The Ultimate Musician’s Guide to Navigating the Entire Internet

Just because you know some online basics, your high school friend is your “manager,” or your Rap Genius page is pending verification, does not make you a Professional Musician. What follows is a jumping-off point for those looking to make the leap, five New(-ish) Rules written for amateur artists looking to go pro.

#1) Educate Yourself

Those who create remarkable things are rarely the same people who are good at selling those things. While promotion and sales are critical skills for musicians looking to go pro, knowing where to start and who to trust along the way can be tricky. Part of the problem is that everyone with an interest in the “music industry” and a business card can tell you they know What’s-What and are willing to help (for a fee). The answer here isn’t to immediately hire someone else to promote, manage, or book your act: You’re better off just educating yourself.

While hiring marketing and promotion assistance could be beneficial, don’t forget that every dollar you spend on your music is one more dollar you have to earn just to break even. And while many don’t have finances in place for this sort of help anyway, most have (at least a little) spare time to spend educating yourself. There are countless online resources to aid in that process, ranging from Digital Music News to Hypebot. Do yourself a favor: Check the technique being spread around online, and monitor evolving technologies, services, and trends. If music is your job, it’s also your job to never stop learning.

#2) Ask More Questions

With or without anyone’s help, artists need to figure out a way to differentiate themselves. If you’re struggling with this, yourself, it might be helpful to begin asking some questions: Why should people give me their attention; why should they care enough to listen to my “elevator pitch” (let alone 30 seconds of my music!); what am I doing to differentiate myself?

If you’re thinking about sending emails to media: Great! But as The Smoking Section’s David D. wrote back in January, “[W]hat song do you have prepared to drop next week? What videos have you filmed? What can you do to stay on everyone’s mind? Because in this warp-speed era, if you disappear for three months it’s like you never existed in the first place.”

What if you’re successful with your pitch? Are you even ready for that? What resources do you need to reach your goals from there? Do you need money? How will you budget any expenses? Have you considered a budget? What are the steps you need to take to make that happen? Can you perform live? Can you tour? What are you doing right now to help work toward that? What, exactly, is your plan?

#3) You Don’t Need an Amazing Website

You don’t have to revolutionize the platform, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a functional website. The must-haves are standard: It must be mobile-friendly; it must be browser-compatible; it must be easy to use; it must speak to your goals. Strategy surrounding that last point comes back to planning: iTunes sales, free downloads, mailing list subscribers, or social media interaction… What do you want visitors act on when they see your digital business card? It’s easy to go overboard here, but only give visitors what they need. Anything beyond that may detract from your website’s goal.

#4) Social Media is (Sort of) Useless

Chances are good that you won’t be “discovered” through Reverbnation. But simply going where more people are isn’t a recipe for success, either: A well groomed Pinterest account, for example, probably isn’t the one thing standing between you and a successful career as a musician. It’s easy to get caught up in playing with Twitter and Facebook — and they can actually be helpful — but don’t be surprised when third party platforms fail you.

TIME recently published an article reporting that (unpaid) content posted on Facebook pages now only reaches around 6% of followers. Think about what might happen if you invest all your energy into Twitter, only for it to limit the reach of “unpaid” tweets? What are your “followers” and “likes” actually worth?

One simple tool to help avoid this problem is a mailing list. It ensures that artists can reach out to fans on their own terms. No different than any of the other tools you can use to reach fans though, a mailing list isn’t going to do you much good without purpose, strategy, and consistent execution.

#5) Your Music Can Be a Hobby

The web has created countless avenues allowing individuals to innovate their way to an income, but chances are good that your music will never pay your bills. This isn’t about being “good enough” to be a professional musician; this is about looking inside and asking whether or not you’ll hate every step of what lies ahead as a “professional musician.” Which brings us to a vital question: Are you ready to sell yourself?

This doesn’t mean “selling out,” or fundamentally changing your music to cater to some broad commercial market. What this means is, are you prepared to regularly try to convince strangers to give you their money in exchange for something you’ve created? More importantly, will you be able to keep trying in the face of broad-stroke disregard? Are you ready to reach out to that thousandth person even though the first nine hundred and ninety nine ignored you?

Just because you make music, and enjoy making music, does not mean “professional musician” should be your trade.

