What next for influencer marketing in the music world?


At Music Ally’s recent Sandbox Summit conference in New York, one of the major themes was on the growing use of influencer marketing by the music industry.

It first cropped up in the day’s opening panel, titled ‘Streaming Services as Marketing Platforms’, where the role of online influencers in driving streams and awareness for music artists was discussed.

Cindy James, VP of streaming and playlisting strategy at Island Records, suggested that influencer marketing is most identifiably effective when working with an act that is reasonably new in their career, and thus still in the early stages of building their follower count.

“We see it works with an act who has a small number of streams as you can measure it,” she said, adding it was much harder to define attribution for a big act as it becomes more difficult to measure the direct impact of an influencer playlist. “It can be 80% of the work for 20% of the impact.”

DJ and entrepreneur Genius (pictured above) also used influencer marketing as the core theme of his Sandbox Summit presentation, focusing specifically on its role for urban music.

He talked about his role in the Atlanta scene, where he worked with acts like Migos and 2 Chainz in the early stages of their careers, using underground marketing techniques to push them overground.

Genius noted that in the days before Spotify, the key way to break new hip-hop and trap acts was to use underground streaming platforms. These were truly-grassroots sites where new music was bubbling up outside of the mainstream media’s radar.

The problem, however, for the old guard of the music industry was that these sites were totally un-monetised, and therefore subject to shutdown notifications. “The RIAA was heavily after these sites,” he said.

Genius said that working with influencers has been a powerful and cost-effective way to build awareness for urban artists, but with the caveat that doing it is not enough; it has to be done well.

“In the urban space, influencer marketing works well as you and get it done cheaply and it’s a great addition to your marketing mix,” he said. “We have cut PR costs drastically in the urban environment by focusing on influencer marketing.”

How influenceable are fans of urban music, though? Genius admitted that the more that marketers make use of influencers, the more aware fans will be of the tactic.

“The urban fan is a bit harder to influence as they have been subjected to a lot of fabrication,” he says of the more dubious uses of influencers that have happened in over the years here.

Genius talked about more positive tactics, such as targeting DJs, producers and tastemakers to kickstart the conversation around a record before it’s released.

“When you want active influencers before the content goes digital, we give it to DJs and other artists,” he says. “We ask them not to leak it.”

He also talked of audiences hearing a track in a club, trying to Shazam but not getting a tag back (as the tracks have purposely been kept off the music-identification app) so they have to ask the DJ what it is. Something which raises the DJ’s stock, so that they become a key influencer in that environment.

“You want to make sure you are timing your influencers perfectly,” he said of how this has to move up through various tiers. “We focus on the timing on each influencer.”

For it to be most effective, it has to come across as invisible as possible. “It shouldn’t feel like you are being influenced,” he said, “so by the time you are in the influencer funnel you are already a fan.”

Genius’ talk at Sandbox Summit was followed by a full panel discussion about influencer marketing, with speakers drawn from various points in the process.

Asked if influencers can actually sell records for artists (or, more realistically, drive streams), Joe Gagliese, co-founder of Viral Nation, described the best ones as acting “more like word of mouth on steroids”.

“It’s like hiring your best friend who has way too many friends,” he suggested. “Influencers have more on a friendship-style relationship than any celebrity would have.”

Budgets were obviously a huge issue with suggestions that if you want to marshal the power of influencers at scale, the cost could run from $500k to $1m depending on the ambition for the project.

There are, however, other ways to get influencers on board without having to just pay them. Sarah Flanagan, in the influencer marketing team at Sony Music, talked of signing up an influencer in Germany to work on an act they were not overly familiar with.

They quoted a “high figure” at the outset but the negotiation took a slightly different turn. “When we told her she could meet Miley Cyrus and we’d fly her to LA, she did it for free!” said Flanagan.

Tahir Basheer, partner at UK legal firm Sheridans, said that influencers are an increasingly large part of his client base, working with huge names in this world like Zoella.

“I see them as a mix of entrepreneurs, creative talent and creative marketers,” is how he described them. “They often have the freedom to make decisions themselves and a lot of them run their own businesses.”

