When Do YOU Play Guitar?: Exposing the Myths of Music and Music Tech
The modern independent songwriter or performing musician (hereafter, “the artist”) has a lot to consider. Besides working on their craft as a singer, instrumentalist or writer, there are many more duties one must perform. It used to be that these other duties fell strictly into the category of face-to-face activities, or duties that a record company, marketing department, manager or publicist would perform. Of course, as an independent, all those activities revert back to the artist. Now, with an increasingly digital backbone to the music industry, and the blossoming of social media, all of those roles are merged into one (large) hat that the independent artist must try to balance.
More control is one of the selling points of doing this all yourself. As a result, the artist must become tech savvy, or else. Luckily this is something that has not been a problem for me. But I wonder about those who are not tech-savvy, and how they may not be able to make informed judgements about the claims of the many sites/services screaming for their login info. Even the extremely tech-savvy artist – after they cut through the nonsense – will likely find themselves with much more computer work than they ever thought possible.
Before we go much further, a disclaimer… I’m not saying any of the sites or services below are particularly bad in and of themselves (OK, except for MySpace WTF?). Some have been very handy, and other less-so, and others need to prove their case for me to sign up. But this article is about the big picture – the very big picture of many hours spent on-line maintaining all of these sites and accounts, and how it can change you as an artist (not always in the best ways).
Out of the multitude of sites and services out there, I have experience with:
- Seller (for distribution to iTunes, Emusic and most other online outlets)
- Buyer (for posting reviews)
- Sonic Bids (EPK)
- Pump Audio
- Affiliate account (for monetizing links)
- Advantage (a form of seller account)
- Cafepress (merchandise sales)
- Social Networking
- Facebook (because “everyone else is”)
- Twitter (still not sure why)
- MySpace (still sucks, even after the upgrade)
- LinkedIn (not sure why)
- Reverbnation (specific to music biz)
- Audio/Video content
- Youtube / Google
- Flickr / Yahoo
- Performing rights – getting paid
- Sound Exchange
- ASCAP (others belong to SESAC or BMI)
- Music Reports
- Harry Fox Agency
- Web Development
- Blogger (closed after finding other options)
- Word Press
- Commission Junction (monetizing sites)
- Livewire (contact management came free with a CD project)
That’s enough, right? It’s a lot when you look at them in a list like that. It’s even more daunting when you consider that each one of these has sapped hours of time away from traditionally “musical” activities. But of course that isn’t all. Those are just the ones I’ve used. Sites or services that I have not tried include:
- Hello Music
- Launch.com (affiliated with Yahoo)
- We Are Listening (Songwriting contests and lyric writing competitions)
- Host Baby
- Band Zoogle
- Nimbit “direct to fan”
- THIS LIST GOES ON…
Besides all of the above, the artist may belong to several specialist sites or communities, depending on the style of music or their physical location. Some examples are the regional and national branches of The Folk Alliance, electro-music.com (focused on electronic musicians) and the virtual world of Second Life (which is an acquired taste, but still a place where musical promotion happens every day.)
So the time we put into these sites is one concern. How much is too much? I’ve found that during a period of heavy recording it is counter productive to be online – mostly because I use a computer for recording too, and just need to get away from the thing (Mac or PC!). During a period of heavy writing/rehearsing, it is also very distracting to be online, though a bit more of a reward mechanism. Suggestions to find balance:
- Turn off the computer.
- Leave the house.
- Leave town, preferably with a guitar and not a laptop.
- If you must bring the laptop, work on music.
- Remove yourself from as many mailing lists as possible.
- Don’t start something (sign up for a service) unless you can follow through.
Pay to Play Alive and Kicking
Another concern – particularly for the generation that doesn’t remember (or has never known) what it was like before Web 2.0 – is the sense of expectation (even entitlement) that many sites and services create.
The concern is that an entire multi-layered digital industry has been constructed to support the aspiring artist. But that industry has little to do with actually a) producing good music, or b) operating in the best interests of the artists. In many ways, it is not much different than the megalithic record label model of the past. Now, that megalith is shattered into hundreds of web sites and services that are there to make the promises, often for an initial free period, and a subscription fee moving forward. But do these sites do anything but result in disappointment and broken promises (always aspects of the music business)? Or do they just do it much faster than the traditional methods?
Over the last 10 years, I’ve observed a growing tendency of artists – hopeful to be the next big thing – spend tons of time (and cash) online. If they weren’t then all of these sites and services would not be popping up. Yet, few of these sites have tracking or verification systems, so it is almost impossible to know if one’s material gets to the intended destination. What is not discussed very often is how much of the profit from these sites goes to line the pockets of venues, labels, contest holders and other entities that may have nothing to do with the art of creating music. That’s capitalism I suppose. As long as artists are paying fees, that’s what matters. This used to be called “pay to play,” and apparently it is alive and well.
As always, artists should be cautious. It is easy for a few industry people in the gray areas of the already murky music industry to get together, set up a website and watch the money roll in. Certainly easier than advocating for artists in any genuine fashion with the artist’s best interests in mind. Running these sites can be a relatively low-cost venture for an aspiring programmer with some funding. So it is also easy for people with absolutely no contacts in the music industry to set up sites and make just as much money as actual “industry contacts” do.
There is incentive for Internet entrepreneurs to develop the infrastructure just enough to let artists think they are getting something, whether or not the artists really are. How would the artist know otherwise? Who is doing the verification? It doesn’t matter whether or not your music gets to “the right people” or even gets anywhere for that matter? In fact, it may even be in their best interests that things remain status quo, but that you believe you are doing better than you would be without them. Hopefully more transparency and accountability will come in time, but right now it seems to be the last thing on most people’s minds.
Though some sales pitches by online marketing sites come close, I’m not suggesting that one can sign up for any of these sites, then sit back and let the opportunities roll in. Some industry commentators claim that being involved with as many of sites and services as possible is necessary to make any progress. As artists we need to seriously question this. It still seems to me that the best way to connect with people is by hitting the pavement. I’ve even witnessed a movement to avoid digital contact, even among otherwise savvy users. Some venue operators still want that human connection. Despite all of the online tools available, what do the Web 2.0 paradigm models say about that? Nothing.
So part of the reason I am writing this essay is to appeal to independent artists to stop perpetuating the “pay to play” environment created by dozens of online services that claim to get your material in front of industry experts. It seems like each day a new site is launched promising airplay, record deals, industry reviews or some other sought-after carrot. It seems little or no attention has been paid to how these companies actually work. With few exceptions, I think that these sites are nothing more than a scheme to feed off of artists – in apparently legitimate ways – while that energy could be much better used to either network on the ground or work on one’s art. Many sites, after you sign up, require a great deal of additional footwork anyway to make them worth while. But since good-old pavement pounding is still needed, all these sites really do is add an additional layer that takes time away from the task at hand – making actual human connections with the music.
In 15+ years of working with artists and publishing my own material, I have not met anyone who has benefited in a measurable way from anything except hard work, interacting with other artists, publishers, and other industry people directly. The allure of a “clickable” answer from your bedroom studio is appealing, but artists are doing themselves a disservice by putting all their eggs in that digital basket. The alternative? Take a serious look at what you can do to downsize. What sites are most effective? What do you need to stay in touch with people on the most genuine level possible? Which sites are just fluff?
Then turn off the computer and play guitar.