Ukulele Lockdown: The Numbers

Since we got locked down (locked in, maybe?) in the middle of March, our engagement with the exterior world has radically changed. Out less (not at all if you can help it, or once a day for exercise), not in groups, working from home, or perhaps furloughed. I don’t know about you, but I was online much more – for work, for social interaction, for entertainment, and of course the necessary doomscrolling, where we let the wash of awful envelope us with a relentless swish of the thumb. It’s been a time, and we’re not even out of it yet.

But alongside the well-intentioned physical habits we’ve been encouraged to take up – the daily constitutional or, when that doesn’t manage to happen, running up and down the stairs several times – and the Calvinistic improving ones (in my case, Spanish on Duolingo: going for a 90-day streak tonight!), I picked up an odd one: ukulele videos. It started at Easter weekend, when I decided to share some original songs of mine in an immediate fashion. “Daughters of Etobicoke” was written on Maundy Thursday, “Mercy” on Good Friday, and then “A Passionate Year” which was not written on Easter but name-checks it in the first line (“There’s a lesson we learn every Easter…”)

It was fun, and I fancied I might keep going for a while. I even gave it a hashtag, #UkuleleLockdown, which had been *very* lightly used at that point by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and someone who was learning the instrument during lockdown. It existed, but not in a major way. I learned that you can post a video directly to Twitter so long as it’s 2:20 or fewer (140 seconds, which parallels the number of characters you were originally allowed in a Tweet, in case you’re baffled at the seemingly arbitrary figure). That was a constraint I could work with, which made recording on the ol’ iPad pretty easy. I kept it pretty low-maintenance, so only one or two takes unless I was really struggling, and just a minimum edit, topping and tailing to make it fit and sometimes fading out at 2:19 if the song couldn’t be shoehorned into the time constraint. Even with the slow upload onto Twitter and Facebook, the whole thing could be accomplished inside half an hour.

My studio, during “This New Spark of Life”. Photo by Katie Munnik

Some people – especially those who would not identify as ukulele lovers – asked why: why this instrument, why this vehicle for sharing? Well, I didn’t want to obsess over a high-quality output, because I’ve put studio-quality recordings together that I have spent some time and effort on. This is meant to be free, quick, and easy. Maybe it’s a pick-me-up for someone (the ukulele is famously cheerful), and maybe some friends and family will make a point of tuning in. The smallness of the instrument and the enterprise gave some unity to the project, and it was something I could do every day.

And every day I did, bar one, up until last Thursday. From 9 April to 9 July, I posted 91 videos. (The missing day was 2 June, which various voices first in the music industry and then more widely adopted as Blackout Tuesday, keeping focus from their activities and directing attention to Black voices.) I posted first to Twitter, then to Facebook, and I almost always followed with a reply that linked to my original recording, the original writer or performer, or perhaps some excellent cover. There might be a bit of storytelling, too. One week, early in the project, was entirely Bruce Cockburn songs; another week was Paul Simon week. Those reflected writers I love, whose songs I play on ukulele anyway. I also let the bouzouki take over for one week, playing another four-string (or eight-string) instrument that’s slightly unusual.

Of those, seventeen were original songs, including several that had never been released before – two of them not even performed live. The most popular original was “Daughters of Etobicoke”, which is not surprising: it’s already a ukulele tune, and (to the extent that I have a fan base or anything) it’s one of my most popular songs. It was the first lockdown video, but as I go through the numbers, I don’t think that gave it any real advantage. Views didn’t seem to really accrue over time: except in rare instances of a late bump or significant retweet, the numbers a day and a half after posting were pretty much the numbers for the song, period.

