Tim Anderson: Theorizing the social musician

Capital’s resilience as technologies and cultures change lies in the systematic priority placed on value development and extraction. However, this does not imply that actors in these systems clearly understand their roles in the process. As industries change, equal amounts of optimism comingle with confusion as practitioners experiment with new roles and practices that they had not anticipated. In this article, I explore such changes and adaptations in the music industry following the advent of digital technology and the Internet. Specifically, I look at how musicians have had to rethink where their value lies for listeners and how some have come to believe that it rests in developing and exploring online social communities.

Just like any major change following the infusion of new technologies (e.g., music videos, CDs), the severe decline in the sale of recorded music objects over the past fifteen years has forced labels to rethink their investment strategies. One experiment has come in the form of “360 deals”—contracts that demand income from every stream available to musicians. At the same time, labels have begun to structure their investments around already-proven commercial talents. For most undeveloped artists, this has meant that the once-small chance of employing many of the significant advantages that major labels bring to the table—professional marketing teams and well-positioned industrial contacts—has become almost infinitesimally small. Indeed, musicians have also been rethinking how they fit into a marketplace and their market identity. For much of this debate and negotiation about what it means to be a performer and what investments need to be made, the focus is no longer how to sell records but how to generate a substantial online reputation and social capital that can be converted to numerous exchanges of music and music-oriented products/events. In addition, as the institutional support of labels has waned, more and more artists have also had to conceive of themselves as “entrepreneurs.” Musicians in this mode are not only creating music but also learning how to act as independent brand managers.

Key to this has been the disconnect between record sales and live performances, something that has become both an accepted fact in the contemporary music industry and a catalyst to many who need to reimagine their position in the industry. For example, for many top acts it is becoming clearer that record releases have morphed into opening salvos for a larger product rollout, such as a band’s tour and accompanying merchandise. This significant reversal of the longstanding twentieth-century tradition, where the tour supported the record, allows one to easily conceive of U2’s recent release of an ostensibly “free” record through Apple’s iTunes as something of a promotion for a future tour that hopes to pass the $760 million in gross earnings of the band’s most recent tour that ended in 2011.

Indeed, much has been made of those musicians who have produced “free” recordings to acquire the attention of online users. Once users become contacts and, perhaps, part of your community, musicians can then experiment with these networks at their discretion. Such is the case of the American independent musician Jonathan Coulton, who in the early 2000s decided to leave his job as a computer programmer to pursue a life in music. In 2005 Coulton began an experiment in gaining an audience by producing and giving away a song a week for a year in the form of a free podcast to catch the attention of listeners. By 2007 the experiment had shown buds of success, and Coulton’s career began to blossom to the point where he could claim that he was making more money as a musician than he had in his last year as a programmer (Laporte 2008).

Jonathan Coulton (taken by Julie Coulter, via Flickr)

Coulton’s ability to connect with fans is well documented in his website’s wiki, which has gained significant attention. The “Fan Projects” page of JoCopedia documents how listeners have either employed or adapted Coulton’s works. These projects include fan-directed T-shirt design contests, video contests, cover song tributes, playlists, a Jonathan Coulton musical, and an Internet cover band called the Mandelbrot Set (Coulton 2012b). This fan base is something that Coulton has always stressed others can reach. Because of the many web tools and platforms that arose in the 2000s, artists could forge surprisingly intimate two-way connections between themselves and their fans. Coulton advises that artists could “start a blog,” where they can write and offer samples or even entire projects online. He also says that artists should go online where they think fans may be, free up their work, and put it in “any one of the million different places where people come to discover new music.” For Coulton, the artist’s part of this process involves actively generating a new imagination necessary to build a successful online presence. According to Coulton, artists must:

… pretend the audience is there, even if you think it’s zero. The truth is, your friends will come and read it. And then it’ll be your friends and some guy who lives in Cleveland who you never met. Just keep talking and putting stuff out there. My thing has always been to talk about what I’m doing as a musician and why I’m doing it. “Hey, I quit my day job, wonder if this will work,” and, “Hey, I posted a new song and nobody liked it. Oh, well.” All this stuff is interesting to the people who care about you, whether they’re your friends or your rapidly growing fan base. If you’re consistent, word of mouth will grow your audience. (Feehan and Chertkow 2009)

As Coulton notes, when online traffic grows, the responsibilities that the artist must engage also grow. In 2009 he described the manner in which he curried his audience by explaining that his new routine placed unprecedented demands on him:

At the height of it, I would spend five hours a day on the non-music stuff. I would head to the coffee shop, sit at the laptop, answer e-mails, read and post blog comments, and work on my site. It was intense and not glamorous. But I treated it as my job. But I was also so thrilled to be receiving comments on my music. So I would spend my day responding . (ibid)

Connecting with his fans allows Coulton not only to cater more efficiently to their needs but also to discover where he could possibly tour. To be sure, these tools have made Coulton “wonder how [musicians] did it the other way for so long. It’s the only way I have been able to tour—by finding the places where I actually could make money” (ibid). Coulton emphasizes that these practices have been the key to his success: “I honestly don’t believe I could have made this thing happen under the old [music business] system. So to me, the Internet is everything—it changed my life, it saved me, it continues to sustain me today” (Coulton 2012a).

