As part of New York Social Media Week, I attended a panel entitled “The Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of Social Media as Music’s Savior.” It was first thing in the morning, which really asks a lot from the music hipsters. I would normally have just live-tweeted this thing, but the wi-fi in the place was too weak, and besides, I figured it deserved a blog post. So here’s the more coherent, edited version of what I planned to post on Twitter. Since the event was dominated by Kanye West from the title on down, I’ll be featuring Twitter-centric pictures of him.
- Moderator: Jeff Leeds, Editor in Chief, Music, Buzzmedia
- Angel Laws, Founder and Editor in Chief, ConcreteLoop.com
- Jessica Suarez, Writer, Stereogum
- Tamar Anitai, Senior Editor, buzzworthy.mtv.com
- Rob Bonstein, Senior Director of Digital Marketing, Epic Records
- Sarah Weiss, Head of Markting, Bowery Presents
The panel is taking place in the Buzz Media office, a grungy downtown space. The walls are hung with art made from stuff found on the ground. Being here makes me feel like an old, old man. It doesn’t help that I have a job interview later today, so I’m wearing my most conservative suit. Meanwhile, Rob Bonstein may be a Senior Director, but he looks like he’s about twelve.
Nevertheless, here I am. The setup in here is distinctly less slick than yesterday’s presentation at JWT, which is a colossal, gleaming midtown ad firm. This is a grungier downtown space with a flaky PA and flakier internet.
As far as this panel is concerned, social media is coextensive with Twitter. The word “Facebook” isn’t uttered once in the first hour. When someone finally does mention it, it’s in the context of driving traffic to Twitter. The panel considers Facebook to be like MySpace for adults, except without the music-playing functionality.
Transparency vs mystique
Should bands have separate personal and professional Twitter presences? The panel can’t agree. On the one hand, transparency is the fundamental social media value. Who doesn’t love behind-the-curtain access to their music heroes? Mystique seems like an outdated concept in the social media age. On the other hand, when rock stars reveal the mundane reality of their lives, they run the risk of puncturing the whole fantasy we’re trying to project onto them. There’s a reason you don’t see Lady Gaga posting Twitpics of her wearing sweatpants.
The panel is unanimous that a musician’s public persona needs to be “on brand.” Otherwise you get too much cognitive dissonance, like M.I.A. and her infamous truffle fries. It makes sense to expect musicians to have a consistent persona, but it asks a lot to ask someone to equate their personhood with their brand. The idea frankly creeps me out. Kanye West succeeds at admirably at inhabiting his persona at all times, but he’s either a hyperdisciplined virtuoso performance artist or a complete lunatic, or both.
Meanwhile, sometimes artists do their most meaningful work when they go “off-brand.” Miles Davis was way outside the bebop identity he helped invent when he put on his sequined lace-up bellbottoms and made Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, but that was the peak of his commercial (and arguably cultural) impact.
Regardless of whether musicians are supposed to be playing characters or just being themselves, social media best practices are the same as they are for any person or band. Self-promotion is follower repellent. Show the fans love! When they write to you, write them back. Wish them good luck on their math test or whatever. The panel cites Ciara as a good example of the personal and interactive approach. More surprisingly, the panel also mentions Ice-T, who loves to publicly argue with his critics. Just retweeting praise is as boring as any other kind of promotion; Ice-T’s stream is interesting because he’s real and unpredictable.
Angel Laws says that when she met Kanye, he told her, “I don’t need Twitter, I’m Kanye West!” That was then.
Kanye’s Twitter is a must-follow. One look at the grammar and spelling and you know that his feed isn’t written by a publicist. It’s constantly “on-brand,” but that brand is so eccentric and self-mocking and over the top that it couldn’t possibly be calculated. Maybe the specifics of Kanye’s life aren’t very relatable to the average hip-hop fan, like his difficulty in selecting the right marble table for his conference room. But Kanye’s Twitter voice is so idiosyncratic and heartfelt that I find it totally endearing.
The bottom line
Twitter is very amusing, but does it actually drive album and ticket sales? It certainly helps get you press attention, and attention generally. The journalists on the panel say if you want to get on their radar, at-replies work better than press releases. As for sales? No one really knows why people buy one album and not another, much less this panel. No one knows specifically whether a given social media effort will make anyone do anything. But attention can’t hurt, and a close connection to the fans can only help.
This doesn’t have anything to do with social media per se, but it’s worth mentioning. Tamar Anitai from MTV kept invoking the concept of the “guilty pleasure.” This is funny to me. America is so puritan, even the hipsters of the pop music world. I love the idea that if I enjoy Justin Bieber, I’m being immoral, like I’m harming someone. Tamar Anitai breaks up the band gossip on her Twitter by talking about TV shows, and she “confesses” to “hating herself” for watching Dancing With The Stars and such. So I’m supposed to believe that that MTV’s marketing team and their Twitter followers are so highbrow and cultured normally, and that they’re being deliciously transgressive when they reveal the dirty secret that they watch crappy reality TV? Didn’t MTV give us Jersey Shore? So many contradictions.
Odds and ends
Facebook isn’t the only big social platform to be conspicuously absent from the presentation YouTube also doesn’t get mentioned until near the very end. It seems surprising, since YouTube is by far the biggest music search engine and discovery tool on the web. I guess no one’s talking about it because it isn’t much of a revenue stream for the music industry. Though how could the labels and music press not be capitalizing on it somehow? I don’t understand the music business. But apparently, neither does the music business.
Erykah Badu live-tweeted giving birth! No real comment there, just, wow.
At this point, artist web sites only exist to direct Google searchers to the appropriate social media profile or item for sale.
The panel doesn’t see much value in requiring people to enter email addresses to hear tracks or do other kinds of interaction. All kids have multiple email addresses now, one that they actually use and the rest to put into web sites to collect marketing messages and spam. Organic social media interactions, word of mouth and TV are the only way to actually get a kid’s attention.
The panel sees a bright future in the use of Foursquare check-ins as a celebrity marketing tool. Ugh.
Social media is all well and good, but no one is buying albums. If you want to make money from recordings, your best hope is to get something placed in a TV ad.
On a brighter note, the panel loves Soundcloud. So do I. No better music-sharing service exists on the web. The panel especially loves the within-song commenting. Show Soundcloud lots of love, internet, we want them to succeed.