It was once a familiar scene: layers of show posters covering dimly lit streetposts; plastered on to venue walls; handbills blowing through alleys like tumbleweed. The battle to make people aware of concert dates is something that goes back decades. And the attention wars rage on, but now a lot of the action is online.
These days, a great many show and album release announcements take place via Facebook feeds and invites. Even this isn’t new—“virtual” promotions can be traced back to the dawn of the Internet. Message boards, band websites and email newsletters helped pave the way, and remain part of today’s publicity picture. Then came MySpace, which opened the door for musicians on social networks. These new platforms have been widely embraced due to broad reach, accessibility and low-to-no cost features.
Yet in spite of its popularity, Facebook hasn’t managed to become the ultimate Swiss army knife for musicians. Part of this is because the company keeps changing its functionality. Now that Facebook is publicly traded, it faces more pressure to monetize user activity. Unsurprisingly, some of the recent changes don’t seem to favor independent musicians or indie labels.
Today, the site has 750 million average daily users. American Facebookers “like” an average of 70 pages, which means there’s a lot of competition for eyeballs. Facebook doesn’t let all users see most content from these pages, and in the race for audience reach, musicians are not always guaranteed that their content is reaching fans. That is, unless they’re prepared to pay for the privilege.
What once was a level playing field is now skewed by algorithms that favor the “haves” over the “have nots.” While it makes good business sense for Facebook, making artists, businesses and brands pay to “promote” content has taken some of the sheen off the Facebook experience. Facebook claimed in 2012 that about 16 percent of fans see content posted by a page without paid promotion. But now that number has declined even further.
Again, this is a matter of business for Facebook. While the service has a massive user base, turning that traffic into profit has historically been a struggle for the company. In 2012 Facebook earned 2.6 billion dollars in ad revenue. By comparison, Google earned a reported 50 billion dollars in ad revenue the same year. This means Google made roughly 15 times as much with a similarly scaled user base.
So Facebook’s response is expectedly aggressive. Publicly traded companies always have a goal of higher profit, and for a social network, this means monetizing the user base. But this can change the “feel” of a service pretty quickly. A lot of us will remember when Rupert Murdoch purchased MySpace and the platform become riddled with ads and marketing schemes. With so many reports of Facebook having difficulty attracting and retaining an all-important youth demographic, it remains to be seen whether its current user base—which includes musicians and bands—will roll with the changes, or turn their attentions to services that better serve their needs.
The process by which Facebook decides what content to show is mostly invisible to users. You don’t see most of what is posted by friends or pages you follow; when a page or individual post something, only a small fraction of your fans see it. If those who see it interact, it will be pushed out further, but only to another small fraction and so on. If a limited number interact, the post stops there. But if a user or page pays to promote their content, Facebook expands the reach.
For bands and artists who have spent years building a fan base online, and who don’t have the deep pockets of a major label to help boost their posts, these algorithm tweaks are a large blow. As news feeds are filled with superficial memes and viral videos and promoted advertisement, musicians simply trying to reach their fans are crowded out. When artists can’t simply get their music, updates and show information into news feeds because of an inability to fork over cash to a multi-billion dollar website that built its user base on the promise of connecting individuals across the globe for “free,” many start wondering if it makes sense to continue using the platform.
Facebook once promised a way to avoid the gatekeepers of traditional media. That, as well as the wide reach of posts, is gone. Maybe we should take this as a warning about what the internet could be like in a post-net neutrality era; instead of an open level playing field, only those deep-pocketed companies who can afford to pay are guaranteed access to audiences.
Artist responses to these changes have been varied, but one of the easiest and most potentially impactful strategies is to simply bring out the email list signup sheet at shows again. While many bands probably left that clipboard and lined sheet in their trunk at the last show and just added their Facebook URL to their stage banner, it may be time to rethink that move. Email is a much more stable and open environment and having a go-to list ready for a newsletter blast is a very valuable investment.
That’s because email is guaranteed to make it into your fans’ inbox. A newsletter a few times a year (and no more than every month), is a organized and accessible way to update fans on upcoming shows and song releases. In addition, collecting zip codes alongside email addresses can help you send out region-specific show updates for effective targeting of tour date information Keeping the email list with the merchandise table allows for interaction and connection and with making an announcement at the show and throwing in a free song download to those who sign up will make the temptation that much more sweet for fans. Using an IPad for signup limits the confusion of deciphering handwriting and the effort of having to copy the information into a database.
This month, Facebook celebrated its tenth birthday, and made headlines once more with the $19 billion purchase of What’sApp. Social media platforms like Facebook will come and go, rise and fall in popularity and adjust their platforms in whatever ways they find commercially advantageous, but it is up to an artist to navigate the virtual maze. Let’s hope they start to do a better job of serving the musicians that bring so much value to their service.