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Social Storytelling in the Music Industry
Featuring an interview with Cortney Riles, Director of Social Media at Sony Music Publishing.
To some extent, to be good at social media is to care about the industry you’re in. When I worked at Condé Nast, I was good at social (and loved social) in large part because I worked at the food magazine I grew up reading cover to cover. I can almost guarantee if I was working at any other publication, I would not have been as successful. Oftentimes I’ll hear from people that they hated working in social, when really I think they hated the industry they were in. Social media is storytelling—and to tell a good story it’s important to care about the subject.
Today I am interviewing a storyteller who cares deeply about her subject. Cortney Riles is the Director of Social Media at Sony Music Publishing and knows more about music than most people I know. Yes, she’s passionate about social media. But I think what comes across most in this interview is that she’s passionate about the art of making music and uses social media to fuel discovery and communication.
Rachel Karten: Can you tell me about your current job? And any previous social (or not) roles you've had?
Cortney Riles: I'm currently Director of Social Media at Sony Music Publishing (SMP), a subset of Sony Music Group. Before Sony, I held Social, Brand, and A&R (artist and repertoire) roles at Kobalt Music Publishing. And, before Kobalt—which feels like another lifetime—I worked on the Entertainment team at Refinery 29 where the majority of my time was spent writing and building stories (often related to music) and managing our Facebook page.
RK: Why do you love working in social, specifically in the music publishing world?
CR: I'm a storyteller, and while that's looked different over the years, that's always been the goal. At first, I wanted to be Oprah, then a fashion journalist (like Robin Givhan), and then a music journalist (after a friend asked "Why don't you write about music, it's all you talk about?" as I was applying to grad schools). And now, to my surprise, I help tell SMP's story across social media. I never considered social as a career. But now I love it because it allows me to combine so many things I'm passionate about at once. Brand awareness and development, behavioral science, creative direction, copywriting, strategizing, and more.
The music industry is wild! It's evolved so much from when I fantasized about it to when I began working in it. Even now, the industry is changing at an alarming rate but I am so blessed to be a tiny part of it. I've loved music for as long as I can remember—I grew up singing in church, played classical piano for 16 years, listen to just about every genre, etc.—so the fact that I work within it, in general, is a big feat. Working in social within the music world is particularly special because it's become the main vessel of discovery and communication between artists (and general stakeholders) and their fans.
RK: Just for clarity—what’s the difference between a label and a publisher?
CR: Labels (like Columbia, RCA, and Epic Records to name a few) work with artists like Adele, Doja Cat, and Camilla Cabello. They focus on the careers of the voices who blast through your AirPods, laptops, and speakers. From albums to merch to music videos to tours, they handle it all.
Publishers, on the other hand, focus on the songwriters and producers that are often responsible for the development of the songs the artists you love sing. Granted, many artists, including legends like Carole King, Dolly Parton, and Stevie Wonder as well as newcomers like Arlo Parks, Mitski, and Olivia Rodrigo, are songwriters themselves and that's always existed but also becoming increasingly more common. Several, however, have incredible vocals, performance skills, and compelling presences, and rely on talented songwriters and producers to craft their tracks. So at SMP, I work with the latter and their respective teams. It’s an exciting time because now, thanks in part to social media, songwriters are receiving much more notoriety, opportunity, and equity than they ever have—as they should, we wouldn't have the soundtracks to our lives without them! Note: an artist can be signed to a label that’s different from their publisher and vice versa.
RK: What are some of the unique aspects of working in social/digital marketing specifically within music?
CR: Many brands on social media are either B2B or B2C. In music, you're often both. Even as a publisher, we're not just working with labels, management companies, music supervisors, and streaming platforms (to name a few) but also aspiring artists, established songwriters, and (hopefully) fans. And, when it comes to the latter, no audience is a monolith which means we're constantly thinking of new ways to engage with them based on their varied experiences, interests, and passions. In fact, that's my favorite part.
Growing up music was my refuge. I thought I knew everything about it. I admittedly spent more time listening to albums and reading liner notes than I spent practicing my piano. I also assumed, however, that Destiny's Child wrote and produced all of their own songs. And, while some of the other artists I loved growing up did a lot of this, like Alicia Keys and John Mayer, I believed they did everything all by themselves. Had I known more about folks like Ester Dean, Kandi Burruss, Mark Ronson, Max Martin, Rich Harrison, Rick Rubin, Rob Cavallo, Rodney Jerkins, Sean Garrett, and Stargate, I think my music comprehension and taste would have been more robust than it was at an early age. Of course, I grew to recognize Jermaine Dupri and Justblaze's producer tags, the difference between N.E.R.D and The Neptunes, and could immediately identify Timbaland's chops as soon as a track started, but it took time and understanding.
