How Instagram Became The Music Industry’s Secret Weapon

Led by Beyoncé’s former digital guru, Instagram wants to help artists make the most of its music-obsessed users.

How Instagram Became The Music Industry’s Secret Weapon
[Source photos: Flickr users Kristopher Harris, Sarah_Ackerman]

To understand the power Instagram holds for the music industry, look no further than Beyoncé’s baby bump. If you were anywhere near the internet on February 1 of this year, you likely saw the now famous photo of the pregnant diva looking out behind a green veil. But the viral photograph wasn’t clandestinely shot for the cover of Vanity Fair, nor was the announcement of her pregnancy sent out as a press release to journalists. It wasn’t even a Facebook post. The image, with the twin baby news as its caption, was shared with Beyoncé’s 100 million-plus Instagram followers and began rocketing toward the 11 million likes–the image boasts today as the single most-liked photo in Instagram’s history.


In this scenario–as in most scenarios–it certainly helps to be Beyoncé. But the singer’s frenzied Instagram virality is just the extreme end of a broader trend: Across the board, Instagram is huge for music, serving as a uniquely addictive and organic conduit between artists and fans. Despite the social network’s roots as a photo app, four of its five most-followed accounts belong to music stars (Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift join Beyoncé in the top five). And of Instagram’s 800 million users worldwide, about 350 million follow 10 or more verified musicians.

Not surprisingly, Instagram’s users are more music-oriented than the general population. They spend 30% more time listening to music each week and are twice as likely to pay for a streaming service, according to a Nielsen study commissioned by Instagram last year.

The app isn’t just a digital playground for Grammy winners and Billboard chart toppers, either. Artists of all stripes, from pop superstars to DIY indie bands and bedroom songwriters gravitate to Instagram to promote their work, document their day, seek inspiration, and interact with others. In fact, it’s rare to find an active band, singer, or other musical artist who doesn’t have an Instagram account.

This music-focused use case may not have been what Instagram originally set out to do; it actually appears to be accidental. But the Facebook-owned company is now embracing its role in artists’ lives and working closely with the music industry to make the most of this unexpected relationship.


“For artists, this is a real creative space where they can reach a community super effectively by expressing their visual voice in the most raw possible way,” says Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood, Instagram’s head of music partnerships. “They don’t need to rely on all the old-school forms of communication like radio advertisements. When they want to announce that they’re going on a world tour and tickets are available, a lot of them announce it first on Instagram.”

In late 2015, Instagram hired Wirtzer-Seawood, a music industry veteran best known for heading up digital strategy at Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, to work directly with artists and their teams on getting the most mileage out of the social network. After all, who better to help Instagram tighten its bond with artists than the woman who helped make Beyoncé the digitally savvy, goldmine of internet excitement she is today?

“A lot of what I did with Beyoncé on Instagram has given me the foundation to work in a meaningful way with a lot of artists,” Wirtzer-Seawood says. “I think a lot of people are trying to emulate what she’s done on the platform, which is really about maintaining control of the narrative. She releases information via Instagram in the way that she wants it to be perceived and consumed.”

What Instagram’s Music Team Does

As the head of a two-woman team, Wirtzer-Seawood spends her days teaching Instagram best practices to artists, managers, and labels, cluing them into new app features, and brainstorming creative strategies for campaigns designed to hype new albums, sell merchandise, publicize tours, and otherwise encourage artists to use Instagram to express themselves and interact with fans as much as possible.

“If we have a new project, we’ll bring in the Instagram team and we’ll play music,” says Kathy Baker, senior VP of digital marketing at Columbia Records. “We’ll talk about the bands and the artists, how they’re using Instagram. We’ll talk about what we could make better, share ideas. We’re always collaborating.”


A big part of Wirtzer-Seawood’s job is keeping these industry relationships fresh so Instagram can play a role whenever it’s time for an artist to promote a new project. In recent months, Instagram’s music team has worked closely with Lady Gaga, Zayn Malik, and Chance the Rapper, as well as up-and-coming artists like singer-songwriter Julia Michaels and Khalid, a 19-year-old R&B singer from El Paso, Texas.

In most cases, artists prefer to maintain their own Instagram accounts, occasionally taking direction (and pre-produced bits of content) from labels and managers. Wirtzer-Seawood’s job is to help these teams milk every bit of promotional value out of the artists’ accounts without taking away from the natural interactive feel that people expect from their scrolling sessions.

