This past summer, on the way to see headlining act Girl Talk, I accidentally stumbled upon the future of electronic music performance. It happened at the Treasure Island music festival, which takes place a stone’s throw away from my San Francisco. On this particular Saturday, I was most excited to see the aforementioned Girl Talk – a mashup DJ with a reputation for putting on a good party. But, along the way down the lineup, I ran into an opening set by Araabmuzik:
Ignore the music itself; Araabmuzik is not even a dubstep artist, he’s remixing a Skrillex record here. Instead, pay attention to the man’s hands. What Araabmuzik is doing here is introducing the concept of instrumental virtuosity… to a machine. If most EDM DJ’s can trace their lineage to traditional disco-era record spinners, then Araabmuzik can trace his lineage to Jimi Hendrix; that is, a man who can claim his instrument as an extension of his body. This is the evolution of computer music performance, one in which acrobatic and damn-near athletic abilities are on full display. This is the rise of Instrumachines.
This kind of in-your-face virtuosity illuminates the capabilities of production hardware. Hardware like Araab’s MPC drum machine was once but a humble piece of studio production gear. But the virtuosity it enables should expand the definition of “musical instrument” to include craftsmanship that could only be built by an electrical engineer.
While we’re getting familiar, perhaps I should define what I mean by “instrumachine”, seeing as I pretty much made up the word a few hours ago . An instrumachine is a piece of production gear or hardware that can hold it’s own as a live performance music instrument. The classic MPC sampler is a good example, but there’s a whole slew of pioneering drum machines, samplers and MIDI controllers that are really pushing the boundaries of instrumachines, like Native Instrument’s Maschine, Roland’s S and SP Series, DJ Tech Tool’s Midi Fighter, and a slew of other machines built by electrical engineers
If you agree with the assumption that electronic music is the future, then get familiar with the concept of instrumachines. It is what will push the genre past the limitations of button-pushing, while raising the bar on what we can expect from an electronic music performance.
But first, let’s talk about the evolution of electronic music’s stage presence.
Electronic Dance Music and the Rise of the DJ
Whatever your opinion on the music itself, it’s hard to argue that the core of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is anything but the future of popular music. One hardly needs to look past the capabilities of the hardware itself for proof. Whereas once the creation of music was tied to the mechanical physics of instruments themselves (i.e. vibration of a plucked string, thump of stick on drum pads, etc.), EDM represents a completely digital and meta methodology to manipulate sounds into an infinite spectrum of possibilities. We can now produce any sound in physical existence within a software program, totally divorced from the analog prompts of our fingers and bodies. This is just so way beyond the rudimentary sticks, stones and strings of musical creation past.
This method of meta music creation has already been the privilege of producers and audio engineers for several decades now. But the tools have grown exponentially faster and more powerful. Once upon a time, producers and engineers were only capable of smoothing out the rough edges of analog recordings. A few software updates later, producers became the musicians themselves. Producers can track sounds directly into software like Logic or Fruity Loops with the dash of a mouse, skipping the entire element of performance.
Inevitably, some of this “electronic music” became quite good, and people wanted to experience it at a show. However, when your musical “instrument” is software, live performance becomes a tricky proposition.
Cue the rise of the DJ. In many ways, EDM performance bastardizes the traditional functions of a record-spinning deejay (a.k.a. “DJ”). Appropriated as the closest metaphorical title, the title “DJ” fit to the specs of computer music performance. After all, when music creation skips the entire process of performance, oftentimes the only thing left for live performance is to queue up your own songs. Just like a traditional deejay, but for your own compositions. Of course, many of today’s EDM artists have reverse-engineered some of the more obvious gestures of performance into their own routine; for example, dramatically swinging the shoulders around the curve of a knob twist, or pairing a button-pushed drop with a violent neck whip. It’s a modus operandi of EDM performance that should have chiropractors drooling.
But, we don’t yet give EDM artists a title that implies performance. Perhaps tellingly so.
For the most part, EDM’s fanbase has more than turned a blind eye to any missing elements of performance. In fact, they’ve embraced it. Music performance originated at least 40,000 years ago, theoretically to serve the evolutionary function of glueing and defining the tribe in a participatory, communal ritual, synched in time and emotions. EDM returns to some of these evolutionary roots. As I wrote about in detail in my last post, a big EDM event is just as much about the scene, the dance, the community, the costumes, the lights, the venue, the sound system, the mysticism, the drugs… as much as it is about anything going on on stage. What EDM might lack in idol-worshipping stage performance, it makes up for in the hypnotic tribal activities on the floor. It’s a different kind of magic, and it should be judged and appreciated on it’s own legitimate merits.
However, as much as I theoretically understand the communal magic of EDM performance, I have to admit, button-pushing performances don’t move me the same way a good jam band would. Now, I love a good massive rave as much as the next neon-clad, 20-something pill-popper. So it’s not entirely due to my curmudgeon senility. But a part of me wants to see musicians really play the bodily fluids out of their music, right in front of my very eyes. This is an itch that I doubted electronic music could scratch.
