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Thread: My digital era rant

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    janisian's Avatar
    janisian is offline Will save the world one day through the internet
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    Default My digital era rant

    I posted this earlier, here and on Facebook, but I'm posting again so I can link it to my next email blast as well as making a few small edits.

    There's been some discussion among my own fans about Facebook vs. my own website, so here's my own small take, from my small corner of the world.

    I find, to my horror, that I'm increasingly living in a world where people have forgotten how to talk to each other. All business negotiating is done through email. In fact, I know several people who are terrified of negotiating on the phone or in person, because they've never done it. Even personal negotiations, everything from asking someone out on a date to marriage proposals, are happening on line.

    The other night I watched a foursome at a local restaurant. I'd guess them to be mid-high school, maybe 16, 17. Two boys, two girls. They ordered between talking on the phone. Throughout dinner, at least two of the four were texting or on the phone. They didn't seem to find it odd.

    I got a blindingly angry email from a business associate in response to an email I'd sent out too late at night, when I was too tired to couch the words properly. The response has haunted me for two days now, because once you've sent out an angry email, you can't take it back. And there's not much subtlety to it, no facial expressions to mitigate the words, no shoulder shrugs to indicate that it's over and done with.

    I interviewed a lovely young man for a job two years ago; he'd been great on line, fine on the phone. But during the interview, he couldn't make eye contact. He stammered and stuttered and was incapable of making any sort of connection. It was a blindingly clear lesson in what happens when your entire training cycle hasn't included face-to-face.

    And at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, this really disturbs me. What's going to happen when the Net goes down? (And I don't care how much redundant backup exists, it will go down someday, and for longer than a nanosecond.) What's going to happen to the concept of community, when only those who can afford the technology are permitted to be part of that community? What about places where there IS no Internet access? What is all of this doing to our brains, not to mention our hearts?

    Carrying it into my own back yard, watching young players try to work in a group setting, I find myself wondering - How the hell do we learn to make music with each other, learn timing, comraderie, give and take, if we grow up only playing with machines? Playing with other musicians is what made jazz. Singing together is what made folk. The communality of music is what made doo-wop, and rock and roll, and salsa, and all the other forms we take for granted. Playing together in back yards, garages, basements. Singing on street corners, in diners, on the subway and the back porch. You didn't have to be great, you didn't have to be perfect - you had to care, and put in your ten thousand hours, and you were welcomed into the community. It scares me.

    Okay, that's on a personal level. Here's the professional issues.

    Those of you who've followed me for years know that I have the unfortunate distinction of being ahead of the technological curve sometimes. I don't say this to brag - I say this to establish my credentials. I am in no way anti-technology. The only boat I missed was registering my own name on Twitter (I had to settle for @therealjanisian), and that was only because Tina Fey named a character "Janis Ian" in her film "Mean Girls", so there were already dozens when I signed up.

    Rude Girl Records was the first independent label to sign up for iTunes, first to sign up for and attend the big "Welcome, independents" iTunes meeting in California. I flew John Leonardini out there to represent my record company, and let me tell you, it was pretty darned exciting. I wrote "The Internet Debacle" when only Courtney Love and I were being vocal about how good downloading could be for business. My album
    "Breaking Silence" is still used as a tester by dozens of audiophiles and audio companies, among them high end folks like Thiel.

    I had my own domain name early; www.janisian.com was online through Michael Camp's company years before artists had their own sites. I was on when you still had to do things in Basic, can you believe that?! I was early with free downloads and half a dozen other things.

    In other words, I normally embrace new technology. But it's become a nightmare for those of us out there on the road.

    In one week, I leave on a three month tour that will take me from Atlanta to Maine to Houston. I'm looking at ticket sales, and they're tanking. Horribly. For every sold out show, there are two or three where I've sold 5%, 10%, 15% of available tickets. To say I was freaked is an understatement. I spent four hours talking with booking agents I know, promoters I know, and performers I know, and what I hear across the board is that everyone but the biggest acts are in the same boat.

    There are some obvious reasons - too many of us are out there, too often. But it's a Catch-22. I constantly argue with agents and promtoers because I'm leery of going back into venues I've playedtoo soon. I argue over ticket prices, insisting they be held down, which hurts my own fees. And yet, we all have to make a living, and I make part of mine on the road.

