BOSTON — Raise your hand if you’ve experienced anxiety trying to keep up with Facebook, Twitter, email.
OK, now imagine you’re a musician who relies on social media to release your songs, connect with fans, and make a living.
In the business it’s called D2F – or direct-to-fan marketing – and it was a hot topic in panels and hallways this week at Berklee College of Music’s Rethink Music conference. People from all corners of the industry converged on Hynes Convention Center in Boston, and some of them raised questions about the potential downside of constant connection.
Seizing The D2F Moment
About a year ago a perky pop duo known as Karmin strategically posted a novel video on YouTube — their version of rapper Chris Brown’s song, “Look At Me Now.”
It was actually part of a series of cover videos, but this one went viral. Ellen DeGeneres caught wind of it and invited Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan to be on her show. Not long after that the duo landed a deal with Epic Records. Now – 63.5 million YouTube views later – you could call Karmin a D2F success. But they work hard at keeping the momentum going. When asked about their typical D2F day, the couple (they’re engaged) rattled off a list of activity, picking up wherever the other left off.
“We’re constantly on Twitter,” Noonan said.
“Yes,” Heidemann said.
“We’ll do a Facebook post,” he said.
“Thank God for the iPhone.”
“You know if we’re doing a radio show we’re tweeting out the live stream link and then responding to people, ‘Thanks,’ and, ‘Great to see you. ‘”
“‘Thanks for watching!’ ”
“We’re always posting stuff on Instagram, and just constantly looking for funny content — either driving by a funny sign on the street.”
“Yes! Totally unrelated to music sometimes is the best. We can literally say, ‘Hey, we’re at Dunkin’ Donuts,’ and then they might tweet us back.”
Maybe to tell Karmin that they’re drinking coffee, too. The Berklee grads are in constant dialogue with more than 120,000 fans on Twitter.
“Last year we had like 1,000, so we’re very happy,” Heidemann admitted, “But on YouTube we have over 900,000 subscribers, so it’s definitely a larger number.”
Then Noonan looked at his phone and gave us an up-to-the-minute update — “123,000!” he exclaimed. To that Heidemann added, “Boom, there it is!”
Managing A Demanding Tribe
Karmin appears to have mastered its social media – or D2F – universe, but there are risks that come with all this connecting. Marketing guru and Rethink keynote speaker Seth Godin talked about authentic “tribal culture” in the music industry. A few decades ago he said just having a loyal tribe was enough.
“The Grateful Dead proved that there’s a million people in America who wanted to be part of a ragamuffin, livin’ on a bus tribe of people who, like at ‘Cheers’, ‘everyone knows your name.’ That’s what they did. They put on a party that moved from city to city, and they didn’t need more fans because they had enough in their tribe.”
But today’s musicians are expected to expand their tribe. And Godin, the best-selling author of “Tribes,” warns that managing a legion of digital fans can be like getting sucked into a black hole.
“I don’t use Twitter, I don’t use Facebook because I knew that if I went there I wasn’t going to be able to get out, right?” Godin explained.
“And so we’re going to see that people who have a following are going to have to decide how to communicate with people and what the expectation is. The easiest way to build a Twitter following is to publish your phone number frequently, tweet interesting things and @ message everybody because then it will scale. But then it will crash. And so if you’re a professional you’re going to have to figure out: how do I keep this up?”
If musicians can’t keep it up themselves Godin said it’s only natural that others will step in to fill the gap. For instance Karmin hired a social media management company to help ease their communication overload. The young musicians insist they and their manager Nils Gums OK every carefully crafted Facebook post that goes out. The team is hyperaware of maintaining Amy and Nick’s “voice,” as it were.
Do D2F Tools Help Celebrities Keep Their Sanity - And Authenticity?
That might be a problem for huge celebrities who count on vast layers of D2F support. A certain amount of control is lost, as well as authenticity – and this has the potential to create distance between the artists and their tribe. (For example, is Snoop Dogg really tweeting out all of those messages every day? And does it matter if he isn’t?)
