New Mixtape : [Track 3]
PART 3 of a 3-PART series exploring the music industry's love-hate relationship with technology drops today.
In PART 1, we took you on a brief tour through musical history to explore how creativity always seems to find a way thanks to advances in format — often in spite of industry fuckery. In PART 2, we zoomed in on the front lines — the artists themselves — in order to examine how platforms like Spotify and TikTok are both helping and hurting them in their quest to find their audience.
Now, in the final PART, we take a look at the evolving fan - artist relationship — and try to divine where it could all be heading. 🔮
Through every industry shift, there’s one format that hasn’t lost any of its potency: the LIVE experience.
Before the record player was invented, playing live was the only option for musicians to make some coin, and despite all the technological advances since, the reality is that revenue from touring and being on the road can still be upwards of 80% -- sometimes 90% -- of a musician’s annual income. Meaning, it’s in the realm of live experience that most working musicians truly eke out a livelihood.
The live experience as we know it took a massive hit during the global pandemic, but it forced everyone to get creative – which has led to the complete reinvention of the live music experience as we know it:
The biggest musical performance of the last 5 years didn’t take place on a physical stage. Travis Scott’s performance in Fortnite was seen by 45.8M people with an additional 183M views afterwards on YouTube. In addition to the concert, Fortnite also released outfits, emotes, gear and merch for purchase, which all helped the rapper net a tidy estimated sum of $20M. To put these figures in context: the entire 4-month Astroworld tour generated $53.5M in total revenue – Scott earned roughly 37% of that in just 9 minutes. 🤯
Compare that to the attendance at Coachella in 2022: 750,000 people over 6 days — and it’s easy to see why musicians who are not yet headliners are starting to rethink how to bring the power of live music to audiences around the world through these new venues.
One other “venue” that was a life-saver for musicians during the pandemic: Twitch. Even as we’re getting back out in the world, the platform’s power as a tool in the arsenal of up & coming artists trying to earn money and cultivate a fan tribe is a great case study for how the mechanics of gaming might be applied authentically in order to forge deeper, more meaningful connections with fans.
For the uninitiated, Twitch offers a glimpse into how the live experience might evolve from a passive listening experience to a more active – and interactive – one for fans and artists alike.
Livestreaming platforms are a dime a dozen these days, but what makes Twitch stand out, particularly for music, is how it fosters connections between performers and their audience, and allows those connections to be efficiently monetized. It reinvents the “tip jar” in a way that feels authentic and not exploitative if done right – reframing every interaction as a way for fans to express their loyalty through patronage. Song requests, shoutouts, and inside jokes that become memes and “emotes” eventually all become a part of the recurring show. All of this positive energy creates a direct feedback loop and – over time – the sense of a tightly-knit, mutually-supportive community.
For those who’ve cracked the code of how to make the platform work for them, it’s been a gamechanger. Artists like T-Pain and Kenny Beats have made community interaction a huge part of their brand on the platform – collaborating with fans, casually hanging, and – perhaps most importantly, creating a safe space for those interested in the production of music to swap tips, tricks, and find one another.
In 2019 and 2020, Heafy, one of the most active musicians on the platform earned on average $11,000/ month with his band Trivium, while his Twitch channel generated nearly as much (just under $10,000) from an audience that was about 1/10th the size. The band Aeseaes, specializing in acoustic covers, earned 70% of their income in 2019 and 2020 from Twitch compared to just 6% from other platforms like Bandcamp.
Twitch channels can also serve as a ‘local hangout’, almost like that one club in town that has a rotation of musicians (both established and new) constantly cycling through to play for a steady audience. For example, the independent label Monstercat has built the second most-subscribed to music channel on the platform — with over 800,000 followers. The indie label frequently hosts up & coming electronic musicians, live ‘mix competitions’ and interviews — maintaining the intimate feel of a local club, but with global reach.
Unlike failed platforms past that attempted to capitalize on the direct artist-to-fan relationship (RIP: MySpace), the repurposing of Twitch is representative of change that’s been a long-time coming. Artists are now able to build on existing service models — adding a new lane that goes “over the top” of traditional streaming while monetizing their own channels at the same time.
Below, we’ll chart 3 ways they’re doing so as it relates to WORLD-BUILDING, COMMUNITY, and OWNERSHIP.
1/ WORLD-BUILDING: Artists are re-contextualizing how fans can participate and engage in the worlds they create.
There’s no substitute for live experience (both IRL or virtual) , but it requires attendees. In today’s oversaturated media landscape, a loyal audience is more important than ever, and building that foundation requires deliberate curation and attention. There have been many well-publicized attempts to rethink the distribution model and grow community outside of the accepted industry playbook using these new channels — but in recent memory, no one has been more successful at it than Taylor Swift.
How do you know if you’ve curated a loyal audience? If they give themselves a name (Swifties). Even better? If they independently go after Ticketmaster and serve as the impetus for anti-trust investigations ✊.
