Where Are All The Oddballs Now?

A sort of open letter to Steve Lawson (who I greatly admire as a musician, a businessman, a thinker and a character). He has expressed some highly interesting thoughts on his Twitter feed about how Bandcamp is the best thing that ever happened to the working musician. But Yours Mintilly, on the other hand, is NOT a working musician...

I just don't know what to do with that Bandcamp of mine.

Bandcamp is fantastic. It allows musicians to reach out to an existing fanbase (eg; a following you might have built up by going out and playing live) and allow them the opportunity to buy your music. 

It works as a business model and as the basis for one of your own devising. It allows the working musician to control their own distribution and to reach the fans directly, without signing away their livelihood to a middleman 'record company' or 'media provider', who will gobble up most of the proceeds and leave you with the crumbs. I have nothing but respect for those who have supported the Bandcamp Way Of Doing Things. Mr Lawson is one of them. Markus Reuter is another. As a fan, I appreciate the efforts they have put into making Bandcamp work for them and their audience. Especially if you consider that the only 'other' way that musicians can directly sell their music online these days is by opening an account with iTunes. All kudos to Bandcamp for allowing the musicians themselves to take control.

But Bandcamp isn't working for me. It's clearly not meant for a hobbyist musician who just wants folks to hear his (mostly virtual) music and to take it away for free if they happen to like it.

I don't make a living from my music. I've never deluded myself that such a scenario could ever be possible. Yes, I did the 'wanna be a rock star' bit when I was a teenager like everyone else, but I don't think I ever had the chops on any conventional instrument to pull it off. My own musical tastes in the late-seventies meant that I wouldn't happily settle for one or two rudimentary chords like those punkrockers of the time. I never found that satisfying as music.

I gradually discovered ways to make music that did satisfy me. I experimented with tape, I juxtaposed things, I collaged sounds. I bought cheap synthesizers. I made a noise. Only much later did I teach myself about such things as scales and chords, things that the 'real' musicians understood.

But I also realised that when I do make music, it should be heard. By someone else. Otherwise what is the point of making it.

I loved the halcyon days of MySpace, before it was co-opted by big business and turned into something entirely different to that which had made it popular in the first place. Back in the noughties, it was a place where mavericks and weirdos could meet other mavericks and weirdos. Musicians who didn't occupy the pop mainstream (already well catered for elsewhere) could be find a surprisingly ready audience of like-minded individuals.

Avant-garde composers, jazz freeformers, electronic experimentalists, ukelele-wielding folkies, just plain 'outsiders', the kind of 'musicians' churning out stuff of which normal folks might ask "But is it actually MUSIC?"... you could pretty much guarantee that if you did it, there'd be someone out there who liked it. It takes all sorts. The MySpace microcosmos, as it was around 2006-07, brought these people together in one place. Don't ask me how, it just worked. It constantly amazed me that, as a rank-amateur who questioned his own abilities as a musician, I could reach people who (shudder) actually liked what I was doing.  What is more, actual 'proper' musicians used MySpace too, so if you 'friended' a band you admired (again, usually those outside the pop mainstream), there was often the chance that you'd have a much-respected "hero" commenting on your music. It gave one hope (probably too much, in hindsight) and it was a big boost to ones self-confidence. MySpace worked as a social web for a thriving artistic community. I found myself collaborating with a number of far-off and far-out artists (other musical dabblers, poets, video experimentalists), long distance relationships with people I've (still) never met, but which proved creatively fruitful. MySpace acted as a central 'hub' for all my online activities, much as I would imagine people use Facebook today.

But big business killed that dream... and those of us who weren't eager to sign up with Justin Timberlake's record label or to appear on the next 'talent' extravaganza were left with nowhere to go.

For a while, Soundcloud filled that void to a certain extent. A lot of the oddballs I 'knew' on MySpace popped up again Soundcloud. Some of those fruitful collaborative relationships continued in a new home. The site also had a much more 'European' flavour to it, in contrast to the Silicon Valley-centric nature of the bigger social media sites. But Soundcloud has also been bought and sold several times now, and it is showing signs that it too is moving into the shouty "Monetize your music now!" market. The wanna-get-rich-yo! crowd are moving in. I realise that social websites have to pay for themselves somehow, but it is a shame that they all end up pandering to the same mainstream demographic, so that commercial pop and rap end up being the only flavours of music available, whether you like it or not.

But what this means to weirdies like me is... On all of these music sites, we play second fiddle to the business-minded musician. All of the FUN has been sucked out of it. Everyone's an accountant now. Time to get serious about your music. You can go on making music for your own enjoyment, but don't be too surprised if nobody else ever hears it.

