When an Instagram Meme Gets You a Record Deal - Rolling Stone
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When an Instagram Meme Gets You a Record Deal

TikTok dominates label marketing conversations, but some digitally savvy acts are having more success seeding their music through Instagram memes

YNG Martyr

YNG Martyr's meme campaign for "Nike Ticks" helped earn him a record deal.

Lightline Productions (Oliver Watson & Samuel Gordon)*

Last year, aspiring rapper YNG Martyr was barely holding on to a job as “a web designer that didn’t know how to design websites.” “I was in a nine to five that was God-awful,” he remembers. “I hated it.”

Faced with the prospect of wasting away at work, most people would decide to jump to a new company or go back to school. YNG Martyr is not most people: He saved up vacation time, went on leave, took out a $15,000 dollar loan from the bank, and promptly spent the entire sum paying meme-focused Instagram accounts to make posts incorporating his song “Nike Ticks.”

“I was so run-down and tired of working — I saw no other possible way to do things,” YNG Martyr says. “Bless that bank. They held me down.” 

Thanks to a series of widely-shared memes soundtracked by “Nike Ticks,” interest in the song rocketed upwards, and it has earned more than 30 million streams on Spotify in the last 14 months. The success of the single, a rumbling celebration of footwear that also pays homage to The Lion King and Dolly Parton, earned YNG Martyr a record deal. On top of that, the rapper’s gift for meme carpet-bombing, cheap and brutally effective, helped him start YNG Marketing, which already works with the distribution company Empire and labels under the Sony Orchard umbrella.

“If you get the right meme and the right budget, you can really get a viral moment,” YNG Martyr says. “I don’t think a lot of labels really see the potential of what this is.”

Modern marketing “is about figuring out how kids consume music and finding as many good vessels to send music to them as possible,” adds Tyler Blatchley, who signed YNG Martyr to label Black 17 Media and runs daily promotion campaigns on Instagram for his artists. “I think memes is one of the best.” 

Some accounts on Instagram have amassed millions of followers just by posting the funniest, most potent memes of the moment. Through these channels, a silly clip can reach a wide audience. Everyone laughs at the video, but it’s really a Trojan Horse: “Nike Ticks” is playing in the background, and the goal is for people to seek out the track on their own after encountering it in the meme. 

Memes have been helping to break songs for years — Rich the Kid’s “New Freezer” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” are prominent examples. But music marketers and managers are increasingly focused on trying to engineer these sort of viral moments.

Each of these eruptions may not have the magnitude of, say, the skateboarding video that launched Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” back onto the charts earlier this year — easily an 8.5 on virality’s Richter Scale — but, the thinking goes, every time marketers are able to set off a viral quake, even just a tremor, the artist’s music reaches a slightly wider group of fans, and some of those will stick around and keep streaming if they like what they hear. 

“We’re trying to take a bunch of swings until we hit a home run,” explains Blatchley, who calls YNG Martyr “the master of meme promo.” “Then if that homer knocks in enough runs, the artist can build a foundation of fans.” In the space of 18 months, YNG Martyr’s daily total stream count has risen from negligible to more than 200,000 a day. If he maintains that pace, he’ll top out more than 70 million streams a year. 

Meme campaigns are relatively affordable — costing far less than a post from a famous TikTok-er. “For three or four thousand dollars, [YNG Martyr] can get a song up to 100,000 plays per day,” Blatchley says. He’s worked with YNG Marketing on five meme campaigns this year, and two of them “have done really well.”

Dillon Druz, who manages Bankrol Hayden and has also done meme promotion for acts like YG, Moneybagg Yo, and Doja Cat, usually puts $5,000 to $10,000 into a campaign. “My strategy is to use the biggest accounts possible, the accounts that have 20 to 30 million followers and get 1 to 2 million views a video,” he says. “Even if 5 percent of those people stream the song, it’s still gonna see a spike.”

Marketers mostly develop their own meme campaigns to give to the major meme accounts, Druz says, which requires them to be fluent with all of Instagram’s various, rapidly evolving micro-pockets of fandom. (On a platform like TikTok, by contrast, many labels just pay popular creators to invent promotional content that can be used to push a song.) Before YNG Martyr put $15,000 into marketing “Nike Ticks,” he went on an 18-month “crusade” messaging meme accounts, “figuring out how much they charge, making the memes myself, experimenting.” 

Marketers say good meme promotion requires being up-to-date on current events. Druz has run meme campaigns based around the spread of the coronavirus and the recent presidential election. Blatchley has been focused on reaching fans of the game Among Us. “That game is huge right now,” he says. “You can run a campaign on the Among Us channels on Instagram, and it’s insanely effective.” 

Not everyone is aware that games like Among Us — YNG Martyr has also had a lot of success with Call of Duty memes, while a Kirby meme hit big for Druz earlier this year  — are currently sparking viral music moments. That’s another reason that the barrier to entry is higher in meme marketing than it is in TikTok promotion. 

The meme space also comes with additional hurdles that might trip up a novice. As viral content took an increasingly prominent place in popular culture during the 2010s, companies started trying to copyright more viral videos, Druz explains. If a marketer puts a song on a piece of video content that’s already owned, the rights-holder might issue a takedown notice, slowing the meme’s growth. 

In addition, labels are increasingly reliant on technology that automatically scours the internet for music, trying to find tracks that are being used without preauthorization. When Druz wants to execute a meme campaign, he has to ask a label to whitelist a slew of meme accounts in advance. But the goal of a successful campaign is to get a song into unexpected places — ideally it ends up going everywhere. Content ID technology has exactly the opposite goal. 

Aggressive enforcement of copyright law isn’t the main obstacle to more widespread adoption of meme promotion, though. There are still plenty of people in the music industry who dismiss this sort of viral-marketing as a series of silly stunts, much ado about nothing, the ultimate victory of style over substance. The naysayers argue that listener interest will dissipate as soon as the viral heat inevitably wears off. 

But that has not been YNG Martyr’s experience. His daily stream count has jumped and then plateaued three times in the last 18 months. Each plateau has held until he pulled off the next triumphant viral campaign. 

That’s partially why, when a label comes to Blatchley asking about his marketing plans, he knows his answer. 

“I’m like, ‘we’re not spending any money on advertising,'” Blatchley says. “We’re putting $1,500 dollars into memes.” 

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