Social Media from Musicians’ Perspectives

This is how I’ve been describing the research project I’ve been focusing on:

The last decade has brought tremendous changes in the tools and possibilities for musicians and audiences to interact with one another. On one hand, this brings new possibilities as artists can directly mobilize supporters on their behalf. On the other, it poses problems as artists try to work through changing expectations of how sociable and accessible they are supposed to be with their audiences and which ways of relating to which sectors of their audiences work best for them. Except for anecdotal success and failure stories, no one knows much about the common problems musicians face, the rewards they reap, or what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, we don’t really have a good grasp on what is really new vs. new tweaks to what’s been true for generations.

I’ve been interviewing musicians about these issues, focusing mostly on artists who had audiences before “social media” became so central to music, but also talking with up and coming younger artists. I started this project during my Visiting Researcher stint at Microsoft Research New England this summer, and I continue to talk to more artists with help from many many people who’ve been connecting me to managers, label people, and artists.

Every one of them has a tale to tell that’s different from everyone else’s. I’m hearing repetition, but I’m also hearing new things from everyone I talk to. Anyone who sells a “one size fits all” model of how to build and relate to audiences online is either peddling snake oil or oversimplifying things so much they’re not very useful.

You can read excerpts from some of the interviews on MidemNet’s blog. I thought I’d use the space of this blog to highlight how each of them speaks to a theme I’m hearing from many other musicians:

The internet internationalizes audiences.

As Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai discussed, this creates opportunities for new experiences that are both experientially and financially rewarding:

we’ve become popular in places that if it wasn’t for the internet, people wouldn’t have heard who we are, just because either people wouldn’t have the money to buy the music or there just wouldn’t be any promotion. We can pretty much play anywhere. I don’t think that would have been the case 20 years ago.  I think we would have sold more records 20 years ago just because people bought more records then, but we wouldn’t have been able to go places that we go now, like really unusual places like Chile or Indonesia or these kinds of places. I don’t think our music would have reached those places before.

How do on and offline careers connect? Do they?

Erin McKeown raised an issue of a perceived disconnect between an online persona and the touring and music-making self. Some artists don’t see any distinction between the realms, but others see it more like Erin:

But how does that translate into people in the room? I know people who have really lively online fanbases, many Facebook responses, lots of Twitter followers who draw the same amount of people that I draw in my rooms. There’s this sort of conversion that doesn’t necessarily happen, or you can’t draw a straight line between this artist has 5000 Facebook followers yet still is only drawing 30 people in this city.

In some ways I’ve begun to think of it as two different careers, you kind of have your online career where it’s like how do you communicate with those fans and what do you do for them and how do you cultivate that interaction and then there’s also do you give a good live show and when are you coming to this city?

Online community is more important than audience.

Steve Lawson, who blogs here, is on the outer edge of carving out a new kind of self-maintained career that relies heavily on being engaged in social media. One of the points he made that I’m hearing echoed elsewhere is that many artists appreciate that online media have provided a platform where their audience can talk amongst themselves and with them about topics far beyond themselves:

Because most of the chatter from the forum wasn’t talking about me because there’s only so much you can talk about one person without it becoming like really bizarrely narcissistic.  Or it’s just dull.  So we would talk about TV and politics and other music. And, I mean, I still spend nine-tenths of my time on social media platforms talking about other people’s music.

Committed fans want to participate.

It was great to talk to Mark Kelly from Marillion because they were among the very first musicians to use fan funding. He talked about what happened when they didn’t need the money and thus chose not to release a fan-funded record after having done many of them:

But the other thing we noticed was that people felt that somehow it wasn’t as special. They like the fact that they had this involvement with it, the fact that we had to keep them up to date on what was going on because we had their money, so we felt obliged to say, “Okay, well we’re at this stage now and here’s a few little samples of what we’re doing.”  So there was all that stuff which made them feel, one, financially they knew they were financing it and two, they were very much involved with the whole process as it was going along.  So there was a sense of disappointment that we didn’t do it.  And people said, “Oh, it’s a shame you didn’t do a preorder, we’d love you to do that again.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these themes or other issues the musicians raise in those interviews.

Comments (5) to “Social Media from Musicians’ Perspectives”

  1. My music-making is just a hobby but I’ve had similar experiences as these. Stuart Braithwaite and Erin McKeown’s comments seem particularly relevent.

    When I put on a (very) small gig a while ago, it was natural to use MySpace (specifically) to target those ‘fans’ that might be interested. Who actually came? The same people that would have come anyway; friends of friends, those who had heard through word of mouth. The number of hits, views, the number of blog posts etc. that a band has don’t necessarily connect with offline participation.

    One thing I would mention is the sort of community that’s fostered by websites like dubstepforum. It surprised me to find that the musicians I actually listened to were members of this message board; they pass on tips about music-making, as well as promoting stuff they like, or that others have made. There is certainly a sense of an artistic “community” there that isn’t city-based.

  2. …And just as I posted that, I read this article over at techdirt (

    In light of Erin McKeown’s comments, here’s an extract from it, again about the connection between online presence and offline participation:

    “For me the best thing has been to reach out to people on Twitter as a person, not as a musician. When they get to know me as a person, they are MUCH more likely to buy the CD. That’s where the majority of my Bandcamp sales are coming from. It does take work to be consistently chatting with folks and finding new folks, but I see a direct correlation between how much I converse on Twitter and how many downloads I sell. It’s a no-brainer.”

  3. Very interesting post! It still seems that these communities are built up by a ‘real-world’ presence (gigs etc) which then filters through to online communities. Are you aware of examples of online-only development?

  4. Most of the musicians I know who got into music before MySpace (which is the beginning of social media for many of them) aren’t very good at it. They see it as work and don’t do enough of it to truly build a community around it.

    On the other hand, I know someone who essentially launched her career via YouTube and has lots of online fans. But that hasn’t really translated into many booking opportunities around the country or significant turnouts at shows. Yes, she has fans around the world, but in terms of 500 people turning up at a show in a town she has never played, no, that isn’t happening. It’s more like 20 – 30.

    As Erin said, I think it is really two different skill sets and I’m not sure it has necessarily translated into a lot more money than talented DIY artists were getting pre-social media. The old way was to tour. If you were good, word-of-mouth got people to the shows, and I don’t think that has really changed all that much.

  5. I do realise that I have already posted two comments, but I thought I’d reply (again!) as I’m watching the feed!

    In response to Jay Harris:

    I’m not entirely convinced that the communities are built up by a real world presence. In fact, I’d argue that it many cases the converse is true: that an online presence may filter into a real-world presence (and that that is a sort of measure of “success”). It certainly seems the case in terms of electronic music, where it can be more difficult to perform live than it is to record music that is then distributed via the likes of MySpace, Soundcloud, etc.

    It would take a bit of investigation, but I’d suggest that most users of (or a forum devoted to chiptune music, or breakcore, or any other niche ‘bedroom’ electronica artist with a MySpace profile) thave an online presence before they have a real-world presence.

    At the very least, and this is anecdotal of course, I have made music, had it posted on other people’s blogs, uploaded it for free download, had it downloaded, posted about the tracks on various forums, had feedback etc. etc. without any real-world gigs or record sales and so forth.