Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Thoughts on villin: 2023

Published in Blog, Razzle Dazzle Cedar Rapids, villin. Tags: .

villin 2023

It’s kinda funny, thinking about how this thing got from there to here. I’ve already unpacked all this to and for myself in great detail — of what my idea was with villin when it started, and how it died and came back to life a few times over the past decade — but it’s still sort of wild to think about. I had no idea this would be part of what I might want to do when returning to Iowa, but we are. And now being another year into the process, I thought it’d be worthwhile to capture some thoughts as I look ahead to try and refocus my direction with this thing that is becoming an increasingly consistent part of my life.

Numbers Are a Distraction / Make More Connections Closer to Home

This feels like the first year where villin was actually a thing, as opposed to just being a temporary vehicle for a passing set of ideas. Looking back, I know my tendency would be to veer toward analytics as some measure of gauging success with the project, but thus far I haven’t really taken aim at capturing any numbers along the way. I’m slightly curious about the meager growth trends villin might have experienced across the year, but also recognize how in the end, very little of that really matters.

I read this article recently and am using it as something of a guiding light at the moment for where I want to see this lead. In her 2020 piece titled “How to build the future music industry we want and need,” René Kladzyk writes,

So, consider: what does success mean to you? I encourage you to step outside of normative definitions of success and instead look critically at who you are and who you’d like to be. What would make you happy? What would it take for you to thrive? What nourishes you and why do you do this work in the first place? But have you seen rich people lately? They’re miserable. Wealth and fame are metrics relating to success but what it means to thrive as an individual is different – what do I need to get by and what do I need to be OK?

Eventually my goal is for villin to shift into being, in part, an outlet for editorial content for Razzle Dazzle Cedar Rapids. That sentence will make no sense to anyone but myself and a small handful of close friends and family members, but it brings home a key point: For the most part, the circle around what I’m trying to do will be limited, and that’s okay… Yeah, it’s okay, but a pressure I continue to feel is one that embraces this burdensome dynamic of “scalability.”

Back in my Culture Bully days, metrics became a hugely toxic guiding light, and curiosity still gets the best of me daily to check and see if anything on the website is hitting. One difference I’ve noticed this year is that I’m not tailoring my work with a distinct drive to enhance traffic. That’s good, I think. I like that, but I still check everything every day, and to a small degree I judge myself on what I see. This isn’t fair, of course, but when traffic spikes after something I published, my brain says I’ve done good; when they don’t: bad. I want to work on it. But while I’m on the topic… Speaking of those CB days, it was cool as hell getting tens of thousands of visitors to reviews I wrote, and seeing the website exceed a million pageviews a few years running felt like a dunk on an imaginary audience of people who I thought didn’t believe in me. But looking at that and remembering another side of things shows some cracks in the armor: Even with that firehose of visitors to the website, I only ever gained about 2000 RSS readers and Facebook likes. What I’m thinking of might be called a “capture rate,” but whatever it is, it’s incredibly low. “Reader retention” then, as now, is practically zero. I’ve never been great at keeping people around in this sort of capacity, and I don’t think I’m great at it now. I am a little better at being myself now, however, though I don’t think that’s felt in the work as it stands. That’s something I’d like to change. And to get there, I think I need to be a little more engagement-focused, interaction-focused, people-focused, or “community”-focused… whatever that might mean.

The optics of engagement are wildly misleading and I’m prone to underestimating the value of face to face connections when contrasting them to numbers on a screen. I connected with a half-dozen people this past weekend on a trip to Des Moines, for example, which brought me more satisfaction and nourishment than all of my social media connections, combined. But one week removed from that, I’m like: Why aren’t my numbers higher?! As if that has any bearing on my actual life. Without the social media, the real life connections wouldn’t develop, but it’s important to weigh each appropriately. Sitting behind a computer and posting something online is so frequently misinterpreted as enabling connection for me, and while I’ve started building several real, meaningful connections and friendships through villin in Des Moines, I’d like to work on finding connections with more people closer to home. A million and a half pageviews is crazy, truly, and I’m only going to fall apart if I compare what I’m doing now to what was going on then. I have 35 mailing list subscribers, for instance. That doesn’t sound like much, because it really isn’t, but if I looked at that not as a number but as what 35 actual connections truly represents, it changes my whole perspective. What if I met 24 people around Cedar Rapids this next year? What if I was able to start building connections with two people each month? That sounds like nothing, but putting faces to those numbers almost makes 24 feel overwhelmingly high.

