Article Opinion

Instagram sucks for musicians

Muted sound, the wrong status incentives, meaningless metrics.

Here’s why Instagram sucks for musicians:

  • muted sound
  • wrong status incentives
  • weak, meaningless metrics

Today I’ll develop those reasons a bit. Then, we can look at where else to spend our time.

Muted sound

Musicians create value with sound. They use images, video, and text to add value in broader contexts, but the value remains in sound.

How often do you turn on sound while using Instagram? Not often.

When you turn on sound, why do you do it? To hear your favourite people.

You keep off the sound at all other times, because you don’t want to hear all those other people.

Musicians can’t create value on a platform that has muted sound. If someone hears you on Instagram, then they already know and like you. You’re connected, and you’ve already created value together.

But does the ability to add contextual value make up for it? Musicians could appeal to people with images/video/text, and strike up relationships with them.

Instagram provides only the temporary appearance of that, and it forces the wrong status incentives upon everyone.

Wrong status incentives

Musicians make a body of work that resonates with people, and prosper as a function of how many people feel this resonance / how deeply they feel it.

One way to frame this resonance for music business is “what you’re owed”. You can create resonance out of thin air if you drop a great song, you can drop as many songs as you want and give them to as many people as you want, and some of those people will feel like they owe you. You are an abundant giver, and giving is of primary importance.

Instagram doesn’t work like that, because no matter how much or how often you publish there, people have finite time to spend on Instagram and lots of accounts on which to spend it. Thus you must compete for their scarce attention.

The status incentives of Instagram (and the rest of Facebook) are numbers like followers, comments, Stories views, and likes. If you have these numbers, you have competed successfully for people’s attention and therefore have status.

On Instagram you are an undifferentiated taker, and taking attention is of primary importance.

Alex Danco’s thoughts on whether or not Instagram sucks

My thoughts draw from Canadian writer Alex Danco, who first tackled Instagram in this 2019 newsletter:

Instagram’s real product isn’t photos; it’s likes. The photos and the events they depict are just the transient objects that bubble up to the surface; what really matters is the relationship between the people. But the fact that Instagram’s product is built around the objects and not the models isn’t an accident: it’s sneaky. It creates way more space and oxygen for resentment and desperation to grow beneath the surface. It’s not about the photo or what it depicts; it’s always about the other person.

Not only is the taking vs. giving incentive wrong on Instagram for musicians in general, but the specific kind of attention-taking that succeeds there is personal and psychological. It has nothing to do with your body of work.

Mirroring what’s on my mind here, Danco had more thoughts on Instagram on September 6th, 2020:

“Status on Twitter, or at least on the parts of Twitter where I hang out, is not about what you have. It’s about what you’re owed. Same goes for Reddit, forum culture, or Snap Streaks.

That’s not true for status everywhere, or even everywhere on the internet. Instagram certainly isn’t like that. Instagram is very much about what you have. There are no IOUs on Instagram; just I have, I am, I get.

Furthermore, giving can go beyond what you’re owed. It can become a pay-it-forward gift that gains value while people are passing it around for free.

But Instagram is so devoted to its status incentives that any attempts to give, to offer up your body of work and make space for resonance, end up looking like smarmy ways to take people’s attention. That’s not your fault: it’s Instagram’s.

Weak, meaningless metrics

You could make the case that Instagram sucks by speaking to the folly of followers and engagement.

If 106K accounts follow you on Instagram (or even Twitter and other platforms that Danco finds more resonant), how many of them will tune into your live broadcast? How many will buy tickets to see you in 5 years’ time?

If 500 people liked your most recent feed post after one day, how many of those people liked thirty other musicians’ posts before yours and won’t give you enough attention for you to take something from them?

If 75 people commented on that post, how many of those people did it because they want you to visit their profile—because they want to take something from you?

Note that I avoided the most common phrasing of those rhetorical questions: “If you have 106K followers … “if you got 500 likes” … “if your post got 75 comments” …

You don’t have or get anything other than domination by Instagram, from phrasing and thinking about it this way.

People first. Especially people who care.

Okay, so Instagram sucks after all. Where to go instead?

In which apps do you turn on sound? YouTube and TikTok are two examples. There, you’ll find the musicians’ core value.

What’s the best platform for gift culture? Twitter has subcultures that are better. Music streaming is great for it, too, because someone can hear your best work at no marginal cost and then repay you with a playlist add, word-of-mouth, visit to your site for a purchase, etc.

What are good metrics? Ones where you can see how deeply something resonated with someone, not just how many people it resonated with.

Forever grateful that you and I can connect here, instead of on Instagram!

By Will Chernoff

William Ross Chernoff—known as Will to friends and colleagues—is a jazz musician, podcaster, YouTuber, and writer. He records and performs under his own name, William Chernoff.