Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tell Me What I Want To Hear

Okay, yes, 99% of America may know more intimate details about Paris Hilton than is healthy for anyone, but keeping on top of the names and careers of performing artists outside of those few still successfully clinging to the major mega-corporations can seem a daunting task. We're told that everything you need to know is available via the Internet, but how to shake out what you need from all those pages?

Newspapers used to offer a centralized place to learn a little bit about a lot of topics. Economic forces are reshaping their ability to do that job well, and alternative media sources available online are picking up the slack. Still, with no common place to turn, it can feel like you have to already know what you want before you can find it.

So how to keep on top of the trend-setting events happening beyond your own creative daily grind? Stories might be scarce in your local daily, but Flavorpill delivers a culturally-slanted selection of art, book, fashion, music, and world news right to your inbox. Plus, if you live in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, or Miami, you can subscribe to a weekly email newsletter that delivers capsule overviews of buzz-attracting shows in your town. The service is free; all you have to do is visit the site, enter your email address, and select which newsletters you wish to receive.

Along with the major dailies, the major labels in the record industry are also anxiously monitoring their bottom lines. Artists who are tired of getting lost in this shuffle have taken up many new approaches to recording and distributing their music independently, but perhaps none so sophisticatedly as those involved with the alternative-release model built by ArtistShare. Participating artists raise funding for their recording projects through their fan base by offering special interactivity options, like the opportunity to download scores-in-process or watch a recording session. You might pre-order a download of a new album with bundled interview content for $9.95 or sign up to be an underwriter ($1,000 and up) and snag a VIP invite into the production and release process. This is no throw-away vanity project for the artists: Maria Schneider and Billy Childs have already picked up Grammy awards for discs released via ArtistShare, and Bob Brookmeyer and Brian Lynch have just received 2007 Grammy award nominations. See how this can integrate with an artist's career by visiting Schneider's website.

The official channels, even those of the off-the-charts and under-the-radar sorts, can only be so useful for your particular areas of interest and concern. Services like Yahoo!Groups (or googlegroups, if you prefer -ed.) allow users to establish a communication network of their own or join one already up and running: think of it as a way to plug into a line of conversation between fellow colleagues and enthusiasts—online or via email—whenever you wish. There is no cost to start or join a group.

There are 24,949 groups talking about the performing arts on Yahoo already, so finding a good fit for you can take some time, but once you do, you'll be able to read what others have to say about a topic and email your thoughts and ask questions of a whole group with just one click. Or you can start your own group, even with just a handful of people, and build it as you meet new colleagues and invite them to join. All posts are archived, and you can also use the Yahoo!Group site to share and store networking resources such as files, photos, and a group calendar.

Though it can sound like an amateur tool for hobbyist, it's also a remarkable professional connector. I'm part of a group that includes several hundred women music journalists—many of them writers for the major dailies and glossies—and amazingly the conversation has been going strong for several years now.

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