This is a re-post of an interview originally published in September, 2013.
Nate Auerbach is “Music Evangelist” at the social networking platform Tumblr, where he works with artists to help them engage their audiences and produce quality content. Before joining the team at Tumblr, Nate worked at MySpace for three years and was also a digital executive at The Collective Music Management.
Nate talked to me recently about the benefits to musicians of marketing through Tumblr. He also shared some examples of artists that have significantly expanded their reach using Tumblr and a few best practices for those that want to get the most out of their experience on social media sites.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Nate. How did you come to be the “Music Evangelist” for Tumblr?
I was working at The Collective, a music management company. I was overseeing the digital businesses for a lot of clients of the company. Part of that included getting bands on Tumblr and establishing strategies for them. I was pretty early on that compared to other people in music. I was in charge of marketing and social media strategy for a lot of bands, and I was talking with Tumblr a lot.
Eventually the people at Tumblr were looking to hire someone who would focus on music influences and the music industry. They wanted someone to evangelize Tumblr to the music community. They reached out to me, and we made it work. It has been an awesome opportunity.
What are some of the advantages to musicians of using Tumblr, either as their blogging platform or as a complement to their website and main blog?
Musicians view social media in a lot of different ways. They view it as a way to connect to audiences and as a marketing tool, though sometimes they view it as a task/something they have to do and everything in between. Sometimes they use social media channels as creative outlets. And sometimes they use them just as outlets for communication. Some are active and some are passive.
I think what Tumblr does is allows musicians to be fully creative in the way they express themselves and connect with their fans. They can take full ownership of how they want to communicate their message and they can also control and harness the traffic they create. It’s a flexible platform on which you can fully customize the look of your blog. You can make your Tumblr blog your entire website, an element of your website or just something completely separate and on the side. But you can use it as a hub for everything social you can do. It publishes to Twitter, Facebook, and just about every content-sharing app and tool feeds through Tumblr.
The glory of it is, you have one place where you can have everything. You can wrap in all the navigation you want. But more importantly, bands and musicians can approach Tumblr so it is not a task; it can be a completely creative outlet for them. And it’s a safe place for them to be creative, because there aren’t any restrictions or boxes we put them in. There are no algorithms keeping content from people and no character limits. There is a limit on the size of animated .gifs you put in posts, but that is just for your own benefit.
The other thing we’ve seen is that artists really appreciate the fact that all the social tools on Tumblr are about love and positivity. For example, if you are going to say something about something I posted on Tumblr, you have to re-blog it. You need to put it on your own soap box. So, chances are, your blog won’t be a bunch of wisecracks; it’s truly expressing what you love. A lot of bands that are jaded by some of the negative comments they get on other social media platforms. For example, a band might post a video on YouTube and see comments that are just ridiculous. And these comments do not in any way, shape or form communicate the opinions of the fans that truly love them. On Tumblr, you can connect directly with the people that love what you post and then see what else they love. And then you can service them and grow and nurture that positive fan base. Artists really enjoy that, because they are able to connect with the fans that love them the most.
I never would’ve been able to verbalize it exactly like that, but it is an incredibly positive platform. I’ve seen pages that have the occasional disparaging comment, but generally speaking, you either post something that gets liked and re-posted, or you are ignored. And that is a lot nicer than the character assassination that sometimes happens on YouTube and Facebook.
Obviously, if you are trying to be seen on Tumblr, you want to “like” posts that touch on your content or things you like and re-blog them. Are there some other techniques artists can be using to grow their following on the Tumblr platform and make an impact?
The most important thing is to be yourself and be authentic. Everything else really flows from there. Share what inspires you, then use Tumblr to tell the story of what you love rather than focusing on, “This is what I’m doing.” Often “this is what I’m doing” gets reflected when you talk about what you love. But you need to let your passion come out, because it shows people who you really are.
