I wrote off the idea of chasing a record deal before I even put out my first album. After a series of pretty uninspiring encounters with labels via artists I was working with in the 90s, and the simple fact that as far as I could see, no-one was making any money via a label playing solo bass, I decided before my first album that I’d do it all myself.
Back then, there was a lot of nebulous, unfocussed talk about how the internet was going to change everything, but so much of the traffic that musicians were getting back then was as a result of there being precious little about music online. As an example, I was the only bass teacher in Europe with a website for over a year when I first set my site up, and would get student enquiries from all over the continent, from bassists wanting to fly to england for lessons!
The bass-stuff on the web was pretty limited, and as I had a site, was teaching at a London music college, was involved with The Bottom Line (by far the biggest bass-related web-thing around in the 90s) I had a profile. So when I put up some real audio files (real audio!!) of my first solo gig, it got a surprising amount of traffic and interest. Not because it was the greatest thing ever (only some of it was ), but just because of the huge amount of novelty-driven, bass-related web traffic that was passing through my site. If I gave people something to do online for half an hour that felt vaguely worthwhile, then my site validated the time they were spending on this great new toy of theirs.
But the tools weren’t really in place to build a career online, just a reputation. However, it was a great environment in which to forge a model for dealing with promoting hard-to-pigeonhole music online – the model being one of curious play – whenever I came across something new, I jumped in and had a play. I chatted to the current users of a particular forum or chatroom, I posted music clips on MP3.com (where unbeknownst to me, Lobelia was racking up over a million plays!) and splashed around in the web-pool, looking for interesting things to happen…
So as social media evolved, my play-approach helped me – along with a whole load of other musicians disillusioned with ‘the mainstream’ – fairly unconsciously develop a way of engaging with my audience via conversation, interaction and availability, rather than broadcast, spam and rock-star seclusion. Again, web forums had been doing this for a while, and I had hosted a forum at talkbass.com in their ‘ask the pros’ section for ages, but Myspace, commentable blogs and self-hosted forums started to make that kind of conversation portable to our own branded space via the comments option.
I remember in the early days of MySpace hearing the rumours that some big name musicians were actually running their own myspace pages, and being nonplussed by everyone’s surprise. Why wouldn’t David Byrne or Robert Smith or Peter Hook or whoever want to communicate direct with their audience? The problem for them was that Myspace got so big that the interaction become meaningless when they received thousands of comments a day. The smart ones started blogging on Myspace, and eventually (years after the novelty value had passed) myspace started promoting celeb blogs… (even then, a lot of musicians kept writing their blogs in the third person, as though a PA was doing it for them, not getting how important it is for audiences these days to hear your story in your voice…) Blog comment threads became a great way for big name artists to ‘host’ the discussion about their thoughts and writing without having to answer individual queries and comments.
The big mistake that so many musicians make with Social Media is to see it as a stop-gap, as what you do ‘until you make it’, as the thing that bands do who can’t get ‘a proper deal’. The lure of becoming a millionaire rock star is still so inexplicably strong that it blinds most pop and rock musicians to the opportunity staring them in the face to bypass all that other BS altogether.
The bit they’ve got lost in is the feeling that broadcast is where its at, is the measure of success, rather than grasping that all but the most refined of broadcast media have an incredibly low recognition ratio for stuff that’s played in the people listening. The simple fact is that I’ve sold WAY more CDs to the coupla hundred people who’ve seen me play in, say, Petersfield in Hampshire, than I have to the hundreds of thousands who’ve heard me on The Late Junction on Radio 3 – a show that’s been playing my music pretty regularly over the last however many years.
What Social Media allows artists to do is have the kind of in-depth conversations that previously could only happen at live events, with their audience in their own homes. If I post here on the blog, the people who are interested in what I do can read it and understand what I do in a way they’re never going to get from the lovely Verity and Fiona giving it a 15 second intro at midnight on the radio. And with so much music the story around the music is what gives it context, and provides and entry point for the audience, an understanding of where the artist sees their music. painters, photographers and sculptors have been contextualising their work within narratives for years, but for any music that is assumed to be in some way ‘pop’ music, it’s tough to get people to do the digging. Social media allows us to place the conversation about what we do right alongside the art itself, inviting responses, questions and discussion.
The future for musicians is in the artist/audience conversation and interaction that social media facilitates. And this is a concept that is now spilling over into business and PR and Marketing and even politics… but that’s Pt III.