15 MB of Fame: Independent Musicians Use of MySpace

Marjorie D Kibby. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 2: Popular Music. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

There is a perception that the ability to swap, purchase, or trade music files over the Internet has revolutionized the music industry. However, while compressed files and online distribution may have hastened the revolution, they were not in themselves the source of the current upheaval in the industry. The changes toward a consumer-artist business model can be traced back to the early nineties mergers and acquisitions creating ever-larger record labels, plus rising promotional costs and a slump in the sale of compact disks, combining to produce a climate in which the major labels were reluctant to take a risk with new artists, emerging genres, or innovative formats. In response, small independent labels began to produce music that people wanted to hear, catering to niche markets. Home taping became a major concern for the labels as consumers created and swapped their own music products, more suited to their musical tastes than the CDs on offer in the stores.1One effect of this trend was that the artist-listener relationship grew closer than it had been for a long time, as consumers bypassed established promotional channels and sought out individual artists, sharing information on releases and tours with others in their taste culture.

The role that mp3s and the Web played in the revolution was to facilitate a movement that had already begun; speed, convenience, and cost effectiveness proving to be a major impetus to the move to connect artists and audiences without an intermediary. “Online music allows the consumer to be in control, not the A. & R. executive,” and it enables independent musicians and small labels to challenge the stranglehold of the major labels, “bringing about a return to the independent musician as the centre of the music world.”

The business of music has three major components: production, marketing, and distribution. The major labels were able to control the music business by controlling these three components through symbiotic relationships between recording studios, music press, retailers, merchandisers, radio stations, and performance venues. This enabled them to lock the three components into a package that was provided to the musicians who signed with them. However, recording artists have become increasingly dissatisfied with the terms enforced by major labels in return for this package, including recording restrictions, retained revenues, ownership and control of the music, and restricted marketing options.

Developments in recording technologies enabled the small studio, allowing some musicians to take back a measure of control over the production process. Now musicians are using the Internet to circumvent the labels’ domination of marketing and distribution. As Darryl McDaniel of Run DMC says of promoting your own music online, “You don’t have to answer to A. & R., you don’t need anyone’s permission, you can make your own music.”

While the Internet provides a way for artists to market their music direct to consumers without having to chain themselves to a binding, lengthy, and often inequitable recording contract, freedom of distribution is not the same thing as effective marketing, and independent musicians who move their business online will need to create effective links to consumers they can distribute to. Recording technology placed a distance between performer and listener; however, fans still maintained a connection with the musician as “symbolic links were developed to maintain a sense of commonality between performer and listener, and create a community among fans.” The development of social networking provided a way to restore those links in a more tangible form, and independent musicians are using social networking sites such as MySpace to connect directly with their fan base without the intermediation of a major label.

Myspace and Impression Management

MySpace is one of over 200 social networking Web sites—online spaces that provide a variety of ways for people to connect. The sites facilitate community development by combining a range of communication tools from one-to-one to many-to-many modes; for example, from instant messaging through blogs to wikis and file uploads. These sites allow users to find others with similar interests, to maintain contact with distant acquaintances, or to extend their circle of friends. At a fundamental level, social networking sites mimic the development of face-to-face acquaintances through networks; users meet new people through existing friends and the friends of friends. At the core of the MySpace site is the ability to create a profile, an expression of who the user is through descriptions of interests and tastes, a blog of daily thoughts and activities, and personal photos and videos. These profiles are linked through friends’ networks. With 80 percent of the market share, MySpace is currently the most visited of the social networking sites. Initially, when it was launched in 2003, it was primarily populated by 20-somethings interested in the LA indie music scene. It still has a strong association with contemporary music and was the first of the social networks to provide a specific profile for musicians and bands to communicate with their audiences, including the representatives from publishers, venues, and broadcasters that also use MySpace. The popular media now regularly cover stories of musicians using MySpace as a springboard, such as that of Ingrid Michaelson, an unsigned musician whose music was discovered on MySpace and featured on four episodes of the television drama Grey’s Anatomy.

