Stephonne Singleton has been making music for as long as he can remember, and it’s all been building up to this moment.
He’s on the verge of releasing his first solo album.
“I’m so excited!” Singleton says. “I’ve never worked harder on anything in my entire life. It’s my heart. And I get to finally share that.”
He describes his music as a marriage of Prince and Billie Holiday, and it’s got elements of grunge and folk.
He imagines it will have a wide audience, spanning ages, racial and ethnic groups, straight and LGBT communities, as well as “a fifteen-year-old that’s going through a really hard time or a breakup.”
Facebook and other social media tools have allowed independent musicians like Singleton to build audiences without having anything to do with big record labels or agents. But recent concerns about private data are leading some to rethink how they use the platform.
“It’s troubling that we kind of have this trust in Facebook to make sure that we were safe and that our information was safe, and we find out that it’s not,” Singleton says.
Yet, Facebook changed the way the music business works in ways that are hard to ignore.
Jesse Kates, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the Sexy Accident, has been playing in bands since the mid-‘90s – before most people had even heard of the internet.
Back then, venues and record labels still took out lots of print ads to promote shows or albums. Most cities had multiple news outlets covering local music, and bands themselves would plaster towns with fliers in the weeks before a show.
Kates says by the mid- to late 2000s, however, free and easy-to-use social media platforms were making those promotional tools obsolete.
“Over time, the use of the fliers and the time it takes to put them up, started to feel less and less useful and important,” Kates says.
He soured on Facebook after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents about government surveillance programs.
“I was trying to make some sort of statement,” Kates says. “I figured, ‘Ok, what does this feel like? Let me try this. Let me delete my Facebook account.’”
It didn’t last long.
Realizing how limited his promotions would be without Facebook, he rejoined almost immediately. But he says it’s becoming harder and harder for musicians to use the platform, because its always-changing algorithm seems to reduce the visibility of promotional posts.
“You just have to figure out these weird hacks,” he says. “Like if I post up a picture of the poster, and I wait for people to start clicking on it and sharing it, and then I follow on with an edit with the information about the show, then it’ll get seen.”
So are musicians stuck with a platform that’s hard to use and has now also lost their trust?
Not necessarily, according to Ari Herstand, a musician, author and band consultant based in Los Angeles.
“If you don’t want to be on Facebook, then you just have to get really creative about how you’re going to reach your audience,” Herstand says.
Facebook has more than a billion users, but it’s not that popular with many groups, especially teenagers.
Depending on who they’re trying to reach, he says, many bands have better luck using platforms that aren’t household names.
“There are some other artists that have put their entire strategy into livestreaming on You Now,” Herstand says. “And they’re building their entire career that way, and they’re making over $10,000 a month on this other platform.”
And there still is a world outside of social media and the whims of algorithms.
Herstand says one of the best ways musicians can get out from under Facebook’s thumb is the nearly medieval email list.
“With your email list, you own those contacts,” Herstand says. “On every social media platform, you rent your fans to that social media platform. At any point, Facebook could flip a switch, and you lose access to every fan that you have on Facebook.”
Herstand says Facebook could to a lot to rebuild bridges with musicians instead of treating them like businesses – though he’s not holding his breath.
“I would love to see create a music division at Facebook and see what they could do to really help out independent musicians reach a larger audience and sustain careers,” Herstand says.
Stephonne Singleton says he’s hopeful that Facebook will make some major changes, or that another platform will come along.
Until then, he just can’t afford to give up the free promotion that Facebook offers – especially with his debut album coming out in a few weeks.
“If someone creates something, I’m on. Like, give it to me!” Singleton says. “But until then, I don’t feel bad for using the platform. I gotta get it any way I can!”
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.