New digital playing field in the music industry - The enthusiasm of the fans is important, says researcher Jessica Edlom2024-01-18
Artist 1990: Record an album, book interviews, go on tour.
Artist 2023: Build a brand, get to know your target audience, release a song on digital platforms and make sure to keep the momentum going 24/7.
It doesn’t matter if the artist, the production, or the songs have a classic, vintage feel. Behind most of the active artists today, there is a whole digital ecosystem. Being a musician these days means that you have to face challenges that go beyond being creative and doing what might be most important – creating music.
Jessica Edlom recently received her PhD in Media and Communication Studies at Karlstad University with her thesis Show Me Love: Emergent Strategic Communication Practices and Fan Engagement Within the Popular Music Industry. In her thesis, she examines how artists and record companies approach their fans in order to stay visible and remain relevant.
– I used to work with strategic communication and brand development, so I’ve been interested in delving deeper into these issues, says Jessica Edlom. When I was given the opportunity to participate in a research project connected to the music industry, I chose to focus on strategic communication in the music industry. What’s happened with social media over the last 10–15 years, and how artists are involving their audience in their communication, made this a very interesting subject – especially since there wasn’t much research on this.
In what way has technology changed communication and engagement in relation to artists?
– It’s changed a lot even though it’s still about presenting an artist to the world, says Jessica Edlom. At the core, there’s always a product – a concert, a song, or an album – but other than that, almost everything has changed. The social aspects in terms of the internet and digital platforms have been incredibly important for how everything has developed.
The music industry used to employ a more linear communication when it came to their artists. Advertisements and press releases were standard practices, while direct communication with the fans was handled through fan clubs in which the artists themselves were rarely involved.
These days, these issues are on the agenda around the clock. The fans expect the artist to be present on social media and respond to comments. It doesn’t have to be a full-length album that’s marketed; the release of a new song could be enough to trigger a whole digital machinery that produces all kinds of content. That kind of an operation requires both strategy and creativity. Adding to this, each digital activity is measured and analysed in great detail.
– Data is very much in focus, says Jessica Edlom. You always look at what works and what doesn’t, what takes off and what is drowned out by the noise. The communication efforts are then adjusted in accordance with the data, in order to hopefully make the next PR campaign take off.
What kind of communication skills are useful in the music industry?
– It depends on what level you’re on, says Jessica Edlom. As an artist these days, you can theoretically do most of the work yourself – both producing the music and doing the marketing – since the tools are readily available and easy to learn. The problem is that the big record companies are still a dominant force in the industry. Approximately 50,000 new songs are released on Spotify each day, and the record companies have made sure to create their own shortcuts onto the streaming platforms. Contacts and agreements ensure that their music is displayed front and centre, which makes it more difficult for smaller artists and bands to be noticed.
– In my thesis, I also examined the power structures within this ecosystem, and so long as there are companies that make a lot of money, it will most likely stay like this, says Jessica. It’s also relevant that the big actors were quick to adjust to the digital era and to study, understand and use data. For a new artist it can, for example, be difficult to master Google Analytics from day one.
Jessica Edlom and I agree that the times when a record review in one of the bigger newspapers could mean everything for an artist or a band is long gone.
– I don’t think reviews mean that much these days, says Jessica. In niche publications they still mean something, but in those cases you’re already a fan and have an interest in the artist. You probably already know this information through your established networks.
Is there a good example of an artist who has made everything the right way without selling their soul or integrity to the devil at a crossroads somewhere? Yes, and the answer is in the title of Jessica Edlom’s thesis.
– Robyn does most things right, says Jessica. She chose early on to go her own way, and as a woman she was ahead of the curve with starting her own record label. She owns her own career and micromanages herself in every minute detail. In order to maintain your super fans, it is important to be yourself and stand by what you do.
– The interesting thing about Robyn, and the reason we looked more closely at her and her career, is that she had been away from the stage for eight years. So in a way, she hasn’t done everything right – you don’t do everything right if you’re never covered by the media – but she has managed to be herself, to self-govern and not follow trends. By doing this, she and her company and management built a global fan base that stayed loyal during those eight years she was absent. In Brooklyn, New York, DJs have organised Robyn parties that have attracted fans to go there and dance to her music without her even attending.
When social media broke through, it seemed like many artists started answering questions from the fans. But was it, for example, really Alice Cooper who answered my question on Facebook? Probably not. At that level, it’s often a whole staff of professionals that make sure that the flow of content never stops. However, according to Jessica Edlom it’s important that the communication comes off as genuine.
– That was one of the first things I thought about for my doctoral thesis. One of the people I interviewed, who worked at a big record company, explained that they tried to speak with the artist’s voice and then hoped that the fans would buy it. This made me think about what the boundaries are and what the audience is willing to accept. My thoughts are that the level of acceptance varies depending on the artist, genre and whether a big record company is involved or not. There isn’t a definitive answer to be had, rather it’s a descending scale. Nobody thinks that Beyoncé manages her own Instagram page. It contains texts about Beyoncé which sometimes have some kind of sender attached. It’s a very important question, not least in terms of how social media will develop ethically going forward.
What practical use do you hope that your research can have?
– Record companies are good at communication and data, they don’t need to learn that. But I think they do need to learn about ethics, authenticity and what fans are willing to accept. The record companies themselves also admit this, since there's rarely time for reflection. So I’m hoping that the music industry is open to taking these issues seriously.