Communications for Indy Musicians, Then and Now
After a quarter century of the internet being a household phenomenon, and 17 years of domination of it by corporate social media platforms, some reflections on what's changed in the lives of musicians
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On various platforms, I posted a song I had just written and recorded. Within minutes I had received my first offensive comment on one of the platforms -- Reddit, in this instance -- from someone who may or may not have actually listened to the song, but had to say something about how much they dislike the general population in East Palestine, Ohio, where the smoke was still rising from a toxic disaster there that I was posting about.
As I read this verbiage, it occurred to me that things did not used to be this way. And as I further interrogated this thought, it occurred to me that it was a subject well worthy of a blog post, and more.
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One of the challenges of exploring a subject like how our communications have changed over the past few decades is, I at least suspect I'm right to presume, it has changed differently for different people. For example, whether you're a consumer of news or a producer of news content, such as a freelance journalist, you may have radically differing experiences with the rise of the internet, or later, the rise of corporate social media platforms.
I probably wouldn't be too far off to say that I primarily have always used email and the internet as the means to an end, the end being making a living as a recording artist and touring musician. As time passes, I realize that at the age of 55 I have what is an increasingly rare thing: the experience of having been a working, touring, independent recording artist for years prior to email and the internet becoming ubiquitous, and for the 25 years since the rise of both the internet broadly, including the past 17 years or so of corporate social media platforms dominating our communications. To be able to point out how the changes in the ways we all communicate and understand the world around us have impacted my life as a working indy artist seem worth enumerating.
As I was ruminating about all the insults, condescension, and bullying that make up a significant percentage of the comments I encounter on the corporate social media platforms we've all become dependent on, and thinking about how prior to social media I almost never, if ever at all, encountered anyone saying this kind of stuff in any setting or through any other means of communication, I thought about other categories of communication, broadly defined, and how they have been impacted in one way or another by the changes of the 21st century thus far. After a quarter century of the web being a household phenomenon, where are we at? I'm 55, as I mentioned, and without wanting to pull seniority, anyone much younger than me would have no direct way of knowing how things have changed.
Other than online insults and bullying, what other major categories of communication are there for the modern independent artist? Praise is a big one, for sure, and unlike insults, it was a common thing in the old days, back when it was known by terms such as "fan mail." Other important categories for communication for indy artists pre- or post-internet include those which are involved with promotion of things like new recordings, selling those recordings, organizing tours, promoting gigs, and being engaged in discourse with individuals and groupings of people of various kinds.
I know that the internet is also a tool for most of us for keeping in touch with friends, keeping up with news of all sorts, finding myriad forms of entertainment and resources for learning about pretty much anything. I've heard for many people the internet has helped them connect with people in all kinds of ways, while for others it has felt like the main reason for a growing sense of isolation or worsening depression. But my focus here is how things have changed for the working indy musician, specifically, the one I know best, me. I'll start with my least favorite development that was brought to us by anti-social media.
Receiving insults wasn't really part of the deal to be a working musician prior to the rise of the internet, and specifically corporate social media platforms. I'm sure there were people thinking these thoughts before, but there were too many barriers between thinking an insulting thought and actually communicating it to the artist that it may be somehow related to. There was a time when I used to get insulting phone calls from some dedicated guy who didn't like me, and sometimes he'd call as often as daily. No one bothered writing anything insulting in the pre-social media days, whereas in the age of Reddit and Twitter it's a daily thing.
The exception to this was the possibility of being insulted by corporate media, in the unlikely case that I or artists like me got any such coverage. When I did get negative coverage on Fox radio once, for writing songs against President Bush, soon after the US invasion of Iraq, not a single Fox listener bothered writing me any hate mail. Too much trouble, I guess, not worth the effort if you're just writing the artist and not being performative about it in a comment thread, and if it involves spending thirty cents on a postage stamp.
