Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
Last week’s Philadelphia Weekly cover story was a strange one: It was a long profile of singer-songwriter Jordan White. The cover proclaims “Jordan White: For a guy who’s not a rock star yet, he sure has a lot of fans.” Inside, the headline is “The Secrets of His Success: Jordan White might be the most famous local rock balladeer you’ve never heard of.” Online, the headline is some clickbait about unicorns, but the subhead gets to the actual reason the piece was assigned: “Meet the ambitious musician from the suburbs who's built an online audience 200,000 strong.”
Here is how White is described:
White lives in Philadelphia’s suburbs. He plays in the city ... but not as often as he plays venues in Allentown, Reading and Jersey. Rock fans who follow the Philly scene don’t necessarily have him on their radar.
But someone does. A lot of someones, actually.
See, Jordan White has some 200,000 social media followers—185,000 on Twitter, 19,000 on Facebook. For comparison’s sake, that’s just as many as Philly’s biggest current rock success story, Dr. Dog, and twice as many as critical darling Kurt Vile. In other words, if you were to go by the sheer social-audience numbers, you’d have to conclude that White is one of the Philadelphia area’s top musical acts—despite the fact that we mostly haven’t heard of him.
It’s a feat he’s accomplished through a singular blend of 21st-century marketing, a nonstop DIY gigging schedule and, of course, good old-fashioned musicianship.
There's another possible reason that the writer doesn't mention: That good social-media statistics are not a be-all-end-all signal of real-life popularity. It's a pretty well-known practice for bands and artists to buy a ton of Twitter followers so that gullible bookers will assume you'll bring a huge turnout to shows, or journalists will write stories like that PW profile.
Most people discussing the article on Facebook (and there were a bunch) assumed White had gamed the system by buying his followers, and that was what I assumed I'd find when I started researching what I thought would be a short blog post.
What actually appears to be the case is much more interesting, but hey — I already did all this research on how bands buy social-media buzz, and at this point I'm mostly surprised that PW failed to recognize that this is a very common thing, so let's take a look at that first.
It is very easy and not particularly expensive to buy Twitter followers — at Twitteraddicts.com, you can get 150,000 for $650. I'd link to more, but all you need to do is Google "buy Twitter followers" and you get all the results you could ever want. It's completely legal, though against Twitter's terms of service. Shit, you can even get them on Etsy, $20 per 10,000. (For a primer, check out this great infographic from Inc. Magazine.) You can buy pretty much anything that signifies popularity — Facebook likes, retweets, YouTube views, MySpace listens.
In 2012, a writer for Slate put out "I Bought 27,000 Twitter Followers. It Cost $202. Was It Worth It?" He manages to get someone from a company selling Twitter followers on the phone:
Delgado told me he buys these fake accounts in bulk from suppliers in India. Techies on the subcontinent cook up all these nonexistent personas, making sure the accounts look just real enough to pass as nonrobots. In a typical day, Delgado says he fields 30-35 orders, most requesting between 1,000 and 5,000 zombie followers. "Sometimes someone will buy a million," he says, "which costs $1,300. Some of these are people you've heard of. I mostly sell to musicians but also lots of models, comedians, and porn stars."
Around the same time, the New York Times did a piece on how comedian Dan Nainan bought himself around 220,000 Twitter followers for $424.15:
"There's a tremendous cachet associated with having a large number," said Mr. Nainan, 31, adding later, "When people see that you have that many followers, they're like: 'Oh, my goodness, this guy is popular. I might want to book him.' "
Also around the same time, the Wall Street Journal had "Inside a Twitter robot factory," detailing how these robot accounts can also be used to retweet things and fake trending topics, mentions another way people gin up their number:
Rapper Dave Murrell ... has paid Mr. [Jim] Vidmar to log into Mr. Murrell's Twitter account and "follow" other people to boost his popularity on the social network, says he sometimes buys Twitter ads to raise his profile, "but you'll get more with Jim." He says many Twitter users try to make their followings look bigger than they are. "If you're not padding your numbers, you're not doing it right," he says. "It's part of the game."
That was years ago. Today, this is, like I said, a well-known practice in the music industry. In fact, the reason I'm writing this is that a lot of musician and music-writer people were having disgusted discussions on Facebook about how punked PW had clearly gotten when someone made the point that “it's more shady than helpful to shit-talk the work of other writers in the city, especially when it's a paper that you used to write for (which is like half of you).”
