Author: Woojin Cha | K-pop music critic

In May 2023, Instagram unveiled a revenue sharing feature for Reels, its platform for short videos. At the same time, TikTok launched a project to share advertising revenue among its content creators. Meanwhile, YouTube continues to lead the industry by embedding ads at the beginning of creators' videos and then sharing the revenue generated.

The term "Influencer" goes beyond popular Instagram users to encompass individuals who have gained fame on various social media platforms. It refers to people who have the power to influence others. Unlike in the past, when measuring influence was difficult and activities such as appearing on television or radio or writing a book could confer celebrity status, influence is now quantified with specific metrics. An influencer's impact is measured by factors such as the number of followers, likes, shares and views. The newfound visibility of influence is a key innovation of social media, and it is this increased visibility that has fueled the growth of the influencer economy, particularly in the realm of marketing.

Influencers are currently the most prominent players in the online social media landscape. 

From Influencer to Artist

Recently, there has been a discernible trend of influencers, traditionally associated with the realm of marketing, transforming into artists. This shift is particularly evident on social media, where influencers are increasingly venturing into the realm of music by releasing original compositions or cover versions. This phenomenon is being embraced by a wide range of people in the digital sphere who have built large followings, not just top-tier influencers. While not every influencer makes this artistic leap, the trend of influencers becoming artists seems to have lasting potential beyond being a fleeting fad. In particular, influencers who have achieved international recognition and established themselves in the music arena are shifting their performance spaces from social media to dedicated streaming platforms, leveraging their existing influence.

A compelling example of this trend is the trajectory of Charli and Dixie D'Amelio. After initially gaining recognition for their dance covers on TikTok in 2019, the D'Amelio sisters have successfully expanded their reach beyond social media. In addition to excelling at brand marketing, they have diversified their ventures into fashion, beauty, book publishing, and podcasting, effectively becoming brands in their own right. An intriguing facet of their metamorphosis is their foray into original music, signifying a multifaceted expansion of their influence beyond their original platforms.

Dixie D'Amelio made her debut on the music scene with the release of her single "Be Happy" in 2020. Since June of that year, the track has become a sensation, being featured in over 2.1 million TikTok videos and amassing an impressive 101 million views on Spotify. Dixie has further solidified her presence in the music industry by collaborating with big-name artists such as Liam Payne and Wiz Khalifa. Charli D'Amelio, on the other hand, burst onto the music scene in October 2022 with her debut song, "If You Ask Me To." In a remarkably short two months, the track garnered over 2 million views on YouTube and 7.3 million streams on Spotify, underscoring Charli's quick and impactful entry into the music world.

In fact, this phenomenon of influencers venturing into music extends beyond the borders of the United States. A case in point is Mexican influencer Kimberly Loaiza, who is the seventh most followed person on TikTok. Loaiza initially gained fame as a beauty YouTuber in 2016, primarily through her vlog content, but transitioned to music in 2019. By August 2022, she had risen to the ranks of the top 100 global artists and currently has 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Not all influencers achieve comparable success, however. While those with substantial fan bases often enjoy increased exposure for their music, the reception of those songs varies widely. Addison Rae, the fourth most followed person on TikTok, debuted in 2021 with "Obsessed," which garnered 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Despite this, her musical endeavors have been met with criticism from both the media and the public, resulting in a decline in her Spotify listenership to around 440,000.

The global reach of this trend is further exemplified by South Korean YouTuber Gwana, who has 857,000 subscribers. Originally known for his witty content as a cooking YouTuber, Gwana has expanded his repertoire to include music, art, and cooking, showcasing a diverse range of genres including hip-hop, trot, rock, R&B, reggae, children's songs, and ballads. Making his music debut in 2020 with "Did You Know That?" Gwana creates music not only to emphasize his artistic side, but also to strengthen the connection with his subscribers. The lyrics for "Did You Know That?" were created by collecting comments from subscribers, contributing to a deep resonance with his audience.

Self-identity and the fandom business

While music may not be the primary focus of influencers, a significant number find themselves immersed in its realm. The question arises: Why do they choose music?

