The Elsewhere Musician: Making Connections in a Fragmented World


Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

I was ten when I recorded "The Rockafeller Skank" by Fatboy Slim off the radio onto cassette tape.  Twelve when “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem premiered on TRL.  The idea that I could reach out and connect with the artists that I liked didn’t exist yet or at least wasn’t familiar to me.  MySpace didn’t become popular where I grew up – almost no one that I knew had it.  Artists were perceived as unreachable.  What you knew about them was based on the lyrics in their songs or maybe a brief interview segment in Rolling Stone.  Even the concept of sending traditional fan mail was of no interest, because there was no expectation of the artist reading it or writing back.  It was basically the equivalent of trying to actually send your Christmas list to Santa at the North Pole.

In the truest form, I, along with everyone I knew, were passive consumers of music and thought nothing of tuning into the radio and not getting to choose what songs were playing.  Waiting through a few terrible videos on MTV in order to hear something good was commonplace and seen as a way to pass the time.  Today that’s just not the case anymore.  Music fans have set different expectations for artists and insist that they are met.  While not everyone has interest in messaging their favorite artist, those that do, anticipate a reply back.  Of course, no one is shedding tears when old hats like Metallica or Def Leppard don’t reply, but for Making April or Owl City, fans have come accustomed to the idea that they are able to reach out to these artists and make a real connection.

"the ability to stay in touch with their fans
has become delocalized for many artists…"

What does this mean for an artist?  Think about it as the blurring of the line between the public artist and the private individual, at a time, when the boundary between home and studio has largely disappeared.  On tour, thanks, by and large, to advances in digital technologies, the ability to stay in touch with their fans has become delocalized for many artists, so that it can be done at all hours from almost anywhere.  Leisure time once spent doing creative things — where an artist could take time away from it all — has turned into work that ranges from learning how to market themselves online and off, answering an endless barrage of messages from fans, bloggers, and managers, and trying to keep all of their profiles, blogs, and social media tools relevant and up-to-date.

“It’s that the once disparate spheres have now collided and interpenetrated each other, creating a sense of “elsewhere” at all times,” writes Sociologist Dalton Conley in Elsewhere, U.S.A.  He continues, “It is the plethora of economic opportunities created by technology that creates a dogging sense of loss, of needing to be elsewhere, doing something different.”1 Whether you liken elsewhere to the next social networking site that seems to have more promising opportunities or the idea that instead of making more music you should be figuring out how to better market the music that you’ve already made — the message is clear — that what it means to be an artist in the twenty-first century will be drastically different from what previous generations have experienced.


Another trend unique to the digital age is the collapse of the creativity timeline.  What this refers to is the shrinking amount of time between albums or any creative output for that matter, based not on the discretion of the artist, but of the demands set forth by the changes in society.  Prior to this turning point, it wasn’t unheard of to let two to three years pass between the time you released and toured on album, before you started the process of creating and releasing another, which could take another year on top of that.  Once completed, a wide variety of radio, print, video, and retail store promotions would be organized by your record label to promote it.  Through these mass media and retail outlets your fan base would find out about your album and when they could purchase it.
By today’s standards, that mentality of how records ought to be released is suicidal at best.  It’s not that fans are less loyal than they were before.  In fact, the opposite is probably true, now that a greater percentage of fans can be more actively involved and invested in an artist’s career.  It’s that with the millions of bands and sheer abundance of music out there, such a lack of transparency and communication with your fan base would lead to a catastrophe.  “For the first time in history, the more we are paid, the more hours we work,” Conley writes.  “Paradoxically, perhaps, we do this now because among the luckiest the rewards for working are so great, they make the “opportunity cost” of not working all the greater.”  The result, he argues, is “that we no longer have leisure-class elites.”2

"if you were successful enough, you may never
have to actually make music ever again."

