Before we get into Summer Walker, we have to break down this Elon Musk – Twitter drama. Musk joined Twitter’s board for less than a day. It reminds me of when Nas joined Murder Inc in 2002 for two months then left.
Both situations had conflicts of interest. Murder Inc CEO Irv Gotti wanted to dominate rap. Irv thought that signing Nas was his “Tupac signs with Death Row” moment. But Irv still wanted maintain his relationship with Jay Z, who was Nas’ rival at the time. It wasn’t gonna work.
In Elon’s case, he wants the freedom to shitpost about Twitter despite his fiduciary responsibility to act in the company’s best interest. Elon may also be planning a Carl Icahn-style hostile takeover of Twitter. But you know who knows a thing or two about responding to takeover? Nas.
Today’s memo is a breakdown on Summer Walker. Her approach to the music industry is unlike most artists at her level. Let’s dive in.
Summer Walker’s popularity is sky-high. Her 2021 album Still Over It was the best-selling opening week for an R&B album since Beyonce’s Lemonade. She sold 166,000 units in her first week, which puts her in the ballpark with Ariana Grande, Tyler, The Creator, and Justin Bieber. Those artists have their own specials on video streaming platforms, have headlined music festivals, and toured in arenas around the world. Meanwhile, the Summer Walker experience has been anything but that.
The 26-year-old musician has been honest about her struggles with anxiety. She has canceled tours, considered quitting music, and avoids many interviews. Her success is a reminder the standard song-and-dance playbook won’t work with every rising star.
Meeting artists where they are at
Summer is at her best when the setting fits her style. Her best interviews are quick-hit formats like 21 questions or with friends like singer Ari Lennox. She’s not the type for verbose answers. She’s less The Breakfast Club, more 73 Questions. Summer probably won’t let Vogue’s camera crew all up in her house like that for 73 Questions anyways, but at least there’s potential.
Her live performances have had their challenges too. In 2019, she canceled 20 tour dates due to her social anxiety. She doesn’t like to hug fans at meet and greets, which isn’t surprising. She also won’t perform certain songs live because of the pain they cause.
As a result, Summer’s performances have been limited. In 2022, she planned three concerts as part of The Summer Walker Series in Houston, Dallas, and Chicago, and five music festival appearances. That’s it. Many artists in Summer’s position would be on a 40+ city tour to capitalize on their huge album release, but most artists aren’t Summer.
If we take a step back, Summer’s top-of-funnel is somewhat limited because she doesn’t do the interviews that capture headlines or perform at the award shows that many artists do. And her bottom-of-funnel is somewhat limited as well, because she isn’t going to do as many shows, lucrative meet and greets, or do endorsement deals with brands. Her definition of success will different than most. That’s fine, as long as everyone is on the same page.
The divide between “marketability” and popularity
Artists like Summer Walker and NBA YoungBoy are in a select group of artists whose true popularity outweighs their perceived popularity to casual music fans. These artists have plenty of die-hard fans who love their music, but fewer casual fans. Their songs don’t get played on pop radio and they have yet to perform at the Grammys. Their artist funnel is narrower than most artists at their level.
Meanwhile, artists like Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, and Megan Thee Stallion have wider top-of-funnels, but those funnels are more shallow. They have the big singles, win the major awards, and perform on the biggest stages. Yet their latest albums haven’t sold as much as Summer Walker’s newest album.
The social media era has made it possible for stars to succeed without the entire machine trying to fit them into the standard mold. It’s been 20+ years since Lauryn Hill reached the industry’s highest heights. But she struggle with the industry demands to maximize her run while she had a child and dealt with relationship struggles. It’s a reminder that the music industry’s grind to superstardom has been normalized, but it still has its challenges that affect people differently.
Summer Walker sustained success is a sign of what’s possible. Her record label, LVRN, has made mental health a priority for its artists and teams. It’s a sign of progress in an industry that often overlooks this.
For better or worse, artist monetization depends on an artist’s ability to tour, be marketable, and present an image that fans want to buy into. That’s true in the real world, true in the metaverse and true in any setting. Today’s environment has made it easier than ever for Summer to do her thing. The challenges will still be there, but the path is better defined.