Thanks to the Internet, being a musician is easier than it used to be. True, computers won't play your guitar for you - yet - but technology has transformed most other aspects of the music business.
That's especially true of the dull tasks related to marketing. Time was that Madison artists got their best promotion by tediously putting up flyers on State Street, or sending their stuff to newspapers like Isthmus and hoping for some attention. Now, thanks to blogs and MySpace, any band can have worldwide exposure.
I sat down with five local musicians who shared their thoughts on digital press packets, streaming music, and why it's depressing when other people sell your CDs on eBay.
Kenneth Burns How do you use the Internet as musicians?
Lou Berryman We use the Internet for everything we do.
Peter Berryman Yeah.
Lou When we started recording - our first album came out in 1980 - we went down to WORT and talked to the music director there, Danny Kahn. He helped us by telling us how to go about having your album pressed if you were an independent artist. And it was like this arcane information. The same thing was true of touring. It was so hard to get any information at all. It just is wild to be able to Google coffeehouses around the country to play, and email instead of calling long distance. My phone bill used to be just crazy. We have had a web page since 1996. A radio guy in Birmingham, Ala., helped us put it together.
Peter He was playing our stuff down there. He's a sort of a, uh -
Peter Very nice guy. He said, "You've got to have a website." We hardly knew what it was at the time. So he took me through it step by step. But for me, the Web is unbelievable for songwriting. You know, I've replaced $40 worth of books with $1,500 worth of computer.
Kenneth Do you use a rhyming dictionary?
Peter I use rhymezone.com, which is a rhyming dictionary. There's also a fabulous site called onelook.com. You can use it in various ways. Say you're looking for a word that ends in i-o-u-s, and that has something to do with music. You can put in *ious:music, and it'll find all the words in the English language.
Lou Wow, this is a secret I didn't even know you had!
Bradley Thomas I use MySpace. I've used websites like CD Baby for my first three CDs. It's amazing because you can reach people all over the world. I sold CDs in Japan, Germany. It's like free, endless promotion.
Kenneth How does CD Baby work?
Bradley People can either just download MP3s, or you can actually send in the physical copies of your CD. They take about $2 off whatever you want to mark it up as.
Lou We've used it for years. They send you an email telling you who bought your CDs, to get them on your mailing list, if you'd like.
Kenneth What's Oasis?
Matt Allen Oasis is a duplication company. They also get you set up with a whole starter package, so they'll send your stuff off to CD Baby automatically, to get you started. They will get you registered with all the digital distributions, such as iTunes. It's really convenient.
Lou Also, in preparation for our new album, I've been, through Oasis, able to access all the names of the radio stations, all over the country, which would play our stuff. All of their URLs and phone numbers and anything I wanted. You have this amazing access, through the Internet.
Kenneth It's fascinating that you're using the Internet to get in touch with radio stations. It seems like at some point we won't be using radio anymore.
Bradley I think it's gradually going to go to just Internet streaming. They're just trying to figure out how they can actually pay the people.
Shane O'Neill I think it's already sort of shifted, at least from my experience, into MySpace entirely. The majority of new music I find out about is through MySpace. You have 24-hour access to anywhere between one and four songs you can listen to entirely. The radio is still being used a lot, and I still think it's a really vital resource. But having total access to streaming songs from an artist, like MySpace does, has already really changed the way people look at, and listen to, and consume music.
Lou How so?
Shane Basically, 90% of what we've done for booking tours, and shows in town, has been through MySpace. It's a great way to cast a really wide net, as far as making contacts. But it also makes it harder, because there's just a glut of new bands and a glut of people all trying to do the same thing.
Bradley The Internet has pluses and minuses. The minuses are due to people sharing files. A lot of artists are starting to lose. The music business in general is way down, billions of dollars. Because people are just: "Why should I buy it?" They don't want the artwork anymore. They just want the music.
Kenneth Yeah, how do you make money? Will there be a time when there is no longer staggeringly vast amounts of money to be made in the music industry?
Lou I think you're asking the wrong people.
Bradley I think there's still going to be money to be made, but it's going to be more live performance. Because you can't really duplicate that. That's when you really touch people.
