Sunday, August 29, 2010

The War on Obscurity: Fighting for Fans in a Facebook World

It’s 6:30am, I’m walking my dog through the sleepy neighborhood still processing the credits from a dream and this process segues into the beginnings of a new song idea. Before I get beyond the first two lines, a familiar voice stirs in the back of my mind with his favorite line of questioning: "Why are you writing another damn song? Who needs another song? Who is going to listen to another song?"

The inspiration bubble bursts, I pull out my iPhone and begin checking my traps. I have increased my Facebook fan list by exactly two since last week. I have squeaked out five new fans on Jango. There are no new Twitter followers this week. The latest video I posted to YouTube has only garnered 54 views. My CD is still pending review at Pandora and nine out of thirteen Radio Paradise listeners think my music is better than a poke in the eye. I could keep going down the list, but you get the idea.

To the uninitiated, being an artist is increasingly more about the hustle than it is about the art - that is unless you write for an audience of one. In 2010, the hustle is a complex and dizzying dance done everyday across an almost infinite number of online services. Never in history have there been more ways to fight obscurity as an artist and never before have we had so many dashboard metrics to measure exactly how invisible we are. Making the rounds to check my stats is like a thousand tiny paper cuts some days.

It’s a very lonely slog, self-promotion, which I find terribly ironic given the fact that there are literally millions of other poor bastards just like me online saying "Hey, look at me!" Of those millions there are thousands who are rare talents. Of those thousands, there are hundreds who are also PR ninjas and of those hundreds there are ten or fifteen who capture the squirrel-brain attention span of the energy-drinking multi-tasking billions in the social cloud who are each struggling to attain their own ten seconds of fame via their last carefully whimsical Facebook status.

How to Buy Fans and Pay to Play

After a couple of weeks of feeding all the hungry little mouths that comprise my online presence, I soon reach my WTF moment and realize that my life is no longer LOLs. All this energy focused on getting my music to the people through the Internet is a bit like trying to charge the US power grid with an AA battery. My Facebook statuses, my Tweets, my email newsletters are just wearing out the handful of friends, family and fans in my line of fire. In short, I need new blood so I set out to find new ways to crop dust the world with my songs. Below is the breakdown of what I discovered in my meanderings. Your mileage may vary.

Jango - Pay a monthly subscription fee and have your songs played to the demographic of your choosing. You can tag a list of other artists that you think are similar to you and have your songs targeted to listeners who like those artists. The more quarters you drop in the machine, the more "spins" you get in one of the many Jango streaming music stations. The hope is that if you pay enough money you can begin to generate "organic" spins, which means people, actually request your music on their own. Despite the undeniable whiff of payola here, it is the most direct service I found that serves the goal of getting your music heard by new people.

Taxi - Pay a yearly subscription fee and receive a list of opportunities you can submit to have your music published, licensed and sold. Of course, there is an additional fee every time you want to actually submit for one of these listings. They do have a panel of experts who critique your songs and let you know why they won’t be forwarding them on to the "hot producer looking for ‘real’ songs" which is a bonus. These guys position themselves as an independent A&R company that gives unsigned artists access to what the record labels are looking for. So what are the record labels looking for? That’s easy: an established, touring artist who can bring out a minimum of 500 people in 3 major markets and has sold at least 10,000 copies of their independent CD - in other words, a sure thing. Note, if you are this artist, you don’t need Taxi because you really don’t even need a record label.

Facebook - You know those annoying ads you see on the right side of your Facebook page? I put one there because I happen to know you are between the ages of 15 and 38, a female who likes Starbucks and a fan of James Taylor and Jackson Browne. It only costs me 25 cents every time you click on it, but hey, maybe you’ll "like" me. Once you "like" me, I can begin to hurl my bits of whimsy and desperate pleas for you to come out to a show or download a new song. That is until you "unlike" me. Copping the auction based advertising model invented by Google, Facebook allows you to exploit the treasure trove of their user database. I ran an ad budget of $8 per day and ran an ad for about three days. I earned 15 new "likes" none of which actually converted into CD sales.

SonicBids - Gone are the days when you could actually talk to another human and send them a CD when you wanted to book a gig. For a yearly subscription fee and a fee between five and thirty dollars every time you submit, you now have the pleasure of tossing your EPK (electronic press kit) into the spam folder of the promoter you used to be able to call up and plead with when you did not get a call back. Not only is it much easier for promoters to completely ignore you, they can actually take your money to do it and book the three artists they always planned to anyway. This one is perhaps the most frustrating of all the online services for musicians because they practically have a monopoly on the independent booking world now. To be considered for the biggest festival or even the smallest slot on a cable access show in nowhere Kansas, you have to go through SonicBids. As an extra bonus, they will spam you within an inch of your life daily.

YouTube - YouTube is now what MTV was to my generation, but multiplied by a factor of a thousand. Anyone can be a star at least for one Twitter cycle. If you want your video to spread like a virus, simply performing a song won’t be enough unless of course you are covering a Kenye West song in the nude, with Manga hand puppets dancing behind you and at some point there is an unfortunate accident where you are injured in some way. Interestingly, the video I posted that has gotten the most views is the one where I talk about "promoting my CD."

Pandora, Radio Paradise, etc. - Good luck. You can submit your music to these wonderful streaming music services for free, but the MP3s you upload are likely to never see a play button. There are simply too many other people who know how to encode an MP3 and click an upload button. Since this is the only barrier to entry, those poor reviewers will never in a thousand lifetimes listen to all that music, much less be able to filter out something they like without some external influence.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

With all this technology, we have completely streamlined the process for delivering, consuming and ignoring music. Put another way, the level of noise out there has made most of us immune to the signal. Promoting my music online for the last few years has underscored one very important fact: people are influenced most profoundly by other real, live human beings. The steady assault of digital media that canvases their daily lives is a fly buzzing in the corner of a gymnasium compared to their best friend calling them up from a coffeehouse where they just heard the most amazing songwriter.

There have been nights where I was that singer in that coffeehouse and I watched as a group of four people grew into a group of twenty. Nothing will ever replace the sweaty, analog delivery of a song from one human to another - everything else is about as hopeful as broadcasting a signal out into space and waiting for a call back. But what choice do most of us really have when faced with the merciless enemy of all artists: obscurity? We will always need a bullhorn and in most cases, someone else to shout into it.

So for all the hype and promise of the Internet being the great equalizer for musicians, it would seem that in most of the important ways, we have traded one middle-man for another. The fat cat record label execs are all but fossils in a museum now and their replacements are automated, faceless online services not unlike lotto machines happy to make the transaction. Someone is still cashing in on the hopes and dreams of musicians, but now they’re able to do it with a much lower profile one "micro-payment" at a time. Step right up kid, just login and I will make you a star.

1 comment:

  1. What great insight at the challenges you face! I love your music and wish you continued success!!
    You are going to have to come with Tom the next time he comes West...would love to hear you perform in person!