The final panel at AIM’s Music Connected conference in London today focused on social media. Specifically, the question of whether it’s “bullshit” or not.

Moderated by Motive Unknown’s Darren Hemmings the panel featured Farhana Aboo (AEI Media), David Emery (Kobalt Label Services), Angie Somerside (consultant) and Will Grant (Domino).

Emery spoke first, from his point of view having moved from label Beggars Group to Kobalt’s Label Services division. Is social media bullshit, or is there an intrinsic value to it? “It’s a bit of both isn’t it, just to be massively on the fence!” he said.

“It definitely has a value but it’s all dependent on how you use it. It’s a communication channel, it’s not some kind of magical cure-all for everything that’s going on in your campaign… It’s no different from a newsletter or your website. These are all valuable things… If you’re shit at social media, then it isn’t going to work very well.”

Grant talked about the value of blogs and other online tastemakers, which runs in parallel to what labels are doing with social media. When working with a young artist, an exclusive might be promised to a prominent site, with the artist’s social media channels immediately pointing towards it. “You have to play the game a bit, and make sure you’re working with those channels so they’re boosting your profile as much as you’re boosting theirs.”

No band has ever broken through social media in the same way that no band has broken through a press release. It just doesn’t happen like that,” said Emery. “It’s not the actual thing.”

Somerside chipped in. “Twitter is actually a press conference not a press release: you get that immediate feedback from the audience,” she said. “Listening back is what works, and engaging your top tier of fans is also really important, I think.”

Aboo talked about how AEI Media approaches social media. “A lot of our brands started as YouTube channels,” she noted, giving UKF as an example with a massive following on YouTube, and a smaller but growing community on its own sites.

“For us, social media is a part of everything. YouTube is kind of a social network: that’s how we became big. But we weren’t selling as such then, we were just sharing music… As soon as you start selling things all the time, they don’t want to know. Sure, if you’re selling something put it up on social media, but don’t expect that to make all your sales… and you don’t have control over them, they change every five seconds, so you’re probably not going to reach all the people you built up in the first place.”

The panel were asked about the advantages of social media: “This is a genuine connection between an artist and a fan,” said Emery. “That’s beyond the key thing here, if you do it right. Just paying someone to update your Twitter or Facebook is not necessarily doing it right. You need to have investment from the artist, if they’re that way inclined… it can be very powerful, and more powerful than any advertising you do, pound for pound… And if you’re not going to do it right, then you shouldn’t be investing in it.”

Somerside also talked about the importance of “doing everything well: that’s the challenge, especially as it gets more cluttered… You still have to have great content, and that’s the challenge: how do you make that content interesting?… I don’t think it’s changed: you’ve just got to do good creative work.”

Aboo said that AEI Media is spending its money on Google AdWords and pre-rolls on YouTube, promoting releases on iTunes and through its own stores. But it matches where it’s spending on any individual campaign to “where its audience is going to be”, from YouTube to traditional television.

Is PR becoming intrinsically linked to social, wondered Hemmings. He suggested the example of a music site like the NME wanting to do something with a band because the artist’s social profiles will drive more traffic to the NME site – a different motivator from some of the traditional way such a publication would choose artists to feature (even if you might argue that print magazines sometimes chose their cover stars based on who they thought would shift the most copies in stores).

“There’s no need to pander to that, quite honestly,” said Grant. “There are big media outlets, music press outlets out there that are struggling and focusing much more on their online, but for artists the power is much more in their hands, so they can focus on their own social media channels and not worry about that so much.”

Emery said traditional media partnerships can be underwhelming: “They just don’t drive the views and plays that you would potentially expect. You can do a significant premiere with a big media partner in the UK and get 500 views out of it. And you think what is the point? Are we doing this because we think we should have a partner, or because it’s going to provide what we need?” he said, before stressing: “And sometimes it does.”

Is there ever a case for an artist not being on social media? Grant cited the example of Jai Paul, whose social media accounts lay completely dormant, save for a single tweet when his album leaked in 2013, as an example where the mystique was preserved by no social media activity. “For some artists it’s about the myth, and it’s all part of painting a picture of the artists. And in some cases that’s not going to translate into social media,” said Emery.

When someone like Madonna pinballs from social platform to mobile app promoting an album, is that a good thing? “When Madonna goes on Meerkat it’s just ridiculous,” said Somerside. “A lot of that is bad advice. It’s the behaviour that dictates what works, not the technology. The kids decide whether they want to be on Vine or WhatsApp. No one knew that Twitter would do what it did. The kids dictate it with their behaviour: you can’t make people do things now.”

“With that case you can see the meeting: ‘Right, we want to get our demographics down. We want to get on Radio 1! Right, where are they? They’re on Snapchat. I’ve heard about this thing called Meerkat’… It’s the tail wagging the dog, very much so,” added Emery.

Grant rubbished the press conference for Tidal last week. “Everyone was cringeing, and everyone relayed their cringeing onto social media. It wasn’t a good example of any publicity is good publicity. It was publicity on social media that warped the entire thing… Then of course they release exclusives on Tidal, and everyone’s like ‘nah, I’ll just rip it’.”

A question came from the audience about stars who seemed to break through on social networks, from Arctic Monkeys on MySpace to Justin Bieber on YouTube. “In their own fields, they’re great artists. So the reason why they were good on social media was because they had a genuine connection with their audience. It’s not that social media made Justin Bieber or Arctic Monkeys, it’s that generally speaking they connected with an audience, and that was the first point in their journey… They were good artists… My take is that talent would have found a way.”

Aboo talked about YouTube star KSI, who built an audience by playing video games, and is now doing music. Somerside warned that it’s not always easy to translate social media followings into sales, citing Union J as an example with lots of fans online, but sales that don’t quite match.

Emery chimed in about Amanda Palmer. “She is in theory a musician. No, I’m going to push through on that: she is a musician, but that’s not her primary thing. Her primary thing is her personality, and that’s actually how she makes her money, and being a musician is the umbrella… but she’s popular on Twitter because she’s a personality. Trying to draw parallels with an artist like that is very difficult if you’re not that sort of personality.”

What about dark social: social media and apps that aren’t trackable in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are – for example WhatsApp and other messaging apps? “It’s a really interesting emerging area. There’s an enormous amount of social media that we are not able to track,” said Hemmings.

“We work in an environment where all of us try to use data to inform our decisions to a degree. There’s a chance that everyone’s raving about your artist on WhatsApp or other services that you don’t get any information about. I think they’ll increasingly become a driver of sales and viral pickup of your artists, it’s just that no one will have any insight on that. Maybe it’s a path back to a world where we run more on gut feeling than on figures in a spreadsheet.”

“It’s far more difficult to have a noticeable marketing impact on these places, because it’s direct communication between fans. It’s great, but it’s not something we can get so involved with, or artists can get so involved with,” agreed Emery.

The panel finished with an appreciation of mailing lists, which Emery suggested remain where the most engaged fans can be most easily reached. “Every time we work with clients who have large email lists, you can see that they drive a helluva lot of sales,” said Hemmings, who said that email can be marginalised because a bulging mailing list doesn’t carry much weight with radio playlisters.

“It drives me nuts that labels just won’t focus on it, because they will choose to focus on publicly viewable metrics so that George and co at Radio 1 will look at this and feel this is the thing that will go on the playlist. Personally I would smash the contents of my gin cupboard just to get email back on the agenda!

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