Maintaining a frequent presence on various social media platforms becomes too much for the mental health, performance, and general well-being of many artists. How did we get here ?
by Keith Jopling by MIDiA
The recent protests by musical artists against pressures to maintain a constant presence on social media are disconcerting at a time when many artists are struggling with mental health and well-being issues. Over the past few weeks, Halsey, Self Esteem and others have made public statements about their concerns about the prominent role TikTok plays in bringing their music to the public. While TikTok has been the catalyst here, the larger issue is the breadth of social media each artist is expected to cover. The essence of the problem is captured quite well by a recent quote from Chaz Jenkins of Chart Metric:
“For an artist today, it’s better to have a small but consistently engaged audience everywhere, than to have a huge following on one specific platform.”
The situation has turned into something of a crisis, and now the Music Managers Forum has released “The MMF Digital Burnout Report”, which is based on a series of roundtable discussions with music managers and marketers on the subject. The MMF report states that:
“The sheer volume of broadcast and content demands placed on artists can be extremely crippling, especially in a crowded marketplace. This is further complicated by the expectation that artists need a large social following to even receive a playlist and marketing support.
While there’s no doubt that the rise of streaming, social media and the ‘always on’ attention-seeking culture are the underlying drivers of the problem, but one of the main direct causes is the “route 1” nature of music marketing, especially by major labels when it comes to priority artists. In the sense that label marketing is really “promotion” in disguise, the current TikTok obsession is nothing more than the latest in a series of “Route 1” obsessions.
The marketing obsession of “Route 1”
Route 1 was used to play a song on the radio. Entire album projects and stages of an artist’s life would live or die depending on whether a radio playlist slot could be secured by their label. Until the advent of streaming, radio’s role as gatekeeper was both oppressive and severely limiting. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, the disappearance of the music press and television had reduced the channels for marketing music to one. This is probably when the way 1 thinking really took hold in music marketing.
Once streaming caught on, Route 1’s obsession became playlists. Spotify’s playlist curators have been so inundated with pitches that the market leader in streaming players has introduced a form-filling system, a soul-destroying concept for music marketers. However, much to Spotify’s chagrin, playlists are yesterday’s game, with TikTok now truly dominating the Route 1 mental space.
This is not to criticize individual marketing teams. There continues to be an impressive glut of campaigns that leverage artwork, artist personalities, innovative ideas, and opportunistic tactics to impact the various metrics we can now instantly measure: engagement , social media views and feeds. Marketers work under severe time pressures, often with modest or low budgets, compared to their counterparts in other industries. Their efforts are impressive and, frankly, exhausting. The problem is that these campaigns are constrained by a lack of direct marketing levers to reach music fans more directly. Instead, they fight a constant battle to sway gatekeepers, trigger algorithms, or persuade influencers to post something that could go viral in the artist’s name.
The “Road 1” mindset has been a bogeyman for many frustrated artists ever since. Fed up with his label’s insistence on a punitive “promotional schedule”, the world’s most famous musician, Sir Paul McCartney, released his 2007 album, Memory Almost Full, through the Starbucks coffee chain. More than a decade later, a pop artist on the other end of the fame spectrum, Jvanz, paid a playlist pusher a $2,000 fee to try and get a track into the playlist ecosystem. from Spotify. Pretty desperate measures for a cash-strapped unsigned artist, the fact that playlist marketing has opened up a secondary market in Payola does music industry marketers no compliments.
It’s not just the big labels. Independent artists are now subject to the same requirement of virality, with Wet Leg and Arlo Parks recently propelled into the industry’s hype machine. Surely it is the role of independent labels to be experts in the more subtle marketing that is required for artists who don’t need, or are unlikely to have, a series of “hits”? It’s the role of indies to work through niche music media (it still exists), cross-list and engage with trend setters, bloggers and music enthusiasts. In today’s music industry culture, none of these activities produce results big enough or fast enough.