The ‘Swifties’ are not a new phenomenon by any means, but Taylor Swift’s latest community-building efforts are masterclass. The October drop of Midnights, rewrote the playbook on fan engagement and is weaving together something that sure looks like a metaverse for her audience.
“Over the past several weeks, Swift has presided over a meticulous online rollout: Ahead of the album’s drop, she launched ‘Midnights Mayhem With Me,’ a TikTok video series wherein she released the 13 track names one by one via bingo. This week, she went as far as to release a full launch schedule for fans via Instagram that detailed exactly what would happen at which times and where online—including a “special very chaotic surprise” at 3 a.m. ET last night.
— Caroline Mimbs Nyce, The Atlantic.
The entire release was a marketing masterstroke — to say the least:
Swifties took down Spotify due to that “3 a.m surprise” — an extended cut of 7 bonus tracks, deployed at the precise moment when she knew her fans would be up and buzzing about the new album. Which made the following headline less shocking, but still 🤯: “Taylor Swift makes history as the first artist to occupy the entire top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the same week.”
We probably don’t need to tell you what happens next. Not long after that, 14M of her fans clamored for only 2.4M available tickets to the accompanying live tour of Midnights in an absolute shit-show of a pre-sale that effectively initiated anti-trust investigations into Ticketmaster.
Swifties are more connected to their idol (and each other) than ever before. Every release dominates the cultural airwaves in a way very few cultural properties can these days — boosted by the entirely new ways to engage she’s built in to the schedule in order to get her name in the mouths of millions. (See: that brilliant 3AM “chaotic surprise.”)
It’s this reinvention of old strategies (the classic midnight release) combined with new tactics that capitalize on existing fan behaviors across all the many platforms that made Midnights the *moment* that it became. If IRL ticket demand is any indicator, a TSwift metaverse would put up big numbers.
2/ COMMUNITY: Artists are community members too, and they’re using their platforms to signal-boost causes + people they care about.
No artist is an island. As much as labels have wanted to package and push them as 2-dimensional objects and idols, musicians too are members of the global community, and many want to use their platform to more meaningfully interact with those their music touches.
In the physical world, Damien Marley’s prison “grow-op” Ocean Grown is one example of how an artist can translate clout into actionable change.
“The town was in debt. We purchased the prison for $4 million and change. And at that time, the city couldn't even afford a fireworks show or to fix up the park. Educating a community that was conservative was not easy. It was hard to convey that our cannabis wouldn’t hit their streets and drive crime. What we grow gets into trucks and leaves the town; the facility has no signage. And all this tax revenue is here for the town now. The first year we provided 100 jobs.”
— Dan Dalton, partner at FTR, co-founder and long-time manager and friend of the Marleys.
Meanwhile, Dua Lipa’s podcast At Your Service and newsletter series Service95 was launched in 2022 to highlight the people and places she’s discovered on her world travels that she feels deserves a wider platform – which she can provide.
Lipa has often spoken about her love of lists — and it’s this easily-digestible format that’s she’s adopted for the newsletter — which features short “listicles” penned both by her and invited guests. So far, she’s outlined her favorite spots in Mexico City and tricks for overcoming insomnia, while her guests have dished about everything from their favorite things to do on a day off in Paris to longer-form thinkpieces highlighting pressing social and political issues: including a feature on Chintan Pandya, the award-winning chef behind Dhamaka — who’s bringing “unapologetically authentic Indian” flavors to NYC, as well as giving LGBTQIA+ activist Brandon Wolf a platform to process his community’s collective outrage following the Pulse nightclub shooting. More recently, Iranian Writer Kamin Mohammadi got the spotlight to explain the enormity of the recent women-led protests in Tehran. Each piece is interesting, well-written, and well-argued — successfully balancing calls to action with opportunities to learn from qualified authors.
On platforms like Discord, we are just beginning to see the very early stages of a new type of release – the gamified concept album – with releases like the Apple Guild, a month-long alternate reality game released by A.G. Cook of PC Music. No stranger to digital community-building, the producer incorporated a Battle of the Bands for die-hard fans that culminated in a virtual music festival in which the winners played alongside acts like Charli XCX and Clairo.
“Appleville and Apple Guild really became the most memorable parts of the Apple campaign for me. My music obviously references other music and collaboration in general, but on a deeper level, I want my work to showcase some of the joy and freedom that music-making can contain. Appleville was about taking artists that I love from different locations and different genres and putting them on a platform where those location and genre differences wouldn’t exist. For me, it had an atmosphere where anything could happen and did sort of remind me of the unpredictability of IRL live shows.
