Music in the Age of Social Media
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I would now like to expound upon a theory that I have held for quite some time, which is that social media is antithetical to the listening to and experiencing of music.
I would contend the reason that Facebook never has really been a platform for music the way, say MySpace famously was, is because music simply requires time in a way that does not suit Facebook’s business model. Facebook is, after all, most succinctly described as an ad engine with social features. And as an ad engine, one can surmise their primary goal is to maximize the number of ads they show to a given set of eyeballs. More impressions, clicks, what have you, translates into more dollars they can charge whoever bought the ads (and in their ideal world we are all advertisers). So the less time a person spends with any given piece of content, the better.
Yes, they want the viewers of these ads to "engage" — that after all can be yet another measure that they can show their customers, the ad buyers, to prove the effectiveness of the ads, and thus the need to buy more, but to maximize the number of ads they are showing, they need to make that engagement as minimal and instantaneous as possible. They're not going to be looking for long, insightful and thought provoking essays. It needs to be much quicker. They're looking for an emotional response. Does it make you laugh? Does it make you cry? Does it make you angry? The brain’s emotional circuitry is much faster than anything the pre-frontal cortex can hope to muster. It can be done in seconds or less. Make no mistake, this is psychological manipulation, if not warfare, and Facebook has evolved to be the best of breed in that respect.
So even a relatively brisk two and half minute song is just of no interest to the people architecting the social media landscape. You can almost sense the guffaws at the notion of listening through an entire verse, let along multiple choruses. Such an entity might as well be on another plane of existence, a dimension that simply can’t be seen by the algorithms of Facebook. To them, it's a creature of the Upside Down, an artifact from a pocket universe where time runs at a completely different speed. The most they can imagine is it's some sort of background noise to whatever should be really occupying your attention at any given moment.
Evidence for this theory can be seen in the lack of support Facebook has for the musician. The so-called "Musician" pages that Facebook allows you to create have a noticeable deficit of features that allow Facebook users to actually listen to your music. The primary feature of such pages seems to be creating opportunities for Facebook to pester you to boost posts so the people who have already expressed interest in seeing your posts will in fact be given the opportunity to see them. There are third party plug-ins such as Reverb Nation that allow you to play music on Facebook, but they have a tendency to break at Facebook's whims. They tend to be a bit buried in the page layout and don't expect them to even be visible on the mobile apps. A Google search suggests there was once a thing called the Facebook Music Player App but that's gone to the great 404 page in the sky. The platform has become downright hostile to displaying any content not hosted by Facebook itself. Music player embeds for sites like bandcamp and Soundcloud have long since ceased to function within Facebook's walled and increasingly sterile garden.
There's a lot more emphasis on video — but even then its only comparatively recently that Facebook introduced a measure for “ThruPlays” — the emphasis has always been on 3 and 10 second views as far as metrics go … or even just 2 second continuous views. Nothing is more disheartening than looking at your drop off rate for video views (which counts as viewers people just scrolling past and taking a momentary glimpse at whatever is moving on screen before breezing on). The platform has at least made an attempt with videos to allow them to continue to play as you scroll through other content. The experts at Google will tell you that when it comes to YouTube advertising you have just 5 seconds to get people’s attention (made even more compulsory as that’s the point after which the skip button becomes active on YouTube).
As far as Instagram goes (pretty much indistinguishable from FB these days as far as I'm concerned) — well, a 15 second clip is the best you can hope to share of a track in a story and unless you’ve got a sub-minute song, you’re not going to be able to post a full one as a video. And if the video is no longer on screen, playback stops — so no playing the background as the viewer looks at other content. IG is primarily a visual medium anyway — and, along with Facebook, I doubt people are engaging with sound on to the extent a musician would hope. If people have headphones on at all, they’ve probably got something else like a music player app or a conference call to pay attention to through that sort of sensory input. If anything, video on these platforms will break people out of their current music experience like some child who impatiently and insistently demands their parent look up from the newspaper to watch them perform some new trick.
The theory du jour with the 'gram for musicians is that you should use it to build a brand and establish a relationship with your followers — give them insight into your life and your process and the behind the scenes. You know, everything and anything but the music itself. It is more or less meant to be constant guerrilla marketing, a space where all interactions are really just a front for a hidden agenda — you are cultivating assets to prime them for a future operation — a sort of sleeper cell you'll be able to activate with a trigger word when the time is right.
For my part, I do feel it is probably the most fun social media to use because you can enjoy exercising a different part of your brain creatively, to be a bit of a visual artist. But don't think for a moment the whole thing isn't just one massive marketing machine — and I think I've already made my thoughts on hashtag based bots clear. Alas, at best, the music you're creating is just tangental to the whole thing.
