Is Social Media Saving Or Killing Fan Relationships?

24 July 2023 | 11:29 am | Stephen Green

Is social media just a great opportunity for fan connection through Vaudevillian marketing, or is it eroding artist / fan relationships?

Social Media

Social Media (Supplied)

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There’s a conversation raging right now behind the hands and in the DMs of musicians across the country, and no more heightened than in country music. There’s no question that social media has been a fantastic tool to connect fans with the music and musicians they love, but artists across Australia and the world are asking whether it’s all gone too far.

For artists, the burnout is real. They not only have to juggle writing, recording and performing songs, but they are now responsible for their own marketing and content with an expectation (sometimes from industry, sometimes from themselves) that they will be hilariously relatable social superstars to create ‘like’ farms with which to purvey their wares.

We spoke to three artists and a manager about their opinions on where social media has gotten to in 2023 and it’s very telling that three of the four requested anonymity to avoid any industry or fan blowback.

On one end of the spectrum, there are plenty of artists who are kings and queens of social media, creating large followings and having great careers engaging with their fans directly. The (mostly younger) artists mastering the medium are bringing their fans in on everything, giving sneak previews on songs and even creating music off the back of fan opinions and engagement.

“Having the fans be part of the journey is an important part of our job now”, said Artist 1. “I know some people don’t like it, but in the 80s I bet a lot of bands didn’t like doing video clips either and that just became part and parcel of the gig. Now, there’s not a lot of media to get your name out there, so it’s kind of like BEING your own media channel has replaced a lot of that.”

Artist 2 weighed in on the argument, stating that they believe that things had gone too far and that we eventually risk alienating our audience by “feeding them too much sugar” and putting out a sanitised and simplified version of what they think fans want their lives or the industry to be.

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“The thing that really worries me about what I see on social media now is the complete inauthenticity of it all. This new trend of saying ‘hey here’s a riff I wrote… do you think I should write lyrics for it? By the way…. pre-save it here, it’s out on Friday’ is complete bullsh*t. Yeah the fans go nuts and you get a whole bunch of likes, but it’s just destroying the long-term connection with your audience.”

“I mean anyone with half a brain knows you can’t pre-save something that doesn’t have lyrics already written and the recording finished, but fans don’t always. I’m not saying fans are stupid, but music, ESPECIALLY country music, has always been about feeling a connection to the music and feeling like its connecting on a deep emotional level. How can you create that long-term, dedicated audience if you’re essentially putting on a fake show for them? Eventually you’re going to get found out and destroy the very bond that you want with your audience as a musician.”

The chatter and pushback is already starting to happen, with musicians starting to call each other out for inauthenticity on social media and some cynicism creeping in to comments. When we put that to Artist 1, they acknowledged that socials weren’t always as organic as they seemed, but that the authentic nature of the artist / fan relationship was not impacted.

“Sure, there’s a lot of things that aren’t EXACTLY as we portray on socials, but that’s the same with anyone on social media. People that argue that it’s not authentic just don’t understand the medium and the social pact we have with our audience. Everyone, whether they are musicians or not, are curating what the world sees on socials. For artists, well-curated social media channels with narratives and engagement points are just another tool for entertaining fans. It’s essentially our own reality TV show, but we’re in the drivers seat. When people watch Big Brother or The Voice, they KNOW that they aren’t being fed 100% of the truth. Yeah, it’s all based on reality [and] they aren’t being lied to, but there’s editing, there’s a bit of scripting and at times a bit of smoke and mirrors. But this is the contract we have with our audience. They want to follow us, have a connection to us, but they want to be entertained. In the same way they understand that The Voice will have some editing to make it better for them, they trust the journey we’re taking them on and they know we’re not going to take advantage of that. Being authentic doesn’t mean setting a camera up in your house and hitting stream.”

When specifically pressed on things like whether having the audience believe they have a say on what gets written or not is fair, they said:

“It IS legitimately a way to gage the audience’s reaction. Sure, sometimes the project IS further down the track than what we let on, but it doesn’t make the audience feedback any less important to us. We genuinely do want to know what they think, even if the song may end up coming out regardless. Are the winners of reality TV shows legitimately decided by audience votes? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. When you used to vote for the Hot 30 on the radio, did it really impact what the radio played? Of course not. It doesn’t make [the program] any less entertaining or the songs and audience connection any less real. That’s what we are. Entertainers.”