danah boyd sees three major issues surrounding teens’ use of MySpace: identity production, hanging out, and digital publics. For MySpace musicians the issues are very similar: impression management, making fans of “friends,” and digital marketing. As boyd says, “the dynamics of identity production play out visibly on MySpace.” Users are given basic tools (words, images, colors, sounds) from which to construct an impression of their identity. An interpretive textual analysis of the MySpace sites of seven musicians and personal follow-up interviews with them suggested that, for them, the music was a primary source of their identity production with other elements playing a more or less minor role. The elements that MySpace provides musicians on their homepage include: icon, headline, location, profile, genre categories, influences, sounds like, label and type, music player, friends’ space, signature, and visitors’ comments.

Musicians make use of the available tools within the given constraints to create a space that depicts the image of the band that they want to project. Impression management is the process of employing a range of methods in order to influence or control the impressions others form of one’s identity, a process first described by Goffman. A study of participants on Facebook and MySpace revealed that a profile on these sites is “judged on the impression management skills of its creator.”

The MySpace screen is a cluttered place, and while there are numerous third-party applications, such as Pimp-My-Profile, most seem to add glowing text and raining symbols to further complicate the layout rather than methods for projecting a clear, streamlined message. The top left of the screen is a key area for creating an immediate visual impression to accompany the music that plays as the site is opened. The musician’s photo on the top left of the screen becomes the icon displayed on friends’ sites and beside the comments left on other pages, so it is a key signifier. The genre categories display immediately above the image, below the artist’s name. The three elements (image, name, and genre) have the potential to be linked with the track being played to create a strong, unified impression of the musician and their music.

The background colors, photos, and videos and how the site varies from the standard format all contribute to the image of the musician. As Nick Green from Heartbreak Club said, “there are little details you can employ to further certain things you would associate with your music.” Other elements that can be used to create a band identity are the “influences” and “sounds like” sections where musicians can list other artists or give a description of their musical philosophy. These sections come up in MySpace searches, so it is a way for bands to enhance linkages rather than simply provide similarities; a search for a known musician will bring up the sites of those that have described themselves as sounding like the original. This would seem to be one of the strengths of MySpace as a promotional tool over a standalone Web site; there is the ability to create networks that enhance identity production and promotion. Yet, it did not seem to be an element that was consciously or constructively used in this way by the musicians interviewed. While identity management is a documented concern of individual users of online social sites, musicians seemed to have less interest in communicating “this is who we are” than “this is our music,” though Matt Baker of Thirsty Merc said that “MySpace means you can go and assess an artist on your own time and in your own terms and make your decision based on the way they have presented their website.” The Thirsty Merc MySpace site gave neither influences nor sounds like musicians; Anthony Snape used both spaces for a poetic description and a slideshow of images; the other five musicians gave a list of 10 to 25 influences, but none provided the names of musicians they sound like. This space was used for links to an online store, a sign-up for a street team, and reviews of the music from the press. The nonuse of this feature was explained in terms of the musician having an original sound, one that did not sound like anyone else.

