TikTok has become a powerful platform for professionals in the music industry.
One need look no further than the Billboard 100 or Spotify Viral 50 to see the app’s impact on popular music in the past year.
Songs that have been outside the mainstream for decades can reemerge as TikTok trends, as was the case with Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” In other instances, marketers or artists deliberately try to make songs take off by tapping into existing TikTok trends or adapting tracks for TikTok’s short-video format and hiring creators to promote them.
Artists, record labels, and music distributors have teams dedicated to engaging with the app. And TikTok itself has a full division focused on music operations, music partnerships and artist relationships, and business development.
The platform now regularly hosts live concerts featuring performers like Coldplay and Justin Bieber.
Please join Insider’s media reporter Dan Whateley and execs from TikTok, Universal Music Group, and UnitedMasters for a conversation about TikTok’s role in the music industry, and how social media is slated to make an even bigger impact on popular culture in 2021.
The 30-minute chat is scheduled for July 8 at 1 pm ET/10 am PST, and we want your questions.
Meet our panelists:
Corey Sheridan is head of music partnerships and content operations at TikTok U.S.
Celine Joshua is the general manager of commercial, content and artist strategy at Universal Music Group (UMG).
Dave Melhado is head of marketing at UnitedMasters.
Topics to be discussed include:
The strategies that artists and record labels use to engage with fans and promote tracks on TikTok.
How up-and-coming artists use TikTok to build an audience and eventually distribute their music off-platform.
What music artists need to know about being a content creator on social media.
How digital concerts on TikTok will impact the way consumers and performers think about live events.
How to capitalize on big cultural moments on TikTok.
What music marketers should know about working with record labels and artists on TikTok.
In 2020, I lost my job and decided to spend my free time pursuing a dream I’d had since teenhood: becoming an influencer. I’d spent more than a decade idolizing YouTube stars like Tyler Oakley to the point that when I heard he was coming to Dublin, Ireland in 2012, I traveled to the city center from my home in the suburbs for the off-chance that I’d run into him.
Miraculously, I did, and our brief interaction helped encourage me to build my own internet following. I made over 70 videos. Some blatantly ripped off established influencers. Once, I filmed myself cooking while drunk in the hopes that it would attract an audience as it did for Hannah Hart. The video got fewer than 300 views and I made it private soon after. Later, I made a video where I crafted a giant serving of McDonald’s fries out of jello. And in another, I built a shirt out of sliced bread.
I tried everything to stand out, and yet I couldn’t even crack 1,000 subscribers – until 2020.
At that time, I’d spent the best part of three years at NowThis, learning how to attract an audience of millions with short-form videos on Snapchat and TikTok. It felt like the perfect opportunity to try to become an influencer again. While at NowThis, I’d produced content about BTS, the biggest band in the world with a famously loyal and dedicated fanbase. One of my videos got close to 900,000 views on Twitter, and fans wrote thousands of affirmative comments praising me for reporting on the group without prejudice.
“It’s so rare to see some actual research on BTS and ARMY,” one wrote (“ARMY” is the name of the group’s fandom).
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>In just 7 years, <a href=”https://twitter.com/BTS_twt?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@BTS_twt</a> has changed the world. These are the 7 lessons the band has left us with since 2013 <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/7YearsWithBTS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#7YearsWithBTS</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/ARMY?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ARMY</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BTS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BTS</a> <a href=”https://t.co/a2uON7mmoh”>pic.twitter.com/a2uON7mmoh</a></p>— NowThis (@nowthisnews) <a href=”https://twitter.com/nowthisnews/status/1271806529151184896?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>June 13, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>
It helped that I genuinely enjoy BTS’s music, which promotes a message of self love. As a 30-something who has long struggled with low self-esteem, I find lyrics like, “I’m the one I should love in this world / Shining me, precious soul of mine” surprisingly therapeutic.
I started a new YouTube channel where I combined my background in journalism and building audiences with my appreciation for BTS. I interviewed fans like a 62-year-old military intelligence analyst who said the group saved her life, and the father of a late model who met the group long before they rose to prominence – and yet predicted they’d be superstars.
