The Information Dirt Road
Marketing Your Band on the Net
In case you've been encased in amber or hung over on Amstel for the last few years, the Internet is a planet-sprawling latticework of connections between computers, offering a number of different services. For the novice, the simple way of using the Net to try and hawk your band is through the Usenet Newsgroups. This text-only resource consists of a daunting array of discussion groups where obsessos of all types get together and exchange information about their favorite TV shows (news:alt.tv.brady-bunch, news:rec.arts.tv.mst3k), interests (news:misc.survivalism, news:talk.politics.tibet), and yes, even bands (news:alt.music.monkees, news:alt.basement.graveyard - the latter being a group dedicated to the Cure, sort of).
Imagine being able to send and publicly display letters - without ever paying for a stamp or licking an envelope - to everyone you'd ever met or overheard a shred of conversation from, anonymously, and without thinking particularly hard about what you want to say or about the receivers' feelings. Well, that's the Usenet and what fun it is! (E-mail is the same thing, only done in private so you can get really nasty.) The only Austin band so far to receive its own personal newsgroup (they're generally started by the fans themselves) is the Butthole Surfers, who actually have not one but two groups dedicated to them (news:alt.music.butthole.surfers and news:alt.music. buthole.surfers). In keeping with the twisted nature of the band, most Net readers choose to post their misinformation-packed messages (so who's in "P" this week?) to the one that's spelled wrong.
Elsewhere are the surprisingly little-used news:alt.music.texas and the ever-busy news:austin.music, where the conversation ranges from guitar junkies wondering how much longer it'll be 'til the next Eric Johnson album to whether "Gibby Hanes [sic] own[s] Emo's" (SoftFX@aol.com) or if "Gibby is just another patron smoking crack in the women's bathroom" (MDRubin@aol.com), and back to whether or not posting an open message to Eric Johnson threatening that "I know what your car looks like" was the best way to get him to hurry up with that new record. Other currently active series of messages, known as "threads," include "Boycott Pearl Jam!," "IS ERNIE GAMMAGE STILL ALIVE?," and the eternally-popular "What is `titty bingo'???????????"
Some musicians with access to a computer (often through their day jobs) and their wits about them actually attempt to use the newsgroups as a promotional tool, posting short messages about upcoming gigs and other miscellaneous band information. The question is, though, whether these posts are reaching the bands' intended audience. Rich Malley of the Horsies regularly posts information on news:austin.music about the group's upcoming shows, as well as on changes in the lineup, and various members' medical problems. He says, however, that so far most of the noticeable response to his postings has been from "friends who say, `I saw your post!'" and that he has accumulated "maybe five pieces of E-mail from people I didn't know." He has managed to renew an old friendship, since former Black Spring/Meat Joy member Melissa Cobb, currently living in California, saw one of his posts and sent him a "hello." As far as continuing to promote the Horsies through the Usenet, he says without any great enthusiasm that he "can't see any reason not to."
"Hugh Jass," bass player for Tallboy, also posts information about most of his band's shows and notes little response via the actual Net, but says he has spoken to a few people who had come to see the band after reading about them on the Net. And, he says, they were "real normal people, not really computer geek pocket protector types." Still, as with Malley, Jass' most notable gain from the newsgroups didn't involve increasing his band's audience; "I posted that I was looking for an amp, and a guy responded that he had one on consignment at Ray Hennig's going for $350... I went by and checked it out, E-mailed him that I wanted it, and he took it out of consignment and sold it to me direct for $100."
Sounding like the name of a comic book international espionage ring, the World Wide Web is the next plateau a band may consider scaling in their search for a following, but it's a giant step up from the simplicity of the Usenet. For one thing, building a Web page involves a lot of work. A simple one generally includes a bio of the band (easy), at least one photo (tougher, and requiring more hardware, like a scanner), and possibly audio samples of the group's music (Whoa! More software, more hardware, and competence in using them). As such, most bands usually have someone else create their pages for them. Secondly, Web space, though it's not yet prohibitively high-priced, isn't free - usually. Malley says he has received offers for both cheap and free Web space and figures he's going to pursue the free offer, though it's not a "burning issue" with him. The Rudy Schwartz Project's Joe Newman, who's recently been offered a free Web page as well, observes that "it seems there's these people out there that just like making Web pages."