How individuals present themselves isn’t always a conscious choice. As Goffman explains, some aspects of identity may be actively given, but others are given off without conscious intent. Beliefs, philosophy, history, and so forth can leak out through a number of channels without the individual’s knowledge. With the musicians of MySpace, the artist’s image is not only being communicated through the consciously constructed profile but also through other site elements such as the comments left by visitors, the listing of top friends, and the groups belonged to or managed. With up to 50 comments displayed on the homepage, the comments are a highly visible symbol of the artist, yet one that does not seem to be actively controlled by most musicians. A line of artists with icons that mesh with the artist’s profile; or that are funny, clever, or informative; or that positively review the musician’s performance or recordings enhance the group’s projected identity. Many of Thirsty Merc’s visitors use an icon that features them posing with the group’s lead singer, giving off the impression of an approachable, fan-oriented band. A long line of amateurish icons, simple “Thanks for the add” messages, large advertisements for incompatible music styles, and spam selling mobile phones and computer software may all have a negative impact on identity management. While deleting comments may seem to be counterproductive to building a fan-base, the high level of visibility of the comments displayed makes it valuable to select to display those that project the desired image, or at least to delete those that reflect an undesirable characteristic. While a user can have thousands of MySpace friends, the icons of the top 4, 8, or 16 are displayed on the homepage. It is possible to “View all friends,” but the top group is an immediate signifier of musical or stylistic connections. By default, the friends who have been MySpace members the longest are displayed, which may convey very little information about the artist’s affiliations, whereas eight prominent artists in the same genre, or eight similar performers, or eight musicians who have appeared at the same venues can give a clear and immediate impression. For example, MC Lars’ top friends are quirky storytellers: Weird Al Yankovic, King Missile, Bowling for Soup, and Atom and his Package suggesting a similar approach to material by MC Lars.

Making Fans of Friends

For many people, music is the method through which acquaintances are made and friendships develop. “In a context where individuals were free to discuss absolutely anything that they considered relevant to the task of becoming acquainted, the majority talked about music.” People believe that their musical preferences are more revealing of their personalities than other tastes and interests, particularly for young people who report much stronger musical preferences than older adults. Most social interaction involves music, and the social interaction on MySpace is no different. MySpace represents a new system for hanging out and hooking up, activities in which music has an integral role, but it follows traditional patterns. Individuals believe music preferences reveal information about their identities, they deliberately use music preferences to convey information about themselves, and they use music as a common topic of conversation when getting to know someone.

MySpace is structured on a network of friends. Music preferences play an important role in constructing these networks, and as a result, musicians are able to use friends’ networks to introduce themselves to new audiences and maintain contact with existing fans. Unlike musician-oriented discussion boards, where fans talk to each other, on MySpace visitors leave comments addressed to the site owner, and a response is made by leaving a comment on the visitor’s site. There is no conversational flow but rather a series of parallel statements directed at the musician. Fans have always drawn pleasure from a mostly imaginary reciprocity with their favorite musicians. The commodification of popular music that followed the development of recording technology inscribed a division between music producers and music consumers. But despite an increasing gap between them and the performer, fans retained a belief in the bonds linking them, though these links were largely illusory. MySpace enables the connection to seem a little more real.

MC Lars believes that with music the product is not something physical but rather “the interaction with the listener,” the connection that is formed between a musician and an audience. Nick Green agrees, saying that MySpace provides “that sense of communication with the artist. It’s a lot more person-on-person, even just leaving a comment gives a feeling of connection.” MySpace provides a number of ways of building Friends networks, including a search by keywords, topics, areas of interest, and artist names; perusing the Friends list of similar bands and looking through the comments section on relevant musicians sites and browsing for people based on postcode, age, and other demographic criteria. The browse feature was probably designed to facilitate online dating, but it can be a useful tool for targeting a market segment. Mark Wells of Supersonic sees MySpace as “a sort of word-of-mouth equivalent on the net, where people find out about other’s acts just by referring people on to their mates’ sites and stuff like that.” Matt Baker of Thirsty Merc says that they are less interested in the social aspects of MySpace: “I’m not playing the game that a lot of them do, where they treat it like an internet chat room. For me it’s a business thing, not a social thing … that’s how I’ve set [my MySpace site] up, and it’s basically like an online resume—the equivalent of a website but in MySpace format.” However a comment left on Thirsty Merc’s site says “Do you guys ever respond to comments? You should.” Morgan Evans of Solver believes “That’s the secret to why we’ve had 15,000 hits in the last month and a half, and every other Newcastle band has had, probably, 3,000—because we actually sit on there for an hour to two hours every day, each and reply … through those 200 messages, people feel like they’re getting to know us, and they come to the shows.” A visitor to MC Lars’ site left the following comment “I’ve gotta say, when I read my comments, and saw you had commented, I kinda went like, crazy. It’s awesome that you take the time to like, reply to your fans.” Solver also uses bulletins with appropriate subject headings to communicate with specific groups of fans. You don’t need EMI to tell people in one city the details of dates and venues, “When we want to promote one of our tours … in the heading we’ll say what it’s about, like ‘Insurgency begins in Port Macquarie.’ ”

