Monday, January 8, 2007

MySpace Virtual Demo [MacTribe]

MacTribe, January 2007 [Link Part 1 & Part 2], also appeared in MacTribe's first print edition.

How MySpace Connects Artists, Labels, and Fans

Teenagers adore it. Young adults use it to pass the time at lame desk jobs and track down people from their past. Predators use it to zero in on potential victims. Parents fear it more than any parent feared the Beatles and Elvis's gyrating hips combined, and other people just think it's a stupid waste of time and energy. So what could possibly make MySpace useful beyond worldwide Internet distraction?

Music, that's what.

Before the dawn of the Internet age, when everybody suddenly fancied themselves an expert in web site design, musicians looking to promote their work had to do so through analog means: demo tapes, flyers, performances at artist showcases, etc. And just because they got a gig or found an A&R exec who’d bite doesn’t mean they’d have the one thing that can keep a musician’s career going for a long time: fans.

The digital revolution made it easy to upload tracks to a server and put them on the Internet, where everybody has access to them. But band web pages required at least rudimentary HTML skills, and not everyone broke down and bought a copy of HTML for Dummies. Now, anybody with a few tracks, a computer, and an Internet connection can create a self-promotion music page thanks to the controversial juggernaut of a social networking site, MySpace.

A few months ago, I received a MySpace message from Karl Miles, a former high school classmate who I’ve been out of touch with for 7 years, asking me to go to his MySpace Music page and check out his tracks. He's starting a career as a solo folk artist and found me through the magic of MySpace. He wanted to know what I thought of his music so I went to his profile and listened to his tracks, played through the built-in mini player. Since he made them available for free I was also able to download them, save them to my computer, and play them for my friends.

Karl admits that part of the attraction to MySpace was its ease of use, having put off setting up a "real" site for far too long. And he doesn't subscribe to the delusion that MySpace will make him famous. "I find an open mic will generate more attention," he says. "It is more likely a person will hear about me some where else and check if I'm on MySpace." He certainly doesn't believe that MySpace is an easy way out of a musician's traditional struggle to be heard. "You still have to do leg work, play gigs," he says. "If you get a buzz outside MySpace maybe you can get one on MySpace. But I don't think MySpace will create one for you on its own."

Ezra Caraeff, owner of Portland-based indie label Slowdance Records, sees many bands are not as realistic as Miles. Instead they believe that a MySpace page and 400,000 friends is a quick ticket to Mick Jagger status. "I think a lot of bands think friends equal sales," he explains. "But those are the same bands who think emailing me to 'check them out' or 'you should sign us, we RoCk' [sic] is a good idea as well."

The problem with MySpace for many hopeful musicians is that the "adding friends" feature creates a false sense of audience, and with that false sense comes an inflated perception of fame. There are actually programs that crawl MySpace on a band’s behalf and add friends at random, an act equivalent to email spamming. "Since it's so lawless," says Caraeff, "it's a chance for these unknown bands to be on an even plane with known artists. Like, we don't have a record or play shows, but we have as many friends as Hoobastank." Caraeff also worries that the meaning of the word “friend” will be forever corrupted by the MySpace “friend” system.

Yet despite this grand delusion factor, Ezra's label insists that all of their artists have MySpace pages, most of which are maintained by interns. Even his label itself has a page, and Slowdance has used the bulletin feature to reach bands' audiences—although Ezra still thinks email blasts are more direct and consequently much more effective. A blog post on the profile—which touts the label as the "Best. Label. Ever."—begs musicians not to spam them with requests to listen to their tracks.

As the head of a label, Caraeff sees the proliferation of bands with little talent but a lot of friends as just another stage in the evolution of the music industry. "My brother used to work at Capitol Records and I remember going there when I was in like 10th grade and seeing crates of demos in this dumpster," he reminisces. "It's a very sobering thing. MySpace reminds me of that on a daily basis… so much delusion."

But not every band that’s active on MySpace is mired in delusion. One band that has found success via the Internet is Saosin, a post-hardcore band who got their start by posting tracks to a variety of Internet music forums. Their tracks caught on, and their first show was jammed with kids clamoring to see the band they'd heard on the Internet. They now have a deal Capitol Records and just finished their third Warped Tour.

