It was a tumultuous time for the Internet in the early-mid 2000s. The world had gotten a taste of influential social platforms like MySpace back in 2003, but it wasn’t until Facebook launched in 2004 — and was then followed by Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram — that users realized there was a major shift in digital communication taking place.
The genesis of social media changed the way everything worked, and its impact on the music industry was especially notable. Platforms like Twitter and Tumblr became tools for artists, helping well-known artists establish a personal connection with their fans. But what was perhaps even more groundbreaking was the voice they gave emerging artists. Suddenly, a young producer making music in their parents’ basement could have their music played all over the globe without having a label deal or going on tour. Sure, there were some qualms about the rise of these social platforms but ultimately they were giving artists a much-needed voice, which was and remains crucial.
Tumblr was a large component of the creative process for many artists when it launched back in 2007, in large part because the experience was entirely up to the artist. They could use it to create personal mood boards for their own work, connect with fans, write lengthy blog posts, or simply to put a time stamp on an innovative idea. Unlike other platforms, where users are pretty much stuck within the strict lines of how the apps can be used, Tumblr feels more freeform and personal, which also means that it’s rare to see an artist’s Tumblr being run by someone else. It’s easy to tell when a team is running an artist’s Facebook page, but no one is blogging and reblogging on their behalf.
“Tumblr was always, from the very beginning, about the organic expression,” Tumblr’s Head of Entertainment Partnerships, Tatiana Simonian, tells Billboard. “It is the place that artists [prefer] to use [on their own].”
Simonian joined Twitter as their Head of Music in 2011. She has also worked for Disney and Nielsen, and was named as one of Billboard’s Leading Women in Social Engagement in 2012. She started working at Tumblr in 2016, where she and her team are now responsible for building relationships throughout art, fashion, music, gaming, e-sports, television and film, so that their partners can have positive experiences with social media.
When asked about the evolution of Tumblr over the last decade, Simonian says that in a lot of ways, it hasn’t evolved — and that is exactly what makes it so great. “Totally unbiased, Tumblr is one of my favorite platforms since I joined [as a user] in 2009 because it has remained so consistent,” she says. “Since the very beginning, we have not shown followers, and you have the ability to turn off likes if you want. It’s interesting to me that you see other platforms talking about experimenting with doing that now.”
For Tumblr, art was always one of the top priorities. It doesn’t feel like a popularity contest, and it isn’t about following rules and throwing handfuls of hashtags on a post to gain more attention.
“Users tend to determine the future of a lot of social platforms — the hashtag was created by a Twitter user,” Simonian continues. “The way Tumblr has proliferated memes is not Tumblr engineers sitting in a room going, ‘I think we should create memes!’ It was Tumblr users posting funny stuff about One Direction or making fake romances with members of My Chemical Romance. The versatility of the platform has led to new extensions of how it could be used, and that’s one of the ways it has evolved.”
In addition to sharing boy band memes, users also took to Tumblr to follow their favorite artists and discover new ones. Gifs of fan-favorite music videos overwhelmed feeds, as well as artful images of musicians which were usually surrounded by black-and-white photos of sunsets and fashion-forward models. This caused Tumblr to have a very specific and curated aesthetic, which helped change the perception of artists who used it in the early 2010s. It also helped fans see what kind of content was inspiring their inspirations, like Lorde, Grimes, and Beyoncé, who were all actively reblogging ideas and sharing new music. Additionally, artists could control one hundred percent of their aesthetic. Tumblr took some cues from MySpace in that sense, where artists could have custom layouts, styles, fonts and colors on their profile so that their page was essentially a digital embodiment of their art.
While Tumblr’s influence on music has evolved a great deal over the years, thanks partially to the growth of competing platforms like Instagram and Twitter, it still has a relevant use in online music culture, especially when looking for upcoming trends. It’s a “haven for cool hunters,” according to Simonian, who reveals that there are some influential figures who use Tumblr privately to find inspiration and “what’s coming up next.” For example, the rise of K-pop began on the site years ago before hitting critical mass and now a trend that the team is noticing is a music genre called C-pop (Chinese pop).
“That is one of the things that no one is talking about right now that I guarantee is going to be the next thing in two or three years,” Simonian says. “In the beginning, I don’t know if people were looking at things going, ‘Oh yeah, Chance The Rapper is going to be the next massive rapper because I’m seeing this data on Tumblr,’ but now we have such a huge volume of users — over 350 million blogs — that we can look at data and see what we should keep an eye on. That is one of the big changes in the platform; that volume has created a really interesting longtail that we can look at from a predicted standpoint.”