It used to be that if you worked really hard as an artist and garnered a large enough following through blood, sweat, and tears — that if you did these things, played enough shows, and were patient enough — a record label might sign you.  And, if you were able to consistently make music that people loved and albums that sold millions of copies, you could make music for a living.  The rest of the more mundane details and business arrangements would be taken care of by your label, and one day, if you were successful enough, you may never have to actually make music ever again.  As counterintuitive as that seems, becoming a top tier artist meant that you could, in a sense, pursue other interests. But those dreams have come and gone faster than anyone wanted to anticipate.

Being a top tier or middle class artist in the digital age doesn’t mean just working harder or playing more shows than everyone else.  It means working much, much harder.  For the promise of the music industry no longer grants an artist the ability to live off their music, but to survive doing what they love, as long as they are willing to do many things that they may not.  The difference is that when you start making more money as an artist, “the opportunity cost of not working feels greater and the pressure is all the more intense.”3  Because, not only are you expected to do more with less time — handing both the creative and business aspects of being an artist — but you also have a much smaller window to make new music and keep your audience engaged with what you produce.


What we’ve entered into, according to Scott Kirsner, author of Fans, Friends and Followers, is the era of digital creativity.  “In this era,” he says, “artists have the tools to make anything they can envision, inexpensively.  They can build teams and collaborate across great distances, bridging divides of language and culture. They can cultivate an audience and communicate with it regularly, carrying it with them from one project to another.”4 This extraordinary opportunity, however, is not without great paradoxes.  “Breaking out, somehow, is both more of a possibility than it has ever been – and harder than it has ever been,” Kirsner explains.  “The attention of an individual audience member anywhere in the world is simultaneously easier to snare – and harder than ever to snare.”5

With that, this era of digital creativity has brought forth the opportunity for what researcher Leisa Reichelt calls “Ambient Intimacy,” which she says is, “about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”6  Where artists used to be able to define the level of involvement they had in the lives of their fans, they are now left trying to determine how much they’re willing to let fans get involved in theirs.  In a social world ‘where modernist distinctions like home-studio, work-leisure, public artist-private individual, and even self-other no longer hold fast,’ many artists don’t know how to draw the line between where fan interaction starts and where it ends.

"trying to make connections in a fragmented world."

“Perhaps the most fundamental line that has been breached,” Conley argues, “is that between “self” and “other.”  The interpenetration of the social world into our daily consciousness — our orientation to elsewhere — has the ultimate effect of colonizing and fragmenting not just our attentions but our very identities.”  He continues, “The result is often a competing cacophony of multiple selves all jostling for pole position in our minds.”7 Somewhere in the middle, artists are caught, perhaps, out of necessity, trying their best to navigate this constant stream of communication with their fans — trying to make connections in a fragmented world.  All the while, wrestling with the questions:  What if we’ve revealed too much about ourselves to fans?  What if all of the mystery is gone?

Much of this has been made possible in less than a decade.  The notion that a middle class of musicians could exist was but a dream not long ago, but with the convergence of the top-down corporate media of major labels and bottom-up participatory culture of the Internet – we are beginning to see these elsewhere musicians and singers emerge.  Yet, it is only in the last couple years that many of us have begun to wake up to the fact that we can no longer make decisions based on thinking of music as product, that, instead, we must being thinking about music as culture.  For the fate of our music, our culture — its “connection to self-affirmation, health, cultural identity and spiritual truth”8 — now rests not only in the palm of our hands, but within that of future generations as well.

Works Cited:

  • 1. 2. 3. 7.  Conley, D. (2009). Elsewhere, u.s.a. New York: Pantheon.
  • 4. 5.  Kirsner, S. (2009). Fans, friends and followers. CinemaTech Books.
  • 6.  Link
  • 8.  Link


  • kyledotbylinatgmaildotcom

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  1. This article is excellent and touches on some core realities of the new music biz.
    I run a digital music marketing firm, and these are the core truths we have seen develop over the past six years of doing business (and my years before that on staff at labels working in digital). My top-tier clients don’t like to hear it, but I often tell them that all the work they put in over the past decade or three is now greatly negated in the sense that they can no longer rely on the blind devotion similar to what you mention above (e.g. fans waiting years for a new release, having very little knowledge of what the artist is up to). I tell them they will have to work harder than ever before, and that for many of them this will be the first time they have to focus on activities outside of simply creating music and putting on a great show.
    The days of the “press release and CD” campaign are long since dead – the new model involves transparency and either a 24/7 output mentality or at least the appearance of one via technology. Otherwise fans can get satisfied via many, many, many other avenues.

