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The Two-Headed Musician: Building a Personal Brand in an Age of Open-Door Artistry

Time was, you wanted to release music, you’d record an album’s worth of material, package it with cover art and liner notes, and get it into stores. It was an investment. You had to work hard to earn back your investment, but it was really more about building fan loyalty — having something to send home with fans after the show. The time that passed, and effort spent, between releases was immense compared to now.

Today, a musician on TikTok has something to share with fans every day, even if it’s just a short clip of a rehearsal or the guitar riff from a work in progress. Engagement is steadier, and audiences are made to feel more connected to their favorite artists. I recall in the 80’s being into groups without ever having seen their faces. Now I can watch Neal Schon jam in his home studio, or improvise with a popular YouTuber.

There’s a growing consensus that the album is dead. Many internet music gurus are recommending releasing singles one at a time, and I think I agree. I do miss the front-to-back cohesion of a project intended to be experienced as a complete album (Some artists, like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, are still delivering); but lately, digitally distributed albums feel less like suites and more like songbooks, so why not just release each song as it’s completed? That way, fans are more frequently updated on your goings-on. Also, independent music has become integral to the Soundtrack of the Web, and when your song is used as a sound in a TikTok, or in the background music of a YouTube video, the song’s virality depends little on being part of a larger work.

This cultural shift has happened in education. The traditional 30 and 60-minute live lessons have been supplanted by short lessons-on-demand via YouTube. Instagram and TikTok are a treasure trove of tiny lessons lasting barely a minute. Printed lesson books are giving way to PDF’s that are offered as perks of patronage. Students once learned from industry-standard methods, with their one local teacher as an interpreter and coach; now, they actively follow favorite instructors. We have seen an emergence of Celebrity Teachers.

I’m less knowledgeable about other aspects of musicianship beyond performing and teaching. I’d love for someone with a background in management, musical theater, publishing, classical concert production, soundtrack composition, etc. to confirm whether similar changes are happening in their respective scenes.

But throughout every corner of the music community, the theme seems to be a reaction against “Big Music”. Not just the size of releases or the scope of instructional products and services, but a desire to break the system which has been dominated by labels, retailers, and other institutional gatekeepers. In fact, I see this happening in other facets of life: backyard farming, private energy generation, and DIY decor come to mind.

Perhaps this shift towards doing things on our own has as much to do with frugality as with anti-corporatism. Even with media owned by huge corporations, consumers have gotten accustomed to experiencing entertainment and education on their own terms: on-demand and a la carte television programming and just about any song or book ever released can now be enjoyed for under 100 USD per month.

So we have this tricky situation: As musicians, we like to do things for ourselves, without labels or other controlling entities getting in the way. But as consumers, we understand how others can hardly be bothered to directly support us artists beyond the ten dollar per month streaming subscription fees that already grant them access to our work.

Performing artists try to incentivize fan support, through Patreon perks, limited vinyl releases, and merchandise; but it can be a grind. Enter the Two-Headed Musician.

It’s never been a secret that musicians have to be creative with regards to their job descriptions if they want to make music their career. For me, a guitarist living in the Midwest, being a musician means more than playing gigs; it includes owning a teaching studio where I manage a small staff of instructors. For others, it includes clinics, consulting, composing, working with children or the disabled, engraving, arranging, coaching drum corps, managing bands, or any other of so many options I can’t readily name.

The internet, and the subsequent rise of the Celebrity Teacher, have created an environment in which musicians thrive by wearing multiple hats, i.e. having “two heads”. Adam Neely is a superb example; he’s a virtuoso bassist that regularly performs and records, but also has built a successful YouTube channel around clever lectures about theory, and critiques other’s performances in a modern take on the master class concept called How Not to Suck at Music. He and others even produce entire albums in front of their viewers.

Adam Neely, probably demonstrating something awesome.

An artist who utilizes the internet to their advantage understands that other products tangentially related to music (e.g. teaching, comedy, critique, interviews, instrument construction and repair, product reviews) are not supplementary but integral to their primary career aspiration. If you want to build a base of fans of your original music, why not teach them about the processes involved in the production of your latest single? If you want your audience to regard you as an expert instructor, why not release music that demonstrates your mastery of the subject? If you got a new guitar, release an unboxing video. When you have a disastrously bad gig, tell the story. We’re in an age of open-door artistry; no magic inside a black box — all secrets revealed.

You could go the route of a mysterious artist who doesn’t bare their soul for all. This certainly cultivates a mystique that fans might appreciate. But for that tactic to help build your fan base, you’ve got to have a base to begin with. I have released virtually no music to date (save for a few covers), but since joining TikTok only about a month ago I have accumulated over 140 followers. Not huge by any standard, but that’s with no product. People just enjoy engaging with other people who have similar interests. If you make a new friend and it turns out they make music you like, then all the better. It starts with connections.

@steelstringcheese on TikTok

The Catch-22 of today’s music scene is that it’s never been easier to reach a worldwide audience; but because your music can be experienced more passively than ever, it’s tricky to retain their attention. I can’t tell you how many times recently I was raving about a new album I’ve been enjoying, but couldn’t remember the name of the artist.

I have a few projects in the works. My biggest challenge has been focusing on one at a time until it’s completed. But in the meantime, I’ve wrestled with the question of how to brand my social media image — as an educator, or as a performer? After observing the emergence of the Two-Headed musician archetype, I’m relieved that I can present myself as a hybrid, without having to be concerned about portraying myself inconsistently. It also buys me time while working on my next release.

Prepare to see more Instructor-Performers, Philosopher-Composers, Inventor-Songwriters, and any other possible multi-class musicians. This may be a side effect of a depressed music economy, but not an unwelcome one.

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