Is it all about streams now? How the music industry can get the most out of digitalization and online marketing

The music industry can get more than streaming out of digitalization and online marketing. Apps, social media, UGC and SEO lead the way...

5 Mar 2019 3305 Views

Written by Ellinor Beckman

The ongoing digitalization of music consumption, fandom and marketing continues to greet the music industry with new challenges. Marketing managers and record labels have learned to look at number of streams but the online landscape of today offers much more. This post will give some pointers and examples of how to get the most out of it – from a broad to narrow perspective. It is about understanding the consumption world today, how people act online and how artists can reach them.

Let’s Be Real About the Digital Reality of Music

There is no need to talk about how digital formats, such as streaming, dominate music consumption today, the industry is fully aware of this (Singh, 2018; IFPI, 2018). What is more important is understanding how to go forward, and to do that we need to understand the big picture of liquid modernity. Previously solid traditions, institutions and social structures are becoming more liquid and in absence of frames and social limits we are able to do and be whatever we want to a larger extent. Life is always subject to change and uncertainty. Our liquid lives make our consumption just as liquid in some matters, which has resulted in access-based over ownership-based consumption (Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2017). This societal trend affects the work of musicians and artists too. As frames of traditions and institutions are dissolving, so are the traditional ideas of record labels. For example, Spotify is currently evolving their business to tie artists closer to them and record labels are not happy about it (Sisario, 2018). But how can the liquid worldview of today be denied? It is time for the big labels to wake up, accept and compete.

Amuse has done just that. It is a fully digital, new record label that operates through an app. Artists post their music in the app and Amuse distributes it to all major streaming platforms – for free. The streaming data is analyzed to identify promising artists who are then offered a record deal (Amuse, 2018). In terms of liquid consumption, Amuse embodies its access-based, ephemeral and dematerialized nature (Bardhi & Eckhardht, 2017). In addition to the free access and digital context, co-founders Andreas Ahlenius and Diego Farias stress the intent to diminish barriers to using their app. People may wonder what the “hook” is, but there is none. Without obligations or binding time, artists are free to use the app and leave whenever they want (Musikbranschpodden, 2017). Amuse demonstrates the importance of offering ephemerality. Especially in the creative industries, life is unpredictable and creative professionals are helped by liquid consumption’s ability to make their lives more flexible (Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2017). Commitment is not as attractive anymore, as modern life is no longer solid and stable. However, it is saturated with freedom. Steven Stoute, founder of UnitedMasters (based on an idea similar to Amuse’s), insightfully stated that:

Artists don’t want to be signed to record labels now. Artists are now looking at, how can I control my own brand, how can I take my music into my own hands? But somebody has to operationalize that – somebody has to operationalize independence (Wang, 2018, n.p.).

Engaging the Fans – It’s a Risky Business

Today’s media technology and social media allows for new forms of contact with fans. Marketers should strive for an explorative approach which aims for openness and interactivity. This means letting fans collaborate with the artist in creating content and value, as well as allowing for conversation (Felix et al., 2017; Vernuccio, 2014). With the release of Robyn’s album “Honey”,Reb Bull arranged a secret premiere show. To get tickets you had to play a game online and fans were gladly playing it for over three weeks (Red Bull, 2018). This resulted in them interacting with each other and with the content Red Bull had put out (Hartelius, 2018; Vernuccio, 2014). The content and the result of the campaign was therefore shaped by the fans, value was co-created and reciprocal for everyone – Red Bull, Robyn and the fans (Felix et al., 2017).

Fan-generated content can be cool and powerful, but not always. The internet and social media enable people to express more than their individualities, they can share music related experiences too. Reviews and fan communities cause a risk of losing control to the fans (Christodoulides, 2009). Nickelback struggles with negative voices of anti-fans so loud it has become the “Nickelback Phenomenon”. A meme-culture has evolved around it, in which even Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl shows his anti-fandom (Lachno, 2017):

Dave Grohl Nickelback
Picture 1: Dave Grohl’s contribution to the meme-culture around Nickelback (from Lachno, 2017).

