Fake Female Me is Busted

September 6th, 2007

My father-in-law (of all people, no offense W) clued me into this WSJ article about Marie Digby, an artist who just got clotheslined by the thin line between grassroots and astroturf. Her PR is all about how she’s a YouTube phenomenon who got discovered by the internet and then signed by a label, but in actuality the label signed her 18 months ago and engineered the internet success.

This is a tricky thing – after reading a bunch of comments in the little comment space on her site (“Liar, cheat, fraud!”) I feel kind of bad for her, my snarky post subject notwithstanding. Yes, I think it’s a little shady, and as an Authentic Internet Superstar (TM) I’m a little annoyed. But I can see how it would happen – the label obviously understands that being a breakout internet hit generates press of its own, music aside. They come up with a strategy to release some home-made looking videos, soft pedal the whole label thing and she plays along. And of course you can’t make this stuff happen without the music actually being good enough for people to like it, so all the internet buzz was quite real in a way – many of her fans really did find her on YouTube, and they probably really did like her music.

Also annoying but not surprising is the willingness of the media to push the spin even though they know it’s not true. Radio station KYSR and the Carson Daly show both presented her as an internet-made success even though they booked her through the record label. But of course, that’s how that part of the machine works too – anybody who’s writing an article, doing an interview, introducing a music guest likes it better when there’s an interesting story. And again, she kind of was an internet-made success, it’s just that the label bought her the laptop and told her to do it.

I’m familiar with how tempting it is to let the spin overtake the reality – for instance, I tend not to lead with the facts that a few of the Thing a Week songs were covers, a couple were not written the week they were recorded, and that I failed to post anything on two Fridays over the course of the year. When I do press, the interviewer frequently describes Thing a Week with the phrase “…wrote a new song every week…” and I try to remember to correct them without destroying the flow by saying something like “…recorded a new song every week…” And then I cringe inside about the two lost weeks and the lie of omission. But really, nobody who’s doing an interview wants the purity of the story to get screwed up with these minor details, so I always feel the pressure to play along, and usually do.

Even the idea of being an independent musician is a little fuzzy for me. These days I’ve got a booking agent, a manager, a PR firm, a talent agent. Granted, they all came after I had generated a good bit of success on my own, but how far along this curve do I get to go and still say I’m an “independent musician?” Do I just mean “not signed to a label?” If I ever did sign with a label (I could still be convinced there were good reasons to do such a thing), surely they’d want me to keep doing all this fan interaction and internet stuff – but does all that then become completely corrupt? And I’m not fishing for reassurances here, it’s just that sometimes it’s hard not to see success as a kind of creeping inauthenticity.

The saddest thing of all is that she obviously could have done this all by herself without the label and avoided all this hullabaloo. And for that, they are my least favorite people in this story. Really guys? That’s your plan? Buy her a web cam and tell her to use YouTube? How much money did she pay you for that advice?

63 responses to “Fake Female Me is Busted”

  1. JC says:

    I didn’t own one till after thing a week, but I bought Melodyne recently and I don’t know how I lived without it for so long.

  2. […] Codemonkey-guy (or as he puts it Authentic Internet Superstar TM), has a very interesting blog comment on another musician’s use of the Internet to appear as though she were under the radar when in […]

  3. Molly says:

    I don’t know why you feel so bad about your cover songs. Sometimes covers can turn out to be complete musical atrocities (I cite Jessica Simpson’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”, or Jamie Cullum’s “I Only Have Eyes For You”). A few months ago I probably would’ve said to anyone, “I will never enjoy a Rick Springfield song, much less a Rick Springfield cover.” I know you’ve gone viral a couple times, but without Baby Got Back, that’s another unit of attention you might not have received. You promised a “thing” a week, and cover songs are indeed “things” last time I checked.

  4. Molly says:

    An’ another thing:

    They Might Be Giants played their first show at a Sandinista rally in Central Park, if I remember correctly, and then spread through word of mouth and demo tapes, the traditional way that a band would. But then Dial-A-Song was born. Dial-A-Song was accessible to anyone with a phone, could be enjoyed easily and privately from any part of the country, could easily be shared with friends, but there was even more to it than that: there was something so wholly intimate about the song coming in deteriorted mono to your ear and your ear only, and knowing that you were singularly occupying the one phone line that was connected to one machine in John Flansburgh’s apartment. And there’s a certain security to be found there, a sense of intimacy, a secure feeling that you’re appreciating art that wasn’t fed to you by The Man, art that you found without it being marketed to you. This feeling, this connection, this is something that fans will adore and follow an artist for.

    Now that artists have MySpace and YouTube, this connection is even easier to make than ever (albeit also more commonplace to the point of being cheapened). YouTube, at its core, is a perfectly democratic and egalitarian exchange, and for this reason people invest their trust in the users and content. What Digby’s label wanted to do was to create a fanbase that would believe in her and root for her as an underdog, and without spending the money to advertise her and send her out on tours — which is exactly what they accomplished. But they also betrayed the unwritten promise that Digby was truthfully representing herself as a pretty girl sitting in front of her couch with a guitar. She let people believe that this connection was innocent, and direct from her.
    I’m sure this isn’t the first or only time at stunt like this has been pulled, either; this one just happened to get caught.

    I feel like I’m preaching to the choir here, JC… I was rambling anyway.

    In any case, I’ll see you tonight. :)

  5. manstraw says:

    As long as you really used my hand clap on song 52, we’re good brudda. :)

    I think we need a new category for you (and apologies if someone else has said this, 54 posts is too freakin many read in the 3 minutes i have right now). The ‘specialness’ to you is you are accessible and fan interactive. It ain’t the internet part. That’s just a medium. It ain’t myspace, or youtube, or your laptop, or the robot council. It’s you, and the fact you are open to all these things, and that you put yourself out there.

