Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Top 5: Older Artists and Social Networking

Social networking is something a lot of older (35+) artists are doing poorly. Most of the mistakes are grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding(s) of the technologies at work, and how they're being used by various groups of people. I empathize, though: many people over 35 simply got left behind and are back to trying to figure it out. After a bit of thinking, I'm going to try and distill 5 major points that older artists are missing and what can be done to turn that around. Comments and feedback are greatly appreciated on this.

5. Overposting / spamming = disrespect for fans' time.

Ask yourself: "Why do I log on to Facebook/Twitter?" If you answer has something to do with finding out what your friends are up to or seeking a connection, then you're on the right track. If your answer has something to do with *telling* people something, you might be coming at this from the wrong perspective.

And that's really the difference between a spammer and a sharer, isn't it? The sharer has the best interests of his/her network in mind, while the spammer is busy monitoring clickthroughs and amassing friends'n'followers. It's all about where your head is. If you already think you deserve traffic, you'll be obsessed with those stats, judging the effectiveness of your campaign instead of your art.

Related to this is the tendency to post the same message across multiple platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, etc), an activity enabled by apps ala Hootsuite. I understand the economics of this, but you need to be incredibly judicious. How many times do I see a Twitter crosspost on Facebook complete with useless hash-tags?

And speaking of Twitter, this is one particular service that the 35's and up simply do not understand. Part of this has to do with the cultural distribution of cellular devices - the most capable ones are in the hands of the young, while the old still struggle with the concepts of an address book and text messaging. So of course Twitter looks like just another billboard with your name on it.

This is wrong, of course. Twitter says so themselves: it's a service for communicating timely and concise information. "Timely" is another way of saying "immediately relevant," whereas most of the 35's think it means "whatever I type right now." Geographic location, new/exclusive product availability, emergency information...these are all great for Twitter. Desperate pleas for attention (i.e., "twittername is feeling meh right now.") are the quickest way to tell your audience you've got little to say of relevance.

4. Inconsistency (voice/purpose/frequency)

Basically, if you're a musician, stick with music and career related postings. There can be exceptions to this, too, but what I want to emphasize is consistency. If you're going to be a hub for all kinds of interesting arts/cultural ephemera, that's OK, too, but pay attention to being consistent about what you post.

Re: politics. I do not advocate musical artists wearing their politics on their sleeves, unless you're specifically doing politically themed work. I am not suggesting civic disengagment, but I think it's important to consider your place in the lives of your fans. This is something each artist will have to balance for themselves. All I can ask is you THINK FIRST.

3. Managing collapsing social networks & differentiating between friends & fans

This one's a real challenge for older generations who have a deep investment in firewalling their social networks. Facebook is changing that, much to our discomfort. But there's one wall that can and should be maintained - friends vs fans. A friend is someone loves you in spite of your music. A fan loves your music in spite of who you are.

In some ways, you have to treat your fans with more respect and delicacy than friends. Fans can be more fickle, and ultimately, they're the ones paying your way. These lessons are tough to learn, and difficult to adapt to. My heart goes out to you, fellow artists.

2. Resistance to new technology / adoption barriers

#3 is excacerbated by #2. I know that iPhones are expensive, and beyond the reach of many musicians, but used models are avail on eBay for a much lower cost. It gets you in the basic game, though. Older people have a mechanistic view of the world, so dealing with complex abstractions like cell networks, etc, is difficult. Most of the things the modern world lives on seem akin to magic to most people (just ask them to describe how a credit card works...).

But I'm not talking about just iPhones, but just about every tech that's coming down the stream, from web browser addons to cloud music services, etc. 35+'s barely have an appropriate conceptual framework for these things much less the understanding on how to leverage them to any advantage.

1. Passive-Aggressive Panhandling

The worst offense.

I get it: we're out here, shouting into the darkness, watching young kids who've paid absolutely no dues being crowned "Idols" and handed nationwide tours. We feel underpaid and overlooked. We don't understand why nobody is listening to us when we feel we've got so much to say (finally). We feel alienated.

So we lash out. We start spamming our Twitter feeds with incessant pleas to retweet our music. We waste so much time trying to craft a clever pickup line or gimmick ("retweet this and get a free thingyblah!") This is the internet equivalent of begging for spare change. Nobody wants to get behind that person. Sure, beggars get pity money, but nobody gives them any real investment.

Our job as artists is to astonish. To create a gravity so undeniable it attracts everything around it. THIS IS NOT EASY, and the pressure and circumstances sometimes involved have destroyed otherwise wholesome people.