Prior to the rise of email, most people didn't write much. At least when it came to writing a letter that you might send in the mail to someone, it wasn't all that widespread. Of course, it was far more widespread than it is now. But a lot of people didn't feel confident about their writing, and just avoided doing much of it. With the rise of very short-form written communication like texting and messaging and commenting on posts, far more people got into writing, at least to the point of writing short, often cryptic comments on posts that they may or may not have explored beyond the title or subject line.
In sum, real change has been minimal. If we exclude short comments on posts, anyone motivated enough to send a substantial message to me about my music would have been about as likely to have done the same thing in prior years by writing to the mailing address they might have found in the liner notes to a recent CD, or before that, cassette or LP. (Of course, letters sent to the wrong mailing address might get returned to the sender, just like emails bounce when sent to an old or incorrect email address.)
Positive feedback from people on social media platforms can be a good thing for various reasons, but it's basically all that remains of the concept of an album review in Sing Out! magazine, since journalism largely collapsed as a paying profession, largely due to deregulation of the industry (in the US), well before the internet became popular, but made much worse by the online reality later.
Selling Recorded Music
Of course, to most any musician under the age of 40, this is a fantasy subheading. It's not a thing. Just to be clear, I don't say this because I used to be more popular than I am now. If this were the case, it might help to explain the drastic decline in my income, and in that of so many other artists, over the past decade.
According to Spotify, I'm in the top 4% of Spotify artists, in terms of listenership, and they're mostly young. This translates into receiving deposits from all the different streaming platforms that annually amount to around $5,000, which is about what I'd make on an average month of touring from CD sales twenty years ago.
For the entirety of the twentieth century, selling merch of one kind or another funded the music industry, which was many times bigger than it is today, prior to the internet. In the early twentieth century it was all about sheet music and songbooks, but for most of the century it was about vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs, depending on which part of the century we're talking about. My time with physical merch was the end of the cassette era and the entirety of the CD era, which effectively ended ten years ago.
With the internet, the whole phenomenon of physical merch began to change drastically, at first mainly for the major artists. Indy artists were a lot less likely to have our stuff "pirated," from my experience. For me, it wasn't until Spotify endeavored to make their platform free in 2013 that I and millions of other artists around the world suddenly found we were now giving away all of our music on a very popular corporate platform over which we had no control, other than to opt in or opt out -- which by 2013, with the world completely inundated with tens of millions of free songs from throughout the history of recorded music, whether or not you opted to be on Spotify was a question of whether you were opting to be visible or invisible to most people out there in the world who listened to music.
In any case, for this category there is no question. The internet, in its current form, barely regulated, with huge companies like Spotify and Google calling the shots and defining the terms, has led to the collapse of what was once called the recording industry, along with many other industries.
While commercial radio and the record industry was long a very exclusive operation, throughout the twentieth century there were many avenues for an independent artist to develop an audience. Prior to the rise of the internet, throughout the radio era, particularly, by my estimation, from the 1960's to the 1990's, there were community radio, college radio, and pirate radio stations. In areas like the west coast of the US, you were almost always within range of one or another such radio station, and many of them had whole communities that tended to have the local station on in the background. Lots of people were involved with programming as well as listening. In the 1980's, community television became commonplace, with a rare instance of regulation, rather than deregulation, of industries in the US, in the form of what became known as Cable Access television.
What this all meant in practical terms is if you used a resource put out by any number of different magazines, festivals, or other such institutions that provided a list of current radio stations, shows, names of hosts, etc., with a targeted selection of a few dozen stations, you could potentially get a lot of attention by investing a couple hundred dollars and a few days of effort in a publicity campaign for a new album. If you can afford to make an album these days, there are all sorts of ways to generate attention to a new album online, too. Like airplay on community radio stations, it's not necessarily directly remunerative, but online is where most people get their music these days, particularly on Spotify, and if you make good albums and have an audience, it's likely to grow there.
So much of organizing tours is about being in touch with people you already know or know of, in different places, at the right time. These days this sort of thing is more often done with email, or with some messaging platform (that may or may not penalize you for sending the same message to too many of your contacts in one day). Back in the twentieth century it was mostly done by phone. Not by cell phone, but with land lines, which were everywhere, such as at each table of your average truck stop (or "travel center") on the highways in every corner of the USA.