Apple Guild started as a fun, quite light idea, but evolved into a sweet ecosystem that felt more like a Guild than any kind of straightforward social media. My own highlight was probably the Battle of the Bands, where we randomly assigned people into bands, with band names and a song they had to cover to win the battle. Not only did people do amazing stuff but I think it really spawned a bunch of new musical partnerships – and this notion that there can be endless collectives within a collective.”
— A.G. Cook.
Meanwhile, in one of Discord’s largest and most active musical servers (132K+ members) started (once again) by hip-hop producer Kenny Beats— aspiring musicians swap production tips and work through creative problems with each other.
Case studies abound, but artists are really just starting to experiment and explore the potential of Web3 as it relates to their personal interests and the passions of communities they touch. Rather than disappearing in between album releases, the modern musician duets with fans on TikTok, offers peeks into their day-to-day with relatable tweets, IG posts, and livestreams, and generally just tries to initiate an ongoing conversation – with fans, patrons, and the cultural zeitgeist at large.
The 1000 True Fans Theory, Revisited
Way back in 2008, founding editor of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly drafted the 1000 True Fans theory – which, 14 years later – feels truer than ever:
“To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans. A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.
These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the ‘best-of’ DVD version of your free YouTube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.”
— Kevin Kelly.
In this new era: merch sales, Bandcamp buys, and Patreon subscriptions from a handful of die-hards are often more valuable in the grand scheme of things than thousands of plays from casuals.
We are living in an era where there are artists with millions of streams on Spotify who cannot draw 50 people to their local shows. Platforms like Twitch, Discord, and COLORSxSTUDIOS are creating a space for that community of day-one fans to congregate, collaborate, and co-create. And all of this is just the beginning.
3/ OWNERSHIP: Blockchain could allow artists to produce, adapt, and optimize strategies on the fly.
In just over 100 years, the ways in which we create, consume, and distribute music has changed dramatically, and we’ve arrived at the threshold of yet another seismic shift with the arrival of Web3 and AI. In the short term, we’re seeing the tide turn towards decentralization as Web3 empowers artists with tools to shift the balance of power away from labels and better connect with fans.
NFTs, POAPs, and smart contracts have the potential to eliminate the “black box” platforms like Spotify and YouTube have created when it comes to analytics. Smart contracts could allow for trackable real-time royalties — a level of transparency and accountability that is severely lacking anytime Spotify releases one of its self-congratulatory here’s-how-we’re helping-artists reports.
And that shift in ownership that comes from a direct-line between artists and fans can’t be overstated. As we’ve mentioned, the tip jar is becoming a thing of the past. Artists could use NFTs to crowdfund albums and music videos, creating a coalition of day-one fans in the process. Digital tokens could allow for fractional ownership of new tracks – inspiring fans to express their passion in entirely new ways. Labels themselves may one day become DAOs – empowering all “employees” and “talent” with a true stake in the company. Voting rights ensure everyone will be taken care of and that the spoils of success will be equitably shared.
One notable partnership in particular: Probably a Label — a spin-off of Jeremy Fall’s Probably Nothing. Probably a Label is collaborating with Warner Music Group to onboard those uninitiated with Web3 — on both the artist and listener side.
“[The mission is] not to redefine how people listen to music but to elevate the experience in which people consume it, as well as collaborate directly with artists in a manner that helps develop their creative language.”
The label launched 5,555 passes in late October, which sold out in 7 minutes — a great sign in these uncertain times that the meeting of “established credibility” and “fresh thinking” is something that people are willing to buy into.
But if we’ve learned anything in the last 100 years, it’s that truly disruptive technology is always right around the corner. As AI image-generation tools like DALL-E and Midjourney take the visual arts industries by storm, it is not hard to imagine these same tools being leveraged by artists for world-building — generating album artwork and music videos based on a simple prompt. No production company needed. This would further reduce barriers for artists on the hook to feed the content machine. See MidJourney’s interpretation of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Know” below:
And while these popular AI tools are currently focused on visualization, audio is not far behind. Tools like Jukebox, Harmonai, and Dance Diffusion are applying the same machine-learning technology to essentially reinvent the synthesizer on steroids — creating covers of established styles and retuning instruments, hooks, and beat drops.
“That’s something that artists are already doing in the studio in a much more informal and sloppy way. You sit down to write a song and you’re like, I want a Fall bass line and a B-52’s melody, and I want it to sound like it came from London in 1977. Similar tools are already in the works (and may soon be widely available in the same way DALL-E is) that allow artists to rapidly create and iterate on musical ideas starting with just a simple prompt… Something like: ‘Energetic, crescendo featuring an electric guitar power chords, a fast base groove, all in the style of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.’”
— Zach Evans, head of development at Dance Diffusion.
We’re just seeing the first flickers of potential as these technologies start to make waves. Today’s music industry would be unrecognizable to someone that grew up 50 years ago. 10 years from now, the industry may be unrecognizable to us.
We may be writing New Mixtape: [ Track 4 ] sooner rather than later.
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