Who Are the Musicians Who Choose to Live Off Social Media?

Analea Harris prefers live shows to cultivating an online persona. Photo credit: @zoester.strudel

When Analea Harris moved to New York City to pursue music, they didn’t know anyone. They did everything that was expected of a burgeoning musician, social media promotion, online jam groups, cold emails. But to their surprise, Analea found their community in an unlikely place: In real life, at an open mic night.

“It’s kind of like dating, you know,” they said. “Spending time with different people and trying to see what’s gonna work, and what doesn’t work.” 

Harris, whose stage name is Analea, is not alone in encountering a sense of community from in-person performances rather than social media promotion. In 2017, Sage Journals found that actual online discovery rarely happens and that real-life fanbases have more value to musicians’ revenues.

Open mic nights have long been an alternative resource for local artists to connect and create relationships with fans and other musicians.“I think most of the audience is performers, actually. It’s really all about community. It’s for creators that want a place to try out their work or just to get on the stage for the first time,” said Lori Schwartz, the manager at KGB Bar in Noho, which holds an open mic every Monday night.

Analea has spent the last two years in NYC performing and making connections in the music scene offline. They recently developed a new project, involving 10 jazz musicians, all of whom they met through in-person networking. “I would have never been able to pull that off on my own,” they said. “I had to show up and meet people in order to pull it off.”

Cassandra Cruz says live shows provide a form of community that surpass online engagement. Photo credit: Jack Van Hecke

Another benefit of in-person interactions at live shows is seeing the responses first hand. “I think open mics offer the actual human-to-human feedback that social media could never,” said Cassandra Cruz, a musician and regular performer at NYC open mics. She said that getting first hand responses from musicians is a lot more genuine. “It’s coming from someone who is also doing what I’m doing,” said Cruz.

Analea remembers a time when a friend approached them at a show and said their set had brought them to tears. “That moved me,” they said. “They showed up because they’re interested in the music. And it’s nice to know that because sometimes online you wouldn’t really know.”

Zachary Lipez, editor at Creem Magazine, says social media is a “necessary evil.” Photo courtesy of Creem Magazine

Even though musicians like Analea feel that they don’t need social media to be successful, some people say it is still a “‘necessary evil.’” Zach Lipez, editor at Creem Magazine, begrudges that social media is impossible to avoid. “It’s the only way to succeed at a certain level,” Lipez said. “I think the best you can get to is where I’m at, which is a sort of amiable resignation, where I’m like ‘yeah, that’s the job.’”

For Peter Kramer, a music professor at Baruch College, live music is a communal salve to the siloed conditions of online music consumption. Photo credit: Adi Har-Shemesh

Peter Kramer, a composer and professor of music at Baruch College, has no social media. He said he prefers going to live shows over recorded performances for the social element. “There’s something special about witnessing a live performance,” he said. It’s like “having a sort of shared attention span.”

Analea said they love the energy of live performance. Even in multiple consecutive performances. ”It’s never the same thing twice. I love the uniqueness of every show,” they said. “And how much of the environment influences that experience. Like the people that are there, the lights, the venue. So many aspects that go into creating that show and that experience.”

Despite maintaining an Instagram page, Analea still prefers to perform and meet people in real life.

“It’s about connecting. Yeah, you can connect with more people online cause there’s potential for a wider audience. But it’s just not as natural as human interaction.”

Sullivan Marsters, a Fort Worth, TX, based musician, sees no way around the use of social media to promote and disseminate his work. Photo credit : @goldberghourphotos

But for some, going offline is a privilege of living in a big city. Sullivan Marsters, a musician based out of Fort Worth, Texas, said not everyone has the option of an open mic. “There’s two different bars on my street. It’s nothing like New York, where there’s a bajillion different places, walkable.”

Marsters said that despite finding social media a necessary and valuable tool for musicians, he admires those that choose not to participate in online promotion. “If that’s what you want to do, and to put all of your energy into the actual thing that you love, I admire it. I just think that you’re leaving a lot on the table by doing that,” he said.

Whether musicians perform live or cultivate an online platform, a problem that cannot be ignored is the issue of financial stability. Getting enough streams for a livable wage is a Herculean effort, especially for starting musicians. But Analea said that live shows also offer very little reprieve in that regard.

Analea says no matter what the turn out is, they have to put in the same amount of work. “And you’re not necessarily gonna go home with money,” said Analea. “Sometimes you’re going home in the red. The business and the venues are just not set up to pay artists for their entertainment.”

Marsters, who sees a net benefit in online promotion, said being your own team is exhausting. “As your marketing person, and your promoter, etc., it just takes up a lot of time, and none of it really ends up giving you any money at the end of the day. So that’s rough.”

A live show at KGB, a bar. Photo Credit: Jack Van Hecke

Kramer, the music professor, says it’s impossible to make a living playing music live. “I have friends who stopped their performing careers,” he said. “People who were on the front page of the music section of the New York Times and they just burnt out.”

Analea currently supports themselves on a grant from Creatives Rebuild New York’s “Guaranteed Income For Artists” program, which provides 2400 artists “$1000 per month for 18 consecutive months.” They said it’s allowed them to work on their music exclusively. But despite all their new connections and projects, with the grant coming to an end, they worry about making ends meet.

Additional reporting from Jack Van Hecke