Just say no – better social media management or finding alternatives?
The MMF report contains the good sentiment, but it offers solutions to alleviate the pressures on artists and marketers who largely miss the mark: planned social media breaks (impractical), more transparency from streaming services on their algorithms (unlikely), building a 15-25% of the “social media management budget” in label advances (not addressing the root cause).
The report advises managers to also learn to “say no” and understand that not all artists feel comfortable on social media or in the role of “influencer”. True, but until effective alternative channels exist, diverting efforts from Route 1 is futile. Also, when the next big thing arrives, all attention will flock to it in the same way as the trends already discussed. Lately, I’ve found industry events on marketing to be unimaginative tales of viral marketing success.
We’re supposed to be in the era of song management and artist branding, both of which require expertise in the first principles of marketing – creativity and integrated marketing communications – joint campaigns that build the “brand capital” of an artist and prepare him for longevity. Instead, everyone is chasing the last peak on a chart. No wonder many artists have expressed their relief that they arrived on the music scene before the domination of social media. George Ezra recently told Music Week: “I’m so grateful I missed this – and I missed by a fucking smoking paper, it’s tiny.”
Of course, lately the job of marketing new releases has been made even more difficult by the glut of re-marketing music catalogs, something captured in Ted Gioia’s comprehensive essay “Is Old Music Killing New Music “. What’s clear is that old music is rushing headlong onto TikTok, with Pink Floyd being the latest legacy act to establish a presence on the platform.
Artists are creative and there is no doubt that they would be enthusiastic about more creative ideas in marketing their music. It was refreshing to see that Harry Styles’ first interview for the new ‘Harry’s House’ album was done for Better Homes & Gardens. It represented a new and clever use of media (after all, most Better Homes & Gardens readers probably have Harry Styles fans in their household). It’s a small example, but the idea leveraged the album’s theme in a way that captured the imagination and freed Styles from the typical hamster wheel of music marketing. I’m sure Better Homes & Garden takes a slightly different approach to things (whether they paid or not is another matter, but a more recent label tactic has been to charge media for access to the artist – a tactic that has unpredictable long-term results).
Marketing artists isn’t the easiest task, and as the MMF report notes, it’s not just artists who suffer from burnout, but their marketing teams as well. With an endless stream of priority releases, most label marketers are on a promotional treadmill that never ends and rarely leads to a satisfying end point for an artist before the next priority record arrives.
Not every artist can be Paulo Nutini or Adele, both of whom can afford to maintain an air of old-fashioned mystery – disappearing from the stage before returning with number one albums and sold-out shows. The MMF report highlights the challenges faced by self-liberated artists:
“With less of a support network behind them, these entrepreneurial artists can experience an overwhelming amount of work with digital choices and obligations leading to burnout.”
This is particularly worrying. Not only are new artists expected to find budgets to plug in playlists or build social media, but their obligation to focus on creating social content is enough to distract them from making their best music, without which they have no no chance of breaking through. When I recently asked the manager of a new artist what the breakthrough strategy was, his response was “we’re going to be playing for about a year.”
The solution is simple: the music industry must use its streaming-age generosity to invest in music media channels and help develop music-focused independent outlets, new media brands or radio aggregators to podcasters and influencers (Gimme Radio, DUMMY, So Young, She Shreds, Song Exploder, BBC Introducing, Getup Radio, etc.). It would give music marketers more direct access to audiences and artists more options to get noticed without paying for playlists or playing the streets for two years in the hope that someone will. remark. For a few decades now, music labels have entrenched themselves in a position of content producers and licensors, holding back from any significant investment in product innovation or direct-to-consumer channels. They have lost vital data and a connection to culture and left themselves too much in the hands of big tech players who have taken on the role of “demand management”. This creates an insatiable appetite for content to fill the various formats that fill scrolling time and wormhole discovery. For creators, this is unmanageable and unsustainable.