During my most successful month on YouTube, my channel drew 508,729 views. My channel surpassed 13,000 subscribers, and I had even greater success on Twitter, where I posted news updates and explanatory threads explaining how the US music industry was stacked against BTS, a Korean group which, at that point, had never released a fully English-language song. My tweets generated thousands of retweets apiece and within a few months my Twitter following had surpassed 35,000. To be clear, these numbers are tiny compared to bonafide internet superstars. And as I soon discovered, it would be the closest I’d get to their level of success.
Here were the hard lessons I learned.
Lesson 1: YouTube ad revenue can be inconsistent, so don’t expect to make a living from ads alone.
I loved the content I was making, but it was effectively a full-time job. I spent much of my free time producing videos and coming up with ideas for new ones. And there were expenses involved, like $326 per month for a paid subscription to Mediabase, a music industry service that gave me access to specific radio airplay numbers for BTS songs, which I shared with fellow fans. These updates became the primary driver of my follower growth on Twitter.
However, I was earning hardly any money. My tweets made me nothing, but I thought that by building a following on Twitter, I could direct followers to my YouTube channel, which was monetized. I quickly learned that earnings from YouTube ads can be highly inconsistent. The views on my videos swung wildly, from highs of hundreds of thousands to lows of a tiny fraction of that, meaning I wasn’t developing a loyal audience who tuned into every video. As such, my earnings were unpredictable. One video that took me three weeks to produce currently has 43,121 views and made $76.34; another, in which I rapped in Korean with BTS’ SUGA collaborator MAX, has just 5,737 views and earned $18.67.
Lesson 2: Before you ask your audience to pay you directly, do your research.
These ups and downs drove swings in my mental health. The correlation between YouTube views and ad revenue meant that when my videos did well, I felt elated and dreamt about how big my earnings might become in the future. But when my videos flopped, I felt paralyzed by fears that I was a failure, and struggled to focus on producing the next one.
With no other jobs lined up, and my savings starting to dwindle, I knew I needed to earn a reliable income – fast. Ad revenue alone wouldn’t cut it, so I drew inspiration from other influencers with loyal followings and started an account on Patreon, a paid membership platform. I set up multiple tiers, offering common rewards like exclusive content to subscribers in exchange for a small monthly fee.
I advertised my Patreon on Twitter – and immediately received a backlash.
While it made sense to try to diversify my income and not rely on YouTube ad revenue alone, I made a huge mistake by not speaking with others within the community first about whether starting a Patreon was a good idea. Basically, I didn’t do my research. Instead, I shared a news update about BTS and, in a second tweet, told my followers that they could support my content on Patreon.
The backlash came almost immediately. Hundreds of accounts condemned the fact that I was asking for money from a fandom that’s known for its ethos of volunteerism. Many fans before me had built followings by posting chart positions and other updates without asking for a dime. As a result, some stated I had established influence within the fandom for the sole purpose of reaping financial rewards. Several users with large followings, including those that had supported my work in the past, unfollowed or blocked me.
Lesson 3: Be wary of changing your brand after you’ve built a following. If you do, expect a large chunk of your audience to unfollow you.
While the criticism eventually passed, as it does for many things on the internet, my anxiety about my future did not. While I was still determined to make it as an influencer, I knew now that the following I had grown would not support me financially. Sure, I did have a handful of patrons, but like my YouTube channel, I earned a pittance: $190.97 in three months. This led me to my second mistake.
During a conversation with a more established influencer in the K-pop community, I learned that they had grown a significant subscriber base on Patreon by posting reaction videos to various K-pop groups. While I never found out how much they were making, their expression of disbelief as they talked about the sheer amount was enough to convince me to try the same thing on my YouTube channel. Until this point, I’d mainly posted content about BTS, so producing reaction videos of other groups was a significant pivot. That’s because on the internet, K-pop groups are like sports teams. If you declare yourself a supporter of one, fans may not be pleased if you start stanning their rival. In my case, I’d declared myself a BTS fan, only to later post content about a competitor, BLACKPINK.
