Life is always changing, it is perhaps an overstatement to suggest that the music industry is at a cultural crossroads. Yet what comes next has the potential to be seen, years from now, as a dividing line between before and after. For more than half a decade, the music industry has been rushing down the algorithmic highway, reorienting artist development, marketing, fan engagement, and even the structure of the song itself in order to stay on track. Everything explodes, from attention to remuneration, creators and rights holders find themselves feeding an animal whose hunger is never satisfied. Much like an addict who wants to quit but can’t, the music industry understands the problem and the costs it incurs, but they dare not jump off the algorithm highway for fear of being left behind. accounted for by those who do not. And yet, the leap is exactly what is needed to stop the perpetual commodification of music and creators. It’s an act of faith, but on a welcoming floor mat: stages.
At the Future Music Forum this week, I and my fellow MIDiA analysts, Tatiana Cirisano and Kriss Thakrar, talked a lot about MIDiA’s new research on scenes and identity (MIDiA customers can read our latest report on the topic here). Regular readers will be familiar with our work on fragmented fandom and how consumer splintering has created a parallel splintering of culture, with new and smaller and shorter-lived hits. In this song economy environment, it is the song, not the artist, that is the central currency, making it mission critical to nurture small fandoms. But fandom itself is the symptom, the cause is the identity, and it is there, along with the scenes in which it manifests, that the future of music marketing lies.
Algorithms have assumed a central role in the success of artists in today’s music industry, with marketers always trying to improve their understanding of their inner workings in order to gain an edge for their artist. This is, in many ways, a wild ride, as it is in the interest of platforms to continually evolve algorithms to ensure that they themselves determine success, not third parties. Still, there are ways to succeed in the song economy: you may not be able to beat the algorithm, but you can join it. It means thinking and behaving like an algorithm, holding virality by the hand. Just like an algorithm, this means real-time multivariate testing in target segments and gradual expansion only to the higher-level associated segment, resistant to the ability to go big as soon as something kicks in. But using the algorithm as a marketing discipline really involves a degree of cruelty that many artists and labels would find distasteful. The algorithms succeed by instantly rejecting failures, instead of amplifying only what resonates in the target segments. Thus, a label pursuing this approach should be prepared to drop a campaign early on if this is not the case, even if the label believes in the release or whatever the priority of the artist. Lists of artists would become a production line of bets, as quickly rejected as signed. Failing fast is as important as succeeding fast in the song economy.
This cruelty doesn’t sit well with the traditional model of building an artist but, as dystopian as it is, it’s the exact path that labels are already finding themselves on. Scenes represent an alternative path.
Scenes and identity
Scenes have always been around, but now there’s a growing proliferation of online scenes that allow for a degree of specificity that just wasn’t possible before. As Tatiana says:
“Not only can people find people around the world with the exact same interests and values, but the algorithms actually bring those people together.”
Although the scenes can be transient and fleeting, subject to rapidly changing cultural trends, the ones that really have value are those that are rooted in identity, that speak to who people are. The eBoy scene, with Young Blud as its icon, is an example of this, reflecting the values of a tribe that doesn’t identify with the perfect Instagram appearance archetype.
These scenes sometimes revolve around the music, but more often than not the music is just the soundtrack, with a number of artists emerging as icons, not because they cynically targeted them but because they come from these communities and reflect their values. Fandom is the result of this identity formation. It’s both a way to show how much identity matters to you and to reinforce that identity. In fact, fandom is the virtuous circle of influence of identity, with people’s fandom reinforcing their identity and communicating it to their scene community, thereby strengthening their bonds within it.
Identity is the ground zero of fandom. Music marketers who are able to identify and nurture it (rather than simply attempt to harvest it) have the potential to forge a depth of artist-fan relationship that will last well beyond the whims of any algorithm, survive both random and missed singles, and will not disappear into the black hole of lean consumption.
Streaming has put the fandom on hiatus. The scenes represent an opportunity to reforge fandom for the modern era, an incubator for artists’ careers. In short, an antidote to the song economy.