I'm at the age where it's hard to distinguish which is a better compliment -- being told that you look much younger or being told that you seem much older. The middle ground is an odd chasm to straddle when you're looking for both the credibility that comes with age and the hype that comes with youth, particularly in a business where both have always been necessary to survive.
In the past, age would earn you respect among colleagues and coworkers. Age earned you a reputation and allowed you time to build a resume and gradually establish a network of notable industry contacts around you. Nowadays, a network can be built by Facebook or Twitter and a resume can be a cumulation of experience uncovered by simply searching your name on Google.
As a result of Internet-induced self-promotion, driven by younger and younger budding artists and entrepreneurs, much of the "aging process" that goes along with growth in the music business can be done quicker and cover wider ground -- not to mention that it can be done by a generation too young to get a license and drive to work. Social media has become the dot-connector between the young gunners eager to pull the trigger on a career in music and the industry itself. It's become the way for us in-betweeners to have our cakes made of successful careers, top them with youth... and eat them too.
I first bit into this realization a few weeks ago, when I received a Facebook message from someone I had been working with over email, but had never met in person. From our correspondence as well as from his position as the head of a blog-worthy French record label (Shiny Disco Club), I assumed he was a 40-something French dude who had been grooming both a mustache and a notable client list for decades.
"You look 'young' in your pictures. I thought you were like 45 or something," he wrote. I wasn't sure whether to be offended (did I sound like a librarian?) or flattered (did I actually sound legit?).
"45!? No way! I'm 24."
"Much older than I am," he replied. "I'm 17."
The shock and amazement sparked a few follow-up questions; number one, when did I become the older one in the equation, and number two, where did this kid get his start? I was baffled by the parallels between his life and mine. Nicolas Masson, who birthed one of my favorite labels out right now, got his start blogging for an electronic music site based in France. I got my start reviewing concerts for the student newspaper at Boston University. The difference between the two of us was that he was reviewing artists who had shared their music online from all over the world and I was reviewing artists playing gigs in Boston. He was covering more ground at a faster pace and -- because of new music sites and new forms of social media -- was able to start nearly a decade before me.
"I created this label nearly a year ago because, by digging on MySpace and Soundcloud when I was writing reviews, I found many talented but unknown artists," he told me. "I always thought that creating my own label would be the opportunity to show their capacity and potential."
For Masson, unearthing artists online was a means of starting a career, but for people already in the business, keeping up with social media is a prime way of keeping a career going strong. A friend of mine and an agent at AM Only, the electronic booking agency that reps Tiesto, Benny Benassi and other major DJs, turned me on to a 16-year-old budding Dutch DJ/producer who calls himself DJ Vida. Vida, who has been creating music since the age of 14, would have had no means of reaching the ears of this agent if it wasn't for one valuable self-promotional tool: Twitter.
"I wouldn't have known about DJ Vida if Nicky Romero didn't tweet about him," said AM Only agent, Bobby Koehler. "Agents use Soundcloud and Twitter and other online networking tools to discover new talent."
Vida agreed that networking online is the best possible way for a young artist to get his or her name out there. "I have to focus on building my own network using social media to get more and more introduced to colleagues in the music business," he said.
I followed up on the subject with Porter Robinson, an 18-year-old DJ/Producer whose tunes I had heard on mixtapes compiled by DJs twice his age.
"My real involvement with the music industry began when I was about 15, when I was making a style of electronic dance music that only enjoyed real popularity in Germany," he said. "Online forums and music piracy hubs provided a venue for me to distribute my work. Although I sent out a few demos to labels, it was distribution through social media that ultimately allowed an Erkelenz, Germany label known as YAWA Recordings to discover my music and reach out to me."
Robinson didn't stick with that avenue, but his young age allowed him to soak the Internet through Beatport and other social media outlets quickly and profusely. The young familiarity he had with the industry resulted in an interesting advantage, one that Robinson believes young people have in today's stormy music business.
"Their entire work experience has consisted of nonstop immersion in the turbulent climate of the music industry, whereas veterans are more used to the old, stable, record-sales model," he said. "That immersion equips younger people to be dynamic in a setting where adaptivity is really highly sought after."
However it's not all record deals and international tours for the youth casting their nets across websites and blogs. There are road blocks that come with being so young.
In the electronic music industry, touring constitutes a huge source of income, especially with the free streams and downloads associated with promoting via Soundcloud, Bandcamp, MySpace and the like. It's easy to pick up and leave if you're in your 20s and have made a career of it, but when you're 16, 17, 18-years-old, gigs may cut into finishing high school, go against rules set by mom and dad (or the law), or simply be unable to book because no one will take you seriously.
"I have been refused things because of my age -- organizing a show for example," said Masson. "Usually it's not that hard to organize an event in a club in France, but in the past, some club owners didn't take my project seriously because of my age and never answered me."
But once the online success started to boom, the pace began to pick up -- a curious phenomenon fueled by the blindfolding capabilities of the Internet and the agelessness associated with pushing a song into the digital world. This idea is especially true for the unsigned artists who don't experience the gimmicks and commercialization put on by big record labels and the producers, who are heard via Soundcloud streams as opposed to the guitar players or singers who are viewed on YouTube.
"I've been really fortunate to take part in an industry where people can look beyond superficial stuff like age and truly assess a song or a performance on its merit alone," said Robinson.
With so much available to young people looking to break into the industry -- including the capability to produce at home, the capability to discover swarms of new music, and the capability to interact as a creative being and not just a number of years -- has highlighted the Internet and social media as an enabling force. To the young artists looking to attract the big dogs in the music industry: build it (an online persona, network and reputation) and they will come.