Another year, another top artist brands list…Although, it’s 2020 so maybe we should call it — Top Artist Brands Survivor Edition.
It goes without saying that this year was brutal for the music industry – in particular, for artists (and their teams) more than any other segment, as venues across the world continue to shut down. No doubt, the artist-fan relationship has dramatically shifted with the elimination of in-person interactions — making business as unusual as ever.
Some artists handled the transition better than others, and some even found new opportunities to grow their personas online. From Travis Scott’s triumphant Fortnite concert, opening up possibilities in gaming to Noname’s virtual book club that inspired thousands during the Black Lives Matter protests and beyond, we wanted to highlight those resilient artists whose brands thrived in isolation.
10: Kenny Beats
If you are an aspiring producer, you have probably watched Kenny Beats on Twitch this year. The hip hop powerhouse, known for his work with everyone from DaBaby to Rico Nasty, has become a regular celebrity on the platform, hosting beat challenges and tutorials to demystify what it takes to be a famous producer. As most people were stuck at home, trying out new hobbies, Kenny Beats was there with a regularly-scheduled masterclass on making music yourself. He also released killer tracks with artists outside the hip hop space this year with “Florida” by Dominic Fike, “Mr. Hollywood” by Joji, and “Night Garden” by BENEE, proving that he is one of music’s most enigmatic, accessible, and versatile producers today.
9: Travis Barker
Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker has had a hell of a year. At age 45, he’s the oldest artist on our list and could easily be named one of the hardest working men in music. One of the greatest proponents of rising artists, Barker has earned dozens of features and production credits in 2020 alone, cutting tracks with Machine Gun Kelly, KennyHoopla, jxdn, POORSTACY, and more, many of which had significant career breakthroughs this year. He even started his own label, DTA Records, to provide hands-on development to acts that he loves. Though his collaborations go beyond the rock genre (with features in the pop and rap spaces as well), his production and drumming make each of his collabs completely unmistakable as Barker projects. For the drummer, mogul, and producer, it’s clear that a more-is-more approach has made him one of this year’s most recognizable brands and one of its greatest reinventions.
Before hosting his first live stream concert in March, Yungblud told fans that he’d give them a good show “even if i gotta teleport to your front room lol.” That quote just about sums up why the 23-year-old iconoclast made our list this year. Yungblud is dedicated to his fans more than almost anyone else in the business, and it shows. Behind his unbridled energy, chipped nail polish, and constant swearing, Yungblud is a compassionate, young artist who has provided a community for fans of all kinds – free of judgement and welcoming of outcasts. Like he says, “Yungblud is whatever you want it to be.” Though he’s always had his sonic and visual identity down pat, the pop-punk act’s community of misfits and rebels has grown massively this year and so has he. Using his platform to promote LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, and sexual abuse prevention, his recent self-directed music video for “Mars” was made to represent the marginalized and to empower Gen Z. With Yungblud, there is no doubt of his intentions: what you see is what you get.
Independent jazz-rap artist Noname has been a niche favorite since her stunning debut album Telefone in 2016, but this year she reached a much larger audience. Along with her work as a musician, Noname has become a prominent activist, using her platform online to promote black liberation and radical thought. She launched Noname Book Club and founded 12 local chapters to discuss two books monthly from POC authors, and this year she started her Prison Program to also send these selected books to incarcerated people across the country. In a year marked by police brutality and protests, Noname emerged as music’s most dedicated, radical advocate for racial equity and social justice as she spoke out through book clubs, Twitter, and a brilliant rap titled “Song 33”.
6: Travis Scott
Though he did not release a full project this year, Houston-born Travis Scott did just about everything else. The rapper and producer made our list in 2020 for expanding the possibilities for artists as brands. His signature meal with McDonald’s – a Quarter Pounder with cheese and bacon, fries dipped in barbecue sauce, and a Sprite – caused the chain to experience Quarter Pounder shortages nationwide, and his virtual concert with Fortnite gained a record-breaking viewership of 12.3M and reportedly earned him $20M. During COVID-19, Travis Scott’s “Astronomical” Fortnite concert proved to be a winning replacement for in-person experiences, and its success spurred other video game collaborations for musicians – like Roblox’s partnership with Lil Nas X. For Travis Scott, 2020 proved he is not just an artist, he is a multi-million dollar brand. Tell ‘em Cactus Jack sent you.
5: Megan Thee Stallion
Megan Thee Stallion caught her first big break with the “Hot Girl Summer” phenomenon last year, and she turned that brand into total superstardom in 2020. Known as one of the most empowering figures in music today, Megan Thee Stallion topped the charts with songs like “Savage,” featuring Beyonce and her feature on “WAP” with Cardi B this year, both of which encouraged women to own their sexuality. She also cemented herself this year as a vocal advocate for Black lives (and Black women in particular) with her moving video essay in the New York Times and with her stunning Saturday Night Live performance. Named in GQ’s Men of the Year issue and nominated for multiple Grammy awards, the world has fallen in love with Megan Thee Stallion this year, and we totally have too.
