Online platforms have empowered aspiring artists to distribute music independently rather than through a label. However, new research into the music industry shows a successful career takes more than just a moment of social media magic.

Platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and Spotify enable ordinary people to release their music independently to global audiences. As a result, online communities are formed where fans support their favourite up-and-coming artists, kick-starting musicians’ careers.

One example is Sydney songwriter Eliza Lee, 20, who began uploading her music to Instagram from her bedroom in 2016, promoting the videos using specific hashtags #cover, #singer, #newvoice.

Eliza Lee Instagram Page

One of her videos was reposted on a popular music page, and the artist went from having 800 followers to approximately 8000 overnight. A US-based talent manager got in touch and flew her to LA, where she was introduced to multi-platform award-winning producers and participated in writing sessions.

Although Lee credits Instagram with helping launch her career, she laments that the ongoing changes to platforms — which customise the news feed according to previous search history — make it difficult for musicians to break into the industry.

“Instagram has changed the algorithm lately, as the timeline used to be chronological so that anyone who follows an account would see the content on their feed. Now it’s harder for artists to break through as the algorithm has been changed,” said Lee in an interview with Which-50.

It’s not just the algorithm changes that make the platforms difficult to master. Changing user trends — such as social shaming for using hashtags — mean that tactics which once made it easy to be discovered are no longer cool.

“If I had never hashtagged I would have never of got discovered,” said Lee.

It is crucial for online entertainers who are establishing a career to connect with and build an audience. Popular viewed accounts are usually set as a business page so that the creator can view the ‘insights section’ — which shows all the statistics and engagement with the content produced.

“It’s really useful for people trying to build a brand for themselves, as it shows them who their target audience is and who is responding most to their content,” said Lee.

The Viral Myth

Ben Morgan, a PhD candidate at RMIT, undertook qualitative interview-based research with Australian musicians and workers in music industries. Across the board, social media was viewed as a powerful and important tool in promoting artist brands and songs.

However, the narrative that certain artists have become overnight successes after they were discovered or built fanbases online solely through social media or streaming doesn’t tell the whole story.

Ben Collins, PhD Candidate, RMIT University

“I don’t think the viral narrative is helpful to aspiring professional artist brands or songwriters, because it implies that these things can happen quickly and without the need for professional teams and investment to build a sustainable artist brand. It is not hard to find the counter-narratives around those and other viral stories — that there was significant strategy and efforts by professionals to build those artist brands along the way,” he said.

Morgan said digital tools have lowered the risk and need for investment to create and distribute recordings, but social media or streaming has not eliminated the need for professionals to promote artist brands or songs.

“Yes, artist brands can do much more on their own with lower investment now. But if they want to create a sustainable commercial artist brand, it is a myth to pretend that they don’t still need the help of others and can rely solely on their charm and talent. Social media is not replacing the need for people when it comes to creating a commercially sustainable artist brand,” said Morgan.

The lower barriers to entry mean that there is an overload of music content published, which makes it difficult for artists to be discovered.

“One problem was solved, and another has emerged. Overproduction and high rate of failure remain core problems,” Morgan said.

Artists & Repertoire

The role of an Artists and Repertoire scout (A&R) is to find new talent and then sign the musician up with a record label. Social media and the advancement of the internet have adapted the notion of A&R to become more data-driven.

According to Morgan, “It is not accurate to claim that online metrics (stream counts, followers, views) have replaced qualitative evaluation (aka gut feeling) when a record label or publisher is considering signing an artist brand or a songwriter to a roster. Both matter.

“Every label or publisher I spoke with told me about how important their personal reaction still is to making A&R decisions and how integrating more quantitative data-based decision-making was hard and represented a new skillset they were learning.”

But can analytics and data predict a hit? According to Morgan, “Metrics can help people make more informed decisions, but at the end of the day they are just more accurate versions of sales and usage charts. The tools are new and more accurate, but the approach of monitoring consumption as closely as possible goes back many decades. There is a data literacy issue, needing to learn the new systems as well, but the problem of interpreting what the data ‘means’ still remains.”

According to Morgan’s research, metric fraud is real, but relatively easy to spot. However interpreting the data can create new challenges.

“Fraud stories are pretty rare, though I got a few about stream counts in cities being very high then live tickets not selling. That was actually then discussed as ‘you don’t know if it was fraud and the stream counts are inflated, or if the song was added to a popular playlist where it got lots of streams but no one bothered to look up who made the song.’ That is a good example of one theory (it was fraud!) leading to a more sophisticated one (playlists can deliver huge stream counts but not necessarily new fans) after the person thought about it longer.”

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