More on Favours And Recommendations

I’ve mentioned a few times on here that I’m not a big fan of reciprocation-dependent deals between musicians to plug each other’s stuff. Let me expand on that a bit.

One of the most valuable currencies that anyone (music-person or otherwise) has online is their recommendation. Loads of people have written about this (Chris Brogan wrote a book about it called ‘Trust Agents’ …that I haven’t read.), but basically, if you talk about things you believe in, the people who hear those recommendations are going to find things that are awesome to someone. They won’t necessarily agree, but that’s not the point – you’re not pandering to an audience, you’re getting excited about greatness.

So, how does this work in a world where we’re all meant to help each other out? I mean, I also talk a lot about the way that collectives and coalitions can work in favour of musicians…

The workable reality is as always somewhere in the middle – there’s nothing wrong with feeling grateful and acting on that. To take your impetus to finally get round to blogging about a band from the fact that their drummer just tweeted about how awesome you are is perfectly natural and fine. Contrast that with the ‘if you put us in your top friends on MySpace, we’ll do the same…’ mentality. ‘Do this for me then I’ll do this for you’ is a recipe for the survival of the pushiest, not the awesomest. And it also overstates the value of a recommendation, link or ‘top friend’ in and of itself. The existential value of such a thing is negligible. It just being there means next to nothing. It’s only real value is in the energy that’s behind it. And that energy is cumulative, but can also be diminished by dilution.

If I get an endless stream of links from someone about lame-assed music, it doesn’t suddenly make me like rubbish music. It makes me think that either

  • their taste and mine really don’t match, or
  • they’re not to be trusted cos they link to any old shit that may lead to them getting a link back.

That’s the death of value.

Same goes for only ever linking to stuff in which you have a vested interest – if the only bands you ever plug are people you’re working with, it looks like you just want more people at your shows. It stands to reason that you’re going to want to work with musicians you think are awesome, so this isn’t some unworkable call to never draw any benefit from the stuff you put out there – of course not, almost all of us want to have more listeners, more gigs, more people to play to. (Or at least, have more people wanting to see us so we can pick and choose the gigs we do!) It’s all about finding the balance, and building a social DNA chain that points to you being not just a producer of great music, but a curator of great everything.

The principle is one of ‘value-added’: how many extra ways can you make your story – and the media, events and supporting cast that surround it – compelling to the people who are discovering it? You can be exciting, funny, sexy, distracting, educational, passionate, inspiring, consoling, wise, dangerous, scary.. you can be a node-point for finding great things, a recommender of great books or films or food, a philosopher, theologian, comedian, curator, historian, essayist, guitar-ninja, recording advisor, producer, svengali…

When I hear musicians saying ‘I just want to make music, I don’t want to have to be a social networker or marketer’, I do have to wonder what they really want to fill their days with. The big question becomes, ‘yes, but what do you want to make music about??’ Great music – world-changing, awesome music – never exists in a vacuum. It’s always part of a story, and its inspiration is very often a big part of the value in it. Don’t try and tell me that the success of the Beatles wasn’t down to their personalities, stories, controversies and cultural experimentation/boundary-pushing as much as it was the notes on the record… Whether the music was the gateway to the story or vice versa is largely moot – they feed one another in a loop. Story leads to music about the story when leads back to the music.

And the music you talk about is part of that story ‘check out my friend, cos he wants you to check out me’ is a really really shitty story. ‘Check out this amazing film, it changed my life’ is a far more compelling story, and one that will make me want to hear your music. Srsly.

In Pt II, I’ll talk about this with live gigs.

For now though, have a listen to Premonition Factory’s album – pure, gorgeous ambient goodness. Got this at the weekend in Antwerp. Fabulous stuff:

<a href="">To those worthy of honour by Premonition Factory</a>

5 Replies to “More on Favours And Recommendations”

  1. Morning Steve,

    That’s a timely post, particularly the line about ‘what do you want to make music about?’ Increasingly I’m finding my inspiration comes less and less from other bands/musicians and more from books, films, news and so on. It’s that that I want to direct people to i.e. the original source, not ‘necessarily’ my creative response to that inspiration.

    However, that does create a slight ethical conflict in trying to balance meaningful self-promotion……I’m not articulating very well but I think you’ll get what I mean.

    The thing I value most is realising that other people that you don’t ‘know’ (in the sense of knowing them personally through working together or growing up together or what have you), have the same issues, hopes and fears. In the quiet and uninspiring times that can be most comforting 😉

    How did you find Generation A in the end btw? Coupland reminds me of Vonnegut in the sense that ‘the moral of the story’ is always kind of the same, yet it’s a story I never tire of hearing….

    Anyways, be well as always!