That is, until that fateful afternoon at Treasure Island Music Festival.
At its simplest level, Araab’s methods are similar to the rest of EDM in that it ultimately drills down to pushing buttons on machines. But pushing a button 30 times in 30 minutes versus pushing it 30,000 times in 30 minutes, presents an order-of-magnitude difference that you can feel in your bones. It’s the difference between playing a piano, and playing a CD.
Sure, there are a handful of EDM DJs who are executing plenty of very technical maneuvers on stage, including live remixes and plenty of precise knob fiddling. Some of the more technical DJs could probably be compared to Hendrix, by measure of live performance skill. Some of these technical DJs are my personal friends, and it’s actually mind-boggling the things they’re doing on the stage, behind the screens and the decks. It’s just, the average fan wouldn’t be able to tell from the floor. When Araabmuzik goes at it, there’s an immediate visual confirmation.
In other words, Araabmuzik is bringing back the art of music performance to the EDM stage.
Best of all, insrumachines maintain electronic music’s many advantages. As briefly mentioned above, computer music puts a world of untapped sounds in play, in impossibly precise arrangements, malleable to the very physics of sounds itself. From simple stuff like pitch modulation, to more advanced techniques techniques like frequency filtering.
Moreover, Araab’s methods maintain EDM’s self-referential capacity to make all of recorded sound but the building blocks of a new, meta-genre. Like many a good electronic artist, he easily slips between genres and effortlessly fuzes them all up (especially hip-hop, dub step, trance, house, etc). Again, the video above might give you the impression that Araab is a dub step artist. He’s not. This is truly destiny manifest for post-modern music.
One could also argue that instruments like electric guitars, keyboards and electric drum sets are electronic machines. This is true, but it still largely mimics the instrumentation of their analog ancestors. Araabmuzik couldn’t rely on the Suzuki method (or any other training discipline) to learn the fundamentals of his MPC. An instrumachine represents a wholly new way of creating real-time sounds, and some skills just don’t translate. For example, the 4x4 pads on an MPC can be programmed into infinite sets of sounds, but that means nothing if you can’t memorize those customized palettes down to the nerves on your fingertips. The possibilities might be endless, but it requires a whole other layer of a skill set that would have been totally unimaginable for, say, a Jimmy Page or a Jascha Heifetz.
Now, I happen to be a hip hop head, and I know what all my fellow heads are thinking: hardware instrumentation is a reoccurring staple of hip hop. The very origins of hip hop can be traced back to the clever inventions of Bronx DJs, who found a way to extend the danceable breaks in their records by deftly shifting between two turntables. Furthermore, the rise of Q-bert, Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the Bay Area deejay battle scene coined the birth of turntabilsm, which was an absolute breakthrough for machinstrument virtuosity. DJ Shadow built a cult following (including yours truly) around brilliant sampling combined with competition-ready turntablist skills. Even today the fringes of hip hop community hosts beat battles, where beatmakers perform and compete in real time on MPCs. I just went to an Grouch & Eligh show last month, where Eligh busted out an MPC to the middle of the stage for some live, wild drumming, which was a particularly crowd-pleasing segment of the show. Even in the indie rock world, anyone who’s gone to an XX show knows that the trio mostly employs three instruments to great atmospheric effect: guitar, bass, and Jamie XX on the MPC.
Lastly, it’s true that music can be thoroughly enjoyed as a purely audio experience. Ultimately, a good music show is about making an immediate connection with and between your fans. Visual feedback is a big part of that. And truthfully, lights and pyrotechnics and stage antics can go quite far (especially when combined with ahem substances).
But sometimes, I just want the point to be music. Sometimes, I want to see the type of cause-and-effect that my monkey brain can understand; hit stuff = make noise. Sound is physical, and my monkey brain expects sound to be directly connected to the human body as such. When a fluttering improvised chord is accompanied by the synced visual of a brilliant guitarist just shredding the shavings off his strings, my monkey brain can’t help but to scream “Fuck Yeah!” If music is about a soul-to-soul connection, the mirroring part of the brain should probably be utilized. You don’t need a degree in musicology to appreciate the pure visual spectacle of blurring fingers and hands, unbelievably but precisely synced to the rapid-fire chord it conjures. It’s hard to catch the same feelings from an automatic playback.
