There is never a shortage of purveyors of scams of the get-rich-quick-and-easy variety out there, preying on the gullible and desperate. And in a bad economy, they multiply like horny rabbits in captivity. Music artists are the focus of a particular variation on this theme, which has now adopted a 21st century façade: forget the record labels, the internet will make you a star and we'll show you how.
The more shameless of this lot of charlatans will sell you a treatise on achieving fame and fortune via the World Wide Web that boils down to such previously unheard of advice: Write good songs; have a nice website; join all the social networking sites, etc. Yes, of course we’re being snarky. But if, say, you bought a book on how to succeed in business and its main guidance and counsel was Work hard; don’t spend more than you make; save money, etc you’d probably report the authors to the local Better Business Bureau—after you smashed the damn thing against the wall—right?
We’re gonna give some of these folks the benefit of the doubt and assume there are those who are either truly ignorant about how things work co-existing with fiends who know better but try to pull the wool over people's eyes for personal gain.
And then you have the likes of David Byrne.
Remember how not too long ago the former Talking Head was raving about how EVERYONE should follow Radiohead's pay-what-you-want model for their In Rainbows album, only to have Thom Yorke himself explain to him that because of the British band's stature they were in a unique position to pull it off. A veteran of the music biz like Byrne should know better and not need Yorke to explain that to him. This is the kinda nonsense that furthers even more the internet single bullet theory: a cure for all obscurity and lack of exposure woes. "Hey, if David Byrne says so..."
So, has the internet truly changed the nature of the music business? Mostly yes, but...
You see, on the one hand, it’s true that today’s artists have a myriad of easily accessible online tools and infrastructure readily available to them. It’s also true these bring potential access to millions of would-be fans via the internet without the need for a record company to siphon off revenue. (Or conversely, fund your project.) And that, is a beautiful, revolutionary thing. But, sadly, one big factor hasn't changed: people still have to find out about you somehow. The internet hasn’t altered that part of the equation in a way that can be distilled into an easily adaptable formula for those who see it as a magical tool that can open up untold doors almost at will. Actually, in certain aspects, it may have made things more difficult for the career-aspiring artist.
In the pre-internet days you had so-called industry “gatekeepers”. And to reach them to get your record reviewed and/or get the necessary exposure was quite difficult. Truthfully, outside of a select few artists, this was nearly impossible to obtain. Now there is a motherlode of websites that write and/or talk about music, which an artist can easily contact and submit to. Who doesn’t like more options? But the public now has more choices as well. (You truly have competition now: there's a whole lot more recording artists than ever before out there vying for the public's attention.) And while it may have been practically a fantasy for an unknown, unsigned artist to get their record reviewed by, say, Rolling Stone, they now have to reach dozens of, if not more, music sites/blogs to garner the exposure they might need.
What if these folks are too busy to review and spread the good word about your lowly mp3s, anyway? You still need internet presence, so how ‘bout taking out some ads? But if you don't have the cash to spend on gaining internet presence—ads ain't free—or happen to go "viral", then what?
Ah, yes…going “viral”. What's the deal with those people that the internet has made, arguably, household names overnight? Well, "I posted my video/mp3 online and in a week I had 20,000 fans" is not that dissimilar to "I bought a $1 lottery ticket at 7-11 and now I'm rich". Yet, this aberration is used, more often than not, as a standard bearer or at least as an example to follow when it comes to online traffic for music artists.
(Interestingly, two scenarios on opposite ends of the artist development spectrum, that were commonplace during the pre-internet days of the music business, still occur on a regular basis: touring acts establishing and expanding their fanbase; and recording artists that have never played a live gig setting up shop and launching careers, regardless. Hmm...)
So if, arguably, chance is as much if not more of an influential factor than ever before in getting your music discovered, what is the true value of the internet? Well, it's undeniably a monster tool for people who already have access to a dedicated fanbase and are being sought out by a significant amount of people. What no one has a concrete, solid answer for is the question of how you get there. (And if one more smart-ass brings up Write good songs; have a nice website; join all the social networking sites, etc. as a sure-fire silver bullet to success, we’re gonna end up doing hard time and writing these blog posts from Sing-Sing.)
Bottom line: having a Facebook/Twitter/MySpace page—and videos on YouTube—is like placing your music in every Tower Records store a decade ago; it don’t mean squat how much internet presence you might have if people don’t know you exist. And how do you create awareness without bundles of cash and/or luck? (If we knew, we'd be rich—and not writing these long-ass rants, for sure.)
Try contacting those who have had any measure of success on their own in this day and age and see if you can pick their brain a bit. Ask friends how they hear about new music and what they are looking for when seeking out new artists and tunes. If you perform live, find out what will tilt club owners/bookers your way when they check out artists online and what, if anything, their patrons tell them about bands they come across on the intertubes. That's a start.
And yeah, by all means, see if you can come across some decent, rational, sensible articles and books that address the issue. But stay away from anyone who believes or tells you that simply uploading your stuff is a magic bullet. Don't let the con men tell you otherwise, let alone charge you while they do it.