Putting Myself Out There
One of the positive consequences about technology is that once you’ve published something online, it really doesn’t go anywhere. (this is also a negative if you are or ever were an asshole).
Sure, I could stop paying for my domain, and let my website go dark and perhaps someone will come along and pursue their own Native Stranger business ideas under the same banner.
But some intrepid Internetter has figured out a way to recreate long lost corners of the internet using a website called The Wayback Machine Internet archive.
Highly recommend peeking at the tool if you remember a specific month and year you wrote that spicy message board post or wanted to check out your old high school web page for the lulz.
Current data suggests Youtube content is being updated at the rate of 30,000 hours of video every hour. For those of you slow on conversion that’s just under NINETY YEARS of content each day.
It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed. To feel invisible.
Especially when you’re sitting at home applying to jobs, waiting for the phone calls that never come. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t feel that pang of anxiety on a near daily basis these days.
Ironically, there is a twin to the anxiety of feeling absolutely ignored.
It’s the feeling of being absolutely exposed. Not only are you not invisible, you’ve got a boner in front of the classroom and your final presentation speech cards just fell on the floor and right into a puddle of condensation collected at the foot of your crush’s water bottle.
On the internet there’s really not a lot of in-between.
99.9% of the 30,000 hours is never viewed by a single human being other than maybe the person who created it (and even then not guaranteed). And of the remaining sliver of content, only a small handful of moments will enter the zeitgeist.
WORD NERD ALERT: Taking a small moment here because I want to share that I use the word ‘zeitgeist’ pretty often as it still blows my mind when an idea or an image defines a moment in time to almost all of humanity in the same way. The virality of an idea is often the study of memetics, but when said idea is successfully implanted into the general human experience we need a new term. And given that the most go-to example of how we (generally) as a people equate Hitler = EVIL, german works a treat! Coming from the root ‘zeit’ (Time) and ‘geist’ (Spirit), the thing that blows my mind about it is the ubiquitous and usually fairly rapid alignment. We certainly didn’t agree on that dress color or whether it was YANNY or LAUREL but for that moment in time everyone had an opinion on the matter, EVEN IF that opinion was “psh who has time for that nonsense!?”
People definitely feel unproductive and sadder when they view Facebook/LinkedIn feeds of smiling faces and accomplishments (Never mind we ignore this is the ‘highlight reel’ and not an apples-to-apples comparison to your IRL experience). The tension is thick on these social spaces, as everyone fights to be seen, to be heard, to be thought of.
Welcome, ladies and gents (and expressions not yet articulated but fully welcomed nonetheless) to the Attention Economy.
Frankly, it’s exhausting. And it champions the false premise that in order to be anyone you have to be seen by everyone.
We’re all throwing ourselves at the zeitgeist hoping to imprint ourselves in humanity’s memory.
But not all of us know it.
We just know that we prioritize time much differently now.
Generating products has become trivially easy now, (thanks tech!) making human labor even more meaningless (thanks tech?) and leaving the unused human mental bandwidth free to be claimed by the juiciest content creators (ugh, I mean I guess we could do that instead of, y’know, fixing shit… tech… c’mon...) who feed you this content ‘for free’ while selling your user data and thus said mental bandwidth to advertisers (ughhh, fucking tech….)
To TL;DR that shit, our attention is for sale.
You can see the consequence most starkly in pop music. The average pop song used to be basically 3:00 on the nose. You might not have noticed it, but it was a thing. The pattern emerged with the popularity of the 78 RPM record format, which contained 3 minutes of music per side. And then these enormous music industry production machines developed muscle memory to produce 3:00 songs, well after computers were killing it.
Digital media removed the tech constraints, but a standard had been set. CDs upped the length of pop songs slightly, but just to ~3:30-3:40. Radio edits still consistently check in at ~3:00.
(Obviously there are many many mega hits that defy these generalized standards, and if you’ll look back at some of the original record release of those mega hits they were pretty controversial for creating songs that couldn’t fit on records and some bands had problems succeeding due to an unwillingness to ‘fit into the mold’ arbitrarily set by audio publishing technology. The song you're probably thinking of right now, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, literally had to 'go viral' before it was mass produced, and record execs guaranteed the song would fail. Hint: it didn't. But are you Freddie Mercury?)
Streaming knocked this time back to ~3:00. But the story beneath the numbers is pretty fascinating.
Most mainstream artists are still hitting that pocket of 3:30 - 3:40 song length. But some artists are meeting the technology at its level. Most artists are relying on streaming royalties as their income since physical media is becoming more a niche collectors item.
Some are not content with the royalty structure, which does suck (but it’s complicated… happy to argue with you about it). Their solution? Kick out more, shorter songs released as singles. And by shorter I mean sometimes as short as 2:00. It’s beginning to sound old fashioned to craft a three verse song.
Releasing 10 singles per year at ~2:30 length is dramatically more profitable for a streaming artist than releasing one full length album every one or two years (curating those 20 produced songs down to a tight 12-13).
I learned this lesson the hard way.
I released three records last year. One in July, one at Thanksgiving, and one in the middle of December.
I was really proud of all these projects. And I wasn’t the only one who had a hand in bringing these projects to life.