But this is how industries evolve, with services and technologies cropping up to meet demand, according to entertainment lawyer Ken Hertz. His company represents clients like the Black Eyed Peas, No Doubt, Herbie Hancock, Britney Spears.
“It creates market opportunities for third parties to intervene and say, ‘OK, Im going to make it easier for you. I’m going to give you these tools so you can post simultaneously to every social network, or, in other words, I’m going to create a glove that fits perfectly in the form of social media for every artist’s hand, if you will — holding their microphone, talking to their audience.”
A solution like that could work for some artists, but mid-career composer, musician and Berklee grad Peter Bufano is skeptical.
“I don’t think just making an app that pops up on the phone is going to convince anyone that they love your music, and recruit any new audience, or make any more meaningful relationship to the audience that exists,” he told me, adding, “I just think it’s another service — and there are a million of them. I can’t count ‘em!”
Bufano says the number of social media apps, products and websites geared toward working-class musicians like him — musicians who can’t afford to hire a support team and don’t really need one anyway — has become overwhelming. And he has a theory.
“Here’s where they came from: when the big record companies disappeared — and there’s this big space that all the musicians thought we’re going to rise up and fill that space — these guys came in from the side, and they’re above us now. They’re the new middle men. And they’re actually not delivering an audience to us. They’re delivering to us what they call ‘tools.’ ”
That said, Bufano acknowledges how useful a lot of the D2F tools are, and how they’ve helped revolutionize the music industry. He uses Twitter and email and Facebook to promote live shows for his band, Cirkestra. He said he has a small but loyal following and is paying his rent. But Bufano also loves old-fashioned word of mouth — one fan to another — online or out here.
Bufano also composes soundtracks for TV shows and documentaries, and said he’s concerned that too much D2F might distract some musicians from their most important task: making music.
This particular topic is fueling an active debate among students on campus at Berklee. “I think the music has to come first,” 24-year-old musician and production major Jacline Sanchez told me, “or you’re tweeting about something that’s not worth it.”
“It’s a balance because you’re not going to go anywhere if you’re not paying attention to social media,” says 19-year-old Sian Wittke. “At the end of the day it’s all about quality. And the trends move so fast. You need to get on the train or you’re going to miss it – which is why it’s so hard to be a musician nowadays, because it’s so hard to make money.”
Chris Kaskie, president of Pitchfork, the popular online music journal, has his own worries about the industry’s glut of social media.
“Everyone is everywhere, and you’re getting talked to, and you’re getting talked at, and it’s just kind of like, ‘whoa, my head’s going to explode – now, I need to step back and have a beer or something – because this is crazy!’ ”
More seriously, though, Kaski has some advice. And it involves the bottom line. He says all bands and musicians should be focused on booking actual gigs rather than spending their days tweeting.
“If I’m going to say anything about where their time is going, it should be into putting 300 dates on their calendar, and just pushing the pavement with their shows.”
Because Kaskie said those real, live concerts – where musicians can engage with their real tribes, in real life – are going to make them real money and push their careers even higher.
But Boston songstress and D2F maven Amanda Palmer said she actually uses Twitter to schedule concerts – as well as to keep in touch with her more than 500,000 followers.
“I just made a record in Australia and toured there,” she recalled, “and over the course of three months I used Twitter to put together and promote gigs, have fans in various cities come feed me and my band, borrow instruments for touring and recording, and have people sign up for the mailing list so when the album comes out they’ll be ready.”
Palmer’s upcoming album actually has a song on it that she wrote while tweeting with her fans.
“I did not need to switch off my phone and light a [expletive] candle and close the door and put up a big ‘do not disturb’ sign to write that song. What I actually needed and what comforted me was the voices of all those random people saying, ‘Congratulations for sitting your [expletive] down in the chair and doing the songwriting thing!”
But Palmer admits at times even she feels conflicted over her own use of social media – like the rest of us. At the Rethink conference she even designed a panel titled, “Keeping Your Sanity In An Ever-Connected World.”
“It’s totally a personal choice,” she said, “and they’re tools. Like any other tool they can be used for good or evil.”