Malley, like many others familiar with the quirks of the castaways on Internet Island, says he doesn't see a "clear link between the Web page and the record store." In fact, he points to recent events involving policing or censoring the Net as indicating "there's very little evidence that Internet geeks can be influenced into doing anything but surf." He supposes that the situation will improve as a greater cross-section of people connect to the net. Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers (http://www.southern.com/southern/band/BADLI/) warns that his opinion on the usefulness of the Internet wavers from day to day with each new innovation, but speaking as a user, he says that the Net has yet to draw him to any new bands. "I never hear of any cool music on the Net really," he says. "Some guy ranting about the latest corporate rebellion, maybe. I think all that stuff is really boring. Who cares what all these people think?"
Less cynical is Dave Prewitt, producer
of locally-based music television
show CapZeyeZ (http://www.eden.com/capzeyez/capzeyez.html), who doesn't concur with the all-geek theory. While he admits that the amount of reaction to his Net activities (Web and Usenet) has been "somewhat weak," he asserts that "save for one `hair-farmer' letter, all of the people who have contacted me seem to be genuine Austin/Texas music fans."
Now, before I go any further, I should admit that in my own dealings with the World Wide Web, I've been the fly rather than the spider. My wings are slowly shrinking and becoming vestigial though, and that fourth pair of legs is starting to sprout. Even so, like most people, I find it nearly impossible to avoid succumbing to the multitude of distractions a Web crawler encounters on the often tangled trail to the site they are seeking: Wait! Here's a collection of 30,000 drawings of Franklin Delano Roosevelt! Hey! There's an entry form for the Oscar Meyer Wiener contest! Wow! Over here's Mr. Smarty Pants' new "Facts About Flan" Fun Page!
Eventually, though, I tend to find what I'm looking for, usually discovering in the process that the journey was more exciting than the destination. A typical band Web page, as I said above, generally includes a few photos of the members, a brief bio, maybe some sam-ples of songs or a video clip that will take you a half-hour to download. Sure, the first time you spotted that pic of the members of Sincola sitting in a field of pink flamingos you were vaguely amused, but then that's probably because you already knew someone in the band. That said, there's no question that if anyone - from fan to a record company president - hears good things about a band through the usual channels, he or she would be only too happy to find that information already waiting at their fingertips on the Net.
Wilson Jones, designer for Monsterbit Media (http://monsterbit.com/mb.html ) - the Internet site that Sincola and a number of other local bands call "home page" - finds himself frustrated with the limits of today's technology, and of the Net surfers' attention spans. Since the Web was created, the number of what he calls "cardboard postcards in space" has multiplied far beyond the point where a band can simply have such a page available and expect people to "ooh" and "aah" at it. Jones has dreams of creating more elaborate and yes, more interactive works, but has to face the fact that when someone does go to extra efforts on the Web, what he comes up with is liable to take a good long time to download - more time than the average Net-surfer is interested in spending. "For the first time, we have a medium you can play in," he laments, "and unfortunately, people treat it like a five-minute job break." He finds the word "interactive" to be a sad misnomer, and waxes philosophical on how the Net of 1995 possesses all the humanity of a "cold, empty cavern."
Monsterbit owner Melinda Price is more grounded (and surge-protected as well, no doubt), and deals with the Net strictly in the present. She sees the Web's potential realized best as a tool to "stretch the limits" of traditional marketing strategies, and not just as an alternative to those strategies (though she says that thinking too much like a marketing/promotions guru "grosses me out"). She finds that the Net works its wonders best as a supplement for bands who already have solid promotion of the pre-computer-age variety, meaning that for a fledgling local band with little previous notoriety, the benefits of a Web page may be nominal. For the above-mentioned Sincola, however, the Web page can include tour dates that actually provide useful information on a national level. Coupled with advance electronic mailings and old fashioned phone calls, the Web page becomes a practical point of potential publicity (now I'm getting grossed out).
