Sunday, April 6, 2014

Would Gandhi Tweet?

Would Gandhi Tweet?
Would Martin Luther King have a Facebook page?
Both men were masters at using every available medium to great effect. They understood the fact that if you really want to change the world, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and be right. You have to overcome your natural aversion to self-promotion and get loud. How can you change people’s hearts and minds if they can’t see you, can’t hear you, and don’ know who you are?
After he graduated from law school in London Gandhi moved to South Africa where there were countless opportunities for a young lawyer to ply his trade. He quickly realized that the institutionalized racism of apartheid was no mere abstraction – as a dark skinned Indian he endured daily indignities and outright violence. He was reviled, thrown off of trains, and frequently arrested for refusing to cooperate with apartheid. While in prison he read Henry David Thoreau’s immortal essay Civil Disobedience and later wrote that he was “galvanized” by it. Thoreau laid out the four core principles of non-violent civil disobedience. First, use only moral and non-violent means, like boycotting and other forms of non-cooperation. Second, always work within the system before, during, and after your civil disobedience. In other words, be politically engaged – vote, go to meetings, back candidates, or even run for office. Third, be open and public about your actions. No ski masks, no digital anonymity, and no safe houses. And four, be willing to accept the consequences of your actions, up to and including prison, fines, deportation, and unemployment. Gandhi would enact these four principles with great effect.
The whole purpose of non-violent non-cooperation was to knowingly and publicly violate unjust laws with the sole purpose of overturning those laws. It was essential, therefore, that your actions be highly publicized so that the conscience of the nation, indeed of the world, could be raised. By sacrificing themselves and causing no harm to their oppressors, non-violent protestors shine the light of truth into the darkness of ignorance.
Martin Luther King and other leaders of the American civil rights movement were great students of both Thoreau and Gandhi. King understood the power of the principles of non-violence and employed them fearlessly, all with the keen sense of a trained publicist.
In March of 1955, a 15 year old unmarried pregnant African American girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested for violating the Jim Crow statutes of segregation. Dr. King and other civil rights leaders decided not to pursue her case and instead orchestrated another, similar event, this time with the married, more conventionally respectable Rosa Parks. In December of that same year Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus and was arrested. So began the 385 day Montgomery Bus Boycott. The city’s African American population organized its own ersatz bus lines, carpools, and walking teams. The sheer spectacle of it attracted national attention and elevated both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King to celebrity status. Like Gandhi before him, King knew how to turn a local story into a universal struggle.
Eight years later in 1963, King and others ramped up the pressure in Birmingham, Alabama. They were met with brute force in the streets by the infamous chief of police Bull Connor with his police dogs and fire hoses. King’s call to “fill the prisons” brought thousands out in non-violent marches. The movement even began to use children as street protestors, over the objections of some of King’s more cautious compatriots. During one particularly violent episode a Life magazine photographer put down his camera to help a fallen child. Dr. King pulled the man aside saying, “Never do that – never put down your camera. That child is going to be alright. Take a picture. That’s how you can help.”
There’s no doubt that if King and Gandhi were alive and working today, they would employ a vast array of communication media to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Gandhi would Tweet, and Martin Luther King would have a Facebook page. And they would both use crowd-funding to build committed communities around important actions.
It’s not that different for artists.
The goal of making a film, staging a play, publishing a book, or producing an album is very different from the goal of social justice; nonetheless, an interesting parallel exists. You’re going to need publicity, and you’re going to need funding.
Michelangelo had the de Medici’s. Van Gogh had his brother Theo. The Rolling Stones have Prudential, Volkswagen, and Sprint. But independent artists only have each other, and their fans. Twitter, Facebook, and crowd-funding are the new tools of the trade.
There are no more record companies. Not really. Not like the old days. No one’s going to hand you a hundred thousand dollars to make an album and mount a tour. And that’s probably a good thing. The vast majority of bands never survived that system anyway. Independent artists have also largely abandoned radio – corporate radio isn’t interested in them and vice versa. YouTube has replaced radio as the medium for breaking new music, and it’s utterly democratized – no one’s in charge. All you have to do is make a great video of great song, and hope it goes viral. You do whatever you can to draw attention to yourself. You stop being afraid of being annoying. You ask everyone you know for help. And money. If it works your Twitter followers suddenly hit five figures, then six. Your Facebook page explodes. Fans all over the world start sharing your work with each other. Your CD Baby and iTunes income starts to pay the bills. The hive mind has spoken. We’re the record company now.
Two hours after I launched my 30 day Kickstarter campaign for my upcoming album Two Pines, a generous fan pledged at the $500 level. That means she gets a house concert, among other things. When I spoke with her I told her, “You know, you could charge at the door and easily make your $500 back.” Then she said an amazing thing. “No, I want all the money to go to the project.  I’m giving you the door.” I was floored. But then I understood. People want to help. They want to get inside art projects and be a part of them. They want to share in the creation of something that has value for them. Crowd-funding is a way for fans to have the ultimate fan experience – to stand with the artist in co-creation. Music is a collective art form. It belongs to no one. It exists in the space between us. We make it together. Artists and audiences are two halves of one thing. In my natural aversion for self-promotion I’d overlooked this dynamic. Kickstarter isn’t charity – it’s a way to draw exactly the right people into a supporting community around a shared body of work.
And that’s something worth Tweeting about.