Musicians Are Told They Need To Be On Social Media. Do They?

In 2023 it seems like social media and the music industry are inseparable bedfellows. Writer Tammy Walters unpacks whether having a large social media following helps or hinders musicians. Words by Tammy Walters

By Tammy Walters, 21/7/2023

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In 2023, social media and the music industry are inseparable bedfellows. We’ve seen labels pushing musicians to reach content quotas on TikTok, and Halsey, FKA Twigs, Charli XCX, Florence Welch and Ed Sheeran have all called out their label representatives for viral TikTok pressure. 

In February, the app also used Australian audiences as guinea pigs to determine whether popular music drove time spent on the app. This ultimately affected the social media-driven release campaigns of many local artists, including Australian musician Kota Banks

In a reel on Instagram, Kota explains, “TikTok is currently running these analytical tests in Australia. As a result of these tests, 50 percent of Australian TikTok users won’t have access to various sounds on the platform. Turns out, I’m in that unlucky half who doesn’t have access to many sounds, including my own music.” 

“I just released a song I’m so proud of. I’m an independent artist, right? So I don’t have that much budget. A lot of what I release is self-funded. TikTok, after begging independent content creators and artists to promote their music on the platform, literally turned around and said “it’s fine that 50 percent of the users don’t have access anymore to their own sounds” for over a month, by the way. Like I’m over my song in a month, I want to move on to the next one.”

Jump across to the entertainment world, and things are arguably just as dire. The co-lead of period comedy The Great, Elle Fanning, recently told podcast Happy Sad Confused about how she lost a role in a major movie franchise due to her social media statistics.  

If international celebrities like Fanning are losing out on opportunities despite having six million Instagram followers, that doesn’t exactly bode well for local artists. 

So, how are emerging Australian artists faring in this increasingly impossible scenario? Are social media statistics informing the opportunities emerging Australian musicians receive? We spoke to a range of music industry representatives to find out.

Social Media Exposure Vs Media Exposure

Melbourne alt-pop trio Howlite are in the thick of promoting their latest singles ‘Still I Find’ and ‘Haircut’, their first since their 2020 EP Not Here. Their social media presence has spiked accordingly, as they feel pressure to promote their work online. Guitarist Ben Botting says there are pros and cons to diving back into the world of social media.

“Being online in general is an inevitable part of being a “successful” creative these days, and social media in particular often feels like a bit of a pressure point as a musician, so it’s definitely a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s such a great way to share music and news with fans, grow our network and be across what others are doing in the industry. Yet we also have the potential to create our own echo chamber of comparison and distort the idea of success itself,” Ben tells Junkee

With a follower count just shy of the 2k mark across both Instagram and Facebook, Howlite have built their social media strategy focusing on genuine community engagement over significant figures. While they use social media as a promotional avenue and tool for connection, radio and live tour is where they shine. .

“In the end, I think it all depends on what you want to get out of your music career and what is comfortable and sustainable to you as an artist. That might mean you’ve only got a hundred people following your socials, but if they all really like what you do, engage with you and show up for your shows, then that’s objectively more meaningful than 15k bot accounts looking for singles in your area,” laughs Ben.

“It does feel like the followers who interact and comment the most with our content are pretty representative of our [fanbase]– wholesome, caring and often Simpsons fans. It’s also encouraging to see that our following has grown fairly organically over time through release periods, after live shows or directly from press coverage.”

This week news broke that Australian representation on the ARIA charts plummeted to an all-time low. Data from global airplay data analytics site, Radio Monitor shows that at the time of writing, not a single Australian artist made the top ten for highest rotation across stations nationally, a continuing trend from last year’s chart statistics, where Australian artists were missing from the top 20. 

According to the ACMA, there are almost 300 commercial radio stations and more than 400 community radio stations operating in Australia, so opportunity should be rife for Australian music makers. But even with a 25 percent local content quota implemented as a minimum standard between 6am and midnight for radio stations that play music, Australian artists continue to be overlooked. Does it come down to a popularity contest for airplay, where those with the most social media followers win?

Leanne ‘Stampsy’ Stamps, Music director and programmer of iHeartRadio,  oversees the curation of eight iHeartRadio stations. She explains that tracks are assessed against number of criteria to determine their fit for the stations, including social media presence.

