He takes the stage clad in a black turtleneck. his famous line is, “Green is the new red, white, and blue.” Tonight, and other nights, he is paid tens of thousands of dollars to perform. He spent a year touring America, adding China for good measure. When he returns home, he lands in an 11,400-square-foot house.
He’s not a rock star, although his life resembles that of one. He is Thomas Friedman, author, newspaperman, star commenter. His ascent is part and parcel of a period in which newspapers may train even their lowliest reporters for media appearances. Journalists these days grin under pancake make-up, speak in emphatic and punchy sentences, and videotape themselves for YouTube. In short, they sometimes succeed when they tear a page from performers’ scripts.
It got me thinking: Could one ailing media industry—music—teach another ailing media industry—journalism—a thing or two about survival?
I think the most resourceful strategies of musicians can help us. The first thing that writers might copy from musicians—even more than they do already—could be called the Free Culture Method. In music, one prong of that is mixtape giveaways. Despite recent miseries in the music business, Lil Wayne, the rap artist, sold more copies of his CD in one week than anyone this year, having built an audience by sending free mixtapes into the ether. Mixtapes, at least these days, are pressed CDs or downloads containing demos or raw mixes of tracks, as well as collaborations. Lil Wayne’s mixtape method is the musical equivalent of writers who give away original material on their blogs, writers like Alan Sepinwall, otherwise just another television reviewer at a mid-size metro—The Star-Ledger in Newark. Sepinwall writes an elaborate, trenchant, and heavily commented-upon blog (check out his 2,023-word analysis of the television show Mad Men’s “Maidenform” episode) in addition to his print column, and the blog has extended his reach. Or consider Andrew Revkin’s sharp New York Times blog and vlog on global warming, through which Revkin made himself a brand.
For Lil Wayne, says Scott Plagenhoef, editor in chief of Pitchfork, the tastemaking Web 2.0 music site, “it was like, ‘If the mixtape stuff is so good, imagine how good the real product will be.’ He’s given so freely to his audience, they feel very free to give back with their dollars.” Another variation on the Free Culture Method: musicians who figure out how to build an audience by appealing to their desire for the rough-hewn and personal, the mark of the human hand in a mechanical world. A good example of this is Bon Iver, a recent indie-music success story. The label rep tells me their story: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon started without a label, a manager, or a girlfriend. He locked himself in a hunting cabin in rural Wisconsin for three months and finished his magnum opus, and then put it on a Web site, streaming for free. It was a rusty, dusty, snowy, and angrily melancholy record. His many performances were incredibly spare and earnest. Fans gathered and downloaded his lovelorn music via Virb, a new social-network site. His friend did the artwork, and Vernon pressed five hundred CDs himself, giving them away to Pitchfork and to not-so-major press outlets. Soon, critics raved and, ultimately, his work was distributed online and through small music stores. Vernon was not made by EMI or Atlantic but by music bloggers on HypeMachine and others. He sold fifty thousand copies on a small record label, mostly through word of mouth.
Part of what he did—that the new tribe of unmoored bloggers and journalists can do as well—is create a community based on personal authenticity, a reason that your readers must support your work by buying your book or going to hear you speak. Part of the Free Culture Method is cultivating an audience around your giveaway content. The indie band Deerhoof, for example, regularly blogs and posts covers and works-in-progress on its site, and also posts its monthly “top ten” tracks from other groups. Of course, in nonfiction, there are plenty of writers who start out as bloggers and transform themselves into authors, succeeding by way of the Free Culture Method.