A Pop Star's Guide to Making Music on Twitter
A couple days ago, zeitgeisty rapper B.o.B stopped by Chelsea Handler's talk show. There, he disclosed an interesting detail: despite the fact that he and Paramore's Hayley Williams share dual billing on what is far and away the biggest song of his career, "Airplanes," the two have never met in real life. Not only have they never met--they haven't even spoken in the real world. Ever. "I've spoken to her on Twitter," B.o.B told Handler. "I mean, it's 2010..."
You can say that again. Social media has obviously changed the way musicians do their jobs--how they interact with their fans; how they manage their public profile; how they distribute their music. But Twitter and its cousins have also changed the way artists make music. Twitter is a magical place where Raekwon is suddenly rapping over a Justin Bieber song remixed by Kanye West, West is releasing random tracks starring incredibly famous people every Friday, and The-Dream--who gets literally millions of dollars for selling songs like "Umbrella" to artists like Rihanna--is reserving his best material for his Twitter page. It's a world of possibility. It's also done wrong, all the time. Below, a guide to the dos and don'ts of using America's most popular Justin Bieber-related medium to make music.
Do Realize Fantasies That Could Never Exist in the Real World
Exhibit A: Justin Bieber's "Runaway Love (Remix)," featuring Kanye West and Raekwon. A ridiculous collaboration that began on one Sunday morning, when Kanye tweeted his love for Justin Bieber. Bieber responded in kind, Raekwon was brought into the loop...and then a couple weeks later the thing actually happened. With a tremendous, breezy, '90s r&b vibe to it, no less. Could these three people have successfully chopped it up in real life? Doubtful. Twitter made this happen.
Don't Use Twitter As An Excuse Not To Be in the Same Room With Your Collaborators
Though the wild success of "Airplanes" may seem to prove otherwise, it's an ominous sign that B.o.B and Hayley Williams never bothered to meet each other in real life before making this song. Why? Consider the fate of rap's posse cut: once one of the most vibrant hip-hop subgenres, rappers would go into the studio and take turns topping one another. Who won on "Brooklyn's Finest" or "4,3,2,1"? Who cares? Without the spirit of competition coursing through those rooms, hip-hop forever would've been a more lackluster genre. But we'll never see songs like these again, because email effectively killed them. When Lil Wayne can sip syrup in his Miami mansion, wander into the booth and record something, and walk out without ever hearing--let alone trying to match--the Jay-Z/Eminem/Drake/etc. verse that will precede or follow it, the whole point of getting a bunch of elite rappers on a track together is lost. Just because you can now do it this way doesn't mean you should.
Do Take Twitter Seriously As A Distribution Channel
On December 30th, 2009, The-Dream got sentimental about all his great fans and vowed to write a song (in under an hour!) to show his appreciation. But it wasn't some slapdash outtake; "Cry," the ostensibly Sam Cooke-inspired track he posted to his now-defunct account shortly afterwards, was a masterpiece, a love song of titanic, self-lacerating proportions. It begins: "This is for my Twitter page." He hasn't written a better song since.
Don't Just Use Twitter As A Dumping Ground
Last year, The Streets' Mike Skinner took to Twitter, writing "I can't be bothered with all this trying to sell you music. It wastes valuable time." Instead, he promised, he'd post three new tracks for free on Twitter, just as soon as he'd written them. A promise he came to regret, then halfheartedly fulfill, releasing a suite of songs that seemed more or less exactly the kind of thing you might produce if you locked yourself in the house and forced yourself to come up with rhymes for song after song, until you had delivered upon your initial, potentially ill-conceived pledge. No thanks. The first rule of Twitter is always don't bother if you don't really want to. We have enough to distract us already, thanks.
Do Use Twitter To Break Out of Album/Singles-Type Industry Paradigms
Kanye West has spent last few weeks releasing a new track every Friday. He's promised to make it all the way to Christmas, though he probably won't. Nevertheless, this is smart: West has an album on the way. It's long since been recorded, mostly, and is scheduled to come out in November. But in the meantime, West is continuing to work, releasing gems (the "Power" remix), mild misfires ("Monster"), and sweet, unfinished fragments ("Devil In A New Dress") to Twitter--both a rare glimpse into a musician's weekly working life and a savvy way of keeping up anticipation for the record he actually hopes to sell. There wouldn't have been a lane for this kind of dual promotional/artistic experiment (mixtapes being the big hip-hop-centric exception here) ten years ago. There is now.
Don't Use It To Lash Out At Your Enemies
Yeah, we can see how this one is tempting, and the most famous 2010 example--M.I.A.'s Lynn Hirschberg-baiting, Various Productions-sampling "I'm A Singer"--is actually pretty good. But this is a loss, overall--punk as fuck, maybe, but a loss nonetheless. You're M.I.A.! You have better things to do with your life than get mad at magazine writer on a Saturday morning.
Are these rules set in stone? No. Are they occasionally contradictory? Of course. But the gist is this: Twitter is a medium like any other--radio, television, LPs, CDs, iTunes, etc. Take it seriously as you take those things and you'll be fine.