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Summary:

Using social-media tools has become almost a necessity for musicians and artists of all kinds, as a way of promoting their work and connecting with fans. But can doing all this get in the way of the creativity that makes them artists in the first place?

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Using social-media tools like Twitter, Facebook and blogs has become almost a necessity for musicians, authors and creative professionals of all kinds, as a way of both promoting their work and connecting with their fans. But can doing all this get in the way of the creative spark that makes them artists in the first place? Singer John Mayer raised a warning flag about exactly that in a recent presentation to young musicians, telling them to avoid social media and concentrate on the music. Fellow musician David Usher, however, says that while he agrees Twitter can become addictive and distracting, young artists still need to do it.

Mayer, who has won several Grammy awards for his music, told students at the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts that using social media — including his blog and a very active Twitter account that at one point had more than 4 million followers — got so distracting that he started focusing on that rather than creating new music. According to a Berklee blog post about his presentation, Mayer said that he started asking himself questions like “Is this a good blog? Is this a good tweet?” instead of “Is this a good song title? Is this a good bridge?” Mayer added:

I realized about a year ago that I couldn’t have a complete thought anymore. And I was a tweetaholic… I stopped using twitter as an outlet and I started using twitter as the instrument to riff on, and it started to make my mind smaller and smaller and smaller. And I couldn’t write a song.

Mayer’s struggles with Twitter have been well publicized, thanks to his former relationship with actress Jennifer Aniston, which made him a target of the tabloid press. He quit Twitter in late 2010 — after reports that his “obsession with Twitter” caused problems in his relationship with the actress — and he has spoken out before about how he believes that no one who participates in Twitter has created any “lasting art.”

To see if Mayer’s views were shared by other professional musicians, I asked David Usher for his thoughts on the topic. Usher, a Canadian singer-songwriter whose former band Moist had a number of top 10 hits in the late 1990s (and someone I consider a friend, in the interests of full disclosure) has been an avid user of all forms of social media in his successful solo career, including his blog, Twitter account and Facebook page. He even helped develop a digital-media tool called DEQQ that allows fans to talk with him directly and get updates about songs.

Usher, who is currently on tour, said that he has also struggled with the impact that social media has on his life as an artist — primarily the effort and time that it takes to engage in all of those forms of communication, but also the psychological distraction that always being connected brings. While Usher said he loves to “play with all the new shiny social media toys” when they come out, and loves the fact that Twitter and Facebook provide “a new way for us to communicate and connect,” he also finds it a distraction.

The addiction to the endless interruption and engagement does make it hard to find the flow of creation. The endless ping of your phone makes it harder to live in the moment, to be present. Observing life is so much a part of the creative process for me that the constant distraction of social media has become problematic.

The singer said that while he has not cancelled Twitter or shut down his blog the way Mayer has, he is trying to scale back his involvement more. “I want to try to figure out how to stay connected without being the guy who is always looking at his iPhone — it’s not an easy balance,” he said. Some of that involves trying to connect more aspects of his social-media world together, such as syndicating his blog through Facebook and Twitter, and connecting Facebook comments into his blog. “I’m really trying to limit the pages I need to look at to stay connected,” he added.

One thing the singer disagrees with when it comes to Mayer’s views on social media, however, is the necessity for young artists to use these tools to promote themselves and their work. In his Berklee presentation, Mayer said that the constant urgency that some artists feel to update their blogs or YouTube channels with new songs or clips was also a distraction, and that musicians should focus on writing good music and let the promotional part wait until later. Usher said this wasn’t a realistic approach:

I actually don’t think it’s great advice to tell young artists not to bother with social media. It’s like saying don’t use the telephone. That’s fine if you have a huge machine that will do all your talking and promotion for you — but most of us still need to let people know we are playing. You can have the greatest songs in the world but if the room is empty, it still sucks.

In the end, the singer-songwriter said, artists of all kinds, whether new or well-established, have to find their own “social media voice,” and then manage that in such a way so that it doesn’t become too much of a distraction. I think this advice extends beyond just the artistic world. Anyone who has spent much time on Twitter or Facebook or even Google+ knows that such networks can become a “time suck” that threatens to overwhelm other aspects of your life. Some of that — and some of the talk about Twitter “addiction” — might be explained by the chemical changes in the brain that research shows take place when we engage with others through social media.

The bottom line, however, is that while managing the use of these networks may be difficult, it is becoming a skill that we all need to master, whether we are famous musicians or not.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Alessandro Reginato and Social Sidekick

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  1. Great article, I definitely can see social media interfering with the creative process for musicians and artists. I am a digital marketing specialist and I actually work with a couple bands to manage and monitor their social media profiles so they don’t have to worry abut them and they can concentrate on their music and touring. A lot of record lables dont provide that for bands either, so finding a freelancer to do it for you might be a good idea. My advice if you go down that road is to find someone who actually likes your music or at the very least your genre. I listen to rock and metal, i could never do this for a different kind of genre.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca — I can see some artists getting someone else to handle social media, just as they have people to handle other aspects of their PR and marketing. But how does that affect the personal nature of social media like Twitter? That would be the only downside I think.

  2. Shane Schick Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    I think this problem applies to anyone doing creative work, including working in the media. Do I write another article, or update my various profiles and engage with readers? I think one point in this post really suggests a solution, which is a more dashboard-style approach to social media management. Certainly TweetDeck has helped this issue somewhat, but I think more and more of us are going to want a social media funnel that acts the way Java did for software developers: write once, publish everywhere.

    1. Agreed, Shane — although I often get criticism when I direct feeds from some networks onto other networks. Thanks for the comment though.