The Next Instrumachine Hero
Araabmuzik is only arguably the current “MVP of the MPC” (as he likes to brand himself). While Araab’s blazing technical superiority is hard to deny, the niche world of MPC aficionados also champion the soulful musicality and quirkiness of Jeremy Ellis, or the effortless breakbeat funk of Party Supplies. Disciples of Moldover will tell you about their“controllerism” movement, and probably convert you too. Everyday, Youtube shines a spotlight on the hidden talents of anonymous bedroom producers; some of whom, like Madeon, are not so anonymous anymore, riding their initial instrumachine viral video to headlining fame. Then there the reputable producers who keep it in their bedroom, like Anticon founder Jel. And we can’t forget about pioneers, like DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Nu-Mark, who might have publicly invented the concept of an MPC band. And speaking of the west coast hip hop producers, I have to shout out Amp Live, who’s produced many of my favorite records, and happens to be a gear geek who makes and performs his own hardware instruments. And of course, if we’re including synths in this discussion, there’s a whole generation of trailblazers from the 70’s and 80’s, including Kraftwerk, Herbie Hancock, Prince, Depeche Mode, Dodos, Stevie Wonder, Flock of Seagulls… the list does on. I’m probably missing a ton of other instrumachine savants, so please do feel obliged to tweet me some youtube links.
So, Araabmuzik is certainly not the first hardware instrumentalist, and won’t be the last. In fact, the Youtubes is littered with dark horse candidates to take instrumachines to the stadiums. But as of this writing, Araabmuzik is instrumachine’s Johnny Appleseed, scoring mid-to-upper billing in the festival circuit, headlining shows, and leaving new found audiences in the wake of their own dropped jaws. He’s managed to personally redefine a new standard in MPC technical virtuosity at a time when “button-pushing” is becoming a controversial thorn in the side EDM’s push to mainstream… when, as Bassnectar so eloquently put it, “People crave authenticity, and in EDM today, they are beginning to demand it.” in EDM performance.
It almost doesn’t matter which individual blows it up, the main takeaway is this: if you could buy stock in EDM authenticity, snap it up now, because demand is going to go way up after more minds are exposed to Araabmuzik and the new school of machinestrumentalists.
I should know, it happened to me…
A few hours after that fateful Araabmuzik encounter at Treasure Island Music Festival, Girl Talk’s festival-closing set time was fast approaching. The timing couldn’t be more ideal, nestled as it was into a pillowy Indian summer night, the skyline of my beautiful San Francisco illuminating in the background. I braced myself for a magical moment.
Except that that moment never happened. Girl Talk pressed play. Then he danced. Then he brought hundreds of people on stage to dance with him. It seemed quite the spectacle. And I yawned.
Don’t get me wrong, Girl Talk was the consummate circus master, rippling the frenzied crowd with the flails of his dancing arms. But I had witnessed Araabmuzik just a few hours prior. My standards were raised. I could never unsee the possibilities of electronic performance. Girl Talk and his EDM ilk were now, in my mind, “producer slash cheerleader”, as opposed to “performing musician”.
Alas, its too late for me to train these old, hardened fingers. But if I stay true to stereotype and age into a good tiger dad, I bet I skip right past the dusty violins and pianos, and handcuff my kid to a shiny new drum machine.
Kid, it’s the future. You’ll thank me one day.
Send comments, feedback, instrumachine youtube links and most importantly, glorious praise, to my twitter, @freshbreakfast.
“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” – Steve Jobs
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to the future of the music industry. There are the Traditionalists, who still view file sharing as “stealing” and hope that their preaching will swing the pendulum of teenage consumerism back toward charged content. There are the Incrementalists, who believe that paid downloads will continue to grow, and essentially replace the revenues of physical formats past. There are the Internet Apologists, who want to give music away as a loss leader to sell more concert tickets and merchandise, hoping that these gains will make up for the loss of content sales at the macro level. Finally, there are the Defeatists, who are resigned to a shrunken industry that supports fewer artists.
Personally, I reject all these notions. I believe it’s very possible to revitalize the music industry with free music, without relying on unrealistic growth in the existing concert and merch sector. This requires us to create an entirely new product offering to fans. And unlike recorded music, this product’s value must be in harmony with the realities of the internet. In this essay, I hope to outline the contours and justifications for the viability of a new model, which I’m going to label “crowd patronage”.
This brings us back to Steve Jobs’s words above. He may have been talking about his tech industry, but Mr. Jobs' quote so elegantly sums up the past, present and future of the music business, that its very deconstruction unravels the entirety of the industry’s fate.
So let’s begin.
“They don’t have enough dots to connect”
Ever since the launch of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901, selling recorded music has come to define the music industry. That means every single living person in the world right now has only known this reality. Recorded music = music industry… these are the only dots we know.
And yet, we know that musicians existed before the advent of recorded formats. They must have survived one way or another, right? As it turns out, there were a variety of “models” that have supported the creation of music throughout history.
Street performers, buskers, troubadours, gypsies, minstrels, vaudevillians… the number of synonyms alone signals the prevalence of an ancient breed of entertainers who performed in public for gratuities . Nearly every civilization in recorded history spawned a class of buskers, and by sheer numbers alone, it could very well be the “model” most musicians made a living on.