    Unfortunately, I carry 45 years of baggage, so there's no way I'm going to get airplay with the youngsters. My net merchandise goes to the Foundation, and since merchandise is now 1/4 to 1/3 of my revenue, that hurts too. Still, that's a choice. What hurts most of all - and this is according to every one of my agent, performer, and promoter friends - is the change in promotion methods.

    See, many of the venues don't care as much as I do about selling tickets. They just need to stay open X nights a year. They're not the ones facing a quarter house - and as hard as we performers try, a quarter house just isn't the thrill a full house is. A lot of the bigger venues are subsidized. A lot of the smaller ones make up the difference in liquor and food sales. I mean NO offense to the venues - they have been very, very good to me for decades now! But it's all changed.

    Most of the venues have stopped advertising. No more strip ads in the papers - not even the free papers. No more radio ads - if you can find a radio station that still plays my kind of music. The old mainstays have changed their formats, we don't get the support we used to count on. Most of the venues no longer have staff marketing or promotion people, not even part time. In fact, most of them have stopped even doing posters! Gretchen Peters was telling me she's gone to street teams to poster for her shows -- but frankly I feel really weird asking fans to print out posters at their own expense and try taping them in every store possible.

    So we're left with "social networking", which is what the venues are counting on to sell tickets. But the age groups that come to see me are not big on that. They're not checking Facebook to see where I am every night. They're not hanging on Twitter via their Samsung Galaxy III's hoping to hear some news.

    It's hard out there for us, folks. We're all trying to keep up, recognizing that things are changing so quickly that it's scary to even sign a one year deal. Right now there are two small, very credible record companies that would love to sign me. They have everything I'm looking for - worldwide distribution, integrity, longevity - but I'm not recording until early 2014, with a release that fall. Who knows what the business will be then? Back in the 80's I sold a large portion of my publishing catalogue (my songs) to Toshiba Japan, people I'd worked with for years and trusted implicitly. Now they're EMI Japan, administered by Fujipacific (who I love working with), and just bought by Sony. I have no idea who will own "At 17" next week, let alone in a year or two. It's the same with record companies.

    Every artist, producer, songwriter I know is scared to commit to anything because of it - which means we all commit to nothing. That's hurting us as artists, and as human beings.


    When the Web first went up, people like me and Mike Camp were saying "WOW. We can visit The Louvre? check out the British Museum? go to the pyramids? Unbelievable!" We thought it would become the great leveler, a place where anyone who could afford the low monthly fee or get to a free library could take courses on line, be exposed to the whole world, find adventure beyond description. See the coin collection at the British Museum! Visit the Smithsonian! THAT'S what we were excited about. An opportunity for growth that's unparalleled in human history.

    We thought the Internet would become the great leveller.
    Instead, we are struggling to keep up with timesucks like Facebook, spending our days doing business instead of being creative, feeling more desperate and lost by the hour. The Web has turned into an excuse rather than a reason, and that's both sad and frustrating.

    Well. That's my two cents. Thanks for listening.
    Last edited by janisian; 10-05-2012 at 05:14 PM.

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    That's wonderful, Janis. So much to think about, and so many solid points.

    I can recall reading the newspaper largely for the entertainment section and keeping an eye out for ads promoting upcoming concerts. Recall the frustration of getting busy signals from the box office at the venue involved and the delight of getting an answer and finding that, yes, there were still seats available (sixth row center for Sarah McLachlan in a 2500 seat hall...oh, joy!). These days, how do you even keep track of upcoming concerts? Ticketmaster doesn't promote every venue and every performer, though you may well end up buying through them and paying a premium price. Some years ago, I recall Joan Baez arriving in the Twin Cities and refusing to perform until Ticketmaster refunded what she regarded as exorbitant fees. Ticketmaster responded by saying that they charge a percentage and that if performers want lower fees, they would have to lower ticket prices. Which led Pearl Jam (I think) and several venues to hold several performances with tickets priced at 25 cents, 50 cents, and a dollar.

    Which made the point, of course, but does not pay the rent.

    And I, too, recall the novelty stage of the Internet (for me, c. 1996, though I worked with some of the Net's predecessors during the mid-80s--remember e-mail taking a day or so to arrive?). It seemed a source of unparalleled wonders, reference works at the fingertips, no limits to information and everything free apart from the connection fee. What did we get? Wikipedia, chatspeak, and "free" sites so clotted with ads and tracking cookies that it can be like navigating "the wrong side of town". Along with, yes, wonderful things. Technology is as good or as bad as the person using it. So....we have "virtual museums", books, music, anything one could ask for....but also an appearance of legitimacy for the sort of people who used to hand out mimeographed leaflets at bus stops. And people who live on Facebook.