It’s important to underscore both Coulton’s entrepreneurialism and the manner in which he understands his job: Coulton sees himself as a musician with a distinct social aspect. In this sense he shares a similar approach to work as Amanda Palmer, the most heralded “social musician” in North America. Like Coulton, Palmer views social networking tools as essential for today’s musicians. Reporting about Palmer for the Washington Times, Andrew Leahy noted that:

Twitter updates, e-mail correspondence and blog entries are a daily part of the songwriter’s life. [Palmer] views them as indispensable tools, as central to the process of promoting her music as a full-time publicist. They effectively cut out the middleman, giving Miss Palmer direct access to her fans and—much to her audience’s delight—ensuring something of a reciprocal relationship. (2009)

While this ability to connect with fans seems to be, to quote Palmer, “a huge blessing,” it comes with the responsibility of being “always on” (ibid). For Palmer, a musician whose substantial fan network allowed her to generate more than $1 million in a crowdsourcing campaign for her 2012 album, the responsibility of always being socially active online hit home when she admitted to an anxiety about not blogging when she took a trip to China. Deciding to take a week off from her computer as she traveled, Palmer openly worried that she would “pay for those seven days in China by working 18-hour days at home, where [her] fingers will rarely come off [her] computer keys and [her] piano” (ibid). As Coulton told New York Times Magazine in 2007, “people always think that when you’re a musician you’re sitting around strumming your guitar, and that’s your job. But this, this is my job” (Thompson 2007).

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra (taken by Audrey Penven, via Flickr)

The job for Coulton and Palmer, as well as other musicians, has become, in short, the generation and accumulation of the social capital needed to create strong affiliations with fans. Indeed, one of the most important items that strong fans provide are connections to significantly fewer and potentially new fans who are necessary to intensify and grow a musician’s audience base. In this sense, both Coulton and Palmer are assembling online communities that are necessarily (although not sufficiently) sustained by ever-emerging sets of online technologies, engagements, and performances to create and leverage network effects. Of course, the ability to engage community has always played an important role in popular music, specifically in scenes, genres, and fan networks. Arguably, one could consider the social aspect of music making and listening as the lifeblood of any musical event, live or otherwise. Christopher Small notes that musical events often forge connections among strangers: “Strangers they may be to one another, and yet in certain respects not strangers at all. Those taking part in any musical event are to some extent self-selected in terms of their sense of who they are or of who they feel themselves to be, and this event is no exception” (1998). The social component of music is not a byproduct of music, but it is an essential component of every musical experience, whether listening (the exchange between musicians, audience, clubbing, etc.) or playing (the interpretation of social forms, generic tropes, playing with others, in relation to composition, etc.). For many it is the aesthetic terrain that musical performance and exchange generate that exists as one of the primary values offered by music.

Music’s social terrain is one of the values that online social networks have come to recognize, as many have incorporated music into their services. Just as blogs have taken the place of many music-oriented publications, social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube quickly realized that the infrastructure leverages taste formations and allows listeners to enjoy discovering music both asynchronously and in “real time.” Through this process of online discovery, those invested in social networks have found a way to exploit online allegiances in which the musical taste formations engage and generate. This explains the emphasis that the music industry as a whole feels it must place on online social allegiances.1 Nancy Baym has argued that these new online connections “may entail a shift away from seeing the audience as revenue streams toward seeing them as relation partners engaged in a shared enterprise” (2011). Indeed, the value of social networks has become even more important as they have increasingly integrated with streaming services that leverage the ability of users to “share.” The creation of legal, cloud-based streaming systems connected with social networks creates an economic imperative where content’s value is developed through its usage. In this user-based model, value is created through sharing and association, thus the emphasis is to create media designed to be significantly altered through its rapid, continual exchange by users.

Unlike a commodity mode of exchange, this gift mode encourages continual and, for lack of a better term, “freer” forms of circulation. As such, value is dependent on the continual generation of desire rather than on the production of desire for a specific release. Indeed, as this new paradigm has displaced a number of organizing principles that musicians and producers have relied on for decades, none of which has been easy to unlearn, artists and industry alike have begun to conceive of how to make one’s work more “open” and “shareable,” a concept that has taken some time for artists and labels to understand. The consequences of this re-conception have meant rethinking the pertinence of long-established aesthetic formats and practices, such as the album. Such is the argument Dave Allen, formerly of the post-punk group Gang of Four, makes in a 2009 blog posted on the Hypebot-managed site Music Think Tank. Because digital music is offered under the umbrella of “ubiquitous access,” Allen explains, “music fans are no longer patiently waiting for their favorite bands to deliver new music according to the old customary cycle—album, press release, video, radio, tour.” Instead, an act must simply become more social than before as “the fan base has to be regularly and consistently engaged,” sometimes through the occasional release rather than an annual dumping of ten to twelve songs. Most important, this has meant that musicians should forget everything they knew about the “business” and “start to monetize the experience around your music” (Allen 2009).

