It’s a tired cliche, but it’s true: social media has changed our lives for better and for worse. Everything from politics to dating is impacted by a set of ones and zeros. New technologies also offer the opportunity to connect with virtually anyone at the click of a button, giving people unprecedented access to those who they love and hate. Whether it’s Wondagurl producing for Drake after sending an Instagram DM or fans swarming Rihanna’s social media asking for new music, the proximity at which fans and artists now coexist on the internet has changed how music is listened to, promoted, created, and perceived. What does this mean for the music itself and the artists who make it?
Before the explosion of social media, criticism was primarily reserved for music magazines, fanzines or blogs, and forums after a song or album’s release. Without the public pressure, in part due to limited accessibility, the way to learn the latest news of an album or song being released was by signing up for a fan club, watching television, or listening to the radio. Label executives and the artists themselves hoped that the fans would enjoy the promotional material enough to invest in an album. Another element of a musician’s litmus test was playing unreleased songs at a tour date, hopefully to be preserved in a bootleg recording that was then circulated widely between passing hands and file sharing. Then, social media and music sharing platforms changed everything.
The accessibility and ease of uploading music onto MySpace or Soundcloud to share with fans was revolutionary. Social media sites like Instagram and Twitter with time restraints on videos became new avenues for music promotion. Shorter versions of both finished and unfinished projects could be uploaded directly from a cell phone for thousands to see and comment on in seconds. Thus, the promotional middleman was cut out. Instead of waiting until after a release for public feedback, artists are now able to field opinions on new material instantly through snippets.
These 30 seconds or less clips take on lives of their own, providing open ended possibilities to what the future could sound like. Screen recording capabilities and video downloading extensions preserve these pieces of music that even the most persistent of managers cannot scrub off the Internet. This exchange of music for feedback, done entirely for free, can determine album placement or even create entire careers. Just take a look at TikTok and its predecessor musical.ly, both of which served as launchpads for the stardom of DaBaby, Jack Harlow, and Lil Nas X with short clips of songs that are repurposed for memes and choreography. However, the expectations set by these clips can lead to disappointment.
Gothboiclique founding member fish narc says, “I feel like I owe [the fans] the song they want exactly.” The Internet has not only influenced how we listen to music through streaming services, but also what that final product sounds like, if it ever even comes out. Over time, snippets and leaks have unintentionally become a stand-in for full songs, satiating hungry fans for months to years. Isaiah Rashad, one of rap’s more elusive figures, is particularly known for releasing snippets without follow up. His fan subreddit has collected over one hundred unreleased snippets and leaks complete with downloads, producer credits, and quality level. Despite Rashad’s last project being released in 2016, the community surrounding the preservation of this material has held over hungry fans for the past four years. “There's the main releases and the archive,” fishnarc explains. “People identify strongly with being archival [...] because it gives another identity within an identity.”
In many ways, it’s a smart marketing decision, whether intentional or not. Creating the idea of exclusivity and mystery to be built by fans through online communities is what can separate Isaiah Rashad or underground favorites Death Grips from fading into obscurity, by breaking from the expectation for new material on a regular schedule. However, the grandiose expectations set up by snippets and leaks can create an overwhelming loop of feedback and anticipation, which can morph into entitlement.
It has become easier than ever to create an account in seconds and immerse oneself in a community or conversation instantly. A quick glance at PC Music darling Charli XCX’s recent post of a video of her dancing has comments asking for new music announcements, album repress requests, and deluxe versions of her recent album How I’m Feeling Now, released in May. Asking for new music from your favorite artists seems innocent enough, but it becomes overwhelming when artists just want fans to enjoy something they may have spent months or years working on.
Chattanooga-based rapper bbymutha released her highly anticipated Muthaland in August exclusively on Bandcamp, both for free streaming or a paid download. After a fan tweeted about releasing the album on larger streaming platforms, the rapper, real name Brittnee Moore, replied:
A few weeks prior, in response to fans complaining over the twenty dollar price tag for her download, she said, “anybody tryna make me feel bad for charging is just part of the reason why i quit. a bitch dont be feeling valued by the same n****s who demand access to my shit.” Moore is just one of many musicians pushing back against the entitlement bred by social media, and she is one of a few who have quit music because of it.
For every social media savvy artist such as Lil Nas X and Vince Staples, both of whom engage in commentary and memes that almost make them separate entities from their music itself, there’s a barrage of hate that artists face, which is amplified for minorities. Rico Nasty, known for her eclectic brand of punk rap and equally loud fashion sense, tells us, “Fuck, I'm a girl. I feel like everyone attacks my appearance. That might be just the sensitive portion of me. But they do it because we are girls because they know that it will hurt your feelings. Sometimes I make myself look ugly on purpose just so they can fucking have something to talk about.”