  3. Glad to see this being discussed – I’ve worked with a lot of artists and have seen both types of responses as well. I tend to agree more with David Usher — not delving into some kind of social/online conversation would make it really difficult for an artist to share their work (unless they have some kind of representation).

    In my mind, all of us (not just artists) need to draw boundaries on time spent “being influenced” and social versus time spent thinking and being creative. Perhaps shutting off the digital world regularly is the mind equivalent of giving our bodies rest when we sleep?

  4. Terry Heaton Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    Good piece, Mathew. I consider myself a creative person who needs to touch that “creative flow” as much as the next sensitive soul, but I strongly disagree with Mayer on this. An addictive personality is an addictive personality, and this stuff can be highly addictive. So it’s not the “use” of social media; it’s the obsessive “abuse” of social media that’s the problem. I know it may hurt my personal branding efforts, but I simply turn off the outside streams when I need to touch the inside flow, and it works just fine for me. Moderation and balance, people. Moderation and balance.

    1. Thanks, Terry — good advice :-)

    2. Terry—I think you hit the nail on the head. “Abuse” not “use” in the problem. Anything can be a distraction to creativity. But social communication is an asset to artists.

  5. Thanks for choosing my pic for this article, I found that social networks like twitter and tumblr are extremely useful in terms of inspiration!:)

    1. Thanks for making it, Alessandro, and for allowing us to use it — it is a great pic!

  6. I think that social media gives us instant gratification that somehow, somewhere in the world, someone is giving us undivided attention.. and this is why it’s addictive. Our constant desire for attention can wreak havoc, and this is why we see a lot of social media disasters happening. This is also why people will just post anything before thinking if what they’ve posted make sense at all. In some ways, social media helps people connect, no doubt. But, if you want to focus on getting creative, shutting off the noise helps. That’s my opinion.

  7. Daniel Jim Antony Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    Nice topic of discussion. I see Social Media as a external stream when comparing Creative which is purely from a sequence of evolving thought process within a mind. Social Media will compliment as a catalyst to bring Creativity as ideas into existence. The thought of interference comes when one looks to Social Media as a source of his creativity which might work for some and not others.

    Thanks to Amrita who makes a point here: “draw boundaries on time spent “being influenced” and social versus time spent thinking and being creative.”

    Creativity works wonders when in solitude(no work, meditate or just sleep). Social Media works wonders when your actually working. And yes, there are some who get creative with others ideas…

  8. Brian S Hall Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    I am writing a book (fiction). People may or may not like it. F em. But, if not for blogging and twitter it would have long ago been finished. My warning to all.

    1. Thanks, Brian — warning received :-)

  9. Sally Dahlsten Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    Nice post. Now, I believe that musicians and song writers should use social media carefully. They should ensure that it doesn’t become an addiction, but is used to one’s own benefit.

  10. Social media are another part of the big change that has allowed many *underground* musicians to live from their work, even without having as much firepower as Lady Gaga and the support of major labels, by getting involved in a community (and not with an audience). On the other hand, the studio work has become so accessible that the bigs were actually led to turn back to play in live venues, instead of bombing radios and relying on TV shows. Digitization has somehow narrowed fascination, myths, and the odds of becoming an ultra-billionaire. This applies not only to the musicians, but also to artists in general; that said, the crucial point is that far too many people call themselves “artists”. But branding and promotion should still survive: after all, it’s different from the artwork’s specific creative process; maybe it’s time for marketers as well to redefine their market and limit their expectations! :)

  11. I love John Mayer, and I can see where he’s coming from…but honestly I think there is a way to find a balance between the two. Social media is time consuming and does require dedication, but it by no means demands your entire life. It’s a shame he blames social media for his lack of productive creativity

  12. Social Media cuts both ways. It enhances one’s creativity due to the exposure of others opinions. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a loss of productivity for some. Not everyone has the discipline to use social media in it’s own measure.

  13. With most things in life: moderation is key. If you can’t control your moderation, then get help. Does it really need to be any more complicated than that?

  14. Very well written. Finally a neutral viewpoint backed up with facts and not an article calling someone a douche. I follow a lot of what John does online. The fans love it. When he was recording Battle Studies he would post a youtube video showing the progress. An inside look into an artists creative thinking. Tumblr shows his sense of humor and interests. Now that he is recording Born and Raised, he has disconnected and the fans miss that. There is a huge difference between an inside look to an artists mind and an inside look in to an artists bedroom. He just needs to learn that self promotion is good for a career and to keep fans, but spitting our every thought you have online instead of funneling and filtering it into the creative process is bad.

  15. Ellis Vener Sunday, July 24, 2011

    What a terrific use of a fine photo-illustration to immediately get the point across about this article. I just wish the author or editor of the article had credited the photographer directly under it with a name and a link to his or her site.

  16. Dr. Leviticus Strickland Friday, September 2, 2011

    since all thought and ideas are influenced by outside sources, one can’t simply ignore social media as an artist or thinker of any king. that said, it’s probably worthwhile to weigh and evaluate what outside influences you are bombarded with all the time and make some serious choices about which to eliminate and which to focus on. This is the one thing I see online all the time is people sort of caught in cultural loops, and rarely stepping back to see the larger picture. If anything all this recent talk about “if social media is good” has suggested we take hours, days, or whatever as time away from that stuff to recalibrate ourselves. Seems like a good idea. Doesn’t hurt to unplug the modem and leave the iPhone off for a day and go walk around your neighborhood without headphones on.

  17. It’s not true! I’m writing the great American novel right now! And I’ll go back to writing it just after I finish leaving this comment, then sent out a tweet, then check my facebook page, then stumble on Stumbleupon…

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