Against The Algorithm: Going Viral on Social Media Isn’t The Only Path to a Music Career

While some artists chase viral fame, others have found more creative ways to stand out.

Against The Algorithm Music Social Media
P&P Original

Image by Sho Hanafusa

Against The Algorithm Music Social Media

Social media can feel like a double-edged sword to the up-and-coming artists of today. A well-tailored Twitter feed full of viral posts can catapult an otherwise small-time musician into fast fame, and imitating the antics of influencers is a sure way to gain attention. But for many artists, especially those with only a few releases under their belt, it can feel unnatural to try and wedge into the game of making memes and lusting after internet followers. And in an overly saturated market, in which so many thousands of artists climb over each other to get noticed, only a lucky few will see results. Even the artists who resign to hiring marketing experts or paying for influencer campaigns can fail in their efforts, as plenty find themselves unable to sell tickets or merch despite their blue checkmarks.

The allure of Frank Ocean—let’s call him an A-list leader of the resistance—comes from his rejection of these conventional social media tactics. He doesn’t give many interviews, hasn’t tweeted since 2013, only recently made his personal Instagram page public, and uses Tumblr, of all places, to provide fans with an intimate stream-of-consciousness blog. And yet, in spite of his ghostly, vague online presence, he thrives. With more than 10 million monthly Spotify listeners and the third largest album debut of 2016 behind just Drake and Beyoncé, he’s gotten the music world to hang on his every word.

Now the artists inspired by outlaws like him are beginning to emerge. In our age of technology, the newcomers forging their own paths are proving that you can make it in music today without getting sucked into the social media swamp. By using online pages as extensions of the art, rather than as flashy bullhorns, artists can attract the type of followers that will stick around for the long haul. Take it from groups like Emotional Oranges, Brevin Kim, and Master Peace: winning over fans doesn’t have to mean sacrificing who you are.

Brevin Kim, a pair of brothers from Boston who began making music together at 9 years old, have never planned too far ahead. Their sound washes between ethereal auto-tuned croons à la The Weeknd, stripped-down gloomy ballads and bouncy, electric headbangers, their lyrics connected by common themes of introspection and melancholia. They’re the kind of songs that might play in the back of your mind while you gaze through a window into evening fog, music that younger brother Callin Paulhus (Cal) says their listeners connect with on a deeply personal level.

“The most recurring theme from our fans was how much we helped them to get through a tough time, or even saved their lives,” he says. “We never intended to save lives, we’re not firefighters, but the things we say are relatable. And we allow people to interpret our stories however they please.”

As their fan base continues to grow, the rawness and vulnerability of their music has naturally become the centerpiece of their online presence. Visit their Instagram page, and you’ll find a small catalogue of photos and video clips that effectively transport you into the right headspace for a Brevin Kim listening session. Black and white images, negative space, and a fearlessness in the way Cal and his brother Brendan (Bren) reveal themselves as real people to their audience, flaws and inconsistencies included. Putting their music first means thinking about their growth in the short term, shaping their image and releases around their true selves, and not the other way around.

We’re making a lot of different sounds and we’re also presenting lots of different personalities because we are human beings, and feelings change every day, even every hour.

“The way we see it is this: we are making music for ourselves, from our heart, with the hope that it will resonate with people,” Cal says. “We’re making a lot of different sounds and we’re also presenting lots of different personalities because we are human beings, and feelings change every day, even every hour.”

Cal and Bren measure their come-up not on play counts or engagement numbers, but rather on the quality of their productions and feedback from fans. Three years since Brevin Kim’s inception, the two still make time to videochat with old fans and respond to messages, even if it’s weeks later. Being the ‘cool guys’ and ignoring your audience isn’t how they want to move, Cal says. Appreciating the people who love your art goes hand in hand with actually creating it.

They fluctuate their Instagram posts between messy, spur of the moment ideas and precise, tailored micro-experiences to further engage with their followers. Much like in their songwriting, there isn’t a solidified formula. Masked selfies and album art can be found right beside stuttering music videos and heartfelt pieces of writing. “Visuals are always running through our minds… We start seeing things and then we attempt to bring those things to life,” Cal says. “Listeners like being able to put a face and a personality to the voice.” The result is a scroll-through that feels nothing like an advertisement, but rather a seamless extension of the music.