    I can't remember who said it, but he was right on the mark: "this is America, where every good idea turns into a theme park". No, I'm not going to Google it, just on principle.

    A lack of available body language and use of the written word instead of the spoken would, I once thought, turn us into a society of more capable writers. Alas, no. We got millions of monkeys banging on millions of typewriters and out came, not the works of Shakespeare, but Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano". It's playing madly away as I sit here making my own contribution. For good or bad.

    I recall a period just prior to the net when certain department stores discovered it was cheaper to hire ten clerks with phones and one with a brain than vice versa. Anyone else remember standing in line waiting on a clerk who needed to make a phone call to make change? Or to learn that yes, the purple shirt costs the same as the green one? Or to have someone come down with a key to correct an error because they scanned a small bag of oranges and didn't bother to notice that $47.95 came up on the register? I often wondered what would happen if no one answered the phone. That has evolved as you say, Janis. What happens when the net goes down?

    I have a neighbor (literally--our apartments share a wall) who is often more comfortable calling me with her cell phone than knocking on my door. When she does knock on the door (or I knock on hers), heaven help me if the phone in her pocket rings as I will cease to exist until the call is attended to.

    With luck, the novelty will wear off at some point and I do see some of it in business (my brother-in-law "telecommuted" for some years. Now he gets an airplane and goes to the client). And much comes from the artists of this world. "House concerts" are quite popular and you will know so well what an experience it is to be in a room with a performer working without a sound system in front of 40 or so people. And before and after the concert, and during intermission....people actually talking to each other. Perhaps the artists will lead, as per usual, and the rest eventually follow.
    Last edited by DaveM; 10-04-2012 at 11:24 PM.
    This nut won't crack.

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    Vance Packard predicted many of the isolating qualities of American society in his 1972 "A Nation Of Strangers". He attributed the phenomenon to an increase in travel and people moving frequently for business reasons, thus never really putting down "roots". He could not have foreseen a world in which anyone can enter their own little world merely by switching on a little box (the Walkman hadn't arrived yet). He might well have had interesting things to say about a world in which socializing became "networking" and eventually was literally conducted via network.

    I have heard that in Finland, all TV stations are off the air on Sunday, as mandated by law. Whether that makes any difference in the age of satellite TV I have no idea. But I cannot help but wonder if a net/cell phone holiday once a week or so might not be worth trying. Set that day aside for a gathering with friends or some good old-fashioned porch sitting. I plan to give it a try if I can get some folks together who are willing to leave their cell phones at home.
    This nut won't crack.

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    Dar's Avatar
    Dar is offline Really ought to get married and settle down
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    Default Street teams!

    >> Gretchen Peters was telling me she's gone to street teams to poster for her shows -- but frankly I feel really weird asking fans to print out posters at their own expense and try taping them in every store possible.<<

    Janis, I hope you know by now that may of your fans would be very very happy to help out to promote your appearances and many of us already do.
    Tell me what jpg to use and I'll bombard the Bay Area with some sort of flyer. You know I'm not shy. ;-)


    Gretchen performed at the Freight (where you will be) a couple of months ago and I was horrified at how poorly attended it was. I only knew about it because a pal works there. Now granted it was a week night, but still. It's a beautiful house and she deserved to have it be full.
    She put on a great show, as she always does, but I wish I'd known that it was so poorly promoted.