“Local” Isn’t Enough / Prioritize Diversity and Inclusivity

Following that same article’s direction to consider a personal code of conduct, I’ve been thinking about the ways that villin currently doesn’t speak to my own personal values. Continuing in her essay, Kladzyk lays out the challenge to “Prioritize diversity, inclusion, fairness, and transparency.” Aside from this, I’ve become increasingly self-aware about my own tendency to stray from these values when I’m not carrying them closely with me. One piece I worked on this year stands out to me which embodies something more closely reflecting the values I hope to embrace with villin, and thinking about it now, it’s a good example to use to help refocus. In the spring I spoke with Geneviève Salamone on subjects including mental health, sexual abuse, and indigenous rights. I also included personal reflections in the podcast and accompanying article. Over the past few months I’ve noticed a trend, even just in the thumbnail images I’ve used on the website, with the majority ending up focusing on white men. Even at a young age I realized I gravitated away from female musicians, but I don’t think “I just like guys better” is a good enough answer here when considering I’m trying to champion diversity when communicating what “local” even is. If I don’t try harder to communicate a thing I tell myself is important, not only is it not actually important to me, but I risk communicating the opposite. Focusing back to that podcast episode, I think it still stands out as meaningful to me because it wasn’t something I’d have done had I not gone out of my way to make it happen. It didn’t come easily and it was a lot of work. But it’s worth it.

Likewise, is my creative mission simply to promote whoever reaches out to me to ask for exposure, or would my efforts be better served by being more assertive when it comes to defining who will get my time and attention? The latter obviously. Focusing on “local” culture might loosely be considered counter-culture, but am I representing actual counter-culture along the way? If pageviews and numbers are empty indicators of value, what other value can I add to this space by paying closer attention to who I focus on and why? When I got started with this my thinking was that I liked making playlists and anything beyond my enjoyment of the process was largely inconsequential, but that is no longer the case.

Curation (Also) Isn’t Enough / Put My Voice Out There

Kladzyk continues in her article with another challenge: “Evaluate how you’re spending time on virtual platforms, and consider what you’re actually getting out of them.” Challenge accepted.

I’ve been thinking about what a music blog even is in 2023. On a mass scale, their relevance all but died a decade ago, maybe, and my own desire to participate in one hasn’t held any consistency since 2011. This isn’t the same world now as it was then, obviously, but part of how I’m approaching this whole project is still viewed through a concept for what music blogs are tethered to the past.

There is value here though. I consider these superficial benefits, but in theory, music blogs can contribute to artistic clout. Music blogs add to data scraped by algorithms that dictate streaming platform authority. For example, Spotify crawls the web, just like Google does, and considers whether people online are talking about an artist or their music when determining how that artist shows up in their system. Intentionally or not, fans do this, too. The optics of authority are something I’ve talked about before, but they’re no less relevant here. An artist’s fans might see an interview or article about them as a source of confirmation; social proof that what they’re listening to is good. That sense of implied value is magnetic and further influenced by the reach and reputation of the publication sharing the piece. As is the case here: villin really has neither. And the thing is, I don’t think a reputation is going to develop so long as there’s little reputable happening on the website. Again, yes, local is represented, but that’s just not enough.

Going back to the dance with analytics, here’s where things stand as of today: Facebook – 432 likes, 735 followers; Instagram – 1165 followers; Threads – 247 followers. Without asking everyone individually, it’s hard to know how many people are actually interested in villin. I’d wager that a small fraction of those people are interested in what I’m currently doing with the site and probably just clicked like or follow because they or someone they knew were featured on a playlist. That or they want to be featured. As it stands, villin is largely just curatorial advertising, so all that makes sense. But the thing is, maybe part of my problem is that this approach has strayed kind of far away from what I enjoyed about the blogging process to begin with. There was a lot of me built into Culture Bully. This was absolutely problematic at times… but also, I think there’s a little of that missing with how I’m approaching things now. Few articles are distinguishable from each other.

Informed opinion takes time and it’s not something I can churn out, as I can with playlists. It takes more work to put together an editorial position, but also it’s freeing. I just wrote a year-end piece for Little Village, for example, and it felt great. At this stage in my life, my opinions are informed-enough that they’re coming from a place where I think I can write something of interest to other people. I like interviews, and I want to keep doing them, but not everything has to be about someone else’s thoughts on music. Playlists provide me a reason to stay current with what’s happening, but they allow for no interpretation of what’s happening, nor do they allow me to enhance anything with my own thoughts and opinions. I think by putting myself out there, I can work toward growing reputation and reach for my own work in the same capacity. This includes going beyond just talking about local. This goes beyond just focusing my attention on what’s directly around me. Maybe to be seen as something of merit around here I have to be seen as something of merit beyond here.