Future Museum

I was in New York, or maybe it was New Jersey because I could see the city off in the far distance. This was a new National September 11 Memorial & Museum. In my mind the phrase "hypothetical" was repeated over and over. It was a hypothetical memorial museum. Instead of being a location, a building, with relics, memorabilia, and a gift shop (built on a mass grave), this museum was nothing but technology. The museum was what we saw, not what was there.

From my position I saw an airplane crash off in the distance. Not into the Twin Towers, but into a smaller building. Still a catastrophe, and a tragedy, but one with fewer victims. But that crash didn't really happen. It was something of a hologram. Perhaps I was wearing an Oculus Rift, but the sensation, the sounds, and the feel was far more intense and realistic than any virtual experience seems to offer. Another plane came directly at me. Both of these vessels were off by a few degrees, their trajectories altered from those that really took place to represent how skilled those pilots were. If the manual calculations were off by even a little, the story would have been different. This second plane crashed less than a hundred feet in front of me, quickly passing right by me in a fiery skid. Again, the sensation was real. This was the future museum. I was actually experiencing what could have been, and what never was, all to better understand what really happened.

Two Rivers Park (Nashville, TN)

Photos taken May 26, 2014 at Two Rivers Park in Nashville, TN.

Just Let Go

In "Just Let Go," the most raw and emotionally satisfying track from Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, the singer looks within before turning his gaze outward and graduating to a feeling of wholeness. "Woke up today and decided to kill my ego / It ain't ever done me no good no how / Gonna break through and blast off to the Bardo / In them flowers of light far away from the here and now." While perhaps not a literal gesture toward intergalactic exploration, the song — and much of the album — paints Sturgill a veteran of the "overview effect" (a term used to describe a phenomenon experienced by astronauts who gain a "profound understanding of the interconnection of all life" after viewing Earth from the fresh perspective that outer space provides). "Just Let Go" continues, "But am I dreaming or am I dying / Either way I don't mind at all / It feels so good you just can't help but crying / You have to let go so the soul can fall."

On the day Metamodern Sounds was released, Sturgill and his band played an in-store at Grimey's. Before the set, he was sitting behind the building with his bandmates. We'd spoken on the phone a couple weeks prior, and I wanted to say hello, but I made my introduction by interrupting a conversation he was having with guitarist Laur Joamets. I felt like an asshole. He's only five years older than me, but part of me looks up to him. We've both beaten ourselves up pretty bad, and I can identify with many of the conclusions he's beginning to draw for himself. Not because that's where I'm at, entirely, but because that's where I feel I'm heading. I chalk the nervousness up to being a nervous person, but building him up in my head didn't help my case. Sturgill was gracious.

I asked him if he was overwhelmed. He made reference to his incoming Twitter feed. It's a lot to take in. I mumbled something about seeing that he'd reached #23 on the iTunes album charts. He replied, asking what that really meant for him. Good question. What it meant was that, at that moment, he was marginally more popular than Sarah McLachlan, though whatever jumbled version of the joke I said flopped before it even left my lips. On the surface, the ranking meant people were listening. Some were probably even getting his message, and that has to count for something. In its first week the album reached #59 on the Billboard 200, and #11 on the Billboard Country chart. Again, that has to count for something. But what it means, I don't really know.

The I’s here aren’t meant to make this about me, but the more the album sinks in, the more it feels like it is about me. It's about us all. We all have our own versions of a “15 year psychobabble existentialistic dilemma.” Some take longer. Some never materialize. It’s hard to let go of personal failures and instances that could have been handled better, just as it’s hard to let go of hoping that anyone else still remembers any of the successes or victories along the way. We all have our issues. Moving on isn't always as easy as physically moving forward. Letting go is tough. Yet here we are.

In an email earlier this week for another article, Daniel Pujol wrote, “I think making something outside myself that explains a thought, argument, or idea to me helps me get a touchstone. A consolidated reference point. Like learning a new word. I can move on from the thought after externalizing it.” That’s what this album feels like, or at least what reacting to the album in public through online comment feels like. It’s a terrible pattern we’re in, reminiscing about a moment that’s barely finished happening. Consider me guilty. But in listening to the music and trying to make sense of it all, I feel like I’m better off for having experienced it. Up 300,000 feet and now safely back down, having seen it all from a new point of view. It's a lesson I'm learning far too late in life, but: even when you don’t have anything to give, give your gratitude. All I can do now is just say thanks.