True! I got my start as a PW intern years ago, I worked as an editor there for a bit a few years ago, and I am still friendly with the few people I know who still work there. But I will publicly shit-talk PW's judgment in assigning this piece, because this sort of thing is terrible for both journalism and music. Somebody, anybody, at PW should have noticed that there was something really amiss.
The whole story is built on the contrast between Jordan White’s modest-seeming performance life and his massive-seeming online popularity. It’s the story of a guy with a really cool secret: Clark Kent and Superman, etc. “Who is this guy?” Throughout, there’s descriptions like this one, which opens the piece:
It’s a cold January night, and some 20 people have turned out for an evening at the Fenix Bar in Phoenixville. There’s a singer-songwriter crooning over an acoustic guitar, but tonight’s crowd is here to eat, drink and socialize. The musician, as far as they’re concerned, is simply a nice plus. And as far as he’s concerned, that’s okay. Not every gig needs to be all about him.
Jordan White sits on a stool near the door of the swanky bar, lightly illuminated by the blue and green neon signs on the window. As he sings, he caters his songs to the crowd, mostly setting aside his originals to spend the majority of his set covering bands like Third Eye Blind, R.E.M. and Guns N’ Roses.
When he does play his own material, it’s clear that White’s style was formed in the crucible of that same ‘90s pop-rock. …That heartfelt-by-way-of-sappy vibe isn’t exactly what’s hip right now, but White either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Hell, he seems totally content strumming along to Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.”
But he has 185,000 Twitter followers! This “does not compute” feeling is familiar to journalists, as it's often is the first thing you feel before falling into your most surprising, interesting stories. But, usually, this is a false signal. Most of the time, instead of an amazing story, there's a simple explanation behind apparent paradoxes. The job of journalists — including music journalists — is to check for those simple explanations very carefully before declaring something to be a sign of how the times they are a’changing:
That White has been able to build an audience of hundreds of thousands, with absolutely no support from a label, is indicative of the sea change in the music industry over the past decade.
It’s indicative of a sea change in something, for sure, but in music writing, not music. Music journalists, particularly younger ones, seem to be less and less confident in their own opinions, leading to increasing coverage of buzz rather than substance, or to mentioning that some band got a good review on Pitchfork or has a billion Twitter followers rather than trusting and explaining the judgment of their own ears and eyes.
Maybe it's the advent of the Internet — Lester Bangs didn't have to simultaneously earn his chops and field massive amounts of comments telling him he was a moron with horrible taste and a stupid ugly face. Maybe it's the times — journalism has no money or resources anymore, and when stuff has to get done quickly, it's faster to look at a Twitter number than listen to an album. Whatever the reasons, it is a plague on music, particularly local music scenes.
So that Jordan White's followers are not real may seem clear to musicians and music journalists griping on Facebook, but is there any way to prove anything? Let's try by comparing @JordanFWhite to what the writer himself compares him to:
Jordan White has some 200,000 social media followers—185,000 on Twitter, 19,000 on Facebook. For comparison's sake, that's just as many as Philly's biggest current rock success story, Dr. Dog, and twice as many as critical darling Kurt Vile.
Let's just look at Twitter numbers for now. @JordanFWhite has, at the moment, 184,000-ish. I'm not sure how the math in that piece worked, but that's almost six times as many as @DrDogMusic, at 32,400, and more than nine times as many as @therealkurtvile, at 20,200.
Dr. Dog follows 174 people. Kurt Vile follows seven people. Jordan White follows 92,500 people.
Yesterday, 30 people tweeted @DrDogMusic. I got bored and stopped counting how many people tweeted @therealkurtvile yesterday at 100, because he's on the bill of some big festival that just got announced. One person has tweeted @JordanFWhite in the entire month of February thus far.
There's Twitter Counter, which gives graphed statistics for the past three months of a Twitter account's followers. The numbers are opaque, but suggest that @JordanFWhite had nearly 300,000 followers in early November, lost them at an insane rate of around 3,000 per day through mid-December, then evened out to a steady loss of around 30 per day. For contrast, here's the graphs for @citypaper, @DrDogMusic, @therealkurtvile, which all show a pretty steady increase.
Finally, I came across a more direct tool: Twitter Fakers, which claims to be able to tell roughly how many of any given account's followers are fake. Their methodology was also pretty opaque:
How does it work?
