The producer Kenny Beats has noticed some strange phenomena at his shows over the past few years. For one, the crowds have gotten noticeably bigger, as have merch sales and streams. But most notably, he says, he’s grown accustomed to members of the audience viewing him more as a friend than a performer. This is thanks to his massively popular Discord server, which hosts approximately 135,000 users and has rooms dedicated to questions about audio engineering and specific production software, as well as general channels dedicated to banter or games. Users can talk to one another via Discord, as well as go live within the channel, broadcasting to a dedicated set of viewers.
“I would show up to the shows, and it would be this weird already formed friendship that I had with people,” he says via Discord voice chat. “There’d be like 10 people looking at me funny, not like a fan would look at you and not quite like one of your homies would look at you, and I’d walk over, and someone would say their name on Discord, and I’d be like, ‘oh my God, it’s you.’ Then, three other kids next to them would be like, ‘Oh, and I’m this username, and I’m this username.’ And then I would go to London, and it’d be the same thing. It started feeling like I had little friend groups everywhere.”
Discord launched 2015 as a voice, video, and text communications platform not unlike Slack, but without the workplace focus. Many of its early users were offshoot communities of Twitch streamers with large audiences. The platform quickly became popular among gamers, and around the start of the pandemic, as much of popular culture adapted to life indoors, Discord became a refuge for all sorts of communities, especially musicians. “During the pandemic, many artists were forced to find new ways to safely engage with fans, and they turned to Discord as their solution,” Kenny Layton, Discord’s head of entertainment partnerships, says. He lists artists like Post Malone, Dominic Fike, Maggie Rogers, Linkin Park, GloRilla, and Fred Again as some of the many active official fan communities on the platform.
Layton says that music servers are among the top-growing verticals on Discord. Hip-hop, in particular, is popular “because hip-hop fans are accustomed to sourcing new music online. Digital collaboration is inherent to today’s hip-hop scene, especially amongst younger fans. Discord has become a central hub for this.”
Kenny Beats, who has worked with the likes of Freddie Gibbs, Vince Staples and FKA Twigs, remembers constantly hearing about Discord while hosting his successful YouTube series The Cave, in which he’d dive into the nitty gritty of music production. After launching a Twitch stream during lockdown, getting on Discord seemed to be an obvious decision. “It felt like the second the stream ended, everybody just dispersed back to wherever they were on the internet or whatever social media they were on. But there wasn’t this place to continue this energy,” he says. “All these people who are at home for whatever reason, all these people who are trying to figure out their next step.”
Within a week of starting his Twitch stream, the official Kenny Beats Discord server launched. “Basically, it felt like if you were in my community, but you weren’t a member of the Discord, you were missing out on all the real convos and all the inside jokes and all the behind-the-scenes things that were being traded between people and the free giveaways,” he says. For the audience of budding producers he’d cultivated over the years, those giveaways were invaluable. “If you subscribed to me on Twitch, you would get entered into a certain part of my Discord. And that meant that you could get free sounds from me, you could get something from a beat I just made. You could get some drums that Benny Blanco gave me. You could get some sounds that JPEGMafia gave me.”
Users on the Kenny Beats Discord range in age and location, and all share a love of music and all things creative. Since Kenny’s streaming fanbase was built on videos of him explaining the ins and outs of modern hip-hop production, his Discord community naturally became a hub for budding musicians looking to soak up knowledge. “He had mentioned it quite often on stream. He would talk about funny moments, and there were amazing moments on stream that would begin on his Discord,” a member of the server with the username Distorpian says. “So I joined to see what was happening.”
Distorpian remembers the collaborative projects born on the server, where various users would work together on collections of music around a particular theme and submit them to the group. For the hundreds of thousands of users on the server, that often meant working alongside people with varying levels of skill. “I knew literally nothing about the technical side of music, music equipment, methodology, or anything like that before joining this community,” user AnotherDamnBob said. “I was able to be a sponge and soak up an unimaginable amount of invaluable knowledge from someone willing to be so open with his extensive experience in the music industry and in his career. So much so that I managed to start creating art and playing instruments which I never imagined would happen.”
