The way that audiences access music is constantly changing. In 1991, it was moving from cassettes to CDs. In 1999, Napster pioneered digital-file sharing, although its lack of copyright deals later led to a court-ordered shutdown. Apple’s iTunes dominated following its 2001 launch. Spotify debuted in 2006 and became the world’s biggest music streamer. And then there has been the rise of social video platforms from YouTube to TikTok.
Streaming and social media had already joined radio in becoming the leading methods of discovering and consuming recorded music before the Covid-19 pandemic. But social distancing meant live in-person shows, festivals and stadium tours were out and virtual events and streamed performances were in. Amid all this, the process of raising awareness of artists’ music had to change – although marketers need to keep the artist’s vision firmly at the forefront of their minds.
“The fact that consumers can engage with an artist in a way that they never have before has forced us to adapt and change the way we would market a record,” Damaris Rex-Taylor, general manager, RCA UK, a division of Sony Music, explains. “Every single year it changes. It’s gone from MySpace to TikTok, it’s a whole different world now. Because of that, release planning has to be more thought-out and is a lot more creative. The most important thing to us is amplifying that artist’s vision.
“Marketing in music is unique in that we’re marketing human beings and their vision.”
That requires “openness” in terms of strategic thinking, Rex-Taylor continues, explaining: “The marketer’s brain has to adapt and be more reactive to audience needs.”
There has also been a change in the places that artists, record labels and brands can reach music consumers. Where once fans would be patrolling the aisles of HMV and independent record stores, now, they are in digital spaces, on social media and inhabiting video games. When Stormzy (pictured above, centre) partnered Ubisoft he not only featured in its game Watch Dogs: Legion but also used the gaming company’s technology to produce a music video for his track Rainfall. In August 2021, Ariana Grande joined the lists of artists to perform in Fortnite (pictured above, left) in a partnership that was tied in to several aspects of the video game. Other artists who have previously delivered one-off experiences in Fortnite include Marshmello and Travis Scott.
James Kirkham, chief business officer of Defected, a house music record label, says: “There is a younger age group who have grown up with gaming and are used to ‘open world’ gaming [immersed in a virtual world]. It’s a very natural experience for them to go to a big ‘open world’ music festival in a video game environment, which is very immersive, where you’ve got digital door policies and virtual nightclub toilets.”
He predicts music companies will “hone” these virtual experiences to the point where “it will get so refined it’s an absolute no-brainer” for music fans. “As the technology improves, the interaction layer and depth of the immersions improves,” Kirkham says. “Digital experiences will become more seductive, it could get quite sci-fi. It’s very natural that there will be a lot more Travis Scott and Fortnite moments... that’s become a facet of people’s lives.”
TikTok: a breeding ground for pop-culture
The audio-focused nature of TikTok has created a unique marriage between music and social content creation in the past 18 months as the Chinese-owned social platform has gone mainstream. Tim Collins, co-chief executive and co-founder of Creed Media, a music marketing agency, believes that users watching with the sound on, as opposed to muting the volume to just focus on the video or text overlays in a social feed, has helped to amplify songs.
Collins says: “Prior to TikTok there was a global challenge facing social media marketing for music, as artists and labels couldn’t be certain that the content they were putting out was actually consumed with the sound on. As TikTok is a music- and audio-focused platform, that isn’t an issue. Content created in connection with one song is collected in one place on TikTok which makes it easy for users to create content that amplifies the original song.”
The “sound-on” element has been a key part of TikTok’s strategy to drive engagement and differentiate itself from other platforms, according to Paul Hourican, head of its music operations in the UK. He says it has helped to transform the way fans make, discover and engage with music and artists, as well as allowing emerging talent to build a fanbase on and off TikTok.
“What we and our users love about TikTok is its unpredictability,” Hourican adds. “As everyone saw this year with Nathan Evans reviving centuries-old sea shanties or disco classics like Boney M’s Rasputin, any artist has the potential to share their creative work and reach a wider audience through our leaned-in and engaged community.