The week I published my reaction to BLACKPINK’s “DDU-DU DDU-DU,” I lost 8,000 Twitter followers. After sharing the video on Twitter, my follower count started to freefall. I tried to address the mass unfollowing by tweeting that I didn’t intend to shade other K-pop groups, including BTS. But that only made things worse.
ARMYs expressed their outrage in the comments: “This my friends, is an example of a perfect clout chaser,” one wrote. “He identified as army, hopped off on a profit gaining train from us, and now he’s onto another fandom.”
Another posted: “Why do u think he used first army and now blinks [BLACKPINK’s fandom]? I don’t understand why both fandoms or others support youtubers when they only use kpop groups for views.”
Lesson 4: If you want to be an influencer, be prepared for regular, public criticism from strangers, even if you feel it’s unwarranted.
Through these missteps, I realized what it’s actually like to be an influencer: In exchange for the dopamine boost of watching your posts rack up thousands of likes and retweets, there exists a cohort willing to tear you down the moment you make a mistake. It’s a kind of bad-faith scrutiny that assumes you only have the worst intentions when the truth is often far more complex.
It was my own fault for not explaining that because I spent so much time producing content, I either needed to earn more money from it, or quit, and find something that did earn me a livable wage. I considered posting a long-winded response, but when I asked some friends, their reaction was mixed. Some supported me trying to clear things up, while another, who has a considerable following on YouTube, said I wouldn’t be able to change the assumptions people had already made about me.
“It happens as you grow,” they wrote to me in a DM. “People create narratives & backlash is bigger. You know how the saying goes. The bigger you are, the more hate you get.”
Lesson 5: My experiences taught me that being an influencer isn’t for me. But if you can avoid the mistakes I made, you could have what it takes to succeed.
For all the upsides to becoming an influencer – the dopamine rushes and the supportive comments – my mental health means more to me. I’m happier being a nobody. For you, though, things could be different. If you can avoid letting financial insecurity rush you into poor decision-making and have skin thick enough that bad-faith comments won’t wear you down, becoming an influencer may be for you.
Just recognize that it’s a lot easier to gain new followers than it is to convince them to spend money on whatever it is you’re creating. Understand that making a living on the internet is hard, and to succeed, you’ll need the patience and persistence it takes to find a means of monetizing your content that is palatable to your audience.
iMovie may be free for Apple users, but there’s a bit of a learning curve when you start using it. If you don’t know where to look, something as simple as adding music to your project can seem daunting – but it doesn’t have to be.
Once you’ve opened your project, here’s what you need to know to add music to your video on an iPhone, iPad, or a Mac.
How to add music to iMovie on an iPhone or iPad
There are a couple ways to add music to iMovie on mobile devices, depending on whether you’re trying to add a soundtrack or sound effects.
How to add a soundtrack
1. Tap the plus sign “+” icon.
2. Select Audio.
3. Choose Soundtracks. To preview a soundtrack, tap on it.
4. Once you’ve decided which soundtrack to use, tap it and then tap the plus sign “+” icon next to the desired soundtrack to add it to your project.
How to add sound effects
1. Drag the video to place the white vertical line where you want to insert the sound effect.
2. Tap the plus sign “+” icon.
3. Select Audio.
4. Choose Sound Effects.
5. Tap through the effects to play them.
6. Once you’ve selected the one you want to use, tap it and select the plus sign “+” icon to insert it into your project.
How to add music to iMovie on a Mac
Although adding music on a Mac is still simple, the process is different than using a mobile device.
1. Click Audio in the top toolbar of the iMovie window.
2. On the left, select the source you want to use for your sound: Music, Sound Effects, or GarageBand. The Music option will give you compatible tracks from your iTunes library, while GarageBand will give you audio clips you’ve made in the GarageBand app.
3. Hover your cursor over each sound clip or song to reveal the play button, and click it to listen to the clip.
4. Click and drag the desired sound to the editing bar at the bottom of the iMovie window, below any video clip you’ve uploaded (try to place it where you want the sound to begin playing alongside the movie).
From there, you can press the spacebar to play the video and sound as they exist within the software. Then, you can decide if you want to change anything.
