In August, as OneRepublic took the stage at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside of Denver with the Colorado Symphony, giant monitors displayed what appeared to some fans to be too good to be true: a phone number for the band.
“Hey it’s OneRepublic!” read the message to roughly 2,000 fans who tried texting the number that night in the sold-out 9,500-seat venue. “This is an autotext to let you know we got your text. From now on it will be us. Make sure you click the link and add yourself to our contacts so we can text you back.”
As a result, the band racked up contact information and locations for most of those attendees, to whom it can now sell concert tickets, merch and music directly by sending text messages to the specific groups -- or even the individuals -- who might be most likely to respond. “We captured over 20% of our audience at Red Rocks and immediately had so much more engagement than we've ever had with Instagram and Twitter,” Ryan Tedder, the lead singer of OneRepublic, told Billboard. “Nobody else should have your fan's information other than you -- the fact that Facebook owns all of it and we can't have access to it unless we want to pay exorbitant fees is ridiculous.”
OneRepublic is one of about 300 celebrity acts -- from Paul McCartney and Marshmello to Diddy and Jennifer Lopez -- who’ve given out their digits in recent months, asking fans to text them at seemingly personal numbers that often bear the area codes of their hometowns. Behind their outreach is a startup called Community, backed by Madonna’s longtime manager Guy Oseary, co-founder and principal of Live Nation’s Maverick management group. He’s betting that texting will allow artists to wrest information about the identities, whereabouts and preferences of their most engaged followers away from Twitter, Facebook’s Instagram, Alphabet, Apple and Spotify, which guard such data closely.
The fledgling platform is gaining traction as the U.S. regulators pursue antitrust investigations into the big tech companies, with the Justice Department’s antitrust chief saying at a conference this month that the practice of stockpiling consumers' data can threaten market competition, and that privacy could factor into the department’s antitrust analysis.
“You may have millions of followers, but you don't know who's in that audience,” Community co-founder and CEO Matthew Peltier told Billboard recently, in his first public interview since closing a $35 million funding round and launching the company on July 24th. “People are starting to wake up to the fact that you may be investing a ton of time and energy and resources into social media, but you don't necessarily have a direct relationship with that audience.”
Text messaging has long intrigued the music industry as a better way to market to fans, given how much more likely people are to open text messages than they are to engage with posts on social media. Peltier says that 98% of the texts sent through Community are opened within the first three minutes, while 90% of those are opened within the first three seconds of being sent. By contrast, the percentage of an audience that interacts with a post is 1.6% on Instagram; 0.48% on Twitter; and 0.09% on Facebook, according to the social media analytics firm Rival IQ. Even when artists and labels spend six figures on ads to target specific fan bases on social platforms, less than 2% of the targeted fans tend to click through.
SuperPhone, a company founded by music producer Ryan Leslie, has been using a similar blueprint since 2016 with limited success, letting customers such as Atlantic Records manage text message conversations from thousands of users.
But hurdles to text-based marketing remain. One pop star’s manager told Billboard he was hesitant to use Community because it doesn’t yet support text messaging worldwide -- and he was wary of confusing or frustrating the large number of his client’s fans living outside the U.S. (Community says its international coverage will expand in 2020.)
Dragging artists off Instagram isn’t easy, either, especially in a world where high follower counts translate to both bragging rights and rich branding deals.
There’s also a learning curve for celebrity texters. Artists and their camps are advised to text in a personal voice that doesn’t replicate their tone on social networks; rapper Guapdad 4000, a new Community user, told Billboard that it’s crucial to get “past the barrier of people thinking that you're a bot.”
“A lot of what we do is make sure our ‘Community Leaders’ really think about this relationship differently,” says Peltier. “You can't just market to your fans here, you can't just promote things. You need to really invest in the relationship, and you need to provide value."
Community may also face stiff competition from the behemoths like Facebook, which has a lengthy history of “borrowing” features from smaller startups and incorporating them into its own products, and could easily offer its own texting service to Community’s customer base. But Oseary says Community’s commitment to data privacy could give it an edge against the tech giants. Instead of selling its data to advertisers, Community plans to charge its celebrity users a monthly fee based on how many contacts they accumulate on the service.