On the opposite end of the “social status” spectrum, some of the most epic and enduring compositions of our musical canon were commissioned by patronage. One of the very first disruptive information technologies ever, the printing press, coincided with the rise of the Renaissance, broadening the distribution of popular compositions and the fame of those that created it (and the royal class' incentive to take credit). Patronage funded the ensuing Baroque era, which birthed the first enduring titan of musical composition, Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Classical and Romantic eras maintained the tradition of patronage, contributing to the rent of geniuses like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
Skip forward a few centuries and across an ocean to the thriving Tin Pan Alley era. In the late 19th/early 20th century, a concentration of competing sheet music publishers on Manhattan’s West 32nd Avenue blossomed into a full blown, star-making industry. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Cole Porter… these artists propagated their music and growing celebrity through the pieces of paper that bore their names.
These are but a handful of pre-grammophone “models” that have sustained centuries of musicians through the course of human history, some of whom we still canonize today. So at a minimum, we need to bust out of our historically narrow assumption that moving record units is the end all and be all of the music “industry”.
“… and they end up with very linear solutions”
Anyone involved in either tech or music should know the fixation each industry has with the fate of recorded music. Too often, the discourse is framed as a “technology vs. music” or a “Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley” fight. Just in the past year, the two sides have sparred over the Emily White letter, Spotify payments, SOPA… the list goes on. Very intelligent and influential people on both sides are getting red in the face over matters of property law - the consequence of competing linear solutions, sprouting from a baseline fixation on content sales.
It’s a natural reaction. Records cut as close to what “is” music as any other “product”. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to realize that there’s something viscerally immediate about listening to your favorite artists – as opposed to, say, reading their sheet music. Outside of live performance, recorded music is the least abstracted manifestation of a musician’s craft. It somehow feels preposterous this “product” could have so little monetary value anymore. It’s one more reason why we’re so fixated on a linear solution.
Ultimately though, it is what it is. Whether or not artists like it, the inherent value of a record’s property value was in the scarcity of its physical distribution (i.e. CDs, tapes, vinyl). This scarcity has been permanently destroyed in the copy-and-paste internet era. As I outlined in a previous post , the fate of recorded content will inevitably end in a cloudy place where artists get paid on the backend of plays. No matter how optimized the ads, the subscription model’s payments come on the backend of plays, and just cannot approach the margins built into the “moving units” era, when the payment entire payment was front loaded. Sadly, recorded music’s monetary value is forever marginalized by the very physics of the internet.
If we hope to avoid a shrunken music industry, we need to look for disruption outside of recorded content.
“the broader one’s understanding of the human experience”
Music aids and abets the fundamental advantage of the human species, which is our capability to organize complex, tiered and coordinated societies. As such, the creation of music is a fundamental hallmark of our species (along with controlled fire, ritualized burials, religion and visual art). Homo sapiens have been creating music for at least 40,000 years. As a point of comparison, cultural developments like agriculture, writing and civilization are relatively new achievements in our species' emergence. In fact, we’ve had music for 8 X the chronological length we’ve had writing. So music holds a dog-eared bookmark in our species' evolutionary conquest.
For most of human history, music was a public and participatory experience, inextricably linked to a plural of people synched in a real-time experience. As a binding agent of dancing and singing bodies, music literally manifested community. And lest you think our modern society has evolved beyond the tribal utility of music, just think of religious services, sporting events, weddings, nightclubs, political rallies, protests, road trips… when was the last time you attended one of these without some sort of collective music ritual?
This gluing effect works just as well for many nodes of people as it does for just two. Sometimes just mentioning an obscure artist you love in common with another human being is enough to spark the bonds of an instant soul-meld. Music speaks to the muddied plasma of our right-brained soul; a direct poke to our brain’s ancestral empathy regions.
So why have we forgotten this powerful community-binding property of music?
A little thing called the gramophone. Starting around the mid 20th century, music morphed into a solitary activity, as radios and stereos invaded our living rooms. This trend continued with the advent and proliferation of car stereos and portable headphone devices – like the Walkman in the 80’s, personal CD player in the 90’s, and the iPod/iPhone in the new millennium. Suddenly music became personal, prevalent and convenient. But also, lonely. So while you might feel an instant soul-meld connection with the artist in your ear, it was by nature an isolating experience.
Of course, communal music lives on in modernity, especially at a good show. Even the live music scene is increasingly developing into a multidimensional experience, beyond the token call-and-response and occasional mosh pit of decades past. The growing EDM and festival circuit are just as much about the community, the dancing, the venue, the lights, the drugs, the costumes, the everything… as it is about whatever is happening on stage.
In short, music sways masses of like minded people, even today. Nations elicit loyalties by it. Revolutionary movements are fueled by it. And maybe most importantly for the sake of this discussion, teenagers inform their very identities by it.
Music is so much more than sounds – how else do you explain the Gathering of the Juggalos?
