W&M STARTER PACKS is a free series unpacking essential foundational concepts for navigating music and tech.
Every two weeks, we’ll ground a timely music-tech topic in evergreen findings from our research projects. Hopefully, this format will give you more context on everything we’re doing as a community, and serve as a jumping-off point for further analysis as we collectively navigate the rapidly shifting music industry.
No matter the genre, geographic region, or time period, community has always been central to music culture. That said, the concept of community has risen to a new level of prominence in the last few years as a critical source of social and commercial resilience in artists’ careers.
Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic forced artists and their teams to adapt their businesses to a world without live shows. In the years that followed, as the industry at large grappled with the low-margin economics of music streaming, many artists responded by investing more intentionally in a community-first digital strategy — which would allow them not only to connect more directly with their fans online, but also to earn revenue more immediately and transparently as a result.
A plethora of playbooks for building digital music communities have emerged in the 2020s as a result of this industry-wide paradigm shift.From private chat and membership platforms like Discord and Patreon, to interactive, 3D virtual worlds such as multiplayer games, to blockchain-powered models for financial support, artists can now wield a wide range of tools to build communities around their work, on their own terms.
How Discord became the modern-day fan forum
This Starter Pack is sponsored by Levellr.
Levellr is a community-as-a-service company that exists to helps creators and brands of all shapes and sizes build, manage, grow, and monetize their Discord communities. Customers include but are not limited to Swedish House Mafia, Maisie Peters, Fred again, and Leigh-Anne Pinnock.
Case study: British singer-songwriter, producer, and remixer Fred again marked the launch of his latest album, Actual Life 3, by making virtual appearances at a series of listening parties organized by fans on Discord, which took place at real-world venues in 18 cities across the globe over the space of just 24 hours. The parties took place a day before the album’s official launch on October 28, 2022, and gave fans the chance to meet in person and share the experience of hearing the album in full before anyone else.
Fred again and his team at Atlantic Records used the Levellr platform to identify the most engaged members of his Discord community and ask them if they’d be up for hosting one of the events. Fans from Helskini to Melbourne and just about everywhere in between responded, agreeing to “own” an event, invite other fans on the Discord server, and liaise with Fred again and the record label to set the music up at the chosen venues.
There was a second chance for members of the server to engage with Fred again at the live community launch party on October 28, where the musician took part in a Discord Q&A session. This latest listening party strategy resulted in attendees sharing a flux of content they’d made at the events on their own social channels, giving the Actual Life 3 launch an extra boost.
Want to learn more about Levellr? Set up a call with Levellr’s Music Lead Taz Sharp here.
What metaphors do people use to describe their favorite online communities?
In the context of thoughtful community design, language is a powerful tool for clarifying a given community’s shared narratives and goals — and visualizing the organizational structures that are most appropriate for guiding members’ experiences as a result.
Our research has revealed three popular metaphors for how people describe their favorite communities:
- Ecosystems — comparable to biological communities inhabiting a physical environment, and/or to complex networks of interconnected systems. This metaphor grounds the importance of sustainability and symbiosis over unhealthy growth or competition; leaders in these kinds of communities often refer to themselves as “gardeners” or “cultivators,” rather than just “managers.”
- Movement — involving the fluid motion of people and ideas across space and time. Critical to the movement metaphor is a sense of momentum, which community members can build up through collective action towards a shared vision or goal for the future.
- Extension — both expanding one’s individual sense of self through interacting with like-minded others, and cultivating a collective identity that makes members feel like part of something much larger than themselves, and whose salience reaches far beyond the community’s borders.
What tools should artists use to run their communities?
It’s important to establish upfront that technology alone won’t solve a community’s problems or needs. Artists cannot foster vibrant communities without the right mindset — namely, that community is about building multiway relationships with fans, not just about selling products to them.
This is a long game that takes time and effort to do well, involving a combination of the right staff on hand (community managers and moderators are among the most in-demand roles in the music industry today), in addition to the best tools for facilitating those relationships both online and offline. The exact tools an artist needs to run a music community will depend on their specific career goals, audience behaviors, and comfort level with fan engagement.
- Paid memberships and subscriptions (e.g. Patreon, Substack) tend to work well for artists who are comfortable releasing behind-the-scenes content on a consistent basis, in addition to their regular public-facing cadence of songs and other content.
- Livestreaming (e.g. Twitch, Sessions)works well for artists who command a strong on-camera stage presence, and/or who have a tight-knit base of superfans who crave recognition and would otherwise be under-monetized (especially without IRL tours).
- Real-time group chat apps (e.g. Discord) work well for artists who want to build communities with the primary purpose of fluidly sharing information among participants, and/or who want to consolidate multiple forms of communication (text, video, voice) into one single hub.
No matter the approach, it’s important that community tools give artists more transparency into fan data, as well as more direct control over the context in which their work is presented.
What role does the “metaverse” play in modern community-building?
A lot of recent effort around digital community-building in music has focused on “metaverse” platforms — particularly video games and 3D virtual worlds — that can make digital music experiences more social, immersive, and interactive.
What draws many artists to the concept of the metaverse is the possibility for:
- More creative and collaborative approaches to storytelling,
- More direct fan connections that cut through the noise, and
- More sustainable forms of performance income beyond physical touring.
From off-the-shelf world-building arenas like Minecraft and Nowhere, to platforms like Voxels and Decentraland for the more Web3-inclined, several accessible tools exist today for artists to start building custom worlds around their creative work, inviting fans to create and connect with each other in ways that would not be possible IRL.
Several technical challenges persist to making music metaverse experiences truly seamless — from a lack of interoperability among platforms, to ongoing limitations around graphics rendering that might make virtual-world experiences glitchy for select users. That said, you don’t even necessarily need a 3D virtual world to lean into the concept of the “metaverse” in a meaningful way. As long as you are telling a compelling story around your art across multiple platforms, and inviting fans to interact and co-create with each other around that story arc on a regular basis, you’re well on your way there.
Why are so many music communities going into Web3?
Web3 has been one of the most hyped-up music-tech trends of the last few years, and it’s definitely not for everybody.
That said, there are three main reasons why a growing number of music communities see Web3 as critical to achieving their goals, in a way where Web2 platforms fall short:
- Shared bank accounts — whereby communities can use tokens to raise and deploy funds more transparently, and at a faster pace, compared to traditional funding models. With the right decision-making structures, shared access to a treasury can be a powerful mechanism for incentivizing collective action towards shared goals.
- Influence by participation — whereby one can earn influence in an organization simply by participating and contributing to its growth, instead of by holding a certain amount of financial capital beforehand. This has a direct line to the participatory nature of many global fan cultures, especially outside of the US and Europe.
- Flatter, more transparent organizational structures — whereby membership, financing, and governance activities can be viewed transparently on the blockchain by anybody. Many music communities see this choice of technology as an important countering force to ongoing consolidation and opaque data practices in the Web2 music industry.