Young people’s creation and maintenance of Friends networks using social software has been explained in terms of the fundamental values that drive their use of communication technologies. A study of young consumers’ use of interactive technologies revealed five key values: the opportunity to express one’s identity, social interaction, immediate and constant entertainment, discovery, and the ability to create and record. People in their teens and early twenties are going through a stage of identity formation and development, and music plays an important part in this process. MySpace facilitates both the linking of self and favorite artists and the publicizing of that link to others. In this age group, the specific activity is less important than the social environment in which it takes place. MySpace allows users to be in a social environment almost permanently; they can be an integral part of each of each others’ lives, sharing every significant moment. Young people are accustomed to immediate and constant entertainment, and they turn to technology to provide entertainment on demand. The multimedia environment of MySpace presents a range of entertainment activities within a social context, providing a wealth of activities that keep MySpace users on the site for nearly three times as long as static Web sites. Young people value discovering information and experiences for themselves, “it provides them with a unique and tailored experience over which they feel a sense of ownership.” An element of the appeal of MySpace is that the user-generated content is seen as authentic in comparison with entertainment products that are perceived as being marketed to users. Another of the pleasures of MySpace is that of discovering new music and musicians. As Anthony Snape said, one of the thrills of MySpace is “that excitement of finding an artist” and being able to say “I knew them first before they became big.” This sense of involvement, of ownership, meshes with another of the values that drive young people’s use of technology, that of being able to create. Being able to not only set up one’s own site but also to add to favorite musicians’ sites, and to do so in a variety of media, allows users to create reproductions of their lives and interests. Through MySpace facilities such as enabling the addition of their tracks to users’ sites, musicians can integrate their marketing strategies into the recreational practices of young people.

Digital Marketing

Viral market has been around since the beginning of commerce. Spreading the word through word-of-mouth was the world’s first form of marketing. But the Internet has taken this organic from of marketing to new heights by making communications better and communities of people tighter—thus making word-of-mouth even more effective. Viral marketing takes advantage of networks of influence among customers to inexpensively achieve large changes in consumer behavior. Network-based marketing moves viral marketing online, taking advantage of Web-based links between consumers to increase sales. Sharing music recommendations is also not a new concept; music as a social currency is well documented, and the transition from physical to virtual access to both music sources and social networks has led to a rapidly burgeoning use of consumer recommendation tools as a music marketing technique. Harnessing consumers’ natural inclinations to share music and information about music to social software applications was an obvious step.

During the past 25 years, the record industry has become highly concentrated, and radio and TV have acted as a marketing bottleneck, playing a principal role in shaping tastes. This led to a situation where a very small proportion of music was available for acquisition, “Wal-Mart must sell at least 100,000 copies of a CD to cover its retail overhead and make a sufficient profit; less than 1 percent of CDs do that kind of volume,” so only around 1 percent of major releases find their way to Wal-Mart shelves for purchase. However, Rhapsody, a subscription-based streaming music service (owned by RealNetworks), offers over a million tracks, and all of these tracks are streamed, by someone, somewhere. Rhapsody streams more songs each month beyond its top 10,000 than it does in its top 10,000. This market, which lies outside the reach of the physical retailer, is big and getting bigger. As Anderson says, “Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.” He offers three rules for making the most of ‘the long tail’: make everything available; cut the price in half, then lower it; help me find it.