Artists are all about vulnerability, and it is that vulnerability that others hear and feel in their music. No one gets to see the artwork in music anymore. It’s just a thumbnail that’s on a digital player in your pocket. So the challenge is making those emotions that people used to package into a CD jacket come to life.
How you use Tumblr is all based on your comfort level as an artist. You have to play around with it and see what you’re comfortable doing. For example, some bands love to re-blog what other fans post about them. And some bands are very uncomfortable with that. Both are fine. By re-blogging what fans post, you’re setting the bar for what type of content you appreciate. And your fans see that you are accepting that. And that opens up a real conversation with them. You are validating your fans for the time and energy they spend on you, and that can be amazing. The more fans see the re-blogs, the more they strive to make better content than what those other fans created. So, the bar keeps getting raised as you are re-blogging more fans’ posts, and as they are creating more content. And they are posting these things on their own blogs too, which goes out to their friends. This phenomenon is actually what was behind One Direction becoming huge on Tumblr. They continue to validate their fans.
Another thing artists are doing is using Tumblr creatively as their press platform. When Beyonce announced she was going to do the Super Bowl, she didn’t write up a press release and post it on news sites first. The first thing she did was post a photo of her on Tumblr with black under her eyes and the date. And when Vampire Weekend was coming out of the studio and finally finished a new album, band members announced it by creating an animated .gif/cinemagraph and posting it on Tumblr. What that did was get to the fans first and the people who will be most excited. And that’s the ripple effect you want to start. News sites are going to post about you anyway, and they will definitely do it with more urgency if they can see the excitement already from fans.
Publicists will use Tumblr to create a huge network of blogs. By making a creative press release that’s portable, you’re getting your message out there and passing it into the hands of the people who you want to get engaged and excited. You’re creating a sense of urgency and love around your announcement, whether it’s the announcement of a tour, an album or new merch.
Clearly that re-blog function makes that type of marketing a lot easier than it is on other platforms.
You brought up something interesting. I’ve noticed that GIFs seem to do really well on Tumblr and are some of the most popular shared pieces of media.
GIFs are definitely extremely popular. And we have seven different post types, which allow you to structure your posts based on what you want to share. In today’s social media world, content is your headline. So, we make it very easy if you are going to blog to immediately determine the type of content you are going to post, whether that is a quote, photo, video or audio track. The photo posts are the most popular by far, and GIFs are a big part of that. They allow people to be so much more creative than with other formats and to get so much more out of it. Someone said, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a GIF is worth a million.”
I know Tumblr is not a traditional website. But on a traditional band website, you will have a whole bunch of calls to action in the margin, inviting people to connect on other platforms, sign up for a mailing list, buy your CD, etc. I notice that even on some of the most popular music Tumblr pages, people are not setting them up like regular websites. Is there a reason for this?
I think there are several. One could be that people are not familiar with the capabilities of Tumblr customization. Another could be that they prefer to have their official website on another platform, like WordPress or Drupal or any of the other proprietary platforms. I’m not here to tell everyone that their official website should be on Tumblr. It’s not necessarily right for every artist, though it does work well for some.
And some artists are very minimalist about their Tumblr and purposely don’t want to link out to all their other social networks. They will link out to their website, but they want Tumblr to be its own thing, because that platform speaks to their community. They feel if they are putting up too many buttons to go elsewhere, it is distracting from the conversation that they are creating on Tumblr and taking away from the intimacy and vulnerability.
It’s just really interesting, because on almost every other platform, the mentality is, “If I’m going to be creating content, I’m going to be sweeping fans past a point of purchase and engagement.” And that is definitely not the case on Tumblr.
Yes. It goes back to what Tumblr is used for: Artists use Tumblr as an emotional platform rather than a platform that acts as almost a phone book.
You brought up One Direction, Beyonce and Vampire Weekend. These were folks that were very much established by the time they delivered the campaigns you referenced. Can you point to anyone who is either not yet in the public eye or who wasn’t in the public eye but now is that has used Tumblr to move the needle?
