The history of bluegrass online is nearly as old as the World Wide Web itself. Cybergrass, owned and operated by computer pioneer Bob Cherry, was launched on Sept. 9, 1992 (though it didn't go by that name until 1995). It was the world's seventh website, and it changed the world of bluegrass forever. It remains a font of information and archive of knowledge about bluegrass in the past and today.
The earliest publication of my own that I can find is on a website I maintained during the early years of this century. It represents my first efforts to use the internet to tell my story. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to my pre-blogging online writing, as well as my earliest writing about bluegrass. Blogging came along right at the time we were becoming involved in music, and I was looking for something to write about. My first blog entry came on Jan. 22, 2006. And somehow I became a brand. It’s not so easy these days, so I thought I’d pull some thoughts together about branding.
When my wife and I took our first baby steps into bluegrass in Myrtle Beach, became entranced, and began attending and writing about bluegrass events in depth, the internet was just in transition from a specialist’s environment to a large, public phenomenon. Search engines made this possible, and then social media emerged. A social media network called Six Degrees was created in 1997, the term "weblog" was coined that same year, and MySpace was launched in 2002, introducing the idea of “friends.” Facebook came along in 2006, first for college students and then opening to anyone over the age of 13, changing the game. I joined Facebook in November 2008 and began establishing a brand. Nowadays, bands, performers, and promoters can’t expect to build an audience, much less a brand, without effective use of social media.
The range of social media available to all three of these groups, as well as casual and serious music fans, is wide to view and time consuming to get and stay involved with. A Google search for how to develop a brand on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram will yield plenty of guidance. Each network provides unique opportunities to reach different kinds of audiences in different ways.
For musicians as well as fans and hobbyists, there are also specialized Hangout sites for individual instruments and genres with forums where you can reach out to people who share your passion. They include: Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum, Mandolin Cafe, Banjo Hangout, Bluegrass Hangout, Reso Hangout, and many more sites devoted to your special interest. None of these sites, except Bluegrass Hangout, is genre specific, and there’s a wide range of musical interest represented in each. When musicians show up on the various “hangouts” it really matters to the regular inhabitants of these seemingly small places. When you respond, they love it ... and you!
Remember that many links you'll find via online searching are come-ons for you to purchase someone else’s service. These services can help, but you’re the musician or music fan, and therefore the best judge of what you need or can use. Take the free help they can give you. If you find someone who’s particularly good at what you want, consider investing something to increase your penetration and improve your brand. However, I’ve heard too many people comment that a particular media specialist, publicity agent, company “didn’t do anything for me!” Of course not. You have to become your own best agent, and this takes work and may cost you some money, too. You always need to make a cost/benefit analysis. Adam Kirr, "The Bluegrass Marketer," delivered a terrific presentation at IBMA last fall, providing much of the stimulus for this column. His site would be a good place to begin your search for help.
Building your brand is essential, especially if your brand lies in a relatively small, niche corner of the music world. Recently, Randall Rothenberg of IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) gave a talk that concluded, “Direct relationships with consumers require trust, for truth equals data equals growth ... ." You can see the slides from his presentation here, but the important idea is that you, as a musician, are a brand that you need to define and then build. You need to consider carefully who you’re reaching out to, what they respond to, and, perhaps most important, who and what you really are.
The degree to which musicians have become involved in social media has expanded beyond belief. Here are a few of my thoughts about how you can become more effective there.
1. Avoid simply posting the dates of your upcoming performances.
2. Make yourself human.
3. Try a little useful, but harmless, self-disclosure – material about pets, activities with your kids, movies and books you’ve recently enjoyed. Things you’ve seen in your travels — all elements your fans want to know about, no matter how trivial you think they are. Pushing your problems or your faith probably is less helpful than you think it is.
4. When other people write about your performances, record them, take pictures of them, post videos, or otherwise support your efforts – share it, like it, comment on it; draw them into your circle.
5. Use your time in the car or bus profitably to build your business. REMEMBER: You’re in business, not on a romp between performances. When you’re doing your job, you do it full time. When you’re doing your other job, i.e., earning a living, you’re thinking about how to build the business you love.
Social media gives you a huge opportunity to reach out to your fans, to your audiences, to the people who hire you, to your potential audience, and more. No one has a greater interest in that quest than you do. You’re your own best client, but you need to work at it. Promoting yourself on social media can make a difference, and that’s what you need to do in order to be a success. The flyer, the CD table, and you standing on a stage behind a microphone and singing simply are no longer enough.