More than just a multimedia performance space, Brevin Kim’s page is somewhere they can celebrate their true selves and experience sanctuary alongside their fans. By creating an antidote to the in-your-face self promotion seen on many other artists’ pages, they’ve developed a community with fierce loyalty that receives far more than the average fan: connection, meaning and companionship in addition to the music. Whatever they might lose by straying from the social media commandments is made up for by the remarkable commitment their listeners offer. “Knowing our music has the ability to make people feel that much. It’s still crazy,” Cal says.

If Brevin Kim is defined by the unshielded nature of their real personalities on social media, then Emotional Oranges are the polar opposite. The shady R&B-fusion duo has rocketed to relative fame since the release of their third song “Hold You Back” in December of 2018, and they now sport a handful of singles, a full-length album and nearly 900,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But what separates them from the pack—aside from their unique strain of breathy, twinkling funk and soul arrangements—is the secrecy surrounding their identities. 

Since the creation of the project four years ago, neither of the two members have revealed themselves to the public. Any picture of A and V, the male and female member respectively, that would otherwise expose their faces is covered with a conveniently placed sticker, a big piece of eyewear, silhouetted backlighting, or a stand-in model in their place. Their Instagram is reminiscent of Disclosure’s, the British duo famous for plastering white stencils over their faces, but with a bit more variety.

“I just wanted people to find our identities within our music and our art, and not what we looked like or what my name was,” A says. “Because you’ve never really seen me, because you’ve never seen V, we can do whatever and there’s no box that we live in.”

Their anonymity does more than protect their personal lives from appearance-based preconceptions and the chaos of celebrity, however. It also gives them the secret promotional weapon wielded by the likes of Daft Punk and Marshmello before them: a shroud of mystery and intrigue that inherently attracts a following. Who are these guys? Where do they come from? What could they be hiding? Are they even real?

Teasing their identities in tandem with their songs seems to be a surefire way to convert curious observers into invested fans. With Emotional Oranges, nothing is certain… until it suddenly is. A and V preface official releases with posts that blur the line between advertisement and theatrical skit, hiring different models to act out certain conversations with scripted dialogue. A calls them ‘muses,’ and hires them in phases for the social campaign he planned months in advance. He says every muse represents a different collection of music, and that the intention is to appeal to a new sector of his fan base with each one.

“With our tools, our colors, our little crayon box, I feel like that’s how we discovered ourselves,” A says. “I think a lot of our fans started to see themselves, find themselves within the muses, within the characters, which really made me happy because I wanted to give something for everyone.”

After they successfully generate an image or feeling associated with an upcoming project on social media, they finally unveil it in full. An intentional balance between tension and release. Similarly, the anticipation of discovering their real identities is only quenched at their live shows, where they appear on stage unmasked. “It’s almost like our little secret fan club when we’re on stage,” A says. “They get to see us, the lights go on, and we have our moment together.”

Fans at the front of the theater with the best angles for snapping photos tend to instinctively add an Emotional Oranges sticker to A and V’s faces before posting them online, A says. They want to share in the magic the duo created, leaving it intact for the next attendee to experience. Rather than spoil the mystery for others, A and V have managed to cultivate an audience that participates in its very existence.

Rather than spoil the mystery for others, A and V have managed to cultivate an audience that participates in its very existence.

The unity of their crowds is special because of how many individual subgroups make up an average live show. Some come as transplant fans from the Joe Budden podcast, where early Emotional Oranges tracks were featured. Others know them from the various video game Youtubers who supported the duo before they blew up. The hodgepodge of backgrounds and ages makes for an especially rich community, bound by their love for the music.

On a daily basis, Emotional Oranges’ Instagram mythology is held up with striking photos of A and V on stage or with quirky video clips featuring one of their muses. They add at least a splash of orange in every upload, in keeping with their name, and aren’t shy about posting tastefully edited tour date posters. As their personal lives remain private, A and V are able to breathe life into their alter egos through social media, creating a new reality for both themselves and listeners. Like models in a runway show or performers in a circus, the duo attracts attention by suspending the real world, if just for a quick moment while scrolling. Fans are just as much a part of the fantasy as A and V.

