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To say that the internet singlehandedly transformed the music industry would be a gross understatement. All it takes is a quick read on the lawsuits filed against pioneering audio-streaming service Napster around the turn of the millennium to start getting a picture of the existential threat posed to long-established record labels by the new technology’s tendency to liberalize and democratize the process of music distribution. Yet this erosion of the record labels’ undisputed hegemony over the industry has only increased over the past two decades. As the internet has evolved and streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music have become mainstays in an increasingly more complex and competitive landscape, flagging record sales have become yet another pronounced symptom of an industry dealing with a severe and long-term condition.
To complicate things further, the last decade has witnessed the rise of social media platforms with the power to launch musical careers literally overnight, operating in a cultural milieu that’s totally independent of the rigidly hierarchical world of traditional distribution systems. As of the time I’m writing this, there’s not a dearth of young artists, musicians, or performers who have found their calling and begun to build their careers on social media. One such artist is twenty-three-year-old violinist and TikTok sensation Mia Asano.
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Born and raised in the Denver area, Asano started playing the violin at age five. A classically trained performer, as a teenager, she developed an interest in fusing her instrument’s lulling and dulcet qualities with the approachable and relatable sensibilities found in rock and pop music. To this end, she enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston to pursue a dual major in Performance and Professional Music. It was during her junior year at Berklee that Asano posted a video on TikTok in which she’s seen performing a cover of rapper SAINt JHN’s 2018 hit “Roses” on her electric violin. The video, which was meant simply as a way of sharing her practice routine with her friends, quickly went viral, registering over two million views and garnering over 100,000 followers on the platform in less than a day. For Asano, this came as an incredible revelation and an unlikely opportunity.
In the year and a half since her first viral video, Asano has meticulously cultivated a large following across different social media platforms. Currently, she has over one million followers on TikTok and over 350,000 followers on Instagram. This momentum has allowed her to release her first single, “Lunar,” in October of last year on Spotify and has opened up countless doors for artistic collaborations that span the gamut of musical genres.
I caught up with Asano and discussed her newfound place in the social media spotlight and her thoughts on the role social media currently plays in the music industry. We also touched on advice for artists trying to break the algorithm and what the future holds for her blossoming career.
I filmed this a month ago but never posted because ive been so sick lmao #katebush #runningupthathill #strangerthings #electricviolin
Mia: I started playing the violin when I was five. My parents gave me the choice of playing the violin, piano, or guitar. I chose violin and studied classically through the Suzuki method, where you have ten books and each song gets harder and harder so that by the end you learn how to play the instrument. I did that for about ten years and then in the sixth grade, I discovered that electric violins existed, and from that point on it was game over. That was the moment when I realized that this was what I wanted to do.
Mia: My dad is a pianist and his mom was also quite an accomplished pianist. She was the piano professor at the University of Puget Sound, so I would fall asleep every night listening to my dad play Gershwin on the piano. That said, he’s actually a videographer and my mom is a psychologist, so I’m one of the first in the family to pursue [music] professionally.
Mia: I was a little unconventional growing up in terms of what I listened to. I loved a lot of James Taylor, John Denver, and The Beatles. But then, what really inspired me was discovering the violin in all these different genres of music that weren’t classical and realizing that there were all these pop violinists like Vanessa-Mae, David Garrett, 2Cellos, Lindsey Stirling, or a bunch of rock violinists like Mark Wood, Tracy Silverman, or Christian Howes who’s a jazz violinist. Seeing all these amazing violinists play in genres outside of classical music was really inspiring.
Mia: I met Nordic Daughter through the fashion community. They were actually looking for a violinist and some friends in the fashion scene just put us in touch. So, I started playing with them and it was really fun. We’d dress up like Vikings and play all of this original music that was theirs that was sort of like singer-songwriter-type of stuff, but we brought more of a Celtic-rock feel to it with the violin and the electric guitar. It was honestly perfect for me because I love that kind of music. We did three weeks on the West Coast and it was some of the craziest memories of my life; it was an absolute blast.
Mia: As a violinist, there are only a few music colleges that have programs for alternative styles of string playing. Although I love classical music and it’s a big part of my life and my training, I’ve always known that I didn’t want to go and play in an orchestra. I wanted to play rock shows. I wanted to tour as an electric violinist. So, I knew that I needed to go to a school that would support all of my interests. I could have just gone to L.A. and decided to pursue a career there, but I eventually thought about it and decided to try to be the best violinist I could be before I went out and chased any professional dreams.
Mia: When I got to Berklee I was very humbled. I had to break down everything I thought I knew about myself and rebuild my ego because everyone there is so talented. I dealt with a lot of self-doubt and impostor syndrome, and it took me a couple of years of hard work to overcome that. I said ‘yes’ to a lot of playing opportunities and just started getting better because I was in a lot of uncomfortable situations. And then the pandemic happened, and unfortunately, all those festering feelings of self-doubt came rushing back. So, I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t played music that made me happy in a long time.
Ally is joining me at my debut Boston shows on august 4th and 12th! You dont want to miss this! #throughthefireandflames #dragonforce #electricviolin #bagpipes #bostonmusic #bostonconcert
I started secretly posting videos on TikTok not thinking anyone was going to really watch. I started doing all these trends on electric violin, and I posted me doing this song called “Roses” by SAINt JHN. And I remember later that day I was at TJ Max with a friend and I check the video and I see it has 36,000 views. By the end of that night, it had hit two million views. When I woke up the next morning, I looked and I had 100,000 followers. I just started crying, I just couldn’t believe it. It literally happened overnight all within a week of posting every day. That video currently has 10.4 million views on TikTok and 3 million views on Instagram.