I can give examples of both. First, a band that was not in the public eye but now is Odd Future. They started Tumblr back in 2010. They used it as a platform to express themselves, show who they were and what they were all about. They are totally authentic with it, and kids love it, because they feel a connection with this group of artists. The Tumblr community has come to feel like it owns them and will do anything for the band. Odd Future has built a really strong following on Tumblr and a strong brand and business. They have been on Tumblr since the very beginning and used it to release their first mixtapes.
In terms of an artist you might not have heard of yet, Kitty Pryde sticks out to me. She is a white female rapper among the Bruiser Brigade/Danny Brown crew. She is the perfect example of someone using Tumblr really well. If you go to her Tumblr, there is a “My Little Pony dancing around,” which really gets attention. And she is very authentic in how she uses the platform and really engages with her fans. Fans ask her questions like, “What is it like being a female rapper in a male-dominated and historically-chauvinistic space?” And she answers questions like that with honesty. She has really stepped into being a role model and is always herself on Tumblr. She is also a great writer and blogger.
MS MR is a band that has also been building everything based around Tumblr and using it to define who they are and what makes them tick artistically.
Producers on Tumblr are also great examples to watch, because they are both creators and curators of content.
Right. And re-blogging can be a much more natural thing, because it points to their work through other artists.
Are you seeing any common mistakes people are making on the Tumblr platform?
A lot. Artists and music bloggers who put their official websites on Tumblr will often insist that everything has an official headline on it. So, they will post everything as a text post and embed their content in a text post. That might look good on your Web-facing blog. But there are two faces of Tumblr: The much more prominent face is the dashboard view, where everyone who follows you get your content. And our seven different post types organize content and optimizes it so people can be fully engaged in the dashboard, which is about 75% of our traffic. That is where all the re-blogs filter through and where people are spending 75% of their time. If you are going to be sharing photos, create a nice, beautiful photo set. That is the headline you need, even on your official website. You can put your “headline” in the caption. When you go to the newsstand and pick up a magazine or a newspaper, it’s not the headline that grabs you first, it’s the image. And then you see the headline. That’s how users think on Tumblr.
Also, people need to remember that the best platforms to use with our audio player are Bandcamp, SoundCloud or Spotify, all of which post to our audio player and play seamlessly within the dashboard. The same goes for video posts: YouTube is the preferred platform for video posts. Users really need to take advantage of the different post types that are offered.
Another mistake I see artists making is overlooking the customization. It’s really simple to pick a great theme. Many people have gone with lo-res themes. We have a few themes that are custom-made for musicians. If you go to music.tumblr.com, there’s a link at the top of the page called “resources” and you can see all my recommended themes. There are some really great ways you can make your blog look wonderful for $0-$50.
Another important element is to make your blog search optimized. You need to put something in the description that says, “This is the official Tumblr of Nate Auerbach.” I had to do that so I can come up on Google. That is how a lot of people are going to find you – through Google and other search engines. You have to be discoverable.
On a similar note, how important is tagging to the internal search feature? And how many tags are too many for a post?
Tagging is important. I would say you don’t want more than a dozen tags. The first five tags are the most important. Tags also allow you to separate your content into different contexts. For example, if you go to Beyonce’s Tumblr blog, she has four different contexts of stories that she tells. They’re just based on tags. So, she has things that are her life and Beyonce being Beyonce, which is a page on her blog. And she has a page for her work. And then she has two other pages. It’s all the same blog, but it is separated out and allows her to tell different stories. This is good if you are an artist that wants to share music that you like but also art you create, you can use tags to separate out content and easily create different pages. For instance, on my blog, any time I blog a music video, I tag it “#musicvideo.” And I have a page on my blog that just has music videos I like on it.
Do you have any parting words of advice for musicians using Tumblr?
Just have fun with it. Be creative. Because that is what being an artist is all about, and that is exactly what we want you to do.