  2. Cool post, but I wish it touched a bit more on how fans can reward artists. I find it troubling that more and more people are ready to simply give in to the idea that because music can be so easily shared it should be free. Protecting ownership of ideas could use some ideas!

  3. Phenomenal post Kyle..it seems we are around the same age so I have had similar experiences.
    Extremely well put Jason, I always tell artists that if they don’t engage, artists like Amanda Palmer & Imogen Heap, will.

  4. That’s one of the best posts I’ve read so far on Hypebot ever.
    “Waiting through a few terrible videos on MTV in order to hear something good was commonplace and seen as a way to pass the time. Today that’s just not the case anymore.”
    The chores of sitting through those songs that seemed bad at first listen could also have a mind-broadening effect and lead to a listener suddenly enjoying a different musical style as well. In the climate of the day, this effect appears to be somewhat lost, since listeners are not challenged anymore in the way they used to be. Instead, market research is used to keep them in a lull until the commercials come up. That’s why so much music on the media sounds the same and more and more people just switch off and throw out their radio out of boredom. There probably are droves of people who don’t believe there is great new music coming from a “musical middle class” that they could discover through the internet. It is their economic impact that the music business has lost. But when surprise crossover successes happen, like for example in case of the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack or of the “Buena Vista Social Club”, these audiences are being reached. Focusing on a small core group of listeners by decreasing the stylistic variety of music that is being sold and promoted does not do a favour to the business because of the budget limitations these people have. Hence, piracy comes into effect when the target audience succumbs to aggressive marketing.
    But only stylistical diversity has got the power to turn accidental listeners, who don’t care about the ever similar sounding stuff, into potential customers and then into new audiences.
    MTV isn’t really a good example because from listening to it back then, it is obvious that a lot of this seemingly invisible market potential was wasted even back then. But still, more publicity for product of more stylistical variety should generate more sales.

  5. Jason, thank you very much for the kind words. I’ve been getting your articles over at MediaShift emailed to me for quite some time now.
    “The days of the “press release and CD” campaign are long since dead – the new model involves transparency and either a 24/7 output mentality or at least the appearance of one via technology.”
    I couldn’t agree more.

  6. “That’s one of the best posts I’ve read so far on Hypebot ever.”
    I’m very humbled by your comment and thank you for taking the time to read through.
    I think with the way music still spreads around Facebook and the latter, that there’s still a large degree of mind broadening going around. But that it’s in different forms than before. Yes, there is the opportunity today to be exposed to only music that fits with your view of the world, but at the same time due to the plethora of music out there, I believe that it’s inevitable that teens are experiencing far broader and diverse music than MTV ever set out to deliver.

  7. Is “reward” really the best word? I mean, this blog post is free, will continue to be perceived as free, and there’s no way to change that. I wouldn’t want this blog post to live in a walled garden of content. I know what your saying, but its not like we don’t operate under similar circumstances.

  8. Kyle, excellent post! I like the thought provoking discussion it invokes on a host of interrelated issues on which the dust has yet to settle upon, if ever. As these issues seem to be ever evolving and touching all in involved in many different ways it will certainly be easy for many to find arguable points or personal differences based on one’s experience or perspective; however, it encapsulates and defines some core issues that tend to be over analyzed, defined and termed by others. I have no problem with passing this on to both artist and listener alike for a better explanation of what some incompletely define or merely touch upon without consideration of related issues. Just an excellent piece that for the life of me I don’t know how I previously missed. It was pure accident I happened upon this while getting up to speed with a recent email newsletter. I certainly hope more future posts reference this one so as to give it more attention in case there are more like me that for some reason missed it’s initial posting. Thanks

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