Hashtag Blessed: Music’s Unfortunate Social Media Side Hustle

Success in music is now measured by an online personality, for better and worse

By Wolfgang Gartner

Nineteen ninety three was the year I finally synced a keyboard to a drum machine and started making dance music in my bedroom. I was 11. A decade later, I finally transitioned from hobbyist to full-time music producer and record label owner. I was 21.

Between then and now, I achieved all of the goals I had set out for myself and received many accolades that traditionally define success in music: a Grammy nomination, lucrative record deals and a profitable record label of my own, touring every continent on the planet (except Antarctica) and DJ’ing on main stages at some of the largest music festivals in the world like Electric Daisy Carnival, Tomorrowland and Ultra Music Festival. I built a successful, long-lasting career as an artist, DJ, and A&R, and after 12 years and many sharp twists and turns I can say I am still enjoying that success.

But part of being active in this industry is keeping your eyes open and observing the changes around you, and as I’ve watched this industry shapeshift lately, some things seem a bit troubling.

I wasn’t trying to get into the entertainment business.
I just wanted to be in the music business.
My small home studio

Peeking Behind the Veil

In recent years, the practice of using social media to gain popularity or generate notoriety has become one of the most successful paths I’ve observed people use to build a career. This holds true for the music industry and aspiring musicians, DJs, producers, rappers, singers, and bands too. If a relatively unknown artist can somehow find a way to develop a large, enthusiastic following on social media, depending on how large that following is, it could very likely land them a lucrative career, or at the very least some kind of recording contract.

None of this is breaking news, and it certainly seems rational for an artist to use all resources at their disposal to sell or market themselves. But for a record label, the product is the music. And with record labels relying on artists’ touring income more than ever, as music sales and revenue decline, the product has become the artist more than ever before.

We are now in an age where the artist — their image, personality, online presence, and overall profile — is just as much of a product being sold as the music that artist makes. The music fans of today want to know who made the music they listen to, and because so many artists have been highly interactive with fans through social media, that connection has become almost expected.

The problem is, behind the anonymous veil of the internet, things aren’t always as they appear. Artists are sometimes represented by social media managers who “use their voice” and essentially assume their online identity. Artists are often contractually obligated to say specific things on their social networks as part of agreements or contracts; artists are often encouraged by their publicists or managers to be active on social media even if they don’t want to, because it helps sell records and tickets to shows; artists who are constantly on social media interacting with fans thrive, and are effectively helping sell their product.

How We Got Connected

I think it started with MySpace. Music fans were given the chance via MySpace’s various features to directly correspond with their favorite artists by writing on their public wall or sending them direct, private messages. Any artist could respond to their fans, speak directly to them in private conversations, and interact with them on a personal level. MySpace also gave artists and bands a chance to promote themselves by showcasing their tour schedule, using banners and images to promote new releases, and giving fans clips of unreleased upcoming music in a music player at the top of the page.

Eventually the site became a major factor in the promotion of music by artists and record labels. Any artist who wanted to be successful had to have a MySpace page. The way each artist felt about this new environment was different, but most embraced it for all of its benefits and opportunities.

I fondly remember going to my favorite artists’ MySpace pages daily to see if they’d uploaded clips of any new unreleased music. I remember posting unreleased clips of my own and watching as people excitedly posted on my wall after hearing a glimpse of something that wasn’t yet released. MySpace is still around today, but it’s no longer an active part of the social media conversation.

Facebook acted on the same principle as MySpace by creating separate page formats for artists, allowing artists a chance to connect with their fans in a very personal way. They implemented complex advertising algorithms and began offering ads for sale—artists were again able to pay for advertisements within a confined social network with the main objective of obtaining more “fans” on that site, but also for other purposes like promoting gigs or record releases.

Twitter created a very different type of environment. Music fans followed their favorite artists and bands and saw a feed of 140-character bursts of texts and images—ranging from personal to promotional to mental breakdown. The entertainment industry quickly implemented Twitter into the social media portfolio. Artists and labels realized once again the value of having a high follower count and the promotional opportunities it provided.

But Twitter was lacking one feature that the sites before it had—music. There was no music player, no artist homepage with clips of music. Instead Twitter put the focus on people, and essentially, personality. This was the first forum where many artists, actors, public figures and the like felt comfortable to be themselves and take off their PR armor for a bit.

In the context of the music industry, it created the most open communication forum yet between fans and artists (and between fellow artists), giving artists the chance to let their true personalities and deepest thoughts out to a huge following. Many of us shed our armor and opened up; we told all of our followers about the bad day we were having and other personal details of our lives. We humanized ourselves, and fans began to have a sense of kinship with people they might have once idolized.

Instagram came in sync with the selfie generation; it was a place to post pictures from your phone and look at pictures that other people posted from their phone in a familiar format with followers, a feed, likes, and comments. But unlike Twitter, Facebook or MySpace, its sole focus was images (and eventually short videos), and instead of reading through your feed, you looked through it. Instagram was immediately added to the ever growing social media/music portfolio and used as a promotional tool for artists, labels and venues.

