Social Networking Sites: a Necessity or Nuisance for Artists?

Facebook, twitter, myspace; everyone and their grandma is on it and we’re all preoccupied with how many friends we can add and virtual farms we can cultivate. At this particular juncture in pop culture trends and history, social networking sites are here, they’ve camped out on the lawn and last I heard more social networking friends will be joining them for smores and a bonfire soon.

When I think about social networking sites and the music business, over the past few years I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in music artists relying on traditional marketing resources to social networking sites to place their music onto a larger, more globally accessible platform. Many artists have heard about the Long Tail theory at this point and aspire to build small pockets of fans on a global level so that when you add everything up, all those small pockets in marginalized areas become very large and powerful numbers when placed in a broader context.

If you attend a music business conference or information session, it’s almost the norm to discuss how many social networking sites your music is on and the barometer of your  success is somewhat contingent upon how fans you’ve befriended and how  much content that you’ve uploaded onto these sites. Many music business execs highly recommend utilizing social networking sites and the general idea is you’re pretty much an idiot if your music is not on these sites. And if you’re not pandering to the public , fulfilling all their heartfelt desires by uploading  videos of yourself explaining how you conceived your latest hit record while on the toilet and then tweeting about that same video as you get off the toilet in present time– well if you don’t do that, you’re a failure.

I’m a local/DIY musician myself and like many other musicians and creators of art, I love having the opportunity to place my art onto a bigger platform and potentially gain some exposure on a completely different side of the planet. The idea that my music can touch the hearts and minds of people living in some distant neighborhood, village or commune on the opposite side of the world is profound and somewhat enchanting to me.

But from a music fan perspective, the notion that I can remain in contact with my favorite artists 24/7, all day, every day is a bit banal to me and it even borders on creepy. After all, the thing that attracts me to different artists and their agendas the most is their lack of visibility and a certain amount of mysticism that surrounds them.

When I think about some of my favorite groups and acts that have mesmerized the public, many of them did play up a kind of cryptic image and they remained shrouded in nebulous cloud of ambiguity. Not just from a musical vantage point, but also visually – how they dressed, moved onstage, the way their albums and artwork were presented. All of it can add up to very allusive and appealing package if executed properly, an enigma or puzzle waiting to be solved, but only half-heartedly.

I think about chameleonic artists like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Prince when they were performing in their “peak” periods. They had some of the best live shows and they kept audiences guessing. Pink Floyd even performed behind a three story high brick wall to actively spell out their messages of reclusion and confinement.

I’m intrigued by newer artists like the Mars Volta, Jay Electronica, Trent Reznor’s new project How to Destroy Angels and the electronic artists/production geniuses Bibio and Boards of Canada for the same reasons that I like the older artists. These are people that consciously withhold some of their information and let their fans fill in the gray spaces. By doing so, they allow the crowd to interact and draw their own conclusions, whether true or false. But it doesn’t matter once the interaction has already taken place and an impression has been made.

I’m no Moses Avalon or music business guru by any means. I’ve played in a few bands and most of what I’ve learned comes from trial and error. Nonetheless, I still wonder if an artist plastering their face on every available social networking site is less of a necessity and more of a nuisance. If I’m constantly being bombarded with updates and can learn everything I want to know about the artist online, what incentive do I have to get out the house and catch one of their local shows? I mean they already tweeted several times that the band is rehearsing for the “big gig” tonight and uploaded a video of today’s band  rehearsal anyway.

My personal advice to local and regional acts is this – use the social networking essentials, but don’t ever forget that a bangin set list, stellar live performance and a solid and consistent brand will always sell your art. In addition, using these services sparingly is the key. In the time that you spent bombarding people with messages on facebook, you could have been writing a badass song or sticking up some nice flyers near a venue that you will be performing at.

Social networking sites are a means to an end and many of them are just diversions from achieving one’s actual goals and objectives. Keep your eye on the ball and remember that 800 people in a venue and 20 facebook friends is much more powerful than 800 facebook friends and 20 people in the venue. That way you can actually see your fans giving you a thumbs up and you won’t have to log on to do it.

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5 responses to “Social Networking Sites: a Necessity or Nuisance for Artists?

  1. Great post Taylor.

    I think embracing social networks is a must at this point for any kind of small business(a band being included in that).

    On that note however, I do not think you need to set up an account on every single one that you find. Doing so will spread you too thin.

    Find one or two that work for you and you are comfortable with, then harness those as best you can.

    Being on on 25 social networking sites but not using any of them will only get you so far.

    Being on 2 and fully leveraging that audience and tool will show you great results.

    That’s all I have 🙂

    Bret

  2. You have done it again! Superb read!

  3. i think it could depend on generation (I’m in my 40s) and audience.
    While my gen (and even my parents gen) do, very often, have social networking presences, I believe the use model differs significantly from your gen’s.
    It’s not that we don’t use them, but HOW we use them is different.
    Jaron Lanier points to this difference in “You Are Not a Gadget” (it’s a decent read and a counterpoint view to a lot of Web 2.0 thought that “this is the way it is” / “the genie is out of the bottle”. Like any manifesto, there are parts one my agree with and other part one may not, but it’s a thought provoking read)

    For many in my gen (and this is with a pretty broad brush, there are plenty of people in my gen who don’t follow this model), these sorts of online presences are points of contact as opposed to reflections or representations of our identities. I think, for that type of user, the presences are more about nugging old friends/social acquaintances from meatspace and less about “lifestyle” (establishing new connections, interacting with products or services, etc).
    So, while I suppose, there is some utility for my gen in terms of event calendar info for already interested folks (sort of a mirror or a more trad Web 1.0 website) and such, I remain skeptical about getting hat much new penetration.

  4. Although I haven’t researched long tail theory as it applies to acquiring fans, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. I can’t think of a long tail keyword set that a potential fan might be searching for that would put a band in front of a new set of ears. I think that you’d be a lot better off leveraging sites that have “Genius” type technology and get your music in some online players so new folks can stumble across you when they are on Pandora, iTunes, etc.

    Regarding the social media subject – yes, it is very important to have a profile on Facebook and Twitter. That said, a simple WordPress blog with two plugins will give you all the presence you need. When you post a new blog you can automatically update both Twitter and FB, hitting your fans on three fronts.

    Then the challenge becomes writing headlines and copy that will expose new people to you….which is another post entirely. 🙂

  5. @ Joe

    The long tail theory is steeped in the belief that there are more marginalized and fringe products and producers than giant or core products.

    So there is a major discrepancy in terms of where you can market your products and in who’s hands you can place them. It can get confusing…essentially the premise behind the Long Tail is that independent artists, entrepreneurs, business persons, etc. could gain more leverage at the end of the long tail.

    Instead of tackling the major markets, their products could be sold in smaller markets and flourish there.

    Unfortunately, this theory has been proven wrong.

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