Everyone is a critic, but not everyone cares enough to say something.
There is no way to understate how the music business has changed in the last ten to fifteen years. Previous generations of musicians would bend over backward to connect with key critics and genre gatekeepers to establish their presence in the industry, but that approach to marketing has largely vanished since the rise of streaming and social media. That isn’t to say critics don’t matter because they absolutely do, but these days critics are a dime a dozen, and only a select few have enough authority that labels, PR, and indie acts alike will go out of their way to get their attention.
The funny thing is, even though there are more critics than ever before, getting those with a voice to notice you remains difficult. Everyone has the power to comment on everything via their phone or laptop, but our current internet culture encourages us to discuss the same thing as everyone else through trending topics. Coverage of Ariana Grande has a higher likelihood of garnering attraction from the masses than a feature on the next unknown artist that might change lives despite the fact everyone and their mother is already talking about Ariana Grande. It’s a strange catch-22 that the people who need attention the least attract the most press coverage, but that’s the nature of the beast that is music journalism.
The only thing that disrupts the system anymore are artists that force people who otherwise wouldn’t post about their work to pay attention because they position themselves for viral popularity. That can be accomplished through branding, appearance, lyrics, or something else altogether that sets a performer or group apart from everyone else in their field. It doesn’t have to be controversial to spark controversy, it just has to be interesting enough to warrant discussion.
Take Lil Nas X, for example. The Atlanta artist was relatively unknown when he uploaded his now incredibly popular song “Old Town Road” to Soundcloud in late 2018. However, the track’s country-trap sound caught the attention of music fans hunting for something new, and even those who didn’t love the material would share it simply because they wanted to discuss the oddity they had discovered. Those conversations lead to viral videos on the platform TikTok, which then lead to additional conversation around the artist and song.
Another example is Triple Crown Records group Heart Attack Man. Before releasing as much as a song from their Sophomore effort, Fake Blood, the band began creating a discussion for their record by claiming publicists and managers deemed it too violent, too dark, and too controversial. The group then built upon those efforts by warning fans to avoid their singles and videos if they were sensitive to violence and violent themes, so even before people heard the material they thought it was something unique. Their push to appear controversial went so far that they started and ran their own anti-Heart Attack Man group called Mothers Against Heart Attack, which has a Twitter account. When users click the group’s link to their newsletter, they are sent to Heart Attack Man’s newsletter instead.
The shared trait between Lil Nas X and Heart Attack Man’s recent success is the absence of traditional album and single promotion. There are no promoted posts, no YouTube ad buys, or magazine placements. Both Heart Attack Man and Lil Nas X are becoming household names because they took it upon themselves to do something they knew would stir conversation. They accepted the old saying that any press is good press and let the internet do what it does best: run wild with vague understandings about the things that momentarily holds its collective attention. Did they make people mad? Yes. Did they make people happy? Yes. Are both things ultimately good for the artists? Yes.
Anyone can buy exposure. The price point is low, but so is the likelihood of becoming successful based on promoted posts and advertising alone. The true key to success in today’s culture is being someone or some group that is able to get people talking about their efforts. All the paid promotion in the world cannot compete with word of mouth, so save your money and focus all you have on creating something that gets people talking.