How to use Discord as an artist
This article was originally published on Resident Advisor as part of Water & Music founder Cherie Hu’s guest-edited month of June, featuring specially curated content exploring new possibilities in music and tech.
How we speak to each other on the internet is changing. As the chaos and toxicity of social media continue to drive users away, “community” has become the buzzword du jour—representing a shift from top-down, platform-centric, one-to-many communication to horizontal, organic, peer-to-peer relationships. For artists, promoters and labels, social platforms can be a mental and financial drain: countless hours invested in building an audience you don’t own, on platforms dictated by an opaque and ever-changing algorithm. That lack of authentic connection has led many users to look elsewhere to develop a safe space with meaningful relationships and interactions. For 140 million monthly users and counting, that elsewhere is Discord.
“If we think about traditional social platforms, ultimately they’re broadcast media,” said Tom Gayner, the CEO of Levellr, a company that works with labels like Def Jam, Atlantic, Warner and Island, claiming to help artists and brands cultivate community online. “You are Tweeting at, Instagramming at, TikToking at your fans. Yes, they can comment below, but it’s still hierarchical,” he added. “Platforms like Discord, we can all speak, we can all engage with each other, and that creates a platform for genuine community.”
What is Discord?
Starting out as an app for gamers to chat across multiple consoles and devices, Discord has become a go-to community-building destination. In the electronic music world, it’s used by everyone from NTS Radio and Hunee to FKA twigs, Richie Hawtin, Grimes, Fred again.. and Arca. You could think of Discord as a giant WhatsApp group organised into customisable sections, not unlike Slack. On top of chat feeds, Discord also offers livestreaming and screen sharing, as well as Stages, an audio-broadcasting feature similar to Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.
Like many businesses focused on connection online, Discord saw a boost during the pandemic, as the locked-down masses sought comfort and distraction. Twitch’s 2020 expansion from gaming to DJ streams and music production tutorials (among other things) trickled down to Discord, where many of the biggest streamers were already cultivating their own communities.
Servers like hip-hop producer Kenny Beats saw an influx of curious beatmakers. The US artist hosted regular battles, remix competitions and other community-first initiatives. Disclosure, too, took to Discord and held their own remix contests and livestreams from their London studio. Grimes’s Metaverse Super Beta server featured DJ sets and unreleased music previews from the multi-faceted artist. More recently, Fred again.. asked members of his server to vote on ideas that eventually became songs on his latest album, Actual Life 3 (January 1 – September 9 2022).
“He literally made fans part of his album-writing process months before [the album came out],” said Gayner. “Traditionally, artists work on [time-limited] campaigns. If you flip that on its head and start to engage your fans in the downtime, when you’re writing and preparing new music, they’ve been with you on that whole journey.” (Full disclosure: Levellr helps manage the UK artist’s server.)
How to get involved
An established artist’s route to Discord is straightforward. Once your new server is up and running, a social media and email blast will naturally filter your most passionate fans from your passive ones, resulting in a core and engaged audience from the start.
How can newer or smaller artists build a community that becomes self-sustainable over time? No one wants to hang out in a digital ghost town. Gayner suggested that Discord may not be the best option to start with, recommending other messaging apps to start building a community without the expectation of continued discussion across different threads. “[On] platforms like Telegram, you can have one group, or you could evolve it to two over time,” he said, “but it allows for scale. You can get your first 20 people in and start having a conversation.”
Once you’ve got an engaged group, however small, taking it to Discord is a delicate process. Creating too many channels upfront can make members feel overwhelmed and foster a sense of sparseness that can put people off. Start small and ask your community what they want—channels they’d like to see, topics they’d like covered, weekly livestreams or Stage hangouts. Not only does it help you grow at your own pace, but it allows the community to participate beyond just conversation.
Also, despite artists spending the last 15 years being told metrics, numbers and scale are what define success online, growing too fast could overwhelm your early adopters. “I think very rapid growth in a Discord server is potentially a neutral or even a negative sign,” said Katherine Bassett, the community lead for Water & Music. “[You need] a core foundation of users who are showing up and ultimately creating value for everyone else who might be lurkers or more casual users.”
Sustaining your community
The biggest challenge isn’t necessarily convincing users to join your server—it’s encouraging them to stay. Derrick Gee, a former NTS Radio and Sirius XM resident turned music curator, started helping artists launch Discord servers only to see them struggle to take off. “I think we tried to provide the narrative for the community,” Gee said, “which meant it didn’t feel organic. We set up rules and channels and ways of interacting, which felt disingenuous.”
