Throughout the last decade, we experienced a major change in our everyday life: the appearance of social networks and smartphones.
Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash
Right now, I realize I can't stay away from my phone for more than ten or fifteen minutes. There is a lot of my life in that device: the songs I'm writing, stuff about work and projects, books I'm reading and/or listening, apps to manage my money, and even an app to watch my period.
I would be just fine if my phone usage was limited to these activities. Unfortunately, most of the time I find myself checking how many likes my latest video had, reading comments under a random Facebook post, or sharing the latest tweet about my favorite TV show (it's Better Call Saul, in case you're wondering).
How did I get there and, mostly, how can I stop being addicted to social networks?
"Easy," you might think. "Just leave your phone behind for a bit."
Well, things are not as straight-forward for me.
Find me a marketing manual, blog post, or article where social media aren't considered the main promotional tool for independent artists...if you can.
Everyone I know in the industry hugely relies on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok to get their music heard. This trend includes also music journalists, radio speakers, P.R. agencies, and everyone else involved in the process.
Social networks are indeed a great promotional tool. They allow us to reach the widest possible audience (not even the TV had such a huge coverage) and they contribute to the discovering of new tactics and strategies for the success of indie artists. The first example I can think of, to this extent, is Dawn Beyer, a talented country songwriter who made a name for herself through Facebook Live.
As with any other tool ever invented by humans, it all gets down to the use we make of them.
When we use social networks as mere tools to get our music heard, we are doing just fine. However, when we use them to waste a bit of our time, we are losing an opportunity to get back to meaningful work. Even worse than that, when we use them to measure our success, basing our self-esteem on views, likes, and other pretty random metrics, we are discovering the perfect recipe for disaster.
Artists or influencers?
Towards the end of 2019, I realized most of the anxiety concerning my musical career derived from my use of social networks. Moreover, I realized I often experience a sort of clash between the pressure for being constantly online, with daily fresh content to offer to the worldwide web, and my inherent insecurity.
"What am I," I must have wondered at some point, "an artist or an influencer?".
There's a harsh truth we seldom hear: to be an artist, you need time to step back, feel insecure about your work, make a better version of it, feel insecure again, work some more, and so on. You need to be alone, mostly, and face your own fears and demons without being connected to someone else.
On the other hand, to be an influencer, you need to keep posting content. You need to get views, likes, followers. You need numbers. You need the constant presence of other people.
At this point, I can't help but wonder: "Can independent, totally D.I.Y. artists like me afford not to be influencers?"
Can we get back to creating without getting lost in the pressure of over-promotion?
To find some sort of reassurance, one day I googled something like: "Are social media any good for artists?". I can't remember the exact phrasing, but it must have been something as silly and straightforward as that.
I wasn't expecting to find any proper read about my internal struggle, but, to my surprise, I found out that even John Mayer shared my feelings and experience.
One of the main points in his speech referred to the danger of having that instant, yet often shallow following on social media, causing "joy in little, tiny statements - little, tiny applause hits."
To get that instant applause, you could end up serving little, tiny art.
During the clinic, John Mayer recalled his own struggles with social networks, highlighting how the quest for that instant and shallow gratification had led him to focus on the online content he was sharing rather than on his songs. This, he went on, caused a narrowing of his songwriting abilities: "I realized (...) I couldn't have a complete thought anymore. (...) I stopped using Twitter as an outlet and I started using Twitter as the instrument to riff on, and it started to make my mind smaller and smaller and smaller."
The importance of failure
There is an invisible, yet strong bond between social networks and the predominant results-oriented views in our society.
When we share a picture on Instagram, for example, we want to show the world how successful we are. We want to share our brilliant results, our beautiful life, our great achievements.
Artists, however, are destined to fail at some point.
"I can't stress enough how important it is to write bad songs," John Mayer said at some point during the 2011 clinic at Berklee.
Damn, he's right.
If we are too focused on producing ready-made content to please our online audience, we'll lose our ability to produce great works of art. By being more worried about other people's approval than the solidity of our work, we'll cut out that precious trial-and-error process which makes us grow as songwriters.
The harsh reality
Now, all this awareness won't change the harsh reality: independent artists need to tirelessly work on their promotion if they want to succeed. Unfortunately, I no longer agree with Mayer when he says: "Good music is its own promotion."
There has to be a balance between creativity and advertising. If we want to succeed as independent musicians, we must find the fragile equilibrium between being artists and influencers.
In other words, we must save our energies and be smart enough to separate our artistic life from our promotional tasks, yet keeping the two sides communicating.
Your art and your promotional endeavors must be coherent, as you don't want to promote yourself as someone you are not.
Your promotional activities, however, shouldn't take all of your time, leaving you with no energy to write and fail.
Pretend you are a scientist: you spend most of the time in your lab, conducting your experiments, without any guarantee of success; now and then, however, you show up at conferences and engage in some public relations activities to make your research known, to have feedback, and to improve your work through external advice.
It is quite a hard approach and this explains why only a very few people employ it.
This approach also has a major downfall, which makes it less appealing than other methods: it requires more time to produce great results.
However, if you want your video to have a million views in less than a day, don't waste your time writing and producing a perfect song. Just film yourself (or even better, your cat) doing something stupid yet striking! Can you see my point? The purpose of producing your beautiful song should have nothing to do with the number of views or streams it will get.
Focus on quality and allow yourself some time to engage in collateral promotional activities that are coherent with your artistic view.
In conclusion, here's a list of a few takeaways from this long rant about social networks and artists:
- social networks are an important promotional tool and you can't ignore them, however...
- ...social networks can be dangerous if misused. Resist the temptation to find an instant gratification through likes and views; focus on your art, instead
- accept that social media marketing for a completely independent artist is a marathon, not a sprint and that it takes years to build an authentic, loyal following
- accept that failure is part of the process
- raise your middle finger to our results-oriented society and allow yourself to create without caring about the outcome.
Here's my blueprint to renew my motivation, keep working on my songs, and not give up my promotional efforts.
What do you think? Let me know if you agree or disagree with any of my points. Any new idea or different approach to keep a balance between creating and promoting is also very welcomed!
Keep up the good work and...rock on!
Prefer the audio version? Download the podcast!
00:02:00 Introduction to the topic (pros and cons of social media)
00:04:30 Artist or influencers?
00:05:30 Is good music enough
00:06:20 John Mayer's take
00:08:00 The importance of failure
00:10:40 Create for the sake of creating
00:13:30 The takeaways