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.


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Kevin Young

Kevin Young (Photo: Caroline Legault-Forest)

Over the 20-plus years I’ve worked as a professional musician, my experiences in songwriting sessions (predominantly with my band Moist) have run the gamut from exhilarating to infuriating. I suspect that other songwriters and composers – whether they work alone or with others – have experienced a similar range of emotion.

One of the most interesting projects I’ve been asked to work on lately was as a facilitator for corporate songwriting events run jointly by Rock The Stars (RTS) and SongDivision. In doing so, I found that writing with people who have little to no musical training offers benefits that, frankly, surprised and inspired me.

A little background: Rock The Stars (RTS) is a Canadian company based in Toronto and San Francisco that Jeff Pearce (Managing Director for Canada and Moist’s founding bass player) has worked with in a wide range of settings, conducting approximately 300 events for participants ranging in number from six to 600. SongDivision is a global company with offices the U.S., Brazil, Singapore, Australia, and the U.K. They serve Canada in partnership with Rock the Stars (RTS) and run events with capacity from 10 to 10,000 people.

I found that writing with people who have little to no musical training offers benefits that, frankly, surprised and inspired me.

RTS has multiple programs where participants write lyrics, play instruments and play and perform the songs they’ve written. “Our flagship program is getting people to form groups and play multiple songs,” says Pearce, adding that SongDivision concentrates more on large groups collaborating on a single song.

Both Pearce and SongDivision’s Music Director, Nashville, James “Roto” Rotundi, admit that convincing an audience made up of people with limited, if any, musical background to write and perform a song requires tact. “We reassure them that music is collaborative,” says Rotundi. “No one is asked to sing alone.” And both companies use a series of small steps to essentially remove the participant’s inhibitions, one by one.

Jeff Pearce

Jeff Pearce

At the outset there are some jitters, but once the process is explained, even with initially reserved crowds, “apprehension gives way to a level of enthusiasm and teamwork that consistently amazes and delights both the clients and ourselves,” says Rotundi.

“We’re teaching rudimentary skills,” Pearce adds. “We might have multiple guitar players playing one string each, a keyboard player playing with one finger and a drummer playing a ‘row, you bastards’ beat, so it sounds like a band.”

To be honest, during the first RTS/SongDivision collaboration I worked on, I found the prospect of writing a song with 150 people, and getting it stage-ready in about an hour-and-a-half, a bit daunting. But seeing the light switch on in participants’ eyes as they realize they can be musical, creative, and stretch their personal boundaries was incredibly inspirational. As familiar as I am with collaborating to get a tune written and ready to perform, it reminded me how necessary it is to constantly expand my own boundaries in order to progress as a musician, performer and songwriter.

The events are far more interactive than a typical concert. By writing and performing, the audience becomes an integral part of the band. “It’s rewarding to see the energy this kind of creative exchange produces,” Rotundi says. “It’s made me a better performer, more attuned to the people I play for. And the lesson that songwriting is largely a matter of sitting down and getting to work – rather than waiting for some flash of inspiration – is one that cannot be repeated often enough.”

By adulthood – whether you’re a songwriter or not – chances are your sense of wonder has taken a bit of a beating; doing this type of gig recalls, for me, the power of music, and the reasons I wanted to write music in the first place.

It’s a reminder that Pearce takes into his own work. “When you start writing you haven’t learned ‘the rules’ – what can and can’t be done in songwriting,” he says. “And, in some cases, I think the biggest detriment to a songwriter is learning those rules. People writing a song for the first time break the rules because they don’t know they exist. That reminds me, as a songwriter, that doing so can help make a song special.”

James Rotundi

James Rotundi

Writing a song with people who normally would consider that well out of their wheelhouse – and a song that, by necessity, is written according to a specific formula and largely about a company, corporate culture or range of products – might initially not seem terribly inspiring. The response from every musician I’ve spoken to who’s been involved in this type of gig, however, is that they came out of it not only inspired by helping someone else expand their creative capacity, but with a greater desire to expand their own.
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Jeff Pearce is a founding member, former bass player and principal songwriter for Moist. He’s also collaborated with a variety of other artists as a producer/songwriter and is the founder of Rock Star Live.

James Rotundi is the leader of Nashville’s Roto’s Magic Act, and guitarist for New York City hard rock quartet Hundred Hounds. He’s also worked with the French electro band Air, Mike Patton’s Mr. Bungle, The Grassy Knoll, and collaborated with members of Pearl Jam, Santana, Faith No More, Jellyfish and the ?Saturday Night Live Band among others.


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“How do I get in the game?”

Probably the most asked question I’ve ever received from fellow artists trying to make it into this heaven and hell we call “The Music Industry.”

But what is the game exactly? The game is the ever-turning roulette table at a casino, inhabited by egomaniacs and insecure men (and women) with a lot of money and power. Based on that description, why would one want to voluntarily enter into a relationship with these types of people? Because regardless of what actually drives those at the helm of the game, there’s a possibility that they can help you get closer to your dream of releasing your art to the public, in a BIG way.

“The game will change you.”

I’ve been spinning in the roulette wheel for many years and have found myself skipping over different slots that may end up being my final destination. Anything from chance interaction with my childhood musical heroes to full-on studio sessions and collaborations with the world’s most beautiful and talented people. The game entices the most strong willed… and if you play it right, it can provide for you and/or your family, while giving you the chance to get those words and melodies out of your head and into someone’s MP3 or streaming player.

Imagine knowing a 15-year-old Rihanna and being a part of her demo tape before she signs with Jay-Z two weeks later!? Imagine meeting Jay-Z for the first time six months later, and him bringing you onstage as his special guest in your home town?! Getting to know LL Cool J in a private back room of Phillipe’s, with Raekwon present, and LL telling you about the profound respect he has for founding CANADIAN hip-hop artists. Touring Australia with Pitbull, Sean Paul, Kelly Rowland, Akon and… man. The game can be the best thing in the world. It’s almost like finding yourself in the middle of a real-life movie where you are a co-star amongst the best actors (that happen to be musicians).

My advice to any artist seeking to “get into the game” is to make sure you take note of who you are before you enter. It will change you (anyone who says otherwise is a liar). The challenge is to let it change you for the better. Learn from it and take every obstacle as a lesson that you can springboard from to become more savvy, while you maneuver through the snakes and ladders.

How do you get in the game? Very carefully.


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