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The dangers of technodarwinian web 2.0 marketing for musicians

March 27th, 2008 | 2 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

There’s a way of viewing online marketing that I’m going to characterise as Technodarwinism. [Just to clarify, I didn’t invent the word, but I’m using it in this context to refer to a kind of ‘survival of the best proliferated’, rather than the more positive possible meaning about the continuing evolution and bettering of technological solutions for a particular problem]

There are some good and some bad things about the way that this phenomenon plays out. Or at least, some good things about the environment in which is it played out – let’s pick one or two –

Good – the product has to be ‘good’ or people just won’t be drawn in. No more albums with two great singles padded out with filler tracks, disappointing the listeners who bought them without hearing them first.

Bad – the idea that the measure of one’s ‘success’ is to have the most listeners, the most hits/visits/subscribers/comments – this drives people to do the kind of traffic-attracting BS that many of the ‘how to be a pro blogger’ sites come out with about being controversial to drive traffic, or spamming the services that may send traffic your way with misleading info just to ‘raise interest’… that only breeds discontent and argument, not a quest for shared ground, consensus and mutual growth. It also makes no measure of the quality of interaction with each of the people behind those hits/visits/plays.

Good – theoretically there’s a level playing-field. The chances of an unknown going ‘viral’ under the old model were zero, because even pressing up enough copies for blanket radio airplay cost thousands of pounds/dollars. Now, via youtube/myspace/last.fm/bit torrent, a track, album, band or even a genre/movement could become the next big thing in a matter of days… However, IT DOESN’T HAPPEN AS OFTEN AS PEOPLE WOULD LIKE YOU TO BELIEVE. Almost every act that ‘went viral’ had a team behind them, being paid a LOT of money to make it look like no-one had spent any money.

Bad – The race to be the most tech savvy can lead to people look for ways to market a product that doesn’t deserve it, or to read as validation of the art the amount of exposure it receives… YouTube is full of dreadful music clips that are initially impressive, funny or quirky, but don’t follow through… in the currency of YouTube though, that doesn’t really matter as most youtube views are seconds rather than minutes long, and for an artist it creates a false sense of worth. Unless your views are in the millions it’s unlikely that YouTube virality is going to have a significant impact on your sales/concert figures…

As I mentioned in the last post, the beauty of web 2.0 for musicians/creatives is that rather than having a publisher/record label/manager breathing down our necks about the next ‘hit’ or whatever, we can do what we do without worrying about that stuff, and then market it.

The key point here, in terms of my perception of how this stuff works, is that this is a FAR MORE EFFECTIVE WAY OF PRODUCING ART OF QUALITY – as I’ve said a million times trying to second guess your market is nigh-on impossible, so being able to produce the music that you LOVE, that you yourself crave to listen to is THE BEST CHANCE YOU HAVE OF MAKING SOMETHING WORTH RELEASING.

Do you remember the bargain bins of the 80s and 90s? Endless piles of lushly produced records that sold pretty much nothing because record labels got it VERY wrong a lot of the time too. The industry-heads want us to believe that without them we’re screwed, we won’t be able to produce anything of quality, or be able to sell it, because we’re unrefined bundles of creative genius, but need them to shape it, make it palatable and marketable.

But it was always pretty random. And some great bands made crap albums, some crap bands made nearly-great albums, some bands found the right producer, some found the wrong one, a lot of people wasted a whole lot of money, and a lot of artists ended up paying for those experiments.

The old model produced some outstanding music. That’s not in question here. What is in question, in my mind, is what is the best way for me to continue to make the music that I HAVE to make and find the audience for it, whilst hopefully finding a way to be remunerated for it. I don’t have a desire to be famous or ‘successful’ for its own sake. Actual fame would be a right pain in the arse, and fortunately I’m a solo bassist, so unless I somehow morph into the British Victor Wooten, it’s not remotely likely to happen.

So all this geeking, the social networking, the microformatting, the blogging and myspacing, facebooking and youtubing is about letting people know what I do, giving them paths to find it, easy ways to connect with it, and then opportunities to buy the product if they want to, or come to the shows, or even book the shows, or just drop me a message and say they enjoyed it, and maybe tell a few friends about it too.

