Monday, February 20, 2006

Booking your own band in the 21st century

The old adage, "It's not what you know, but who you know" ought to be embroidered on the inside of every musician's eyelids. In an ideal world, a musician's raw talent would be enough to attract the attention of the masses. Unfortunately, this is ever less the case in the digital age. The media and the marketplace are over-saturated with sonic product and the record industry is hell-bent on stifling the technological innovations that might sort out this cultural crisis. The only sure-fire way to stand out in this crowd is to aggressively (and personally) solicit support from the people who are in the best position to help you.

Musicians make their first important contacts while booking and promoting shows. Their first audiences will be comprised of friends and colleagues (literally 'who you know') and will be hosted at hometown venues with which the musician is probably already familiar. Many bands never make it beyond this point for many reasons, though too often musicians get stuck in a rut by failing to socialize outside of their own clique or scene. You can be the quiet, eccentric artist of few words, but if you don't shake some hands and make some phone calls, you'll be preaching to the converted night after night.

The Web is nothing if not a communication revolution, and there are plenty of digital resources at the independent musician's disposal. Now it's easier than ever to jump into new social circles without all the anxiety of face-to-face encounters. You'll still have to make the personal connections, but the modern tools of the trade should put you within one degree of separation from almost anyone you need to reach.

I'd like to draw your attention to four of the most useful booking resources which no independent musician should be without:

MySpace - An obvious one, for sure, but the utility of MySpace for DIY booking cannot be understated. The first step is to find your sister acts -- other bands that are stylistically similar to your group, and who are friendly enough to swap shows. Using MySpace's search tools, it's easy to find bands by genre, location, popularity -- you name it.

You can start contacting other bands and promoters inside MySpace, though I suggest you get email/phone info right up front and maintain a more personal rapport than sending IM's back and forth. I've known bands that have booked entire 2-week coastal tours on MySpace alone. Since you're dealing directly with other independent musicians who share your same goals and tastes, MySpace is the perfect place to start booking.

Later on, when you're dealing directly with promoters and venues instead of other musicians, it still comes in handy to fill in those hard-to-nail-down dates in between your bigger shows. Using MySpace to promote your events to your fans also couldn't be any easier.

IndieBandManager - Musican and database designer Charlie Cheney has created the ultimate tool to manage one's booking and promotion activities. IndieBandManager is the program that every hard-working independent musician has been waiting for -- the ultimate convergence of contact and project management, mass personalized emails, event coordination, invoicing, accounting... if it's part of the business of being a musician, it's in there.

To sweeten the deal, IndieBandManager is already loaded with great contacts for booking, press and radio, and additional contact databases from quality sources can be purchased at ridiculously reasonable prices. It's also extremely easy to input your own contacts and import them from other sources.

Surprisingly few bands realize how important it is to have this kind of tool at one's disposal. It may be overkill for the weekend warrior, but for those of you who truly aspire to have a music career (or at least aspire to live above the poverty level), you absolutely must get organized. Until recently, this meant running separate programs for your contacts, calendar, accounting, etc... IndieBandManager puts it all in under one roof. Do yourself a favor and download the demo -- you'll wonder how you ever booked a show without it.

These last two resources are more genre-specific, but will come in quite handy if you're a punk or a singer/songwriter.

Book Your Own Fuckin' Life - This site pre-dates Napster, and it recently got a much needed overhaul after a long span of lying dormant. For punk and indie rockers, this is a great do-it-yourself booking resource. As the name implies, it's up to you to do all the work; BYOFL is simply a listing site. Though it is moderated by a team of dedicated volunteers, anyone can post new information to the site and update existing information. That means you'll have to wade through a lot of crap, which can be challenging since the search tools are very basic. The upside is that you will find diamonds in the rough, true gems of people whose hearts are in exactly the right place. You won't get thousand dollar guarantees, but much of the time you'll be taken care of with food, shelter, and a generous cut of the door.

Just Plain Folks - Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Just Plain Folks founder Brian Austin Whitney at an open mic night in my hometown. Through e-mail and word of mouth alone, he somehow got 23 singer/songwriters to show up and pour out their hearts for the audience and for each other (photo here). I had never really witnessed anything like it -- Whitney had found a way to unite the national circuit of independent singer/songwriters under a common banner: Just Plain Folks.

The musicians weren't just there to play -- the event was part of a national networking tour which got artists socializing with each other, strengthening their regional scene. Sure enough, as the years went by, Just Plain Folks grew into a community of over 40,000 performers and music professionals. They even have their own awards ceremony that dwarfs even the Grammys in size and scope.

Though anyone can join up as a member, I especially urge all singer/songwriter solo performers to get involved with Just Plain Folks. All it takes are a few clicks, and you'll instantly be included in this inspirational, unifying independent musicians' network.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Media freak-out: The beginning of the end for MySpace?

