For most music artists, “reinvention” is a way to reach new fans, create buzz, and experiment with new sounds. No matter how they create it, an artist’s persona is everything—and they convey it in everything they do. It’s a part of how they record and produce their music, it drives the way they perform and dress, it shapes the way they write (if they are songwriters or lyricists), and it comes through their attitude and performance. In the music business, things can change pretty quickly, so when artists change their personas, consumption changes as well. Today, we’ll take a closer look.
Image changes can be risky. Sometimes, fans will embrace change right off the bat, but fans aren’t always ready for change and will sometimes resist it. Artistic changes can also create a new consumption pattern, as we’ve seen with Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Enrique Iglesias, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Kelly Rowland, John Mayer and so on. Here, we’ll just talk about two examples briefly.
Miley Cyrus charmed a young adult demographic with her TV character, Hannah Montana, who faced the difficulties of a girl who had two lives – one as a musical artist and one as a normal teenage girl. Her music was hugely successful off-screen, as the show’s soundtrack sold over 3.7 million songs to date. Also, the Hannah Montana: The Movie soundtrack and Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus albums sold 2 million and 3.2 million units, respectively. After the show ended, Cyrus chose to launch her career and show a more mature, wider audience just who she was.
Her first three albums, Breakout (2008), Time of Our Lives (2009) and Can’t Be Tamed (2010) sold 1.6 million, 1.5 million, and over 347,000 copies, respectively, highlighting her audience’s receptiveness to a reinvented Miley. While the Hannah Montana albums were highly successful, songs like “Party in the U.S.A.,” (5.3 million sales) “The Climb” (3.6 million sales) and “We Can’t Stop” (2.6 Million sales) quickly grew in popularity. Radio airplay and streaming have also become significant outlets for her music consumption, with “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” from her album Bangerz getting serious play. “We Can’t Stop” has over 433,000 spins across U.S. radio and tremendous streaming appeal with over 117 million streams to date, while “Wrecking Ball,” which was only recently released, has over 75 million streams so far. As the artist changed with bolder musical style shifts, her audience and consumption patterns completely changed along with her.
Nelly launched his career as a southern hip-hop rapper, and songs like “Country Grammar,” “Ride Wit Me,” “Grillz,” and “Hot In Herre” helped him build up an edgy persona. These songs have also sold a total of over 5.2 million tracks to date. And with songs like “Just a Dream” and “Over and Over (feat. Tim McGraw),” Nelly experimented with collaborations and other genres, selling over 3.9 million and 1.8 million tracks, respectively. Highlighting the appeal of the crossover efforts, “Over and Over” was played across the radio spectrum, receiving airplay from a higher percentage of Top 40 and adult contemporary stations. The track even saw country airplay as well—a first for the artist. “Cruise,” Nelly’s collaboration earlier this year with Florida Georgia Line, has sold over 2.3 million tracks of that remix alone (the Nelly collaboration was released later). His persona of being an artist of many genres increases his exposure and consumption, creating appeal among fans of all ages. He was even featured in a recent Honey Nut Cheerio’s commercial!
What persona would be complete without a way to project it? For musicians, their personas come through loud and clear in their lyrics. In cases where singers find their voice in ways that might be too adult-oriented for young listeners, many opt to release both clean and explicit versions in order to appeal to multiple demographic groups and be radio-appropriate. And, for those who have traditionally released material without this “explicit” stamp, it can be a huge change.
Cee lo Green’s “F**K You,” aka “Forget You,” is one example of a song that was released in both explicit and clean versions. The two versions have sold over 6 million digital downloads (nearly equal parts of the explicit version and clean version) combined and has been streamed over 11 million times to date. The Glee Cast’s version of “Forget You,” featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, had to be clean to appeal to a wide audience, and it had to be safe for television. The track alone has sold over 774,000 digital downloads and has been streamed over 1 million times.
The version that does better varies on a case-by-case basis. For P!nk, her track “F**kin’ Perfect” has sold over 3 million tracks to date, 1.9 of which are the clean version and 1.1 of the original explicit version. David Guetta featuring Akon’s “Sexy Bitch” and “Sexy Chick” have sold over 2.2 million and 1.2 million tracks respectively. Enrique Iglesias’ “Tonight (I’m F**kin’ You) and “Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You) both featuring rapper Ludacris, have sold over 772,000 and 2.4 million tracks, in that order. Britney Spears’ recent track “Work B**ch” has made tremendous headway, with sales of the original explicit song already exceeding 223,000 downloads and 5.7 million streams to date (although radio had some concern about the title and many stations are opting to play an edited version titled “Work Work”).
In the end, no matter how an artist’s image changes, the effects amount to more than just chatter within gossip columns and tabloids. Changes in image and content can change the profile of an artist’s fan base, which can, in turn, change the way that the artist’s music is marketed, displayed and consumed. An artist’s persona reflects the way that they want to connect to their fans and market themselves. While the resulting impact can vary widely, fans will continue to be influenced to grow and change just as their favorite artists do.