What can also be useful in organizing tours is reaching out to organizations of the sort that might be interested in hosting concerts, because you write songs about what they're involved with. This was, for me, especially useful as a tour-booking strategy in the beginning. In the age of the internet, it seems like it would be easy to wonder how people found lists of organizations, student groups, festivals, etc., if they didn't have search engines and websites. Search engines and websites are very useful indeed, and have made other methods extinct. But what we used to do was very simple. For example, at the back of each new edition of the Earth First! Journal you would find a list of contacts, by state, with their mailing address. With each newsletter of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, same thing, an up-to-date list. Magazines like Sing Out! would feature editions that mainly focused on telling us about all the different festivals coming up, including contact information for each one.
Before email lists there were mailing lists. In the twentieth century, photocopying machines commonly known as Xerox machines (though Xerox was only one of the companies that made them) could be found all over the place. Traveling musicians and many other DIY artists and entrepreneurs, students, etc., spent a lot of time at photocopying places like Kinko's or some local place, copying postcards, cutting them up, sticking address labels and stamps on them, etc. You can see why everyone was thrilled when email came along -- it was more or less free to send lots of emails. Which involved the down side of most emails then becoming spam and being ignored. But for a while, it was cool.
And then came Facebook, which for a while was about as handy as email lists for promoting gigs, tours, albums, or doing anything like that. So much so that a whole lot of people more or less stopped using email or paying attention to email lists. Once Facebook basically took over the market, they then changed their business model drastically, and introduced the algorithmic feed that makes sure no one will generally see anything about upcoming gigs or new albums unless the artists pay to boost the posts.
It was good while it lasted, but once the era of the email list ended and Facebook took over so much of our communications, this aspect of the internet which was temporarily very handy for a lot of people suddenly became about as expensive as things used to be in the days of sending out hundreds of postcards each month.
Before the internet you were less likely to meet people from the other side of the world and get into disagreements with them, but you could have in-person gatherings and even conference calls with people that involved hearing their voices. Even if people sometimes might wear masks and change their names, depending on the circumstances, there was still the advantage of communicating with vocal inflections. Misunderstandings could and did occur, but not nearly with the frequency that they occur on the comment threads you can find on any of the social media platforms.
Real discourse is endangered, cancellation campaigning and shaming (or fear thereof) are the norm in many circles, and effective, locally-based organizing has largely been replaced with amorphous "groups" on social media platforms that excel at spinning the hamster wheel and not much else. We've been conned into a trap, from which we don't seem to know how to escape.
While the interconnected nature of the internet, facilitated on the financial front by platforms like PayPal or Patreon, make fundraising -- or crowdfunding, as the form of fundraising where you're trying to raise money from regular people is called these days -- an easy thing to automate, it was all done before, and done very successfully, by institutions of all kinds, such as public radio and most charities and nonprofit organizations. The campaigns were conducted through the mail, by phone, and door-to-door.
From my own very limited vantage point, this kind of fundraising was not popular among indy musicians until around 2013. I don't think it's entirely coincidental that this is the same year Spotify started its free tier, and millions of us suddenly lost half our incomes.
In the 21st century so many institutions that used to exist died (like most newspapers and most record companies) and in some cases were replaced by something else generally deeply inferior or otherwise very problematic (like Facebook and Spotify). And many forms of communication were replaced by others, which also came with lots of pros and cons. For independent artists specifically, while we all had to adapt to many new ways of conducting affairs, the bottom line in the era of corporate social media is some aspects of our lives and livelihoods remained about the same, all told, and other aspects got a lot worse. There is absolutely no question that the takeaway here is the impact of the internet generally and corporate social media platforms especially -- as things stand til now, with no regulation of the industry to speak of -- has been and continues to be overwhelmingly negative, overall, silver linings notwithstanding.
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