How the Music Industry Survived the Social Media Revolution

April 26, 2017

There’s something to be said for being a part of the first generation to grow up with internet access: for the most part, my teenage years were unmonitored, uncensored and part of the wild revolution of social media entering pop culture.

On the other hand, the music industry was slammed by this new frontier of self-exploration. Aside from the loss of album sales through file-sharing services, an unprecedented power switch occurred when early social media platforms (read: MySpace) allowed unsigned artists to distribute and promote their music for free.

Music and music marketing may be one of the industries most-impacted by the permeation of social media and online culture. A new model of authenticity took control over corporate authority, and musicians’ incomes were affected like no other form of celebrity.

Here is a brief overlook on how the music industry adapted to the age of social media.

Dear Diary, My Teenage Angst Has a View Count

From Katy Perry’s 2007 MySpace profile. Image via Noisey

In the early days of social media, young artists used blog services on MySpace and LiveJournal to cryptically express their fears and talk smack on their exes—just like us.

Before her big break headlining the 2008 Vans Warped Tour, Katy Perry’s MySpace profile was a colorful mess of fun facts and “your mom” jokes that reflected the image of many teens’ online activity.

This level of musician/fan relationship was previously unachievable through magazine spreads and album inserts. Unedited and straight from the source, fans were getting the most authentic look at their idols to date.

The new wave of parasocial relationship manifested in several ways. For one, the ability to view and interact with musicians in the same space as friends and family blurred the line of celebrity.

Fan communities also began to crop up feverishly. These groups were dedicated to curating and discussing content from all over the web, from leaked demos to high school year book photos. Real friendships—those with two-way communication—were built upon the content shared by bands, and often made us feel like they were a part of our friend circle.

At the most extreme level, fanfiction emerged in an attempt to fill the gaps between updates. Artists became characters for fans to work through issues with bullying, sexual identity or even illness and death.

Needless to say, musicians became more involved in their fans’ lives than ever before. The problem: This type of fan interaction wasn’t making them any money.

The Struggle to Monetize the Scene

Blink-182’s Travis Barker started Famous Stars & Straps lifestyle brand in 1999. Image via ID Agency

By the late aughts, the loss from music piracy and other promotional materials forced new and seasoned musicians alike to rethink how they could continue to earn a living. Trust in record labels was dwindling from piracy lawsuits, but interest in adopting or mirroring the lifestyles of idols was on a high note.

Thus began the awkward years of the music industry trying (and failing) to launch their own monetized social media platforms.

The best example of this could be the short-lived success of Modlife, a software platform started by Blink-182’s Tom Delonge that aimed to combine online fan bases with the sales of physical and digital product packages.

For the most part, the effort came too little, too late: communities had been well-established on other platforms, the sites were difficult or confusing to navigate, and fans simply didn’t want to start paying for content they had previously been getting for free.

The critical piece to this phase of social media marketing was musicians becoming transparent about how labels profit from music, merchandise, and touring. Appealing to devoted and empathetic audiences helped re-establish the worth in the original product: music.

Striking a Balance

A sample profile on Modlife, now defunct. Image via Phil Galland

With the growing popularity of paid streaming services like Spotify, the music industry has seen its highest sales increase since 1998. Finally, music seems to have found its place in the digital space. Artists also continue to bolster their income through brand sponsorships.

Many aspects of the parasocial relationship continue to dominate among musicians and their fans, especially as the means of sharing content become more intimate and easy to create.

Musicians, in turn, have come to better understand how to utilize social media and fan relationships to drive sales. For example, Fall Out Boy has been teasing major news via Twitter this week, and bassist Pete Wentz has had some sassy interactions with enthusiastic fans:

Whether they’re sharing playlists of their favorite songs or challenging fans to create music videos for their latest singles, musicians have shown an incredible effort to connect with fans beyond the music.

And one thing is certain: being a fan in the age of social media rocks.