Don’t feel that you have to cheapen or somehow betray your passion for music just for shock value.
Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
The music industry is changing rapidly, with new avenues arising for both creators and consumers every day. This begs the question: What will the music industry look like in the future?
As the cofounder of an indie record label, I’ve watched many of the most recent changes happen in real time. Despite only working in the business for a few years, we’ve had to constantly adapt to new trends — both in music creation and consumption. While musicians can largely continue creating music as they have for years, the way in which they market their music and reach their audience is always changing.
It’s easy to see how the music industry is evolving at an ever-increasing speed. Though SoundCloud has been around for more than a decade and is still one of the biggest players when it comes to discovering new, emerging artists, TikTok has emerged as a popular application for both creators and consumers. First introduced in 2016, the video-centric social media application has taken the music world by storm. Many new artists have gained huge followings on the application and, despite the Trump administration previously attempting to ban TikTok citing national security concerns, it has remained one of the most popular avenues for free music distribution, particularly among Gen Z consumers.
In a sense, this is the future of the music industry. Whether you look at it from year to year or month to month, the ability to adapt back-end strategies is a must. However, one aspect of music marketing that has become increasingly relevant in the late 2010s and early 2020s is what I like to refer to as the “scandal factor.” You can create great music and garner a following as musicians have done for decades, but if you want to make it big in such a fickle and ephemeral landscape, you have to turn the dial up to 11.
What does this actually mean in practice? It not only means doing something that no one else has done — it means doing something that shocks, polarizes and ultimately shifts the download and streaming data in your favor.
Lil Nas X provides a perfect example of a musician where controversy has garnered attention and helped build his musical brand. He first turned heads by teaming up with Billy Ray Cyrus to create the highly popular and oddly catchy “Old Town Road,” a mixture of traditional country and modern rap that exploded on Twitter. The following year, Lil Nas X publicly came out in 2019, which in and of itself, shouldn’t have been controversial. However, it made him a mainstream gay male rapper — a rapper with a country hit who has attained international success. Lil Nas X capitalized further on this “controversy” with his music video for the hit single, “Montero,” which evoked images of the Garden of Eden before showing a fictionalized version of Lil Nas X twerking on Satan’s lap. While many saw it as an ode to the freedom of sexuality, many conservatives decried it as blasphemous. However, regardless of how you felt about it, the controversy only put more money in the rapper’s pocket.
This desire for increasingly shocking material doesn’t just exist in the music industry, either. The old modes of building brands — from political campaigns to retail shops — are falling by the wayside, with new players driven by clicks, streams, downloads, retweets and so on. Social media, particularly TikTok, Twitter and Youtube, might be the primary facilitator (for now), but the desire for controversy and virality are what underpin modern success. To be noticed, you have to do something worthy of people’s attention — which often means doing something completely unexpected. I learned this first hand by building the first completely anonymous publication. By allowing people to write for us anonymously, we get juicer, much more “controversial” perspectives. We’ve seen how the “scandal factor” of the narratives we publish on The Doe can lead to virality on social media like Instagram.
Some artists may not like this data-obsessed way of creating, but there’s nothing inherently new about it. Musicians — and their labels — have been motivated by profits, usually above all else. Now, profits are largely calculated using algorithms and data provided by online platforms. Therefore, the environment for music creation and consumption may have changed, but the underlying drive to create new, interesting and profitable media remains the same.
My advice to young artists? Don’t feel that you have to cheapen or somehow betray your passion for music just for shock value. That said, if you want to reach a larger audience, you have to find ways to use your unique talents to create something worth talking about. There are millions of artists out there, so the key is figuring out how to make your music loud enough to be heard above all the other noise.
This is why I like to tell artists to treat their music like a product and less like an art form if they want to succeed. That means every time they put music out, they should be treating their fans or listeners, no matter how small that group is, like a focus group they can garner feedback from. The fans may not always know what they want until they hear it. But they do decide what happens to your career, so being arrogant about knowing what’s “the best art” is probably not going to work out for you. Purpose-driven artists can build their careers by understanding how they can market or portray their unique art — even if it means pushing the current boundaries of artist comfort.
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