“Artists have these amazing, organic, creative ideas and they have ideas of how they want those visual efforts to come to life on Instagram,” says Wirtzer-Seawood. “A lot of times I’ll talk it through with them and help them think about what will work best.”

Sometimes, she admits, the ideas are not terribly creative. The instinct to re-post a tour flyer, with a layout and typography designed for print rather than small screens, is a bad habit that Wirtzer-Seawood often has to politely discourage. “Anything with copy that feels overly promotional just doesn’t work as well on the platform,” she says.

Instagram is also boosting its presence at music festivals and award shows, which is a fairly natural extension of something that’s already happening (anyone who’s ever been to a concert is familiar with the “sea of phones” that emerges from the crowd). Instagram has partnered with big music festivals to capitalize on the tendency for people to ‘gram their way through live music events, often displaying attendees’ photos on the stadium jumbotron. This year, Wirtzer-Seawood spearheaded a new partnership with the Recording Academy, launching a Grammy-focused video channel and setting up a photo booth and other on-site activations at the 2017 Grammy Awards.

Lady Gaga using Instagram Live before the 2017 Grammys. [Screenshots: courtesy of Instagram]

How Musicians Use Instagram

Adele, Selena Gomez, Beck, Drake, and Radiohead are just a few of the musicians who have shared news of all sorts on Instagram in recent months. For recording artists, Instagram offers a place to not just promote their albums, tease new songs and artwork, and post selfies. It also lets them craft a self-curated visual narrative about their lives and personalities. It’s really not all that different from the kind of document-my-day, self-promotional social media behavior employed by the rest of us. It just happens to bleed over quite naturally into the lives of musicians.

“I post everything on my Instagram,” says Khalid, who recently (and rather quickly) surpassed 1 million followers. “Sometimes I use it to premiere things. Say I have a song coming out, I’ll post it on Instagram.”

It helps that artists don’t need to be convinced by managers and labels of the value Instagram holds for their career (which is not necessarily true for other social media platforms.) “There’s not much of an educational process that we have to do with the artists,” says Columbia Records’ Baker. “They’re either utilizing Instagram personally or for their music, but there’s not much a learning curve there.”

As an app whose purpose is rooted in creative expression, it’s a pretty natural sell for artists who sketch in sound (and most likely have strong visual images too). That appeal has only grown stronger as Instagram has expanded the length of its video clips and tacked on other audio-visual features.

How Instagram Stories And Live Have Played Out For Artists

Instagram Stories and Instagram Live, the ephemeral video features launched by the company late last year, have given artists yet another tool for broadcasting their lives and interacting with fans.


In just one year, Instagram’s Snapchat-like Stories feature has been a massive success. Since its launch, Stories (which encourages more minute-by-minute interaction than the original Instagram feed) has helped drive a 66% increase in daily users for Instagram overall. Musicians wasted no time putting the new feature to use: Zayne Malik, Diplo, Lana Del Ray, Future, and Lady Gaga have used Stories to make announcements and post behind-the-scenes clips. Lady Gaga’s 2016 release of her “Perfect Illusion” single, for example, was heavily documented via Instagram Stories, as was the backstage preparation for her Super Bowl halftime show performance.

Since the launch of Instagram Live, fans have tuned in to live streams from superstars in scenarios that range from formal and promotional to lounging-at-home casual. Nicki Minaj used Live to tease her video for “Regret In Your Tears” in May, while more than 200,000 people tuned into Kendrick Lamar’s pop-up album signing in Los Angeles in April. Even when they don’t have something to promote, artists like Chance the Rapper, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber are known “go live” in more intimate, off-the-cuff moments–like this video of Chance the Rapper riding around Chicago looking for a RedEye newsstand after fellow Chicago rapper Noname landed on the cover. Or Rihanna watching her “Bates Motel” debut on TV.  Seemingly unfiltered moments like these offer fans something MTV and VH1 never could: a sense of what it might be like to hang out with the artists whose music they love, and even communicate with them through live comments (which the stars often read aloud during the livestream).  Since it all happens on the same social network used by many, if not most, of the people we know in real life, the experience has a way of blurring the line between friendship and fandom.

“You can probably reach more people there than anywhere else, like your Facebook or your Twitter or whatever,” says Diplo, the DJ and producer whose Instagram feed feels like a cross between a GQ fashion photo shoot and a never-ending dance rager. “Something could be shot right here in the Burger King parking lot, get posted to Instagram, and go viral in like an hour.”