Major artists have also chosen to cherry-pick certain things to exclusively share through the platform across the decade. Taylor Swift is a great example of this. “She unfollowed all of her followers on other platforms but didn’t do that on Tumblr,” Simonian says. “I don’t want to speak out of turn but one of the things that I’ve gathered from artists like her is that there’s a point-of-view that Tumblr is a positive place. It is a place where there are supportive exchanges between artists and fans.”
“Whether they’re just quoting something she wrote or adding their own gif or meme or content to it, it really functions well with the relationship [Swift’s] built with her fans,” Simonian adds. “It feels very organic and authentic and personal.” Her page is also thoughtfully designed and almost works like a collage. Sometimes there will be funny Cats memes and then sometimes there will be heavier subject matter, like a devastating response to Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta about the sale of her masters, a headline-making moment that shook up a lot of artists and executives in the industry earlier this year. On the day she posted the letter, Simonian says, “It felt like a wave of support for her.”
Earlier this month, Swift even explained why she loves Tumblr to Billboard: “Tumblr is the last place on the internet where I feel like I can still make a joke because it feels small, like a neighborhood rather than an entire continent.”
Tumblr was the perfect place for Swift to explain her side of the story. “It’s not super common for women artists to come out and make these big statements. Calling out injustice is powerful. A lot of women are sometimes punished for speaking out and have had to fight to get support. The Tumblr community, in particular, is extremely supportive of that. Anyone who is using the platform to speak their truth, even if their voice shakes, is championed and supported.”
Then there are artists like Frank Ocean and Sufjan Stevens, who use Tumblr as their platform of choice. “There are some artists that are cautious in the social space and want to be a bit controlled and moderate with how they use social media,” Simonian says. For the established artists who are looking to keep their mysterious personas intact but need to share something every now and then, it serves as that simple function. “There’s something elegant about that, that I can see as an artist would probably feel very liberating.”
In the second half of the decade, Tumblr has been aiming its focus on emerging and indie artists. Whether they are signed or unsigned doesn’t matter, Tumblr is simply keeping an eye out for who is doing impressive things on the platform and who the company ultimately wants to get behind. They show their support by interviewing artists for their Spotlight series on their official music Tumblr page; they recruit a visual artist from Tumblr to create an “IRL” experience for a music artist; they host artist Q+As called Music Answer Times; they also host educational seminars called VIP Bootcamp. “It’s almost antithetical to social media,” says Simonian. “We’re a platform that’s saying sometimes you should put down your phone and connect with other people.”
When they discover an artist they really believe in, they will host a brunch to honor that artist and expose them to the guests in the room. The brunch they hosted with Billie Eilish as she was beginning to build buzz in March 2018 at SXSW is a proud moment for Simonian. “It was only about 50 people… If we did that now, there would be a line down the road and we would need to have security.” She continues, “It was a really simple way of saying we think this person has extraordinary talent and we want to get behind them because it’s the right thing to do. That event did not make us money, it was simply just doing something because it was the right thing to do.”
Tumblr also does a brunch for Pride every year where they honor luminaries in the LGBTQ community. Hayley Kiyoko received a lot of love from the Tumblr community last year, so they supported her at a lunch-in and also did an Answer Time session with her. “Whenever we get behind someone and we start to see them thrive and pick up steam, that excites me. I’m starting to also see Armani [White, Philadelphia-based rapper] doing really well on other platforms now and I’m like, ‘Yes!’”
In the new decade, we can expect to see Tumblr take their experiential events across the country (right now they are just on the coasts). Simonian also predicts the continuing rise of C-pop, as well as a huge resurgence of the platform in the music community.
“From a larger technological lens, we haven’t seen social platforms go through these big phases yet until now,” she says. “Snap[chat] had that moment this year. It was considered to be on a downturn and now it’s back in an upswing again. It’s the first time in history that a social media platform is around long enough to dip and then come back and have a different experience and I think we’re going to see that in a major way. I really believe, especially in the music industry, you’re going to see flocks of artists coming back and connecting on an indie level with this community and rediscover their love for it.” Simonian laughs: “My God, if chokers, docs, and crushed velvet can [make their comeback], listen, I feel very confident in this assertion.”
Ultimately, Simonian believes it will continue to be a home for innovative trends and its organic format will also allow for the platform to grow in an upswing. “I think you’re going to see a bigger return of talent coming back to the kind of purity and simplicity of Tumblr,” Simonian predicts. “It’s really easy to be the person who is going along and liking the thing that everyone else likes. It’s not as easy to be the person saying, ‘I just found this thing and you should keep an eye on it.’ Tumblr is the home for those people.”