“Making Music Is Building Social Media Assets”: Pop Stars Fight Digital Burnout | Music


JBefore an album is released, it’s all about teasing and pleasing fans: thrilling videos, the promise of a whimsical collaboration, the drop-by-drop unveiling of a musician’s new era . But earlier this month, British pop star Charli XCX said she was stepping down from Twitter after receiving negative comments from fans about the campaign for her upcoming album, Crash.

“I feel like I can’t do anything right at the moment” she says. “I’ve noticed lately that a few people seem quite angry with me – for the song choices I’ve chosen to release, for the way I’ve decided to roll out my campaign, for the things I need to do to fund what will be the biggest tour I’ve ever done.I’ve been struggling with my mental health for the past few months and obviously that makes negativity and criticism harder to deal with.

For now, she says, she would write tweets for her team to post on her behalf, “because I can’t really handle it here right now.”

Charli XCX (née Charlotte Aitchison) isn’t the only major pop star to retire from social media: Billie Eilish quit Twitter to preserve her sanity; American indie star Mitski deleted his accounts after his 2019 tour ended. The issue hits musicians in a unique way. Actors are not expected to promote themselves to the same extent and often avoid social media; writers generally don’t have such large audiences or the parasocial relationships that come with them.

But walking away isn’t an option for all musicians suffering from digital burnout – especially after the lack of gigs and in-person promotional opportunities diminished during the pandemic, increasing pressure on artists to ‘they constantly share updates about their work online.

Darren Hemmings is a marketing executive who works with artists such as Run the Jewels, Wolf Alice and Jungle. “There was a weird logic that carried on as fact: you’re not on tour, so you have plenty of time to be everywhere. There are instances where it was a great decision for some people , but telling artists who have been around for a long time that they have to do more when in reality they have less to say because they’re not doing anything, leads to this “always on” mentality that I find quite unhealthy.

As XCX noted, social media isn’t exactly a haven for kindness and positivity. And it’s not just negative feedback that can make it difficult for musicians. The wait to constantly put on a happy face can be “exhausting,” says German singer-songwriter Au/Ra, who says she puts pressure on herself to keep up with the online world. “It’s something I judge myself for, it’s a pattern of guilt and a comparison to other social media accounts.”

Sara Quin of Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara says she gets “0% pleasure” from the Google Doc containing the group’s social media calendar: “Posting on Myspace or Facebook used to be an add-on, but now we have the feel like making music is about making social media assets.

‘We love our words and our ideas and our stories have value’…Tegan and Sara. Photography: Trevor Brady

Yet when the duo was looking for a new record label, they repeatedly encountered expectations that they should have an extensive and active online presence. “We’re always looking for new revenue streams and opportunities because we’re not on tour and I hate to admit it, but our social media reach dictates everything for a band like us,” Quin says. “Our online metrics are how much a record label will give us for a record or how much [US festival] Coachella will give us to play Saturday at 3 p.m.

The two years of the pandemic also correspond with the rise of TikTok as a key platform for discovering and promoting music: new acts including British producer PinkPantheress and British singer-songwriter Mimi Webb, nominated for the British awards, found an audience there for the first time. So has American country artist Priscilla Block, who got her start releasing original content and music five or more times a day, according to her co-manager, Crystal Block. A few months after devoting all her free time to the app, she released a song, Just About Over You, which was funded by fans through a campaign on TikTok. The track went viral, landing at No. 1 on iTunes’ all genre chart and helping land her a record deal. Block has just released their debut album, Welcome to the Block Party, but the work doesn’t stop there. Now, says Crystal, “there’s always this pressure for anything new to go viral.”

This potential to reach new listeners has record labels lobbying artists to add another social media platform to an already overflowing plate that typically includes Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Even Adele, who had the best-selling album of 2021, isn’t immune: In an interview with Zane Lowe, she recalled a meeting where someone from her label suggested she logging into TikTok to make sure 14-year-olds knew who she was.

Beyond the few examples of acts whose social media presence has paid off, Hemmings wonders if all the time and effort musicians put into social media is worth it. Due to limited reach, not all posts will be seen by their audience unless it is paid advertising. “You see a lot of artists screaming into the void,” he says.

Instead, Hemmings encourages those he works with to build communities on channels that create a more direct route to fans, such as with pre-social media fanclubs. It’s a booming world: Run the Jewels has an email database; dance giants Chase & Status have a WhatsApp group with fans; British indie artist Bat for Lashes has created a Patreon featuring exclusive content.

In 2020, Sheffield metalcore band While She Sleeps also launched their own fan membership platform on Patreon, Sleeps Society. It has about 1,500 members. “It doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but it makes enough money to keep the band afloat,” says guitarist Mat Welsh.

“It brings in enough money to keep the band afloat”… Mat Welsh (extreme right) of While She Sleeps. Photography: Marcia Richards

In January, Tegan and Sara launched a Substack newsletter offering an in-depth look at their creation process, which has over 6,000 subscribers and a paid tier priced at $6 (£4.40) per month. “Substack is us subconsciously saying, ‘We love our words and our ideas and our stories have value,'” Quin explains. “A lot of what social media is like is that we work for these companies, like Spotify, Instagram and Facebook, and we don’t necessarily feel the benefits. I feel like I always provide more content for the Food Channel. »

Yet these alternatives are not a wholesale replacement for social media. “I want to find people where they are,” Quin says. “I’m not trying to siphon them all off in one place, but I’m never going to lie and tell you that I love social media. I hate it, but I will because I don’t want people to switch to side.

Welsh agrees: “Sleeps Society and social media are complementary for us. Our social networks are there for casual fans who want to engage from time to time, but the community is for those who would consider us “their” band.

Despite the emerging alternatives available, Trap 22 remains for artists trying to have a healthier relationship with the internet while promoting their work in an increasingly competitive field.

“Fans are smart people who can immediately see through artists who spend time trying to do it all or who make an impact just because they feel the need to,” says Sophie Kennard, director of Chase & Status. “The moment it seems a bit dishonest, it’s game over anyway. So might as well use their time elsewhere.

In the end, despite all the pitfalls of social media, there may be no turning back. “Sometimes I wish the power grid would go down so I didn’t have to,” Quin says. “But we are in the maze and I don’t know how to get out.”


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