From an influencer's perspective, social media serves as a platform to reveal their authentic selves. Visitors to their channels may initially discover the influencer's expertise in beauty techniques, food recipes, and humor. But for influencers, social media is more than a showcase of skills; it is a space to tell their stories through unique talents. As their influence grows and extends beyond the personal sphere, they often pivot to using their channels for brand promotion and revenue generation. Unfortunately, this shift can turn their social media platforms from avenues for personal storytelling into billboards, limiting the space to express their authentic selves - a desire shared by everyone, including influencers.

Music is becoming a way for influencers to prove themselves beyond viral content. It serves as a vessel for personal storytelling, providing a platform to share narratives and grow from them. This aligns with the traditional role of music for musicians and artists.

However, the landscape isn't all positive. While influencers seem to have an easier time leveraging their influence through music, musicians face challenges in maintaining a steady income and building a fan base. Despite these hurdles, influencers, supported by dedicated fandoms, often reverse the typical process by debuting as a musician and then cultivating a following.

In some cases, influencers like Gwana use music not only for its musical qualities or genre significance, but also as a means to strengthen their bond with subscribers. Regardless of the approach, it's clear that the foundation for transforming influencers' identities lies in their relationship with their fandom-a stable approach, even if it may seem unconventional from a content perspective.

Monetizing influence is the future.

In 2023, I led the production of the documentary "K-Pop Generation" for TVING, which gave me the opportunity to interact with numerous influential figures in the music industry, both domestically and internationally. One notable person I met during this process was Phil Quartararo, co-founder of The Hello Group. This company of songwriters has created hit songs for prominent artists such as BTS, NCT and IU. With a career dating back to the 1970s, Quartararo has managed major rock bands, served as CEO of Capitol Records, and held the position of Vice Chairman of the Grammy Committee. When asked for his perspective on the growing influence of fandom in the music industry, he stated, "Fans are the core of the industry, and artists are the core of music. Artists shape the music ecosystem, but fans create the sustainability of the music business.

The historical background of the star system, which originated in Hollywood in the 1910s, was a method developed to generate steady revenue based on stars. Over the past century, the system has evolved in response to a changing media landscape. However, factors that are inherently difficult to control, such as the emergence of new consumers, socio-cultural shifts, and new technologies, have introduced uncertainty into the star system. Managing this uncertainty has been a primary focus of entertainment capital over the past century.

Fandom has emerged as a means of managing this uncertainty, especially since the 2010s, when social media facilitated the quantification of "influence" or popularity. The challenge, however, is not in making influence visible, but in monetizing it. This issue has become critical at a time when monetizing influence is a pressing concern for influencers, musicians, and artists alike.

Music production, a specialized field similar to video or publishing, is efficient. Creating music requires comparatively little time and effort, and released tracks can automatically generate revenue in the global streaming environment. In addition, the success of a hit significantly increases the likelihood of subsequent hits, creating a self-sustaining revenue cycle where hits breed more hits.

Central to this structure is the indispensable role of fandom. While fans and artists thrive on each other, an artist's success cannot be established without the support of fans. The motivations behind influencers' forays into music may range from sharing personal stories to pursuing a career as a musician, but ultimately these motivations converge on converting followers into fans - an act I define as 'monetizing influence'.

This 'monetizing influence' will shape the future of influencers, extending beyond the realm of music and into various fields. While not every follower may embrace their creations, influencers, whether in the music industry or the art world, will face resistance from established industries. Nevertheless, breaking through these barriers and proving themselves will become a central aspect of their journeys.

As some influencers evolve into creators and artists, many will seek to expand their reputations into the cultural and artistic spheres while maintaining and nurturing their careers. From this perspective, the lines between artists, creators, and influencers are inherently blurred. Despite our tendency to compartmentalize the creator economy, fandom communities, global platforms, and distribution services as separate entities, they are structurally interconnected. Consequently, the future of influencers must be examined through the lens of this integrated content ecosystem.(END)

Author WooJin CHA ย is a Music (especially K-pop), Entertainment, Media Industry Expert based on SEOUL