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‘I Don’t Want to be the One-Armed Singer.’ Representation and Engagement in the Age of Instagram

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Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

I just got back from a couple weeks of traveling.

This past week I was in NYC doing some TV interviews about the California “gig economy” law AB5 which, if unchanged could single handedly crash the California music economy. I’ve been actively working to get the music industry an exemption under the law and am making progress! But in the meantime, I’m speaking out publicly about it so politicians pay attention to our needs and demands.

+California’s Music Economy is About To Crash

And last weekend I was in Minnesota where I gave a full-day (7 hour!) New Music Business workshop to the musician members of the Midwest Country Music Association. I also presented the award for Songwriter of the Year at the awards show. I felt like John Legend at the Grammys. I opened the envelope and everything. Very cool night and I was blown away by all of the Midwest talent in country music. Who says you gotta be in Nashville to pursue a career in country music?!

Ari Herstand Midwest CMA

It was really nice to be back in Minnesota. I started my music career in Minneapolis and spent 7 years developing there. I even got a chance to catch a show at the 7th Street Entry at the legendary venue First Avenue (of Purple Rain fame). My good friend Victoria Canal is on tour and happened to be playing there Saturday. I love it when the tour stars align.

Victoria Canal is merely 21 years old, but she is wise beyond her years.

+Check out Victoria Canal on the New Music Business podcast

I’m constantly inspired by her, and she is one of the most promising new pop artists on the scene today. She was born in Munich, but moved to a new city virtually every year of her life because her parents loved to travel. And she actually did most of her high school education online. Victoria did over 150 dates as Michael Franti’s opener last year, opened for Emily King at the Apollo and she’s the face of the Nike Jordan Flyease shoe. She’s an incredible songwriter, keyboard player and singer. She has a radiant energy and spirit that gets everyone who meets her to fall in love with her instantly. She’s able to get to the depths of her soul with her music and then also pull out inner truths from you that you may have been unable to unearth until Victoria floats into your orbit.

She’s a true independent, DIYer (she was back by the merch table after her set taking pictures with new fans, getting people on her email list, handing out signed 3×5 photos and swiping people’s credit cards). She also had a tip jar (with her Venmo code taped to the top! – which I noticed more than a few put some money into). Well done Victoria, well done. She told me she sold out of one of her t-shirts three dates into the tour. This is how it’s done.

Victoria Canal Ari Herstand at First Avenue

+How To Double Your (Merch) Income … No Really

While on the hotel elliptical yesterday morning I put on one of my favorite podcasts, The Third Story with Leo Sidran and his latest guest happened to be Victoria Canal! A full on Victoria weekend.

Much of Victoria’s success can be credited to her activity and engagement on Instagram and Facebook.

Both Michael Franti and Emily King’s manager discovered her from Instagram videos and invited her to collaborate, open for and/or tour with them. And her cover of a Stevie Wonder song got 10 million views on Facebook which got her to meet Stevie! The story of their meet is actually pretty hilarious and I’ll let her tell it to you on the show.

One of the first things many people notice about Victoria is she doesn’t have the bottom half of her right arm. She was born this way and it’s far from the defining thing about her. She compares it to someone who may have an odd shaped nose. People may notice it, but it doesn’t have to define them. Even though it’s visible she tells Leo “I don’t want to be the one-armed singer. Stevie Wonder isn’t the blind singer. He’s Stevie Fucking Wonder.”

+How To Get More Mailing List Subscribers

But that being said, she is an advocate for differently abled people and regularly speaks to people with disabilities.

She tells Leo that it’s important to her that she communicates to these people “Whatever you look like whatever you’re feeling you are accepted you are enough. You are more than enough. You’re capable of doing excellent things in your life. You should try your best. Don’t give up on yourself. Show up for your day. Every day.”

Leo and Victoria dig deep into many topics like her unique backstory and how she learned to play the piano without a right hand. They nerd out a bit on how she alters chord voicings to accommodate her physical limitations – which actually contributes to her unique sound and writing style.

+Subscribe to the New Music Business with Ari Herstand NEW podcast!

They also dive into the philosophies behind social media and how she has found so much success from it so early on. Leo, 43, and Victoria, 21, come from completely different generations and it’s very interesting to hear them both talk about their approaches to music and social media. Leo laments how many of his contemporaries absolutely dread anything to do with social media. But Victoria also admits that she struggles with it at times too: “There’s something in me that’s rejecting social media and I don’t want to put everything on display. It’s a fine balance between do I want to be observed or do I want to observe. Is it possible to do both as an artist who is constantly on display.”

Leo points out that at the same time Victoria was learning to write songs, she was also learning how to make better videos and figure out which posts people respond to on Instagram:

“Your creativity, your artistry, your vision can expand now if you grow up understanding (what works on social media). I think it’s amazing that you said ‘well the first thing I realized was good lighting.’ The same time you figured out how to write a song you figured out how to light yourself.”

+When Greeting Fans Never Say Nice to Meet You

Victoria brings up a challenging dilemma that I’m sure every one of us have struggled with: “It makes you question, if I hadn’t spent time with social media and on my devices, how many more hours would I have spent honing my craft as a writer and instrumentalist.”

We’re in an era where we are seeing artists grow up in front of our eyes in real time.