If the music you want doesn’t appear when you click Music, it might be saved somewhere that iMovie doesn’t look by default. Luckily, you can still add it.
To add music files from anywhere on your computer, click File at the top of the screen, and then Import Media. A Finder window will open, which you can use to select and add audio files from anywhere on your Mac.
If you want to add songs from a CD, insert your CD and then select Audio CD from the list of audio options. Click and drag the desired track onto your project.
Lastly, if you want to record music or a voiceover from a microphone: Hook up your mic to your computer. Then click the microphone icon, located in the bottom-left corner of the video preview and select the VoiceoverOptions button (located to the right of the red record button). Next, select your mic from the Input Source drop-down menu. Finally, hit the red record button to start recording, and press it again to stop.
How to edit music in iMovie
Once you have the music added to your video, here’s how to start editing:
Adjust the volume: Click and drag the line going through the center of the track. Up indicates higher volume, and vice versa.
Fade the music: Click the circle that appears on either end of the track and drag it to the right or left to create a fade-in or fade-out effect respectively.
Auto-enhance the sound: Click the speaker icon above the video preview (located in the upper-right corner of the screen) and then click Auto.
Reduce background noise: Click the noise-reduction button (which looks like lines of varying heights) in the toolbar above the video preview, then check the box next to Reduce background noise and then use the slider to customize the effect.
Use an equalizer preset: Click the noise-reduction button and select an option from the drop-down menu next to Equalizer.
If you struggle to be productive while working from home, you’re not alone. Staring at a laptop in silence makes it harder to stay on task than you might think.
In the absence of coworkers, you might turn down the rabbit hole of social media for a little human interaction, where scrolling can easily waste countless hours of your time. Or maybe you turn on the TV for a little background noise only to find yourself engrossed in a talk show for a solid hour.
So while silence can be problematic, filling the void can be a distraction. Fortunately, turning on a little background music might be the solution to improving your productivity.
But not just any music will do. Listen to the songs that help you feel happy, and you’ll get more work done in less time.
The link between music, happiness, and performance
Music is a great tool for regulating your emotions. The songs you listen to have the power to boost your mood, calm you down, or pump you up.
That’s why music became a lifeline for so many people during the COVID pandemic. Our recent survey at Verywell Mind found that 79% of people turned to music to cope with the stress of the pandemic. (Many of them were likely working from home.)
It makes sense that so many people rely on music to regulate their emotions. Research has also discovered that intentionally listening to happy music can have a profound impact on your happiness level. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that people who listened to happy music became happier people within just two weeks.
And it’s no secret that happy people are productive people. Researchers have long since known this. In fact, a 2019 study conducted by the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School set out to study how much happiness matters. They discovered that happy people tend to be 13% more productive.
So it makes sense that listening to happy music makes you happy. And when you feel happy, you work better. But that’s not the end of the story.
Listening to music while you’re focused on something else (like writing a report) might also improve your performance. A 2014 study found that listening to upbeat background music improved the brain’s processing speed and bolstered memory in older adults.
And while both upbeat and downbeat music showed memory benefits, processing speed improvements were only present when people listened to upbeat music. So this reinforces the idea that happy songs could be the key to enhanced performance.
Happy music is tough to find
You’ll likely find it’s easy to recall plenty of songs with sad melodies and angry lyrics. But spend a minute trying to recall happy songs, and you might draw a blank. That’s because upbeat songs are in short supply.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies found that music lyrics have become increasingly sad and angry over the past 50 years. And listening to sad or angry music may have a negative impact on your mood or performance.
So it’s important to be intentional about the music you play while you work. Commit to listening to upbeat music so you can be more productive.
A happy playlist
Rather than spend hours looking for upbeat songs – we thought we’d supply you with a great playlist that might help you feel happier and make you more productive right away.
While my expertise is in helping people feel happier, song recommendations are a bit outside my wheelhouse. Fortunately, however, I have a resident expert on staff.
The producer of The Verywell Mind Podcast, Nick Valentin, is an amazing audio engineer. When he’s not working with me, he records musicians like Pharrell Williams, Marc Anthony, and Sean Combs (a.k.a Puff Daddy or Diddy). So I asked for his input on the happiest songs he knows. (And it just so happens that he even worked on the album that tops our list.)
