A trumpet player sits on a bench with perfect posture. Framed by a beautiful blue sky, he’s practicing his instrument in the glory of nature. I’m indoors staring at my computer, grumbling at this image—the backdrop of Chase.com. I’m logging into the bank’s website so I can look at the deposits made on the tour I’ve just finished with my band Landlady. Merchandise money and show payment changed hands, traditionally just barely enough to make it all work, and on the table next to me I’ve got a stack of gas receipts that need to be entered into a spreadsheet. All the while, JP Morgan Jr. gets to play his instrument on a sunny day without a care in the world.
Behold the true reality of being a semi-functional professional musician in 2015 versus the one perceived by our banks and friends. The balance is the question. In order to make it work, to survive, and feel growth but still feel pride, how can artists face the expectations and requirements for us to self-represent and be self-sufficient? And how can we cope with the need for us to spend so much time staring at a damn screen?
This is my experience and my perspective. The wild west of the internet has shattered the music industrial landscape in ways we can of course lament: “Nobody buys albums!” “How does anybody find out about anything anymore?” “Who cares about art in a sea of memes?!” But we can also be excited, inspired, and feed off of the flip side—that because the clear paths are now gone there isn’t just one way to make it work. The door is wider than ever to be creative, personal, and unforgiving with our art. Still, somebody has to care about the landscape. To keep going, to keep trying, I need to reach people. Not as a litmus test to benchmark success, but to connect. The skeleton of that beast is social. To communicate through the music we make (coldly called media or content), is a social endeavor.
How can we cope with the need for us to spend so much time staring at a damn screen?
Social media can be social. The two words together have grown to define the widest net of internet activity that can occupy the most inane nonsense or true societal discussion. But sub-grouping doesn’t seem to exist, on the user level, or even in the way of editorial media—at least on the supermarket rack you can tell a tabloid from a newspaper you can trust. But at present, social media can feel like a complete crapshoot. I’ve had completely meaningful engagements through online communication, outreach, and discovery, but I’ve also lost ten minutes straight to the void of clicking and swiping before realizing that I’d not taken in or processed any information. To put it cleanly, things are messy.
The options are to either strap on your boots and jump through the muck or actively avoid it all. And both are cool. It’s important to recognize that as artists pointing ourselves at those we want to understand and enjoy what we do, we don’t have to do anything. The choice to compose, perform, and to breathe music is a choice, and with it comes the choice to present it however you want. So the question is, even if the boots don’t quite fit, is it worthwhile to jump in and try to engage in the modern murk of social media?
I believe word of mouth will never go extinct—not until the human mouth reluctantly evolves into a cracked iPhone screen. At its finest, the big social media tools of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and whatever else we groan about having to use, are manifestations of the word of mouth. They are opportunistic muscles and like all muscles they need to be worked at and developed, so people can see and comment on them. But the opportunity can be a pure one, harkening back to that wish to reach people with the sounds you make.
Social media’s own limitations can be daunting and even infuriating—140 characters, images only, your content next to wedding announcements, baby photos, and real-time meal coverage—yet if the goal is to truly represent yourself and what you do, it can be a positive endeavor. At the end of the day the methods in which art is being talked about should be held to the same standard of the art itself. That may sound futile, because marketing is marketing, and you feel the same recurring pit in your stomach when asked: “What does your music sound like?”, but, in reality, simulating and stimulating talk about your creations should trump it all. And in the cloudy depths of the internet, people talking to each other and seeing each other talk to each other, will generate reminders that click the gears into place for someone, anyone, to sink their teeth into what you’re up to.
The choice to compose, perform, and to breathe music is a choice, and with it comes the choice to present it however you want.
There’s no one way and the big success stories can be the most discouraging. Being told: “Look how this artist did it!” feels a lot like being asked: “Why can’t you get good grades like your brother?” When Radiohead asked their fans to name their own price and sold their album In Rainbows directly through their website or when Amanda Palmer raised one million dollars on Kickstarter, our gut reaction was to disparage the potential for that model to transfer down to us. Both artists had a global network of fans and so their new approaches in communication and art distribution were unparalleled successes.