Unhappiness is often rooted in a perceived disparity between where one is and where one wishes to be. Recalibrating your wishes and expectations is the easiest way to be happy, and ultimately, that's what attracts people to you.

The alternative is not the easiest way.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Job Titles vs Credits

What's the difference between being a producer and being credited as a producer? Is a recording artist any more or less legitimate than a performing artist? Why the delineations? Can you just be a writer anymore? Is a title assumed or bestowed?

Legitimacy. That's the single ingredient - the secret spice, if you will - that changes the destiny of so many things. That's what all the niche noisemakers, publicists and other assorted toxins are trafficking. At least, that's what they'd have us believe.

It's all artists seem to want to talk about right now. They don't say it directly, but it's the prime topic driving so many conversations. Just look at the average Twitter feed of the current crop of 35+ DIY reborns. How many of them are following and retweeting establishment artists, sending ever-hopeful "@" messages hoping for a gilded tweet that anoints them worthy, setting in motion the wheels of great fortune? I lose count.

The youngest (and by proxy, technologically adept) artists have a massive advantage right now (welcome to the cruel downslope of evolution). They're coming of age with an internet that's scaled to relevance and a peer-group/fanbase that's not only deeply connected socially but motivated to gather (unlike their parents, who prefer to lock down in suburban homes.) A moderately talented artist can conjure a respectable following in weeks, now, where older artists are still struggling to get their fans connected, much less literate.

So we can try to perform for younger audiences, but that is especially risky because....well, here we are again.... the young are particularly finicky about legitimacy, because picking the wrong team to support has social consequences that reverberate further than before.

And who knows for sure if you're really an artist anyway? Sure, this is still the creative free-for-all its always been. You're still free to assert the title artist, or producer, or whatever, and just *be* that. Sooner or later someone will believe you. There's something inherently freeing about that chaos, yet at the same time it seems so formidable.

I'm not sure what to make of all this. On one hand, it seems a renaissance is upon us, but that can also mean a lot of uncertainty. I don't think anybody really knows.

And here's today's takeaway: Genuineness starts inside and shines out. If you're a person who honestly needs external validation, you're going to be very unhappy in this business. But if you can find that spot in yourself where you feel comfortably legitimate in your own eyes, that quality will begin to emerge in your work and performance.

The album is dead. Long live the album!

The album is dead.

It's official - no more "albums." I'm not going to release one, nor will I participate in their production going forward. It's serial-singles from now on.

I feel alone on this - every single one of my peers is diligently working on finishing an album of their own. None of them can write ten hit songs (sorry guys'n'gals), much less two or three. Still, they persist....

I don't know why that model has such a firm grasp on the imaginations of young (and old) musicians. Maybe it's because the album is our only point of reference for identifying (and by proxy, legitimizing) a musical artist. You're not "real" until there are thousands of shiny discs with your name on them. It really is an indulgent exercise, isn't it?

I conducted an informal poll several months ago asking whether or not shiny CD's mattered to people who might be buying mine. At the time, almost everyone over 35 said they wanted a shiny CD. I've recently polled a few of these folks again, and across the board, not a single one of them has bought a CD (of any artist). But every one of them has purchased a single via iTunes.

So here we are, musicians - people telling us one thing and doing another. "I want to buy the CD" they say. But then they buy a single on iTunes. "I want the art and liner notes..." they'll say. But when they can't remember a detail or want to show someone the art, they'll look it up online.

Used to be the single sold the album. Fans tolerated this because there just wasn't any other way to get the songs 'ala carte.' We bought albums knowing it would have songs we didn't like/understand. We even had a common colloquialism for songs that weren't very strong: "B-sides."

Can you imagine putting a product into the market knowing full well it wasn't of the highest quality? Can you imagine that being built-in to your existence as an artist?

Not in 2010. We don't have time for that anymore. We only have time for the best. The term "B-side" now refers to a kind of obscurity or stamp of artistic merit (that something was developed outside the old system.)

Which is why artist development is in the tank. Nobody wants to risk the cost of development except the artist. So we're in a situation where only the artists (and their families) are all-in...who else? How many friends do I have who's CD's are lingering in their garages, ever hopeful for the DIY-heroin hit that is the CDBaby re-stock email? They'll never get that investment back. Why repeat that model? Why is it so prevalent?

I think its because the only history we have is the album history. Every artist that's come before has done an album, for better or worse. It's the first step in establishing credibility and legitimacy, at least for now. But credibility and legitimacy with who?? Are your fans demanding it from you? Are they helping you fund it?

And that's the only album you or I should be concerned about anymore: The one that's demanded and financed directly by the fans.

