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How the rapid rise of social media is affecting music

A few months ago, column miles of music sheets were occupied by talk of Kanye West’s wild launch party for his latest album, the title of which I now forget. After months of fanfare, his show centred around gathering a slew of ‘cancelled’ stars on stage with him. These included Marilyn Manson who is currently facing court proceedings regarding rape allegations and DaBaby, who at the time was facing backlash after making homophobic remarks. At best, the philosophy behind this artistic gesture is confused and misguided, at worst it is purposefully damaging.

While the argument that presidential candidate Kanye West was trying to make is indecipherable owing to an unclear mantra on his part, the intent was about as subtle as a policeman’s knock. Controversy generates attention like no other engine of interest and cramming a show full of talking points was a platform to prove this. Naturally, any release by West would attract media attention, but it would be naïve to think that any artist believes themselves to be infallible from fading.

Aside from the contentious elements of the show that must be judiciously dissected in their own right, the take-home from this whole fiasco was just how much it underpinned the trend of modern music. Social media has spiralled wildly in the last decade and its full impact on art is now being felt. 

When making the album, Kanye West enlisted the help of the musical stalwart Todd Rundgren as a producer. “I’m one of the few artists not on Kanye’s album,” he joked. “I have three albums worth of Kanye stems on my computer. Because I kept getting called by Kanye to add vocals onto the record […] There’s so much junk in that record!” Rundgren told Ultimate Classic Rock in the aftermath. The method to this madness is that the more people you have on board, the more reach you have with an album. It is essentially musical networking.

Rundgren then scathingly described West as a “shoe designer” and rallied: “He’s just a dilettante at this point. Nobody would regularly make records like that unless they had stupid money to throw around.” The final product was then finished with the grand unveiling once more at the forefront of creative thinking. “They hurriedly wrapped the whole thing up and put out what is obviously really raw, unprocessed stuff. It’s because Drake was running the whole process. He was too afraid that Drake would one-up him, so he hurried up and released the album the weekend before Drake could get his out.”

While this is not particularly new, The Beatles and The Beach Boys were in an unspoken race when it came to pushing the world into a new realm of stereo-sound with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the ill-fated second-placed Smiley Smile respectively, the winner undoubtedly changed the world of music forever. Whereas West’s album Donda (I’ve just checked the name) is already a moot point. Reviews for the record were universally middling and the fanfare is now long forgotten.

However, it was not merely that the album was focussed on its release more so than its production that typifies the effect of social media on music, but the nature of the release itself. After all, fanfare is one thing, but this was no ordinary launch party celebrating a new record—it was wildly incendiary. Seeing as though current social media algorithms favour high-arousal emotions like rage or anger, because it keeps people engaged for longer, it makes sense to rock the boat with names that are currently drawing the most controversy — a controversy that is, ultimately, not really reflected on the album itself. 

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Aside from Kanye West, this notion of the release being more important than the legacy is something that can be seen throughout modern music. Hell, we even recently had a sea shanty top the UK charts for the first since the 1800s owing to a wild viral trend. And the year before that ‘Hot Girl Summer’ was more of a hashtag than a song. Before that ‘Gangnam Style’ became the biggest video in the history of the world for reasons unclear to anyone bar algorithms. The music industry recognises these swings and has now championed them to lead the way. Musicology, for the most part, has slipped into second place and shareability has taken the reigns. 

Even when the album itself is not there to shakedown any trees, stories are generated surrounding them in the drive for added social media hubbub. The discourse behind Adele’s latest release of piano breakups has been heavily entwined with the bizarre notion that she had to cause a global vinyl shortage after she ordered 500,000 records to be pressed. The same column inches were not afforded to Taylor Swift who sold over a million physical records last year, it would seem she missed a trick there. 

While using social media to generate publicity is a patently obvious vehicle that should be, and has been, exploited by just about every artist under the sun. However, it would seem that its influence now goes beyond marketing after the fact and has infiltrated the creative process itself.

In the future, this might lead to new innovative artistry, but currently, it seems to be coming at the cost of cohesive works that are underpinned by the necessity of arousing a volatile social media reaction and not harnessing it to probe at its effects or use as a crutch. There are now songs out there whereby the promotional materials have received more views than the songs have had listens, which is utterly mad.