Storytelling In Music

1In this Lucy Blair Pettersson looks at the art of storytelling in music, why it's important, and how artists can better work to make the story told in their music connect with an audience.


Guest post by Lucy Blair Pettersson

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time, there lived an industry of music marketers, who were told that the key to their job was storytelling. We’ve realized that stories are what people relate to, so effective and engaging marketing should take the form of telling that story. Whether you’re a musician, a brand, a fitness guru or simply a wannabe social media star, if you have great content as your starting point, all you need to do is communicate a compelling story to your audience. Thanks to social media, we’re all creators now, and we’re all constantly engaged in storytelling – Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories, relentless self-promotion. After all, if we tell our stories well and often enough, someone out there must and will care, right?

OK, you got me. It’s not quite as simple as that.


Whilst working on the marketing campaign for a forthcoming album last week, I started thinking about what content, formats and mediums I could use to tell the story of the artist and the music. Was the answer streaming services, social media, advertising? How could we communicate that story best, reach the widest audience, get the biggest reaction? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I was thinking about storytelling in a silo – only from the perspective of the artist. And I don’t think that I’m alone in doing that. Yes, the artist is already telling a story through their songs. Yes, it’s important to tell their story to put the music into context, and try and engage fans with who the artist is, what they’re about, where they’ve come from and where they’re going. But in order to engage audiences on a much deeper level, the artist’s story needs to form part of a much larger narrative – one where the listener’s story intersects with their own, and where the listener is the one who writes the next chapter. We’re obsessing over how to tell the artist’s story, and missing the point that the real value lies in knowing how listeners are relating. If there are two sides to every story, why are we so obsessed with just one? Instead of engaging in storytelling as one-way broadcasting, we should also be listening to the audience. As media strategist Nick Susi wrote in his excellent recent piece on building an artist identity in the streaming era:Music is not about the artist – it is about the stories being lived by the listener and how they relate. Stories transcend any specific artist or song.


2I mean sure, as music marketers we realise that a campaign isn’t just about getting the music out there and promoting it, it’s about how people are reacting to it. So we feverishly keep track of who is streaming and buying that music, where they are, how and where they discovered the music, how often they’re listening for, and so on. However, those listeners still form one big mass of mostly unknown quantity. We’re able to segment them into broad brushstrokes by demographics, age, location, likes, listening habits and so on. But we don’t really know the how and why of what causes a listener to interact with the music, or artist; what triggered that behaviour in the first place; why they do or don’t come back to listen again, or become a fan. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle.

What we should be looking at is how a story makes the listener feel; how how it intersects with their life; and how they continue the original story through their own. The music and tech industries are already working on this, to an extent. Much of the popularity of apps and platform like Musical.ly and YouTube lies in the freedom they give the individual to interpret music and stories in any way they like. Streaming services are constantly refining their algorithms and data science to serve up personalised playlists based on context, mood and timing. Advertisers are developing ever more sophisticated ways in which to tailor ads to your browsing behaviour. And there is certainly more to come. For example, streaming services and DSPs could and should enable much closer artist-fan connections, and artist-fan experiences. I’ve been writing about the need for more music marketing to take place on streaming services since 2013, and highly recommend Mark Mulligan and Bas Grasmayer’s excellent recent articles outlining how this could be done. Spotify is working on all of this and more, as confirmed by Matt Ogle in his keynote on solving music problems at ADE last October:

LucyBlairPettersson @lucyblairpet .@flaneur confirmed that @spotify is working on going beyond playlists, giving artists more of a voice, connecting artists & fans


However, even those developments won’t go far enough on their own. It’s only when we reach the point of understanding the triggers, the emotional behaviours and cultural contexts behind an individual’s interaction with an artist or story that we will be able to deliver genuinely unique experiences. Therefore, it’s time for the music industry to take machine learning and behavioural data further, and to let fans take centre stage. A recent article on Strategy+Business.com outlined the need for marketers “to learn to view audiences as a group of individuals, each with their own motivations, cultural context and behavioural triggers“. We have access to more data than ever before, and yet we still don’t really understand our audiences. What motivates them to become a fan? What triggers their behaviour when they listen to a piece of music, when they stream an artist on repeat, when they add a track to their personal collection, when they buy a gig ticket or piece of merch? Until we can access those answers, we can still only really analyse audiences in large numbers.  And therefore, we’re still focused on measuring success by numbers – numbers of streams, of sales, chart positions, source of stream percentages, ticket sales. What if, in the future, we learned to measure success by how artists made their audience members feel, and placed more value on knowing what makes someone react to a story? Right now, we’re living in an era of mass personalisation – it’s time to move music marketing forward, from one:many to one:one.

Speaking of which, someone told me a story last week about an artist who, in an effort to avoid cut and paste reactions to his forthcoming album, decided to invite journalists to his house to listen to and talk through the album personally, one on one. Through giving each individual a unique opportunity to hear his story, to experience and relate to it on their own level, and to interpret it and share it in their own, individual way, he is empowering his listeners to take his story into their own hands, and to make it their own.


Once you put a piece of art out there, you can’t control how it’s experienced, interpreted or shared. It’s the fans who will decide that for you. The fans have more of a voice than ever – they’re the ones who will tell you what works.  They’re the ones who will take your story into their own hands, continue to write it, and ensure that your story lives on. Isn’t it time that we learned to really understand what motivates our audiences; to understand how the artist and audience’s story intersects; and to empower listeners to write the next chapter? If streaming is about the long game, then storytelling should take both creators and audiences alike on a journey.

To be continued…

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