For smaller artists who don’t command the massive audiences enjoyed by top DJs and pop stars, Instagram can still be a valuable tool for self-expression and promotion. Even if they’re not as obsessively active on Instagram as some—posting everything from previews of new songs and boredom-killing moments from the tour van to funny memes—musicians often benefit from the organic, FOMO-inspiring buzz created when fans post clips from their shows. Even for users unfamiliar with an up-and-coming band or artist, a flurry of Instagram posts from their friends can be enough to create a sense that the artist is worth checking out. And as Instagram’s discovery and recommendation algorithms get smarter, that exposure can wind up spreading to even more people who are likely to become fans.

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Some Tangible Results

Because the real-world business impact of social media is often indirect, it can be hard to quantify how big a role it plays in the music industry’s bottom line. After all, Instagram is just as effective for killing time and screwing around as it is for effective marketing. That said, the app has yielded some tangible results for artists and labels.

“When an influencer posts to Instagram our music or something about our artists, we are able to track that and see: Why did we see a spike in sales on this particular day?” says Baker. “Usually it’s a bump in sales or streams.”

Columbia watched this phenomenon unfold when YouTube personality Jake Paul included the song “Rolex” by the label’s artist Ayo & Teo in one of his Instagram videos earlier this year, which lead to a surge in streaming activity for the duo.

Similarly, when Lebron James played a track by up-and-coming rapper Tee Grizzley in the background of one of his Instagram posts, the young hip-hop artist picked up half a million Instagram followers in the span of a month and saw his record sales triple. The Instagram music sales spike isn’t unique to new songs, either. In mid-2016, Sony Records saw a 47% increase in sales for the ’90s R&B song “My Boo” after it was included in the background of the viral #RunningManChallenge videos on Instagram.

As artists’ audiences grow, Instagram becomes another source of useful analytics data for artists and their teams. Along with data from Spotify and other streaming services, the audience analytics tool Instagram Insights helps artists understand who their fans are—and can even help inform strategic decisions like where to route an upcoming tour by identifying where fans are clustered in the real world.


“We just had a meeting with Lil Yachty,” says Wirtzer-Seawood. “He knew everything about his insights on Instagram. He knew where his fans were, how old they are, what time they were most likely to be on the platform. It was fascinating.”

An Imperfect Medium With A Lot of Potential

There’s a scene in the new Lady Gaga documentary on Netflix, Gaga: Five Foot Two, in which the pop diva is about to post new material to Instagram when her friend and collaborator Florence Welch makes a comment about how anxiety-inducing it must be to share something with 25 million people. For a moment, Gaga hesitates as her face seems to acknowledge the slight underlying terror that must come with every tap of the share button.

Gaga posts the image anyway (and continues to do so on the regular), but the exchange highlights one of the challenges famous people face when they remove the public relations buffer entirely. While social media titillates fans with a voyeuristic glimpse into celebrities’ daily lives, it can also open the floodgates to critics, trolls, and harassment. (We mere mortals also deal with online vitriol, of course, but most of us don’t need publicists to weather PR storms.) Last summer, the singer Khelani temporarily deactivated her Instagram account after crude comments about her love life became too much to bear. Even Selena Gomez, the most-followed person on Instagram, has admitted to regularly deleting the app and agonizing over some of the vicious remarks other users have hurled her way. This summer,  the singer’s account was hacked and used to post nude photos of her ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber.

Even when trolling and harassment–problems the company is trying to address with product updates–aren’t an issue, Instagram poses the same challenge to celebrities and musicians as it does to everyone else: For one, too much exposure to social media is scientifically shown to make us unhappy (just ask Gomez). It can also be a major distraction. And for creatives who need the time and mental space to write songs and generate new ideas, staying glued to Instagram 24/7 probably isn’t helpful.

Whatever Instagram’s challenges, the platform’s presence in the music industry likely isn’t going away anytime soon. From the sound of it, Wirtzer-Seawood and her team are just getting started. And while the company won’t divulge what he’s working on just yet (or whether it’s even music-related), it’s probably not a coincidence that Instagram poached Spotify product manager Matthew Ogle earlier this year.


At the same time, Instagram’s parent company Facebook is focusing more on music, too. The social media giant hired music industry veteran Tamara Hrivnak to lead its global music strategy in early 2017, and has been posting and filling music-related jobs ever since. Whether its the sometimes-rumored Facebook streaming service, or just a music-focused component to Facebook’s video ramp up, something new is brewing on the music front at Mark Zuckerberg’s company. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see pieces of it trickle down to Facebook’s most music-obsessed product of all.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things. Find me here: Twitter: @johnpaul Instagram: @feralcatcolonist