Would You Let A Poet Drive You To Work?

Robin Millar. Photo originally published by The Times
Guest rant by Robin Millar

Robin is a musician who has conquered blindness to become a world famous record producer with over 150 gold, silver and platinum discs to his credit – not to mention 55 million record sales. He was made a CBE in the 2010 Birthday Honours.  He has contributed this post to us at Fresh On The Net – questioning the modern pressure on musicians and artists to beome active users of social media – and is keen to hear your views.

I’ve touched on this before but it’s becoming a burning issue. This is about people who write songs, sing, play instruments, feel things very very deeply, hurt easily, are highly strung, creative, unworldly, brilliant, awkward in their own skin, impractical, gifted, passionate, emotional.

A musician and singer came to see me last week. She lives outside the UK. She came a long way to see me. I have recorded with her. She is brilliant.  She was in a state of confusion.

All her friends – and family too – are telling her she has to get out there on Twitter and on the Internet and get busy doing it for herself. Blowing her trumpet – or in her case, alto sax – telling everyone what she’s doing, alerting them to gigs, building her fan base on Facebook or MySpace, possibly joining Pledge, certainly uploading to Soundcloud … STOP!

She’s overwhelmed. Not by the prospect of hard work. You don’t get to be as good as she is without dedication, practice and application. She’s overwhelmed by two things. Firstly the technology. It’s just too bloody complicated to master it all and become an online guru and it’s not her strength. She is not a nerd. She is not a geek.

Second and much more fundamental is that she says it just feels phony, self-important, shallow and ridiculous. She writes music, plays and sings, she doesn’t otherwise communicate particularly comfortably or confidently. She’s quite shy. She’s not got a degree in journalism. She doesn’t bloody want to do it – or in other words she’s very like most of the other great artists and musicians I know.

And I agree with her. I follow a few people on Twitter. If the only thing they have to say is to tell me how great their next gig is going to be or how great their last gig was I want to puke and I want them to fail. If they also tell me how grateful they are to their fans then I want to drown them in my vomit.

Bob Lefsetz

On top of that there is the American blogger Bob Lefsets. A middle aged lawyer who has set himself up as the Deepak Chopra of commercial music. He’ll tell you how to do it. Whether you run a big record company, are an older member of a band who used to have hits, a young singer songwriter, a student, a mother, a publisher….doesn’t matter, Bob knows what you need to do.

And Bob’s mantra is that you’ve got to become a smart, savvy, forward-looking, tech-savvy, self starting, self-promoting in-your-face person 24/7. You’ve got to forget albums, they are toast – oh and you’ve got to be a genius, poet and a true original as well.

Hang on a minute there. I’m running through a few folks who had true genius, poetry and originality. Carravaggio, Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, Van Gogh, Sartre, Jeff Buckley, Jaques Brel, Jimi Hendrix… I’m imagining them busy working on their Facebook page, tweeting about their upcoming gig, uploading their latest mixes to Soundcloud before setting off in their 4 x 4 to drive 300 miles to the next gig with me in the passenger seat! Not likely. I’ll catch the train, thanks.

Poets don’t usually have a licence, thank goodness. They know they shouldn’t drive. They know they would be too busy dreaming to watch the road. Also these folks like to be driven. They like to be looked out for and looked after. They like to live in the dreamland of their own warped, special version of reality. They need a bloody manager, Bob!

To my friend who came to see me? You’re fine. You’re right. Selfpromotion is not for you. It’s for Bob and for wannabe celebs on The Voice, it’s for entrepreneurs [whatever they are]… More than anyone else, it’s for Bob. Check out his archive sometime. Check out just how much of his time he spends namedropping, how much he talks about which star let him go backstage and talked to him, which record company mogul took him to lunch – but there’s nothing else there. Bob’s never had a hit, never run a music company, never broken a band.

Chill girl, leave it… and if you’re worried about your career, get a manager.

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...


