Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her — confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
Since I was a kid, I've suffered from bipolar type I, and while aspects of the disorder function as a boon to my musical output, social anxiety is holding me back a ton. I love performing, and I feel completely comfortable onstage, but the idea of “meeting people” and “networking” is terrifying to me and it's something I'm going to need to overcome to move farther forward.
I'm a hip hop artist in San Francisco and it's impossible to get shows around town because nobody knows who I am. Most people I know consider me to be 'successful' to a degree — I have a substantial following online, tons of local press, connections to other artists, and actual fans that tell me they like what I do. The problem is that I can only seem to accomplish this sort of thing in the 'digital' world — my 'real life' attempts at networking are generally awkward and awful.
I love live music and I go to lots of shows, but schmoozing is completely foreign and uncomfortable to me. I know that there's really no way around the whole “who you know” element of music-makin', but I feel like there must be a valid way for the less socially gifted among us to make the connections required to be 'valid' in your local scene.
Fortunately, given that you are a musician, people expect you to be a socially awkward weirdo. This might be more of a real issue if you were a banker or a gynecologist, but you are in a field where being a hermity dork, ultra-shy and only able to articulate yourself through your art work is more than norm than not. I enjoy meeting people yet still manage to routinely insult, weird-out or annoy folks upon introduction–so, at least with social anxiety you have a valid excuse.
Obviously you know your world well enough to know who are the people in your scene who broker power and can help you–the club bookers, ladies that run tape labels, producers. Who do you know who knows them? You said you have connections with other artists–use them. Ask for an email introduction. It's a little more “special” than, say, the Facebook friend request route. Be direct with them about why you want to know them–that you are just a fan of what they do, that you are hoping to do some headlining shows this winter or that you would love to collaborate. Nothing over the top and nothing longer than 150 words.
Then see if your friend can't cajole them into an in-person introduction at a show. It's low pressure, because it's hard to have a decent convo in a loud club, and you can excuse yourself to the bar or bathroom or a different friend that doesn't actually exist. How about you start with two or three people a month? Maybe start with some low-value targets until you get some confidence. You are practicing with the idea that it is not only teaching you how to do this, but also how to fail at it–and not have it be a big deal.
Try a little script for the introduction. Ask them two questions. Keep it simple: What do you think of this band? Or have you ever seen this DJ before? Then ask them something like “What are you working on right now?” or something similarly solicitous. Nod, smile a little and be interested in their reply. You do not need to bring up why you wanted to meet them or what exactly you want from them right then, but if the opportunity arises where that makes sense–go for it. It can be as simple as “I'd love to get you this new track I just finished.” Aim to talk to them for three or four minutes, smile, say it was nice to meet them and excuse yourself to get back to your friend/get to the bar/make a call/buy some merch before the bands run out.
In order ot not be crushed by a fear of what-if, make a list detailing what is the absolute worst outcome that could happen. And then make an itemized list of everything that would have to transpire to get to the worst possible thing. In this case, you'd mortally offend them, they never talk to you or book you and get you 86'd from the scene by badmouthing you. Like, pretend that is even a possibility. What would have to happen? Short of telling some batshit racist anecdote, confessing to some sordid crime or similar act, coming out as a closet Nazi–I mean, how could that even come to pass? Nevertheless, make the list and it will take you out of the hamster wheel of your anxiety. It will give you traction out of the hole, I promise.
More real life style, lets say you are just awkward, shy-ish, say something weird and tangential and they think you are a weirdo? Then when you walk away they turn to their friend and go “What a weirdo,” and maybe they gossip about you for 90 seconds? Realistically, unless you drop to your knee and do your best Jolson, people are not going to make too much of your interaction. Even if you do your worst, it's not a big deal. Resist the temptation to obsess on it, forgive yourself and do not apologize to anyone post-facto. Because it's not a big deal to be kind of bad at talking to people.
The thing about anxiety is that it can run riot and really distort one's thinking. Given how considerate you are in this letter, you are obviously a far cry from the assholes most people in the music biz deal with daily; you have that going for you.
Lastly, as long as your anxiety isn't isolating you from the world, you are doing pretty well. You have some good things going for you–I think it might even be a good idea to play it up a little. Everyone loves an enigma. Think MF Doom, ODB, Kool Keith, Captain Murphy. Awkward + curious backstory + rapping = golden. Maybe throw a cape and dish gloves in the mix? Dude, just think–you could become the Jandek of Bay Area rap. Let who you are work for you!