May 15, 2007

Is the internet "the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul"?

Here's a big, interesting NYT Magazine article about how musicians these days use blogs to get attention and success. You can go read all that, which focuses on a guy named Jonathan Coulton:
His fans need him; he needs them. Which is why, every day, Coulton wakes up, gets coffee, cracks open his PowerBook and hunkers down for up to six hours of nonstop and frequently exhausting communion with his virtual crowd.
Key words: "up to." Come on, here's his blog. He doesn't even post every day, and the posts I've read are just little updates on what he's been doing. There's also email:
Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply. This is not merely an illusion of intimacy. Performing artists these days, particularly new or struggling musicians, are increasingly eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame. They know many young fans aren’t hearing about bands from MTV or magazines anymore; fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cellphone concert video on YouTube.
Is this a hardship, or are you thinking if only I had these tools back when I had a band?
Across the country, the CD business is in a spectacular free fall; sales are down 20 percent this year alone. People are increasingly getting their music online (whether or not they’re paying for it), and it seems likely that the artists who forge direct access to their fans have the best chance of figuring out what the new economics of the music business will be.
What a fabulous opportunity!
Remarkably, Coulton offers most of his music free on his site; when fans buy his songs, it is because they want to give him money. The Canadian folk-pop singer Jane Siberry has an even more clever system: she has a “pay what you can” policy with her downloadable songs, so fans can download them free — but her site also shows the average price her customers have paid for each track. This subtly creates a community standard, a generalized awareness of how much people think each track is really worth. The result? The average price is as much as $1.30 a track, more than her fans would pay at iTunes.

Aw, that's cool. (Note that bloggers who give their writing away and may spend "up to" 6 hours a day writing have PayPal buttons that allow for the subtle creation of community and the heightening of generalized awareness.)
“If some kid is going to take 10 minutes out of his day to figure out what he wants to say in an e-mail, and then write it and send it, for me to not take the 5 minutes to say, dude, thanks so much — for me to ignore that?” [said Tad Kubler of the rock band the Hold Steady.] “I can’t.”
You know, it actually takes much less than 5 minutes to answer email like that, especially if you only write "Dude, thanks so much, Tad." Realistically, if you got 25 messages a day from fans, you could turn them around in half an hour, and you'd be crazy not to within this web-based economic model.
Yet Kubler sometimes has second thoughts about the intimacy. Part of the allure of rock, when he was a kid, was the shadowy glamour that surrounded his favorite stars. He’d parse their lyrics to try to figure out what they were like in person. Now he wonders: Are today’s online artists ruining their own aura by blogging? Can you still idolize someone when you know what they had for breakfast this morning? “It takes a little bit of the mystery out of rock ’n’ roll,” he said.
But those unreachable idols always released some personal details in their PR. They chose what to tell, and I'm sure some of it was just made up to give us whatever intimacy they wanted.

The same is true for blogging. It's an illusion of intimacy. There are only tantalizing little impressions. You may think, for example, that you have a view into my life, but I choose what you get to see and how much of it.

Look at this post of mine from Mother's Day and tell me what you know about my relationship with my mother. A commenter wrote: "You can tell by the pictures with your mother you were a good daughter." Another wrote: "Your Mom must have been a wonderful person." Another: "It's nice to know that even when your parents aren't with you physically, that they are still with you in every other way. I can just imagine that your mother is beaming with pride right now." I let those comments stand, signifying what they do, and I don't say whether the impressions are accurate. But apparently, you feel as though you've been embraced by some maternal warmth.

It's an illusion of intimacy
. Part of the illusion is the appearance of revelation and frankness I'm generating right now.
So Kubler has cultivated a skill that is unique to the age of Internet fandom, and perhaps increasingly necessary to it, as well: a nuanced ability to seem authentic and confessional without spilling over into a Britney Spears level of information overload. He doesn’t post about his home life, doesn’t mention anything about his daughter or girlfriend — and he certainly doesn’t describe any of the ill-fated come-ons he deflects from addled female fans who don’t realize he’s in a long-term relationship.
Yes, exactly. This is what it takes to blog. Think about how little you know about my private life. And yet I'm constantly told that my blog is so personal. People who worry about blogging don't understand this distinction.

The author of the article -- Clive Thompson -- worries that the internet will "change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer":
It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight....

It is also possible, though, that this is simply a natural transition point and that the next generation of musicians and artists — even the avowedly “sensitive” ones — will find the constant presence of their fans unremarkable.
I don't really see the problem. You control access to yourself even more on line than you do when you venture out into the physical world. I think a shy, introverted artist had more trouble in the past trying to find success when it required interacting with people in the flesh, when they were available and had a moment to give you a chance to make a good impression. It's so much easier for a sensitive artist to allow the world to see what he wants seen by using a website and interacting with people in writing.