A few short months ago, after years of dogged resistance, I joined Twitter. I had been asked to help set up an account for a business client and I found myself thinking "Mmm, this is fun, I'm going to have a go at this myself..." On an earlier occasion, I'd "had a go" at Facebook for similar reasons. I absolutely loathed the experience and I deactivated the account within about twelve hours of starting it! I'd previously thought that Twitter would be just as horrible, but now I'm rather smitten! Twitter is now my central 'hub' of activity in much the same way as MySpace was in a previous decade.

As far as I can tell, in order for Bandcamp to work in the way it is supposed to work, you need to have an established fanbase in place, and it should preferably be one which is already linked with you in some way via the TwitFace social network. If you are not a gigging musician, then you can't reach out to those 'like-minded individuals' without said two-way communication network being in place. You have to get people to like you before they make their way your Bandcamp "shop". There is no longer the opportunity for folks to find your music by happy accident. Therefore...

Stumbling Block Number One:- I don't have enough followers on Twitter. I'm never going back to Facebook. My Google Plus community is full of computer nerds only. There is not a readymade audience for my music anymore. Where are all the oddballs now?

To get the populace to even listen to my music on Bandcamp, I have to keep badgering them about it. Post a link on your Twitter page and your handful of followers might, just might follow the link and see what it's about. This will generate some activity in your Bandcamp stats, but it won't necessarily result in plays or downloads.

Stumbling Block Number Two:- No one seems to play my tracks all the way through.

My Bandcamp stats tell me that, on the rare occasion when people do play a track (either on-site or via embedded links on other social pages), they hardly ever listen to it from start to finish. Sometimes there will be a momentary flurry of activity indicated on my stats graphs, where someone had played the beginning few seconds of several different tracks on an album. But rarely do they ever stick around for more. I can only conclude from this that they haven't liked what they did hear.

To sustain interest in your music, you have to keep reminding your followers on Twitter that you and your music exists and you have to repeat this process daily. The Internet has a short attention span.

Stumbling Block Number Three:- No one wants my downloads.

Bandcamp are currently making a big thing about their creating a subscription service for fans. In other words, instead of buying your download albums one at a time, they can pay you a monthly fee and get all your stuff as it arrives, with lots of bonuses and freebies as you, the artist, see fit. Again, this is all fine and dandy for The Professional Working Musician. But in my case, no one is downloading my albums at all. Even when I give them away for nothing. With extra 'secret' tracks and spiffy artwork and everything. The music hasn't cost me anything to make (apart from time, of which, apparently, I have plenty). It's a labour of love. I would probably do it anyway. But the point of the exercise is to get it out there for other people to hear. As I say, I'm not expecting to get paid, so they can have it for nowt. Meanwhile, Bandcamp suggest that one should give the punters the opportunity to pay for an album, even if they can have it for free. To do this, one has to set up a payment system via PayPal. I looked into doing this earlier... But... the 'sales and download' stats on my site have flatlined for months. It's tumbleweed central. So for me to go through the rigmarole of setting up a business account with PayPal, so that punters can pay me money 'if they want', would be an exercise in futility. They don't 'want' it at all.

Bandcamp also offer a number of Pro options. You pay them a monthly fee and get all sorts of extra features, as well as additional stats about your 'audience', so that you can target your market. Again, it looks well thought out and would be a boon for the The Professional Working Musician. It would be safe to say that when I originally joined Bandcamp (in 2010), I went for the free option to start with, with the idea that I might 'upgrade' to a Pro package if my audience numbers suggested that it might be a good investment (of money and time) to interact with them in a more professional manner. But it never happened. They're not there.

I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that no sane person wants to own my music, let alone listen to it. Either I'm reaching out to the wrong people in the wrong places, or my music really is crap. I'd like to believe that the latter is not the case, but all 'market' evidence is to the contrary. Bandcamp is obviously not the place to store my music. If I could find another place for all this collaborative music to go (five albums-worth in all), I would happily close my account. Apparently, no one would notice.

My music hasn't changed that much over the years, but the internet has. Once Upon A Time On MySpace, people liked my music. Now nobody listens to it. It only merits an occasional comment on Soundcloud, usually from a dwindling coterie of people I actually know. But I don't know where all the 'outsider' artists have gone now. I wish I did. They're probably gridling outside of railway stations somewhere, because there isn't a website on which they can gather anymore. All social websites these days have an ulterior motive, the encouragement of capitalism. Everyone is selling something, if only themselves. Which is fine, if that's what you're participating in.

But where's the FUN in that...?

Follow me on Twitter. Oh, go on, please! I'll be interested to hear what you have to say about me...

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