Surely the most ambitious of all Internet/band activity, inaugurated last year by the Eden Matrix (http://www.-eden.com/html/eden.html), is the actual placing of a band on the Net - broadcasting a live performance by a group to a World Wide audience. It's said that as technology grows, the world shrinks, but in the case of Internet broadcast the opposite is unfortunately true. Picture this: The Killer Bees are pumping out furious reggae rhythms to a beyond-capacity crowd of sweaty, dance-crazy patrons of a small Sixth Street club. The music blares, the beer flows, and the heat, both physical and emotional, is overwhelming. Now envision all that reduced to a muddy gray blur, more or less three inches square, sputtering along at four or five frames a second. The accompanying sound is buzzing tinnily from a minuscule speaker on the side of your computer, one suited more for making warning beeps and the occasional soundbyte from the Simpsons (even though you could wire it up to your hi-fi easily enough). That is the current state of Internet broadcast.
Price, whose Monsterbit has also dabbled in this patchwork art, compares its extant state to its optimum "as Pong is to Nintendo" (or should that be to 3DO?). Keep in mind that the Killer Bees broadcast programming was designed to give the audio priority over video, and the live performance was shot with an old junker of a black and white camera with no special lighting (like the computer experts have always said: Garbage in equals garbage out). According to Aubrey McCauley at Eden Matrix, the recent reggae shows originating from the White Rabbit were potentially viewable by 14 million people worldwide simply by downloading a free program called CU See Me from a Web-friendly university. Of course, only those with Macintosh computers, which account for 10-15 percent of home PCs, could get the audio portion of the show, since the equivalent software for Windows is still under development. That brings us down to only around two million potential viewers.
In the end, the size of the actual viewing audience, according to McCauley, was a "pretty good" turnout of 326 people or rather 326 computer-equipped locations, most likely including a klatch of buddies in a bar in Istanbul, who had previously communicated that they were eagerly anticipating the show. That's up from 275 for a previous Black Pearl show, which did better numbers locally due to plugging by KLBJ radio, and the fact that Black Pearl is a band that isn't afraid of self-promotion, with or without a Net. Keep in mind that a Rolling Stones broadcast that was proudly - though falsely - billed as the first such event (Eden Matrix had already been broadcasting performances by New Orleans-based Machine Screw) couldn't have reached an audience of more that 100, according to McCauley, due to the more demanding logistics of the set-up the Stones were using.
McCauley's glasses bear far rosier lenses than those of Monsterbit's Jones; far from frustration, he buzzes with excitement over the next Matrix project - the first regularly appearing "TV show" on the net. The as-yet-untitled show will most likely take the form of a weekly interview program originating in California, and featuring the creators of the science fiction television series Babylon 5. McCauley says that future plans call for Matrix to grow into a full-time broadcast channel within the year, with emphasis placed on avoiding upgrades that will require more hardware on the viewers' end. Still, the days of sending high-resolution live concerts in superphonic stereo from the Blue Flamingo to Istanbul or vice versa are a ways down the pike - especially with the Net growing ever more crowded with both commercial and artistic attempts to grab your attention.
The Bad Livers' Barnes seems to have the right attitude about the Internet of the present, keeping himself satisfied with the bills that the technology currently fills. "I like to download software, get new games to play, talk to business associates, and send E-mail to friends," he says. "It's also a good way to talk to tech support for software you might be having trouble with." But on the matter of the poor musician's future with the Net as a means of achieving fame and fortune, he cautions "I hate to sound fatalistic, but as soon as someone starts making any real money off of it, Big Brother will suck it up so fast it'll make your head spin." n