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Shameless self-promotion in a media-based society

8/07/09

Erin Wolf, music journalist and Music Director of WMSE Radio.

“Don’t shoot the messenger” – The Bard, in Henry IV, got this phrase tripping off of England’s tongues and bred a new awareness of the unfortunate scapegoat. Scapegoats have since been more visibly popular in literature, theater and even art. Zoom ahead to the media/social media surge of now and a new handle on scapegoatism has taken shape. In particular? The music industry.

The music industry has always held a “he said/she said” mentality in terms of a musician’s make-it-or-break-it status, and today, who better to blame than one’s publicist? Facebook, MySpace, blogs of every kind (written and video), Web sites, distro sites, downloads, etc. give even the most obscure musicians a voice. Whether they choose to be heard is up to their tenacity and ability to shout above the din. For local musicians, publicists are not always an option, yet the recent rise of interest in local music is underlining the adage, “if you want a job done well, do it yourself.” Who to blame, then, if you can’t make it in the local scene? Nobody but yourself, right?

One such local musician who has utilized nearly every aspect of social media to her advantage (boosting her name in mere months) has demonstrated the power of self-promotion. Pezzettino (Margaret Stutt), in addition to giving a unique and more modern pop voice to the old-school instrument that’s no stranger to this city, the accordion, has propelled her local popularity with social media strategies. This shows that her “army of one” is ready to take it to the next level. As she aptly points out, by borrowing a line from John Donne: “No man is an island.” Apparently these media lifeboats come equipped with teems of fans, it just depends on how many flares you send up.

Recently, these flares have in turn “flared” up the local music community as Stutt became the center of a heated debate regarding her latest promotional venture. On July 13 Decider Milwaukee posted an article on their web site about Stutt entitled “Pezzettino: Will Play for Car Repairs.” The article centered on Stutt’s creation of an account at fundable.com to collect donations to help pay for brake and suspension work on her Honda Civic, which she estimated about $3,000 in repairs, acquired while en route from show to show on her recent touring circuit.

“As an independent professional artist, I pay for everything out-of-pocket and rely on the support of my community,” Stutt says in the article. “This is no rockstar lifestyle – I often wake up at 7 a.m., and go to sleep at 4 a.m. There are no big-label budgets involved!”

The article was introduced harmlessly enough with Decider Milwaukee Editor Steven Hyden writing, “If you don’t know about accordion-wielding Milwaukee singer-songwriter Margaret Stutt of Pezzettino yet, then she hasn’t personally delivered brownies to your door or played an impromptu show in your office. But don’t worry, because she’s probably on her way – few local musicians pound the pavement quite like Stutt.”

What was the result of this seemingly proactive story? Nothing exactly heartwarming. For anyone who reads Decider Milwaukee online, they might be aware of the leave-a-comment system. This commentary can either hold merit or it can quickly become a pissing contest, and once started (on any site that employs this system), e-bantering is a hard habit to break. The Pezzettino incident definitely incited a comment/banter frenzy with 74 comments to date. Oh, there were the “go-get-its!” and the pats on the back (one commenter wrote, “Pezzettino is talented and works her ass off. I have rarely seen such a genius in marketing and performing. Her actions speak for themselves.”), but there was also quite a bit of critical, biting backlash. Another critic stated, “Your revolution is over, Ms. Stutt. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, ma’am. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me, Stutt?”

Press photo by Kevin Groen

We originally caught up with Stutt two weeks prior to the publication of the Decider Milwaukee article to get a perspective on what it’s like to be a self-promoting musician in this city. Up until the publication of the Decider article with its blast of comments, Pezzettino had existed on a pretty affable plane in the local media, not inciting anything other than natural recognition and interest in a young musician with guerilla promotion tactics and a unique voice. Her stop by the Decider Madison offices for an impromptu performance was just the first layer of icing on the media layer cake she’d been baking up. Stutt’s truly on top of that cake right now, in plain view.  Here is what she said, pre-fundable.com, about her climb:

Pezzettino is a relatively new project: When and how did you start it up?

A year ago I picked up the accordion for the first time, and all of a sudden, songs started pouring out of me.  It's as if the instrument unlocked my voice. With each song that gushed out, I felt more free, as if I had been holding my breath for a really long time. Without thinking about it, I released a collection of solo, lo-fi songs (Because I Have No Control) and started looking for a band to play with live. Drummer Nez serendipitously took an interest in the project and he's been a Pez wizard since that first CD release show. I asked producer friend, Justin Kral, to help record and play bass on the next album, Lion. With the three of us, I feel like Pezzettino as a project is really starting to come into its own. The two guys are extremely talented and we work off of each other really well, I'm very lucky!

In terms of publicity, did you have any prior experience or knowledge of promoting music? What was the reason for you doing all the legwork: Was it out of necessity or because you wanted to do it? 

