Hey Ladies: Being A Woman Musician Today

Control Your Image: Women Musicians Seize On Social Media

Pink Twitter bird; Mito Habe-Evans / NPR

hide captionGiven that more women than men use social media, shouldn't the Twitter bird be pink?

Mito Habe-Evans / NPR

This story is part of Hey Ladies, our ongoing series of radio and online reports about women musicians working today. Read stories, get advice and discover music here.

More women than men use social media, according to several studies. And more women musicians seem to be finding it a good way to connect with fans and sell records without having to resort to some of the old marketing cliches.

If there is a poster child for the independent woman artist of today it might be Zoe Keating. The 38-year-old cellist comfortably supports her young son and husband by performing and selling her music.

Keating is classically trained — though she has played with a rock band or two. Now she usually plays solo with a Macbook at her feet. Using a software program she wrote Keating creates interwoven loops of her music on the computer as she performs.

She says the music industry didn't know what to do with her. "When I first started out doing this and I approached record labels and managers and agents they all said, 'Well, what you do is interesting, but what's the story?'" she says. "'We can't figure it out. It's complicated. And it seems kind of niche, and it doesn't really seem like it would go anywhere.'"

If Keating's music wasn't easily classified, then her look wasn't right for the record companies either. "I do think it's kind of harder for women to be noticed if they're not young and sexy and hot," says Keating. "And I don't think I'm young and sexy and hot."

Keating is striking in a very unconventional way. She has a pile of red dreadlocks on top of her head and pale, almost translucent, skin. She's a former Information Architect and made a living in the tech world before she became a full time musician.

Zoe Keating; courtesy of the artist

hide captionZoe Keating filled out our questionnaire about the tribulations and achievements of women working in music right now. You can read her full response, as well as 700 more, at the Hey Ladies: Being A Woman Musician Today interactive.

courtesy of the artist

"I think that social media is really, like, the only way for somebody like me to craft my image," she says.

And Keating has done it masterfully. She has more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter, which she adopted early on. She tweets about everything from how best to get her cello on a plane, to where she's playing next, and how much she loves the view from a cabin in Colorado.

"That's what fans want now," says Keating. "The want to know you."

Keating's fans pushed her most recent album Into the Trees to number seven on the Billboard Classical charts — and that's without any formal publicity.

Older musicians are tapping social media too.

In 1987 Suzanne Vega hit the top of the international charts with "Luka" off her second album Solitude Standing. Although many of Vega's subsequent albums got good reviews, she never had that kind hit again. Vega was dropped by two record labels.

"The idea of putting out a new album with nobody to release it was disturbing to me," says Vega.

Vega began to use social media to gather up her fan base. She assembled more than thirty thousand friends on Facebook and has more than 800,000 views on her MySpace page. She is also rerecording and releasing — on her own label — all of her old material so that she can reap the performance royalties. Whereas the information on her old albums was devoted to her dark lyrics, with social media Vega's fans can see more of her.

"Because what I do through Twitter, and what I do through the Facebook and even sometimes the blogs is I'm much more able to show off my sense of humor and my personality than just say the lyrics which tend to be very serious," Vega says.

Vega has a list of the people who follow her and respond to her postings. "The idea that there could be someone in Turkey, for example, who was a fan that I didn't know that could write to me directly and when I when to perform in Turkey she would actually be there at the shows — that was amazing to me."

But it isn't so surprising to Linda Abraham, an analyst at Comscore who did a study of how men and women use social media. Comscore tracks online behavior. The study found that 56 percent of women say they use the Internet to stay in touch with people compared with only 46 percent of men. In general women spend more time online too. And that was true not matter what country Comscore studied.

"You often find one pattern of behavior in one part of the world and a different pattern of behavior in another part of the world," she says. "But the study that we did with regard to social media specifically — regardless of the cultural differences — this tendency for women to be more social on the internet superseded those cultural differences."

But hearing a marketing person talk about social media is exactly what worries Rebecca Gates. In the old times Gates was one half of the Spinanes.

"Now you will have a Facebook page and you will have a Friendster page and a Posterious and on and on," she says. "I'm kind of like, 'Oh, dude.' I thought this was the new — this was the new times."

When the Spinanes hit almost 20 years ago they were sold as unusual combination of chic singer and guitarist, and a drummer. Thanks to social media Gates can fill out the image. "I'm getting a chance to present a lot more well-rounded and sort of faceted persona."

Or as Keating put it, for a lot of women the only way to move forward is to make your own path, get out your machete and cut your way through. Or click your way through.

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