A flyer is stuck on a lamppost or a small box appears in the club listings promoting a barroom set for an unsigned act -- these are little pieces of a local scene that become memorabilia once the band breaks big.
But MySpace is changing all that. It's "Notice Me!" Internet clutter will never carry the same weight as an old poster for a Yorkville folk gig or flyer for a coffee-house set in Le Plateau. If the Web is a godsend for sampling myriad new music, the tradeoff is the MySpace pages, with their fuzzy YouTube clips and headshots of comely fans, encroaching on the intimacy of discovering new music. Even in a crowded bar, music can be one-to-one communication, but on My-Space, the faces and airy comments are inescapable.
Folk singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff, a 30-year-old from Wakefield, Que., has a thoughtful take on this.
True, he is among the many musicians exploiting the Internet to the hilt. He has a website and a MySpace site, both streaming audio clips of his quiet music and carrying lists of tour dates. There are instant links for purchasing his music and even a wardrobe of different T-shirts for sale. Many artists work the Internet like this, but few seem as adept as Cardiff, who also releases his music on his own label Neato! Records.
Yet there's a hint of condescension in his voice when he describes MySpace. Unless it leads to a real, physical connection between artist and listener, he says, all the websites and MySpace pages out there are "contributing to the noise without adding anything of real substance."
"There needs to be an actual connection, an actual performance, an actual tour. Otherwise, it's just a mall, a bunch of people talking about nothing and not connecting in any real way," he says.
To keyed-up industry types, the kind who combust with excitement over new digital-music business models, Cardiff must seem counterintuitive. Put an iPhone in front of the industry and it sees paid downloads and dollar signs. Few probably consider how an artist's Internet presence can affect the music itself and even dictate how and where he will play his next gigs.
But Cardiff does. Through his website, he asked fans to suggest which cities and bars he should play on his current Canadian tour. Much of the booking was then done on MySpace and another Web community, Facebook. (He also works through the booking agency Fleming Artists.)
The venues on the tour are small and intimate -- so intimate that three gigs are in people's living rooms, which he will play just so long as those hosting the performance can get enough friends to chip in to make it economically feasible for him.
Since he is going where his fans suggest, Cardiff asked them to spread the word about his gigs, maybe stick up a flyer or two, all the old-fashioned stuff.
"It's not unmediated. It's just more fan-directed, and that's exciting," Cardiff says. It's tour economics on a good-neighbour level. "I think I'll manage to avoid hotels for most of the tour because of fans and friends who are able to offer spare rooms and couches," he adds. Keeping tour expenses low is a must.
Cardiff rewards his fans by playing unique sets in which he works through sketches of new songs, singing and composing in front of the audience. The performances are recorded and made available as free podcasts, another element in Cardiff's grassroots strategy.
Neil Bearse, a podcaster in Kingston, Ont., approached Cardiff with the idea of including his music on the Podsafe Music Network ( http://www.podshow.com) For little-known artists, it acts like an alternative to radio. Artists have to waive the usual royalties, but in turn they can gain wide exposure from podcasts playing their music. Cardiff also plans to use a free subscription feed, which would send new recordings automatically to a fan's computer. He also kicked off his current Canadian tour a few days ago with a live video webcast.
Cardiff isn't unlike other artists. The myth-making elements are still there. The way he talks about connecting with listeners, you can hear in his voice the ambitions of any other act playing a barroom, however unique his approach using podcasts and playing in living rooms may seem. "For me, what they've become is the beginning of a way to connect with a community. Hopefully over time, the interest in [my]art grows, and we outgrow the living room at some point."