There’s a concept I discuss in the second edition of my book: the difference between Constant Creators and “I, Artists” (my terms). Constant Creators are the Instagrammers, the YouTubers, the ones who are more concerned with quantity over quality. They release stuff all the time. They aren’t precious about what they put out. They just get it out to the best of their current abilities. We’re talking artists like Scary Pockets, Clairo, Jacob Collier and Halsey (in the beginning). They build an audience who connect with their DIY nature and grow with them. I, Artists, on the other hand, come out of the gates fully formed. Like a Lady Gaga or Lana Del Rey or vōx or Billie Eilish. Their aesthetic, story, sound and songs are fully formed from the moment they launch. Now, of course, they weren’t born this way. They spent years behind the scenes, honing their craft and working all of this out so when they officially ‘launched’ they were able to showcase the Artist project they envisioned.

There is no right or wrong way to go about a music career in this day and age. And every artist exists somewhere on this spectrum. Of course, it’s a lot more expensive to launch out of the gates as an I, Artist, because it requires high quality photos, videos, production and a strong handle on social media communication. And a strong sense of self. With a very clear vision of the kind of Artist you want to be and what you want to represent to the world.

But it is important to be intentional about everything you do and to understand the function of every platform regardless if you are an I, Artist or Constant Creator.

Instagram is the new website. No matter where you are on the Constant Creator / I, Artist spectrum, it’s never a good idea to only showcase your food, inside jokes with best friends or photos of landscapes. That doesn’t represent you, as an Artist (unless you’re a food blogger or photographer). If you want people to follow you (and eventually become a fan), you have to provide value to their lives.

+How This Artist Grew To 500,000 Monthly Spotify Listeners Without Playlists

New, potential fans who land on your Instagram profile should be able to get a solid understanding of who you are as an Artist within 10 seconds.

It’s great to have videos (clips and/or IGTV) of you performing. Have some story highlights with swipe up links. Whether you have 500 followers or 500,000, be intentional about your Instagram. You don’t have to post every day. But when you do, it should accurately represent who you are, as an artist, at this moment, and what you want to communicate to the world.

There’s a debate about hashtags. I support them. I don’t give a f*ck that some people think it makes you look desperate or whatever. You don’t need a ton of them. But throw a few in there. They are effective. Don’t believe me? Try a few posts out with hashtags (that have less than 5M posts) and check the analytics in a few days and notice how many people discovered that post FROM the hashtags. It’s not negligible.

Follower numbers don’t matter. Vanity metrics don’t matter. It’s all about engagement.

I’m so over people who tell me about how many followers they have. A couple taps through their posts I can tell very quickly if those followers are fake or disengaged.

+Dear Indie Distributors Stop Punishing Your Artists. It’s Not Their Fault

We are living in a post follower reality. You don’t want followers. You want fans. Followers can become fans. But only if you engage with them. And they’re only going to engage if you do as well. You have to look at social media, not as a megaphone, but as a telephone. Have a conversation with your audience. Don’t talk at them. Talk with them.

But above all, you have to use Instagram in a way that inspires you. If you try to chase what everyone else does and copy everyone else, you most likely will lose interest very quickly, burn out and give up. Or people will see that it’s unoriginal and inauthentic and choose not to follow or engage with you.

There are ways to authentically represent who you are in an engaging way. But if you aren’t inspired by Instagram, you won’t want to use it. And you can’t force it.

So have fun with it. You can, of course, look to other accounts for inspiration to see how they’re doing it and if their way makes sense, but use it in a way that works for you. There are no hard and fast rules because the platform and the etiquette evolve so quickly. And that’s why it’s important to stay up with it.

+How Do Producer (and Songwriter) Splits Work

If you absolutely hate Instagram and want nothing to do with it. Ok. But you need to enlist someone who digs it and is willing to help you with it. You can’t ignore it. You don’t have to live on it. And I’ll be the first to admit that when I spend too much time on it, I get sad. Like, it brings my energy down and I become uninspired. If you need to set a routine for yourself, set a routine and only do the Instagram thing at select times. If you need to enlist a friend or a niece or an intern to help you develop your IG strategy and direct you on what to do (or completely handle it) so you don’t have to worry about it. Do it.

I was just talking with a friend who said that her publicist put so much pressure on her to post every day that she actually developed extreme anxiety around posting and it became so debilitating that she just gave up posting on IG altogether because she got so burnt out from the pressure. And lost all enjoyment from it. She’s an incredibly talented artist and all of the momentum she had built stalled because she stopped engaging on IG.

It has to be a balance. You have to be inspired. I know extremely successful people on IG (150,000 followers+) who post once a month or so to their profile and a couple times a week to their Stories. There are no rules. But it can definitely help to be consistent. But regardless of how often you post, when you do, make sure it’s in line with what you want to represent right now as an Artist.

Yeah, it sucks that we can’t just focus on the music, man. I get it.

You didn’t get into music to get good at social media. But it’s part of the business now, man. Throughout history there have always been things that musicians had to do that they didn’t like – like give interviews to idiots, do VIP meet and greets, play their hit on yet another TV show, play corporate parties, glad-hand radio personalities. The business evolves and so do the strategies for success. And once you have a team, you can work with this team to split up all of the responsibilities so you all utilize your strengths and no one focuses on things they aren’t good at or hate. But until then, you (or someone you enlist) need to take some care with your business if you want to have a music career – and not just a bedroom hobby.

Listen to the full interview with Victoria Canal on The Third Story with Leo Sidran.

Subscribe to my new podcast: The New Music Business with Ari Herstand

About the Author

Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

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