Here are 10 songs that can make you feel happier and be more productive when you’re working from home:
“September” by Earth, Wind & Fire
“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & The Wailers
“Uptown Funk” by Mark Bronson and Bruno Mars
“ABC” by The Jackson 5
“O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps
“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys
“I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown
“Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams
“Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
Turn on the background music
Experiment a bit with background music to figure out what helps you stay most productive. You might find listening to the same song over and over again actually helps you stay on task best. Or you might discover upbeat, instrumental music helps you stay focused.
Try a few experiments, and you’ll learn how to use background music to your advantage when you’re working from home.
There are the people who just listen casually to whatever happens to be on the radio, and then there are the people who spend hours carefully curating playlists, filling their calendars with concerts to attend, and even playing music themselves.
This gift guide is for the latter group, who don’t just like music, they love it.
To fuel their passion, you can gift them something that elevates their listening experience, teaches them something new about music, or puts them right in front of their favorite singer. Due to the impact of the pandemic on the music industry, we also suggest looking at their favorite local music store or live event venue for merch and gift cards. Or, you can make a donation to local musician funds and venues in your recipient’s name.
The 24 best gifts for music lovers:
A microphone that will bring karaoke to their home
This karaoke speaker will help liven up all special events and get-togethers. They’ll need to download an app to connect the microphone to their phone and then they’ll be all set to sing their heart out all night long.
The rules of this card game are simple. Everyone must choose a song based on a random card prompt, such as “a song to play that brings back good memories” or “a song to play about time.” Then everyone playing will vote on the best song selection. They can play this fun but challenging game with their family, friends, or other loved ones to learn more about everyone’s music preferences.
Submit your recipient’s favorite song to make this eye-catching acrylic plaque. You can use an album cover or a personal picture to make this gift feel even more special. You can also opt for a stand so they can keep the plaque close by on their desk or any other surface.
Turn their favorite record into a treasured home decor piece with this thoughtful gift. Personalize this doormat with their favorite record title and their name to make this gift feel like it was made just for them.
Make their day by gifting them a special video message from their favorite musician. With hundreds of artists to choose from, you can filter artists by your recipient’s favorite music genre. If you want to go the extra mile, some artists offer availability for one-on-one chats and Zoom calls. Some musicians you can find on the site include Snoop Dogg, Kenny G, and rapper Ice T.
No music lover’s vinyl collection is complete without a turntable that can play their favorite records over and over again. This turntable from Sony not only has incredible sound quality but also doubles as a bluetooth speaker, allowing them to play music from their other devices.
Can they identify all the guitars held by famous rockers in this eye-catching print? They’ll find the musical companions of Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty, Kurt Cobain, and Joan Jett, among many other iconic musicians.
Record owners experience no greater joy than when they get to add to their collection and play a new vinyl for the first time. Your recipient will choose from three different types of tracks each month and will also receive extra goodies in each package. The three-month membership includes one bonus record.
A cocktail recipe book that pairs good music with good drinks
Combining two great pastimes, the fun guide features 70 albums from the ’50s through the ’00s and an A-side and B-side cocktail for each one. They’re organized by mood, so your recipient will know just what pairing to use for the night.
A music lover wouldn’t be caught dead without a pair of headphones, whether they’re just running a quick errand across the street or settling in for the long-haul. These Bowers & Wilkins ones not only bring out the best of each song and have three noise-cancelling modes, but also simply look great.
Apple AirPods are far from perfect, but we have to admit they’re really convenient. They’re the easiest earbuds to pop into their ears since they’re light and pair automatically with their phone, and they’ll stay in surprisingly well.
This sleek WiFi-enabled speaker, which integrates seamlessly into their living room or bedroom, recognizes and artistically displays the lyrics of the song as it plays. The sound quality is also top-notch, which isn’t a surprise since the company behind it is part of an incubator run by the famous Abbey Road Studios.
Pencils they won’t be able to stop drumming on their desk
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the work of film score composer Hans Zimmer. Through lessons on tempo, character themes, sound palettes, and more, the composer of over 150 movies including “Inception” and “The Lion King” shows students how he makes movie score magic.