In many ways, music is the original social network. This makes musicians = founders of community. In a networked world, that’s powerful.
“the better design we will have”
To summarize, we know a few things to be true. First, we must allow ourselves to be okay with music being free, or close to it. Second, we must recognize the anthropological value of music itself in human societies. Lastly, we must attempt a solution based on what the internet enables (direct fan-artist connection + community), as opposed to what it takes away (scarcity of content distribution). Taking these assumptions and processing them through many layers of over-thinking, I believe the new music industry model will have the following, mutually-inclusive attributes:
Relationship Access: The internet might have destroyed the value and scarcity of content, but it’s opened up a world of possibility in enabling direct lines of communication between fan and artist. So while it’s now infinitely easier to @ reply a fan on twitter or video chat with them, the availability of artist’s time and attention remains scarce. There just might be a way to divvy this up and dole it out to fans, who earn it in some capacity that benefits the artist (i.e. money and/or promotion). This is the essence of “moving units of relationships”, instead of units of content.
Of course, these “units” of relationship access would only really work if you had an…
Ecosystem of Fans: These days, it’s not enough to have a fan base anymore… you must know your fan base. This is no revelation; plenty of artists have already learned the importance of social media to their own success. But it’s just the first step.
In the future, it won’t be enough to just know your fan base, but to lead them. That means herding your fans into a common community online, where fans know each other and perhaps even compete/collaborate for the affections/attentions of their chief. This may or may not happen on a singular, specific platform; I can’t be sure of the exact schematics. Regardless, the setup must have the capability to cross-stitch the nodes of your fan base, as it only enhances the value of relationship based products. For example, if you have a circle of friends who are obsessed with artist X, then the thrill of artist shouting you out on a youtube video is enhanced by peer recognition. Sort of like how badges work in the foodie community that is Yelp elite, or how the printing press spurred the patronage of Baroque music composition.
There’s all sorts of supplementary advantages to the artist as well; for example, a continuously buzzing community at the ready to jumpstart any launch (as opposed to a void of silence). Of course, putting out good, addictive music helps with this, but for the sake of this argument let’s assume that as a constant.
So, combine units of relationship access with an organized online community, and you get…
Crowd Patronage: Once upon a time, patronizing musicians and their work was an exclusive privilege of the royal class and/or an 18th century Florentine bankers. They were one of the handful of individuals in the world that actually had disposable income. And even if Mozart were to have a big market of micro patrons, it would have been impossible to collect their contributions, fan-by-fan, door-to-door – totally unscalable in the pre-internet era.
Now, with services like Kickstarter, crowd-funding is suddenly accessible and increasingly mainstream. We’re already seeing uber-successful music projects like the Amanda Palmer Kickstarter campaign, which met it’s ambitious $100,000 album bank-rolling goal in seven hours, and eventually went 12x profitable before a single note was recorded ($1.2 million). Along the way, it netted a Kickstarter record 24,000+ backers. The finished album is not even the point anymore; in fact, most of the money-making pledge tiers were based on some sort of exclusive access to Amanda Palmer herself.
For example, the $300 pledge – which garnered 625 backers equaling $187,500 – got you an invite to a private art show party, exclusive to the backers and hosted by Ms. Palmer. The $5,000 pledge – which garnered 34 backers equaling $170,000 – got you an Amanda Palmer House Party… at your house. Talk about breaking the fourth wall.
Just like in the era of patronage, pledgers are usually ignoring the commodified product. The most successful music kickstarter projects sell you one or more of three “values”: 1) access to artist (as discussed above), 2) exclusivity and 3) recognition/participation (especially for artist’s creation).
So we’re going to see more artists open up the creation process to their fanbase. Everything from crediting fans in the liner notes, to tracking fans' recorded sounds as real stems, to skyping and polling fans during studio sessions.
As a musician, it’s already technically possible to do this. In the next few years, we’re going to find it become more culturally acceptable on both the artist and fan side. In fact, as much as some artists might assume their fans might find it cheesy now, I don’t think we’re too far away from the point where fans will start to demand relationship based products. More importantly, artists are going to start finding which sorts of packages or pledge tier incentives their fans actually buy, etching out the contours of a new crowd patronage “model”.
Kickstarter is a great start, but I suspect that artists will one day rely on a similar platform, tailored to their own needs. For one, the platform must be more than a transactional service. It must have an evergreen social networking element, to maintain a continuously buzzing community of fans. There should probably a way for fans to participate and contribute to the ecosystem, short of paying into it (points for promotion, etc) The platform must also provide the right set of tools for the artist to manage her community, like a CRM-like admin panel that can drill down to a specific fans, and their comprehensive history of participation.
The best part is, you only need a fraction of your audience to pay to make this crowd patronage model work. Move away from the one-product-fits-all model of the moving units era, and suddenly you can tailor mind blowing, premium pledge tiers for your whales. Crowd patronage suddenly makes the 80-20 power principle really work in the artists' favor.