“The power of TikTok is that it helps fans discover music from any artist, be that emerging or established. It’s music they might have never stumbled across otherwise, connecting people to trending artists or breathing new life into catalogue tracks.”
TikTok’s young fan base has been expanding to include older age groups, which is helping to broaden the music trends on the platform, he adds.
The pandemic: an accelerator for change
Every decade has brought changes in music marketing, but the explosion of streaming and rise of tech platforms has meant record labels have had to adapt at a faster pace. The pandemic largely accelerated trends that were already under way, such as the music industry’s push into live streaming. Artists and DJs have been delivering online performances and hosting Q&A sessions, which has engaged audiences in new and sometimes unexpected ways. As the talent leaned into digital platforms, fans discovered they were getting closer to the music and the artists.
“With a positive hat on, everyone had to work harder,” Kirkham says, pointing out that few artists or labels could rely on their existing brand name recognition “to carry you through” and guarantee a connection with a digital audience during the pandemic. “Artists engaged with their fans through ways that perhaps they’d never previously done. They embraced new opportunities and initiatives from leveraging Zoom to conducting video meet-and-greets with fans, to greater interaction on platforms like Twitch, being more frequently on screen because they weren’t able to be in clubs. I think that all elevates the marketing as a whole.
“So, from almost day one in the pandemic, the way labels innovated with some of the biggest acts in the world, such as Dua Lipa and Charlie XCX, was by leveraging the fan in the creation of the album. It’s almost like those who succeeded realised they had to stand out, perhaps do it differently, perhaps try something new. They were far more fearless, there was far more impetus to do something new, and in the world of marketing that has to be a good thing.”
Alongside artists using social media as a way to stay connected with their fanbase, new talent has emerged on these platforms.
Hourican cites the rise of Russ Millions and Tion Wayne, who went to number one with Body – a milestone for British drill music – in May 2021, thanks in part to the viral success of the song. This ranged from “creators using the track as part of their Ramadan celebrations to people young and old showing off their outfit transitions”, he says.
Another example is Nathan Evans, who went from doing postal rounds in Scotland to signing with Polydor Records and hitting number one in the UK with his version of Wellerman. Evans has gone on to announce a tour and top the charts in Germany – proof, Hourican says, of social media’s global reach.
The power to create new narratives
Artists express themselves through music, and the principles of communicating content to their fans have remained largely the same. But marketing experts say music serves a dual role. Beyond the individual expression of the artist, music helps to generate a shared cultural experience.
Dubose Cole, head of strategy at VaynerMedia London, says: “In the previous year [since the pandemic], music has enabled expressing our emotions and telling our stories to others through memes or content, as well as given us moments of togetherness.”
TikTok has championed its role, particularly in the music space, with the “It starts on TikTok” campaign, which included “The legend of #seashanty” TV spot, made by VaynerMedia London.
Cole says: “For us, working with TikTok meant taking something like Nathan’s shanty and helping to close the loop on culture – being inspired by how it captured TikTok and moving ahead of it to support its growth to national sensation and number-one song in less than a month. This is our ethos: seeing what’s happening in culture and amplifying it in a way that the audience wants to hear it.”
Rex-Taylor says there is a mutual benefit in brand partnerships. For artists, it gives them an income and platform, and for brands, there is an opportunity to create something that will live on in culture beyond the duration of a standard campaign.
“Over the last 10 years the brand partnership landscape has become much broader and more exciting. I remember being excited about massive brand partnerships,” she says, recalling Michael Jackson’s 1980s Pepsi commercials.
She adds: “I feel like we’re almost coming back to that time. There were so many great partnerships that happened last year and I think that we’re going to be seeing more and more of that.”
With live, in-person music events now making a return as lockdowns lift, some Covid adaptations to music marketing may remain. Most artists love performing to audiences but are now alive to the benefits of streaming. And while some premium streaming platforms, such as Netflix, have seen a slowdown in subscriptions, there is a growing cohort of people open to consuming content in digital formats who might previously have shunned it.
So many new ways of creating, accessing and enjoying music have emerged in the past two decades. Given that trend accelerated during the pandemic, the future of music marketing looks in good shape.