Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 7: You Can Do It All on the Internet

It’s a Friday night down at your local rock club, or maybe a Wednesday. Who even knows anymore? You’ve played at this place six times in the last nine months, and the crowd is still made up of seven of your friends, five of the other band’s friends, and three or four randos sitting at the bar at the back of the room. This is getting a bit tiresome, and you’re wondering how many times you’re going to need to drag your gear down here before anyone you don’t know decides to care about your music. You pack up your guitar, step offstage, and walk toward the bar. 

The bartender is pouring you a draught when one of the randos turns to you and sizes you up.  “You all put on a great show,” they say. “But these days, if you want to build up an audience fast, you gotta be on the internet. You can do it all on the internet. Are you on TikTok?”

You’ve heard this before, and you know there’s a strong enough chance this person has never actually been on TikTok themselves. But that’s beside the point.

They probably mean “TikTok” as a stand-in for “the social platform they’ve heard is a big deal at that particular moment.” The important part is, they’re telling you the internet is such a powerful promotional tool that it can supplant the necessity of playing live to an in-person audience.

This immediately scans as an odd take, because we’ve had kind of a lot of the internet for the past 25-plus years, and musicians who care about self-promotion have been on it that whole time, and specifically those musicians have always shifted attention toward the platforms where their desired audience is most active, and yet, the internet on its own isn’t where most musicians get their breaks. 

I’m always inclined to say you can’t actually “do it all on the internet,” but more to the point, it depends on what “it all” entails in your specific niche, for your specific audience. There are entire chunks of popular culture where the audience expects to find talent basically in the creator’s bedroom. Entire chunks where the artist isn’t really expected to perform live as their first step, and where they may not even have access to a particularly suitable venue for their live performance. But that’s not everybody and everywhere. If you’re a rock band, for example, you’re expected to play live, and the live experience may very well enhance your band’s appeal by highlighting aspects of your performance that don’t carry through in a smartphone video from your practice space. 

From my own experience, most bands that I know that have actually gotten their breaks did so by playing live, and pretty frequently. They get spotted and singled out by someone from a well-known band, or by a record label owner or A&R person or someone like that, who happens to be in the audience. Every once in a while, a local band will get a break, and a bunch of people in “the scene” will think, “They’re local? Never heard of ‘em. They must have come from the internet.” But try this: Imagine maybe there is more than one local “scene.” Or imagine this band comes from a part of “the scene” that just doesn’t overlap with your own niche. Of course there’s a chance this band reached certain tastemakers through the internet, without playing live. But don’t jump to that conclusion. There might be a different explanation, and that explanation might very well provide you with new and helpful insights you can apply to your own band. 

I definitely know some bands that started as recording projects and generated some burblings on the internet from their early recordings alone. But I’m pretty sure all of those bands really picked up steam after rolling out a stage show that matched or even surpassed the level of quality and excitement their recordings delivered. 

Even with professional musicians who got their breaks in a viral moment, there’s usually something else behind wherever they appeared to get a break. The TikTok star pumped out a ton of video on Instagram first, and took a stab at being an absurdist Twitterer before that. The blog star came to the attention of the high-profile blog after being celebrated among a niche community of smaller-time, regional or subgenre-specific bloggers. It’s possible to get your breaks via the internet – but what a lot of musicians miss is that those breaks rarely happen passively

Years ago, I played in a very good band that was beloved by a pretty small group of people. We had a lot of songs, and we made solid records. Booking gigs was always our problem. The lead singer and primary songwriter wasn’t in a great position, personally or professionally, to get out and network and go see other bands and create those alliances that make it easier for a band to book good shows. It wasn’t that he just didn’t feel like going out. It’s that he had a very demanding day job and a kid. He could send emails, sure. He did that a lot – a lot of attempts at booking and promotion. But booking was a challenge with any clubs or bands that didn’t already know him, and promotion was a challenge without a series of gigs on the calendar. 

At band practice one day, I said casually – not even talking about this band – “You can’t run a band from your living room.” This is something I’ve believed for a really long time. He gazed off to the middle distance and said, fervently, “But there must be a way. And I need to find it.”

He didn’t find it. Bands like ours didn’t really break on the internet, anyway. They broke by playing live and forming beneficial alliances.

I’ve written before about the errors of treating digital channels like viable alternatives to and replacements for IRL music activity. There are people who honestly believe a digital PR campaign will help them reach a broader audience without needing to play live, and they’re generally wrong. A PR campaign is supposed to net its clients media coverage, and the recordings alone generally aren’t sufficient to warrant media coverage. Everyone has recordings, and music journalists and bloggers tend to prioritize acts that play live. The gig is the hook that justifies writing about the recordings. 

You can do a lot on the internet. Just don’t necessarily expect the internet to do the work for you, or to do the entire job. Whatever you do, wherever you’re doing it, you should be active, and you should try to nurture personal relationships. Even a relationship with “the internet” at large means relationships with individual people who just happen to be on the internet.

More From This Series

Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 6: It’s All Just About Who You Know
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 5: Does “Getting Signed” Change Everything?
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 4: Is Music PR a Waste of Money?
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 3: Can a PR Rep Fast-Track You to Fame?
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 2: Start Your Own Music Scene
Introducing: Bad Advice Musicians Hear, the Series / You Need to Play Everywhere

About Brian LaRue

Writer, Editor, Guitarist, and So On
This entry was posted in Arts and Culture, Bad Advice Musicians Hear, The Internet and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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