“We're not trying to do 50 other things,” Oseary says. “We're just going to keep going down our path and keep building the best tech and the best solutions and also do it in a transparent way where people own their data, it's not shared, and it's not sold. If we do a good job, people will stick with us.”
To get fans to buy in, some artists are hamming it up. Diplo asked his fans to text him in a YouTube video, stating he was “feeling lonely,” and then put up a billboard in Hollywood that read, “This is Dillon Francis’ phone number. Ur welcome, Diplo.”
“So @diplo put my number on a billboard but you know what fuck it! i love texting random people SO JOKES ON HIM!” Francis, who is signed to Diplo’s label, tweeted in October.
To promote her debut album Over It, Summer Walker kept it personal by texting fans in New York to “meet up on Second and Hudson,” for example. “Doing all these little micro engagements -- and doing this all around the country -- over time, we saw how that builds an audience and how it builds a direct connection,” Peltier says. Walker’s team also released a commercial with Apple Music that featured Walker’s phone number, placing pink phone booths in five cities across North America where fans could listen to the album before it was released, and text Walker afterwards. Walker’s team says the platform has now reached the same level of importance for future album rollouts as traditional social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “Everything we roll out on socials we also do for Community, and we'll do things that are special for them, like letting them know first,” Malia Murray, senior marketing director at Walker's label LVRN, told Billboard.
Tory Lanez has also been using Community to promote his upcoming album, Chixtape 5. “Tory texted everyone to tweet #Chixtape5 and it was number five trending in the world,” says his manager Sascha Stone Guttfreund. “I think this is going to change the game for a lot of people.”
Community’s co-founders Peltier and Josh Rosenheck originally founded a startup called Shimmur in 2014, which was designed to allow celebrities and fans to communicate through an app, rather than text message.
But it launched just as app downloads began to decline across the board, prompting the company to pivot to texting in 2018, with an assist in early 2019 from Sound Ventures co-founders Oseary and Ashton Kutcher, early backers of other tech firms like Spotify, Airbnb and Uber.
Community has quadrupled its engineering team this year and is still hiring aggressively. Barry Steinglass, who left his role late last year as CTO of Hulu, serves as chief technology officer.
Oseary sees potential for Community to reshape how concert tours are planned, thanks to its ability to allow clients to filter their fans by their location, age, gender, and soon, interests. “I sat with one of the biggest promoters a few days ago, and when I showed him how Community worked, he had the same thought, which is what I always believed, which is a lot of the tour is routed on a guessing game,” Oseary says. “Here, you're going to know, ‘Wow, we've got 10,000 numbers in Phoenix.’ We don't have to guess as much anymore.”
Moe Shalizi, Marshmello’s manager, says that while music streaming services already offer plenty of fan data to help acts route their tours, marketing directly to potential ticket buyers requires other tools. “Yeah, we know the Spotify data, but you can’t really access the fans [through Spotify],” Shalizi says. “Here [on Community] you can access them.”
Celebrities outside of music are experimenting with the platform, too, from Ellen DeGeneres to Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who gave his number to fans in October during a radio interview with Ryan Seacrest, explaining that “SMS is the most ubiquitous app on the planet -- everyone understands it and everyone uses it.”
For OneRepublic’s Tedder, texting is so far proving to be a more effective way to get the right fans’ attention when he needs it. “When I'm trying to tell people in Philly or in Shanghai, ‘Hey, we're in Shanghai and we're going to pop up at this record store, we're opening up the final thousand tickets that we've saved until today,’ I can't do it [on social media]” Tedder says. “People in Lima, Peru, are responding, and the Philippines, and Houston, and it just becomes white noise. If someone doesn't have that app open at that moment they're not getting that that post. If they're not trolling Twitter or if they're not currently on Instagram, they're not going to get that. [Community] cracks the code on that for me.”