For many artists, the crossover between musician and social media star is not one they are enjoying. This week George Sheppard, sister of country artist Amy and singer for the million-plus-selling sibling band Sheppard, (ironically) took to social media to post a video:

“The moment I realised that the entire music industry is no longer about making music and is now a giant content factory in the hope of having a ‘viral moment’ with your song. My job as a 35 year old musician is now to try and keep teenagers’ attention focused on social media platforms by doing stupid dances and skits just so these companies can sell more ads. Please stop the ride. I want to get off.”

The sentiment received a wave of support from artists and prompted a fresh round of discussions in the artist community.

The question is also being raised about whether the social content is translating into success for music or whether it’s simply creating online personas.

An artist manager we spoke to (who also requested anonymity) said that while they were committed to their social strategy, they were still unsure whether it was translating into success for their artists’ music. They agreed that socials were a necessary connection tool, but wondered whether the professionalism and ‘storylining’ was necessary for their music to connect.

“I guess we see so many artists doing it and they are always coming up in our feeds. Someone like [name redacted] is a total gun when it comes to his socials and you look at [the artist’s] Spotify numbers and artists can’t help but want to aspire to that. I do wonder sometimes whether the two are necessarily linked. I mean, [the artist’s] music is great, so if he WASN’T running that social strategy, would the music still be as popular? I mean, maybe it would and the social success is separate, but for a smaller artist like mine, are you going to risk it? Especially if they are comfortable in the medium. You only have this small window to make success in and if you see someone doing well, you’re going to do everything you can to emulate the strategy. I know [the artist] thinks it can become a bit of a chore, but understand they need to do it in 2023. I’d love to know if it’s REALLY necessary, but am I willing to discourage them from doing it as a science experiment for you to publish on Countrytown? No way.”

Artist two said they were angry on behalf of of the fans.

“As a consumer of music, I don’t like being treated as if I’m an idiot. And as a creator of music, I’m annoyed that some artists choose to lie and make it seem like songs are just thrown together when in reality it takes hours and hours of hard work to compose, rewrite, record, mix, master, promote to DSPs… it’s not easy and fans should know and appreciate that.”

Hinterland singer Jesse Emmanuel has been vocal about her fraught relationship with social media, creating this hilarious Tik Tok last year when releasing their song Stay In Your Lane.

Emmanuel said that there were a lot of elements that have led to the current social media trends in Australian country music.

“Firstly I think it’s still an after-effect of the pandemic. Even some of the big artists jumped on and did live streams and collaborations as a way to stay relevant and connect with their fans. Charlie Puth would literally collab with randoms. Then they’d show previews of their upcoming songs to create hype because they weren’t able to get out and do traditional promo. At the time it actually was kind of cool because you were getting a glimpse into the real life of a big star without all the glitz and glam, but it was usually sitting in the studio showing you a finished product, not miming in the car or in a field. It’s like we’ve taken those authentic moments and tried to polish them, which seems to defeat the purpose”

Emmanuel also points to the Australian country media landscape as a factor for Australians leaning in to social media to create content that is cheaper and has a built-in distribution mechanism.

“The dissolution of CMC I think plays in to this. A proper music video costs thousands to produce and is really hard work, but it was seen as worth it when CMC was there with awards and charts and social media to amplify your work. It was an important metric. If CMT created Australian charts maybe more people would make proper music videos. Now that there’s less opportunity for full clips, artists are opting for cheap, short form content. They are essentially often just short-form music videos but without the production value or musical context.”

She argues that the loss of value that the audience has in the actual music as opposed to the social marketing around it, is running a dangerous risk of perpetuating the current predicament that Australian music is currently finding itself in where artistry is disposible and likes are the currency instead of streams.

“I think the fake collaboration posts where artists are pretending to ask the audience for their opinion is another product of the pandemic desperation which I think is coming back to bite us in the ass. During this time artists were regularly live streaming and asking for tips and support and it was really genuinely about connecting with people however you could. But this has blurred the line now between fan and artist and kind of destroyed the idea of “celebrity”, as evidenced in the struggle for ticket sales and artists being belted with sh*t at concerts.

“On one hand it [a fake audience collaboration post] makes the audience feel like they’re involved and special, which is great. But some artists dont want to lie to their followers and cheapen their art in this way. It works for gaining a huge following, there’s no denying. But does lying to everyone and creating this fake journey because its easier for the timeline and to jag pre-saves make the whole industry look like a joke? It’s not a joke or a storyline, it’s our life as musicians.”