  2. I’d imagine often there is something of a trade off between promoting greatness and telling a decent story. Between telling the world about the good but not great band you just did a session with or the fantastic new album you heard on spotify on your way home. Steve l ‘s bias seems to be towards simply promoting the great but without context you need a bloody good rep for folks to listen to recommendations ( steve manages that) . With a decent story i’m quite happy checking out the good but not excellent. Also a question of context. If i’m signed up to a face book fan page i expect 90 percent of the info i get to be self promotion or promotion of very closely linked acts. If i’m reading your blog i expect some totally random posts or i’ll get bored and go elsewhere. I do know i’m far more likely to go see a band if i’ve been engaging with them on line, in just the same way i’m more likely to see someone again if i’m chatting to them at a bar after the gig. I can fully understand artists not wanting to do this sort of thing, but that leaves someone else with the job of building your fan base. ( Good luck with that)
    As a fan i’m more than happy to help promote acts i’ve seen i think deserve a bit more publicity .
    One thing that is annoying is finding truely great artists or albums and the finding out friends ( real or virtual) are involved in the project and forgot to plug it.
    ( Actually steve’s been guilty of that one before now. 🙂 )

    1. Thanks, Steve – more really smart thinking from you.

      It clear that ‘greatness’ is entirely subjective. My all-time favourite album leaves Lo cold. It’s baffling to me, but that’s the joy of music.

      Your point about connection is a really good one. I tend to not talk about ‘fans’ in relation to what I do, because I have listeners and I have friends, friends who like what I do. The avoidance of the ‘mystique’ that surrounds fandom has probably cost me some help that I might have got if I’d acquiesced to people thinking I was more special than I am, but the trade-off with making friends with my audience is more than compensatory.

      It’s also – obviously, hence me not blogging about it much – quite possible to build a compelling and interesting narrative around what you do without any conspicuous outside reference, especially if you’re doing it for an audience who already know you. I’m really excited to hear the new 50 Foot Wave album because I really like the band but also because I’ve been following Kristin Hersh’s tweets about the writing of the songs, the demoing of the songs and then the recording of the songs. Now I can’t wait to hear it. She hasn’t referenced much that’s musical at all – it’s all being about the relationship between her music and her story. Compelling stuff indeed.

      Perhaps the mantra is ‘be interesting or be ignored.’ – not a threat, more an observation of consequence in the new music environment…

  3. All of this presumes something about great musicians
    Spending time with great music and art. Some do, some i know would sooner curl up on on sofa with a mug of tea and watch corrie. And if that inspires your latest song prob best preserve the mystery and keep it to yourself. 🙂 Some musicians can also be bloody useless at writing about what inspires them- maybe thats why they turn it into music. I can also think of artists who are mainly inspired by stuff that really won’t connect to their listeners. ( Thinking of an acoustic singer i know, she mainly listens to nu metal.) All this i suppose just underlines fact there is no single right approach . Anyone with diverse tastes , a bunch of listeners with overlapping diverse tastes , some bloody talented friends and a decent ability to write about it could do a lot worse than copying steve.

    1. Those assumptions would be a little short-sighted – that’s kind of the reason for the following paragraph:

      You can be exciting, funny, sexy, distracting, educational, passionate, inspiring, consoling, wise, dangerous, scary.. you can be a node-point for finding great things, a recommender of great books or films or food, a philosopher, theologian, comedian, curator, historian, essayist, guitar-ninja, recording advisor, producer, svengali…

      It’s not just about recommendation, it’s about narrative. The recommendation/favours part is more pointed at a specific activity – talking about music.

      In the category of talking about things that are awesome goes all of my waffle about being a dad, Kristin‘s crazy quotes from her sons, Matt Stevens talking about his bad back on twitter, Steven Guerrero‘s self-evident obsession with REALLY bad movies. The awesomeness of art-recommendations is analogous to meaningful dialogue about the process of being an artist. Which can be the every day stuff that makes life awesome, or the hurdles that stop us from doing what we do that make us realise how important to us it is, and that our audience find meaning in through their compassionate response to that narrative…

      I guess the point about recommending stuff is that it is a part of *most* people’s ongoing artistic journey – the uncovering and discovering of other great art. Advocating for that makes you part of the solution not part of the problem. The bigger observation here is about what the future of music discovery is – because the alternative to record labels resolutely is not artists ranting about themselves into the void – that’s the future of Myspace, not music. No, the post-record label discovery process is aggregation, recommendation, slow steady growth, personal discovery and the value of an encounter with the artist rather than their record label’s overpaid underskilled PR dept. 🙂

      Once again, thanks v. much for your comments, Steve – I really like your take on this – as a BIG champion of great music, and mildly obsessive music fan, you and people like you are a vital link in the chain in how music get out and about.

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