Saosin maintains a MySpace page. In an interview with bassist Chris Sorensen he made it clear that the guys in the band actually use it. Part of the fun for Chris is the ability to listen to a band’s tracks on one page and then “go check out some hot babe’s page.” The band’s page boasts over 178,000 friends and actual band members answer messages.

Another up-and-coming band that actively uses MySpace is Holiday and the Adventure Pop Collective, an Americana group from the San Diego area that tours widely all over California. Recently nominated for the title of Best American Band for the San Diego Music Awards, band member Louis Caverly says they use it for at least an hour every day when they’re not on the road. “MySpace is a community and for any community to work you have to talk to the people,” says Caverly. “It is pretty rad to talk directly with folks, be it potential fans or possibly a personal hero that you stumble upon.”

At first it just seemed like an easy place to upload tracks but Caverly now believes that it is a great tool to have in the arsenal as they build their career. They will solicit potential fans but not by using a “friend adder.” Instead, they take the time to surf the site for people with tastes that match their style and for bands that play a similar kind of music. For them, it’s really about logging on and making it work. “MySpace will help us to increase our audience because if you use it, it works.”

Shawn Hatfield, an experimental electronic musician in San Francisco, has a similar philosophy when it comes to reaching out through MySpace. "I already had a personal page and figured it would be a good place to give my fans access to information on upcoming projects and also a way for them to feel like they've had a personal connection with me that goes beyond just owning the CD or record," he says. Hatfield has had offers to play gigs overseas through MySpace and believes that MySpace has the potential to help him gain enough attention to score larger gigs.

But how realistic is it that the music industry sees these band pages as anything more than must-have novelties for their artists? Well, if an artist catches the eye of an active MySpace user who happens to work in A&R (artist and repertoire, in case you have always wondered what it stood for), it’s very realistic. And such A&R reps do exist. Tony Kiewel, head of A&R for indie label SubPop, is one active user who believes that MySpace is something more than just a project for interns or a collective unheard cry for attention. "I definitely look at it to hear new stuff both as a fan of music and as an A&R guy," he says. "If I like a band I'll look at their page and often times end up listening to their friends’ bands that they have in the top 10 or whatever that little list is." So there's no algorithm that converts MySpace friends to record sales but who a musician is connected to and how may lead to an important discovery by the right person.

Kiewell also relies on the site as a research tool and a quick way to zero in on what people are listening to. "You can't Google 'The Books' and find anything helpful about the band without some serious digging," Kiewell explains. “If I go to MySpace and do a band name search I can find them in seconds." And it's not just a band bio that you'll find; it’s an interactive page full of information. "I can hear them. I can see where they're from. I can see who they're fans of," says Kiewell.

And for musicians, the ability to check out who other musicians are into makes it an extremely useful networking tool. Solo artist Lia Rose experienced this first hand when one of her favorite indie musicians, Damien Jurado, left a comment on her MySpace music page. “I could hardly believe it, and of course returned the sentiment with a comment on his page,” she says. That comment led to an interesting chain of events for Rose. A member of a band in Holland, Winterbirds, found Rose’s comment on Jurado’s page and they added each other as friends. “After about a year of corresponding,” she tells me, “he gives me an internet music challenge by sending a song with just guitar and inviting me to write lyrics and melody and send some vocals back.” This correspondence turned into a project called Weatherkingdom that, naturally, has its own MySpace page too.

MySpace is more than just another venue for Internet voyeurism—it is actually a fantastic tool for labels, fans, and artists alike. “The real take-a-ways include finding other artists to play shows with, Internet radio stations to spin our songs, industry contacts, far away friends and folks that can help our career grow,” believes Louis Caverly. And the recent announcement that MySpace has teamed up with Snocap to allow artists to sell their tracks directly through MySpace pages will only make things more interesting. “I think it will be the great equalizer for those bands that hoard ‘friends,’” Caraeff contends. “They will soon find out the sobering results of 40,000 friends and $6.00 in total downloads.”

But will the day come when a label “discovers” a band through their MySpace page? "It's totally possible," Kiewell of SubPop predicts. "It hasn't happened yet but I bet it will soon.”

— Jess Hemerly 2007

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