On MySpace, musicians can provide up to four tracks and make them available for download, or streaming, or link to a sales point. Fans can also rate the songs or comment on them and access the lyrics. Fans can then add a track to their own MySpace site. For the most part, musicians make available four single tracks. Anthony Snape has edited a spoken introduction to his tracks. Other musicians not part of this study have provided four samples each consisting of several excerpts edited together with spoken commentary. Through MySpace, independent musicians can take advantage of the long tail in the music market to create or locate a niche market for their music products. One fan hears a song and “tells” a dozen others online. Each in turn sends the information (and sometimes the entire song file) to another dozen people, and so on. The song is mainly sent to friends with similar tastes so a niche market can be covered almost instantly, and if the song’s hook is catchy and universal enough, the artist can reach thousands of fans in a matter of seconds.

The portable music file player symbolized by the iPod has changed the way that music is used. Music is now worn as an accessory or exchanged as a means of communication. Contemporary music use is oriented toward large, current, disposable playlists, and online musicians are well placed to take advantage of this trend offering individual tracks, samples, and ring-tone sized bites.

Anthony Snape says, “MySpace is a really excellent tool for independent artists …. I’ve just been over to Perth … if I were with a major record company I would have done radio, I would have had articles in magazines, we would have done some sort of television thing … I use MySpace to target audiences in areas that I’ve never been to.” Snape described making friends of musicians whose music is similar to his, in the area that he is about to visit, and then sending invitations to that network. He says that some will support you, but “of them you might get twenty or thirty people who become passionately involved … they’re the people who will ring the radio station and ask for the CD in mainstream outlets. And before MySpace there was no access to those people.” He went on, “I think the internet is absolutely incredible and fantastic. It’s blown a big hole in the industry, and it has definitely made room for other artists, independent artists. Independent artists are charting now, independent artists are out there doing the business.”

MC Lars felt that, “The problem with the major labels is that they are slow to get trends, and they’re slow to react to what is happening to the music scene and the underground.” Trent Greenwell of the Seabellies reported that an A&R rep (Mark Holden) from Universal explained that “the days of the A&R guy signing unknown artists is over and basically said that it’s all about what’s happening on the internet … and on the road.” Nick Green of Heartbreak Club also sees that “MySpace, or online distribution, is part of the process of proving that you have worth as an artist.”

Morgan Evans believes that “the amount of legwork that [the band] can do online in terms of promotion, compared to what a distributor is prepared to do is just like ridiculously different.” Evans and Solver use MySpace—“MySpace is recognized by everyone, we sell CDs on there through PayPal, we sell tickets to our show, and we promote ourselves to venues when booking a tour.”

Conclusion

MySpace seems like the realization of a musician’s utopian ideal. It at least marginalizes the traditional gatekeepers between those who make music and those who listen to it. A band doesn’t need a recording contract, a single on radio high rotation, or a video on MTV to find an audience. The audience will find them through their friends on MySpace. Perhaps a MySpace site alone will not propel a musician into superstardom—cross media promotion such as a television reality program or a film soundtrack might still be required for that—but in enabling musicians to participate directly in their fan communities and to target networks that constitute specific taste cultures, it does allow them to establish viable markets and to retain most of the profits from those markets. MySpace could make it easier for musicians to earn a living from their music without the intervention of a major label.

In the face of declining CD sales, the dominant industry response was to raise defenses around the CD; using digital rights management, proprietary hardware, and legal action to prevent consumers from acquiring alternative music products and to impose what had been traditional consumption patterns upon music users. It is rather ironic that MySpace is revolutionizing the music industry not by doing anything new, but by making it a little easier for people to do what they now wanted to do. Young people were already sharing information about favorite music and new bands, bands were already communicating with fans, consumers were already ranking and rating music, and musicians were already using fan communities to market their music. MySpace music just streamlined the process, limiting the need for a record label to create the links between music consumers and music producers.