As much as I’ve hated capitalism most of my life, at this stage I find myself slowly starting to change. Through years of pursuing art, music, writing, teaching, acting, photography and movie-making, the terms “business” and “marketing” usually eluded me. Learning that hard work doesn’t always add up to a proportionate amount of income has been a tough reality to accept. Even with some natural talent I haven’t earned any riches yet through merely be able to sing and dance. However, if I had a dollar for every young person who’s responded to the question: “What’s your major” with: “business administration and marketing,” I probably wouldn’t be writing this but on a beach with a cocktail sending love letters somewhere.
As I began to embrace computer technology I slowly crept into the cyber world through the use of email and soon instant messaging: (remember the good old days of AOL and IM-ing). I created screen names; entered log-in information and tons of forgettable passwords while finding ways to promote myself over the web. I filmed my music shows and edited and uploaded them to youtube. I published my recorded music independently through ASCAP, got bar codes and signed on for digital distribution. I even started my first blog for sharing my thoughts and prose, hoping to have some success as a critical and creative writer. Aside from needing an internet connection these things were all free.
But my plans got bigger, and after some advice, I was paying a yearly fee to reserve the rights to my domain name and website. With a name like “Figgiani” though, it wasn’t enough to have my own website. Regardless of how good my music was, what mattered most was if anyone were looking for it or not. Unfortunately, the only people who searched for my name (if they could spell it) were those I’d met in person, a friend or anyone I’d already established a relationship with. But very little money was coming in from any presence I’d gotten on-line, so I decided to join free sites like MySpace and eventually Facebook.
These sites are very clever, combining the use of email, photo galleries and video streams while putting users in touch with a huge social network. But as a freelance musician and artist trying to make a living, I still liked the idea of my own web address, where friends and supporters could keep up with me and hopefully buy something. On a whim I logged in to renew my subscription to “joeyfiggiani.com” and had a rude awakening. In the time that passed, I had given up the “rights” to my domain name and felt blackmailed by cyber entrepreneurs, savvy enough to reserve the rights to “joeyfiggiani.com,” “joeyfiggiani.net” even “joefigg.com.” Several years ago Bruce Springsteen lost the use of his desired domain name to a “fan” site who turned on “The Boss.” These once faithful supporters of their hero expected a large sum of money for the highly viral web address they had already been using. (Gladly Springsteen did not give in, and while he lost the case, he refused to pay these crooks and went on to flourish with brucespringsteen.net.)
Here we had it: a huge name in popular music fallen victim to the modern way of doing business. Luckily artists of Springsteen’s popularity have tons of loyal fans who will make sure their support is directed toward the genuine article. Because we lack even a fraction of Springsteen’s exposure, obscure indie artists like me have no choice but to spread the word on Facebook (who has since totally out-witted and oversold MySpace) as its users grew to ridiculous proportions. It was a perfect way to force a small-time business owner, which is what any freelance artist really is, into relying on others to run the show. But, as with every part of life in a capitalist society, this reliance does not come without a cost; you must know the secret password (or at least your own).
Reverbnation is a site that claims to be geared toward independent artists, musicians, managers and promoters. Its format combines a personal bio, any press exposure, music and video files, a calendar and even your own store for selling clothing, CD’s and ringtones. Hours and days I spent uploading fills and adding all the required information. An artist’s page is then created as is a virtual bank that’s linked to a paypal account, where sales made are deposited. A radio chart also lists the songs most listened to in your area. Within a few weeks I watched one of my songs go from number 11 to number 3. I finally felt I was going places. Within days I sold some CD’s and s few T-Shirts. Excited by the “revenue” in my reverb-bank, I attempted to withdraw enough to pay my phone bill. After a battle with red-tape I realized “my” money was not available to me until thirty days after each sale. That meant each time a fan bought something, I would have to wait a month for that money to be mine. It doesn’t take a business-major to know that most companies started using this practice back when we went from weekly to bi-weekly pay-days, as money we earned gains interest collected only by the employer. Weeks and months passed. And while I sold a dozen more shirts and CD’s on-line, I was still selling more in one night playing a bar and leaving with the cash.
Reverbnation also introduced me to something that has added to my expertise of the cyber market: it advised me on how to link my web pages to any contacts I’ve already made on other free networks. Once I set this up several fans and “friends” from MySpace and Facebook signed on. Things began overlapping. People I knew from grade-school were sent to my music site. Neighbors were commenting on a song or video I’d made. I was now, not only marketing myself, but “cross-marketing!” Though I was grateful for the friends who were making an effort, without the money it takes to reach beyond my closest followers, all I was doing was sending my on-line community on a wild goose chase.
Like reverbnation, it has now become really popular for most websites to urge users to link to their page or “subscribe.” Just scroll to the bottom of most internet sites you visit, and I’ll be damned if you don’t see icons for Facebook, Twitter or any other commonly used on-line networks. After clicking on such a feed and agreeing to “share your information,” you no longer have to create screen names, passwords or new log-ins for each web page you view. Once you link to a site you can now take part, leave comments and posts everywhere you visit by signing into only one of your other accounts.
In the 2002 movie “Minority Report” Tom Cruise walked into a shopping mall and was greeted personally by a virtual salesman. Voices spoke from brightly lit screens and addressed his needs. Beneath the image of the digital seller was a stored knowledge of everything the consumer liked; and of course, as Cruise walked by, the computerized image was eager to sell him something. What was science-fiction then is reality in 2011. When buying something at the supermarket or most retail stores, it’s now the norm for the clerk to probe for some personal info. First, they were asking for your zip-code. I’ve also noticed some stores making sure you “take your coupon” or receipt, which cleverly “has a code you need to type into [their] website.” But these offers are only valid once you get on the internet and give up your email address, phone number or home address. Lately at Panera Bread and Barnes and Nobel (to name two) I’m being asked if I’m “a club member.” To become a member you are given a card with a bar code like a credit card. Once your card is registered on-line, you set off a slew of promotional emails, surveys and phone calls all as tools to sell you more stuff. This is all the result of ingenious marketing people, who’ve joined their greedy little heads to come up with the next trend in roping in our already eager, consumer-driven society.
Yes, we are witnessing a cyber marketing blitz personally geared toward us and our individual interests. (Don’t we feel special!) Anything we spend money on; any piece of paper we fill out or sign; anything we put our name on today are all being logged as useable data. Whenever we make a purchase we become a willingly captive audience. And as soon as anyone looking to make money finds out what we’re buying, they flood our lap-tops and iPhone screens with enticing ads and offers for “free” computers and vacations. Not much paper is involved, but “here: just enter your name on the dotted line.” This makes Ed McMahon and his brown envelopes, announcing you as a potential sweep-stakes winner, a sorely missed promotion.
For now, my interest in beating down virtual doors to prove my worth as a talented and vital musician has been put on hold. I am healthier and happier sitting at my computer and putting my English degree to use, finally. But while my bank account is still mostly empty, it has suddenly hit me: I have slowly become a minor expert in business and marketing in the cyber age. Lucky me. I can’t wait for the money to start rolling in.
-thanks to John Tumminello of Nashville for his sincere and generous knowledge of business and marketing.