“Having your amount of likes on display for the world to see and judge is like showing how much money you have in the bank or having to write the size of your dick on your t-shirt,” Kanye West tweeted in September 2018.
Then, he offered a suggestion: “We should be able to participate in social media without having to show how many followers or likes we have. Just like how we can turn off the comments we should be able to turn off the display of followers.”
Less than a year later, in April 2019, Instagram announced they were testing a new update that would hide likes on posts. The new feature would allow users to view their total likes on individual posts, but that number would not be publicly visible to followers. Instagram stated the update was being tested in an effort to combat cyberbullying, but the announcement quickly spiraled into a media frenzy.
“My initial reaction was, oh my God, Kanye,” Angelo Torres, director of A&R at music entertainment company Magnus Media, tells Complex. “I was like damn, Kanye got to these people’s ear.”
In less than a year, the update has now been tested in seven countries, including Canada and Japan. Initially, questions were raised about the fate of influencers, who had built entire careers from being well-liked on social media. But influencers aren’t the only public figures who could be impacted by an update like this. It could affect the music industry as well.
“It makes things harder because [likes] play a big part in the analysis of artists.” - Derrick Aroh, RCA Records A&R
Instagram has played a major role in publicly determining an artist’s relevance and standing in the music industry in recent years. Having impressive like and follower counts has helped more than a few young musicians get record deals. After becoming a meme on social media, thanks to her appearance on an episode of Dr. Phil, Bhad Bhabie launched a music career that was aided by the large social media following she had gained from viral fame. Her initial post about “Hi Bich,” the lead single from her debut mixtape, attracted more than 2.5 million likes. The song was certified gold six months later.
Instagram presents a major opportunity for artists to expand reach and make money, and statistics suggest it’s because the platform is a hub of musical activity. According to data gathered by MusicWatch, 90 percent of social media users partake in music-related activities like posting, sharing, or engaging in content that directly involves the industry. Furthermore, 56 percent of Instagram users view, like, and share posts from their favorite artists and music brands.
After watching rappers like 6ix9ine launch careers on the strength of impressive Instagram engagement, newer artists understand the significance of likes and how they can ultimately translate to money in the bank. In turn, many of them are actively protesting a potential hidden likes update.
“I think Instagram is tripping right now,” Yung Bans tells Complex. “Whoever is coming up with these ideas, they need to stop. They're defeating the purpose. The app is a good successful app. Quit changing stuff for no reason, just trying to make little rules to make these apps lame.” He adds, “We're going to make a new Instagram if they keep playing.”
Similarly, YBN Cordae recently told Billboard that he is not a fan of a potential update like this because of the consequences it could have on the business side of music. “I wouldn’t fuck with that,” he said of the change. “Let’s say you have a business that you curate, how can you fuck with advertisement companies?”
“I think Instagram is tripping right now. Whoever is coming up with these ideas, they need to stop. They're defeating the purpose.” - Yung Bans
The lack of public access to likes could potentially damage artists’ relationships with brands and prevent companies from finding artists that resonate with their core markets. Tarek Al-Hamdouni, SVP of Digital Marketing at RCA Records tells Complex that likes represent “numbers that we can point to and say to specific partners that may have not invested in that campaign just yet, ‘You guys are kind of sleeping on this on this artist, check out how many fans are here. We think that your platform has a lot of those same fans, and they're not hearing from you about an artist that they care about.’ We lose that ability.”
A Facebook spokesperson acknowledges the strain that the update may put on partnerships, but they assure users that it will not affect the algorithm, and that fans and businesses will still be able to determine what is popular. “The algorithm uses a number of signals and how you use Instagram to determine which content it’s going to show you first,” the spokesperson explains, adding that the three biggest factors are timeliness, past likes, and previous relationship to an account. The explore page works in a similar fashion. They add, “The popularity of a post is something we do consider, but it's not a major factor in how we bring you to your posts.”
In addition to easily identifying a beneficial artist-brand partnership, the music industry could see changes when it comes to artist discovery and development. At least 63 percent of users are discovering new artists on social media, according to MusicWatch. Many rising artists (think Blueface, Mason Ramsey, and Matt Ox) are viral success stories, and major record labels are finding new talent the same way as fans.
RCA Records A&R, Derrick Aroh, who played a major role in signing GoldLink and Brockhampton, says he often finds artists on Instagram. Without that data, he suggests, “It makes things harder because [likes] play a big part in the analysis of artists.” He adds, “I do think as long as I believe in the artist’s proposition, I can be very excited about where the artist goes. Data just helps create the scope of where the artist is currently.”
Hidden likes could represent positive changes for the industry, too, however. Torres acknowledges that because the industry is “driven by how well you are liked,” there is a surplus of underdeveloped musicians. “You see, a lot of kids are only as good as their next hit,” he says. “That's unfortunate because you might have a very talented person that right off the bat gets this huge track that goes super-viral, gets this huge deal, and gets all this money, but they don't necessarily have a concept. It's just a song that's hot. It's not necessarily the artist that's hot. So, going viral for me, it's a two-edged sword.” In this case, the feature could benefit the industry by redirecting the focus to quality over the quantity of likes or views on a single post.
Of course, some musicians are able to use the massive attention they’ve garnered online and transcend the moment. Al-Hamdouni says Columbia Records’ Lil Nas X is a great example of discovering a viral star and spinning online attention into a record-breaking music career: “They had a viral star and a viral moment, but they're doing everything they can to turn Lil Nas X from being a song and a meme and a moment into being a full-blown artist.”
Derrick Aroh agrees that cases like this prove Instagram is an important tool for developing an artist. “The platform is very crucial in creating a narrative [and/or] conversation with the fans of the artists,” he says. A hidden likes feature could give labels less of an incentive to sign underdeveloped artists, because once you eliminate that data, it becomes more difficult to direct fans to the most popular and relevant songs and videos they should be listening to.
Facebook representatives say that the opportunity to go viral will still be available after a hidden likes update, and artists and fans will still share music content. But everyone in the industry will have to adapt in one way or the other. Brands will have to adjust their models for acquiring new ambassadors and labels will have to reevaluate how they find stars and how they build out careers on the platform.
Artists and fans, the two groups most outspoken about their dislike of a hidden likes feature, may just have to ride this one out, like they have for every other major social media update in the past.
“People are so focused on what they're used to that a lot of times the first time they see something different, if it's not something that provides immediate value to them, they generally perceive it as a negative,” Al-Hamdouni says. “But then over time, people would just get used to it.”