Sounding Board

Socials Distance: Can Indie Artists Quit Twitter Or Instagram Without Hurting Their Careers?

Over the last decade, myriad factors have (for better and worse) upended the culture surrounding “indie” music. Its dissemination and overall makeup have been altered, especially as “indie” as a term has come less to represent a previously established ethos and more a programming-friendly marketing term. But few elements of modern life have so thoroughly changed indie — specifically, the ways in which musicians attract a larger audience beyond merely releasing music — the way that the prevalence of social media has.

The near-instantaneous level of access that listeners of all stripes have acquired when it comes to their favorite artists’ digital attention has drastically changed the culture surrounding indie rock and other indie-adjacent variants, effectively flattening the playing field between some of corporate pop’s up-and-comers and indie’s biggest stars. “If you are worried about social media and spending too much time on it and you don’t quit because you think you need it to have a career…it’s NOT necessarily true!” So said Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on Twitter last month, but — especially when taking into consideration recent events — if anything, social media is increasingly essential to indie musicians’ entire existence.

It’s almost too fitting that the turning point in this shift — a heightened focus on persona and fandom within indie culture that closely mirrors pop’s increasingly toxic “stan” culture — centered around a misunderstanding that took place online. After Mac DeMarco (an artist who, incidentally, is inactive on social media) announced the release of his latest album Here Comes The Cowboy last year, Twitter users were quick to identify similarities between the album’s title and that of Mitski’s Be The Cowboy from the previous year; as it goes with so many online micro-controversies, things quickly got out of hand as the latter’s fans rushed to her defense unprompted. “Being on Twitter feels like I went to a restaurant, asked for a burger, they didn’t have it, so I asked for noodles instead, except an angry group appeared and threatened to torch the place for not giving me a burger,” Mitski tweeted regarding the non-troversy. Several months later, she deleted her social media presence entirely and has yet to return to the platform.

Mitski’s decision to completely disappear from social media — like Father John Misty and, uh, Kanye West before her — was as understandable as it is increasingly rare. (After Lizzo — an artist whose mainstream visibility eclipses that of Mitski’s but who nonetheless retains similarly fervent online fandom — claimed she was quitting Twitter earlier this year due to “too many trolls,” her account has nonetheless remained active with regular promotional updates signed by her management team.) It’s inarguable, too, that Mitski is one of a very few artists on her level of public exposure that can afford to deactivate, especially as “_____ Reactivates Social Media Accounts” has taken its place as an anticipatory headline amongst the indie-adjacent artists just one level of exposure above her.

Otherwise, as the scope of music coverage has shrunk online, the last five years have seen the answer to the question of whether indie-centric artists should join social media shift from “if” to “when.” Even notoriously press-reticent artists like Bill Callahan are on Twitter now, cracking wise about Baby Yoda and referencing Pootie Tang — a generational shift, to be sure, from the pre-digital days of the 1980s and 1990s that Callahan hails from, a time in which the makers of the music grouped under the “college rock” and “indie rock” umbrellas were largely prized for their lack of public-facing personality.

It’s indicative of the speed at which popular culture has moved over the past decade that, at the top of the 2010s, image in indie had been de-emphasized to the point where total anonymity was the fastest way to get noticed. The lion’s share of the musicians that embraced this self-promotional non-approach — eschewing press photos, donning masks in performance to obscure one’s face, and more often than not declining to identify oneself entirely — worked in various shades of electronic pop, a subgenre of music that’s largely overtaken traditional rock music to define modern indie as a whole.

There were a few precedents for this micro-phenomenon, which encompassed the lifespan of various chillwave projects and peaked with alt-R&B’s sonic inflection point in indie. The then-faceless presentation of Burial, whose decayed take on British rave and UK garage proved massively influential in the first half of the 2010s, loomed large and was also part of a greater legacy of anonymity in dance and electronic music’s history. More impactfully, the Weeknd’s intentionally camera-shy tendencies circa the release of his 2011 debut House Of Balloons practically birthed several waves of artists — from once-buzzy soft-pop project Rhye and OVO duo dvsn to bass-adjacent producer Evian Christ and R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R. — that initially wielded enigmatic tendencies as a virtue.

Nine years later, the Weeknd — specifically, Abel Tesfaye — is an easily recognizable megastar in the world of popular music and beyond. Although the declining use of anonymity as self-promotion wasn’t intrinsically tied to his fast and meteoric rise, the ways and means of making a name for oneself in the digital age were quickly evolving, as Twitter and Instagram played an ever-increasing role in musicians maintaining a regular presence in the pop-cultural landscape. There are, of course, exceptions to this otherwise dominant trend; the community-dependent genres of punk and metal are still largely reliant on a mathematically imprecise combination of in-the-know word of mouth and the dumb luck of acquiring greater coverage by more generalist publications.

But the constantly expanding world of alternative pop is the best evidence yet that taking an intensely engagement-centric social media approach is itself enough to build and sustain a reasonably healthy career. Billie Eilish’s still-ascending arc of success was easily measured by the astronomical increase in Instagram followers she accrued by year. Over the last several years, Charli XCX effectively rehabilitated her career to capture the micro-zeitgeist after flirting with major-label casualty status, maintaining a ubiquitous online presence and meme’ing herself to the top of the alt-pop crop. In the case of Grimes — an artist who’s straddled the indie and pop worlds for most of her entire career — a say-anything attitude towards social media has kept her presence almost constantly felt in the digital realm of popular culture, even as her musical output has been marked by long stretches of inactivity.

For indie artists, a regular social media presence is by no means key to breaking through to a larger audience. But it’s become a necessity to game the attention economy — or, at the least, to stay afloat within it — nonetheless. Despite trafficking in more left-of-center sounds, guitarist Ryley Walker has undoubtedly gained more press and digital attention due to his Twitter account, which often reads like a laser-pointed roast of the last 25 years of indie rock culture as a whole. Even though Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas has steadily become one of the past decade’s most vital indie artists through a rich and growing catalog of daring songwriting, it’s a near-guarantee that his perpetually-viral tweets have also put his project’s name in front of people’s eyes before his music has hit their ears.

“I’ve had people tell me that I should just be sad and not joke around on Twitter,” Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas told me back in 2014, and he’s not the only indie artist that’s expressed ambivalence — to me, and to the general public — about his social media presence. Shortly after Mitski deactivated her own Twitter account, Jay Som’s Melina Duterte told me in an interview around last year’s Anak Ko, “I have a weird relationship with social media now — I’m very scared of it… You don’t have to share everything about yourself, but people want that, and I’m aware of it.”

A couple weeks ago, Duterte was one of many artists who had to cancel tour dates due to the coronavirus pandemic — a list that grew exponentially until most American cities reached the point of total shutdown that they currently stand at. There’s no touring revenue to be had, at all, and it’s unclear whether the act of touring itself will be able to resume any time soon. Six months ago, maintaining a regular social media presence was, although increasingly essential, still an opt-out when it came to avenues for musicians to grow a career. If the future continues on the path it’s currently at, it’ll no longer be an option.