    If you ever get shut up in a gilded cage, and we lose our connection to you, well, that’s the day you’ve jumped the shark. There are plenty of ways to grow in success and still keep it real. ‘Being real’ means the only filters are the ones you sensible have in yourself. Don’t let the publicists write your copy dude. And when you’re all super star like, start up JCtv, and let us watch you take out your garbage while you write thing a month.

  6. […] Jonathan Coulton: Fake Female Me is Busted – JoCo reports on a makebelieve internet sensation who had actually been signed by a label all along. Blechy. “The saddest thing of all is that she could have done this all by herself without the label and avoided all this negative reaction.” […]

  7. Don says:

    Geffen created a fake indie label to give Guns N’ Roses “street cred” and they became huge stars.

    Not so much for Veruca Salt (so street credible Minty Fresh supposedly called radio stations to ask ’em to stop playing the single because they couldn’t keep up with production…Hmmm…).

    Todd Fletcher (aka June & the Exit Wounds) made a record, played three or four shows and sold, like, 15K copies of his album via the internet (well, his label, Parasol, did…). He retained his credibility by deciding not to make another record. Sometimes he sends me and, like, three other people songs he records at home (talk about “not selling out”).

  8. […] treadmill is accelerating…Jake on weapons of mass disturbance…Jonathon Coulton on the kinder, gentler astroturfing. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and […]

  9. JP says:

    Dear Dude

    You have blue grass songs next to rock. You have a few tracks where you don’t even sing on it. I don’t think you could exist on a label, where marketing terms like branding exist and where each album would have to have that signature Jonathan Coulton sound.

    So yeah, you aren’t a big sell out. Although, since I have been playing your stuff in the office, my co-workers are avoiding me. I really do want to thank you for this. They only listen to big label music.

  10. STILL says:

    “How much money did she pay you for that advice?”

    All of it…..most likely and sadly….

  11. Joseph Devon says:

    A few months ago, JoCo, you wrote about that band that was living in a house ala Big Brother (the show, not the book) and people from all over could watch them craft their music. You said you didn’t care much either way and if their music was good that was all that mattered. I don’t see much difference with Ms. Digby. Especially when you extend the notion of a career out to over a decade…if the music is good then they’ll still be around. If not then they won’t. It’s the old, “You try and create a body of work you can be proud of,” approach, and I’m pretty convinced that this is the only approach that artists can use and still remain sane.
    Basically in ten years she’ll either be a trivia question: “What YouTube pop sensation of late ’07 turned out to be a fake crafted by the music industry?”
    Or all this hullabaloo will be the trivia question: “How did Ms. Digby get her first break in the music industry? The answer may surprise you…”

  12. Bill Hallahan says:

    The Wall Street Journal got this story wrong.

    The Wall Street Journal article contained factual errors. The post they cited as typical was not representative of what the vast majority of people in the topic wrote. Most were thrilled for Marie. That in itself shows an agenda. The posts are still there, and while it might take some time to find the post they cited, it’s very clear the WSJ reporters misrepresented the actual situation.

    Marie Digby never lied. There is no comparison to the lonelygirl case, and by the way, she didn’t lie either, at least not as far as I have seen.

    It always struck me that there is a special term in journalism, i.e. “Investigative Journalism.”

    Here’s the other, more accurate side of the story in Marie Digby’s own words.


  13. Bill Hallahan says:

    The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article was wrong about Marié Digby. To anyone who followed her videos, it’s obvious that Marié Digby has always been herself.

    The article stated:
    “Ms. Digby’s MySpace and YouTube pages don’t mention Hollywood Records. Until last week, a box marked “Type of Label” on her MySpace Music page said, “None.”
    However, she had joined MySpace in 2004, roughly 2 years before she was signed, and she merely didn’t bother to update a setting, and she’d probably forgotten that setting even existed. I signed up for a MySpace music page, and it could even be missed when first signing up. And, since months after she recorded her CD, there was no indication it was ever going to be released, I wouldn’t expect that it would even cross her mind to change her status to signed, even if she was still aware of that setting. Note, her CD didn’t come out until approximately 2 years after she was signed, and approximately 4 years after she joined MySpace.
    The article went on to state:
    “After inquiries from The Wall Street Journal, the entry was changed to “Major,” though the label still is not named.”
    Makes sense to me. There is no point in naming a record label when there is no indication they are going to release your CD. And, given that, who she was signed with has just as little relevance as that she was signed. (Note, the CD, titled “Unfold” finally came out on April 8, 2008. Buy it, it’s wonderful).

    The Wall Street Journal article also contained:
    ‘Most of Ms. Digby’s new fans seem pleased to believe that they discovered an underground sensation.
    In fact, the vast majority of the posts were about her music, and not about “discovering” her. For most of us viewers, a huge number of people had already seen her videos when we found her, which were posted long before the WSJ article, so we could hardly claim to have ‘discovered her.’

    The term “feigning amateur status”, used in the WSJ article is completely ridiculous. Marié Digby posted music videos, and expressed enthusiasm, and hope. She was largely unknown outside of Los Angeles.

    Marié Digby has posted that a Wall Street reporter talked to Marié Digby for about an hour, but they never asked the questions that would have cleared this up. Instead, they took one response, which merely meant that her signed status wasn’t relevant to her goals (and frankly, would have seemed ridiculous in the videos), as meaning she was hiding it.

    There were radio station interviews, before the WSJ article, where she mentioned being signed. If she were hiding it, she would have hid it there too.

    I gather Marié Digby’s family is rather well off. She never mentioned that in her videos either. I wouldn’t say she was, “feigning middle class status,” but I’m sure some people would! Sad!