Although social media has become a go-to outlet for more open conversations about mental health, it’s also the place where most harassment occurs, whether it’s Billie Eilish being body shamed or homophobic comments directed towards Lil Nas X. Furthermore, a compulsion to share has made social media platforms the forum for public mental health breakdowns by artists like Azealia Banks and Kanye West which are viewed and discussed in real time by millions.
The flip-side is a false image of perfection that can be created through carefully curated posts and output. Social media allows both fans and artists to craft their own near-perfect environments with carefully curated follow lists, the ability to make accounts private, and feeds that can be as embellished as one would like. It is easy to be perfect online, so it is also easy to forget that artists are still human beings behind these accounts.
“I think the top thing that I hate that people say when they see me in person is, ‘Oh my God, you're real.’” Rico Nasty explains. “That shit is creepy. It doesn't feel real. That will make somebody feel like, ‘Damn n***a, am I real? Who am I?’ I think that's really dehumanizing.” The disconnect created by social media can make products out of people, turning artists into nothing more than creators of content to be mindlessly consumed. In the sea of thousands of faceless meme accounts on Instagram that repost content, models with tailored feed aesthetics, and Twitter accounts managed by PR teams, it is understandable that it’s difficult to discern the genuine from the frauds.
While social media is optional to participate in, many artists feel that it is a necessity in order to stay relevant. It is an unfortunate compromise many feel like they have to make, relinquishing a certain amount of privacy for the sake of sustaining themselves and their craft. One look at Maryland-based rapper IDK’s social media feeds provides a well-rounded introduction—there are reflections on his rise to fame, the occasional selfie or fit pic, and music promo. It looks and feels natural, but for IDK it can become a burden.
“I don't really care for social media,” he admits. “I wish that I didn't have to use it honestly. That it never existed. I wish that I could say it all with music. I don't like the fact that every now and then, I have to post a picture when I feel like it looks good. But I also am in the early stage in my career, compared to where I want to be. And for now that's one of the things that I do. So I just do it in a way where it's true to me.”
Rico Nasty remembers an experience in Barcelona that reminds her how important it is for artists not to become trapped in a facade that they cannot keep up. “One time I was doing a show and I was in Barcelona. I was tripping on acid and I was in my dressing room getting my hair and makeup done. People were fixing my dreads and my shirt and I just freaked out. I told everybody to stop touching me because I felt like I wasn't a person. I felt like I was a lifesize doll. It was this really deep moment. I feel bad for people who feel like they're trapped in their brand, but that's why it is very important to be yourself. Then, whatever your brand is, you don't have to force it. You can just be who you are.”
On a more positive note, social media has also made it easier for fans to have an input on what they want to see and hear. “You just post snippets like, ‘Who you hear on this?’ and our fans will attack whoever the fuck they hear on that,” Rico Nasty says. “And next thing you know, you have a fucking feature if they like it.” Artists also regularly use social media to give fans control of what comes out, whether it be Twitter polls to vote on which single is to be released first or opinions on merchandise before it’s released.
Even with quarantine making it impossible for musicians to safely tour, the popularity of Zoom concerts and Q&As, Minecraft festivals spearheaded by the likes of 100 Gecs and Travis Scott, and subscription services like Patreon have made it easier than ever for artists to make their work more accessible and intimate while also sustaining their careers in a troubling time.
Most of all, social media has changed what it means to be a fan, creating vibrant communities for like-minded people to bond across countries, time zones, and language. It has also allowed for artists both big and small to find and connect with audiences far beyond their hometowns and countries. Veteran manager and A&R Nigil Mack is no stranger to seeing the intense impact an artist can have beyond the music. Mack signed then-rising artist Kid Cudi in 2009 shortly before the release of his debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day which dealt heavily with themes of mental health and the pressures of success. “You can get your message out, no matter what your message is, to the world. Social media connects the world,” Mack reflects. “A kid in Oklahoma can talk to a kid in Iceland. They have a little conversation about music, culture, and everything. That's a beautiful thing."
In this age of social media, music and the artists who create it have become products, with streaming numbers, follower counts, and view metrics being used as means of valuation or validation. As crushing as the weight of social media and constant feedback can become, IDK provides an important reminder for artists and fans where the focus should lie: "If someone is expressing themselves through art, which is what art is supposed to be, how can you tell them that that expression is right or wrong?”