MadisonMan said...

I note that Jonathan Coulton is playing in Madison tomorrow -- a Wednesday night gig at Cafe Montmartre.

Tim said...

"and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight...."

Yes, indeed, because we all know until now, all artists were sensitive, bohemian souls who shunned the spotlight.

As if.

Doug said...

If these sensitive artists are too put out to interact with people, couldn't they always get their sister, or another relative to post on their site. Personally, I would find it easier to deal with prospective fans on the internet than some huckster club owner or record company hustler.

Most artists, even the bohemian types, that I have ever run across, don't seem to mind attention, especially if that attention is coming from a hot woman. (damn, I should learn sentence structure)

Ann Althouse said...

"Most artists, even the bohemian types, that I have ever run across, don't seem to mind attention, especially if that attention is coming from a hot woman."

And on the internet, don't you picture everyone as good-looking. I know I do (until I get an actual picture).

StephenB said...

Now this post is a perfect example of why I read the Althouse blog.

Richard said...

This is not really so different than what we all do in everyday life when we maintain a public persona. We choose what to reveal of ourselves and we tailor, through our actions and reactions, an image which we hope will influence the way other people perceive -- and react to -- us. It's just that the format is a little different.

amba said...

Yes. You do hold a lot in reserve (as I realized on Bloggingheads -- and I don't mean it critically), and the "Althouse" your readers see is largely their interpretation of an enigmatic Rorschach blot.

Smilin' Jack said...

On the internet, no one knows you're a dog.

Peter Palladas said...

I e-mailed Leonard Cohen in 1971.

He still hasn't replied. The bastard.

Peter Palladas said... enigmatic Rorschach blot

Steady my man! You referring to a lady after whom I lust. She ain't no ink-stain!

Ron said...

Maybe "Ann Althouse", the blogger, is a creation of Badger programmers with Mad Skillz! The real lawprof probably looks more like Marjorie Main and has never seen this blog...

Doug said...

I have the bad habit of connecting how I think someone looks to his or her name, but in general, I assume the person is good looking.

Pogo said...

I'm sure the senstive poets will mope through somehow, and maybe even compsoe a masterwork of alienation and angst about the loneliness of the long distance singer.

Wichita Wireless
I am a moper here on MySpace.
And I blog the poet's road.
Lookin' in my stats for one more song download.

You hear me singing in the wire.
I can hear you tip paypal.
And the MySpace Arteest,
is still on the liiiiiiiine.

Kev said...

As a musician (who mostly teaches but does perform a fair amount and will someday record a CD of original material), I believe that the Internet may go down in history as one of the best things ever to happen to musicians. Why? Because it will allow the creators much more control over the creative process, away from the (largely) untalented and noncreative empty suits who now make up the "music" business. (I've ranted on this subject since the earilest days of my blog.)

And when I finally do make that recording, it'll be great to sell my stuff off my MySpace page instead of just having to keep a box of CD's in my trunk all the time.

And let me second (or third) the notion that this was a very fine post!

Revenant said...

Speaking of sensitive bohemian souls -- Jerry Falwell finally died.

Everyone remember to buy your celebratory issue of "Hustler" on the way home tonight.

Beth said...

Jane Siberry and Janice Ian had the internet figured out early on, and built good models for music sales and downloads.

Ann, you mentioned the writer William Mann this week. I sat in on a panel he was on, and he mentioned that he answers every email he gets, and sets aside time each day to do so. He considers it part of his writing, and says while it helps builds sales, he considers it common courtesy to someone who's plunked down money for his book.

Pogo said...

Hail Jane Siberry!

I tell everyone a different story
that way nothing's ever boring
even when they turn and say you lied

petals drifting past my shoulder
or maybe snow - I'm cold I'm not sure
someone yelled at me I don't know why

blake said...

I've seen JoCo in concert. He's not super-polished (like, say, a Loudon Wainwright or a Tracy Ullman) but it's a good time.

He's talented, and plays largely to the geek set. His talent is broader than that but his more popular stuff like "Code Monkey" and "Re Your Brains" have a distinct niche.

To say nothing of a song about Mandelbrot. (Someone mentioned Rorscach.)

Mandelbrot set,
You're a Rorschach test on fire,
You're a day-glo pterydactyl,
You're a heart-shaped box of springs and wires,
You're one bad-ass fucking fractal...

blake said...

Oh, but JoCo aside, the Internet is great for music, and will be for video, too. And software. And so on.

And it fights global warming, too!

As for those Mother's Day pictures, well, I actually found them alienating. You presented pictures representing a certain image, then you deconstructed the images with your text, and you put a lot of distance there. Maybe it was to put distance between you and your audience, but the choice of words (subjunctive?) made it feel to me like distance between you and your family (which also could've been deliberately illusory).