The loud and powerful UE Boom 3 delivers 360-degree sound and has a long battery life, perfect for outdoor hangouts. They can even continue being DJ at the beach or in the tub because the speaker is waterproof.
This fascinating book delves into why music is so important to us and is written by someone with a firm grasp on both the artistic and scientific sides of it: a neuroscientist who previously worked as a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer.
They’ll be able to stream music from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, and more, without even lifting a finger. The newest version of the popular Echo device has even better audio features than before: 360° Dolby-powered audio, dynamic bass response, and personalized equalizer settings.
Videos and photos aside, a way to remember their concerts, down to the exact seat in the venue, is this ticket stub diary. There’s also space on each page to jot down notes and memories to look fondly back on later.
Cufflinks shaped like a sixteenth note and treble clef
Spotify has apps on nearly every internet-connected device. This includes the Apple Watch, which lets you listen to music right on your wrist.
Here’s how to get Spotify on your Apple Watch, and use it to listen to music.
Install Spotify on Apple Watch
Before anything, make sure that Spotify is downloaded on your iPhone, and that you’re logged in.
1. Open the Watch app on your iPhone.
2. Under the “Installed on Apple Watch” heading in the My Watch section, make sure that Spotify is there.
3. If it’s not, you can install it by scrolling down to “Available Apps” and tapping on the “Install” button that appears to the right of Spotify.
Play Spotify music on Apple Watch
Once Spotify is installed on your watch, you can launch it at any time by tapping the app’s icon on your Apple Watch’s home screen. In addition, playing music from the Spotify app on your iPhone will usually auto-launch it on your Watch.
By default, you’ll see the title and artist of whatever song you’re listening to and the player controls, but you can swipe left or right to browse your playlists or individual songs, respectively.
Anything you play will start playing on your iPhone. You can press the devices icon underneath the player controls to pick another device to stream on – including your Apple Watch if you have headphones connected. You can’t play music through your Apple Watch’s speakers.
There’s also no way to play Spotify on your Apple Watch offline. You can play it while you’re away from your iPhone, but you’ll still need to be connected to Wi-Fi or LTE internet.
Spotify is upping the prices for some its Premium subscriptions on April 30, affecting users in the US, UK, and Europe.
In the US, Spotify is raising the price for a family subscription, which includes up to six users, to $15.99 from $14.99 per month, while prices for other plans such as Duo, Premium, and Student are unchanged.
In the UK, prices for Spotify Duo and Student are increasing by one euro per month, to £13.99 ($16.90) and £5.99 ($7.24), respectively, while the family plan will increase by two euros to £16.99 ($20.52).
In Europe, the family plan will be €17.99 ($21.73) per month, an increase of 3 euros,according to the Verge. The news site added that Spotify is charging more for plans in other European countries, including Ireland, and some countries in Asia and South America as well.
“We offer a variety of subscription plans tailored to our users’ needs, and we occasionally update our prices to reflect local macroeconomic factors and meet market demands while offering an unparalleled service,” a Spotify spokesperson told Insider in a statement.
The company added that it “continues to innovate and invest in providing our listeners with greater value than ever before, including the best audio content and user experience.”
For each song streamed, it pays artists less than a penny. Last year, Spotify said artists could promote their music to more listeners, if they took a pay cut on per-stream revenue. Apple, meanwhile, has upped the ante, saying it pays out a penny per stream, Insider reported earlier this month.
Later this year, subscribers in some markets will have access to Spotify HiFi, an upgrade to the sound quality of music that will allow users to “listen to their favorite songs the way artists intended,” the music-streaming app said in a press release.
In 1970, when Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page recorded the iconic solo on “Stairway to Heaven,” he was playing a 1959 Fender Telecaster.
The guitar was gifted to Page in 1966 by the guitar legend Jeff Beck, who used it himself in the later years of the Yardbirds. Page repainted the guitar, adding an elaborate design of red, green, orange, and blue on the body that vaguely resembled a dragon, giving the instrument its name.