Charles Butler and Kai Welch at The Building (Nashville, TN)

Photos of Kai Welch and Charles Butler & Associates taken May 22, 2014 at The Building in East Nashville, TN.

Identity Control

"The old me and the new me are in a fist fight!" As howled in PUJOL’s "Manufactured Crisis Control," the lyrics help paint an obvious scene of conflict, revealing an individual struggling for an objective view while commentating on an overbearing I against I scenario. While the new album, KLUDGE, "idiosyncratically captures life as it exists in our weird almost future world of flying robots, cancer from food, cell phone wire taps, metadata, $7.25ish minimum wage and $15.50 an hour endless choice buffets," it more precisely feels like a challenge of self, an attempt to see through the ego and beyond the shell of pollution that now masks whatever may or may not be left inside. "I never know who I am at the moment," relays guitarist and singer Daniel Pujol via email. "Maybe out of shear stubbornness. Or because I just don't know. Or because I've hit some weird point where I just don't care anymore." There's a tipping point somewhere along the road of self-discovery when — in the battle for separation between the old and new — looking within loses its novelty and a post-introspective future begins to take hold. This is where KLUDGE begins.

"Culturally, we're encouraged right now to manicure our own identity," Pujol tells the Nashville Scene, "to value our own identity, to maybe fetishize our own identity, and to try to present this manicured identity like it's real.” Whether in active battle with it or not, right now we are all in the middle of a war with our surroundings, at once attempting to defend the inner while simultaneously allowing external elements to dictate who we project ourselves as. As Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti recently commented, "Capitalism needs to be constantly producing identities for peoples if the system is to survive." The lines of who's on whose side seem as blurred now as they've ever been. We are not ultimately our feelings, our songs, or our blog posts, but at the same time, when trying to figure out what is inside, our actions and expressions of self unveil themselves as mere reflections of the bits and pieces of identity that have been sold to us as indicators of uniqueness.

"Years ago," continues Pujol, "I started noticing a lot of opportunities to grab things from culture, whether brands, viewpoints, associations, and use them to articulate a cohesive identity, and then exercise that identity cohesively in public. I felt like it was encouraged, and I began to wonder who benefits and why. Everybody wants you to be an individual to sell you stuff? A passive individualism? 'It doesn't matter I make $7.25 an hour because I can wear whatever I want to work!' As an artist, that bothered me for a while because I debated whether I was just making media content and not art. That the whole apparatus launders everything created into content."

At times KLUDGE reflects this perverted feedback loop, with its lyrics attempting to interject understanding into confusion. Despite leaning on an autobiographical tone, Pujol is vocal that the album isn't as much a self-analysis as a purposeful narration, identifying the struggles of a character abandoning or killing off their past self. "That character wants more than perfecting who they were yesterday," he says. "The crudest way to put it is watching a narcissistic [person] break up with themselves. He's been encouraged by the world to decorate himself for other people who decorate themselves for him/her, and he/she just wants more than whatever he/she wants all the time based off what they liked yesterday forever." The symbolism of recording the album in a suicide prevention center was, Pujol says, "pure poetic coincidence."

"Obviously," he continues, "it's not that hopeless or one dimensional, but I figured if I made a record directly addressing 'identity as commodity' I could deal with that dilemma constructively. By trying to take it apart in song. The sticker on KLUDGE says '100% Pure Content.' I think it's funny. I think I just make things and move on." What's next might simply be looking forward for lack of a better option. Where any of this leaves us: who knows. But at least we're all confused, together. "Whatever lesson I learned through making KLUDGE is where I am now, but I don't know where that is."


A sign of pain and trauma? Yes, of course. But scars indicate something else, too.

The dream, now a few days dissolved in my mind, felt like a sign of closure. Laying there at three in the morning, running a quick inventory of what's real or imagined, it didn't feel like a burden had been lifted or that anything had been resolved — just that it was time to move on. To now force resolution feels like I'd be fixing a broken ankle a few years after the fact; the reality that it healed incorrectly or formed a terrible scar overlooks the fact that it still, remarkably, healed. The feeling, it seemed as I drifted back to sleep, was one of reluctant closure.

Nothing I can do will change things. The scar has set. I have no choice but to move on.

Liberty Meadows (Bucyrus, KS)

Photos taken May 15, 2014 at Liberty Meadows in Bucyrus, Kansas.