Instagram’s Change to an Algorithmic Timeline Could Adversely Affect Music Disproportionately


How could a change with an image-based app hurt music? By taking away the ability of fans to connect with music experiences in real time.

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On Tuesday (3-15), Instagram announced that it would be fundamentally changing the way its users see images in their feeds in the coming days and weeks. Since the beginning of the image sharing app, Instagram has followed the intuitive model of showing users the most recent posts from the people they follow first, just like Twitter, and just like other social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook did in their early incarnations. But now Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, will be slowly switching over to an algorithmic model, similar to the current Facebook news feed.

Though Instagram insists in their blog post about the change that under the new algorithmic approach you will still be able to see everything from the people you follow (unlike Facebook, which shows you as little as 10% of content posted by people you follow, and shows you “promoted” posts from people you don’t follow), the fear is this will lead yet another social network down a slippery slope to where only the biggest, flashiest, and most savvy users will get their content seen, and people will be able to pay to boost their posts in users’ feeds, or users will be forced to pay to have the folks who followed them actually see their posts.

Instagram says the new approach will make it even easier to see the things that most appeal to you, but it’s pretty obvious where all of this is heading: a monetized system where users can buy exposure and pay for followers instead of true user appeal focusing interest on the best content. People are already paying for fake Instagram followers and fake “likes” on the app. This is what was happening on Facebook, and so they decided they should be the one making the money on this enterprise and integrated paid exposure into their system. It’s inevitable this approach is coming to Instagram as well.

Every time a social network wants to make a significant change it causes great consternation among users and social media/technology pontificators. When Twitter mentioned recently that it might change to an algorithmic model, it sent off alarm bells across the internet, especially since Twitter is one of the very last non-algorithmic social media platforms in existence after the switchover of Instagram, and many media members rely on being able to see everything in their feeds and not just a few select tweets.

But the changes to Instagram could adversely affect the music world significantly more than it will the rest of social media culture. Why? Because despite Instagram being an image-based format with no direct tie to music, music fans favor and use the social network in much greater numbers compared to the general population, and use it specifically to help support the music they love.

A recent study by Nielsen Music discovered all manner of interesting insights into Instagram users, and how the social network is a bastion for hardcore music fans. As can be seen in the infographic below, Instagram users spend 42% more money per year on “music related items” than the general population. They also spend 30% more time listening to music per week—an average of 30.5 hours compared to 23.5 hours for the gen pop.

Instagram users are also more likely to subscribe to paid streaming services as opposed to ad supported streaming (paid streaming results in more revenue for musicians, songwriters, and labels). They’re more likely to attend live music events, and they’re more likely to connect with others through musical experiences. In other words, many Instagram users are music superfans, looking to share their experiences, and support their favorite artists. They share pictures on their Instagram accounts of their musical conquests not just to gloat, but to hopefully help spread the word about their favorite artists to their friends, and capture and share memories in real time.


So the next question is, how could Instagram switching over to an algorithmic timeline adversely affect music and its fans? That’s where the most startling statistic from the Nielson Music study comes into play. According to the study, when using social media at live events, 83% of music fans use Instagram.

Why is that number so high? It’s precisely because Instagram allows users to share experiences in real time on their feeds, and friends can follow along. This is not possible through Facebook, where the complex algorithm may pick and choose which concert photos uploaded in real time to share in other user’s feeds. A photo uploaded three hours ago may be the one that Facebook chooses to show your friends, even if you’re no longer at the concert. It’s that unique experience of sharing something in real time that makes Instagram such an incredible tool for live music and its fans.

The Nielson study also goes on to say that Instagram music fans tend to use their smartphones to purchase music they hear at a concert, to visit an artist’s website (or follow them on Instagram or other social media), and to upload concert videos.

Of course some of these music lovers are the same ones other fans and certain artists alike are complaining about for living their concert experiences through the screen of their phone. But many are also hardcore music fans who will snap a few photos at the beginning of the show, visit the merch booth to support the artist, and tell their friends about their favorite bands. Instagram users are the modern day version of the coveted word of mouth audience every up-and-coming band and artist is looking for to build support behind their career.

And all of that could change with Instagram’s new algorithm. This would leave Twitter as the final major social platform for sharing thoughts and images in real time, and Twitter is pondering the same algorithmic move.

The music industry has weathered much more significant blows in recent years than Instagram deciding to shake up how users share their photos. But taking away fan’s ability to share music moments in real time could mean less organic support for artists and bands, and a greater likelihood that larger acts and other entities with the financial wherewithal to pay for exposure will be able to dominate the format similar to how we see with Facebook today.