The body of Page’s renowned Dragon Telecaster was made of ash wood, a longtime favorite for many of rock music’s biggest names.
Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Guy, Jerry Garcia, Nile Rodgers, and countless other rock legends have played on ash guitars through the decades, Justin Norvell, the executive vice president of Fender Products, told Insider.
But now, the trees that ash is harvested from are on the decline, and could soon disappear.
A small, invasive bug and excessive flooding are threatening the wood – and, by extension, the sound that epitomizes rock ‘n’ roll – serving as yet another reminder of the climate crisis and its wide-ranging impact.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” Norvell said. “It’s one of the main woods we rely on.”
The shortage of ash prompted Fender to phase out its use after a 70-year run. The wood is now only available to customers willing to pay a premium for it.
Ash helped make Fender the ‘Henry Ford of electric guitars’
“Fender has used ash for many, many years,” Norvell told Insider. “It goes back to the company’s origins in the late 40s.”
Leo Fender used ash in the early 1950s in some of Fender’s first Telecasters and Stratocasters, guitar models that remain among the most beloved electric guitars. At the time, Fender went with ash for two reasons: it was cheap and available.
But it also happened to have a nice sound, which, together with the low cost, helped Fender become the “Henry Ford of electric guitars,” according to Craig Snyder, a professional guitar player, collector, and high-end instrument dealer. In the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, Fender mass produced guitars and sold them at affordable prices. The use of ash persisted, enjoying a decades-long run as one of two primary body woods Fender used for its electric guitars.
And it’s not just Fender. Snyder, who has played professionally with legends like Elton John and Roberta Flack, said Fender “set a platform for guitar design” that countless other builders still follow.
“Fender really made ash a bedrock of guitar-making,” Snyder said.
Fender-style guitars, even when not made by their namesake manufacturer, are among the most popular electric guitars and many still use ash.
There are dozens of species of ash trees native to North America, but the most popular for guitars is green ash, or Fraxinus pennsylvanica. It grows across much of the United States and Canada, from Nova Scotia down to Florida and as far west as Alberta and eastern Texas. But the green ash most prized for electric guitars grows in the south, in the bottomlands of the Mississippi River.
“We like lightweight ash, called punky ash or swamp ash,” Norvell said. “It’s wood that is submerged for part of the year in swamps. When the floods recede, we go in and you can harvest the ash.”
As a result of growing in standing water, swamp ash is lightweight and soft. It’s famous in rock music for giving the guitar a sweet, clear and resonant sound. And while average listeners are unlikely to decipher the tonal characteristics of different types of wood, some players and makers say they can tell when a guitar is made of swamp ash.
“True swamp ash is real ringy,” said Stephen Marchione, who has been making high-end guitars for some of the world’s best players for more than 30 years. Marchione said in addition to its sound, swamp ash’s light weight is especially desirable, adding it can knock off nearly five pounds from a guitar.
“It might not sound like a big difference, but when it’s strapped around your neck for two hours it’s a lot,” he said.
Ash also has a beautiful, striking grain pattern, so it’s often used on guitars with a natural or transparent finish.
A climate crisis and a tiny, shiny pest
In recent years, the floods in the Mississippi Delta have been receding less frequently, limiting the swamp ash that can be harvested and disrupting Fender’s ability to get it.
Mike Born, the former director of wood technology at Fender, looks at the water levels of the Mississippi River every day. He currently works as a wood consultant and salesperson for Anderson-Tully, the lumber giant that supplies most of the swamp ash used in guitars, including to Fender.
Born said the high water levels are driven by snowmelt and heavy rains, and not just over the Mississippi, but from all the rivers that feed into it as well, like the Arkansas, Illinois, and Missouri.
The unpredictable flooding and receding has created a feast-or-famine effect. Some years, swamp ash can’t be harvested at all. In years when it can, makers like Fender stock up on as much as they can get, but that cycle, Norvell suggests, appears to be ending. He offered his assessment of the latest healthy supply of swamp ash, calling it “one of the final feasts of having a bounty of ash wood.”
There’s another factor compounding the problem: a shiny green beetle about the size of a grain of rice.