But the reality amid that grumble is to understand that people believed in both artists. The artists themselves knew they’d made something great, and their fans already loved them, through seeds planted before the internet was a sure bet. No matter what decade the music is created in, there are no shortcuts that can earn a sincere following truly willing to follow. The work must be done and it is almost always hard. When I start to wonder why something isn’t happening quickly enough—and the clouds are heavy—the only next movement I can conceive of is to work harder. If a piece isn’t resonating, create more. Tell more people, and be proud of it. But the word of mouth surrounding a project can only go as far as how great people believe the project to be. Even with the biggest of names, that’s still true. It’s how they got there, how they’ve sustained. Whatever you think of Amanda Palmer, enough people love her and her music, and believe it worthy of speaking about and supporting—a goal worth reaching for anyone proud of what they create. And using Kickstarter as a tool for pre-sale and support is utterly and completely possible for anyone. And while we can’t all be Radiohead, we can ask people to name their own price for our music on Bandcamp.
That challenge is one of discomfort. Putting oneself out there can either feel timid or overly confident. It can feel like a question: “Will you pay attention to me?” or a command: “Hey! HEY! LOOK! Over here!” And language is important, because whether it’s 140 characters, a graphic, a Facebook post, or a video on Kickstarter, YouTube, or a VHS you tie to a cinderblock and throw through a neighbor’s window, your presence on social media should represent the true you. Or rather, the artistic magnification of the true you. We wrap ourselves in the art we make, and so the communication itself can also be carved and treated, while still being honest.
Despite all the uncomfortable time spent looking at screens, and all the time we wish could be spent practicing on a bench near our favorite bank, I still recommend giving all communication real repeated breaths and minutes of the day. Even little statements about music that’s being worked on, images connected to it, links that web outward to the people you work with, it all connects the dots, amidst the mud and noise. They can remain connected and continue to expand as your hard work continues and as more and more people come on board. So taking the time to figure out what to say, being organized and personal, can only help.
I spoke to a few colleagues about this—instrumentalists who seize the reigns of pursuing a career in music performance daily. Baritone sax player Jonah Parzen-Johnson and I met in college, sitting next to each other in the big band, and went on to tour side by side in the afrobeat inspired Zongo Junction. He has a master’s degree, web design talents that arm him with some side work, and he performs and releases work under his own name, earth shaking and personal solo music, affected by analog synthesizers but melodically rooted in Appalachia. Parzen-Johnson’s path is specific. On his windy route, he says, “I think a lot about the idea of a skillful craftsmen who offers people the chance to fulfill a role in their band versus someone who people want to play with because of a certain creative perspective they bring. As social media pushes all of us to more consistently share what we’re up to, I think that understanding where you want to be perceived on that spectrum is more and more important.”
Justin Brown, a phenomenal drummer who plays with Thundercat, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Ledisi, is for the first time leading his own group NYEUSI, who has a debut album coming out. At the professional communication level, Brown says the access to other musicians that social media allows has directly related to him getting hired, simply by being easily reachable and forward facing. “It also helps to stay connected and aware of what’s going on in the creative industries. It hasn’t necessarily hindered me but I think it’s important to be aware of who you are and what you represent because people will have their own perspective and opinion about you. It’s important to be secure in what you do and who you are,” he says.
While all good advice so far, it all still sounds so broad. And nearly cliché. Be true to yourself. Be considerate. Do the best work you can and let it all reflect outwards on the internet, in relation to the things you do. So, allow me to be specific, sharing my experiment of putting it all into practice.
Last year my band Landlady released a record on a record label with a booking agent and a publicist all translating into people caring and helping. Many years before that were spent in anticipation of the moment when wise people would come to my aid, the work would get easier, or maybe even stop feeling like work. But instead, instinctively, 60mph became 100mph. For a team to function at the highest ability, everyone’s work must fuel each other’s, and as the artist that work goes well beyond thinking about art—it’s logistics, forward planning, the immediate tasks, and the big picture. But the root of it all is the momentum that everyone’s work brings, and so with the record release and positive press came heavy touring and a piece-by-piece assembling of a fan base, human beings paying attention, engaging with the art and awaiting the next thing.
