Mark, My Words: why bands shouldn’t pine for the unattainable popularity of social media’s biggest stars

A near-Twitterstorm set our columnist Mark Beaumont thinking that bands shouldn't bother trying to chase Sheeran-level online reach

At a hundred likes, you give yourself a smug pat on the back. At a couple of hundred, plus a few dozen retweets, you might drop the fact casually into conversation with colleagues, if only to prove you’re not the social media sinkhole they had you down as. Once you cross a thousand likes and several hundred retweets, though, a very modern fever takes hold. You suddenly discover Twitter’s ‘analytics’ button and watch your page impressions counter race upwards faster than a Deport Katie Hopkins crowdfund. Normal life goes on pause as you become a slave to an all-encompassing obsession to pointlessly watch a series of numbers rising. You are overcome by the fame-hungry mantra of clumsy cats and shit numerical ‘magicians’ everywhere: am I going viral?

My own scrape with Twitter ubiquity was borne of a very repetitive left-wing frustration of the age. “Corbyn slur emerges on Monday,” I posted a couple of days ago. “Discover it’s largely baseless on Tuesday. Arguing with bots on Wednesday, and Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Chill on Sunday.” For 12 hours, nothing; I wrote off Twitter as a format undeserving of my unique and insightful missives on cynical press manipulation, the influx of agenda-driven fake accounts and over-used UK garage gags, and went to bed to sober up. Then the Corbyn faithful got hold of it, turned it into a unifying chant of defiance. My likes crept into the dozens, the hundreds, over a thousand, and I was gripped by the great viral dream. I imagined myself, a million or two likes down the road, handed a golden membership card to some ultra-exclusive Internet Influencer’s Club, where I would sup Tide pod cocktails with Stephen Fry, Kendall Jenner, PewDiePie and Grumpy Cat, comparing our single-tweet endorsement fees and, between us, deciding future public opinion on climate change and Jamie’s Jerk Rice.

“I imagined myself, a million or two likes down the road, handed a golden membership card to some ultra-exclusive Internet Influencer’s Club, where I would sup Tide pod cocktails with Stephen Fry, Kendall Jenner, PewDiePie and Grumpy Cat”

Then I started looking into what ‘going viral’ really requires, and my bubble quickly burst. Tweet-reach wise, I was barely a smeared baked bean on the forgotten outer edge of Pete Doherty’s big breakfast. My fellow journalists got these sort of numbers with astute 140-character summations of pop culture or political developments all the time. TV comedians and quiz show hosts rack up twice as many likes and retweets just by commenting on an uneventful croissant, and Piers Morgan need only casually belittle a woman or minority, or repeat some poisonous bullshit from the Daily Mail, to garner many multiples of my measly likes. And all of those people no doubt dream of greater online reach too; at every hierarchy of internet infamy there’s always someone with a more retweetable opinion, joke or arse than you until, at the very top of the tree, sits Donald Trump, gaining millions upon millions of likes just by punching gibbon-English nonsense into his phone on the toilet.

This all proved a telling insight into the life of a new band in 2018. You post a video of a track on YouTube, get a few hundred views and think your fanbase is blossoming; then you check out the thousands of streams racked up by the skiffle UB40 covers band that played your local to no-one last week and feel utterly hopeless. Your next video hits 40,000 plays, and you start booking a headline tour, only to find that, stream-wise, you’re roughly on a level with a Let’s Eat Grandma support act. Say you get extremely lucky and notch up a couple of hundred thousand plays – you swan into Radio 1 expecting to be carried shoulder high onto the A list wafted by palm fronds, then the receptionist shows you Ed Sheeran and Drake figures running into the billions and calls security to kick your meagre-streamed ass straight back into the gutter, tossing your 0.006p Spotify profit after you.

“In such a quantifiable world the music industry, more than ever, is run by number people; a threshold number of Shazam hits or Spotify streams equals a quick chat on the breakfast show”

In such a quantifiable world the music industry, more than ever, is run by number people; a threshold number of Shazam hits or Spotify streams equals an EP deal or a sure-fire C List or a quick chat on the breakfast show, and so on. Quality and innovation, as we see every time a vaguely quirky soul singer gets awarded the Critics Choice at every godawful Brit Awards, takes a back seat to what will no doubt be dubbed ‘virality’. Which all encourages new acts to aspire to an unattainable, Sheeranesque level of popularity, just like teenagers hating themselves for not achieving the unattainable TV beauty of a perfume ad model or a Gareth Southgate. And, like those teenagers, the craving for widespread vindication makes them want to laser off their sonic knobbles, pomp up their saggy bits and eradicate their imperfections. The very things that make them charming in the first place.

Well I say screw the numbers. Own your (relative) obscurity. Let the magic moneyed golden finger select the mainstream and be your awkward, inventive selves in the mid-level morass. Here a new generation of sonic visionaries and pioneers will convene, made up of mavericks who decided a billion hits wasn’t worth chasing and felt emancipated from all populist pressure. All it’ll take is for post-tribalist alternative culture to work out a way to publicly harness all this wild-firing talent and we’ve got ourselves an escape pod from Planet Drosschurn, where the algorithm is king-maker.

36 hours after take-off, my Corbyn tweet stalled at 1.7k likes, hardly a flicker on a real influencer’s analytics, barely a skin-flake falling from the bared buttock of a Kardashian. But I know, deep inside, that in the broader cultural discourse my tweet has more worth. You can keep your Justin Biebers and Steve Bannons, I court a higher quality of retweet. Ignore the draw of unattainable popularity, new bands, you’re already better than them.