When it comes to social media, Def Jam Recordings is No. 1.
No, really — the Universal Music Group label boasts the largest number of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as well as the highest engagement rate of the major labels, according to analytics gathered by Def Jam, beating Atlantic, Interscope, Columbia, Warner and Republic, among others. Its latest conquest: TikTok, where the Def Jam account, which was launched at the end of February, has already amassed over 150,000 followers and two million likes.
Def Jam’s TikTok strategy is simple: use what you already have. With an impressive roster of artists at the label’s disposal — Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, Teyana Taylor, Jhené Aiko, Alessia Cara, Logic, Big Sean, YK Osiris, DaniLeigh, Jeremih, Kaash Paige and Nas, just to name a few — Def Jam takes material like clips of interviews or music videos and edits them to fit a timely trend or zeitgeist moment.
As Theda Sandiford, senior VP of commerce and digital at Def Jam, tells it, “Viral is something that happens, it’s not something you do, although lots of people seem to think it’s the opposite. We really are looking at our existing content from the point of view of what’s trending right now and what fits from what we currently have and then we go back and re-edit things. We might edit pauses in a motivational message to make it funny and change the context of it, or create an entirely new music video using existing video and fun content that fans may have made and cut that together. Small little changes can affect the narrative of the video and then have a really huge impact.”
Take, for example one of Def Jam’s most viral TikTok videos, which is a behind-the-scenes look at DaniLeigh and Chris Brown rehearsing for the music video for “Easy,” Brown’s remix of her song. The post encouraged fans on TikTok to learn the dance themselves, leading to its three million views and over 400,000 likes.
Dance challenges on TikTok are a formula for success and, for a record label, it can lead to major exposure for an artists’ song. But, with a 60-second limit on a video’s length, which snippet of the song Def Jam chooses to upload is also crucial.
“We really think about the parts of the songs that we do put there,” Sandiford says. “We think about ad libs, if there’s a visual for the song where there’s a portion of the dance that’s interesting, a part of a song that’s funny, anything that we think might be the most memorable part. It’s not always a verse and a hook.”
Getting the attention of the viewer is key, as Sandiford says interactivity on TikTok is not determined by clicks or follows, but how long one “hovers” on a particular video.
“If you’re scrolling and it’s how many different versions of the ‘Savage’ dance, what you hover over is more important than what you click. And that’s the trick of the algorithm,” Sandiford says. “So if you can get someone to hover over your content — if you capture them in the first 2 to 3 seconds and they linger there — they just told the algorithm, ‘More of that.'”
Beyond solely promoting their artists’ content, Def Jam also uses their platform to shout out creators who have made videos using their artists’ songs, like TikTok darling Charli D’Amelio. With over 70 million followers, D’Amelio is a trendsetter on the app and has the power to blow up a particular song or dance practically overnight, as she helped to do with Kaash Paige’s “Love Songs.” By reposting her content featuring Def Jam artists, Sandiford hopes to grab the eye of their younger demographic.
TikTok has also proven to be a surprisingly woke platform when it comes to the recent nationwide outcry against racial injustice spurred by the death of George Floyd. In a post viewed 1.5 million times, Def Jam shared a video of rapper YK Osiris giving an impassioned speech during a Black Lives Matter protest.
Says Sandiford: “Seeing our artists go through real-life moments really captures the audience. It makes them relatable and it’s not an act. If you’re on the receiving end of that broadcast, it’s inspiration for you that you can do it, too.”
Khorey Washington, manager of Def Jam’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts, also recognized the importance of featuring the Black Lives Matter movement prominently on Def Jam’s socials. Especially on Instagram, where Def Jam has amassed an impressive 1.3 million followers and over 16 million interactions, with 57% growth in followers over the past year.
“I wanted to change the tone immediately because Def Jam is such an important staple in Black culture and the Black household,” Washington says. “I knew that we couldn’t just entertain people at this point, we also needed to educate the people who trust and believe in our brand.”
Washington spearheaded an Instagram series as part of the company’s “Def Jam Forward” racial justice initiative, aiming to educate their followers and encourage them to vote. In addition to providing vital information on important issues, Washington highlighted every Black Def Jam artist with a unique fact sheet in an effort to showcase Black joy.
“It’s so important to deliver this bite-sized information to the youth that pay attention to Def Jam and Def Jam artists,” Washington adds. “We want to make sure we’re providing all of this information to them while entertaining them as well. There’s an outcry that Black joy needs to be seen and needs to be heard, so we’re doing a little bit of both.”
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Def Jam interim chairman and CEO Jeff Harleston commends Sandiford and Washington’s work and their drive to maintain the energy and authenticity of the brand on all fronts.
“As a cultural institution and a globally recognized brand, Def Jam has always had a powerful voice in the social space,” Harleston tells Variety. “The brand wields a cultural cachet that is pure, authentic and can’t be manufactured. We look at these spaces –particularly emerging platforms like TikTok — as opportunities to foster community, extend our cultural footprint, and most importantly assert our voice in the conversation. I’m extremely proud of the work the team has done, particularly in light of the recent events that have dominated our thoughts and our lives, to use this powerful voice to educate, enlighten and amplify.”