And so it went, for a year. Every worthwhile piece of press was shared, every relevant or irrelevant photo was thrown forward, news about tour dates and live videos and anything under the sun that can be connected to the trajectory of what we were doing was all put online. A modest email list grew from an infant to a toddler. There was no spark and boom moment, only a steady growth through online word of mouth. Fans made themselves known. They told their friends. And so it went. The album cycle ended and while I wrote new music, no articles were being written and I had nothing new to say in any public direction. Sales were not moving and that ceased commotion generated a feeling that maybe nothing was happening. But the nice thing about word of mouth is also the awful thing about it, you don’t always hear it, and so you don’t always know when it’s happening.
This summer we released a new EP as a cassette and digital download, all of it sold through Bandcamp. Those who had previously purchased our music through the site had the option to be notified when our new music came out, and many of them ordered the cassette or downloaded right away. A cassette tape being ordered through a social media truly shows the potential of the future—how past and present technologies can excel in concert.
Then beyond that initial splash of people already following us, we announced the new EP with a Facebook post, featuring a photo of the cassette and the tour dates listed in the text below. 687 people potentially saw the image in their newsfeeds and there were 57 likes, comments or shares, and 41 post clicks (on the image or to see all of the tour dates). Those last two numbers matter the most because those actions are seen by a user’s friends on Facebook as something they did. It’s not quite as revolutionary as Tom, Dick, and Harry all knocking on their friend’s doors with a new record in hand, but it’s a potential reminder for all who can see it that our cassette exists and is ready for consumption.
I don’t believe in just Facebook. I believe it can help, but the only truths I really believe in are the music and the people who love it.
The following day, we posted a link to the album on Bandcamp which people can click and play within Facebook. There was all the same information as the post the day before, but this time we paid for a “boosted” post. This is Facebook’s way of taking your money in exchange for marketing: fan pages are built to show a potential reach those who follow you—in our case, 2,491 hard-earned “likes”—and then charge you to reach them. You’re given options as to who the post reaches, and we selected, “fans, and friends of fans.” We put $30 behind it, and the money is depleted in very small increments per impression and larger increments when someone clicks on it. So in theory we paid for results. After the three-day campaign the analytics showed 7,072 people could have seen the post. We had 144 likes, comments, and shares, and 233 clicks. Throughout the tour we did a few geo-targeted boosted posts as well, to promote shows in LA, San Francisco, Nashville, and New York, modifying the targeted audience with “interests” such as other artists with whom we thought we shared a sonic allegiance.
These specifics can show how social media engagement can work. We sold more albums as we toured, in person and mail order, and the above efforts probably helped, and if they didn’t, well it’s only $30. And my time. But more importantly is that it seemed to work for me. I can see why that approach made sense and how it visually translated into engagement with fans. We made something we were proud of, and pushed it out there, adding more reminders and cranking more gears to get real people to check the goods out.
Managing the approach on Facebook worked for me, Justin Brown remains most active on Twitter, and Jonah-Parzen Johnson has applied a more seasoned level of research across the whole social-media plane. Stomping through the social media mud has to feel worthwhile in the context of the music and the path. And though it was a heavy emphasis for me this time around, I don’t believe in just Facebook. I believe it can help, but the only truths I really believe in are the music and the people who love it. How we stimulate the word of mouth around those two truths is vast and ever-changing. It keeps us hitting refresh on page counts and sometimes compulsively managing accounts while the sun rises and sets outside.
I think social is media is worth it, as part of the bigger picture. Social networks come and go but the people who use them still feed off of art, and the art we make is built to feed people. But all the screen time is not worth a second if it comes at the expense of your happiness. If the potential for growing the organism, a dedicated base of attention-payers, ticket-buyers, and record-listeners, makes you happy, then all the indoor time is worth it—it leads your best work to the greener grass you can dry your boots on, an open field of wider reach, of forward momentum, and of discourse that proves people care, and want more.
So work out the muscles of communication, they will come in handy forever. Forever is a really long time, and somewhere in there, after some great art is made and communication spread, we should be able to carve out an hour to play our instruments outside on a sunny day.