If you've ever tried to use these platforms to do advertising, you'll quickly learn they don’t want you using text in your ads or subtitles on your video (unless they’re the ones generating them) so you can’t rely on those either to try and convey anything more substantive. You will even be penalized if not outright prevented from using images with too much text in them from being shown. The powers that be will claim pictures with words get less engagement as people see it as advertising, but my suspicion is this is sort of a self fulfilling prophecy — one might surmise they don’t want you putting up anything that would cause people to spend the processing time it would require anyone to read anything. It's hard to give their own rationales the full credence they expect when memes, which nearly always have text, are one of the most commonly shared artifacts on the web. There are mediums like comics that have always married the picture with the word. And it completely dismisses the notion of "word art" — that text itself can be beautiful and powerful in its own right. I am in part grousing because I've now got some lovely pull quotes for the new album that I payed a princely sum for and would like an effective way to use them, but I think it would be foolish to assume these platforms were necessarily honest about their intentions when they're underlying motivations can be reversed engineered to an extent.
Side note: I was given grief recently by some wag about one of my video ads created from a Facebook template for not having a sample of my music — as if that was even an option given to me.
At first I viewed "stories" as a cynical ploy to avoid dealing with storage of so much useless dreck (yay, more pictures of meals I cannot myself enjoy) but now I understand it's actually a far more devious and insidious plot to turn the whole Internet into a passive experience where you simply watch it as a feed as you would television. All the better to slip some advertising in there, once you've been trained to simply watch what comes up in front of you. Sure it may be rather transparently an advertisement, but if you've been conditioned to just let things float past you, would you bother to proactively skip it? I rather hate the whole mechanism. It feels a bit like watching someone with ADD channel surf. I'll see something pop up and before I feel like I've full digested it, it gets replaced by something else. It gets a bit frustrating — "hey, I was looking at that!" I will exclaim to my phone. The end result is likely we're training young minds to digest information this way, but the consequence of priming our thought process this way will probably lead to a deficit of critical or even contemplative and reflective thought on visual mediums (sorry, art museums). So I guess it's not just music that will suffer, in the end.
So what of Twitter? Twitter is like Facebook, but on speed. It exists in its own hyper dimensional plane where the cycles of relevance are so short, they are microwaves to Facebook’s plodding infrared. Trends crest and crash with such unpredictability sometimes you get trends that are simply unfathomable. Recently actor Michale Cerra was trending and no one seemed to know why — there were as many posts asking why his name was trending as anything else, if not more.
And Twitter feels like a blackhole to anyone who doesn’t already have a following. Unless you post something controversial (or erroneously perceived as such) it’s hard for any given post to get notice (insulting someone seems to be good currency... sorry Maggie Haberman). So many people I know who are also musicians are only making use of the platform peripherally — usually through a third party rather obviously doing reposts from FB and IG in a way that looks rather hopeless (no, I am not going click through to see your IG picture, sorry, it just looks so lazy and I doubt any of my engagement registers with you). I’d say half the conversations on Twitter revolve around people who simply reacted to a headline without reading the details of the actual article just to put their 2 cents in, which if anything, is highly overvaluing their contribution.
It's hard to imagine all this ceaseless chatter making room for a melody.
I often worry that I’m listening to less music these days because I’m getting older and it’s just less appealing, less stimulating, and I’ve gotten set in my ways as far as tastes go. It does happen. But I also think that we are now in a hyper stimulated culture as far as options coming at us to occupy the current moment. The problem of the information age is that there’s simply too much of it and most of it is junk. It's no wonder that provocative "click bait" headlines and easy to digest listicles are the norm — from an evolutionary arms race perspective, these were the creatures most likely to survive in the current environment. While binge watching Netflix is at the polar opposite of the spectrum, the space in between that perhaps was once occupied by music has been eviscerated (hopefully that word's popularity as an attention grabber may have at last mercifully waned) by forces which doesn’t want you to spend any more time with anything than you absolutely have to.
I readily admit this could all be the musings of a curmudgeon who is looking to explain why his music isn’t getting any plays (somewhat ironic as the only reason I set up a Facebook account in the first place was to invite people to live music events — a discussion for another time). Clearly the streaming industry is booming and people do listen to music. But how much of this is simply through playlists and algorithms running largely as a background process while the ongoing drumbeat of their social media feed demands the focus their ever divided attentions? Is the time where one put on an album and simply sat down and listened an activity of a bygone age — as much a cultural anachronism as the walkman or the postage stamp?
One can only hope not. Or maybe we’ll luck out and future generations will rebel against all this nonsense and Facebook and its ilk will join MySpace on the ash heap of social computing history. Apparently Facebook is already regarded as for "old people" — so I guess there's hope.
The extended musings of a songwriter.