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.