In this second post of this ongoing series of exclusive interviews with musicians about their relationships with their audience, folk-rock singer-songwriter Erin McKeown talks to Nancy Baym about her evolution from paper mailing lists to email lists to MySpace to Facebook and Twitter. You can read the previously posted interview with Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai here.
I wanted to talk about your communication with your audience over time.
McKeown: I’ll give you kind of an overview. When I started playing music of my own in high school I wasn’t aiming at it in terms of a career. I didn’t really know that was possible. I just liked doing it, and I liked performing and the more I did it, the more I liked it and so I just kept finding ways to do it more. I don’t know when the idea of a mailing list got presented to me. But at some point someone said to me “you need to have a mailing list so that people if they come to your shows if they like it you know how to find them again.”
Email mailing list or snail mail?
McKeown: This was in 1995 and 1996 before I got internet. I may have started it at the end of high school. I know that I was collecting names and addresses by the summer between high school and college. And then I went to college that fall and it had begun to dawn on me that I might want to be a little more serious about this. I still didn’t know that it could be a career but I was definitely interested in doing it and I started building a mailing list in Providence and started including email on it.
But for the first couple of years 96/97, even into 98 it was snail mailing. I would collect together anywhere from 5 and 20 dates in a certain area and I would make a postcard at Kinkos and I would try to make them each different and creative in some way or another and I would mail them. And it just got to the point where it was too expensive. But it was also working.
People were still getting a postcard in the mail from me that had a bunch of dates and they would come to them. Also I found it actually just really creative and fun. It was like getting to make tour posters, you know. I used to do that too at that time.
I think at the time that was pretty standard, so I think now nowadays if I did a snail mailing list and did a postcard, I think I might get more feedback like “oh hey that’s cool” because people don’t do it anymore. For me it felt like a chance to establish a visual aesthetic. There’s a certain way that my posters and my postcards looked at the time. I built my first erinmckeown.com in probably 1998/99 and I tried to carry the same aesthetic to my website. And that’s when I started using an email list more. It was already quite large at that time, too large for the email system I was using and I had to do this thing where you had to send it in chunks, you know, and then it wasn’t divided by zip code.
Over the years my email list has stayed anywhere between 5-15,000 emails, it’s moved in and out through that. I think there was a time where that was really successful. It was also the time before you had any metrics. I had no idea how many people were opening it, reading it, anything. But in the early 2000s my emailing list was the most successful way that I could let people know what I was doing.
And I always tried to do it with a certain style. They were always written in the third person and they were kind of written in a faux kind of vaudeville kind of style like a carnival barker, like “HEY: Step right up! Check out what Erin’s doing this month! She’s playing a fancy gig in San Francisco,” you know. So I tried to do it so there was this visual aesthetic that I was trying to establish with my website and the way my records looked and also an aesthetic to the way I communicated with my fans.
Do you think they realized that you were the person actually writing them?
McKeown: I don’t know, I don’t know that it would even matter. Maybe it would. I don’t know. I always thought there was a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it that kind of left this
possibility that it’s entirely possible that it was me and I think even that was part of the aesthetic — sort of riding this line of homemade or not homemade.
At some point like in the early 2000s – 2004/2005 – by that time I was too busy and I tried having someone who worked for my manager do the mailing list because I was just slammed with other stuff to do and running a mailing list takes an enormous amount of time. I found that nobody who was working in my manager’s office could match the style that I wanted in terms of the way I wanted to talk to my fans. And so I just went back to writing them and I would write them and then email them in and then they would do the rest of the formatting and sending of them. But also I think in the last 3 or 4 years emailing has become drastically less effective in terms of how people find out about gigs.
How do you think they’re doing it now?
McKeown: Social networks. I think that’s the main way that people are finding music. I use a company called FanBridge who run my emailing list. I’m reaching more people, but I think in general it’s not as effective a tool as social networking stuff. It was a heyday, there was a heyday for direct email mailing list. People still do it because you have to, but I also think it’s not nearly as effective. It’s the same thing, there was a time when postal mailers were incredibly effective and it got expensive and less effective as people moved towards finding more out about music online and now I think it’s just moving again to social networks.
Maybe MySpace kind of pioneered this kind of thinking but I think with the demise of retail record shopping — at one point SoundScan numbers were the most important numbers that someone in the music business looked at. If you were going to hire someone for a gig or if you were thinking about signing someone to a record label, you’d want to know what their SoundScans were. And SoundScan is a notoriously unreliable system. But it was still used. You know, so even though you kind of knew, you look at the numbers and you knew they were handicapped somehow.
But at least they’re numbers…
McKeown: but at least they’re numbers and everyone kind of knew the way they were fucked up so you could kind of paw your way through that and find some information about somebody. As an artist who has always sold more from the stage than from stores, as someone who has had some mainstream success but much under the radar success, I always felt like my SoundScan numbers were not fair in terms of giving someone the real picture of the size of my fanbase. So then you add in piracy and SoundScan numbers become even less useful because there’s all these uncounted copies of your music.
My experience has been, you know in the last 5 years I get stopped enough on public transportation somewhere or in an airport, disproportionate I think to the number of records I’ve quote unquote “sold.” There’s a bigger group of people who know about my music than are being reflected in those numbers. And piracy is the main reason for that. Which has always been really frustrating.
What’s frustrating? That the people who are listening to you through unauthorized copies weren’t counted or that they were listening through unauthorized copies?
McKeown: It’s that they weren’t counted. It’s that their interaction and kind of additive presence to what my fanbase is is not able to be known in a system that wants to know that. I don’t agree with that system but that’s the system and it’s just been very frustrating for me over the years.
Then these social networks come along and all of the sudden here’s this new number that can be used. So for a while it was like MySpace views or number of friends on MySpace and then it turned into Facebook fans and Twitter followers and I have heard in the music industry “this is someone good to tour with because they have x number of followers” or you know ‘we’re interested in signing you because you’ve got x number of Facebook fans” and in some ways it’s replaced SoundScan.
But how does that translate into people in the room? I know people who have really lively online fanbases, many Facebook responses, lots of Twitter followers who draw the same amount of people that I draw in my rooms. There’s this sort of conversion that doesn’t necessarily happen, or you can’t draw a straight line between this artist has 5000 Facebook followers yet still is only drawing 30 people in this city.
In some ways I’ve begun to think of it as two different careers, you kind of have your online career where it’s like how do you communicate with those fans and what do you do for them and how do you cultivate that interaction and then there’s also do you give a good live show and when are you coming to this city?
I certainly as an artist feel a certain amount of pressure. I was resistant to this social media stuff at the time. I mean MySpace was less about status updates and more about just making music available in your player and kind of collecting friends. But the microblogging aspect of Twitter and Facebook demanded fresh personal content and I have certainly felt the pressure to keep up with that. And that is often at odds for me with the amount of things that I’m willing to talk about with the three or four thousand people who follow me online.