I hold the unpopular opinion that despite its current exponential growth, MySpace is nearing the peak of a bell curve that will eventually dip down into obsolescence. Once Intermix (MySpace's parent company) was bought out by mega-media conglomerate News Corp (aka Fox), I felt content in knowing my opinion was becoming fact.

After reading this Wall Street Journal article, I believe we're now witnessing what may be the beginning of the end for MySpace. There are many reasons to be apocalyptic about the social networking giant, but the biggest one is highlighted in this passage:

MySpace has become the focus of criticism from authorities, teachers and parents that children are exposed to risqué content and are preyed upon by sexual predators who meet them on the site. Such episodes aren't unique to MySpace, but the site stands out because of its size -- 54 million registered users, with about 19% of monthly users under 17, according to comScore

In response, News Corp. is scrambling to make MySpace a safer place for young people. News Corp. plans to appoint a "safety czar" to oversee the site, launch an education campaign that may include letters to schools and public-service announcements to encourage children not to reveal their contact information.

Do a Google News search on MySpace and you'll see the crisis reaching a fever pitch.

This recent wave of bad press for MySpace is the equivalent of a parent finding and reading their child's journal. Kids always knew that their profiles were publicly viewable, but now that they know their parents are watching, do you really think they're going to want to continue publicly expressing their burgeoning curiosity about sex, drugs, or whatever?

Currently, the media has re-branded MySpace as a tool for parents to check up on the secret activities and thoughts of their children. And with MySpace taking steps to make it impossible to lie about one's age (see the WSJ article) the options for remaining undetected by authority figures are becoming slim.

While I'm sure MySpace will weather this current media-freak out, I'm convinced that stripping away the image of MySpace as a chaotic and often highly sexualized atmosphere will strip away the very appeal of participating.

Much like AOL (the chat rooms in 1.0 were truly a red-light district), MySpace is compelled to clean up the network and de-sexualize the service as much as possible. Sure, it'll still be a useful tool for musicians and people with stuff to promote, but the exploratory expression (sexual or otherwise) of teens is what keeps its users active and drives new subscribers.

So what will become of MySpace? In my next post, I'll go into some other reasons why I think the sun is setting on the popular portal, and why the MySpace of tomorrow will function much differently than MySpace of today.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

American Idol smokes the Grammy awards

Maybe FOX's American Idol isn't the harbinger of cultural doom that most rational people believe it to be. Splashed across the Drudge Report today was a headline proclaiming, "'Idol' amateurs beat 'Grammy' pros in ratings". The story is accompanied by two photos: an American Idol contestant singing soulfully into a water bottle, and a sneering, dirt-old Madonna standing in front of the Grammy/CBS logo backdrop.

Though I still think FOX's Murdoch is building the equivalent of a mainstream media Death Star, I feel that these ratings bode well for the future of music. The statistics clearly show that the stars have fallen from the proverbial sky, and the first celebrities to hit the ground will be those whose talent has gone stale (Madonna) or those who never had talent (Mariah Carey) -- exactly the kind of celebrity the Grammy awards try and resuscitate each year.

American Idol's success (it's the #1 rated show in the country) proves to me that somewhere deep in the collective unconscious of our home viewing audience lies the fundamental truth that good music is best served by a democratic music industry where the people choose their stars, rather than a corporate filter that manufactures desire for their products with advertising and meaningless awards shows. While past Idol winners clearly prove that Americans have no taste in music, at least the public is starting to question why they need a musical-industrial complex to stand between the consumer and the product.

In a way, this is just a huge backfiring of marketing trends which have sought to treat each consumer, in the words of Chuck Palahniuk, as "a beautiful and unique snowflake," when millions of consumers purchase products in lockstep unison each day. Now the cult of the individual has been given the reigns of the music industry, as evidenced in the #1 chart debuts of Idol artists over the past few years.

Don't get me wrong, American Idol is as much a sham as the Grammy awards; both shows use the hypnotic glow of the television to artificially hype artists that consumers wouldn't be caught dead listening to, if only they had a choice not to. Digital music represents that choice, but only if the new music industry embraces democracy over corporate greed (see ArtistShare for a great example of this.) In fact, the pessimist in me knows that American Idol is the ultimate representation of everything that is wrong with our culture.

But the optimist in me sees America's superficial music fans taking the first baby-steps toward asserting their true power as masters of their own cultural consumption. Just as former smokers regain their sense of taste, so too must consumers be weaned off the billowing clouds of crap being cast forth from the music industry. Only then will they be able to taste the freedom of musical choice. In that sense, American Idol shifts listener's habits from Marlboro to Marlboro Light. A little healthier? Yes. Still killing you? You bet.