  1. oscar wilde held very loud court in the cafe royalon piccadilly,right in the heart of london…and that might have been the social media of the day….also there’s a difference between self promotion,and communication,just as there’s a difference from perceiving listeners as an audience rather than a market.
    comforted by the none driving thing though,and love robin’s records..especially that debut sade record.

  2. Even us delicate, sensitive, creative types learn from an early age not to put our hands in the fire just because someone tells us to. Each to their own with regard to new technology & social media. Who you know, a manager and the money to promote will never be a sustitute for talant and hard work but a mix of all those things will aid succes if you have really got a gr8 track brewing. Learning how to ‘do’ social media youself just saves a whole lot of money and if kept ‘sensible’ can be fun. Ape love ! Dan B-) xo

  3. know what you mean – sometimes when I’m farting about trying to facebook or twitter I think I could be writing a song ;-). That said to be able, without permission to be able to do whatever you like and just stick it out and be heard is; you know, pretty good!

  4. OOo…I love a good Rant

  5. Tom

    Robin is a good friend of mine, but I don’t think he’s covering all sides of this story – it’s not “either-or”. It’s true that in the traditional Elton John star-system model, artists focus on doing their work then hand it over to managers and marketeers who then sell it to the Great Unwashed. And pocket a healthy percentage of the takings.

    But its not the only way of earning a living from music. Until the early 20th Century being an artist or writer meant performing live and – to some extent or other – interacting with the public. As Mary Cigarettes says Oscar Wilde went on book-reading tours of the USA to promote his work, as did Charles Dickens. They were happy to sign autographs, shake hands, and meet the public in large numbers on a daily basis without compromising their art in any way. Shakespeare wasn’t a shrinking violet who need a manager to hide behind – he owned his own theatre, ran his own troupe of actors, schmoozed King James to get royal patronage and performed in his own plays on a nightly basis.

    Back in the 70s my own band TRB made a point of talking to fans after every gig, printing up free newsletters that we distributed everywhere we played, and made a point of answering every letter anyone sent to us. If you enclosed an SAE, you got a reply – that was our rule. It was without doubt the fanatical support of our fanbase that convinced EMI to sign us – they saw sold out gigs and fans singing along with every chorus. We didn’t think we were “marketing” to those young people by giving them free badges or remembering their names after gigs, we thought of them as our band’s extended family, and always kept ticket prices affordable rather than profitable. Some of those people still turn up at my live shows today, 36 years later. And yes (saving Robin’s queasy stomach) we actually did “care” about our fans.

    Grassroots artists like Billy Bragg, The Levellers, or Show Of Hands still do their best to “keep the faith” with their audience – this is to do with communication, care and commitment more than marketing. Communicating direct with your audience, and bypassing the machinations of a largely ruthless record industry, is not an approach that works for every artist.

    But that doesn’t make it phony, self-important, shallow or ridiculous either. Horses for courses. Some artists are happy gregarious extroverts like Dickens and Shakespeare. Some are shy recluses like Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. One isn’t better than the other.

    Vive la différence!

  6. There is a certain pointlessness in any artistic endeavour, in the same way as its not really necessary to climb a mountain. But we make and do artistic things because this is what defines our culture & makes us human.

    On a base level what ultimately defines art is the ‘doing of stuff’ and its reception & admiration of others. If we don’t tell people what we’re doing or ‘market’ out art, then we undermine our duty to ourselves and to the art itself.

    Yeah I climbed up Mt Everest

  7. I don’t think artists should feel pressured. Some people it suits to keep banging on about what they’re doing, what they’re not doing, why, when, where… I had a conversation where we asked how would Nick Drake do it? Or Syd Barrett? If it doesn’t suit you, or if it makes you miserable, I say forget it.

  8. Chris Ilett

    Social media is just an extra string to your bow, and a great way to network, and to engage would-be fans of your music.

    Personally I’ve found Twitter to be the most useful, and I don’t really use Facebook for that kind of thing. It’s a way to discover relationships that you may not have found without it, but of course if you don’t back it up with anything else, it’s never going to be very useful.