Kenneth [to Matt] You guys had a podcast on NPR. How did that come about?
Matt Through the Planetary Group, a promotional group we're working with out of Boston. They cast a huge net over the country, to blogs, print press, radio stations, etc., just putting the album out there. They do all the follow-up work for us. We paid a pretty penny, and it's gotten some results for us. Before that, we directed certain emails to different bloggers, and that's where we had the most success: getting into the blogosphere, and getting a buzz going. My Old Kentucky Blog did a writeup which got picked up by VH1's Best Week Ever, so we got a mention on their blog, and spin.com picked it up, and eventually NPR kind of falls into that whole fold.
Peter That's amazing.
Lou We're learning a lot here!
Matt Through the blogosphere we've gotten reviews all over the country, all over the world. The U.K., the Philippines, Singapore, Canada.
Peter What's the effect of that on the band's income? Are there any bands out there that are making it without touring at all? Just through the Internet?
Matt Well, this is a starting point for us, as far as where to tour. You identify where you're getting the buzz, and then you go there. To address your question, Peter: No. It hasn't been financially successful. You really do need to get on the road, and you need to sell your stuff to people directly. You know, your T-shirts, your CDs, you need to sell it to them. And whether through the Internet or in front of them, it has to happen someway. And it happens better when you get there.
Kenneth Folks still buy CDs.
Matt Oh yeah.
Kenneth So there's plenty of people who still like to have the actual artifact.
Lou They've come to see you, and they want your CD because they like you and they want something of yours. It's just very personal.
Matt The funny thing is, we sent out all these CDs to bloggers. Well, we went on amazon.com the other day, and found our CDs for sale as used, and it's these people that we send 'em to for reviews that put 'em up there, and sell 'em for like eight bucks apiece. I'm sure they're not selling anything, but, you know.
Peter We saw an LP of ours on eBay the other day for $49. Signed by the artist! We've still got a pile of those!
Kenneth Is anyone using Broadjam?
Matt We're subscribers, through the Madison Area Music Awards.
Kenneth Someone explain what it is.
Matt It's a competitor with Sonicbids. It's basically an electronic press kit.
Lou Oh! I was going to bring that up, because with Oasis, we get a free year of Sonicbids.
Matt Sonicbids is great.
Lou A lot of people are giving preference to electronic press kits. They don't want you sending your junk in the mail anymore.
Kenneth So how does that work?
Lou You go on their website and make your own little website thing, that you can mail to people. And there's your picture, maybe video, audio, bio, press stuff, clippings, everything. A little electronic package that you can send to people.
Kenneth Is there any other kind of technology or website that's very important? Or marginally important?
Lou We haven't talked about listservs. Those are very important to me. There are listservs that I subscribe to for folk music radio, and for venues around the country that present folk music. There are these national conversations going on all the time.
Peter I'm sure everybody uses millions of weird sites. I just found an online hearing test, where you can test if you've lost any of your upper range of hearing.
Lou And the online metronome.
Kenneth What about intra-band communication? Will there be substantive discussions going on in email?
Matt Our band all work 9-to-5 jobs, so we're all in our cubicles and offices. Which is completely lame. We're trying to get away from that. It allows us to email each other all day long about what we need to do.
Lou Peter and I email back and forth with set lists, and what we're going to do next. Should I take this gig for us? Do you want to go to this place and this place?
Peter Also Mapquest, Google Maps. It's fantastic. And Expedia. We stay in motels all the time.
Lou We get cheap places to stay.
Shane I think that the Internet has definitely changed the experience of people who are into live music a lot. I think having access to thousands of bands, all the time, there's less incentive for people who are curious about new music to go out to live shows. And I think that the attention spans are getting shorter.
Lou In our line of work, for the folkies, the event itself and the people who go to it are as important as the concert, sometimes. Half the time we play, at least half the people are going to hear us, but they're also going to have the social experience. And that's something that's irreplaceable, that you can't have on the Internet.
Kenneth Actual human contact.
Kenneth Well, thank you all for coming. I hope this has been fun for you.
Peter Very educational.
Lou I'm going to go on MySpace!