Native to East Asia, the emerald ash borer was first detected in the US in 2002 and has since decimated ash trees, killing tens of millions across the country.
The invasive bug likely arrived in the US on shipping pallets from China, but early efforts to contain it were unsuccessful. Infestations were discovered in 35 states, and scientists say it’s the most destructive pest ever to plague America’s forests.
After the emerald ash borer lays its eggs on the bark of an ash tree, larvae bore into the tree and feed on its tissues, disrupting the movement of water and nutrients in the tree and leaving a squiggly trail in its wake. It ultimately kills the tree, and the trails left behind make the wood harder for guitar makers to work with because they have to cut around the markings.
While the flooding is causing the most recent swamp ash shortages, ash trees could soon disappear altogether because of the beetle. “It’s a mass-extinction event,” Born said, adding that without intervention, ash trees could be extinct in North America within a decade.
“With that, combined with the flooding in the last couple years, we just got to a point where in good conscience we could not maintain a stable supply of healthy quantities of ash,” Fender’s Norvell said.
In April 2020, after seven decades of making ash-bodied guitars, Fender announced it would phase out the wood, reserving it only for premium and historical models.
Norvell said it was an “unbelievably hard decision” for the company. “There’s an element to this that it’s the end of an era,” he said.
Boutique guitar makers are still able to get swamp ash in the quantities they need, so professional musicians and gearheads who are set on swamp ash can find it, at least for now, but its status as a go-to, everyday wood is quickly changing.
Fighting to preserve ash trees, while looking for alternatives
Roots of Rock, a collaborative initiative between the US Forest Service, Fender, and the nonprofit American Forests, is working to save America’s ash trees from the emerald ash borer. Researchers have identified “lingering ash trees” that survived infestations after all other ash trees had died.
“We’re taking survivors that had natural resistance and breeding them with each other to produce a green ash species with resistance,” said Born, who helped start the project when he was at Fender.
Plans are underway to plant the first of these trees in Detroit, near where the beetle was first detected in the US. Even if successful, the project will ultimately take decades, but Born said it’s the first step.
“At least they’re going to save ash genetically and they didn’t have to hybridize,” he said. “This is pure American green ash.”
Meanwhile, guitar makers are working hard to find a suitable replacement for swamp ash.
Roger Sadowsky, a renowned instrument maker, has been building electric guitars for legendary musicians since 1979. When he first started researching, all the best musicians he consulted had Fenders from the late ’50s and early ’60s that were lightweight, which meant they were likely made of swamp ash.
Sadowsky said the last few months of 2020 he was calling every wood guy he knew to find ash. More recently, when it was available, he was stockpiling it to get through the next drought. But to compensate for the shortages, he’s been running listening tests to find a replacement. He has tested eight guitar bodies made of alternative lightweight woods.
“Ash is still the best sounding to my ears,” Sadowsky said. “What we’re trying to do is find the runner-ups as alternatives to swamp ash.”
The leading contender so far is eastern white pine, another tree native to North America that primarily grows in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes. Sadowsky said the white pine is best after it has been torrefied, a roasting process that emulates decades of natural aging.
A new sound
Fender has also employed a torrefaction process with pine as a replacement for ash. Norvell said it has been very well-received, though there’s still a “wistfulness and nostalgia” for swamp ash.
According to the guitar-maker Marchione, musicians are extremely conservative when it comes to their instruments. “People are still trying to recreate what guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix did,” Norvell said. “Those guys had plenty of swamp ash.”
But Born said the deep love for the storied wood could, in some ways, be a chicken-and-egg scenario, rather than there being an inherent magic in the wood.
“I think it’s more that rock ‘n’ roll grew up with that as being the sound, so that wood became the tone that people like to hear,” he said. “It could’ve been something else and that wood might have had the same kind of myth to it.”
Regardless of the reasons, swamp ash is woven into Fender’s DNA, and the history of electric guitars in general. But Norvell said now it’s about finding the next generation of woods.
“The guitar continues to adapt and adjust, and the music people make changes. Everything changes over time,” he said.
“For us, now it’s about finding new voices and new tones and new woods.”
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