Behind laptop screens around the world, artists and their fans are connecting on a gaming app to stay in touch, collaborate, and keep the volume on loud
When you first boot up Discord, you’re met with a cartoonish gaming controller that swivels in hypnotic loops – an appropriate introduction to the rabbithole that you’re about to be seduced into. Since launching in 2015, Discord – a free online messaging platform – has grown rapidly, now hosting 250 million users who have become accustomed to its dark grey UI, its emoji-clad channel hashtags, and its unceasing notification sound, a little bloop that reminds you that everywhere, people are online.
Originally intended as a user-friendly talk option for gamers, Discord was appealing because of its comprehensive capabilities, such as audio chat, programmable bots, and designated user roles. The platform was the subject of negative headlines a few years ago when members of the alt-right crowded servers to share racist propaganda, but Discord is much larger and more diverse than this portrayal might make it seem, logging four billion minutes of conversation daily. Today, you can find an ever-growing community of music fans online there, the latest creative expression of fandom that has spanned from fan clubs to DIY zines to online message boards over the years. Unlike the publicly browsable Reddit or Twitter, Discord’s private servers host subcultures that allow those inside to geek out while leaving the average onlooker with much to discover.
In March, when COVID-19 sapped us of our hopes for IRL activities, artists found themselves in a precarious position. With venues shutting their doors and festivals getting cancelled, musicians were on the lookout for new ways of engaging their fans (not to mention new sources of income) beyond the live stage. With more time on their hands and a computer at their fingertips, many have pivoted to digital landscapes – from regular Instagram Live performances to more curated livestream concerts. But Discord has really become the place to be for those who want to connect on a continual basis with their faves, and with each other. Dazed talked to the music lovers who frequent these servers and came up with some reasons for why Discord is the most interesting place to be a stan right now.
YOU GET ACCESS TO EXCLUSIVE EVENTS AND CONTENT
In August, PC Music founder and Charli XCX producer A. G. Cook launched Apple Guild, a month-long alternate reality game. Scouring the internet for meticulously hidden clues, participants brought their findings back to Discord to defeat bots and unlock the stems from 7G, the 49-track album that Cook released earlier this year. Using bots, Cook could mediate fan interactions with pre-programmed puzzles and encrypted easter eggs. ‘Battle of the Bands’ was the Guild’s biggest endeavour, assigning songs to randomly populated bands who then had to produce a cover in three days. One participant, Brandon, said that “even though it was a little stressful, it was definitely the highlight” of being in the Guild. The winner, Me & U2, was invited to perform at a livestream concert, Appleville, alongside Clairo, Kero Kero Bonito, Charli XCX, and more. The top voted songs were also included in a mixtape released on PC Music’s Bandcamp.
Among the activities in this integrative experience was the promotion of Cook’s album, Apple. He attended listening parties and numerous Q&As specific to songs, graphics, and iconic moments in music history. Much of this was broadcast on the Discord, which became the arena of interaction. While the project attests to the commitment of PC Music fans, it also shows that as Cook continues to dig new (virtual) trails in the world of pop, his listeners are excited to be traversing this digital topography with him.
YOU CAN MAKE DEEP DIVES INTO DIFFERENT ARTISTS AND THEIR MUSIC
Most of the music communities on Discord were installed without the participation of big name musicians. In fact, K-pop fans have even created a centralised server that acts as a database of alphabetised channels, linking nearly 29,000 subscribers to smaller servers dedicated to various groups. In one of the most popular linked servers, BLACKPINK fans keep each other up-to-date on the girl group’s individual members, sharing photos, interviews, and music videos.
The cult of Kanye takes up another big pocket of music Discord too. Here, role names are based on Kanye’s lyrics (e.g. “runaways” and “real friends”). While fans could have a field day with his huge discography, the conversations aren’t just about Kanye West, but use the artist as an entry point into a wider music fandom. Usually, a user can be found DJing with the help of a music-playing bot, inciting debates about songs new and old, popular and obscure. So, whether you’re obsessed with nightcore or classical music, there’s a Discord server for you. And if there’s not? Well, consider making one! Others will be lining up (and logging on) to deconstruct all your favourite tracks with you.
YOU CAN PUT YOUR FANDOM TOWARDS A CAUSE YOU CARE ABOUT
Since March, Arca’s server, MuTaNts1000000, has since created two volumes of a collaborative release, Mutants Mixtape, bringing fans and music makers together “to raise funds for organisations that support and uplift POC, queer, and trans lives”. With Arca contributing a new song, the project got significant press, garnering support for those it set out to aid. Fandoms are powerful, and Discord makes it easier than ever to mobilise them, providing all the in-app utilities that make communication better. Allowing administrators and moderators various permissions allows for power to be somewhat more decentralised, too. Mario, a moderator on the channel and a senior editor on Volume 2 of the mixtape, told Dazed that “having so many mods that are open to discuss and make decisions based on everyone’s opinion is what builds the server; there is not a single person making decisions”. Similarly, PC Music’s Appleville event sold t-shirts and ‘Golden Tickets’ that gave access to the festival ‘mosh pit’ and a mixtape download file, with proceeds donated to Mermaids and the Black Cultural Archives. For social justice-minded fans, possibilities abound.
YOU CAN FIND YOUR OWN VOICE
One of the biggest music servers on Discord was created by the producer Kenny Beats. The platform’s aptitude for seamless file and screen sharing makes it easy to participate in the activities of the server, which include beat competitions and daily beat talks. In crowdsourcing their knowledge, musicians of all levels are encouraged to ask for advice, give their opinions, and talk about the music-making process. And so the server becomes a shared workspace, with colleagues bouncing ideas off each other: sending beats in the #collabs channel, loops in the #samples channel, and questions in the #music-theory channel. And with the sustaining support of other creatives – despite being portrayed by avatars with pseudonyms – making music becomes a little less intimidating.
YOU CAN BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH LIKEMINDED PEOPLE
Servers populated by thousands of users mean that there is always someone online and ready to talk. Even though he had never been on Discord before, Mario has since joined adjacent servers with his friends and others that he met on the platform. Brandon has a similar story, moving, with his online friends, to a fan-made PC Music server when the Guild closed its gates in September. The initial connection uniting these people from various contexts is maintained in the channels. From the #mental-health chat in the Kenny Beats server, to the #venting one for Arca fans, these communities are built upon a candour that is helped by the option of anonymity. There is an irony not to be lost here, that in music terminology, the word discord is used to describe non-harmonious sounds. And in everyday speech, it names a disagreement among people. Logging on to the platform for the first time, the name feels well-suited. Overwhelmed by the chaos of scrolling sidebars, role-designating symbols, and bot commands, you get the sense that everywhere you click you clash with a system you can’t quite decipher. But that’s really the beauty of it – each server acts a little differently because it rests on a framework built by its users. And, like a secret language, learning to speak fluently is rewarded with an intimacy reserved only for those who understand.