Trolling for Trouble: The Internet Can Be an Ugly Place for Musicians

In June, two weeks after Frank Fairfield appeared on what should have been a career-heightening NPR Tiny Desk Concert, the old-timey musician announced he was quitting the music business forever.
Frank Fairfield poses with guitar
Frank Fairfield

In June, two weeks after Frank Fairfield appeared on what should have been a career-heightening NPR Tiny Desk Concert, the old-timey musician announced he was quitting the music business forever.

“Just thought I should make it official and at least let the few of you know that finally, after long last, I’m done with the music racket,” the multi-instrumentalist, whose fans include Don Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, wrote in a Facebook post.

“I don’t feel I have a thing to offer,” Fairfield said. “One also gets pretty sick of being as mediocre a musician as I [am] under the diligent scrutiny of all the banjo hangout bloggers in the blogosphere multiverse.”

Fans responded with encouragement, but Fairfield wasn’t about to demur.

“There are a few scattered dates already booked throughout the year which I’m obliged to see through,” he wrote. “Hopefully after that I won’t have to play another damn note of music.”


The Facebook post has since been deleted, and Fairfield’s representative declined further comment. But the shelling didn’t stop: Some online commentators responded to Fairfield’s announcement by reiterating criticisms of the California musician’s voice and playing ability.

Fairfield is not the first musician internet critics have taken to task. Some controversies involve hot-button social issues. In 2013, folk singer Ani DiFranco, who has built her reputation as an advocate for progressive causes, was accused of racism following her booking a Southern venue that was a slave-era antebellum mansion. But even harmless guitar techniques can draw online ire: Milk Carton Kids guitarist Kenneth Pattengale reports that he’s been criticized for using his capo too far up the neck—a common practice.

‘As the new generation says, haters gonna hate.
You just develop a thick skin.’
—Ray Chen

Few people who spend time online are immune to the constant sniping. About 40 percent of all adult internet users have experienced harassment, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. So what is a musician to do when faced with such confidence-crushing criticism? Just take the shots? Ignore it? Toughen up? Quit?

The first step, says award-winning violinist Ray Chen, is to face facts: There’s no turning back from a brave new world that gives anyone the tools to broadcast their opinions, no matter how ridiculous. “You’ve got all these keyboard warriors who consider themselves critics,” the 26-year-old says. “It just comes with being online.”

Kiran Ross, a Kansas City social media marketing expert, says shrugging off the sniping is usually the best approach. But there are times when you should respond. “It’s one thing to have someone drop a critical comment on your Facebook page and another thing entirely to have someone slander or defame you,” Ross says.

Chen, who is on Twitter and Facebook and has 2 million followers on the music-sharing site SoundCloud, says social media’s benefits greatly outweigh the negatives. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool,” he says. “You can take your fans with you as you travel around the world and communicate with them on a daily basis.”


Chen has occasionally felt the sting of online criticism, but says it hasn’t been a major issue. “As the new generation says, haters gonna hate,” he says with a laugh. “You just develop a thick skin. I mean, you can’t stop someone from shouting at you on the street, either. You just walk away.”

Social media experts suggest that when things get heated with someone you know, take the conversation offline. If you don’t know a critic, consider blocking that person. To deal with threats or hate speech, use reporting tools. And take screen shots to preserve evidence.

Bobby Owsinski knows how brutal online attacks can be. The Los Angeles-based music producer and author of Social Media Promotion for Musicians recalls profiling a person on a prominent blog—and then watching the comments section turn into a sludge-pit of hate.

“The person I wrote about was totally savaged—so much so that they asked me to take the piece down,” Owsinski recalls.


Try to ignore the haters, Owsinski advises—but watch for more substantial criticism. “If there’s something critical that’s within the bounds of reason, address it thoughtfully once and then ignore it,” he says. “And I mean really ignore it. Don’t even read the comments, because they’ll make you crazy.”

Owsinski’s number one rule for staying out of social media trouble: Think before you post. “My feeling is that any post should be very professional,” he says. “Talk about your music. It’s your tour; it’s you in the studio; it’s everything to do with your music and nothing beyond it.”

When it comes to harassment, not all social media sites are created equal. Twitter and YouTube, for example, seem to bring out the dark side, perhaps because they allow people to easily hide their identity. Facebook, on the other hand, generally requires people to use real names, so there’s comparatively less meanness.

Moderated blogs are another good bet for reasonable discussions, says Ellen McSweeney, a Chicago-based violinist and writer. She hasn’t experienced online harassment, she says—despite having blogged about topics such as gender in new music that, in her words, “you would think would’ve set the trolls upon me.”

The comment section of McSweeney’s blog is moderated by editors, and most people use their real names. “For me, when someone leaves an anonymous comment on an article, I simply don’t take them seriously,” McSweeney says. “I have a lot more respect for people who have the courage to stand behind their words, even if I may disagree with them strongly.”

Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan

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