Singer/songwriter Marian Call, geek music queen and minor ruler of the Twitterverse, has thin, delicate features, pale skin and candy-apple red hair. Last week, a few hours before she was supposed to board a flight to Hawaii, the 50th state on her 50-state tour, she hugged a coffee mug at Middle Way Cafe, talking business instead of music.
For her, the business of marketing herself as a musician is all about Twitter.
Okay, maybe you hate Twitter. Maybe you hate singer/songwriters too. Forget that for a minute. Here's what's interesting about Call: Her social network-based business model is making money. Without an agent or a manager, it has paid her way to play a cross-country tour, which she's just wrapping up. It's paying her rent and for producing her new album. Using technology, she's overcome the physical isolation that even three years ago would have made it hard for an independent musician in Alaska to make a full-time living. What's she's done could apply to any number of local businesses looking to build a national following.
"A lot of artists and musicians are very right-brained. A lot of them hate business," she said. "To make a full-time living as an artist, 90 percent of it is business and 10 percent is art."
Call has about 10,000 followers on Twitter. About 15 percent of them are active every day. For that 15 percent, Call has become more than a promoter of her own music, she has become an online friend. In 140-character messages, she writes a kind of mini-journal. In funny and sometimes vulnerable posts, she talks about music, the weather, what she's having for lunch, observations on vacation and awkward social interactions.
She interacts with her followers, engaging with them on everything from hacking to pain au chocolat. And then, on occasion, she drops in a few links to her Facebook page, her website, her newest downloadable tracks, her blog, her t-shirts or her concerts. And her followers, who have a really good sense of who she is, buy her music and show up at her shows to listen and put money in the hat.
Many businesses use Twitter and Facebook to trumpet their sales or promotions, but in an online world that is all about personal sharing, what works best is for a small business -- and that's what a performer is -- to have a real personality, she said.
"If you want someone to buy something, they have to have a relationship with you."
Call is 28. She typed out her first tweet two years ago. She is a Stanford graduate with a degree in composition. She sings in a variety of styles from witty girl-folk to jazz. She uses a manual typewriter as a percussion instrument. She moved to Anchorage with her husband after college because he had a job here in aviation. They later divorced (both of them tweeted about that), but she fell in love with the place. Living in Alaska, it turns out, has also been good for marketing her music. The state has cachet. It helps people remember her.
If you happen to go to one of her shows here, you'll see a pretty eclectic group of fans. First, there are the nerds. Call is a queen among the techie-science fiction-comic book crowd. Tech geeks are key to her marketing strategy because they spend a lot of time online, helping to generate buzz, she said. She's written a number of songs with science fiction themes. (One of her best selling t-shirts reads, "I won't fix your PC") She has a song with the title, "I'll Still Be a Geek After Nobody Thinks It's Chic (The Nerd Anthem)."
But her followers are not just geeks. There are Twitter-savvy retirees. And Christians. (She was for a time a worship leader at The Vineyard church). And folkies. And jazz enthusiasts. And the occasional Pagan earth mother (a subset of the comic book crowd, she suspects.)
"I like it that music brings together people who would dislike each other if they knew each other's political or religious beliefs."
Being on Twitter is a job. She tweets between 30 and 100 times a day. She also updates her Facebook fan page regularly, and maintains a blog and a website. When she is deciding what to say to her social networks, she usually goes by what she calls the "cocktail party rule." What would you say in conversations at a party where you know some people really well and some people not so well? She is casual but polite. She doesn't come on too strong with pitches to buy things. Though her tweets are often personal, she doesn't tweet about politics.
Here are a few recent tweets:
"Down to 5 degrees outside. Which makes my little cardboard house very very very very cold inside. The curtains all freeze to the windows."
"Crap! I forgot to defrost my typewriter before the show. #crap"
"Need a libido tamer? Try sequined Uggs."
When she first started talking about a national tour online, the response from the Twitter world was tepid. But then she decided to involve Twitter by making it a 50-state, Twitter-driven tour. If a follower wanted her to play in his town and he could organize a concert, she would come.
"Twitter freaked out. They were like 'You're coming to my area? I set up an infrastructure for them to propose shows and I would go there even if it was out of the way."
She depended on her fans to promote the shows, with material available to download off her website.
Soon she began to meet her online followers in real life. Hundreds of them. She estimates she honored 85 percent of requests. Over seven months, she traveled the continental United States, sleeping on friends' and followers' couches. I asked her if the people were what she expected. She said yes. She didn't meet anyone she thought was dangerously creepy, she said, though there were a few people "very lacking in social skills." People might not expect virtual friendships to translate, but they did.
"Those relationships are real."
She played a comic book store outside of Detroit, a cafe in Montpelier, an after-show for a minor league baseball team in Sioux Falls and lots of living rooms and back yards. Her biggest show was part of W00T Stock, a geek music festival in San Diego. Her smallest show was for four people on the front steps of a San Diego bank. The hardest state to set up a gig? Idaho. She ended up playing on the porch of a gourmet french fry shop.
At each show, she put out a hat and people paid what they wanted to. She made enough money to keep traveling and pay her accompanists. Halfway through, she also hired a part-time assistant to handle logistics. She's doing something similar with the new album she's working on, "Something Fierce." People can become donors to pay for the recording and production. She's planning her end-of-tour "victory show" in Anchorage today at Taproot Cafe. The show will be recorded live. And, then, maybe she'll start planning a European tour.
After our coffee, I back read through her tweets over the last few weeks. In one of them, part of a techie conversation lamenting the way hackers in the news had lost their wit and sense of humor, this caught my eye:
"Though now it occurs to me that we're wasting all our wit & whimsy making pithy comments on the Internet."
That might be true for a lot of people in the social networking world. But not Marian Call.
HEAR HER: Marian Call plays the final show in her 50-state tour tonight at Taproot Cafe, 3300 Spenard Road, with holiday and winter music from around the world. 8 p.m., $5.