Musicians Cannot Live on Social Networks Alone

Living in New York I've had the pleasure to get to know a lot of talented musicians. A whole lot. And not just talented in that small pond, listenable-but-probably-still-going-to-be-working-at-the-Fashion-Bug-five-years-from-now kind of way. A lot of these people are people who I fully expect will make real-life paying jobs out of their music, if they want to. Fortunately for them, they're launching these fledgling careers at what should be a great time, historically speaking, for the self-promoting artist. Given the tools available online, a new artist supposedly should have everything they need to make a go of it, assuming they have the talent to back up their efforts. But something appears to still be missing. Assuming that nobody listens to Top 40 radio anymore (which nobody I know does) and nobody goes to record stores anymore (ditto, except for the vinyl junkies, who are a whole different category), there is very little topography left on the promotional playing field for musicians. I just read a TechCrunch article about Asher Roth, who basically launched 100,000 sales of his album on iTunes with just a Twitter post. Granted, this is a guy who has a lot of friends who are willing to spread the word, but that's the thing about all these people I'm meeting: grassroots support is not something they're short on. In fact, it's really sort of amazing how connected these people are considering how oppressive the music scene in New York can be. There might be a lot of venues in New York, but there are a million different bands competing for them, such that many of the best of these bands still have to fight for their hour-long slot on a Tuesday night at 7 PM and haul all their gear on the train to make it there for the 8 minutes of soundcheck they get before they go on, after which they're uncerimoniously shuffled offstage to make way for the next act. Considering all that it's crazy to me that bands are able to connect to one another and develop a following, but they somehow manage to do it.

My basic complaint is that given all of this self-promotional kinetic energy brewing among my social set, and given the fact that the tools to put music into the headphones of a quarter of the world population are readily available to anyone who wants them, why is it that so many of the aforementioned friends have asked me about helping them put together a website to promote their music? Clearly there's something they want that the available tools aren't offering. I've been thinking a lot about what could be missing, and I have an offer from a friend of mine who's in the music promotion business to talk it over. However, I have a few guesses as to what people feel like they aren't getting from the services that are available.

Ownership The Problem: Many of the bands and solo musicians that I know have a web presence that consists entirely of a social networking profile, usually on MySpace or Facebook, or occasionally on PureVolume or Virb. While these networks offer a lot in terms of built-in promotional power and social tools, they by nature lack a certain personal quality that I think a lot of musicians are looking for. While a social networking presence is becoming very much key to the success of an independent band (as power shifts from the major record labels), I get the sense that many people also want an online space that belongs completely to them, doesn't have somebody else's logo on it, and is not subject to the limitations of a social network. It also adds a certain credibility to have a site that required more effort to create than a social networking profile. The Solution: An ideal service would give musicians a completely unbranded site (or almost completely, anyway), under their own domain name (myawesomeband.com).

Customization The Problem: Social networks, for the most part, don't allow nearly enough customization of design, features, and structure. The issue is most obvious on MySpace, where bands have gone to great lengths to hack their MySpace profile into something more personalized. It's shocking to me that MySpace hasn't done more to address this feature that its users are obviously screaming for. To be fair, giving users the ability to customize their pages and creating an intuitive interface for doing so is a complex proposition. Sites like Virb are paving the way on this front, but users still have to keep to a certain structure and don't have total control over their page layouts and site structure. The Solution: Offer a dynamic and modular layout system that comes with design templates, but doesn't enforce them. Users should be able to create a layout in minutes, but have as much freedom as possible to incorporate their own designs and artwork.

Complete control of music distribution The Problem: There is a very wide range of opinion on how freely music should be distributed. To me, this means that sites should give their users complete control over how people can get their music. Some may want to have a player on my page where people can listen to tracks but not download them. Others want to make it as easy as possible to download music. Some need the ability to sell their music by individual song or by album, either independently or through iTunes or a label. The Solution: The mechanism for putting music on a site also needs to be extremely modular and have the ability to set permissions for the use of music on a granular level. A site creator should be able to give their users as little or as much ability as they want to download music, to share songs or albums via social networks or embeds, and to legally purchase songs or albums through whatever channels the author chooses.