The commercial landscape for musicians has undergone a tremendous change since the dawn of the internet. While musicians of all degrees of popularity now have a new and versatile medium for fostering an audience, monetizing on listeners has become a much harder task. The casual listener has become economically fruitless, engaging with music almost cost-free by listening to YouTube tracks, Spotify singles, and pirated albums.
For full-time musicians to pay rent, they need a modest but devoted group of what internet guru Kevin Kelly calls “True Fans” (a minimum of one thousand to be exact). They go to concerts, buy vinyl editions of their favorite albums, contribute to crowdfunding campaigns; they don’t just love the music, they love the musician.
For the modern working artist to foster this kind of devotion, going above and beyond to connect with fans across the globe is fundamental. Musicians have to bring their A-games on social media in a way other occupations don't.
Here's what brands and social media agencies can learn from them.
The Human Connection feat. Amanda Palmer + John Mayer + Taylor Swift
The most common criticism of social media is the idea that websites like Facebook and Twitter are used to either construct a synthetic façade or even replace “real life” interactions and identities. It’s not a far-fetched thought; we all know someone whose social media presence has little correction with their “IRL” (in real life) selves.
The idea that our social media presence can be phony has become an accepted presupposition and is forcing us to find new ways of proving our authenticity and humanity. How are we supposed to fall in love with a musician if all they post online are professionally shot portraits and mastered singles?
SAN DIEGO..help, in a bind need to come for a week, need amazing place to stay. situation/borrow/anything real. cannot handle soulless hotel— Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) June 24, 2014
Amanda Palmer of Boston-based piano rock band The Dresden Dolls has become what Forbes calls “Proof that Social Media is the Future of Business.” Her use of social media to reach out to fans has become legendary in the independent music industry. She’s used Twitter to find backup musicians, free housing, and neti pots while on tour, and in 2011 secured 1.2 million dollars on Kickstarter to fund her new band, raising an unprecedented 1,192 percent of her goal. She defies the idea that the Internet is an alternative to “real life” interactions by using social media to augment her already strong IRL connection with fans, and they love her for it. If you haven’t already seen her Ted Talk, “The Art of Asking,” I’d urge you to watch.
John Mayer has been galvanizing fans to a new level since he started broadcasting on Periscope in 2015, giving his fans spontaneous intimate live shows in his living room. He sometimes even takes requests and gives guitar lessons. Making fans understand that he’s not only “just like you” but also that he’s listening is a brilliant way to foster and reward fans for following him on social media.
A friend of mine made a huge deal on Facebook when an Instagram photo she posted of herself with a newly purchased Taylor Swift “1989” album was commented on by Taylor Swift’s official account. Whether or not it was Taylor herself who commented on the photo, my friend felt a two-sided connection with her favorite musician and continues to buy her albums and merchandise today.
Exclusive News feat. Radiohead + Frank Ocean + Kanye West
John Mayer’s spontaneous live streams tap into another pillar of captivating social media: taking advantage of our collective “FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out. If you hadn’t liked his Facebook page or followed him on Twitter, you would never have known he was live-streaming, and by the time the news circulated around the Twittersphere, his show would be over.
Releasing time-sensitive content on social media is an extreme example of how musicians can reward their followers with “first to hear” content and news, tapping into music fans’ love of being in the know before their favorite band’s less-dedicated mainstream following.
Art rock band Radiohead has been leveraging the internet to more closely control how fans access music ever since it independently released its 2007 record “In Rainbows” on a landmark online DRM-free “pay-what-you-want” model for music sales, which not only fostered an explosive reaction from the music industry but also made around three million pounds in record sales.
Four years later, in similar hype-causing fashion, their next album “King of Limbs” was announced on Twitter only five days before the set release date, only to be released with a music video a day earlier than announced. This kind of fast paced, independently controlled news for a band with the kind of fan-base that sells out stadiums literally seconds after being on sale made their social media explode with retweets and buzz.