Long live the album!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mandatory FM

A story burning up the indignant media/tech blogs is an astroturf proposal to mandate (zomg evul gubmints!) FM receivers in many digital devices, including phones. Among the more common refrains are the ad-hominem (RIAA is evil so I am against anything they support) to the TeaBagger (the government shouldn't be issuing tech mandates (ummm, yes it should.))

To be clear, there are plenty of reasons to hate on RIAA (and the Fed Gov't for that matter), but those are so well-tread they don't bear repeating here.

I think this is a wonderful idea for a couple reasons:
  1. Generally speaking, devices that span networks are more useful,
  2. Scaled out, it would give FM a reason to compete with personal playlists. In turn...
  3. ...a revolution in FM broadcasting as a medium. DJ's can become very, very relevant again.
  4. ...which is great for listeners (and music fans) as they can build trust relationships (again) with filters
In its favor:
  • FM already has a MASSIVE installation base and infrastructure. The network is in-place - enabling a bazillion more devices to access this network is a no-brainer.
  • pressure to evolve the medium is a great thing for developing artists
  • great opportunity for local development of talent

Obstacles to overcome:
  • Legacy thinking about advertising, marketing, tracking, etc. The invasive ad-model will change (it will have to to compete with playlists), and something more passive will emerge (think BMW sponsoring a break-new-music show...)
  • It's current sponsors represent a de-facto Den of Thieves1 in the creative arts. They think they're in this for their own interests, but they're so obviously clueless from the onset chances are good this accelerates their demise2.
Summary: FM receivers embedded in media devices (phones) is really a smart, inexpensive, and potentially disruptive (in the good way) to the corporate stranglehold on FM. More listeners means more opportunity for niche talent and programming to develop, leading to (hopefully) the establishment of long-term acts and talent that provide economic longevity to their lives.

1 - I'm speaking to a popular conception as such, not making any direct accusation.
2- The rights-mgmt companies behind this obviously want to beef up royalty returns by getting some percentage of the bazillion media devices out there back into the FM listening situation. Station owners think they'll sell more ads. They're both wrong.

Note: re: AM vs FM. For those wondering why AM is not included, it has to do with the type of metal and shape required to receive AM broadcasts. Short story - that stuff is not compatible with modern equipment because it generates a field just to receive AM. FM antenna design, however, is easily integrated into just about every mobile design.

Followup: Great discussion over at Metafilter.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The First Five Thousand

Ten thousand hours.

That's how long it takes just to get good enough to keep doing it. The first five thousand pass quickly, but you know when you've reached the midway point. When you put forth your best effort - a result of the First Five Thousand - and it falls flat. When you wonder "Why on Earth am I doing this?" When you start doing the mental economic calculus of investment vs. long-term payoff, and its associated probabilities.

And herein lies one of the cruelties of the arts: the closer you get to your ten thousand mark, the more appealing the choice to abandon it altogether will appear. It gets easier to quit. To throw it all away. All obstacles become barriers.

"I need a studio to work in" becomes "I can't work without a studio."
"I need a budget" becomes "I'm so broke I just can't do anything."

The psychological fortitude and vigilance required to keep these Demons of Doubt at bay is one of the skills developed in the First Five Thousand. It's the same tenacity that allows you to migrate from the soft cocoon of your approving friends and family and into the 'real world' where people who don't know you are asking why they should care about what you do.

I wish I could tell you I had answers or knew the secrets. I can only tell you I know there are no secrets, and probably no real answers either. At best, only better questions.

In my heart, I want every artist to find their way - to connect not only with themselves, but the Universe, and by proxy, people around them. But not everyone can, or will, be able to do this. There are too many variables. A successful career in the arts requires a million things to go right - a tilting of odds and probabilities in your favor that's only accomplished by dedicating so much time - tens of thousands of hours - to your craft that you lost sight of all else but your Art.


I want to talk about ploughs, because I think it makes a good metaphor. A plough is built of the hardiest steel, and whether pushed or pulled, will fracture apart whatever is in front of it. While it may be of the toughest alloy in the front, it also takes care to arrange what it leaves behind in the most fertile arrangement possible. By design.

And this is your big insight today: the best thing you can do is keep doing! And no matter how desperate or angry or alienated you feel in that latter five thousand hours, you still need to cultivate everything you pass with the same care and enthusiasm as the First Five Thousand. Learn to reconcile the idea that you can feel like death on the inside and still smile with your fans like you just shit a million dollars.

It will not be easy, and often the decision to persevere will border on insanity. Such is our clarion call.

PHOTO BY Flickr's eflon.