Playing the Social Game

As artists became more active on social media, installed the apps on their phones, and started tweeting and instagram’ing throughout their days, the tone of things seemed to change. Many artists became what they posted on their socials. They assumed identities, they lost their identities, and they made up imaginary identities as part of their strategy for success. Artists were judged based on these online identities, and some fans began expressing these judgements and gravitating more to artists whose online personalities they favored. As these social media sites gained popularity, there was a sense that part of the general public was focusing more on the personality and image of an artist than the actual music the artist made.

Statistically, a majority of music fans who use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram do so on their phones, as opposed to laptops or personal computers. People are reading, looking, typing, and seeing a barrage of text and images; but when it comes to cell phones and social media, they aren’t doing much listening. Sure, some avid music fans hook up headphones and actually click the link to the song in their Facebook feed. But most don’t. Instead, cell phone users look for stimulation through these short bursts of images and texts and social interaction, that worldwide conversation that social media allows everybody to be a part of. The switch from computers to mobile as a way of using social media helped shift the focus even more from audio to visual.

Two of the most successful traits of an artist on social media, aside from being highly active, seem to be likability and sociability. The likable artist is the one you want to get a drink with, the one that seems down to earth and humble. They don’t get in beefs and they interact well with other artists and their fans. Some artists really are likable, and some played the role very well, but the fans had no way to tell the difference. So for the most part, whoever acts likable on social media is assumed likable in real life.

This has hurt some careers and helped others—some artists have trouble keeping their cool online and become less likable to their fans, some are just genuinely likable, and some play the part very well. Sociability, in this case refers to the way in which an artist interacts with other artists on social media. It can be a huge attribute and end up benefiting their career greatly.

Twitter created the most open and useful communication forum
between artist and artist.

Some artists formed bonds with their musical idols, many contacts and collaborations were made, artists were able to give each other praise for their work, and everybody got to watch it happen in real time. However, a darker side of this trend emerged: artists strategically interacting with other artists in attempts to boost their own careers. Of course musicians and entertainers have been doing this long before the internet, but social media took it to a new level.

Urban Dictionary had a term and definition for this which seems to be the only possible way to describe it.

Dick Riding: “Becoming infatuated with, endorsing, or kissing up to someone or something which is very popular at the moment in hopes of gaining recognition, a sense of fulfillment, or publicity.”

Some artists adopted a technique of subtle “dick riding” (and some not-so-subtle) in an attempt to bolster themselves up to the level of those who were in a position higher than them. And as this all took place on Twitter, the whole world (and the music industry; agents, promoters, managers, record labels) got to watch it. Those who played the game and played it well often found themselves closing the gap between them and their idols, as a sense of online kinship between two artists seemed to convey “equality.” Some strategic artists found ways to exploit this, and as they positioned themselves as equals on Twitter with their idols or rivals they suddenly found themselves as equals on stage, in billing, and in overall profile or earning power.

The Cult Of Personality

I don’t think many readers would argue that social media has changed the music industry. But what does that change mean? There have been some positive new opportunities and tools for helping achieve exposure for music, but there have been many more that are seen as negative by those who highly value the integrity of music. To emphasize a line from earlier: We are now in an age where the artist—their image, personality, online presence, and overall profile—is just as much of a product being sold as the music that artist makes.

That change means less emphasis on music and more emphasis on things unrelated to music. It means that an artist with a vibrant, thriving social media profile and personality and “so-so” music may have a better shot at getting signed or achieving success than the artist with no social media presence and amazing music. It means that I don’t actually know if that person in my Twitter timeline composed that tweet, or if it was written by an intern at a social media management company.

There have been numerous successes in the music industry in recent years that were clearly not built on music, but on the extreme popularity of an artist’s online profile. Some artists branded themselves and promoted themselves to the point of becoming veritable online reality stars, before they had even released any music. Some of these online reality stars were picked up by large record labels; their music was just good enough to release, and with the notoriety already established on social media, the artist became a marketing machine for the record label.

In these cases the music was a loss-leader; it was showcased as the product being sold, but all of the money the artist generated was through ancillary income: touring, merchandise, endorsements and live events, maybe even public appearance fees. Nobody was buying their music, people were buying their image. These artists essentially achieved some sort of twisted fame, but not on the strength of their music.

If one adage has become truth in the music industry over the past decade,
it has to be “adapt or die.”

The music industry very slowly adapted to the change from physical to digital media, it adapted to the decline in sales as illegal downloading increased, the rapid shift to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. And finally now, reacting to social media’s effect on the priorities of music fans, its indispensable role in selling music… and equally importantly, selling the artist.

This most recent adaptation is the one that’s a little sticky; when you take the focus off the music and put it on the artist, you have more of what would be called an “entertainer” than a “musician.” But just like the Screen Actor’s Guild and the Musician’s Union, these roles seem to have merged into a single entity.

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Wolfgang Gartner is a Grammy-nominated DJ, producer, artist and label founder. Follow him on Twitter @wolfganggartner

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