In pre-internet days of yore, there was a clear barrier between rock stars and their fans. If a rock star wanted to communicate with fans, this was generally done at gigs attended by thousands of people, through big newspaper interviews or via appearances on TV shows watched by millions. The communication was generally one way, with the rock star talking to (or sometimes even down to) his/her fans using the 'traditional' mass media.
Fast forward to our whizzy fancypants digital era and, to a large degree, the internet has brought this barrier crashing down and changed the whole way stars communicate with their audiences. Firstly, the rock stars in question are able to inject themselves much more easily into a fan’s everyday, personal life, via appearances in Facebook accounts, email inboxes, Twitter feeds, Instagram pictures and so on in a way that was unimaginable even a few years ago; secondly, they can’t seem to resist using this power to divulge sometimes quite boring details of their personal lives that would never have been shared by their rock star forbears. Finally, the communication between a star and his/her audience is now two-way, with even the most successful of musicians replying to fans’ online comments on Twitter, taking part in Facebook conversations with them and so on.
All the above has led to the arrival of a conventional wisdom which says that bands – particularly unsigned bands – need to ‘engage’ with listeners in order to attain success. The idea being that artists need to develop a very direct relationship with their fans, where they must reply to even the most inane of queries; do requests of cheesy Christmas songs; go round to fans’ houses and play gigs; post pictures of themselves at home doing the washing up and so on (and yes, I've probably done all or most of these things myself at some point or other throughout my, ahem, music career). Through these personal interactions with fans, the theory goes, an artist eventually develops a fanbase comprising people who feel like they really know that musician, are friends with them, and ultimately feel compelled to buy their music when that oh-so-engaging artist finally finds time to stop chatting with fans online and actually record and release an album.
In many – perhaps most – situations, the above approach works, not least because fans, accustomed to the two-way communication processes facilitated so easily by online technology, almost demand this level of interaction and attention. And for emerging bands with small fanbases, where the act effectively knows each and every one of their listeners, it seems almost rude to ignore them.
However, something huge is lost in all of this personal, two-way, share-everything communication business: the mythology that used to surround musicians.
When, many moons ago, I was a teenager, following a band meant devoting time and thought to a bunch of guys you really had no direct relationship with or access to. This meant imagining what that band was like. Forming your own idea about what the front man ate for tea. Developing weird and completely unfounded notions regarding what the band liked to do with their groupies at the weekends. It did not mean being shown Instagram pictures of an artist’s cat, or being subjected to tweets about a band’s preference for a shot of vanilla syrup in their lattes. The inaccessibility of musicians (coupled with the imaginations of fans) meant that rock stars ultimately ended up shrouded in enigma.
And enigma is a powerful thing, because it provides two key ingredients for rock success: interest and ‘cool’. It creates interest because an enigmatic star often represents the ultimate, sexiest mystery for fans and the media to get to the bottom of; and cool because it is the enigma surrounding an artist that makes him/her stand apart from the crowd – they form a hip clique all of their own. But too often bands today (particularly those using social media for the first time) tend to use the digital communications tools available to them to strip away anything remotely enigmatic. Inevitably status updates of the ‘I’m having a sandwich for lunch now’ variety appear, and there is nothing particularly cool, enigmatic, or curiosity-generating about that (unless your listeners really want to know what was in the sandwich).
Ultimately what I’m getting at is that in this age of instant, interactive digital communication there are still alternatives to the ‘show all, tell all’ route to pop stardom available, and sometimes an approach which focuses on maintaining enigma and mystique may be far more productive than the ‘let’s engage everybody to the nth degree’ option. Being enigmatic online doesn’t mean that you have to ignore your fans, but it does mean using online tools to communicate with them more cleverly. You can use social media to be cryptic, oblique, dark, moody and mysterious just as easily as you can use it to tell listeners what colour socks you are wearing at any given point in time – it’s really a question of deciding what sort of relationship you want with your listeners, and if you think potential fans will be more impressed with a dark and mysterious musician or one who is good at sharing pictures of his cat.
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