“The reality, particularly for artists, is that people want to feel like they can connect with you. And it’s really hard to connect when you’re perfect all the time…”
It’s interesting that Lauren Seawood is saying this, given that she’s the head of music partnerships at Instagram – a social-media platform that’s still seen by many people as a place dominated by ‘perfect’ (i.e. unattainable) lifestyle shots from established stars and its own crop of influencers alike.
But what Seawood is talking about is the impact of Instagram’s ‘Stories’: the ability to post off-the-cuff, ephemeral photos and videos, which launched in August 2016 after the same feature proved a huge success on rival app Snapchat.
By November 2017, 300 million people were using Instagram Stories every day, musicians included. Seawood thinks it has helped artists realise that they don’t have to be perfect all the time on this particular app.
“Of course there are some exceptions to that rule, but the reality is that for most artists building their everyday fanbase, you can’t overthink the type of content that you’re going to share. Otherwise it’s just not relatable,” she says.
“Artists are just by nature over-thinkers of the creative content that they’re putting out into the world. But I think that when they’re able to take a step back and realise that if they’re building a fanbase that’s going to be with them throughout those creative processes, they need to pull the veil back a little bit, so that they can create those connections at more of a ground level.”
Seawood took up her present role at Instagram in November 2015, having previously worked at label Def Jam, social-games publisher Zynga, and then as head of digital at Beyoncé’s company Parkwood Entertainment. That’s where Music Ally first encountered her, interviewing Seawood on-stage at the Web Summit conference.
When we meet her now, she’s in London for the Brit Awards, while also hosting drop-in meetings with a host of emerging British artists, hearing how they’re using Instagram. With more than 45% of Instagram’s 800 million-plus active users following at least one verified music account, it’s a key area of interest for the Facebook subsidiary.
“In the last year and a half, the platform has only become a place where artists have continued to grow their fanbases and connect with fans in an even stronger way,” she says.
“It’s been fascinating to watch: to see how artists are using all of the features of the platform, particularly Stories and Live, to continue strengthening those relationships that eventually help them with offline monetary efforts.”
There’s an interesting dynamic here. Seawood sees Instagram very much as a place for artists to connect with fans rather than to batter them with links to music, tickets, merchandise and other commercial endeavours.
Stories are key to that: “the ability to be a little bit unfiltered, through all parts of their day” rather than striving for perfection or promotion.
“It’s really just about maintaining authenticity, making sure that the content doesn’t feel like you’re working too hard to generate some sort of call to action. The content feels very much like it’s part of your daily life,” says Seawood.
“And combined with frequency and posting on a regular basis: not just posting when you want fans to do something, but posting throughout those down periods too. Because fans don’t go away. They don’t care whether you’re making an album or not, they just wanna feel connected to you as an artist.”
Seawood praises Dua Lipa as an example of this, even if in her case it’s how she naturally uses Instagram rather than any carefully-planned strategy.
“She’s sharing all of those moments while she’s on the jet going to a show performance, but she’s also sharing her moments of rehearsal backstage, cooking breakfast for herself, feeling tired and looking not so great,” says Seawood.
“But she’s okay with pulling the perfect filter off of her persona, and she shares all of that with fans, and that’s what’s worked so well for her.”
The counterintuitive thing here, though, is that the less promo or call-to-action focused that artists are, the better their chances are of getting fans to buy stuff. Stories loom large here, thanks to the ability (for verified accounts) to add links to their story posts, which fans can swipe up to follow the link.
Part of Seawood’s job is encouraging more artists to use this feature. “We’re telling them about things like the success of using links in stories, and how much traffic that’s driving for other artists to purchase music, or streams, merch, live tickets. Those links in stories are generating a ton of offline traffic for a lot of artists,” she says.
“And what works best for many artists with those links is again, not over-producing a bit of content that kind of looks like an ad. For artists who are sharing very authentic, in-the-moment content, whether it’s a selfie photo or video, with a small call-to-action, they’re seeing huge results.”
Seawood cites one of 2018’s rising stars, Billie Eilish, as an example: one of her recent story posts included a link for fans to buy the hat that she was wearing, from her official merch store.
“It feels very low-key, there’s nothing over-the-top about it, she’s simply sharing a photo of herself and then quietly urging fans to buy the hat that she’s wearing,” says Seawood as she shows Music Ally the post.
“That hat sold out. Quickly. And we’re hearing anecdotally from a lot of labels that swipe-up things are generating more traffic than anything else, in many cases. The ability to use stories and then to add the call-to-action via links in those stories has become incredibly important for offline value for artists.”