Now, thanks in part to social media, legendary songwriters and producers like these are highly sought after and have fanbases of their own (ie. Boi1da, D'Mile, and Greg Kurstin). They're more visible and therefore recognizable than ever—tagged in posts, not just on the tracks themselves. They have pages, platforms, and podcasts across streaming services devoted to them (ie. Apple's Behind the Boards and Songbook series and Spotify's Noteable). Just think about the phenomenon Verzuz became throughout the pandemic—that's just as much, perhaps more in some ways, about the songwriters as it is about the artists. It's incredible and long overdue. I have the privilege of amplifying the work and voices of creators that were often overlooked outside of publishers and performance rights organizations (PROs). But in reality, they're shaping culture just as much, and more in some cases, than the artists. My goal is that the campaigns, franchises, and posts I create are so compelling that they reach and resonate with the fans of artists our songwriters and producers work with and become fans of them too.
RK: I feel like I don't ask enough questions about the more tactical side of social here. Can you talk me through what a typical day looks like for you?
CR: It's interesting because since the pandemic things have changed a lot, especially my daily routine (I know I'm not alone in this).
But, for the most part, I’m a morning person so I wake around 6 am if I'm not commuting to our NY office and 4:30 am if I am. For better or for worse, I reach for my phone and do a quick scroll through Twitter (first, always), Instagram, and then LinkedIn. Since I'm based back on the East Coast—after 7 years off and on in LA—I like to see if there's anything I've missed, particularly within pop culture, overnight. I then check my email and schedule for the day to make sure I again haven't missed anything important and am fully prepared for what's to come.
After that, I usually go for a run—which is where my best thinking happens, next to driving—or get some type of workout in before shower, breakfast, etc. and then work. My meetings usually start around 10 am so as long as I'm prepared—I'm Type A and HATE unread notifications so it's rare that I need to catch up on emails and such—I have plenty of time to start my day off fully which I'm grateful for.
From there it depends on the time of year, week, etc. but typically I kick things off by reviewing metrics. I like to be apprised of performance daily—it makes it more efficient to compile and regularly communicate various nuances that can be difficult for stakeholders outside of social to understand. Plus algorithms are so inconsistent these days I find it easier to at least make an educated guess of what’s happening and how it affects post performance with regular reviews.
Then, I usually bounce from meetings with everyone from our greater Comms and internal SMP teams (like A&R, Admin, Legacy, Visual Media Rights, etc.) to SMG’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), Philanthropic Social Initiatives (PSI) and social teams, to external chats with the publishing teams at the various social platforms and DSPs, to check-ins with my social manager and graphic designer. The latter can involve everything from managing our content calendars, brainstorming new campaigns and franchises, building briefs, working through social strategy, scheduling posts, gathering insights/data, analyzing competition, staying up to date with trends, and community management. But, generally, I handle everything top-down when it comes to organic social.
The workday typically ends at 6 pm but that's not a hard stop, ever, especially if it's awards season—Grammy's, Oscars, CMAs, VMAs, etc. It's all part of the game, which I love to play! I do make sure, however, that I plug my phone in to charge across the room from me at least an hour before I wind down for bed. Just as important as it is to remain tapped in, it's imperative to tap out too.
RK: What platform are you most excited about right now?
CR: Personally, and perhaps professionally (but less so), TikTok. I spend an embarrassing amount of time on the platform but it brings me so much joy. I've used it long and often enough that the content I see is perfectly curated to my interests and quirks, hence why it occupies so much of my time! More importantly, however, one of my favorite parts of social media is how platforms have evolved for different types of storytellers. Twitter is a hub for writers, Instagram for photographers, and now I think videographers, editors and the like are thriving on TikTok. Of course, successful users of these platforms aren't limited to one over the other, nor does one have to fall into a certain category to create compelling content, but I have enjoyed seeing the original ways people around the world utilize their skills to share their passions across platforms. And right now, I'm most inspired by what I see on TikTok.
RK: ...and maybe least excited about?
CR: Facebook. I only still have it in order to run our company's account and to occasionally cringe at how insufferable I was in my late teens and early 20s—from statuses to photo album names to videos left on friends' walls, yikes! But it is fun to reminisce on how things have changed and how (thankfully) I've grown. In true millennial fashion, I'm a sucker for nostalgia.
RK: Are you hopeful for the future of social media?
CR: I've typed these answers just hours after learning Elon Musk is buying Twitter, so not at this moment. But that's subject to change, hopefully!
I believe in creators. Their ingenuity, power, potential, commitment to their crafts, and the incredible things they’ve developed as a way to share them. So, while I have doubts about the future of social media, I am confident in the innovative and inspiring ways creatives will continue to use, build, perhaps even dismantle and rebuild social media. They own it, ultimately, and I love that for them (us).
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