    Dar
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    Judy is offline I'm really not posting just to see mine get bumped to the top...
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    Janis, I’m in such agreement with your perspectives (but then I am an “old fogey” who cringes when my organization keeps pushing for me to accept a smart phone.) Part of my take on this is that our trends in technical communication have opened the door for blithe brutality. From the time we moved to phones there began a shift in accountability of looking someone in the face and seeing their reaction to our words. As you said, Janis, then came e-mail in which words lost nuances and our immediate feelings could be fired off to the unwitting recipient with one swift click. We didn’t need to take a breath until we found our civility because the moment was there, so why wait when we had every reason to feel what we felt at that moment. Texting further convoluted our language, our inferences, our impatience to express ourselves deliberately. We could now interrupt a person at that precise moment without regard and fire our intentions into their hands. We don’t have to care what these rapid messages mean to the person because we’ve taken another step away from personal responsibility for the care of another. Then along comes Facebook, Twitter and lots of other digital things I don’t understand, but now we can really let people have it, but this time with that single click we send out our uncensored thoughts through the veins of a cyber universe. A man I know found out about the end of his five year relationship by his woman sending a blast to his phone showing she had changed her relationship status from in a serious relationship to single…but he found out first from a “friend” who received the same message. He raced home to find an emptied house. We have created a world of communication where there is blood everywhere but no one ever has to see it.

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    Jim in Chattanooga, TN is offline I'm definitely getting a reputation around here...
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    I am so glad I am low tech...don't even have Cable TV, rarely use my cell phone and never text -- not even sure I know how.

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    Kathleen Brogan's Avatar
    Kathleen Brogan is offline I'm really not posting just to see mine get bumped to the top...
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    My brain is swimming after reading all of this, both sections! I took texting off of my phone last year because of many of Janis' points. Tomorrow at 4:30 am I've leaving for South Carolina for 7 days and I'm going to force myself not to borrow anyone's computer to go on-line!
    Last edited by Kathleen Brogan; 10-06-2012 at 10:52 AM.
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    I think there should be an island to which Internet trolls, people who talk on their phones while checking out in stores, people who text while driving, and people who talk on the phone while in the company of real live people should be sent. There will be no cell phone service or internet access on the island, and they would all be required to talk to each other.

    Judy, you have an excellent point about online/text/cell phone bullying. Once familiar only to people who worked in call centers, it is now a fact of day to day life. What was once somewhat quaintly referred to as "flame" has become something far uglier. Routine online bullying reaches a level which, if delivered in person, would be a crime. Online, however, all one can do is search for an Ignore button.
    This nut won't crack.

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    Janis, if my laptop weren't a total heap I'd make up a bunch of posters too, I'd do many things to promote your shows (btw I'm sad about the Peekskill show, i have family there that I was gonna invite to come with me.) I'm looking at the other NY shows to see which one I can make it to. it's already been too long since I've seen you. Facebook is so much of a timesuck, I don't even go there anymore. how can we help?
    peace
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    Oak Kitten's Avatar
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    I have been cogitating on your post for some time. I agree completely about how over reliance on digital communications is creating a generation of digital natives who are clueless when it comes to face-to-face communications. Perhaps we need to develop a practice where adolescents are required at the age of 15 live in a community equipped with the technology of 1965 for a year. Rotary dial phones, no cable, no computers, no iPods, etc. Of course, this will never become public policy, but it could make a hell of a reality show.

    But getting to the issue of promoting artists. It seems to me that there are some silver linings. I have read that Boomers actually are the biggest users of Facebook. It is a matter of figuring out how to best utilize it to reach them. I do not know the answer to that. It seems to me that one would probably need some kind of digital communications consultant, a person who is not just current on the technology, but who also knows how to use it to target the right people. For your upcoming SOLD OUT show at the Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis, I am on the venue's email list, which notifies me of upcoming shows and when tickets go on sale. Fortunately, a friend and co-worker of mine is on the same list, and she tipped me off (by email) about the tickets going on sale when the venue email got buried in my personal email inbox. Consequently, I got great a great seat, and I bought one for her as well.

    I am ambivalent about the poster/flyer distribution issue. It seems like an imposition to ask fans to do that sort of thing, but if they don’t, who will? I belong to a number of musician/songwriter groups, and I would be willing to distribute small cards promoting an appearance at the events I attend. The members of those groups are also mostly boomers, I think because they are centered on acoustic music. When I have seen you perform in the Metro DC area, attendance has not seemed to be a problem.

    I think a lot of the problem may still have to do with the economy. Don McLean recently played the Ram’s Head, and as much as I would have loved to hear him, he was asking for $100 for a ticket. That was a no go for me. You have to factor in gas, at $3.69 a gallon, and probably dinner as well and it gets to be too expensive.

    So I circle back to the digital communications publicity consultant. In government, the buzz word is “strategic communications.” You need a commercial artist strategic communications consultant. They must exist, but finding a good one who has the requisite skill set and is affordable will be a challenge.

    Oak
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