When it comes to effective social media strategies, sometimes it’s best to forget all the subtlety, decorum, and overthinking. Laying all your cards on the table and showing fans what it feels like to careen headfirst into a sweaty mosh pit might just do the trick. Master Peace, a South London cult hero known for his unrelenting energy and a warlord’s command over his live audiences, doesn’t hold anything back. But it wasn’t viral internet promotion that earned him an avid following. He instead relied on good old-fashioned word-of-mouth, a tough task given his relatively modest social media numbers. And while the payoff may not have come as immediately as it would with a more digital approach, it’s nonetheless proven to be powerful. Before he released his only three solo tracks, he was already headlining sold-out venues and playing major festivals on the back of a legendary string of local UK club spots.

The way Master Peace uses his online presence is far more direct than Brevin Kim or Emotional Oranges. He isn’t there to create new art or disguise himself. Instead he is selling the ultimate experience, the thing that launched his star status long before he entered the studio: seeing him live. His feed is stuffed with uncut videos of the best moments from his shows, giving fans and newcomers alike a front row seat to the party. In his festival recaps, we see oceans of attendees jumping and slamming into each other beneath neon lights as Master Peace struts and twists across the stage. Go a bit further back to his club shows, and you’ll witness him jump into the center of the crowd and whip it into a roaring frenzy while shouting into the mic.

I did a lot of acting, like school plays. Always wanted to be the center of attention. Live shows mean a lot to me, I feel like it’s a way for me to come alive in my true form.

“In high school and primary school I did a lot of acting, like school plays. Always wanted to be the center of attention,” he says. “Live shows mean a lot to me, I feel like it’s a way for me to come alive in my true form.”

Inspired by upbeat rock acts like Oasis and The 1975, Master Peace’s own productions are written like sophisticated sing-alongs with lyrics and melodies primed for an arena of screaming fans to join in on. He’s totally comfortable in front of the crowd, and isn’t afraid to cut the music entirely and reset the song for another round of fun. A cursory peek through his Instagram is all you need to understand this. “It’s a really good form of communication, especially to your supporters if you’re in the industry we work in,” he says. “I just use use social media to promote [live shows] and push my music in a weird but creative way.”

For Master Peace, doing less is doing more. His videos are powerful because they are unpolished and candid. Fancy editing, slow motion and graphics would only diminish the impact. He’s happy to reveal pieces of unreleased music to his fans, but only through a video of it in a live setting. It takes both distinct awareness of Master Peace’s own strengths and proper restraint on his part to maintain the appeal of his social pages. By avoiding gimmicks, pretense and too much ‘style,’ he’s able to recreate the live show experience—or as close as it gets—for anyone who visits his page.

Despite the oversaturation of online influencers and creators, artists like Master Peace, Emotional Oranges, and Brevin Kim have found novel ways to use their platforms to stand out from the herd. United by their ability to self-inspect and share only the most meaningful aspects of their acts, they are able to save precious energy for the music that drives the whole thing forward. Looking back on their own beginnings, they agree that the keys to a successful go are being patient and staying true to your current vision regardless of your ultimate destination.

“I think what I would recommend is people working backwards from an alternate goal,” A says. “If your music lives in a space that Brockhampton or Tyler occupies, find the gatekeepers in that place and get to know them.” Any barrier to entry that once existed in the music industry is gone, he says. Communication between artists and record labels, not to mention between artists and their fans, has never been more streamlined. It’s easy to find the answers to most questions if you know where to look.

“Go watch some of these YouTube documentaries and interviews, go stalk your favorite ‘influencers’ or writers and get to know how they move,” A says. “Stay resilient, stay hungry, stay humble.”

If an artist knows himself or herself and is honest about their intentions, it will only strengthen their relationship to their fans, Cal says. Using social media as an extension of the music behind it all, rather than simply a promotional tool, makes developing a supportive following all the more possible. Sometimes it takes humility, or a bit of spontaneity. Other times it might mean planning ahead to create extravagant posts and videos. But if an artist’s feed can reflect their music, and expand on their values and ideas in creative ways, it’s sure to leave a lasting mark on those paying attention. Selling their soul to fleeting social media trends isn’t the only way to the top. With the right priorities and a mindset locked on creativity, anyone can blaze their own trail.

“Don’t be afraid to open up and show face… to show some colors,” Cal says. “We have to take advantage of our resources and be methodical, but we’ll never stray from who we are.”