In this, the first in a series of conversations with musicians about their relationships with their audiences over time, communication professor Nancy Baym (photo) talks to Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite.
We hear much talk and hype about facilitating the connection between musicians and their audiences, but what does it really mean to artists to connect directly with their audiences through all the means available now? What has changed and what has remained the same as the channels for interaction have been radically reconfigured? What works for them and what doesn’t? How does it change what they think they need from industry professionals? This series, which shares its name with a talk I gave recently at Harvard looking at the relational complexity of the new music economy, will continue to explore these questions and more.
In this interview, Stuart Braithwaite of Scottish band Mogwai, talks about how the coming of MySpace opened up new possibilities for their audience to contact them, bringing new kinds of rewards and opportunities, but also challenges they’re still sorting through.
Have there been ebbs and flows of connection to your audience over time?
Braithwaite: When MySpace became popular and people could write straight to a band, I think a lot of people had never considered that you could just email a band. When that first started we got a lot of correspondence through MySpace from people I don’t think would have considered sending us an email. I remember one guy, an American soldier guy in Iraq, sending an email about how he’d listen to our music to try and escape from his dreadful day to day existence. I can’t see that guy having written us an email.
As a band that had been together before there was MySpace what was your reaction when you started getting this increased flow of direct messages?
Braithwaite: I guess that it was kind of good. And it’s another way for people to hear music. I mean I remember when if you heard a song on the radio you had to go around to every record shop and maybe have to ask them to order one in to hear it again unless you taped it off the radio.
If you said that to a 16 year old kid now they’d think you were talking about the stoneage!
I mean music’s universally accessible. Every single piece of music practically ever you can find in five minutes and listen to and buy if you want to. That’s also helped our band, because we’ve become popular in places that if it wasn’t for the internet, people wouldn’t have heard who we are, just because either people wouldn’t have the money to buy the music or there just wouldn’t be any promotion. We can pretty much play anywhere. I don’t think that would have been the case 20 years ago. I think we would have sold more records 20 years ago just because people bought more records then, but we wouldn’t have been able to go places that we go now, like really unusual places like Chile or Indonesia or these kinds of places. I don’t think our music would have reached those places before.
How do you feel about that tradeoff of selling fewer records but getting more global interest and opportunity?
Braithwaite: I think I’m fine with it to be honest, because I think that in our case it’s balanced out because we tour quite a lot. Tickets cost more now as well. They probably cost three times as much as they did when we started out. So from a business standpoint, we’re probably making about the same amount of money and also getting more experiences. I like going to places.
How do the online interactions you have with your audience compare to the face-to-face ones?
Braithwaite: We don’t really meet people face-to-face anymore because the places we play all have dressing rooms behind the stage so we don’t really get out among the people. That happened at the same time the internet became popular, so it’s hard to say what was what. It’s different. I get annoyed at people online for leaking records or making stuff up and I don’t think that happens offline. I don’t get annoyed at people offline.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility as a musician to interact directly with your audience?
Braithwaite: I don’t know if it’s a responsibility, but it definitely helps. I think that people like to feel connected to the people that make the music. I definitely think that people appreciate that.
Q: Do you pay attention to the communication that your audience has with your audience about you?
Braithwaite: Yeah. There’s a Mogwai message board and I know the guy that that that runs it, so I’ll look at that quite often and see what people say.
Q: It’s a fan board not an official board?
Braithwaite: Yeah. I don’t think we would have the time to moderate that, although they do a good job, so maybe we could just get them to do it for us. But I think it’s better that they should have their thing because I think if it was our own board, I don’t know, you kind of feel tempted to have no one say anything negative and that wouldn’t really be fair.
Does it bother you when you see people saying negative stuff on there?
Braithwaite: I don’t really mind I think if it’s fair. If someone doesn’t think you’ve played well or doesn’t think our record’s very good, then that’s fine. I think that, not so much on boards about our band, but I think on other people on other random boards, I’ve seen people say things that are kind of unfair and maybe just a bit swingeing. Obviously no one likes that, but it doesn’t really bother me. If the worst thing that’s happened to you is someone saying they don’t like your band on the internet, then you’re doing ok.
Now that you can do it yourself do you feel like the role of managers has changed?
Braithwaite: I think there’s maybe some more aspects that there didn’t used to be. People don’t just have a publicist they now have a web publicist, so that’s another job. It used to be each band just had a lawyer, a concert agent, and a publicist and record label. So maybe there’s more to do. And there’s also the issue of records leaking, so you’ve got to kind of try and work your way around that. Either embrace it or think of a way to try and stop it. So I think there’s more to do. And less money to make.
Do you still think there’s a place for record labels?
Braithwaite: Well we’re not staying with our label for our next record. We’re going to do it ourselves.
What motivated that decision?
Braithwaite: Well, we have our own label anyways. We’ve been putting out other bands records, so we had the infrastructure. And I think just looking at the math it just doesn’t make any sense. But to be fair there is a place for record labels and if it wasn’t for the record labels we’ve worked with over the last whatever it is, 15 years, we wouldn’t be in a position where we could do it. Because record labels’ primary purpose is to publicize the band and make the band known and now we are known so we can do it ourselves. But I think if it was a brand new band — I mean I remember what we were like, we were really naïve and really wide eyed. It would take a very savvy young band to become popular without a record label.
Is there anything about thinking about how you’re supposed to get to your audience through the internet that you find yourself of going back and forth or struggling with or not sure what to do?
Braithwaite: Well I’m not very technological. For our live record and film that’s coming out we organized a thing where if a fan sent the trailer to someone on Facebook then they got an mp3 then they got on the mailing list and all that kind of stuff. And I wouldn’t be able to do that. No way. I mean maybe someone else in the band could, but I’ve not really talked to them about it. I think it would probably be a lot of work and we might make a mistake. In fact here’s an example, we actually did that ourselves and Craig, our label manager, sorted it out and he did a good job. But the system he was using could only download 1,000. So the first 1,000 people got it and then afterwards people were getting errors. So we did try and do it and we kind of made a mess of it. So there’s a place for people who can do that kind of thing.