Recorded content plays a role as well. From a purely revenue generating point of view, the 80% or so of casual fans who don’t buy any crowd patronage product are still generating plays, which will eventually count for a foundation of revenue. Also, similar to the smells wafting from a good restaurant, free (and good) music attracts a wide net of fans – a percentage of whom will convert to customers.
And a few great customers is better than, well, none at all. Recorded music revenues will spiral to insignificance, this is almost inevitable. In its place, good musicians and their managers will soon find out it’s not about the units you move, but the relationship you share with your fans – for both spiritual and bank account fulfillment.
Check out Techdirt’s coverage of this post and the subsequent presentation at SF Musictech. Almost 200 comments there!
Big Thanks to Andrew J. Lee, Runae Lee and Ambert Ho for copy-editing this essay.
This is a re-post from my previous blog, Trackswell. This post has since been re-published by Lifehacker, Hypebot, and CD Baby.
Facebook is the largest marketing channel for most musicians and bands. Surprisingly, it’s also the one they know least about. This guide breaks down why Facebook is important, how it works, and most importantly, the steps to make Facebook work for musicians and fans.
Artists, you can’t be blamed. Many of you developed your social networking habits on Myspace, Twitter, or YouTube. These platforms are (or were) a lot more straightforward than Facebook. In most cases you post it, forget it, then maybe check the numbers later. Not only do these inattentive social media habits fail on Facebook, they can actually hurt you in a very quantitative way.
Furthermore, Facebook largely ignored music for most of its existence. By the time Facebook introduced musician/band pages and artists started amassing an audience there, musicians got dropped into an unfamiliar, fully-formed social networking culture—without any sort of learning curve, burdened with the behavioral baggages of outdated social networks.
But Facebook is really not that hard, and if done right, you have a lot to gain. By numbers alone, there are more people that regularly sign into Facebook than Twitter + Myspace + YouTube combined. It’s really important now more than ever to optimize your Facebook presence.
EdgeRank: What It Is, Why It Matters
Before we get into actionable tips, we need to familiarize ourselves with the concept of EdgeRank.
EdgeRank is the name of the algorithm that Facebook uses to determine how often your content appears on a user’s news feed. This is key. Most of your fans don’t explicitly visit your artist page, so the only realistic chance of reaching them on Facebook is to appear on their respective news feeds. This is essentially what counts for “distribution” on Facebook.
EdgeRank' algorhithm determines what a user will see on their news feed. It attempts to filter out all the crap that gets shared on Facebook, and tries to predict what any given user will actually want to see. To any given fan, your musician/band page is competing with thousands of other friends, pages and other objects to grab their news feed real estate.
So how does EdgeRank determine if your Facebook post is news feed worthy? One word: ENGAGEMENT. You need your fans to like, comment and share your Facebook posts. Anytime one of your fans engages with one of your posts, they’re more likely to see your following posts. Conversely, if a lot of your fans engage with your status update in the first few moments it’s posted, fans who sign into Facebook later are more likely to see it on their news feed. So early engagement on a post can be proportionately more important.
Have you noticed how your most liked posts end up getting the most impressions? Exactly.
There’s a lot of ways EdgeRank slices many factors that affect your news feed distribution. If you’d like to dive into the specifics of EdgeRank, google it and you’ll get a wealth of detailed articles, like thisthis, and this.
No matter how facebook slices it, your actionable instruction remains the same: GET MORE ENGAGEMENT! Get those likes, those comments, those shares. Make it your main goal with Facebook. These engagement points build on top of itself, ensuring better and better distribution on news feeds over time as your engagement improves. It’s something like a credit score for your Facebook page, and the algorithm lends you more impressions the better you perform.
Now that we’ve established the importance of getting good engagement on Facebook, let’s dive into art of actually doing it.
Posting to Maximize Engagement: A Checklist
Photos, Photos, Photos: Photos do well on facebook. Always consider a good and relevant image upload to accompany a status update. This one tactic alone can multiply your distribution, so be generous with the photo uploads. If possible, orient a photo in a square or portrait alignment (more engagement since it doesn’t get cropped in the news feed.) But don’t worry too much about it—a good landscape-oriented photo is better than no photo at all.
Geo-targeting: Does it makes sense to geo target? You can geo-target posts by city, state, provinces, or country. Geo-targeted posts usually reach a higher percentage of fans in the targeted location. Consider geo-targeting for tour dates, radio support, local appearances, etc.
Tip:* Are you geo-targeting a post to an international country? Post in their language. Seriously, you will get a ridiculously good engagement % from this.
