Top Music Professionals Discuss How Young Artists Use 'Authenticity' to Build Their Careers at Billboard Live Music Summit

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Independent Spirit: How a DIY Mindset Has Bred a New Generation of Pop Stars Panel at the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit + Awards at the Montage Beverly Hills on Nov. 14, 2018 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Panelists collectively work with some of the industry's hottest rising stars, including Billie Eilish, Brockhampton and Rex Orange County.

Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish may be just 16 years old, but she also happens to be one of the savviest brand-builders of the modern era.

"We had supported a couple Florence + the Machine dates and before she even went on stage, we were sold out of everything," said Sara Bollwinkel, Eilish's agent at Paradigm. "There was [no merchandise] left. I've never seen anything like that before."

Bollwinkel was speaking from the stage at the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit in Beverly Hills on Tuesday (Nov. 13), joining her Paradigm co-worker/panel moderator Max Braun, Artist Growth founder and Chief Strategy Officer Matt Urmy, Orienteer publicist Nick Dierl, AEG Presents/Goldenvoice talent buyer Jenn Yacoubian, Another Planet Entertainment VP of Events and Strategic Alliances Danielle Madeira, and Darkroom founder Justin Lubliner for the panel Independent Spirit: How a DIY Mindset Has Bred a New Generation of Pop Stars.

For Eillish and other rising stars, "authenticity" has swiftly become the name of the game in building a thriving music career circa 2018. This is in large part due to the centrality of social media in the lives of modern-day teens and young adults, who often use a perceived sense of authenticity to inform their buying and streaming decisions. But it's not enough for these artists to merely update their social media feeds; a strong point-of-view is also essential in building a brand.

"You can look at one artist's Twitter feed and they're posting things that they're actually thinking about or things that are going on in their life or on tour, and then they're commenting back," said Urmy. "You go to somebody else's Twitter feed and there are no original posts. It's just retweets of articles covering their music.... When you see that, you realize that the artist isn't even here, I can't feel them."

Eilish certainly isn't the only young artist who has used authenticity to build a rabid following in recent years. Twenty-year-old singer-songwriter Rex Orange County, who boasts over 518,000 followers on Instagram and over 200,000 on Twitter, has similarly leveraged his personal credibility to build a potent brand. To illustrate, Dierl -- whose PR company represents the singer -- related how the young musician made a decision to pull out of performing on a popular French sketch comedy series after one of the night's sketches offended his sense of personal ethics. As Dierl sees it, that episode only strengthened the sense of identification between the singer and his young fans.

"[He] decided to decline performing that evening at the expense of his own time and money," said Dierl. "[He] spoke to his fans about why that happened and in doing so I think strengthened the bond with his fan base."

As important an element as social media is in building that bond between artist and fan, live shows play an important part in cementing it. Eilish proved particularly shrewd in that regard as well.

"One of the things that Billie did, which we no longer do because we can't, but after every show she would hug every single person that came to the show," said Bollwinkel. "I think that that kind of intimate and personal connection, more than even the act of performing, is kind of what set the groundwork and kind of set her apart from other acts. She's standing up there on stage and she's literally physically saying, 'I see you,' to these kids."

The relatively more seasoned Twenty One Pilots has also been perceptive in keeping a sense of community alive, even as they've moved on to larger and larger venues. "Right when you walk into the arena, [when] you're standing and you're feeling a little more distant from the stage, you look down and they have...this big ‘X' on the floor," said Madeira of attending one of the duo's recent arena shows. "And immediately, even if you're in the risers, you're kind of feeling already they're thinking about you, because that's kind of their sign of community... The act is saying to you, 'We're Twenty One Pilots, and you are, too.'"

As illustrated by the opening Eilish anecdote, creating a sense of community is also helpful in bolstering an increasingly vital component of an artist's bottom line: Merch sales. "When you really love an artist, you can't wear their album out to a coffee shop," said Urmy. "And when you really connect with something ... you want to express to the world that this person I support because they gave you something that impacted your life in such a powerful way."

Occasionally, creating content exclusive to a particular show becomes a way to create a sense of shared history between fans. To that point, Yacoubian noted that Brockhampton's first concert at the El Rey came with a line of limited-edition sweatshirts that now serve as a kind of bonding agent between fans who were there. "You still see fans wearing them," she said. "And be able to share in that like, 'Oh yeah, you were at the first show, so was I!'"

As important as it is to create a sense of goodwill, it's worth noting that "authenticity" doesn't preclude an artist from lashing out when appropriate. To demonstrate, Urmy related the story of an unnamed woman country artist who shot back at a male fan on Twitter after he made a sexist remark. In the aftermath, a slew of the artist's fans rose up in her defense, demonstrating the strength of the community she'd built.

"If you work in the restaurant business, it's like that old saying, 'The customer is always right,'" Urmy said. "I think in the arts business, that doesn't hold true. And so when you think about building a community, it doesn't always mean you have to be nice to people because they say they bought your album.... Even if it means a whole swath of middle-aged white dudes aren't gonna go to their shows anymore, who cares?"


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