These anti-fans are in some part narrating the story of the band’s brand. All jokes aside, they are spreading negative electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM), difficult to align with the band’s own brand story (Gensler et al., 2013). The possibilities for eWOM have made consumers more critical of brands and social media has given rise to a flourishing culture of parodying (Fournier & Avery, 2011). It is important to have this in mind when laying out the marketing strategy of an artist or a band – which possible tension can emerge in the audience and will they play the role of fans or critics (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012)?

Following the Yellow Brick Digital Road

We have seen artists on social media for a long time now, it is old news that Beyoncé’s pregnancy posts can nearly break the internet (Connick, 2017). But maybe even the biggest stars should be more open and inviting towards their fans, they should explore new ways of bringing out their personalities online. Jennie Smythe, CEO of Girlilla Marketing, sees social media as a second layer of an artist’s life. It is a “memory book” with which you need to “bring people along with you” (Music Business Radio, 2015, n.p.). This way, fans can interact with the artist and virtually participate in the artist’s life, which is important for successful marketing online. Social media presence facilitates conversation around the artist, giving marketers valuable insights about fans and non-fans (Christodoulides, 2009; Vernuccio, 2014).

By sharing stories and pictures online we are able to present the best, or ideal, version of ourselves. It can become a practice of reembodying ourselves in similar ways we would when creating an avatar for an online game (Belk, 2013). An artist who maximizes the use of social media’s possibilities of self-extension and conversation starting is Princess Nokia. She is fearlessly sharing the width of her identity and life with posts showing her fashion interest, music influences, subcultural engagements, spiritual practices, political activism and more (Bin Shikhan, 2017). All parts of her personality are extended into the digital world as she re-embodies herself from post to post and it keeps the followers interested.

Princess Nokia Sailor Moon
Picture 2: Princess Nokia in cosplay wear. It is one side of her identity that engages followers (from @princessnokia, 2018).

Another take on it is the official website for Tom Odell’s album “Jubilee Road” in which you are invited to explore the house where the album was recorded and meet the neighbors (Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd, 2018). The website functions as digital extension of Tom Odell, an auto-biographical self-portrait giving fans a glimpse of his world (Belk, 2013).

Tom Odell Jubilee Road website
Picture 3: The home-page of the Jubilee Road website (from Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd, 2018)

Don’t Forget to SEO

Marketers need to provide ways in to their artists’ social media networks. Search engines like Google have become intermediaries through which we find our way online and when we go there, our attention is limited to the top results of a search (van Dijk, 2012). Search engine optimization (SEO) is a great tool to increase artists’ visibility online. It organically puts them in the top of search ratings and can help to bypass algorithms sometimes causing inaccurate ratings (Berman & Katona, 2013). Understanding the power of search engines as door openers – or gatekeepers – to artists’ networks is imperative. Jennie Smythe (Girlilla Marketing) highlights the importance of SEO in the marketing strategy of artists:

You want to be in the search game. When [people] go to Google and they say; this artist or this song, or they remember a lyric that they heard; you want your song, your artist, your website, your social networks to come up (Music Business Radio, 2015, n.p.).

So, let’s recap: how can actors in the music industry get the most out of digitalization and online marketing?

  1. Embrace the liquidity of artists and musicians. We are digital and access-based now, business models need to be adjusted.
  2. Open up, interact and co-create with fans – but be aware of the pitfalls!
  3. Explore the possibilities of social media and digital technology. Share more than tour or album promoting posts. Fans should see artists come alive digitally to spark interest.
  4. Be in the search game. Even if SEO seems obvious, its power is not to be underestimated.


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BrandBase | @BrandBa_se
Students from the International Marketing and Brand Management program at Lund University are the contributing authors for the BrandBase blog.