The size of Kenny Beats’ server also means a heightened need for effective moderators. “Our Discord is a safe space. Which means no sexism, no racism, no homophobia, no transphobia allowed at all. You are gone the first second you say anything like that,” he says. “You need to have moderators who understand a lot of different sides of different arguments and can speak on it because they’re a part of those conversations. And you need to have people in all different time zones. We’ve had to up our moderator staff, pay our moderator staff, and increasingly have conversations with them about an insane amount of different issues.”
To name one issue, the community is international, which at any given moment could create an array of different tensions. “Remember, I’m American. My government could be bombing up the government of a kid who’s a big member of our Discord and a fan and this and that,” he adds. “In our Discord, no one is just from a place that’s never done anything wrong, where no one they know has ever said anything wrong, or where they don’t have any viewpoints that might hurt someone’s feelings. There are a lot of angles. And so we’ve had to figure out a system for that.”
Discord has gained some unwanted notoriety in recent years, as scammers and criminals have taken to the platform for everything from leaking music to leaking Pentagon documents. “Our Safety team takes action when we become aware of this kind of behavior, including banning users, shutting down servers, and engaging with authorities when appropriate,” Layton says. Earlier this year, a Discord user distributed an A.I. generated album alleged to be a genuine leak from Frank Ocean. The alleged scammer is said to have made thousands of dollars selling the album before anyone caught on. “We are committed to reducing scams through technical intervention and are continuously investing in safety enhancements and partnering with third parties to accelerate our work,” Layton adds.
Still, Discord’s growth among creative communities is hard to ignore. Former Brockhampton member Dom McLennon started using Discord around 2019. “Originally, it was mainly to have cross-platform party chats with my friends playing video games, but I remember a couple of moments where I really started to understand the power of servers and the diversity of communities being built on the platform,” he recalls. “The creative culture that exists there is so deep, I’ll be in VCs with 3D modelers making designs in substance painter as well as getting put on to some obscure Brazilian Funk records at the same time.”
McLennon says his introduction to Discord reminded him of learning how to use message boards in the aughts “and how essential of a tool it became to connect with creative people around the world. In my early days, it was a lot of just observing the landscape and seeing the ways people natively did things and finding a way to make that my own in the process.”
Like Kenny Beats, Dom has cultivated a community on Discord in his own server called The Block. The server has around 2,000 members, and features rooms where users can showcase their music as well as a “Neighborhood Radio,” that streams live to the channel. During the live broadcast, mods from the server interview members on their new projects and highlight what people are posting in the space. “With the community we’ve been building at The Block, there are truly countless folks that have left such a substantial impact on my life and career,” McLennon says.
He enlisted a community manager named Maleek, who says the server has played a positive role in artist development. “A ton of cutting-edge artists use our server regularly,” Maleek says. “Many of them have made some of the most interesting pieces I’ve ever seen or heard. The next generation of artists is at our fingertips.”
That reality is not lost on major labels, who’ve spent the past few years catching up to the growth of Discord. “We now have dedicated account managers for all of the different major labels,” Layton says. “Two and a half years ago, I would say label’s questions were mainly around ‘how does the platform work, what do we do? What is the best way to lean in?’ And we’ve seen some really good education both on our side and then the labels working with their internal teams.” Layton says Columbia Records now has the majority of their roster on the platform. The company’s managers are currently working with labels big and small to help “launch new servers, host AMAs, share exclusive content, and more,” Layton says.
“I think that the music industry is definitely playing catch-up when it comes to finding ways to get artists directly connected & engaged with their communities outside of the traditional funnels of content and roll-outs most of us have been exposed to,” McLennon says. “It’s also a lot to be said about the lack of nuance that exists in the comment and reply section of a lot of artists’ social media posts. Everything seems so charged up lately. Discord turns that down a little bit and allows for a more substantial connection to be established between artists & their communities.”
To Kenny Beats, the advantages are clear. “If artists are trying to sell tickets and sell merch and engage in a real way, it just makes absolutely no sense to me that you’d go edit a come-get-ready-with-me-today video, but you won’t go and talk to people who literally would live and die over your music,” he says. “If you’re an artist and not fostering that community, I’m just wondering what you’re really getting back from that time spent on TikTok or one of these other apps. Because I can tell you what I get back from Discord. I can tell you what my shows look like now.”