Social media lessons from a teenage superstar

Jacob Whitesides: at Wired 2015.
Jacob Whitesides: at Wired 2015.

Jacob Whitesides is a teenage musician who used social media to become a worldwide star. How can brands learn from his success?

LONDON — Jacob Whitesides has a lot of followers — 1.8 million on Twitter, 1.2 million on Instagram and 1.5 million on Facebook. He also heads his own record label and touring business. And here's the kicker: He is only 17 years old.

The musician spoke at the Wired 2015 conference here last week about his tips for social media success.

Despite his success and ever-more-hectic schedule, Whitesides still spends "a massive amount of time on social media. I always make sure there is time for my fans and update them regardless of how busy I am."

Even his performance at the conference was streamed live on Periscope. His phone was linked up to the screens so the audience could view his interactions; fans posted comments continuously throughout.

Whiteside was 13 when he first got into music to impress a girl who was obsessed with Justin Bieber. He posted his first video on YouTube, which he has since deleted because it was "so embarrassing." But his fanbase has grown quickly and he is one of the social media success stories.

Here was his take on social virility.

Every artist is a CEO
Whitesides thinks there has been a shift in power from record labels to artists. He shunned a big record label contract because friends who had taken them were unhappy. They were no longer in control of what music they made, when they made it or even their social media accounts. "Record labels might blow up artists, but they are not happy," he said.

Instead he partnered with BMG to create his own label, which gives him control over what music he makes. "Labels need artists more than artists need labels now," he said. The old hierarchies are breaking down.

Fans are the shareholders
"I am nothing without my fans," Whitesides said. "They have created all of this. They gave me lots of leverage when I went into these meetings asking them to change things."

This means that despite his success, he made sure he retains control over his social media. "You see a lot of people who get their start through YouTube and personal relationships with fans, and then they lose that relationship and it becomes lots of promo. It’s no longer organic, and fans see through it," he said.

It’s a reminder for brands to be authentic and not forget who got you there in the first place. Something with which Tesco might agree with its new customer-focused campaign launch.

In each other we trust
Whitesides proposed having a more personal relationship with fans, sharing both good and bad parts of your life. It’s something that seems more appropriate than broadcasting to them in a more conversation-driven age.

"Lots of my fans are the same age as me. We’re all going through the same struggles. Being a teenager is a very hard life," he said, with a hint of irony. "If I’m upset, I go and talk to them, I don’t want to be super-professional. I don’t want to just be like, 'My EP comes out in eight days #gogetmyEPin8days.' "

He praised Taco Bell’s Twitter page for being relatable and talking directly to individuals. A corporate approach puts people off.

Social media is a leveler
Whitesides champions the democratic nature of social media, which allows anyone to create a fanbase and gives artists who wouldn’t have come to prominence through traditional routes a chance.

"I started my career with a webcam and a $100 microphone that plugged in to my computer," he said. "It’s so much easier for artists to get their music out to the world — all you need is an iPhone. In the past they needed lots of money to get into recording studios." Social media provides opportunities.

Those opportunities might be hitting the big time, or, as Whitesides showed, it may just be solving typical teenage problems like persuading the girl you fancy to go out with you. In case you were wondering, he got the girl.

 This article first appeared on

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