Social media is pitiable. Arguably (and quite sadly) the most praised contribution of Generation Y, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and the like have developed from the best thing to ever happen to the Internet to another commonplace fixture in our lives. Consequently, it has devolved into a mindless void of excessive opinion, incessant hype, and trivial aspirations held up by meaningless “likes” and “favorites” instead of legitimate motivation. So, when I hear aspiring superstars being given the advice to upload all of their songs to YouTube, set up their main base of operations on a Facebook page, or—the most horrifying of all—beg potential fans to fund their future album via a Kickstarter campaign, I, for my sanity, have convinced myself that the people giving this advice simply do not understand the negative impact that social media has on new artists’ careers.
The importance of social media to potential superstardom is nothing short of an uneducated myth propagated by those who view the growth of online streaming on streaming services and social media sites as the ticket to a mass-market exploitation of new music otherwise unavailable to unsigned artists. This belief is often supported by a continual increase in online music consumption. According to Next Big Sound, the number of online streams jumped up 363% from 2012 to 2014 with almost 435 billion plays accounted for. Many of these plays were made possible through social media. Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are hot beds for sharing music from streaming and file hosting services such as Pandora, YouTube, Spotify, Bandcamp, Rdio, and Soundcloud. However, an increased number of plays does not equate to increased accessibility of or interest in an artist’s work. This is particularly true for new artists.
An increased number of plays does not equate to increased accessibility of or interest in an artist’s work.
This issue stems from two drivers, both as instrumental in launching a successful music career on social media as they are with limiting its potential. The first driver consists of the consumers of online music and the users that share music via social media. The second driver is made up of the streaming services and social media services that host and share new content.
First Driver: Mistaken Millennials
Free consumption of online music has become a staple of millennial culture. Millennials have rejected the former model of ownership that drove CD sales in the 90s during the peak of the music industry in exchange for the access model reliant on low costs and instant gratification. What this means is that when a new artist posts a brand new song onto their YouTube page or Facebook page, the upload will likely be trivialized as something that can be consumed for free instead of appreciated as something of value. If an artist only makes their work accessible via social media, their potential for success is being exclusively contained within a marketplace that places no significance on the value of that artist’s career at all. So while social media can easy grant growing artists larger audiences, it is unlikely that these new audiences will contribute anything to the profitability of an artist’s career aside from a few likes and some encouraging comments. Last time I checked, a virtual pat on the back didn’t pay your bills (or, you know, for your LP).
Free consumption of online music has become a staple of millennial culture.
Second Driver: Google’s Greed
We’ve all heard of the success stories surrounding the few musicians who have managed to squeeze their way into the mainstream via the power of YouTube views including Esmee Denters and Justin Bieber. Despite the hype (and, you know, the widely successful pop stars like Usher and Justin Timberlake who backed these “YouTube Stars”), YouTube, as one of the most profitable extensions of Google, works much harder to restrict artists’ careers than they do to give those careers a boost.
In January, Zoe Keating, an independent musician who has often been vocal about the abuse online media sites have brought upon her career, reported that YouTube demanded rights to her entire catalogue and rights to set release times for her material if she wished to make her tunes available on YouTube’s upcoming subscription music service called YouTube Music Key. The streaming service threatened to block the artist’s channel if she refused to agree to the terms. This practice by YouTube exemplifies their inability to negotiate fair and reasonable agreements with unsigned and independent artists who do not have the support of big labels to help solidify their deals. This, of course, brings upon the bigger point that new artists should consider when they deliberate relying on social media as a primary launch pad for their all-star career. Services like YouTube are not looking to foster an artist’s potential or help an artist flourish. They are businesses. They are only seeking to increase profit margins while they drive the price of music closer and closer to $0.00 to appease their users. This business practice will ultimately harm new artists’ careers and cripple their potential to profit from the audiences these services may or may not give them.
So How Should New Artists Launch Their Careers?
I should make the disclaimer that social media is not entirely a useless pit of deceptive hype and perpetual passivity. Social media and streaming services can be great for giving musicians access to their fans. Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and the like are often great tools for organizing and spreading the word on events and promotions and for providing new materials that will legitimately make the artist at least enough money to pay for that LP. Of course to do so, the artist needs the fans first. This is where artists should be continuously relying on traditional methods of career building.
Social media is not entirely a useless pit of deceptive hype and perpetual passivity.
Where artists build their music catalogs may be going all digital, but how artists build their careers is still the same old game of luck and hard work. All of the hype surrounding social media put aside, any benefits gained through the vapid virtual voids in cyberspace will never be able to replace the value of using personal and physical connections as the launch pad for a career in the music industry.