Is it time to rethink the music industry’s 24/7 relationship with social media?

by Rhian Jones

Billie Eilish, the 17-year-old superstar who’s the epitome of a modern artist in the digital era – with nearly 15 million followers online – has, on more than one occasion, decried social media. “Don’t post your feelings” is the advice she’d give herself back when her Instagram follower count was 1.8% the size it is now. She recently told ES Magazine that sharing things on the internet isn’t worth it. “It’s way better to be mysterious,” she said, which followed an interview on CBC where she declared the internet “poison,” adding: “Nobody does anything real anymore, if there’s no picture, it doesn’t happen.” This is an interesting perspective from someone who grew up oversharing on the internet – which has arguably helped her career reach stratospheric levels in a very short space of time.

Young artists are encouraged to be authentic and omnipresent online in order to build a connection with fans and increase their follower counts. This, in turn, helps them look legit to companies that might want to offer opportunities. Which all sounds sensical, but as Nils Frahm recently pointed out in a Facebook post announcing his imminent departure from the platform: “The picture repeatedly drawn to me is one where I cannot afford to leave Facebook because of the access to fans it represents. It feels like I’m being held hostage by a force out of my control.” Frahm says he instead wants to “imagine and construct a world where people like you and I find a different way of interacting with each other, without laptops on our knees or smartphones in our hands.”

Will this have an impact on the way his music reaches fans? History suggests not — good music will always cut through the noise. Take the viral track Sexual by NEIKED, which spread through the internet like wildfire despite no-one really knowing who made it. Then there’s the fact that Stormzy frequently deletes his Twitter account. Adele has a barely-there approach, as does Frank Ocean, who will simply post a photo every now and again on Instagram. In fact, if you look at most of the world’s top superstars, like Taylor Swift, Chris Martin, Drake and Ed Sheeran, all of them are very selective about what they share online – and it’s rarely personal. Exceptions to this rule include Ariana Grande and Post Malone – but even he issued a cry for fans to allow him some privacy and “let me live” on Twitter back in January. Couple this with evidence to suggest there’s a lot of fake Likes out there, and you start to wonder whether there’s any value for artists in spending a lot of time online at all.

There have been countless recent reports suggesting social media isn’t particularly good for the human brain. Multiple studies suggest there’s a sharp rise in people being treated for mental health problems globally, and last year the NHS reported record figures in children and young people suffering from anxiety, depression and eating disorders. The influence of social media was cited as one of the key causes. In Notes on a Nervous Planet, author Matt Haig talks about a ‘technology overload’. He writes that taking himself away from the noise online helped him recover from a period of depression. In January, an article by Buzzfeed titled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’ raised the interesting phenomenon of “errand paralysis” which might sound like an inventive term for laziness, but is actually the result of burnout thanks to a feeling of needing to work all the time, which is exacerbated by the fact that social media is always there, waiting to be fed. If your job involves some element of promotion, it’s even harder to ever switch off.

Cast your mind back to earlier generations, pre-internet, when daily life was less convoluted, and it’s not hard to imagine why today’s ‘always on’ mindset might be quite taxing for the brain, which remains the same size as it always has been. Atlantic co-Head of A&R Alec Boateng discussed the impact of this on artists during a panel at Urban Development’s Industry Takeover in February. “I’m one of those weirdos who feels like artists are special and they need a bit of protection, and what they give to the world needs protection. It’s weird because we ask them to interact with people while trying to protect their ability to create something special, and there’s not much of a middle ground to do that with a lot of people to be honest,” he explained.

“Even for artists early on in their career who are figuring out what they are good at, they then look at artists doing similar things [on social media], look at what they are achieving and whatever they deem is successful happening to them quicker and they get confused. I always say you’re letting the noise in; please just focus on being good at what you do and growing your art or your tour or nurturing your own talent. That requires patience for an artist and a faith in their talent to pull them through, which isn’t an easy thing to do when you are being told that you didn’t look good at that awards show, or people have got opinions on your girlfriend or that freestyle which [they say] wasn’t as good as the last.”

So why are artists still encouraged to constantly share their lives online and get those follower counts up? It’s bad for mental health, and anxiety and depression are not conducive to creative productivity. While some things have changed, the basic nature of how a music career is built remains the same — make good music and perform it well, and people will come. A funny tweet does not a fanbase make. Yes, concentration spans are limited, and there are lots of other things aside from music that fans can decide to direct their attention to instead. However, letting people discover something for themselves is a tactic that has worked quite well in the UK for decades — we are a nation who does not like to be told what to like. In addition to ensuring happier and more creative artists, holding back online – and creating a sense of mystery – might actually help artists cut through the wealth of in-your-face noise that’s out there in the long run.