4: Machine Gun Kelly
For 30-year-old musician and actor, Machine Gun Kelly, it was clear that fifth time’s the charm with his latest project Tickets To My Downfall. A clear departure from his four previous rap records which gained him a loyal following, the pop-punk Tickets To My Downfall was one of the most successful career pivots in recent years, and MGK made it look easy. Packed with anthemic head bangers and features from anyone-who’s-anyone in rock, Tickets To My Downfall spoke to the artist’s struggles with addiction and heartbreak. This record and his sonic rebrand alone would qualify him for the list, but we haven’t even talked about Megan Fox yet. The power couple met while filming their upcoming thriller Midnight in the Switchgrass and the world has been obsessing over them ever since. Between his thriving career, spanning both music and film, and his relationship with Fox, Machine Gun Kelly is starting off his thirties with his greatest year yet.
Honestly, this number three spot belongs just as much to BTS as it does to their fans, arguably the most loyal consumers in the game. Though the Korean boy band has dominated the global marketplace for a few years now, they reached true American superstardom in 2020 with their first Billboard #1 hit “Dynamite.” But that’s not the only stat that got them this high on our list. The group is responsible for contributing $4.65B to the South Korean GDP and their label, Big Hit Entertainment, went public this year, becoming the largest South Korean IPO in the last three years. They smashed the record for largest paid livestream show in June, grossing around $20M and attracting over 750,000 attendees, and they sold over 4M presale packages of their album which were purchased by fans at $35 a piece. BTS has also been supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and was able to mobilize their fans to join their fight against racism and police brutality. After donating $1M to the cause, a BTS fan-based charity fundraising group called “One In An ARMY” launched a campaign to match the donation of the group. In only 24 hours, “One In An ARMY’s” #MatchAMillion movement raised $817,000 and reached their $1M goal soon after. In a year that forced artists to move online, BTS found themselves and (their global, social media-savvy fanbase) in their element.
2: Phoebe Bridgers
Though she has amassed a sizable following of indie heads over the last few years with her first record Stranger In the Alps and subsequent collaborative albums, Phoebe Bridgers had a major breakout year in 2020 with her sophomore record, Punisher. Now nominated for four Grammy awards, Punisher proved the strength of Bridgers’ appeal as a songwriter, and her social media presence showed that she is definitely the cool friend we all wish we had. She loves to interact with fans online, telling dark jokes, answering questions, and encouraging her followers to get politically active. During the presidential election, she vowed to cover “Iris” by The Goo Goo Dolls if Trump was defeated. Bridgers made good on that promise and released a cover, featuring Maggie Rogers, that sold 28,000 copies in one day and donated its proceeds to the Fair Fight Action non-profit, started by Stacey Abrams. She also launched her own label Saddest Factory this year, inking buzzy bedroom pop star Claud as its first signee. As she enters 2021, it is clear Phoebe Bridgers is only just getting started.
1: Harry Styles
This year, putting Harry Styles at the top of our list was a no brainer. With multiple radio hits and three Grammy nominations to his name in 2020 alone, Styles’ late 2019 album Fine Line was the ultimate feel good record that helped us all through a year that was anything but. In a time when he says “the world needs all the healing it can get,” Styles’ also collaborated with the meditation app Calm, narrating one of their latest sleep stories to promote wellness and self-care. As if this all wasn’t enough to qualify him for our top spot, Styles continued to dominate fashion this year with his December Vogue cover (you know, the one in the dress?), sparking worldwide internet debate over masculinity and gender norms. Almost too good to be true, Styles’ brand is the perfect amalgamation of by-gone British rockstars, mixing the cool androgeny of David Bowie, the sex appeal of Mick Jagger, and the boyish charm of Paul McCartney all into one bonafide superstar. As he expands into acting in 2021, we can’t wait to see what he does next.
Honorable Mentions: Joji, Kelsea Ballerini & Jason Derulo
First known as a jokey YouTuber, Joji fully-realized himself as a musician and brand in 2020. His album, Nectar, was a mature introduction for the budding artist, and the marketing for it was top notch. Following its release, he created JOJI PRESENTS: EXTRAVAGANZA, a three-day ticketed livestream that showed off both his humor and his music in a way that felt so Joji. He also sold locally sourced honey in his merch store in promotion of Nectar and partnered with Jack Daniel’s to create a signature honey drink. For Joji, his pairing of serious music and lighthearted humor was a winning combination this year.
With the release of two albums this year, Kelsea and Ballerini, and a crossover collab with Halsey and Shania Twain, Kelsea Ballerini was one of country’s most prolific stars this year – and perhaps its funniest. Known for her self-deprecating humor online, Kelsea used her quarantine time to connect with fans, sharing acoustic pop covers, easter eggs teasers of new music, and even a photo of her wearing her CMA outfit in the airport the next day (to avoid overweight baggage fees, of course). For Kelsea, there’s no social media manager behind the curtain. She is 100% real, and we love it.
Honestly, Jason Derulo’s comeback is not what we had on our 2020 Bingo card, but then again nothing that ended up happening this year was. With his TikTok resurgence and ascent back up the chart seven years after his last hit “Talk Dirty,” Jason Derulo proved it is never too late to reinvent yourself.
Think we missed the mark this year? Let us know. You can also check out our top brands from previous years below.