I released the projects, I enthusiastically promoted it. And people DID check out the record.
At least the first 3-4 tracks.
I threw 120 minutes of music into the world in 2020. During a global pandemic. People were, let’s say generously, distracted.
Of the thirty six tracks released, a strong majority of the streams came from the first 3 songs. The above chart is Bandcamp only but the trend is fairly consistent across all platforms with a significant drop off in attention after track 4-5.
A few people listened to (and still occasionally enjoy) Bonsai in its entirety.
But almost no one heard some of my most heartfelt and creative work.
I get it. 40 minutes is a long time to sit and focus on one thing in this day and age. I don't expect that degree of focus from someone that isn't super interested in consuming my music.
And to be clear, I’m not sulking. In fact if you know me at all, I am aware of and self-conscious of sounding like I’m bragging. I am not doing that either, just assessing my situation and ultimately expressing gratitude.
I am genuinely grateful for the attention I've earned.
Again, I realize that I was in a unique position to be creative in the past year, and I exploited that position hard, and to great benefit.
I also know that the music isn’t going anywhere. I’m even considering paying the distribution company the $75 to keep distributing my music after I die.
Also, as an anxious and self-conscious person, I worried no one would listen. So even one fan is a win. And it wasn’t one.
I got the attention of the homie OG Nick Marsh at focushiphop.com that liked Bonsai enough to put it on his Top 25 albums of 2020.
I am getting consistent readership on this reflection (and a peak of almost 300 views on my ‘cannabis confessional’ post!!).
I am honestly facing the anxiety of feeling invisible. The seeming futility of writing a 5 page reflection every Sunday morning is imposing. The worry no one will ever catch the song Library of Babel on Bonsai does occasionally creep in. I am pushing through with the content despite these feelings.
I am also honestly facing the anxiety of feeling exposed. I have always leaned into hard problems, and the hardest one lately has been understanding what it is that made me feel so uncomfortable putting myself out there like this.
The answer was, because I hadn’t. Exposure therapy is about dosing up on experiences or stimulus that makes you uncomfortable or afraid until you have built a tolerance to the experience or stimulus. Afraid of networking? The solution, sadly, is to network. Afraid you’re out of shape? The solution, sadly, is to get in shape.
Afraid of how to get started? The solution, sadly, is to get started.
There are no secrets, and no shortcuts. But they are really solid solutions, and they definitely work.
The motivational/inspirational speaker circuit knows this all too well. Most people avoid what they are afraid of, and are even willing to pay handsomely for someone else to tell them to “JUST DO IT” (shudder PTSD flashback to sitting in a banquet room FULL of professionals attending a seminar titled “Getting Things Done”. A full-day, multi session seminar, during the work week, about improving your workplace productivity. Paid for by the employer… sigh….)
And the good news is, once you build it you’ve done it! No one can ever take that away from you. That accomplishment will build on itself. Success is motivating.
Just as a fun little anecdote to wrap up this reflection. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit of a one hit wonder… To someone… I released a record in 2009 called The Native Stranger EP with the homie Visto on production. It was a really fun project (and I got to record under the incredible engineering ear of a young Classick of Classick Studios fame in a wild before-he-was-famous moment for WAY CHEAPER than I knew cat was worth).
We made a tiny splash in the Chicago hip-hop scene, and a DJ in the UK even re-uploaded the song Bread Crumbs to a Youtube video which as of today has over 21,000 views and is consistently climbing on Youtube AND Spotify.
But Bread Crumbs isn’t the song I’m talking about. I absolutely love that song, and it allowed me to share my music with thousands of people around the world since I used to regularly perform that song in the subsequent decade.
No, it was the song Losing Control.
My reflection of politics at the time (circa 2008), a lot of the themes still hold up. We even dropped samples from the prescient-even-at-its-time speech from the 70’s film Network about how society is eating itself:
“It’s f’ing nuts to me the shit hasn’t burst/ cuz breeding hatred in citizens WORKS/ and the grimace and smirks on every innocent birth/ brings the bigotry full circle to render abolition inert” - Wattson Losing Control
(heh even then I was touching on intergenerational trauma) This song was one of those songs that I made for me. I wasn’t expecting anyone to hear or care about this song, I just knew it was some shit I had to say at the time.
Well this song is the 3rd most streamed song on the Native Stranger EP. (Fun fact: the number one streamed song on this record is number 1 because the song was stolen from me and put on a Green Lantern mixtape without my verse on it…) And it’s got well over 2,000 spins on SoundCloud of all places…
Those spins were earned 2-3 at a time over the course of 10 years. I made it into a rotation.
These streams earn me basically nothing (fractions of pennies over years), but they are priceless rewards for my efforts.
As an artist I never know what I put out will resonate with others. In a lot of ways, I cannot even consider how other people feel about my art, or else I would probably never release it.
But I always feel the gratitude and joy when I see the number on Losing Control keep ticking up. Or I see someone in the wild wearing a shirt with my brand on it. Or someone wants to connect and talk with me about topics that mutually resonate.
I feel seen. And it’s dope. It takes some of the edge off the “touching the void” sensation of producing content in this age.
Thanks SO MUCH again for reading. I truly appreciate it.
Best, Jonathan “Doc Wattson” The Native Stranger