Say More With Less: Shorter posts generally do well, so keep it snappy. Exceptions: heartfelt, substantial, personal, emotional, soul-baring, or narrative posts. Avoid being too self-promotional. Promote it gently. Be funny! Be surprising! Be authentic! Show personality! Dance on the line of what’s acceptable or not. If you can elicit a guttural respons, you’re more likely to get engagement. (Good example: (George Takei.)[https://www.facebook.com/georgehtakei])
Mind the Time: If possible, spread out updates over time. Avoid overlapping peaks between two posts. I would wait at least 2 hours between posts, preferably longer. The lifespan of any given status update is a lot longer than a typical tweet, since EdgeRank can surface a post several hours and days after its publish time. By giving any given status update enough time to engage, you avoid cannibalizing your own engagement per successive post. Use the scheduler to queue up posts if necessary.
Interact With Fans: Spend a few moments after posting interacting with fans who leave comments on your status update. Like their comments, and respond to them in your own comment box. As your fans see likes and comments coming from your page, they’re a lot more likely to leave a comment themselves, hoping that you might see their comment. And comments especially are EdgeRank gold! Plus, it’s an easy and quick way to make your fans' day. Questions can work well. Try ending any given status update with a question that directly relates to your post. It can help jump start the commenting.
Celebrate: Holidays are the ultimate zeitgeist moments; they are a great opportunity to engage with your fans. Put up holiday-themed posts on the day of, including unofficial ones like Valentines day, Mother’s/Father’s day, Halloween, etc.
Say It With a Lyric: Are you a lyrical musician? Spell out your own lyrics in a status update, especially if it’s relevant to whatever else you’re pushing in the status update (links, videos, pics, etc.). Your lyrics are akin to a secret code language with your fans, especially if they’ve already emotionally connected with your words in song. Fans like that. Format lyrics to imply that they are indeed lyrics. And make it easy on the eyes, make it flow like the cadence of the song. The quicker the fan can recognize the lyrics, the quicker they will “like” the post.
In-Line Previews: Are links properly displaying in-line preview? You can adjust the image and description in the in-line preview before you post. Make edits as necessary.
Pins and Highlights: Pinning moves a post to the top wall. To pin a post, click the pencil icon that shows up when you mouse to the upper right-hand corner. Highlighting expands a post across the full width of the wall. To highlight a post, click the star icon that appears when you move your mouse to the upper right-hand corner of any post.
Milestones: Don’t forget to use Milestone posts for key moments from your life. Milestones are distributed wider, get more engagement, and are automatically expanded. You can created milestones in your timeline after-the-fact. Tell a story of your career on Facebook: album releases, chart accomplishments, signing to management or labels, etc.
Avoid Sloppy Auto-Posting Apps: Avoid auto-posting features, plug-ins and apps that don’t properly inline preview content to links: Tumblr, Twitter, etc. Exception: Instagram. One of the few auto-posting apps that properly auto-posts to FB, and gets good engagement. If you’re a frequent Twitterer, do NOT have Facebook auto-post your tweets. The Facebook audience and algorithm have less patience for frequent updates. And if fans start choosing to receive less updates from you (which they can do with one click), your EdgeRank will suffer.
The Psychology of Click-throughs: Oftentimes your main objective in posting a given status update is to get click-throughs on a link. In this situation, you still want to write to maximize engagement because that gets you distribution. But you need to mind the goal of getting click-throughs as well. To that end, write a message that gives your fans a really good, direct reason to click through. Think like a fan, make them want it. Think of how the most trafficked bloggers use headlines to lure their audience to click through: oftentimes they’ll tease you into clicking through to the full article. They’ll appeal to your sense of surprise, novelty or exclusivity. For example, a lot of them use the tactic of priming your curiosity, holding back key info to compel you to click-through to satisfy your itch.
Facebook Feedback Fun
I’ve re-hashed the above advice to countless artists and managers over the years, and oftentimes the last question they’ll ask me is what sort of engagement numbers they should be aiming for. That’s easy: better than what you were doing before!
On a per status update basis, you should pay attention to all the obvious stats: likes, comments, shares, and impressions. You want to aim for better stats than what you’re used to seeing. Over longer periods of time, check your Insights and pay attention to the “Talking About This” graph. The “Talking About This” stat measures how many of your fans liked, commented or shared your posts - the exact raw materials needed to produce higher EdgeRank and distribution.
Engagement can be unpredictable, so embrace that failure will happen. You might create the perfect post and still bomb. That’s okay, it’s a great opportunity to think through why it failed, and cognitively earn your way to your own conclusions.
And last but not least, have fun with it! Strategic Facebooking doesn’t need to be a sinister machiavellian, manipulative, marketing scheme. Most of your fans actually want to hear from you and interact with you, and by employing the above tips, you are doing your part to reach them halfway. As an added bonus, Facebook gives you real-time feedback on how well your posts are performing. You’ll be surprised by the wisdom you gain into human psychology from observing your own FB engagement over time. Personally, I find it intellectually stimulating. Every status update is a creative, collaborative endeavor: put a little bit of yourself out there, and see how your fans respond.