It's my only option. I'm a musician–I  play music and release albums. It's also a profession. I self-released these albums entirely on my credit card because I had no other option. And unless I want to spiral into debt, I need to work my butt off to get the word out. It's no secret: I need people to buy CDs and merchandise so that I can pay off the initial expense of the release, and hopefully save up enough to make the next one as well as expenses like food. Yes, it's about artistic expression and communicating with people, but I need to do so without going homeless. Essentially, all the publicity is an effort to recruit individuals to invest in the Pezzettino project. 

What publicity vehicles did you start out using?

I first started using MySpace. It's awesome for beginning musicians or bands—it’s basically a one-sheet resume.

What are you currently using and what did you have to learn? Were you always a techie?

I kept a blog for a while, but that seemed pretty insular. We have a Web site now (pezzettino.net) but my favorite medium is the video blog on YouTube. The videos are so much fun to make, and I think it allows you to share more with your audience in terms of content, visual, and audio. Plus it's free. I would hardly consider myself a techie.  But I've always been into film, and I used to work as a racecar videographer, so I'm comfortable in that corner. 

Anything you want to learn to use?

I'd like to know how to use ProTools or any of that fancy software. Luckily Nez and Justin are on the ball when it comes to that.  I know how to press the red button, copy, and paste. In a lot of ways, it just feels too mathematical, too much attention to detail. I don't think I have the patience for it. To be honest I'm pretty comfortable with my level of tech ignorance. 

Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?

An introvert, definitely. My parents thought I was deaf; I was pretty shy and quiet as a kid. But I guess I was just content observing everything and being in my own little world. Now I push myself out of the comfort zone a lot, which is a huge adrenaline rush. I get giddy around people I admire and respect, and in the excitement of it all I may seem social. It's just a thrill being let out of the cage.

What has been the singular biggest hurdle in terms of social media for you?

I feel like such a dork saying this, but the biggest hurdle psychologically is Facebook. MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter are set up as Pezzettino accounts. They are specifically for the music and the project. Facebook, though, is a personal page, and it's easy to feel overexposed. That's been a hurdle from the start, creating a personal/public boundary, and is why I released the first solo CD under the pseudonym, "Pezzettino."  I wanted to create distance between the public me and private me. But where does that line exist when you're publishing your diary to the world? Par for the course. I accept friendship requests from people I've never met because, as far as I'm concerned, if they're interested in the music, then they support the core of who I am, and that can only be a good thing.

Do you feel local musicians can do a better job of promoting themselves over hiring a publicist?

Yes and no. I feel like musicians can do a better job in their hometown because they will be the most passionate about the project and can physically be the front person for the band. In fact, I sort of feel like it's their responsibility. Isn't the point to connect with people through music, anyway? So why not actually go out and do that? The advantage of a publicist is that the hired hand can represent wherever you're not, and would ideally have connections with key players. For me, a publicist is very low on the list of people I'd hire. First would be a good, respected manager, and from what I understand, those are hard to find. Besides, who has the money to hire a publicist? I think the best publicists are the people who are actually excited about what you do and talk about it for free. 

The Milwaukee music scene seems to have gotten more exposure and publicity in local media because of the rising usage of social media such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. What do you think?

I'm a bad judge for what has changed in the Milwaukee music scene because I've been around for less than a year! As far as I know, it's always been this way.

If local musicians have such a good handle on giving themselves exposure, what do you feel it will do to the scene?

Ideally, the more exposure, the more people come out to shows and get excited about music and tell their friends. More people excited about live music can only help a scene.


How much more “networked” and “linked-in” can start-up musicians get: Where do you think this is all headed?

I have no idea! I just make stuff up as I go. There are limitless possibilities to get linked in. I try to take it one step at a time, and keep it manageable. The point is not to get robotic and infiltrate the Internet like a virus. It's about presenting yourself, your music, and your product for public access, like you're reaching out your hand for a high-five. You're making it available, and people who dig it will take you up on the offer. People who think you're lame will just pass you up and look at you funny. Theoretically, the more times you offer a high-five, the more high-fives you'll get. It's about percentage. 

Recently, you ditched social media entirely by entertaining the Madison staff of The Onion face-to-face by walking into their offices and playing your accordion, unannounced. Do you think that after all this technology-saturated promotion winds down, that musicians will be resorting to guerrilla tactics like that, and needing to literally get in people's faces to be heard above all the techie static?

I don't think the technology-saturated promotion will ever wind down. The Internet is here, it's taking over the world, and it's going to stay that way whether we like it or not. It's cheaper, it's more efficient, and really, it facilitates connections that probably would never have happened otherwise. People are getting increasingly used to communicating in ones and zeros. Do you remember when it was a little weird to write e-mails?  I remember writing every one as if it were a letter. "Dear so and so... Your friend, Margaret." Or even answering machines. "Hello? Are you there? Hello? This is Margaret, I'm calling for Amanda." Now communicating over the wire is a fact of life. 