Mia: It’s been weird. I try really hard to keep my business and personal lives separate on the internet. It’s really overwhelming just having millions of people watching you, but also, critiquing you and telling you all that they hate or love about you. One thing I had to learn to deal with was all the haters and trolls. That’s something that used to bother me, but fortunately, doesn’t bother me anymore. In a way though, I still don’t think that I’ve been able to register the whole experience. When you’re dealing with numbers, it’s easy to get desensitized. It’s when you go and read comments from fans that it becomes personal. Another thing is that I’m aware social media is fleeting. I’m not banking my whole career on Tik Tok.
Mia: I think that we’re at this very unique turning point for music where you’re seeing artists, myself included, whose careers are being made overnight on social media. I think the power of TikTok is that you have people starting trends and then you have people join in and add their own voices. So, what you get are these really interesting and strong music communities. For example, I just went on tour last April with my friend Melinda who’s really popular on TikTok and YouTube. We actually met through Tik Tok, and she brought a bunch of fellow TikTok musicians on the tour, all of these people that I’ve only known through the internet that were brought together in this very real way.
So, you have people building careers, collaborating with each other remotely, and then also forming bands. My friend Ally, for instance, who plays bagpipes, she and I have started a band and have been working on an EP together. I wouldn’t know any of these people, if not for the internet.
One last important difference is that artists no longer are so dependent on the record labels as they used to be because now they can just garner their own following from social media. For example, I have a single out right now and didn’t really do any promotion for it, I just posted about it on Instagram and have gotten over sixty-thousand plays. We’re at a time where you can make something go mega-viral just by dropping a TikTok about it. In a way, it’s artists taking things into their own hands and doing the DIY thing.
Mia: I’d say that there are pros and cons to being a solo artist over being in a group. One of the best things about playing music is getting to play with other people. When I play live in the Mia Asano band, I have a full rock band and string section, etc. Now, my TikTok filming schedule is so intense that if my brand was built on having other people with me, then you’d have to make sure to get all those people together when filming the videos, which adds a level of complication in terms of scheduling. That said, you might have the added benefit of getting to play off each other or having each member promote the band individually. So, there are both pros and cons.
Mia: I spend a lot of time thinking about this. What I do is I take requests for covers, and so, a lot of my most popular videos have been covers. And a lot of artists have been finding that if they do that they’re getting boxed into a niche. I think what keeps my videos cohesive is that it’s always me playing the violin, no matter what the genre or song is. It’s always me. So even if it’s a cover, people can still get a genuine interest in me as a musician.
I get a lot of people asking me if I have stuff on Spotify, so I’d say that there is genuine interest. That said, I think that it’s a really fine line. It can be tricky. Though to be fair, even if I wasn’t doing social media, I’d also still be playing weddings and events so I could pay my bills. And in those contexts, I wouldn’t be getting hired to play original material. I think some artists may have an aversion to it and may just want to bank everything on their original stuff.
I think that as an artist you have to be able to do both because you have to be able to sustain yourself in order to pursue your original music. Ultimately, it’s a matter of artistic integrity and people will have different opinions on it.
Mia: Without a doubt, the best app to build a following is TikTok. As far as building a community, it gets a bit trickier. With TikTok, you could have a million followers but that doesn’t mean that a million people are going to see your video. In fact, it doesn’t even show your video to your followers a lot of the time.
I think that Instagram has been the most effective platform when building a community. TikTok is a great place to meet people initially, but then I’ll follow them on Instagram since you can actually message them and actually have them see your stuff. Though, that’s also something that’s changing at the moment. And if you want to build a community a step further, then you can join a subscription platform like Patreon or Discord where you can actually have more frequent one-on-one experiences with people. I don’t think that there’s any social media platform that’s perfect, but I do think that it’s also easier to maintain your relationship with people on a site like Instagram once you’ve made that connection.
Mia: I just graduated college so my big focus is releasing original music. I currently have a single out and have a remix for it coming out at the end of the summer. I’m also writing a bunch of new music with some producer friends of mine and collabing on a bunch of stuff with a bunch of artists. I have a ton of stuff in the works. I have the bagpipe and electric violin duo with my friend Ally. I have my senior recital/debut Mia Asano show happening in Boston on August 4th and 12th, which will be my first live show since the pandemic. Ideally, I’m going to take that as an opportunity to go on tour, too.
Mia: I think that hard work will always pay off. I’ve always found that even if I wasn’t the best musician in the room, simply by being the most prepared, working the hardest, and showing up on time, I’d always end up being the best person in the ensemble. It’s an important skill that I’m grateful that I’ve learned since there are very few situations in life where you’re just naturally going to be the best at something. You have to prepare and work hard.
As far as social media advice, take a look at your life and your goals and ask yourself if having a million followers and having to post every single day is something that would make you happy. Be real about it. If you’re the kind of person that hates social media, then there’s no shame in not doing it. There’s no reason to put any pressure on yourself to do something that, ultimately, won’t bring you happiness.
Follow on Instagram and TikTok @miaasanomusic
***Photos by Russell Klimas