    Of course, if you find yourself doing pretty well, there isn’t any urgency to create a bunch of social media accounts. I think the point is though, that it can’t hurt. Artists might discover that they come by opportunities that would otherwise have evaded them, because social media keeps you in the mind of your followers, and it keeps you current.

    I think if you join in conversation (or even start your own), then people tend to become interested, and find out more for themselves. The odd bit of self promotion doesn’t hurt when it counts. I do whince slightly when I go too far (often), but hopefully I make up for it by supporting others when needed.

  9. Some people are gregarious. Others reclusive. There isn’t a recipe. Do whatever works for you.

    However – it’s worth pointing out that this is no more about technology than telephones are about technology. Or pencil and paper for that matter. These are simply ways we have developed to talk to other human beings.

    Calling people “computer savvy” because they use social media is like calling people “car savvy” because they drive to their friend’s house.

    For the record – I am a pencil and paper nerd as much as I am a Twitter geek.

  10. Hang on a minute! I’m not a geek or a nerd but I am a huge fan of Twitter as a social media platform for engaging with fans/followers. As an artist – an indie artist in particular – you can do what you like. That’s the beauty of working independently. It is your choice how you work and how you promote yourself…or not.

    Let’s face it though: unless you’re making music in your bedroom and playing it back to yourself, the chances are you want it to be heard by others. If you’re working independently and haven’t got a team of workers behind you promoting you and banging your drum, the fact is, you have to do it yourself. And there are ways of doing it which are engaging and which don’t make you appear self-obsessed – unless of course self-obsessed is what you are.

    Last year I finally released my first album having toiled over the two years previously to raise funds and write songs to put the album together. I didn’t record those songs and spend all that effort so I could have the final CDs sitting in my bedroom. I recorded them because I think I have something to share that some others will like. Social media platforms like Twitter make it easier for someone like me, new to the game and without record label backing, to introduce my music to those others who may enjoy it. Some of my followers are in the UK, some as far afield as Slovakia, Australia, the USA – how else would I reach them otherwise?

    I regularly talk about and plug other artists I like and I engage in chit chat with other peeps. It isn’t all about me but it is a way of bringing fans into my “music world”. I’ve got something I feel I should give. They want to accept and enjoy it. Whatever is wrong with that?

    Your saxophonist may not want to use social media and that is her choice and is a fine one to make if she is happy with that. In the end, social media is just another way of striking up a conversation with others. And if you like communicating and want to share your art and what you do (for the benefit of others) then I think it is simply crazy not use it.

  11. I think to some degree it depends on the genre of music as well. In some cases a track will have a shelf life (particularly dance music genres where fashions and tastes change regularly). In those cases its kind of time sensitive and social networks are a good way to get your track to an audience quickly.

  12. I think the bands are getting forced into it and the only people benefitting are the social networks and the advertising companies they sell too…

    I think the fans are losing real enthusiasm as a result of so many pleas, calls and favours from bands seeking ‘likes’ ‘RTs’ Radio requests or whatever…

    Unless you’re a marketing machine (eurgh) all these likes boil down to very little real-world benefits for the average indie band.

    Here’s something I scribbled on the same subject, having always done the promo stuff for our band… I feel it’s pretty corrosive, time consuming, has little to do with what your actually trying to achieve (write music) and often fuels far more arguments than any other avenue of band-life.