Irish cult shoegazing band My Bloody Valentine pulled a similar stunt in 2013, when it spontaneously released its first album in 22 years on its Facebook page and YouTube channel, subsequently crashing its website.
R&B artist Frank Ocean made news in 2012 when he addressed rumors of his sexuality in a poetically written open letter on his Tumblr blog. Rather than revealing his bi-sexuality in an interview or even a simple tweet, he chose to post a screenshot of a TextEdit document on his Tumblr—a post that wasn’t just a confession but a shareable digital art object. The post was lauded by members of the music industry who felt that his act was a step in the right direction for the oft-homophobic hip-hop and rap community.
While Kanye West’s social media presence often accurately reflects his own deteriorated mental health (no press is bad press?), earlier this year he used Twitter as a live personal sounding board for his newest album, “The Life of Pablo.” Using Twitter to post new exclusive demos of his album while engaging with fans by posting new mixes per his fans' criticism, he created an album that encompassed every pillar of this article. Craziness aside, he created a two-way human relationship with his fans, released live exclusive material, and (segueing into the last section) created an innovative “living breathing changing creative expression” all through his use of social media.
Innovative Content feat. David Bowie + Arcade Fire + Death Cab for Cutie
Since the dawn of the internet, artists of all kind have framed their work in interesting ways by leveraging the evolving capabilities of computing. The late David Bowie was one of the first musicians who fully foresaw how the internet would shape entertainment and the world, becoming the first major artist to distribute a single exclusively over the Internet in 1996. He also led a slew of other cyber-ventures including an interactive CD-ROM music video, and the creation his own internet service provider, “Bowienet," where he conducted live chat room discussions.
The degree to which he innovated how artists use the internet is so enormous that it almost goes beyond the topic of this article. He fostered an online presence so early in the internet’s evolution that I can’t imagine it affected his audience in the scope that’s possible with social media today.
When we entered 2010s, the kind of innovation that could be explored through the internet had understandably changed. Processing power and internet speeds increased, and the kind of experimentation that was capable through digital mediums followed suit.
In 2010, Arcade Fire released an interactive multimedia music video with the help of Google Chrome called The Wilderness Downtown for a track off its new album, “The Suburbs.” The website, still active as of 2016, prompts users to enter the address of the home where they grew up and creates a personalized video using Google Maps telling the story of a boy running through your own hometown. It was wildly successful and won Grand Prix for cyber advertising at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
One year after Arcade Fire’s venture in interactive web content, Indie rock group Death Cab for Cutie live-streamed the first online one take music video for its single, “You are a Tourist.” Cutting between multiple cameras and sets, employing dancers, colorful lighting patterns, and live projections, the event helped the single top the Billboard US Alternative chart at No. 1.
Since those projects, brands and artists alike have played around with new technologies and traditions, including music videos for YouTube’s new 360˚ interface and smartphone screens, to get the media's attention. And as the technological landscape changes in the coming years, the degree to which artists can go above and beyond with digital content will follow suit.
Conclusion feat. Daniel Johnston + Sriracha Sauce
Needless to say, being a great musician isn’t about having a great social media presence. While social media has become a powerful engine to amass fans, its real power comes when it is used to supplement and foster a strong live presence as ticket sales increasingly dominate musicians' income.
Some artists even thrive off social media, profiting from an allusive word-of-mouth identity. Outsider musician Daniel Johnston was notoriously hard to get into contact with; in his heyday, interviewers had to visit the McDonalds he worked at to get an interview while he cleaned tables. Popular condiment Sriracha sauce gained a cult taste largely due to its complete lack of advertising and branding.
While some brands can survive offline, social media is nevertheless a gift that has allowed countless independent artists and small brands to sustain themselves by allowing billions to find, engage with, and love what they do. Social media is brightening the corners of the world, and if you use it right, you could be enlightened too.
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