Landing ACL: How Streaming, Social Media, and the Internet Has Shaped Today's Music Industry

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Summer may have come to an end, but festival season isn’t over quite yet. Austin City Limits (ACL) is set to take over our feeds this weekend with all its fashion, festivities and music. The killer lineup includes a juxtaposition of artists, new and old, pop and rap, small and large.

This year acts like Guns N' Roses, Lizzo, Childish Gambino, Tame Impala, 21 Savage, Billie Eilish are set to take the stage for the next two weekends. But how exactly do artists such as Guns N' Roses and Billie Eilish end up on the same stage? The answer might lie in your hands right now: social media and the internet.

Take it Back

Back in the day, the fate of the success of many artists lied with record labels, serving as the liaison between an artist and the public. These record labels have an abundance of resources, connections, and power that makes it easier for an artist to get exposure. And up until the past 15 years or so, radio, TV, and print were the primary modes of media used. The limited sources of communication meant that labels had a massive influence on what music made it to consumers.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see the appeal of record labels. However, not just anyone got a record deal. The list of pros and the exclusivity of a deal made it easy for artists to eagerly jump on and sign a contract when approached by a label, even if they were not entirely sure of what they were signing into. Take Prince, Taylor Swift and TLC as a few. Massively successful, but at a cost.

It’s All About the Algorithm Baybeee

In an age of streaming, the algorithm rules. Go through some of your favorite albums of the year. Do some of them have more tracks than previous albums? It’s far from a coincidence.

The more tracks, the more likely it is that the algorithm will place it on a playlist (think Spotify's Discover and Today's Top Hits playlists). Today, music marketing goes beyond the typical radio interviews, press releases, and billboards. Album announcements happen on social media, or in the case of Beyonce, sometimes not at all. Could you imagine if Beyoncé had shipped copies of her 2013 Beyoncé album to stores without prior warning? No, because social media’s accessibility (and viral nature) is what made that unannounced release so successful. The internet has the power to determine who gets a platform, with or without a record label. It has given musicians increased connectivity, control and more distribution options for artists.

Take ACL-headliner Billie Eilish, for example. She got her start thanks to SoundCloud at just 14 years old. She uploaded her moody ballad "Ocean Eyes" for her dance teacher to listen to, but that wasn't the only listener she got. Overnight, her song went viral, inspired remixes and eventually made its way to record labels. Justin Bieber, another massive pop star, got his start on YouTube by posting song covers and Shawn Mendes gained a large following by posting Vines, 6-second video clips, of himself singing. All of these artists have one thing in common: they gained a digital following before they got their deal.

Take a Chance

The common theme seems to be that you use social media to gain your exposure and eventually catch the ears of a label who in turn invests in your growth through their connections and funding, right? It all leads back to the same outcome: a signed deal. Well not necessarily. Social media has also undoubtedly helped change the game in terms of sustaining a career.

2017 ACL headliner Chance the Rapper is proof that you don’t necessarily need a label to rise and maintain fame. None of Chance the Rapper’s releases have been done through a label. He’s done all the major appearances, was a feature on Kanye West’s Life of Pablo and has multiple Grammy's under his belt all without the help of a record label. To make things more interesting, he previously didn’t have his mixtapes on any streaming platform. When his mixtape Coloring Book was finally released exclusively through Apple Music's streaming service, it debuted on the Billboard 200 at number 8 without selling a single copy. He’s even gone as far as saying “I make my money off of touring and merchandise. And I'm lucky I have loyal fans that understand how it works and support. I don't see myself ever being in a position where I need to sign to a label.”

In addition, the viral, shareable nature of social media, along with sites such as Landr, an online music software site, BandCamp, a music platform known to be a more profitable option for artists, and Patreon, a subscription content service model, make it possible for musicians to still produce and fund a quality body of work.

The Bad Guy

With all of that said, it's not fair to paint the image that record labels are an evil entity. At the end of the day, they still provide much needed base-level funding and infrastructure for musical careers in exchange for equity. It’s a great and effective way to bring an artist's vision to people. However, social media and the internet have given artists much more control and artistic freedom than ever before - the combination of the two can lead to great things.

Gone are the days of conforming to what a label “thinks” will sell. An artist can establish who they are, the direction they want to go in sonically and what they stand for as a musician pre-label life. More importantly, they prove that their music is something that people are intrigued by, which is proven by how much these fans and listeners invest into it.

So yes, stream that song on Spotify of that artist you’ve never heard of. Retweet that video of the random person covering a song on Twitter. Post that clip of you singing for fun. Who knows, maybe you’re on your way to headline ACL.

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