The following chart is sourced straight from the RIAA year end sales report. It is released every March, and it is the reason you read about the year-over-year triumphs of digital downloads in the face of plummeting CD sales. It is the reason everyone knows that the physical format is dead, the music industry was slow to respond to P2P, and the industry-wide contraction was their price to pay… yada yada yada, I’m not here to beat that dead horse (yet).
It’s not the #s that interest me; they’re all predictable data points continuing a decade long trend. No, I’m more interested in the format of the chart. Ever since about 2004, the RIAA has formatted their year end sales summary in the same binary digital / physical layout.
It’s a false dichotomy. Digital downloads share a lot more in common with physical media than the music industry might hope for. And that’s bad news for the major labels in general. Here’s why:
“Units” Are Becoming Obsolete Even if it’s delivered over TCP/IP, the selling and downloading of song files is a vestigial consumer behavior leftover from the physical media era. Consumers are still transitioning out of the idea of “owning” their music, and downloads happened to be that natural and convenient next step in the “digital” age.
But the clouds are forming, and the storm is bound to rain (apologies for the blatant metaphor). Between Youtube, blogs and Spotify, you can already find just about any song you could possibly want to hear. Anecdotally I hear more and more kids who can’t be bothered to download anymore - the gratification is so much more instant on YouTube. Increasingly, the main value of buying or pirating an MP3 these days is that it’s a mode of cataloguing a personal music library (and sloppy one at that). Even this distinction is eroding under the increasing maturation of cloud music.
And so it follows that…
Digital downloads will plateau in 3-5 years It’s easy to ignore the impending free fall that’s going to happen in the record industry. After all, digital download revenues continues to see double digit year-over-year growth. In fact, in the next year or two, we should see digital download revenues top CD revenues for the first time. At about which time we should expect the industry press echo chamber to renew the hopeful charge that people can and will continue to buy music.
But again, both pirated and legal downloads will continue to drown under the clouds. Given the quickening advance of the clouds and the generational turnover of music’s primary consumer (i.e. young people), my guess is that the legal digital download market will peak soon after it laps the CD in overall revenues.
When digital downloads peaks, that’s when the recorded music industry will truly trip into a free fall of diminishing returns. And sure, the subscription model has yet to hit its hockey stick, and we haven’t seen the full potential of digital performance royalties (i.e. internet radio). But even if overall streaming revenues match “moving units” revenue, the transactional structure of those models are fundamentally worse for the record industry, because….
When Plays Replace Products, Labels Lose Leverage With the recent successes of Spotify, you’re starting to find more stories like this, this and this, that attempt to calculate the amount of subscription plays it takes to equal a download purchase. The most optimistic scenario has a paid subscriber listening to an artist’s song anywhere from 25-60 times to equal the takeaway from 1 paid download. With only 1.3 million paying subscribers in 2011, most subscription listens come from free users, who need to play a song anywhere from 80-300 times to equal the takeaway from 1 paid download.
Sure, these numbers are in the realm of possibility for any given addictive song, but that’s not the point. CDs and paid downloads meant you had your fans pay up front, thereby guaranteeing an inflated threshold per piece of “sold” content. This transactional dynamic is inherent when you’re moving units, physical OR digital.
When we get to a sophisticated access/subscription model, artists and right holders aren’t charging their fans directly for a discrete product, but instead pandering for their plays.
This is a significant shift, and undermines much of how labels have been operating over the decades. Labels are in the business of selling product directly to consumers. The digital download is an extension of that. But when the imperative is plays, the leverage and interests of right holders changes. The threshold value of any piece of recorded content, lowers. The play becomes conceptualized as currency, and other connected actions from fans — like social media favors, emails, and perhaps most importantly, as traffic bait for direct-to-fan products — are suddenly a lot more attractive objectives for any given song launch.
Point being, right holders will be less interested in guarding their songs for sale when selling is not the point.
All this is not to say that the music industry as a whole is doomed. My ultimate point is that when recorded content becomes un-productized, it ups the viability of other types of direct-to-fan products.
Currently, “direct-to-fan” in the music industry primarily means they’re going to email fans to buy the next album. That’s a superficial application of direct-to-fan.
I want to save my hypothesis on what the next “music industry” product will become for future posts, but I think it helps to think about some of the more creative tiers of support you’re starting to see from artist Kickstarter projects. Think tiered, high margin products that emphasize some sort of direct, relationship-based access to artist. These are the types of authentic “experiences” you can sell online, without worrying about piracy (short of cloning the artist). It’s this sort of fan based patronage that may fund a veritable renaissance of artistic creativity in the 21st century.
Or not. Either way, we’ll find out when iTunes becomes obsolete.
(EDIT: This post is reposted from my former blog, trackswell.com. It’s since been reposted by Hypebot. The Hacker News discussion is here.)