What’s in it for the audience? Well, the best case scenario for them is that I make enough money to be able to do what needs to be done to make the best music I can, and to come and play it near them. So they can download it for free, if they want (let’s face it, there really is no stopping your stuff ending up free somewhere, even if you wanted to) but if they do, the chances of them a) getting something equally good from me next time round or b) me coming to where they are, aren’t improved at all. They aren’t noticeably diminished, but unless there’s someone else near them who is making some kind of active steps to make me doing a show near them possible, then the chances of that happening are close to zero anyway. On one level, it doesn’t matter – there’ll be other bands and other music, and people who will find a way to tour… So the social media proliferation is important because the raised awareness IS monetizable in concert ticket terms, and useful as leverage, but it’s art first, marketing second.

Remember that we’re doing the marketing because we love our art and want people to share in it, not professional marketers desperate for some kind of trinket to sell on our virtual market stall – we don’t want to end up the musical equivalent of a stall holder whose product changes every week depending on what weirdness he’s managed to pick up cheap down the pub and thinks he might be able to sell.

All of which is at least partly another way of saying there’s no ‘one thing’ to any of this. No way to make a silk paypal account out of a sow’s myspace page. There’s no ‘secret to unlocking your marketing potential through social networking’, or whatever. Your number one priority, as an artist, is to make art. Make YOUR art, do what you do best, as well as you can possibly do it. And THEN, to find an audience, look for community spaces, places where people can get to know about you and your art in the same place, where they can interact, ask questions, and build a relationship with what you do, by broadening their understanding of who you are. Then those people will WANT to tell their friends, will do the rest of the marketing for you. You just have to resource them with great art and value added – the ‘just’ in that last sentence is going to take another series of about 10 blog posts to unpack, fear not.

How many times have you consciously bought a CD or download of someone because they blogged well? I’m guessing never, unless you’re really odd. However, you may well have discovered a musician or fifty via their web presence first, and THEN gone on to investigate their music. And the chances are that most of the music you heard was a disappointment. Because making great music is really hard. Making great music that meets the taste-criteria of any one person is even harder. Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t dig what you do, and don’t get lost in trying to sell something that doesn’t deserve to be sold. And by ‘deserve’ I mean isn’t the best that you have to offer in terms of the art that is YOU.

I’ve heard musicians with 100,000 myspace friends who were, by most estimations, appalling. And I’ve heard incredible/engaging/deep/funky/magical/inspiring music from completely unknown, unmarketed musicians.

The Awareness Doesn’t Validate The Art and conversely, obscurity doesn’t invalidate it. There needs to be a synergy in the way we make art and tell people about it because we love what we do and we care about them. Your audience are not just your ‘market’. They’re a community of people who find that what you have to offer is worth spending their time and money on.

That’s worth engaging with, being grateful for, and relating to. Whether that’s 10 people, or a million.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Bruce Warila

    “The Awareness Doesn’t Validate The Art and conversely, obscurity doesn’t invalidate it.”

    Another great quote Steve..

    I will add that “death by obscurity” is the most painful way to exit the music industry. Whilst being a smart blogger does not actually sell music, it can surely help you be less obscure.

    Steve – check your Preview page. I tried to preview and everything go screwed up. The page layout and the subsequent attempt to post.

  • Steve

    Thanks Bruce – I’ll look into the preview thing – I tweaked the layout so far from where it should be and then lost track of how many pages I need to update to match what I’ve done. :o)

    Death by Obscurity is an interesting concept, in that it seems dependent on there being an expectation of something more, rather than an incrementally advancing, progressive development to ones profile, time commitment and perhaps most crucially, expenditure. I’m amazed at how many bands survive on nothing for 7 or 8 years, playing shit gigs as though their lives depend on it, then get signed, ‘only’ go top 20 instead of top 10 and split..! Seems crazy after all they’ve been through that the failure is one of misdirected expectation rather than any creative or ‘commercial’ failure in any real sense. Too much money spent creates too big an expectation, and that could be Michael Jackson wasting 10 million on a video for a song that flops, or a busker spending $100 on an amp only to find that they can’t then afford to eat…

    Becoming less obscure is a progressive, planned thing that seems to hold the most longevity if it’s operated on a worst case scenario. Not out of pessimism, but out of a desire to stay the distance.

    Thanks Bruce, I really appreciate your input and feedback here!