You are more than… your music

June 30, 2020

Why do we play certain songs to death? What do we consider before we add a tune to a Spotify playlist? What’s the catalyst for you to share a song with your best friend? To answer these questions… we kinda need to look a little deeper than the music itself.

Billie Eilish’s smash hit ‘Bad Guy’ has an astronomical 1 billion streams on Spotify. The song is admittedly very catchy, but are we listening to the song over and over again because it’s a super memorable earworm we can’t get out of our heads? Or has the world collectively fallen in love with Billie Eilish, the human behind the music?

On the flipside, how is cancel culture shaping the way we listen to artists, and feel about them? Radio stations in New Zealand and Canada removed Michael Jackson songs from rotation after the release of Leaving Neverland, and one Perth station removed his back catalogue due to listener complaints. Spotify even made a platform policy to not promote hate content (albeit before they did a backflip a month later because they weren’t sure how to handle ‘safe’ content by artists with a reputation or criminal record.)

The common theme between the former King of Pop and the biggest popstar of the moment is how much music audiences are swayed by the artist themselves. 

It’s very rarely just about the music.

Why?

Enter storytelling. 

Big brands like Coca Cola and Nike have been leveraging storytelling to tap into emotions for decades. There’s a running joke that Oscar-winning movies are desperately depressing because they follow a formula. We binge watch TV shows in a single sitting when we get emotionally invested in the characters. 

Forbes explains

Great stories make people feel something, and those emotions create powerful connections between the audience, the characters within the stories and the storyteller.

Emotive marketing can be an effective tool for brands (and musicians). Scientific studies have shown consumers focus on their emotions more than objective information when making decisions. Your knee jerk, emotional reaction to content is more influential on your purchase intent than the actual content of the ad, (up to three times stronger for TVCs). Our visceral response to stimuli has a huge impact on our intentions, recall and relationship. This doesn’t just apply to marketing for oat milk and soft drinks, but also for music and pop culture.

Storytelling in music

Music in itself is storytelling. Successful artists paint a full picture through their lyrics, melodies, cover art, stage design, costumes and music videos. It’s no surprise then that the world’s biggest musical stars are masters at telling their own artist story, outside of their actual ‘products’ of music.

Here are three tenets for good storytelling: 

Show, don’t tell

Beyoncé is the one of the world’s most prominent Black artists, and her public persona is built on being a strong, powerful black woman. Her commitment to Black culture and specifically Black women shines through her work, and it’s not just lip service. 

Her dedication to Black women empowerment can be found in spades in her historic Beychella performance. As the first African American woman to headline Coachella, Beyoncé used this as an opportunity to further her story and promote other Black performers. She incorporated elements of Historically Black College and University (HBCU) traditions like marching bands. She hired an incredible ensemble of Black performers to join her on stage, and collaborated with Black designer Olivier Rousteing on costumes. 

Beyoncé doesn’t tell us she supports other Black artists and creators. She shows us. 

Consistency

Google ‘Lana Del Rey aesthetic’, and you’ll find over 4 million results across internet forums, fashion sites, university dissertations, tutorials on achieving her vintage vocal mix and homages on Tumblr. Every element of Lana Del Rey’s output remains entirely consistent with her Hollywood sadcore image. Whether it’s her manicure, her pack shots, her fashion sense, her stage name or her actual music, every element fits into the story that is Lana Del Rey. 

As one outlet puts it, “Lana Del Rey is motorcycles. Lana Del Rey is sugar daddies. Lana Del Rey is old age America. Lana Del Rey is heart shaped sunglasses.”

Be genuine 

A huge part of Billie Eilish’s public persona is her activism for causes close to her heart, with one the most prominent being climate change. 

Her work here isn’t at face level. She hasn’t just recorded a short clip for a charity campaign and left it at that. Billie has told The LA Times she has climate anxiety, and the singer-songwriter uses every inch of her platform as a celebrity to cover this. 

Her genuine commitment to the environment as an artist includes wearing a protest tee at The AMA’s, talking about the environment on Jimmy Fallon, setting up an eco friendly world tour, and partnering with Global Village to educate her punters about how they can help. Not to mention her incredible song ‘all good girls go to hell’, a climate change anthem about the LA Wildfires:  

Storytelling never stops

It’s understandable that some artists have taken the foot off the gas with their marketing this year. It might have felt inappropriate to promote sales content when there are bigger issues at hand, or artists shows and music may have been halted temporarily. But sharing and developing your story with the world shouldn’t be an on/off switch. 

2020 is actually the perfect time for artists to tell their stories and deepen their relationship with their audience. Instead of trying to manage a full content calendar to keep their managers, booking agent and label happy, artists now have a decent chunk of time where almost all fan communication can be solely about them with no sales agenda. This is a rare opportunity where artists can showcase their personality, brand, lives and the magic behind their music, completely unfettered by promotional obligations.

Don’t write off 2020 as a compulsory gap in your career as an artist. Turn it into the moment you unveil your greatest story to your audiences and fans. This isn’t your usual incremental audience building you’d see every time you service a single to radio or release a music video. Make your story front and centre, hook them in, make them fall in love with you, and build your audience for life.

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