“I have about [2,500] friends on my solo page and I try to take the time to get to each of them and leave a very personal message,” explains singer-songwriter Jeff Zentner.
A recent transplant to Asheville, the musician has, up until now, been known as the front man for country gothic trio Creech Holler. But the relocation from Nashville allowed him to focus on his solo work and — in a few short months — complete a CD entitled Hymns to the Darkness. But for this musician, just recording tracks isn’t enough. He wants to get his music out there to would-be fans. And the vehicle he’s found to accomplish the task isn’t a slick PR team or a distribution deal.
“Nearly 400,000 of the site’s roughly 30 million user pages belong to bands,” reports Wired magazine. “Over the past couple years, MySpace and other community sites, like Purevolume.com, have launched a number of acts: Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Relient K, and Silverstein, among others.”
But what does that mean for local bands? A search of MySpace.com turns up nearly 200 bands within a 10-mile radius of Asheville. Some of these aren’t bands in the serious playing-shows-touring-and-recording sense. But of those that are actually scheduling gigs, making albums and trying to win fans, is the next Fall Out Boy among them?
How to make friends and influence record labels
Local “screamo-rock” group Secret Lives of the Freemasons weighs in as the Asheville band with the most MySpace plays (listens to the MP3 files posted on their page) and friends. But what, exactly, does that mean? “We probably have the highest plays because we have been a touring band for over a year,” suggests guitarist Tucker Ensley. “We have been on three national tours, probably about 10 East Coast tours, have sold over 10,000 copies of our CD, and promoted ourselves extensively during this entire process using MySpace.com as a tool.”
So touring gets the group’s name out there and drives listeners to the Web site. But Ensley doesn’t think the band’s 350,000-plus plays is a very big deal. “I know we get a thousand or more plays a day, but you can never really tell what that means … it’s just a number,” he says. “What is more important is how many friends you have who you can contact through messages and bulletins to tell them about updates, shows, etc.”
Zentner, who ranks among the top 15 local acts as measured by play count, agrees in part. “Most of those plays aren’t coming from people in Asheville,” he notes. “They’re coming from people nationally.”
The musician spends a significant amount of time marketing his music by reaching out to people with similar sonic tastes and bringing them to his site. “I guess I’m good at identifying bands that aren’t necessarily the same as me but evoke a similar [aesthetic],” he says. “People who are friends with those bands will become my friends — very vocally.”
Scroll down Zentner’s comments list and it’s obvious that he’s piqued the interest of his largely female fan base. “What are the chances of you coming to sing to the Orlando area?” asks one. “I just listened to your music, and I really like it! Come to Michigan,” invites another. “How would I pick up a copy of your CD? It is brilliant,” writes a third devotee.
Less work, more plays
But not everyone is using MySpace to horde fans, or “friends” as the Web site calls them. “A band trying to add friends is about the most useless thing they could do,” Ensley says. “If people haven’t added your band, then they probably don’t care to and it is just a waste of time and annoying to whoever you are trying to invite. I personally don’t allow bands to try to add my personal page because it is such a nuisance.”
MySpace.com, developed by Tom Anderson (the “Tom” who pops up as everyone’s first friend when they sign up for a free MySpace page) and Chris DeWolfe launched in 2003. Now a household name, MySpace was imagined as a networking site. “[Anderson] realized that social networking needed to accommodate groups as well as individuals — teams looking for players, professionals looking for work, filmmakers looking for a crew, bands looking for an audience,” notes Wired. “It would be the ultimate social hub: part Friendster, part Blogger, part MP3.com, part Craigslist.”
Anderson told Wired, “The idea was that if [there] was a cool thing to do online, you should be able to do it on MySpace.”
Some musicians, like Keith Krebbs (AKA DJ Supervision), just want a place to explore new sounds. “I got FruityLoops software and pretty much just sat down and started experimenting,” Krebbs notes. “Most of what I’ve done I’ve put on MySpace — I kind of like the immediacy of it.”
The DJ has two band pages: One for his down-tempo hip-hop, and another, called “Super-Dirty South,” that mixes vintage blues from Muddy Waters and Little Walter with hip-hop beats.
“I don’t necessarily use MySpace just to showcase the experimental stuff,” he says.
A picture: still worth a thousand words
Another aspect of MySpace is that it allows a person, or a band, to craft a persona. Because the poster’s image hinges on photos, text and the four songs MySpace allows, developing just the right page becomes very important.
“Be very careful about your photo/graphic selections and, if you’re just starting out, pay attention to the name you choose if you have a band,” suggests music mag Garage Radio, which singled out Zentner’s band’s MySpace site for accolades:
“A graphic that caught my eye [was] for the band Creech Holler. Their site did not disappoint me. It was what I’d hoped for — full of the ominous, dark mysteries of Southern mythic traditions. The graphics on their site are simply terrific, especially against a gray background. The band’s photos are also appropriately black and white. And, their music is steeped in old, Southern country-folk blues … They’ve effectively married their music with their look and style. Good job!”
Zentner’s solo page shares that style, with black-and-white photos, stark imagery and no tricky sparkling graphics or dizzying wallpaper.
“I think it is important to keep things simple. Don’t mess around with the HTML too much so kids don’t recognize that they aren’t even on MySpace anymore,” recommends Ensley. “Also, don’t clutter it up with non-important stuff that would distract or confuse visitors from the main point of the page which is music … Keep it simple, not tacky, and attractive to the eye.”
Even for web novices, for whom HTML is as accessible as Aramaic, free programs at sites like PimpMyProfile.com and CreateBlog.com help anyone make a page pop. There’s really no excuse for a bland background. However, extras like blinking unicorns are a matter of personal taste — and there’s no accounting for taste.
However, there is accounting for marketing savvy.
“My biggest problem with MySpace is that every kid on earth wants to start a band nowadays,” Ensley complains, “and it has flooded a once much more pure market of music with a billion bands who aren’t serious at all but are trying to promote themselves like serious bands.”
He continues, “Right now if I wanted to start a band with just me, a kazoo, and grunting vocals I could start a MySpace music page, make it look fancy, and add it amongst the millions of other legitimate and non-legitimate music pages out there. This makes it hard for kids to search for new music because they have to sort through junk like that … unless you are really into kazoos and grunting, of course.”
Which some people are. And in that case, the kazoo bands need to step up their game in order to catch the eyes — and ears — of potential fans.
“Now there’s a new dynamic,” Zentner says. “In addition to being talented, you have to know how to market yourself and treat people in a way to make them feel [invested]. It’s all about building a street team.”