Independent country artist Emma White uses social media to connect to new audiences.
Independent country musician Emma White sits on her living-room couch. She plays a Gibson J-45 Sunburst, a classic instrument for country songwriters like her. She plays closing chords, and hugs it to her chest so she can look at her phone.
“Maybe reading your comments will be easier on my phone — oh, good! You guys can hear me!” She says. She says hello back to various viewers commenting on her post. “Stuart from Australia! My goodness. You want to busk, as well? Start with Facebook Live, you can reach people all across the world, apparently.”
When she tries to resume her set, it takes a moment — she’s dropped her pick somewhere in the couch cushions.
For all the opportunities for fault and fumble in live-streamed music performances, independent country artists have benefited from this medium’s rise in popularity. During lockdown, country music’s listener base widened on Spotify, despite an overall decrease in streams. In various ways, the increase in live-streamed performance opportunities — and necessary decrease in live performances, due to public health concerns — has leveled patches of the playing field between independent and big-label country musicians.
Live-streamed performances primarily expose a difference in access among musicians. Whether an artist is offered a live gig depends on a confluence of factors — the artist’s existing popularity, who represents the artist, whether the artist has connections with a given venue. Access to social media, in contrast, is not governed by connections. Any thirteen year-old with an iPhone can make a TikTok, and repost their gangly, dancing bodies onto an Instagram story. Public gathering restrictions, and the resulting cancellation of music gigs and festivals, have left musicians of all popularities with a similar set of tools: a camera and whatever instrument they happen to have on hand.
White — who established Whitehouse Records to invest in female artists after facing gender barriers in the industry — said that, before quarantine, she didn’t consider herself competitive enough to claim a spot on a tour. The cancellation of all tours for the foreseeable future forced her to refocus her energy on virtual performance venues that had been in front of her all along.
“It’s opened up this new world to me and this new way to reach people,” she said. “There may be a greater opportunity to find an audience now.”
She’s been primarily finding these audiences by partnering with radio stations across the country. On June 3, she streamed on Facebook Live with 102.4 The Coyote, a country radio station in Rochelle, Illinois, and received the most views she’s had to date: 12,000. Among independent country artists, platforms like Facebook and Instagram Live are most popular. They often partner with radio stations or brands to take advantage of established viewer bases.
Artists occasionally stream on their personal accounts, as well. Molly Lovette started a weekly Facebook Live show in which Lovette would perform any song her viewers requested — regardless of whether she knew it. She provided links to a virtual tip jar and merchandise sales in the captions, and viewers tipped every week. The reception to Lovette’s performances has given her hope during a financially tumultuous time — according to Lovette, her Spotify streams, Facebook shares and merch sales have all increased.
Initially, Tera Lynne Fisher’s biggest fear was the loss of income from gig cancellations. “As you can imagine, being an independent artist in Nashville does not bid well on one’s checkbook,” she said, but live-streaming saved her financially and artistically. “I could see the colors in the flowers again. Not only was I beginning to have a small source of income, but I was promoting my music to a new audience. I can connect with artists and musicians, companies, industry folks I had never reached out to before.”
Allen Thompson, founding member of the Nashville live-streaming collective Virtual Festival, says streaming is becoming just as important as other sources of revenue for indie artists. Fans on the platform can donate to artists via PayPal and Venmo. “In my personal experience, I know I have reached a broader audience and generated far more revenue than I would have with my originally planned touring and performance schedule for this year,” he said.
But this grassroots approach, in which artists provide free entertainment and audiences tip as they wish, means that live-streaming revenue could never replace live-touring revenue, especially for big-label artists. Garth Brooks had the highest-grossing country music tour in 2019, netting $76.1 million for 13 shows. Florida Georgia Line’s 2019 tour netted $54.5 million for 50 shows, and Luke Bryan netted $37.2 million for 38 shows. This doesn’t mean big-label artists aren’t trying to effectively monetize this medium, though. Access to Josh Groban’s Jun. 27 livestream costs $20 — $55 with a merch bundle — and the pricier VIP tickets sold out during presale. Groban’s ability to monetize his concert is contingent upon his access to tech teams and personal streaming platforms outside social media, resources largely unavailable to independent musicians. This is why Thompson said that, although the playing field is leveling now, “history has taught us that it won’t be level for long” — independent artists can benefit from this moment, because they are still in the process of building their fanbases. Big-label artists don’t require an audience-building tool. They merely have to put up with financial pause until streaming is more broadly monetizable.
And, although social media streams increase access to audiences, and audiences have ample time for music exploration, Melanie Dewey of MELD said that the uptick in streams makes it easy to feel drowned out.
“Bottom line, it’s all about being an artist that people relate to in these times,” Dewey said. “Fans are more accessible than ever on social media platforms, this is true. But millions more people would rather watch Justin Bieber answer questions on a live stream for five minutes than tune in to the most finely crafted live stream experience ever, by an artist with just 10 thousand followers on both platforms.”
According to Dewey, now is the time for independent artists to establish personas and build an audience, so they can benefit from live concert revenue in the future.
The pandemic did not fully level the playing field, but provided independent country artists with a unique opportunity: to take advantage of this pause, and prove to fans that they are normal people. When Emma White drops her guitar pick between cushions, she picks up a new fan or two.