The Good, The Nas and the Ugly

Depending on which way you cut the pie, or who’s doing the cutting, Facebook is valued at about $80 billion. That’s the size of the United States intelligence budget, would be enough money to cover the salaries of 2.2 million Americans for a year, and if you lined up 80 billion dollar bills from end to end, they would stretch to the moon and back. . .16 times! So a corporation, as benevolent as it might or might not be, has commercialized friendship and the unwavering power of connection, to the sweet tune of a lot of moolah.

Image via Jason A. Howie / Flickr

But for all of its rosy-cheeked capitalism, Facebook, and all other social media platforms, have shrunk the world. Not that the scope of its limits are narrower, but that social media has exponentially brought us “closer” together. It has made the world, if albeit just digitally for the moment, borderless. And for that, artists should be rejoicing. Whichever way you cut art, you end up with a social interaction or at least a product with social interaction as its end. Even a Rembrandt rediscovered centuries after the artist passed away, and marveled at by new eyes, is a social experience. So a more interconnected world is really at the root of all artists’ mission.

The Ugly

For Amanda Palmer, one half of the Dresden Dolls, social media has let her get closer to her 700,000 followers on Twitter or to the 150,000 who have liked her Facebook fan page. Tapping into its power, she was able to raise an unprecedented $1.2 million on Kickstarter, a crowd funding website. She hoped to release her new album by raising a modest-by-recording-standards $100,000, after she parted ways with her former label Roadrunner Records, but collected much, much more thanks to the power of social networks. The story is important because it leverages the idea that artists of all ilks should leverage themselves using the social tools of this new generation—for, who wants to be that proverbial tree that falls without making a sound? And also, it proves that the Internet isn’t killing off all art forms as the music execs, and the sad tale of HuffPo’s writer slave markets, would suggest. In fact, Palmer’s campaign was so successful, that when she tried to operate as usual, by inviting local professional musicians to play with her for free while she toured, the Internet lit up like Chicago in 1871. The punk-cabaret maven had reaped the benefits of masterful social media implementation, only to be crushed under the weight of her own importance.

Amanda Palmer at the Fly By Night Bar. (Image Via Stuart Sevastos / Flickr)

Some might argue that it was just the karma of the Internet at play, getting back at a musician who had abused her contemporaries in a way she as a working musician would not want to be treated—and during a recession, no less. Even if she’s not at fault, and the Internet is just one giant conveyor belt of trolls, Palmer appears to be the victim of unparalleled accessibility and connectedness. Social media provides both, but must be carefully weighed when making decisions as an artist or change-maker.

The Nas

Amanda Palmer isn’t the only high-caliber artist to be dipping their toes in the pool of social media. Nasir Jones, known by the stage name of Nas, has invested in his own social startup. Writing for TechCrunch, the Queensbridge rapper states that social media and “the direct connection to the fans [it provides] is not just freeing artists from the old corporate structure; it’s redefining the relationship between creator and audience.” While his enterprise 12Society is no Red Cross, Nas hopes to develop a new way of partaking in commerce, and seems to understand that he needs to maintain his connection with fans at the forefront. Through his company, he hopes to broaden the products and apparel available to customers, and to make the experience an interactive one. For an artist who operates in the world of hip-hop, which has always been intimately linked to style and swagger, the move should prove a smart one.

Still there existed the danger that his fan base, who have philosophically held him to a higher standard than his contemporary Jay-Z, for not “selling out” as Sean Combs has in his career, would have turned their back on him. Instead hardcore hip-hop fans and publications seem to be excited by his entrepreneurial spirit, for its “self-awareness.” After all, this is a Billboard-topping, genre-defining artist who understands something that large media conglomerates are still blind to, that “the passion the fans had for what [artists are] creating never went away; [artists] just had to evolve to survive in the new digital world.” Instead of pulling a Metallica, and taking legal measures to persecute fans, Nas has decided to embrace the changing tide.

Nas In Italy. (Image Via greg / Flickr )

To boot, his fans have always known Nas to be a man of great integrity, and he has shown that with his work outside of the hip-hop realm. While 12Society seems to exist to just push more merch on us, Nas also is a spokesman and mentor at a non-profit after school music program called P’Tones Records. The rapper’s mantra has become accessibility, and he plans to keep it that way. Though one could argue that his move to embrace social media is just veiled capitalism,  Nas has approached it in a way that indicates to fans that he’s about responding to a malleable zeitgeist. Nas understands that change comes from a heightened sensibility to accessibility, something that social media provides at the speed of information.

The Good

But what about everyone else? What do those who don’t have Nas’ legacy or Amanda Palmer’s following do to cause a ripple in the digital pond? And can that ripple go beyond just funding an album through Kickstarter, or starting a social media website centered on commerce?

The answers might easily be answered with the case of Miao Cuihua, a female Chinese immigrant worker who criticized officials in China’s Minstry of Foreign Affairs. Cuihua, who was given that pseudonym because she embodies the rebellious spirit of a female character from Kung Fu flicks, uploaded a harsh critique of government officials to China’s version of Youtube. After being posted to Weibo, Twitter’s Chinese counterpart, the video went viral.

Miao Cuihua in a faux press conference (Image Via Tea Leaf Nation)

In it, Cuihua demands that unpaid wages of about $560,000 US dollars be paid to herself and her fellow farmworkers, by making a mockery of her notoriously oppressive government leaders. Unlike Palmer, Cuihua isn’t a professional artist—as far as we know—with a large fan base to propagate her ideas. And unlike Palmer, her fears extend beyond wrath from the Internet into real, and probable, danger from punishment at the hands of the Chinese government. As past treatment of artist and activist Ai Weiwei has proven, it can be life-threatening to counter the status quo in China. But social media has made Cuihua’s plight echo across nations.

Cuihua symbolizes a growing trend in China, and seemingly everywhere around the world, that exploits social media’s power to elicit change, if although, not to achieve it. Like her fellow countryman Ai Weiwei, Cuihua has discovered that social media can be liberating to the dissident soul, and can help an individual bring down a nation. It is a philosophy that has spread across China, as citizens are increasingly ousting corrupt officials through social media.

The End

For any socially conscious artist looking to have a sustainable career, a certain mastery of social media is necessary. It isn’t a deal-maker, but can certainly be a deal-breaker as the world becomes more and more “connected.” To maintain a social world in real word settings, artists must be socially aware and technically plugged-in—an equal dose of handshake and mouse click. As Palmer, Nas, and Cuihua prove, it can pay off in very different ways.

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