Reiterating Flanagan’s point, he says that influencers are not always driven by a massive fee, and increasingly they will take equity in startups they are working with rather than cash. “That leads to a deeper relationship,” suggested Basheer.

Marni Wandner, president of Sneak Attack Media, said that money should never be the opening conversation when trying to get an influencer involved in a campaign. “We never talk about money until it feels like a good fit,” she said.

Gagliese warned, however, that just spending money here is no guarantee of success and all sides need to be honest about the fact that things might fall far short of expectations.

“We get bombarded by artists who want to do promotions with influencers – but they are all trying to do the Fetty Wap thing, they are all trying to get that one video [to take off],” he said of how ambition and reality can become misaligned in this world.

“I think there is this lack of expectation between the cost to force going viral and then the rare chance that it happens on its own. When you bring up a budget you say that to even set this thing up… and even if we have the budget, our key ending point of our meetings is that this still might not work.”

He added, “I like people talking about capturing culture and matching it with people to try and get that to emerge but at the end of the day it is almost like a lottery game for a lot of these young artists now.”

The panel also saw discussion of the impact of influencers in record labels’ A&R strategies.

“We are in the business of teaching our indie acts that their talent is their ability to build an audience,” said Wandner of what lessons can be applied from the world of influencer in the world of music.

Gagliese made interesting parallels in terms of creative expectations and revenue potential across these two worlds. “They have more potential to make revenue being an influencer than they are being an artist,” he said, “Their ad revenue alone is going to trump their Apple Music revenue.”

He also added that it is easier to stay relevant as an influencer than it is to keep coming up with hit after hit.

Basheer said that an influencer crossing the floor to become a musician is almost always an artistic decision rather than a financial one.

“An influencer with a big fanbase who wants to covert to become a musician is not about the money – it has to be about the passion,” he said, adding that is because they will make less money doing music.

But this is happening at speed at labels, with Flanagan saying that Sony is “signing up a ton of influencers” – having begun with Pentatonix and moving into more recent signings like Jacob Sartorius who have bubbled up from that world.

Ethics also cropped up as an important discussion point: proper disclosure that influencer campaigns are ads that have been paid for, rather than wholly ‘organic’ content.

Flanagan said that transparency is all-important here, explaining that Sony is scrupulous about saying something has been paid for by adding #ad #paid and #brandpartnership hashtags as routine.

There is, for Gagliese, more of a grey area around this with regard to music in particular.

“We have lawyers and we follow rules diligently but I would say, of all the industries doing influencer marketing, music goes the most undetected – because of how much it is used and a lot of the strategies we implement for music are very organic,” he said.

“A lot of them are very product-placementy, which is a grey area in what we do. Authentically when you see the ‘ad’ or you see the ‘sponsored’, as a smart marketer you have to understand that your results are going to diminish a little bit; but then that comes down to your ability to pick and choose your clients properly.”

Finally, some of the recent controversies around major-league influencers, from PewDiePie to Logan Paul, sparked a conversation about whether brands (in this case, artists) can be harmed if an influencer they’re associated with ‘goes rogue’.

For Gagliese, this has to be built in from the off. “A lot of the influencers we use, we have a relationship with – but the reality is that influencer marketing is people marketing,” he said. “It’s not digital marketing. It’s like hiring a group of 20 individuals you don’t know from 20 different walks of life and hoping they all listen to you.”

He did caveat this by saying that most influencers are highly professional and this mitigates against them derailing their own careers – apart from in exceptional circumstances.

“The fact they care so much about their career ends up stopping them [going rogue]. I think their fear lies in what might happen if they get in trouble and something happens to their brand,” said Gagliese. “I’ll take an influencer over a celebrity any day in terms of safety.”

Basheer backed this up and said that influencers are far more grown up than many people presume.

“Lots of influencers are very aware that they are very visible,” he said. “What really drives them in terms of ‘rogueness’ is their own reputation and what impact that has on them.”

Written by: Eamonn Forde