This monetization of “experiences around music” is not an easy task. For example, at least one music business columnist labeled 2010 as the year of “direct-to-consumer” and proclaimed that musicians and businesses now had to work hard to rearrange their business priorities into a set of relationships with users. This, however, would prove to be difficult. Russel Coultart—CEO and founder of Digital Stores, a UK-based online service that runs digital storefronts for bands such as the Beatles and Queen—warned:

It’s very hard to make [direct-to-consumer] work. You have to be prepared to go the extra mile. You always have to put yourself in the position of the fan and understand what it is they want. It is not about “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap”; it’s about engaging properly with the fan. And a lot of people just don’t understand that … The artists that understand it’s about being everywhere are the ones who are going to succeed. (Forde 2010)

 In another example, music entrepreneur and label owner Budi Vogt noted in a blog post that if an artist wants to be signed, after presenting a studio with a potential hit record, musicians need to recognize that:

 … there’s something else that’s becoming increasingly important—independent power. With the rise of all the social networks and other online tools, it’s easier than ever to market yourself independently as an artist … As a result, labels are increasingly looking for artists that would be able to make it “big” by themselves; with big and dedicated fan bases, unique marketing styles and great ways of branding themselves. This is becoming a hugely important part of the equation. They want to pick up the acts that could become “viral” without them. (2013)

Indeed, just as musicians have learned the value of the “social,” labels have decided to adjust how they would turn their investments away from the sale of objects to a more data-driven set of licensing and entertainment services that is best expressed in the aforementioned “360” or “all-rights” deal. Because these deals treat bands as brands that have manufactured allegiances, labels have invested in marketing teams that understand social media rollouts and connections that help them better license their intellectual properties. For musicians, this means not only understanding fans as intermediaries with whom they must collaborate but also recognizing themselves as entrepreneurial entities whose music is a primary investment around which value is generated. Indeed, for many, the directive is not to bemoan the loss of record sales but instead to focus “on the live sector, merchandise, and licensing” (Warnes 2010). In the words of digital marketer Shea Warnes, “we have been dwelling over what music once was for so long, it’s time we start moving forward” (ibid.)

Tim Anderson is an Associate Professor at Old Dominion University in the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts. The majority of this research comes from his most recently published monograph, Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project is dedicated to better understanding the rise of recorded music and dance spaces in the twentieth century as an alternative public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com, and he can be contacted at tjanders@odu.edu.

Allen, Dave. 2009. “The end of the music album as the organizing principle.” Music Think Tank, April 1.

Baym, Nancy. 2011. The Swedish model: Balancing markets and gifts in the music industry. Popular Communication 9(1): 22–38, doi: 10.1080/15405702.2011.536680.

Coulton, Jonathan. 2012a. “Emily and David.” JonathanCoulton.com, June 20.

Coulton, Jonathan. 2012b. “Fan projects.” JoCopedia (accessed 21 February 2015).

Feehan, Jason, and Randy Chertkow. 2009. Industry insider: Jonathan Coulton. Electronic Musician, August 1.

Forde, Eamonn. 2009. Digital: Music at the core of social networking, survey reveals. Music Week, 28 March, 9.

Forde, Eamonn. 2010. Midem 2010: Monetisation: The reckoning. Music Week, 23 January, 18.

Laporte, Leo. 2008. Episode 133: Jonathan Coulton – Functional and elegant. This Week in Tech, February 24.

Leahy, Andrew. 2009. Riffs: Amanda Palmer pays her own wages. The Washington Times, 13 November, B3.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Thompson, Clive. 2007. Sex, drugs and updating your blog. New York Times Magazine, May 13.

Voogt, Budi. 2013. “The musician’s unconventional guide to getting a record label deal.” budivoogt.com, September 9.

Warnes, Shea. 2010. “There is no money in the music industry: Are we all in it for the money though!?Music Think Tank, November 2.

1. The global research firm NPD Group surveyed listeners in the United Kingdom and the United States in 2007 and 2008, and the results indicated “that music is a key component of social networking activity and digital is central to their discovery of music and artists” (Forde 2009). Furthermore, the difference between the fourth quarters in 2007 and 2008 clearly suggests that social networks were quickly becoming important forces in this new digital ecosystem. In Q4 of 2007, 15 percent of listeners listened to music on social networks, and by Q4 2008 the figure had grown to 19 percent. But more staggering were the percentages and growth rates of college students listening on social networks. In Q4 of 2007, 30 percent of college students listened to music on social networks, but by Q4 2008 that number had risen to 41 percent (ibid).

Cite as: Anderson, Tim. 2015. “Theorizing the social musician,” FocaalBlog, April 17, www.focaalblog.com/2015/04/17/tim-anderson-theorizing-the-social-musician.