The Napster Of Social Media

We expect a constant flow of free bite-sized content, even from professional creators. That won't last—if the actions of music's savviest minds are any indication.

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Over the past four years, Jay-Z has tweeted precisely four times. Dr. Dre has posted on Facebook twice in that span. And Kanye West’s Instagram history consists of one post (though, to be fair, he’s been known to delete). Each member of this triumvirate boasts millions upon millions of followers.

So why, in the supposed golden age of social media, do three of the wealthiest musicians on the planet hardly ever post anything?

Though I never asked any of them the last time I had a chance, I’ve developed a theory. All three moguls have gotten to where they are by maintaining ownership of their intellectual property wherever possible, be it for music or business ventures. Giving away tons of content via social media doesn’t fit the model that made them so successful.

Simply put, social posts are content. Creators are supposed to get paid for creating content. But somewhere along the way, technology companies convinced them to start giving it away for free—and conditioned consumers to expect the same. Sound familiar?

Two decades ago, the arrival of mass-market Internet connectivity enabled music fans to download a nearly unlimited buffet of free songs on Napster. The service didn’t last all that long before it was sued into oblivion, but the genie had already left the proverbial bottle: an entire generation became accustomed to getting music for free. It took years for the industry to realize that streaming was the only tenable option in the aftermath of peer-to-peer filesharing, and now Spotify is arguably music’s most important company.

The Napster of social media, in my view, was Myspace. As I argue in my new book We Are All Musicians Now, musical acts have tended to find themselves at the bleeding edge of seismic technological disruptions—and there they were at the dawn of the 21st Century, filling up the first major social network with free content. MySpace accumulated more than 30 million users in its first year, thanks to bands from Weezer to Depeche Mode who used the service to promote new albums.

Myspace famously went the way of Napster, albeit with fewer lawsuits, descending into a zombie underworld of repeated half-baked rebirths (a fate that could have been averted, had the company’s founders not turned down an offer to buy Facebook for a reported $75 million in 2005). Mark Zuckerberg’s upstart eventually fulfilled the commercial potential—and brain-rotting downside—of Myspace, partly by maintaining the notion that creators should fill the platform with a geyser of infinite free content.

To musicians already accustomed to the Myspace model, it felt natural enough to dole out bits of content via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in the service of promoting albums and tours. It seemed a lot like the return of the old radio paradigm, where recording artists got paid for spins in exposure value only. But then these companies started racking up valuations in the billions; Facebook today is a trillion-dollar company.

Most musicians have since continued to rely heavily on social media as a promotional tool. Some turned increasingly to startups like Patreon—founded by Jack Conte, one half of the band Pomplamoose—which offered a path to monetizing bits of content, no matter how small. Others pursued wildly alternative strategies: for instance, the Wu-Tang Clan making the first-ever NFT.

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As for Jay-Z, Kanye and Dre, the former two are billionaires and the latter isn’t far off; their earnings are more tied up in business ventures than in music. There are plenty of quiet mega-moguls out there, and just because these three came up as musicians doesn’t mean that’s their primary job anymore.

Take LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet. He bought half of Jay-Z’s Armand de Brignac champagne brand earlier this year, but people don’t write think pieces about why he’s not more active on social media. He makes his money building luxury brands, just like Jay-Z did with his bubbly, or Kanye did with Yeezy, or Dre did with Beats. So maybe we should compare them to moguls like Arnault—and not to pop stars like Shawn Mendes or Olivia Rodrigo who have entirely different business models.

In the meantime, there are signs that the freebie era of social media may be fading to some extent. TikTok has committed to pay creators hundreds of millions directly, while Facebook recently announced a plan to pay out $1 billion to creative influencers through 2022. Platforms like Medium, Ghost and—yes—Substack are also betting big on the freemium distribution model, encouraging writers to save their best stuff for paid subscribers.

And although Twitter never paid Jay-Z to post, note the timing of his March 2021 tweet, his first in two years: it came right after Twitter founder Jack Dorsey agreed to buy a controlling stake in Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service for a cool $297 million.

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