrase about for a while. I think we as a society have a hard time being really vulnerable about how we feel about our bodies because there is so much judgment involved—we are so deeply steeped in a body-shaming culture that the stakes for talking about how we feel seem really high. And people can be SO MEAN on social media that true vulnerability is rare. 

So what that post engendered was a whole lot of very deep, vulnerable “me too.” It was so healing for me to read people’s comments. I think whatever our really hard “stuff” is, we tend to feel alone in it. To hear people say, “I’ve always felt bad about the shape of my legs” or “my dad started criticizing my weight when I was five” really brought me into community with other people about this thing that had previously felt very isolating for me. 

Can you describe what’s happening in your Grammys post?

The morning after the Grammys, I was watching Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman’s performances and found myself really overcome by them. Such amazing moments that made me feel so proud to be a songwriter. 

I was just alone in my office in my workout clothes and feeling these big feelings and really wanted to share them with someone. So I took a selfie of myself crying and wrote a little paragraph about my feelings to go with it. And really quickly it became apparent that that post had some actual virality to it. 

If I’d known it was going to go viral, I would have changed out of my workout clothes before I started crying about Joni Mitchell!

How’d it do?

The post got 56K likes and a ton of shares and comments, and those translated into me almost doubling the likes/follows of my page in general. 

My Spotify listens spiked. And most incredibly, I got a bunch of Patreon subscriptions and merch sales in the aftermath of the post—people who had no other relationship with my music. 

I couldn’t believe that that post, which was not about my music at all, engendered that kind of engagement with my music, but it did.

Given that two of your best-performing posts are NOT “tiktok-y”, has that altered your sense of what you should be doing on social? 

Well, I’m not very cool, so I never trended very much toward TikTok-y content anyway. I have always leaned toward essay-type posts. 

There’s a bit of circular chicken-or-egg stuff going on here; my essay posts seem to be what my audience responds most to, so the algorithm rewards them, so I grow a following that is interested in that sort of thing, and the cycle continues. 

Since they are the posts that do best for me and also the posts I enjoy the most, I’m sure I will keep them up.

What lessons are there for OTHER artists in these examples?

I think artists have really different feelings about how much they want to reveal about themselves to their fans. I have always felt interested in sharing quite a bit of myself in terms of my thoughts and feelings—and, lately, vulnerabilities. 

In my case, because there is not much of a gap between my public persona and my true self, I think my little essays are really not that different than branding. I don’t talk about myself because I’m trying to “brand,” but it does have that effect nonetheless. 

How did you connect the dots from a post about shared humanity to a vehicle for your specific music?

I had to develop the strategy very quickly, because I had no idea that these posts—in particular the Grammys post—would do so well. My fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants “strategy” was that I posted a short one-minute video of myself playing a Joni Mitchell song in my comments, along with a few links to my Patreon, Spotify, and website. 

But it turned out that the best strategy were things I had done in the past: first, in the case of the Grammy post, that I had the dock post already pinned to the top of my page—so it got a lot of new attention. 

And also, as a very lucky happenstance, that post happened just after I finished a big one-week “membership drive” for my Patreon—so my posts pushing Patreon were the first content people found if they got interested enough in the post to visit my page. As a result, I got a bunch of new Patreon members, including one person at the highest level of support I offer.

Finally, I of course invited everyone who had liked/commented on the post to like my page, so my followers have almost doubled that way. But since you can only invite 1,000 people a day and the post got 56,000 likes, I am still having to invite 1,000 people a day!


Conclusion

Hopefully Katie’s example gives you a sense of freedom in your approach to social media and music marketing. Freedom to be vulnerable. To explore more of yourself, and to find deeper connection points with your audience. 

Freedom to be vulnerable probably sounds like an oxymoron. Since vulnerability involves risk. But as great writer’s (and gamblers) often remind us, if there’s no risk, there’s no reward. 

So hopefully Katie’s example at least provides proof that the risk of vulnerability can pay off.

And thanks to to her for taking the time to share her story!

Go HERE to learn more about Katie Dahl’s music, playwriting, and travels

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