It’s a careful line to walk: a platform where the expectation from fans is that artists will be unfiltered and NOT constantly nudging them to buy stuff, but also a platform where nudges to buy stuff CAN have a real impact.
Some artists will inevitably get it wrong, but that’s why Instagram is holding so many meetings with emerging artists, to share its tips on walking that line.
As Instagram has grown, so its live-video feature has also become a useful tool for artists, from Troye Sivan chatting to fans from his hotel room to Demi Lovato announcing that DJ Khaled would be the support act on her next tour – and patching him in for a joint livestream.
Seawood stresses that these features aren’t just being used by established stars, suggesting that emerging artists are making creative use of them too. She cites British artist Shakka as a good example of this, with something he calls #TribeTuesdays.
“He sends out a call to action for #TribeTuesdays, and other people contribute, whether it’s a beat, lyrics, visuals or animation. And then this collective comes together and he records those songs on Live, then distributes the content on Stories,” says Seawood.
“It’s this programmatic concept around how you bring in your fans, but then actually generating content that they contributed to. It’s fascinating.”
She also praises another British artist, Hardy Caprio, for his use of Instagram to debut new music: telling fans that if he gets 1,500 comments on a post, he’ll release a new track – and then hitting that total within a few hours.
“He only had 69,000 followers [at the time] but he got 40,000 views on a video in less than 24 hours, and they commented more than enough times, and he released the track,” says Seawood.
“We’re seeing that kind of thing all the time: there’s plenty of young artists doing that Stateside too. They don’t feel like they need to live within these restraints around ‘when a record can be released’ or what the proper promotion could be, because they can literally hand it to fans directly.”
“Look at Cardi B. The reality is that record [Bodak Yellow, her breakthrough hit] was shared on her Instagram, via Stories and Feed, for many many months before radio really picked it up.”
Perhaps more than any other artist, Cardi B is a star associated with Instagram in the same way that, say, Chance the Rapper is associated with SoundCloud. She was certainly building an audience on Instagram long before releasing her debut mixtape in March 2016.
“She’s built this incredibly dedicated fanbase, her account now has 17m followers, and they’re incredibly engaged. Why? Because she has no filter. She shares EVERYTHING,” says Seawood.
“She contributes to all of the things on Instagram that work really well. She’s self-deprecating sometimes and posting funny memes about herself. She shares her thoughts both serious and humorous. She’s constantly posting video to both Stories and Feed.”
“So you have this interaction with her that you can’t really help but love, no matter if you enjoy some of the [pauses] crassness of her content or not, you still can’t help but love it! I mean, I personally do. It’s so real!”
Artists ‘releasing’ music on Instagram – by which we mean posting videos that include a new track – does bring up the question of licensing and royalties, though.
Instagram isn’t a streaming service with a licensed catalogue of music, but it does sit within Facebook’s new and growing umbrella of licensing deals, along with Facebook Messenger, Oculus VR and the main Facebook service itself.
Those deals are specifically focused on user-generated content – videos that include copyrighted songs – which you would think applies even if the ‘user’ in question is the artist responsible for the track. So what opportunities do those deals bring for Instagram’s music team?
“As you saw in the announcements, there are a couple of licensing deals that have already been secured, and there are more coming. And once we’ve figured out where we land on that, we’ll probably have a lot more to say. But right now, that’s sort of all there is,” says Seawood, playing a resolutely straight bat to the question.
“Artists are looking to share all kinds of content, and I would imagine that music content is part of their hopes and dreams. Certainly not in a streaming capacity, but to your point, I think that there’s a lot of opportunity out there, once those things [deals] happen.”
In the meantime, Instagram is continuing to roll out new features generally, from improved analytics and advertising formats to troll-tackling moderation tools, which its music team is then educating artists about.
The interview ends with Seawood running through some other artists who she thinks have run with the potential of Instagram, including all five recent Best New Artist nominees at the Grammy Awards: SZA, Khalid, Julia Michaels, Alessia Cara and Lil Uzi Vert.
“But even somebody like Will Smith. He joined Instagram two months ago, and he’s now past 10 million followers, because his content is so great. This is completely my own opinion, but I think that watching his kids use the platform has been somewhat of a guidance for him as to really how to engage and post content,” she says.
“Or Rihanna. If you don’t follow Rihanna, you should! It’s like what I always said with Beyoncé, which was that she controls her own narrative. I think Instagram has become a tool for many artists to control their own narrative.”
“I don’t know that we had that window before. Now that we have that window, we are seeing all that content. That is the epitome of what Instagram can be for a lot of artists.”