  13. Hi Robin,
    I see your point and it’s well made, I know a lot of musicians who just want to deal with the songwriting and performing end of the business.
    The thing is, the music industry as you know has changed so much in the last 20 years, more so within the last 10 years.
    The way people buy and digest music is completely different to when I was a teenager selling papers to save up enough money to buy Anarchy In The UK
    The album is dead and it’s the age of the single, to elaborate, my iPod is full of albums yet my 16 year old nephew’s is just one massive compilation ” A Best Of ”
    Being a musician has never been harder in the sense that now more than ever you need to put in all of the leg work to try and get any sort of deal which will allow you to pursue your dream
    This is where the internet and associated music based social networks have become such an important tool for the modern musician.
    As Tom rightly said, back in the 70’s bands such as TRB, TV Smith, Eater, John Cooper Clarke etc.. all fostered the work ethic that has now become commonplace, not because they didn’t trust the machine (Major Labels etc) but because they wanted to be hands on, wanted to reach out to their fans and bring them closer almost like family. I think it’s much more rewarding now if your hard work pays off and Twitter,Facebook and the rest have taken a lot of the footwork out of it when you can self promote from the comfort of your coffee table.
    The thing is and this must be mentioned, the Likes of Tom Robinson, Andy Von Pip, Dave Monks to mention just a few are making it even easier for musicians through their dedication to see great talent recognised. Also all of the bloggers, review sites and Promoters are now more than ever a massive help to all who get up on stage with a story to tell.
    Social Media Sites are not to be feared but rather embraced as a very powerful free advertising tool.

  14. Very interesting read from all those above.

    I’ll try not to repeat what’s already been contributed.

    From reading the thing that really struck a chord with me was actually how much of an absolute lifeline social media networks have been for me over the past year when suffering from very serious health problems.

    I’m in no way arse licking here when I say that Tom’s Fresh On The Net and the online community that has developed there/here was the single driving force and focus that bloody motivated me to do something on the same day, every week, week after week, month after month at a point when I pretty much severed most contact with friends and family and could barely leave the house without having severe panic attacks and associated hyperventilation – all pretty bloody terrifying.

    Social media, specifically Soundcloud, FOTN and more recently Twitter have allowed me to re-connect with the world over the past year. Gently making contact with others and more importantly sharing my music and my experience.

    Again I don’t mean to do the bloody self promotion but if any of you would like to read/hear more about what I’ve written about you can find an interview/music blog about me that was written by Mike Lindley AKA Fruitbatwalton last week:



  15. Its a really tricky one.

    When the article talked about being shallow and phony, I understand that completely. sometimes twitter and Facebook newsfeeds’ seem more concerned about pouting, gimmicks, and hashtagging’ a cake you made for lunch opposed to conveying anything really useful or genuine.

    But for musicians, I think it is a really powerful tool. and sometimes when the world moves in a certain direction, it’s wise to move with it. Even if it feels a bit fast paced and ‘nu’. Without twitter, I wouldn’t have found fresh on the net. I wouldn’t be abel to tweet THANK YOU to my local introudcing producer when he plays a track or plugs a gig. In literally a second I can be hastagging a current music event, connecting with other musicians, collaborating, reviewing, whatever. you can ‘follow’ your ideals, keep inspired, keep current. Cos’ it’s hard sometimes to keep current, and with a real time social platform , that’s kind of taken care of!

    in my opinion, i think if you use twitter/FB/etc etc in a pragmatic, useful, and thoughtful way, it’s silly not to use it. ! Just don’t abuse it 😛

  16. Chris

    I don’t quite know what to do with this. Everywhere I turn I am told that if your music is really good it will basically find its own audience on the net and that if the social media side of things doesn’t take off then you know your music is inferior.

    I’m in the position of my music not taking off on social media but radio playing it repeatedly and some important new music DJs saying really great stuff about the project which.
    Mixed messages – both of which seem quite extreme to me.

    So is it not the case that it is the smartness of how you use social media that will determine largely the outcome? As in, how good you are – regardless of willing or effort put in – that will set up your traction. I can only come to the conclusion that I am musically on the right track but that my skill at finding and targeting the RIGHT listeners is not so great. And maybe just like back in the day you simply had no choice to go out on the streets and flyer and put posters up and tell people about a gig face to face, nowadays this is work you have to do. It can just be hard to get it right. And to not let the lack of results make you jump to conclusions based on *lack* of information or palpable results.

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