These days, face-to-face is a rare commodity, and has higher value and importance. So when someone takes the time to make something personal, you know that they intentionally went out of their way to communicate directly with you. You can't copy-and-paste a personal note or visit. I know some musicians may be in it to be rock stars and sleep with every girl at the show, but to my motivation isn't aggressive. It's about reaching outside of my introverted bubble and connecting with the world. Newspapers and radio stations are just collections of people with a passion. The people I'm meeting are in that job because they're really into music, and so am I; so right off the bat, we have something in common. And that alone, is awesome. If I could personally meet every passionate individual in the world, I would. There are just so many stories out there and lessons to learn—reaching out is exhilarating. “No man is an island.”

Press photo by Kevin Groen

Stutt probably finds her last statement even more true upon donning the lifejacket, untying the lifeboat and shooting up the flares in her quest for financial support for her full-time, self-promoted musician lifestyle. But the question is: In a local sea teeming with musicians and ex-musicians who are struggling (and have struggled) to get recognition (recognition that will in turn, fund their passion), would a blatant solicitation sit comfortably? Many might have considered new funding tactics, but might not have put them into action. Stutt’s recent employment of the fundable.com Web site, custom performing of video-graphed songs for donators, etc. is either seen as clever or abominable.

Musicians, since the days of the troubadours, have had to possess a cutthroat mentality if they wanted to make a living out of plucking strings, wailing on an organ or flexing their vocal cords. Most have had full-time, menial jobs. Many never got recognized until after their prime. Many have slipped through the cracks, penniless, with only a brilliant, unnoticed musical legacy to give them tragic, posthumous credit. Currently, many independent musicians are acceptant that if they focus on their music, make the right connections, get it out there and play enough shows success will happen naturally. Some are out to grab the brass ring and selling-out is part and parcel of their success—they like the whole corporate suits/cigars combined with office meetings. Then there are those right in the middle, who want to be proactive without going through the middleman. But being proactive has been taken to a whole new level with the current state of social media, giving it an official tooth-and-nail mentality.

So, what exactly is viewed as acceptable then, if you’re on that middle ground? Perhaps the whole backlash in regards to the Pezzettino funding incident was that the funding dollars involved a vehicle, not an instrument? Perhaps the asking price was a little overshot—brakes and suspension jobs don’t normally hit that $3,000 mark? Maybe it’s because Stutt is a young musician, and still has the idealistic vision that being a musician can be a full-time career (one commenter stated, “being an independent musician is more or less a cross between a hobby and a part-time job”), and those who have been-there-done-that are eager to squash that sort of idealism? Whatever it might be, it certainly struck up a heated volley of Miss-Manners-for-Musicians type of fodder. In an ever-increasing saturation of media, what are working musicians going to have to do to follow their musical career calling, short of living in their practice spaces and chewing on their guitar picks for nutrition? New ideas are often met with backlash, and perhaps the key to adjusting in this new age of the independent musician, they will have to be finding the nicest angle and the best light to introduce its subjects and their tactics and the possibilities of promotion to come.

One commenter had aptly pointed out that perhaps the problem was in the angle of the story itself, stating that,

“Maybe the promo should have been presented so it had less of a sob story angle…just a special Pezzettino promotion: pay X dollars and I’ll do this goofy song or video for you! And then, explain that any money made simply goes to the expenses of being a musician – auto repair, recording fees, manufacturing, etc. etc. I don’t see how that would piss anyone off, unless they’re grumpy oldsters who don’t understand that the music industry is changing and a new business model needs to be hashed out…It’s a new age and the music biz is like the old west right now. I don’t know that I’d do it Margaret’s way, but more power to her if she pulls it off.”

Stutt replied to the barrage of comments,

“I’m not a beggar. It’s an exchange for people that believe in the project and want to support its growth further. It’s an exchange—$20 and you get a t-shirt…that’s what you pay for t-shirts anyway. Except, here, all of the profit goes directly to an independent musician who is busting her ass instead of some corporate suit in Los Angeles…how much garbage plays on commercial radio and sells millions? Some of the best musicians I’ve ever met sell nothing in record sales because they aren’t out there promoting….it’s one thing to be a good musician, it’s another thing entirely for people to be aware of your existence…they are two separate issues entirely.”

If Stutt/Pezzettino is helping to usher in a new age of awareness for local musicians, then perhaps, in turn, it might be beneficial for those who are supporters of the independent and local mindset (musicians, businesses, organizations, etc.) to notice those flares, recognize the lifeboat and dive in headfirst to help. Even if we’d rather not actually swim out to the boat, the least we could consider is to throw out a line of encouragement to the spirit of the independent musician with the tenacity to brave those waters in the first place.

:: www.myspace.com/pezzettino
:: http://pezzettino.net/
:: Twitter: pezzettino

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