Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Renaissance Musician

I've been exploring the idea that today's successful musician is expected to communicate well with fans in addition to writing and playing music. 

But after reading this by singer/songwriter Shaun Groves, I realized what we really want are renaissance musicians. We need them to be creative across multiple platforms.  
... labels are used to creating and maintaining the image of an artist: focusing and filtering, controlling who can and can’t have access, and how much, when and where. There’s one official bio and one fact sheet carefully crafted in a record company office and then parroted by every media outlet. That’s not possible on-line. And that’s distressing, fatal even, if an artist has nothing to say or, worse, has lots to say about things that don’t matter to anyone but them. Hair products, high priced jeans and guitar pedals aren’t all that interesting to folks with real jobs. The public is now discovering through an artist’s blog what publicists have known for quite some time and expertly covered up: This guy’s just a singer. And that’s no basis for a relationship. "If the Music Business Dies,"Shlog, 5/21/09
The online world accentuates the differences between those who are especially creative and those who are fundamentally dull and unimaginative.

Of course, we've always valued musicians who have pushed boundaries. The Beatles not only wrote and performed music, they starred in movies, they gave funny interviews, and they went on spiritual pilgrimages. In addition, Lennon wrote fiction, drew pictures, and staged performance art.

More recently we've had David Byrne who, in addition to founding Talking Heads and collaborating with Brian Eno, has scored operas and a ballet, started a record label, and exhibited art, photography, and design work in a number of galleries. 

And even more recently, we've had Nellie McKay who, in addition to being a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter, has performed on Broadway, has appeared in a movie, does book reviews for the New York Times, is a social activist,  and is currently scoring a musical.

Looking for examples of multi-taskers who are also very active online, there's John Mayer. He writes, records, and performs music. He's also written for Esquire, done stand-up comedy, and hosted a TV special. And he has become a Twitter celebrity.

Even more influential in cyberspace is Trent Reznor. 
Trent Reznor, frontman and mastermind of Nine Inch Nails, has become the poster boy for modern artist etiquette, having paved the way for an entirely new music business attitude through forward-thinking marketing concepts that center on communicating with fans directly, rather than the bureaucratic multilayered insulation of the past. Reznor never hides behind a larger-than-life character persona, instead representing himself as a real person, very frequently posting updates to his own site and sharing his insights/fears/hopes/frustrations with his fans directly. He's even active on Twitter. But as remarkable as that somehow still is, it's small potatoes compared to the bigger outside-the-box schemes Reznor's pulled in recent years. "Trent Reznor: Rewriting the Playbook," CraveOnline.com, 3/3/09
And someone I have cited in a number of blog entries is Amanda Palmer.
Flavorpill: Do you think of yourself as an artist, or as a musician, as someone who’s involved with theater, in literary endeavors, things like that.

Amanda Palmer: I don’t really think much about it. I know how I don’t feel. I don’t really feel like a songwriter, even though I do it all the time… I certainly don’t feel like a piano player. I feel like a hack in all of those categories. I’m also not an actress, and I’m not really a director. I’m not really a writer. But I do all of these things… When I clean my apartment, I clean one fork and one spoon, and then I go thumb through a book on the floor. I used to think that was fucked up, but now I realize that just how I work. I don’t feel so guilty anymore. And, you know, eventually it’s clean. The people that I saw when I was a kid, my idols – Cyndi Lauper and Prince, David Bowie – those people were never just doing one thing. I was lured into that particular job. "Amanda Palmer On Why Dresden Dolls Are Over and Roadrunner Is Out," Flavorwire, 5/20/09
So we may be missing the big picture if we put so much emphasis on social media as a music marketing tool. Many artists will bomb at it. The ones likely to excel will be those who are fundamentally interesting. It's going to be less important for an artist to look good. It's going to be much more important for an artist to be someone you'd like to be stranded on a desert island with.

Suzanne Lainson

UPDATE 6/10/09

Trent Reznor has decided to get off Twitter. 
What you've seen happen with the marketing and presentation of NIN over the last years is a direct result of living next to you, listening to you, consuming with you and interacting with you. Directly. There's no handlers or PR people here, it's me and my guys - that's it. There's no real plan, even - it's just trying to do the right thing that respects you the fan, the music, and me the artist. That's the goal - a mutual and shared respect.
When Twitter made it's way to my radar I looked at it as a curiosity, then started experimenting. I thought it through and in light of where I was / am in my career I decided to lower the curtain a bit and let you see more of my personality. ...
... The problem with really getting engaged in a community is getting through the clutter and noise. In a closed environment like nin.com a lot of this can be moderated away, or code can be implemented to make it more difficult for troublemakers to persist. It's tedious and feels like wasted energy doing that shit, but some people exist to ruin it for others - and they are the ones who have nothing better to do with their time. "Online communities, etc." NIN Forum, 6/10/09
UPDATE, 6/20/09

Here's part of a great interview with Amanda Palmer talking about being a multi-tasker.
I simply feel blessed that I’m an emotional exhibitionist right around the time is seems to be expected and en vogue. I love it - so I'm lucky. Plenty of musicians and artists out there AREN'T built that way, and so there's a level of unfairness.... I also feel lucky because I only loosely define myself as a musician. I got into music and taught myself how to play the piano and write songs as a means to an end - connection and art. I never wanted to be a great piano player, or a great singer.

It's closer to say I wanted to be a great PERFORMER. Of any kind. And performing via blog, twitter and twitpic is completely legitimate; it feeds my needs just fine. Whereas if I'd really been interested in just being an artist solely respected for my virtuosic musical talents (like, perhaps, a classical musician might), I might find all this connecting and online performing very bothersome. But I don't. I enjoy the medium it as a satisfying end in itself. If asked, nowadays, what I am, I could easily say "I'm a musician...and an online performance artist". Why not? "Interview: Amanda 'Fucking' Palmer (Part 1)," Hypebot, 7/20/09.

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