As a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas for nearly 15 years and, currently as a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, Nancy Baym has published extensive research and provided media commentary covering social communication, new media, and fandom.
When discussing the use of social media by songwriters, Baym prefers to present a big-picture view rather than focusing on a ‘Top Ten Tips” approach, or on one platform or means of engagement. Practicality is key: “I’d love for 2016 to be the year of people getting realistic about what social media can and can’t do for you, of understanding that it’s a mode of relationship building, not a mode of broadcast,” says Baym.
Many of the documents detailing her research, available at www.nancybaym.com, are highly detailed academic papers. But when it comes to offering advice to songwriters looking to focus and capitalize on their social media presence in the year ahead, Baym says, bluntly: “Write good songs in 2016. I know that sounds facetious, but I’ve spent years paying close attention to social media and music. I’m not convinced a songwriter’s time is best spent finding a way to build an audience on social media, because I’m not convinced that translates into an audience for your songs, unless you’re really conscious of who you’re communicating with.”
“Social media is a mode of relationship building, not a mode of broadcast.”
Depending on whether you’re writing with the assumption others will record your material, or are more focused on writing/recording your own, the people you’re trying to reach will differ. “It’s different for those two sets,” says Baym. “People might be writing songs that have lots of fans and yet not have fans themselves, because listeners don’t realize they wrote these songs that they love.”
For emerging songwriters, who aren’t performing their own material, for example, “I would focus on making sure I had a consistent identity and presence across a number of platforms, and pay attention online to other songwriters and musicians who might be interested in recording my material,” says Baym. “I think a really underplayed piece of engaging your audience on line is listening and following.”
Rather than fret over what, where and how much you post, Baym suggests first considering how to get people to actually care about you, your music, and your output online. “None of us gets to ‘make’ anybody pay attention to anything, anymore,” she says. “That idea of making people pay attention was based on limited broadcast media.”
Consequently, you have to demonstrate that you have something to offer to the conversation between members of your target audience. Ask yourself who you want to engage and converse with, what platforms they’re actually active on, and what they do there. It’s important, from the start, to identify who you hope to reach, find those people, then listen to and engage them – while taking into account the norms of their community – in order contribute meaningfully to their conversation.
“It’s about finding people who you can foster genuine connection with, instead of trying to ramp up your numbers.”
“Think about going to a party,” says Baym. “Somebody shows up and all they do is talk at you. So you’re not very interested in hanging out with them. You’re much more interested in people who’ve expressed an interest in you. As a best practice, I think it’s important – particularly for people who aren’t already in the spotlight – to think about connecting with people online as a way of listening to, learning from and finding people who they can foster genuine connection with, instead of trying to ramp up their numbers.”
Metrics are important, but numbers don’t matter if they’re not leading to someone licensing/recording your song, and your efforts on social media don’t translate to making your career sustainable.
Regardless of whether you focus purely on songwriting, or work in multiple disciplines, Baym passionately advocates for people to have their own domain name and website at that domain.
Increasingly, Baym continues, “we’re more visual.” But everyone, songwriter or otherwise, engages in a different way. “And until there’s really compelling evidence that people who do A, B and C have more professional success than people who do D, E and F, I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘This is a smarter thing to do’ than in terms of ‘use this application or post this kind of thing.’ If you hate taking pictures and feel like, ‘Well, everybody’s posting pictures – I have to do that.’ What are the odds you’re going to create pictures people gravitate to?
“The best things that come out of social media come because you spend time there and find the tool that works for you,” Baym says. She suggests that you begin by responding to people, asking questions, and determining when it’s appropriate to contribute.
Again, it’s like being at a party. “There are six people standing in a circle having a conversation,” says Baym. “You want to break into it, so you stand between or just behind them, and nod along. Eventually, if they expand the circle, you get to talk, too. If you saw those six people and went, ‘Hi, I’m working on a song,’ they wouldn’t want to talk to you, and understandably, because they’re having a conversation already.”
No matter what your gig is, what tools you use, what genre(s) you work in, Baym says, “you really need to think about [which] ongoing conversations you want to insert yourself into.” And how to do that politely, in a way people find appealing, and consistent with their conversation.