Artist - Zach Bryan 29

Beyond the Algorithm: Did Social Media Make Zach Bryan?

March 7, 2024 9:40 am GMT

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Traditionally, wannabe country stars would pack up their trucks and hit the road.

With their old and scuffed-up guitars, they'd busk on unfamiliar city street corners, performing in rural roadside bars and, if deemed good enough, playing the earliest festival sets over and over - all while living off next to nothing, for years. While we may have heard this same story again and again, the usual path to success in the music industry is unquestionably changing.

Take one scroll through TikTok, and you'll find young musicians producing decent quality mini music videos using iPhones. Whether it's a simple scene featuring a singer-songwriter and their guitar, or a fully-fledged live session in someone's garage, technology is giving budding artists the power to curate content exactly how they want to.

Leading the pack of new musical internet gurus is Zach Bryan. Now boasting 3.7 million followers on Instagram and 2.7 million on TikTok, Bryan has surpassed 1 billion combined global streams, is a GRAMMY winner and one of country music's best-known musicians in the mainstream – but he did not begin his winning streak in the way most country stars achieved it.

In 2013, Zach Bryan set off on the same career path his whole family followed before him, serving in the Navy. Bryan often speaks about the early days when he and "the boys" were deployed and how they'd take beers down to the barracks and jam to take their minds off the working day.

During these early days in the forces, Bryan's Instagram account was an open invite to a public photobook displaying his coming of age. It highlighted the simple joys of the early days of adolescence, with snapshots of Bryan and his friends by the fire, drinks in their hands and their heads to the sky as they sang out in song. The pictures are youthful, unfiltered and fun.

One Instagram post reads, 'Went out to an ol' boys house last night to drink some beer and play some music, and him and his buddies knew my songs better than I did. I will never forget nights like these.' It's clear, even from the outside looking in, that one thing bonding them all was Bryan's music.

"It was like a relief for me for a long time," he told Spotify in an interview, "to be in the Navy and get yelled at by these old dudes all day, me and all the guys would be like, what do we do like to get away from this?"

"That's how I started; that's all I do: sit in my room, play music, record it, and then see what happens."

It was Saturday, June 29, 2019, when Bryan posted a video for a song he filmed on his phone called 'Hope Again'. The video found its way into Texas Country legend Parker McCollum's Twitter feed, who retweeted it to his thousands of followers, sending the clip into the viral realm. The effortless, simple, yet highly expressive video went on to set the tone for Bryan's rustic, nostalgic aesthetic for years to come.

"I went to Florida the very next day, and we recorded DeAnn a month after" Bryan shared on X (FKA Twitter) the following year in reflection, posting an image of himself wedged between mattresses, playing his guitar and singing into a mic in a shabby old Airbnb. His debut album, titled after his mother who died in 2016, was officially released on August 24, 2019, via his imprint, Belting Bronco. By September, the album had reached over one million streams.

At that point, Zach Bryan was a well-known TikTokker who made music. Exactly two weeks later, he posted another teaser of a lo-fi performance of a new song called 'Heading South', filmed again on his iPhone, this time near his barracks. By the next day, it had clocked up millions of views, and DeAnn subsequently skyrocketed up the music charts. The video continued its viral streak - paving the way for Bryan to be honourably discharged from the US Navy and to sign a recording contract with Warner Records in 2021.

If you’re lucky enough to be standing in the crowd at a Zach Bryan concert now, you'll find yourself among a chorus of young men and women. Belting out every word to Bryan's entire catalogue with emotion like its gospel, they prove his talent and songwriting ability are the core of his success. His music resonates with his audience, creating a connection that transcends online platforms and exists in real life. These punters aren't just TikTok scrollers either; they are hardworking youngsters who bond best over beers and broken hearts.

Zach Bryan breaks the rules. Going against the grain has turned into his brand; whether he releases two albums within a month or tries to take on big-ticket companies, this behaviour has his fans hooked. Their undying faithfulness carries him through every choice he makes without consequence, growing a cult following that could be adjacent to the stans of Elvis Presley and Taylor Swift.

This year, Zach Bryan's self-titled album went platinum, he won a GRAMMY and he even tracked down Matthew McConaughey to star in his music video for 'Nine Ball'—all as he starts up another tour of sold-out stadium shows worldwide.

He's not only aiming for the stars, but paving the way for an entirely new category, one Holler's entitled 'bloke folk'. We've seen more "raw" and "real" videos find a viral fate in our feeds, and the top-hitting clips are usually men with soulful, raspy voices, accompanied by a string instrument or two. Acoustic virtuosos who are curating videos that are impressive in their austere simplicity, like Dylan Gossett, Wyatt Flores and Oliver Anthony, are following Bryan down the digital road to country music fame. We're even seeing commercial artists who have already 'made it', like Parker McCollum, stripping his sound back and returning to a look and feel he first had during the early days of his career.

Following Zach Bryan on social media now is like watching someone's life in hindsight decades later, with film photos and old camcorder-styler videos taking us on a trip down memory lane. But is his carefully crafted social media image and consistent viral clips all it takes to become a worldwide sensation?

Posting videos to TikTok, Twitter and Instagram helped him reach a wider audience, but now his fanbase is beyond comprehension; he prioritizes his artistic integrity and mental well-being over maximizing social media engagement. Using it now only ironically and playfully, he commands it like a puppet on a string - posting whatever, whenever, deleting the apps one at a time and resurrecting them with no particular pattern for anything besides desire – an act which is of such public interest, it's become newsworthy.

In a recent post, Bryan reflected on what it all meant to him, "My family was always lower, middle-class Oklahomans, my grandfather taught me all things grandfathers teach, and my mother was a saint. They taught me kindness, courage, love, and my work ethic, and they taught me to never let anyone tell you who you are". It's not just his musical ability that gets the job done, but a mix of his unshakable confidence on stage, his carefree attitude and the unbreakable bond he shares between his family, friends and band.

With an X factor you cannot fake, Bryan has been able to concoct the secret sauce for a viral recipe that not many can. Social media has merely been a 21st-century marketing tool he's harnessed to propel his undeniable talent and skill of turning stories into song into the public sphere.

For more on Zach Bryan, see below:

Written by Gemma Donahoe
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