Drop into record label and music collective Soulection’s 3,400-member server on the chat platform Discord, and you’ll find members debating the best home recording equipment, collaborating on a song or suggesting ideas for Soulection merchandise, their usernames endlessly populating the platform’s gray chat with flickers of emojis and GIFs. They may even be coupling up, says Soulection co-founder Joe Kay.
“It’s literally a matchmaker,” he says, “a new community connector with people.”
Kay launched Soulection’s invite-only Discord server — which acts as a digital conversation hub — in April to give the label’s fans a place to gather online during the pandemic. But it turned into something bigger, where Kay gets fan feedback on unreleased music, offers first looks at merch and hosts listening parties for Apple Music’s weekly Soulection Radio broadcast. Even though Discord doesn’t actually host music itself, Kay calls it “SoundCloud 2.0” because of the way it fosters community. “It’s one thing to have a social media following of a million-plus people, but we’re getting a direct communication line,” he says. “This is what we’ve been searching for.”
Discord was founded in 2015 and is free to use, with about 70 million active weekly users and 6.7 million total servers. Many are technically “invite-only,” but links to join are generally shared openly online. On each server, users chat within “channels” focused on different topics that are designated by the server owner and can be text-, voice-, photo- or video-based: Soulection’s range from “sound-share,” where producers can get feedback on their beats, to “the-garden,” where users share photos of their houseplants.
While Discord has traditionally served as a forum for video game players to chat while gaming, it’s now attracting people with all kinds of interests who are seeking new ways to stay in touch amid the coronavirus pandemic — in the same way that Twitch, TikTok and the new audio-only chat app Clubhouse have seen usage surge. “Many of our users just want a place to hang out and talk in the comfort of their own communities, whether that be catching up or sharing what you’re listening to,” says Discord manager of community and social marketing Mallory Loar, which is why the company rebranded itself with a new slogan in June: “Your place to talk.”
There are now more people in the music industry using Discord than ever, either to build fan communities or collaborate on music. During one week in August, for example, about 300,000 users joined a Discord server tagged under the “music” category, a 200% jump from the weekly average pre-pandemic, according to the company, and about 900,000 users actively participated in music-related communities that week, a 100% increase from pre-pandemic.
In July, Wiz Khalifa shared a yet-to-be-released song exclusively to his 7,600-member Discord server, and asked users to suggest a song title (they chose “Slim Peter”) and album art. The 59,000-member “Hip-Hop” server run by Seoul-based food critic Jeff Kim, who launched it in 2016 “to carve out a lane for live hip-hop chat,” often hosts celebrity guests like Pusha T, whose “Ask Me Anything” in March drew 125,500 messages. Producer Kenny Beats’ 82,000-member server has become an education and support resource for aspiring acts where users recently pooled money to replace someone’s stolen DJ equipment. And the platform has led to at least one recent hit: Singer osquinn’s song “Bad Idea” was created during a February Discord session with producer blackwinterwells and now has 1.7 million streams on Spotify.
What sets Discord apart from other platforms is its ratio of exclusivity and inclusivity. “There’s an invisible barrier to entry because it’s not exactly intuitive to everyone, but that’s kind of a good thing,” says Geffen Records digital marketing director Kelly Duroncelet, who helped launch ZEDD’s now 13,000-member server last summer when she was working at Paradigm Talent Agency. “That guardrail gets rid of a lot of troll-type behavior. You’ll see artists migrating to their servers to do live chatting with people [because] it’s more comfortable with that sort of fan.”
That direct connection to fans is why artists like indie act mxmtoon see their Discord servers as essential, even though the platform currently doesn’t have monetization capabilities. “There are very few ways to directly address fans, and Twitter and Instagram put you on a pedestal of unattainability,” says mxmtoon, who hosts listening parties for new releases on her 10,000-member server. “Discord breaks down all those walls.”
Many artists use Discord to draw fans to platforms that are monetized, like Twitch or online merch stores. On mxmtoon’s Discord, her paid Twitch subscribers are set apart by pink text usernames (bestowing them with what’s known on Discord as a new “role”), while pop-rock band Anamanaguchi offers access to a private Discord server as a perk to paying Patreon subscribers.
Loar says monetization features may be forthcoming. She and her team now work directly with artists and managers to help them benefit from the platform and have supported labels including Monstercat (25,800 members) and Anjunabeats (4,700) in launching servers of their own for fans.
On Soulection’s server, Kay plans to soon preview the collective’s upcoming, long-delayed membership product, Soulection Plus; host workshops with producers; and set up monthly video catch-ups with fans. “It’s very important [for artists] to be at the forefront of technology and what’s next,” he says. “I don’t see us ever looking back.”