In Power-Mad Entertainment Biz, Twitter Followers Are Everything

By Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune.

“Love Love Loved @HamiltonMusical” tweeted the punctuation-free @AmySchumer very early one recent morning, attaching a photo of herself in a very nice orchestra seat at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, clutching a Playbill.

If you Pay Pay Paid for even a small part of that brilliant and phenomenally successful musical, which, by my back of the envelope calculations is netting its creator @Lin_Manuel more in a month than what the MacArthur Foundation is giving him over five years to recognize the unimpeachable genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, you likely fell in love with Schumer all over again.

After all, she has well over 2 million followers. Even if only a tiny percentage act on her effusive recommendation, that still represents a formidable reach: around twice the current Sunday print circulation for the New York Times, for example.

And even with all the greatest copywriters in the world, it’s hard to improve on “Love Love Loved,” especially when replete with visual aid and the concise hashtag “greatforhiphopheads.” One can only hope the affection was genuine and spontaneous, rather than a matter of shared interests.

Not that we would really know, either way. Given the intricate networks of agents, executives and representatives at the upper echelons of the entertainment business, I suspect there were elements of both. Somebody got Schumer the ticket; mere mortals are having a hard time. Then again, it’s a quality show. Why can’t Schumer promote that in which she believes?

Celebrity endorsements have come a long way since Oprah’s Book Club turned half the struggling industry of American publishing into Winfrey lap dogs. That would no longer be the case; too many others are on the Winfrey bandwagon.

Celebrities with huge social media followings now drive artistic business to a massive extent. So, for example, when @Stephenathome retweeted Jon Baptiste’s request for support for an event this past week at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, that reached 9.31 million of Stephen Colbert’s followers. Very few media outlets of any kind reach 9.31 million people, although that’s nothing compared with @taylorswift13, whose very rare endorsements on Twitter reach 65.4 million, which is more than the entire population of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Oh, and there’s another 50 million watching her on Instagram. Granted, not all 65.4 million Taylor Swift fans are reading her every Tweet. But still.

In fact, The New York Observer reported recently that Swift’s numbers overtook those of @BarackObama (who is hardly shabby on Twitter) for the first time. The article implied no bad blood between @Swift13 and POTUS. But “those numbers,” wrote Brady Dale, “are never, ever getting back together.”

In @Swift13’s headlights: @KatyPerry and, of course, @JustinBieber, whose followers number around twice the population of Canada.

With the content creators now functioning simultaneously as content promoters, for both themselves and others, it’s the Wild West when it comes to ethics. There’s no required disclosure of shared agents, hoped-for gigs or executives to impress.

Mainstream media outlets, which can only dream of Swiftian numbers, are hardly immune from these dilemmas. You can be sure, for example, that the bean counters at Billboard were delighted when Swift retweeted its article about the rise up the charts of “Wildest Dreams,” the fifth No. 1 from Swift’s phenomenally successful album, “1989.” I’d venture a guess that Gary Trust’s article was the most read Billboard article of the day, as a direct result of @Swift13’s retweet, which may or may not have been Swift’s own retweet. Surely no coincidence, though, that the first line therein was “Another week, another number one for Taylor Swift.” Had the lead suggested, say, fatigue with the pop artist, it likely would not have reached those 65.4 million potential readers.

Swift retweeting an accurate article could be defined as a win-win for media outlet and celebrity or, at least, a reflection of how things now have to be. The problem, of course, comes when writers and editors, even subliminally, tailor articles to the pleasures of the likes of Swift, craving their whopping reach. You might argue that the dilemma is nothing new, Hollywood publicists have, for example, traded access to stars (or lack thereof) for favorable coverage (or lack thereof) for several generations and it has always taken guts, and often deep pockets, to publish something unfavorable. But the temptations in the current climate are especially acute, since nothing is worse than something nobody reads.

The Twitter effect also is being felt in audition rooms. Since the number of Twitter followers of an individual artist is public and empirical, producers are all too aware of how many followers a potential cast member in a play or a movie may enjoy; tweeted endorsements are now a matter of feverish negotiation. And talent agents are telling their clients to get tweeting or Instagramming or whatever. Assuming they want to work.

“My cast has 10 million between them,” a confident producer said to me the other day, leaving me to figure out, eventually, that he was talking about his actors’ collective following on Twitter. His point (which was not lost on me) was that the cumulative reach of that small but social-media savvy cast was sufficient to sell tickets, to manufacture word of mouth, and, therefore, make the show largely critic-proof and risk-free.

Naturally, he’d cast the best people for the roles, he said.

There is no shame in casting for viability and marketability, after all, casting by number of Twitter followers is really just an extension of star casting in general, and star casting has been around for as long as there has been casting.

It took fame and clout to open a tentpole studio movie in 1989, just as it does now. The main difference, one of which arts journalists are all too aware, is that the clout, of lack thereof, is now subject to analytics more than anecdote. And you can’t beat cold hard facts when it comes to shattering dreams of influence.

It’s all enough to make you try and manufacture some Twitter followers, to cultivate some quid pro quos, the appearance of heft in the public square.

But you wouldn’t do that @Swift13, would you? Actually, you don’t need to. Demonstrably, unless you let that POTUS thing matter a bit too much. But plenty of other artists do. And everything but integrity can be bought.

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