We take a sample of your follower data. Up to 1,000 records depending on how 'popular' you are and assess them against a number of simple spam criteria.
On a very basic level spam accounts tend to have few or no followers and few or no tweets. But in contrast they tend to follow a lot of other accounts.
Since you have to log in to use the service and you can only use it for free three times, I took screenshots of the results for a few different accounts:
[NOTE: The proxy we use for embedding images has been iffy today. If the screenshots don't display, the numbers are:
@emilygee: 2% fake, 29% inactive, 69% good
@DrDogMusic: 9% fake, 44% inactive, 47% good
@therealkurtvile: 9% fake, 41% inactive, 50% good
@citypaper: 13% fake, 45% inactive, 42% good
@JordanFWhite: 81% fake, 11% inactive, 8% good]
Any one of these things alone might be a fluke. All of these things together had me pretty convinced that White's online popularity had been purchased. It seemed likely that White's manager was central to this, from what the article said:
That White has been able to build an audience of hundreds of thousands, with absolutely no support from a label, is indicative of the sea change in the music industry over the past decade. It's also indicative of how good his manager, Jenna Gross, really is—specifically, when it comes to navigating the murky, ever-changing tides of social media.
White and Gross met in the summer of 2010 at a charity event White was playing. She started handling his social media in early 2011 ... "One of the most important things in growing any social media presence," she says, "is giving—and knowing what your fans want to hear, and catering to what they want, and not just self-promoting all the time. Figuring out what ... kind of posts they respond most to and optimizing your response. I see a lot of self-promoting. But to constantly promote yourself isn't what social media is about. It's about having conversation." ...
There's no hard science to it, she notes; it's difficult to assess the degree to which White's large social audience contributes to his record sales or concert attendance.
Gross, who's never worked for a musician before, seems coy when talking about her strategies for growing a fan base. She says that at this stage of White's career, "nothing that we do is a huge success. A bunch of little steps."
When I spoke with Gross, though, she seemed confused; she either was an amazing actress or was genuinely unaware that buying social-media followers was a thing people did. She denied having used any sort of outside service to augment White's Twitter following. "No, absolutely not. He's had the account for a really long time — you follow a couple people a day over the course of five or six years and it builds up." To be clear, assuming the account's existed for six years still means that to get to 185,000, someone would have needed to follow around 80 people every single day, not a couple. It still seemed extremely suspicious, but I figured White must have been the buyer.
Jordan White said he had no clue that the cover story would make such a big deal about his social-media following — he says he didn't remember talking about it very much with the writer. Twitter's not that big a deal, anyway, White says — it's too impersonal, and he thinks it's going to end up remembered as a fad.
"I try to do more Facebook — Twitter, you write a tweet and maybe 15 percent of people read it; with Facebook, we posted the Philly Weekly article and got, like, a thousand likes or 800 likes or something like that. It doesn't mean they read it, but they hit the like button. Facebook's going to stick around a little longer, I think — I really do think that Twitter's going to have problems a few years down the road."
So here's a relevant portion of the PW profile that a coworker remarked seemed strange and out of place in the original article: "And the OCD is even worse than it used to be. White is fixated on the number four and is utterly terrified of odd numbers. "I get this feeling," he says, "like if I'm on an odd number on anything—if I'm in the car and the volume level is on 27—that something bad is going to happen. It's insane. There's no connection at all. Even at the gas pump, it has to be $30.04."
White seemed as confused as Gross by my line of inquiry, and said he was unaware that you could buy a social-media following. I figured he must be putting me on — it didn't seem like there was any other explanation for how the average person could accumulate 185,000 Twitter followers. Doing it individual by individual is so repetitive and tiresome that the average person could never do it. But White is not an average guy.
"The way I follow people — I always follow 34 at a time, then I'll close the window, then if I'm going to keep doing it, I'll reopen then window and follow 34 more people and shut it again. What I did a few times — well, more than a few times — I'd search my hometown, the high school I went to, the college I went, et cetera, and just follow everyone that I could. I really did individually follow all those 90-something [thousand — 95,500, according to Twitter] people."