Artist buy-in is also key. “[The artists] saw Discord as another social media platform to ‘own your audience.’ Just because fans love you as an artist doesn’t mean there’s a community with a shared worldview that they want to exist in together.”
A more organic approach led NTS Radio to launch its own Discord server in 2022. “NTS listeners have always found a way to connect among themselves,” the station’s head of communications, Will Dickson, told me. “We’ve seen NTS threads on obscure music forums, old chatroom services, WhatsApp broadcasts, Facebook groups, even IRL meet-ups. It’s nice to think that NTS played a role in founding a few friendships, so we hoped that by running our own Discord server we could facilitate a bit more connection between listeners.”
Gee—whose own server, Music Is Mid, was started by a community of fans of his livestreams, who then invited Gee to join—feels you have to let go of control in order for a community to feel natural. “I quickly realised that I was a part of the server, rather than the leader or focus of it,” he said. “My content and engagement with the community naturally created a space that people wanted to exist in. It’s not as if people are talking about me all day, they’re talking about things we are interested in as a community: music, food, concerts, etc.”
Gee said that while he cares about the server’s members, it’s important not to feel responsible for the mood and tone at all times, as well as the happiness of the community. “[If I did] I would then over-share and post in order to ‘engage the community,’ which isn’t the point. It lives and breathes on its own and one needs to go with the flow,” he explained.
Monetization and moderation
Allowing a community the autonomy to grow without the artist’s continued involvement can cultivate a healthy and vibrant space—but it can also become a moderation nightmare. “Major labels and major artists are becoming increasingly interested in Discord servers and communities because lots of unofficial servers are run by fans and completely unmoderated,” said Bassett. “It’s a big reputational risk for a lot of artists.”
The app has had widespread moderation problems in the past, having been forced to shut down white supremacist servers and accounts, and take action against revenge porn and abuse. Whether the problem stems from Discord itself or is simply an unfortunate reality of building a digital space that allows for free-flowing conversation, it’s important to factor in how these problems can be tackled, should they arise.
Discord provides its own moderation tools like anti-spam timers, reporting functionality and bots that will automatically warn, mute, kick or ban users from specific channels or servers, depending on rules set by the admins. For a more manual and nuanced approach, artists can elect highly engaged fans as moderators and pay them in perks like guestlist for life or meet-and-greets.
Earlier this year, Discord also introduced subscription models, allowing artists to charge a monthly fee for access to a server or certain channels. Subscriber sections could include everything from early access to merch drops and ticket sales to exclusive video content and livestreams, not unlike Patreon. As it stands, server monetisation is only available in the US.
Currently available worldwide, though, is the ability to gate aspects of your community by creating private sections or areas within a server. While it’s common for servers to gate access to channels until users have verified they’re not a bot or have agreed to the rules, there are other more creative ways to restrict access to filter member type and commitment. Patreon also integrates with Discord to grant tiered access based on existing subscriptions, used by NTS Radio to segment their supporters.
“Discord was a great way to add a fenced-off area just for our supporters,” said Dickson. “We have a direct line to [them], and vice versa. They get more behind-the-scenes updates that we might not share on our other socials or newsletters, and we can get instant listener feedback.”
Established artists have also been experimenting with gating, segmenting the most engaged fans into a private channel and creating a street team to promote artists’ new releases, shows and more. “We can start to encourage them to go on their own socials, and out into their worlds and speak about what the artist has coming up,” said Gayner. “This is working well. But you shouldn’t be gating just for the sake of gating.”
Gating could also foster a tiered system, frustrating or excluding certain members, leading to a sense of entitlement or exclusivity. How to implement it, or whether to implement it at all, will vary depending from server to server.
The future of community
After a decade of Big Tech bottlenecks, barriers are coming down and fans and artists are organically connecting again. While Discord certainly isn’t perfect—and not every artist is able to port to the platform successfully—it can be effective at building a highly customisable community and authentically engaging your audience. Gayner said that shift has been mirrored behind the scenes, too.
“Last year [we spent a lot of time explaining what Discord was], then it was ‘Let’s launch this because Gen Z is there and it seems cool,” he said. “Now [in 2023], labels see the power of it. They’ve bought in. People are waking up to the opportunity and the fact that this is about quality conversion, versus pure scale.”
If you do decide to start your own server, Gee’s advice was simple: “Don’t do it because you think you should. The fundamental step is knowing there is a community there that wants it. It’s not a space for you to promote your work, it’s a place for like-minded people to get together.”