Thursday, October 8, 2009

You've Gotta Work It

I was lucky enough Tuesday night to be treated to a rather impromptu (for me, anyway) mini-concert as well as a thank you song from two different artists, one of whom I was already a fan of, and the other I think I’m about to become a fan of.

See, I follow Amanda Fucking Palmer on Twitter (@amandapalmer). Why? Well, because I find her interesting, and I like her music. Also, I like her eyebrows. I saw through the power of Twitter that she was plugging a live-on-the-interwebs encore concert by Matthew Ebel (@matthewebel). Intrigued by both the concept and the fact that AFP was plugging it, I moseyed on over to ustream to check it out.

Turns out the concerts are a regular occurrence. Matt performs live on his ustream channel every Tuesday night at 6 EDT. He’s got the prerequisite website, but in addition he runs a subscription service for his fans, giving them access to extra concerts at a base price; if you choose a higher level you get subscription-only tracks and other goodies. So he gets up there with his computer and his keyboard and jams out on the interwebs. He’s even got robot back-up singers. There’s a chat room next to the video screen, and he follows along—one of the regulars mentioned last night that it sometimes throws him off when he’s performing. The regulars let folks know what song is playing; they also answer questions and join in the fun. It’s a really organic sort of scene: just a bunch of folks watching someone whose music they enjoy and chatting with each other.

Also, he sings about the world ending. And about a girl who is killed by a train.

I dig what AFP’s been doing of late to support herself. She released her first solo album about a year ago, and she’s been doing all kinds of stuff to promote herself and attract fans and support herself. She strikes me as pretty ridiculously market-savvy as well as aware of what her fans want of her. She hasn’t relied on her record company to promote her; from what I understand, they didn’t do much of it anyway. So she’s gotta find a way to pay her bills.

She’s used Twitter to her great advantage in this—proving the power of the internet and that of connecting with one’s fans. There have been several, as she calls them, ninja gigs around the country. She’s in whatever town for whatever reason, and she tells her fans via Twitter that she’ll be performing here at this time, for donations, and folks come out and hang out with her and watch an acoustic set. She released her book, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, full of pictures of herself dead, and with words by Neil Gaiman. She’s done at least one webcast auction where she put stuff up for sale from her tours over the years.

In a world where it seems like more and more artists go the recluse route—who can blame them with the way the media treats the famous these days?—it’s really cool to feel like an artist is trying to get closer to their fans.I don’t know a whole helluva lot about the state of the music industry except what I’ve heard from the disillusioned and disenfranchised within it—the indie artists who are just trying to get their music out there, make fans, and pay their rent. But it sounds like the internet, while it’s made stealing music ridiculously easy, also makes it possible for musicians to make new fans, and reach those fans, and helps them support themselves. They just need to learn how to use it without giving too much of themselves to their fans (because, lets face it: people be crazy).

And who can blame someone for promoting themselves in new and interesting ways, especially considering the state of the economy? You hear about some of the bigger artists out there, like NIN and Radiohead offering up albums for whatever fans want to pay for them, which is neat and all, but what about the little guys? NIN and Radiohead have already made their names. They can afford to self-produce and –release their records at this point. Smaller acts might have a harder time getting themselves out there if they don’t have a record label behind them. But folks like AFP and Matthew Ebel are proving that it’s at least possible to start reaching an audience using the internet and some smarts. And I think fans appreciate that. I know I do. I love learning about new music, and I really appreciate when the artists make it possible for me to check them out before I go out and buy stuff. I’m more than happy to go out and buy an album or a show ticket if I find a band I like--this is especially true if I can buy that album or ticket directly from the artist, so I know the money is going to them and not some corporation.

At the end of Matt’s encore, AFP (who had been chatting in the wee chat room) said she wanted to sing him a song as a thank you. So she tweeted her own ustream channel and everyone trooped over there to see her. She was just chilling in her house with a beer, in her kimono, about to be late for a 9pm dinner.

Upon request, she played “Ampersand”. The piano was out of tune, and she was basically in her pajamas. It was awesome. She kept asking if the broadcast was working.

At the end of the song, because it was after nine, her phone rang. So she picked it up and apologized for being late, explaining that she’d done an accidental webcast and arranging to meet her friends posthaste for their meal.

After that, the phone rang again. It was her boyfriend. Yanno, Neil Gaiman? Which was super cute. (I might’ve squeed a little.) Her whole demeanor changed when she picked up the phone—he was telling her that, yes, it worked and she did indeed manage to webcast the song. It was really interesting to eavesdrop on her end of those two conversations. Not that either was an intimate conversation—she was just chatting with a friend and telling her man that she loved him. If I were to be really cynical about it, I would say that it was perfectly set up to make her seem more human and down to earth. But really, I don’t think it was staged, and it did do very well to demonstrate that, really, she’s just a chick doing what she loves and trying to make a living at that. And I can appreciate it.

Did anyone else happen to catch either webcast? Have any thoughts on the sort of things that smaller acts and independent artists are doing these days to make a living doing what they love?


Spender said...

A good look at how musicians are adapting to the new medium and using it to get their names, faces and songs out to a bigger audience.
Major labels aren't obsolete but they are lumbering dinosaurs and will one day be extinct.

Matthew Ebel said...

Hey, thanks for catching the show! It's not easy keeping up with this whole "eating" and "paying rent" thing as a totally-DIY musician, but it's a hell of a great job. I wouldn't trade it for anything!

Hope to see you next Tuesday, too!