If you have OCD and following people on Twitter becomes one of your tics, the idea that he got his Twitter numbers through sheer elbow grease is much, much more believable. In fact, it starts to seem downright probable. White says these days he goes on Twitter "lately not as much — just two or three times a day." He searches for and follows — in multiples of 34 — people he had some sort of connection with. Everyone with the last name White, for example, or everyone from one of the eight towns he's lived in, everyone the Twitter sidebar suggests he follow, everyone from the psychology department he graduated from: "There's like a thousand people there, and maybe 200 follow you back. And it just keeps going and going."
Even at this low-end rate — following 34 people on Twitter 2-3 times a day — White would follow about 600 people per week. Six years of that would mean White has followed at least 200,000 people on Twitter manually. He also says he also tweets at celebrities sometimes, and picks up a number of followers from that. This is a common way for Twitter 'bots to find people to follow and follow them so they seem more real, so this might explain part of why White's fake rate is so high.
Asked about the 80% fake rate, White, who wasn't near a computer at the time, responded with a befuddled "I have no idea. ... How do you — who are these people? How do they do this?" Unable to answer any of these things particularly well, I didn't press the point.
Does White think his Twitter number has helped him get booked for shows at places? "Probably not. I don't think anybody really looks that up. It's pretty much where you played before and what you do and whether you're talented. I doubt it has much of an effect."
White is a self-aware guy, and knows that his troubles with depression and OCD are tasty life-story hooks that attract the media. He says he didn't try to imply to the writer that his high number of followers on Twitter signified anything, and that they had mostly talked about music. This time, White said, "I thought it was just going to be about the music," before quickly clarifying that he's extremely grateful to PW for giving him the chance to be in the paper.
So what's the harm? Why am I going out of my way to call attention to this when Jordan White is a perfectly nice human being who loves playing music? Why did I spend an entire day obsessively tracking down Twitter statistics for what I thought was going to be a quick blog post?
The harm is this: This piece was not pitched or accepted based on Jordan White’s musical ability. It was based on his apparent popularity. Music journalism is already three-quarters down the path to covering things based solely on buzz, popularity and PR, and it's goddamn boring. This piece never communicates anything about White's music, because it was not about him as a musician. PW was interested in his popularity, in the fact that other people liked him.
It's unclear if the crowd-sourcing of whether music is good or not comes from music writers' lack of confidence in their own opinions, or just from a lack of opinions. Either way, it is a fucking cancer that's breaking music journalism down to a series of lists, rankings, reblogs and profiles of people with lots of Twitter followers. The fact that this ran on the cover of an actual newspaper in one of the biggest media markets in the country is goddamn embarrassing.
Jordan White, however, is not embarrassing, nor does he deserve to be called a charlatan. In my opinion, while his social-media numbers aren't the most accurate representation of his popularity, he did come by them honestly.
Though the show the writer describes the most in the piece makes it sound like White's primarily a cover musician, he says the show at Tin Angel last week went off great — "I think I played maybe one cover? And my mom was there; I got to play one song that's specifically about her, and it was the first time she'd heard it." White was remarkably pleasant throughout an interview about, essentially, whether he was a fraud or not. But he really lights up when asked what he loves about music. He speaks for four straight minutes.
"It's the connection — the fact that you can have a conversation with someone you've never met through a three or four minute song, because they may have felt that same exact thing you felt. ... My music is about telling stories about people, wounded people, people who are flawed. I have all these issues with OCD and sometimes depression, and for me personally it's a release. Especially when it's your own songs — it's like this thing that gets stuck inside of you, and it twists and turns and twists and turns until you finally get it out onto paper ... you feel like you've got it out of yourself, and you're communicating in this language that's almost universal. Like, melody — you can hear how someone's feeling with the way a guitar's played. You don't have to speak English. ... It's about connection, and about getting that — I don't want to say "poison," but getting that thing out of me, that hot needle. Hot poker. ...
"If someone came to set up the lights and the PA system and the microphone for me, I'd do it for free. It's a strange thing, but it's also a very, very theraputic thing that I think if I didn't have, I'd be in big trouble. I honestly don't know if I'd be around talking to you now if I didn't have it, because I wouldn't have a way to cope with a lot of things."
Note: Jenna Gross emailed this morning, saying:
Just ran a twitter audit (from http://www.twitteraudit.com) on both your account, Jordan White -- and Rihanna's (just for comparison) -- the percentage doesn't seem that much different. See attached screen shots.
Aaaaaand here, if these screenshots don't display, the numbers give @emilygee a 94% positive score, @JordanFWhite a 80% positive score, and @rihanna a 35% positive score.
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