“I align it like Tetris. There is not one key criteria and there’s not one key element that makes a song eligible for our playlist,” she explains. 

“The number or reach of an artist does not determine whether a song will be played. It does not determine whether a song is viable for our station. What will come more into consideration is does it align with the sound of the station, the direction of the station, who we are targeting the station towards and does it actually align with the genre.” 

Beehive PR Director Sammie Walsh echoes Leanne’s comments and says that in her experience, the song is always the key – but social media research can help drive the song home.

“It’s always all about the music, a great song will always come first. I think engagement should always be considered, music is subjective, just because I don’t like something, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge fanbase out there for it. Sometimes these numbers can help you to see that and learn more about what other people are listening to and loving.” 

Even with this seemingly open playing field, where are Australian artists in the charts? Music Victoria’s Live Music Census for 2022 showed there are 32,408 songwriters in Victoria alone. If not a matter of their social media following determining their place, why are artists still missing from the top ten?

Do Social Media Audiences Translate To Ticket Sales?

Australian artists have already suffered a massive loss of live music work over the last three years due to COVID. I Lost My Gig calculated that 32,000 gigs and events were cancelled, resulting in nearly $94 million in losses for the 3000 industry people surveyed. But are they also losing live opportunities based on their social media numbers? 

While social media statistics can be a good indication of a fan base – like in Ben’s case,  where followers have been accrued organically through traditional mediums – they can also be highly deceptive overall in the world of gigging. In a world where buzz can reach fever pitch one day and flatline the next’, social media traction doesn’t always translate to ticket sales.

This is something that UNO Presents and Coastal Jam Festival Director, Adam Metwally knows all too well. He explains, “It’s a good baseline metric but can be a trap at times. The media channels are moving so fast these days that you need to be very focused on the subtle trends and ground swells.” 

This year’s Coastal Jam Geelong and Mornington Peninsula editions saw an all-Australian line-up, including Ziggy Alberts, Hockey Dad, and Bag Raiders, play shows in iconic coastal locations . Bag Raiders’ hit ‘Shooting Star’ went viral in the world of social back in 2017, over a decade after the track’s initial release. However, for Adam, their 329,254,886 song streams (at the time of writing) and 26.3k followers weren’t an indication of a guaranteed sell-out show.

“It’s very difficult to pick it these days. For example, you can have an artist with 3k Instagram followers but for whatever reason maybe they’ve gone viral on a Tik Tok or have a heap of UGC (user-generated content) that puts a tonne of eyeballs in front of them resulting in a much larger ticket sale outcome than expected. On the other hand, viral tracks can be all flash and no substance – an artist can have more than a million plays on a song and be able to only do 50 tickets at a show. It’s a jungle out there!” 

Teamwrk Music Group’s Jarrod van der Staay agrees, “There are plenty of examples of artists with a few thousand followers selling out 1000 capacity rooms, and there are plenty of examples of artists with over a million followers struggling to sell more than a hundred.”

“I definitely take into account how engaged an artist’s fans are on social media – but never the sole ‘follower count’ number, it can often be an illusion. However, social media engagement is just another piece of the puzzle. If an artist’s music is there or they have a fantastic artistic vision, then I would happily onboard an artist with 0 followers and 0 existing fan base.”

But don’t be fooled, because while these Australian music industry representatives are in it for the music, they warn that musicians shouldn’t sleep on building an online brand. 

“I think it would be naive to think that artists aren’t often judged on surface level by their social media following for many opportunities,” says Jarrod.

Sammie says, “I think it’s really important for artists to put time and energy into building a social following. Some love it, some hate it, but in 2023 it’s part of the game.”

If that music industry game is Connect Four, social media is one disk in building a winning combination. To put a twist on the age-old saying born from Peter, Paul and Mary, of all of the elements to build a career in the Australian music industry, music speaks louder than Instagram numbers. 

Tammy Walters is a Geelong-based writer specialising in music and fashion. When she’s not backstage chatting to the band, she’s in the crowd belting along to her favourite tunes. Follow her on the gram @tammywalters. 

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