Thursday, November 5, 2015

Some Thoughts on Publicity: Facebook & Radio - Essay

A week or so ago I posted a video on my YouTube channel of the Lonesome River Band singing a song called Bonnie Brown at the Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival in Tennessee back in early October. Two days later I posted an instrumental video by another very popular performer. A week later I noticed that the LRB song had been viewed over 550 times while the succeeding video only had 114 hits. I asked myself, “What could have happened to boost the LRB song so high, so fast?” As I dug around, I found that my video had been posted on LRB's Facebook page as well as in their Twitter feed and their publicist's Twitter page. This incident has encouraged me to try to put some elements together about how musicians use the potential of publicity to build and develop their careers, and the effect of social and electronic media on them.

The era of social media has evolved such that it requires a new set of skills for people functioning in the public to learn and master. Entertainers, at every level of the music industry find themselves competing for attention with a bewildering range and number of possibilities for the public's scarce entertainment dollar. Meanwhile, these new technologies have derailed traditional means of gaining the attention of fans and encouraging them to allocate resources in the desired direction. Changes in the recording and music distribution industry are huge. Techniques for garnering and effectively exploiting attention are bewildering and continuing to change. The balance of traditional streams of income (sales of recordings, performance, merchandise, film, television, and so-on) has been upset by streaming audio and now video, changes in how royalties are distributed, and a continually changing entertainment environment. One thing is certain for bluegrass's not all about the music.

Several years ago, when Facebook was roughly half the size it is now, and those of us who are of “a certain age” were still new to the world it opened to us, I noticed that the Gibson Brothers had little or no presence on that platform, which was becoming important to me. I wrote to Eric about it, and he virtually told me to mind my own business. However, characteristically, he thought about what had been said, apologized, and then, based on his own analysis of the possibilities, started to become active as a personality on Facebook. Eric Gibson is, generally speaking, a private person functioning in a very public setting. He also thinks deeply about what affects the fortunes of the Gibson Brothers band and helps them progress. He proceeded to become a master at using Facebook to make himself available to the band's fans.

Eric, on his Facebook page, observes the world around him and writes about his interests: family, music, baseball, and nature, among other things. He soon noticed that he needed to strike a balance between posts about the progress of the Gibson Brothers, the pleasure he finds in sports, his love of hard work and the outdoors, and the need to provide privacy for his family, and himself, as well disclosing those elements that would be of genuine interest to others. In so doing, he helped build the band through the authenticity of his posts, without being unnecessarily self-disclosing where to do so might compromise the privacy he so values. Eventually, the struggle his son Kelley has been having with autism emerged, because Kelley wished to share it. That part of the story is ongoing.

What Eric has accomplished is a neat trick. I see many bands who post about where their next performance will be or that they've added a musician, or that so-and-so has left (always for personal reasons) but that all is fine and everyone is happy. Such materials almost always either bore people, or is so patently false it fools no one. Perhaps part of the problem lies in allowing publicists or record labels to manage Facebook pages, because the artists don't like the task or think it's not central to their effort. Facebook is a uniquely personal platform requiring the individual to manage how he or she is presented. It's important to learn to be a character in your own story while still getting out the crucial information at the right time. Although I haven't studied her Facebook page, or her music, I gather that Taylor Swift is the very best entertainer using Facebook to help herself. Facebook itself just announced its monthly user-ship as exceeding1.5 billion. Even your own little corner has enormous potential for effective publicity, and it takes only a little time each day to cultivate. Remember Eric Gibson's post about seeing an albino squirrel.

I don't know how many people broadcast bluegrass music on terrestrial, Internet, or satellite radio or how many people listen to their bluegrass music in this way. The range is huge, though. Small college radio stations often have several hours a week devoted to bluegrass broadcasts hosted mostly by volunteer broadcasters. Small market AM and FM stations still exist, and their reach has been widened by the ease of access to Internet streaming and its relatively low cost. (For an interesting overview of this area check out the Prometheus Radio Project) Sirius/Xm radio holds its data and ratings very close to the vest, but its importance, at least in bluegrass, appears to be huge. The future and strength of the platform, however, may ride on whether Howard Stern renews his contract next month. Here's a recently published article exploring sirius/xm in the new Internet environment that includes Spotify, Pandora, Apple radio, and other streaming services.

Musicians can only benefit by appearing as guests on these radio programs. But merely appearing isn't enough. They need to do several things to increase the effectiveness of their appearances. Particularly in the case of terrestrial radio, they need to inform themselves about bluegrass broadcasters who can be heard within a reasonable travel range of local radio stations near where they're appearing. Having done this, musicians must reach out in timely fashion to these people to arrange appearances on their radio shows. They must then inform their fans that they will be making a radio appearance. Finally, they need to publicly thank the deejay or emcee who gave them broadcast space. In others words, radio appearances don't represent a one way street to greater recognition.

Musicians, like all of us, appreciate receiving positive publicity that helps forward their efforts. In order to do so, their presence on various media, social, broadcast, print and more, are essential for bolstering their careers and, ultimately, their incomes. However, getting and keeping such publicity is never a one way street. It requires a perspective that includes recognizing, publicly and privately, the giver of that publicity. To do so effectively requires some effort, which can be assisted, but not completely carried, by a professional publicist. Nothing substitutes for personal effort or direct contact. The important concept here is to emphasize the need for a win/win perspective in which attention received yields attention given. Even recognizing individual plays as seen on playlists counts. In this world of vigorous competition for attention in the media world, nothing substitutes for personal effort and attention. No, it's not “all about the music.”

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