“Daughters of Etobicoke” (Michael Munnik) 9/4/20

On the Sunday after I finished, I took a final tally of how this project did. Here are the top five posts for each platform, starting with Twitter:

  • Begin the Begin (REM) 9/7/20: 893
  • Harvest Moon (Neil Young) 22/4/20: 606
  • Elevator Love Letter (Stars) 15/5/20: 432
  • Early Mornin’ Rain (Gordon Lightfoot) 1/7/20: 331
  • The Obvious Child (Paul Simon) 1/5/20: 324

And here they are for Facebook:

  • El Cóndor Pasa (Simon & Garfunkel, Daniel Alomía Robles) 28/6/20: 327
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Judy Garland, Israel Kmakawiwo’ole) 20/5/20: 303
  • Here Comes the Sun (The Beatles) 24/4/20: 288
  • Rose of London (Siobhan) 22/6/20: 251
  • Daughters of Etobicoke (Michael Munnik) 9/4/20: 237

There are some really interesting observations from this. First, the numbers for the Twitter heavy hitters are much higher than for Facebook. The fifth most viewed video on Twitter is just three views under the most viewed on Facebook. And none of the top five videos are shared across the platform. “Daughters of Etobicoke” did comparably on both, but its 262 views on Twitter did not push it into the top five.

People made a real difference on Twitter: one well-connected person liking or retweeting a video could shoot it very high. The Neil Young Archives happened to like my “Harvest Moon” tweet inside the first twenty minutes, and that amplified it. Torquil Campbell of Stars retweeted my bouzouki cover of “Elevator Love Letter”. My good friend Jason Markusoff, a journalist with Macleans Magazine, retweeted my final video – “Begin the Begin” by REM, a band we both love – and his following brought up those numbers.

“Begin the Begin” (Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe) 9/7/20

By contrast, stories matter on Facebook, and connections within my network of family and friends. The top two both had kids of mine playing with me; the top one, “El Cóndor Pasa”, was also on my daughter’s birthday, so people not only celebrated that she was playing with me but also wishing her a happy birthday. “Rose of London”, an obscure Irish-y ballad by the band I was mates with and later joined, was number 4 on Facebook because it was my wedding anniversary; as you’ll see in a second, it received the second-least views on Twitter.

This was consonant with the platforms overall. I had a smaller number of views on Facebook, but it was much more stable. I feel that the people viewing it watched it through more, and they were the same people over time. I have a few Facebook friends who liked and sometimes commented on almost every video I posted. If anything, the Facebook audience grew over time.

By contrast, Twitter was strong at the start, with the hashtag helping to aggregate attention. But it waned. Really interestingly for me, it took a nosedive after I announced, very happily for me, that my job at Cardiff University was made permanent. That was 7 May, and up to that point, I typically had three-digit views. At this point, it slipped to an average more like the 70s or 80s, with the odd spike. Numbers slipped again very considerably after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota: Twitter’s attention was decidedly elsewhere. I tried to reflect that in my choice of songs, even abstaining for one day, as mentioned above. It was hard to know how to be sensitive and supportive in that period, but my Facebook numbers held pretty steady through that time.

I had a practice of dedicating my Facebook posts, and usually this involved tagging someone. The times I my dedications didn’t tag friends, those videos tended to slip in views to the 30s, but otherwise, I was usually between 50 and 70, and this grew by late June.

But numbers weren’t why I did it, though I confess it became a habit to check each platform several times in the evening and then again in the morning when I came down to set the breakfast table. We don’t do this with no hope of people watching. I believed there was some value to playing songs I loved. And almost all of them were songs that were already in my repertoire – most even my ukulele repertoire, which surprised me in terms of how many I actually had and what a range of them. I could have done more. I also had a few requests which I tried to honour, and it was nice to get stretched.

For full disclosure, here are the bottom performing three from each platform, starting with Twitter. I was most disappointed with the top of this list: Warren Zevon is great, you guys, and the recording had a warm-sunshine California style to it that really worked. You all suck.

“Carmelita” (Warren Zevon) 30/5/20
  • Carmelita (Warren Zevon) 30/5/20: 39
  • Rose of London (Siobhan) 22/6/20: 45
  • Brian Wilson (Barenaked Ladies) 2/7/20: 48*
    • This one gets an asterisk, as I posted the story first before the video, so the ukulele lockdown video was not the first tweet in the thread. This hurt numbers, which I expect would have been higher. Factoring that in, Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” would have been third lowest, with 49 views on 1/6/20

And here’s the corresponding list from Facebook:

  • Six Months in a Leaky Boat (Split Enz) 25/5/20: 19
    • What the hell happened here?
  • Waiting for a Miracle (Bruce Cockburn) 15/4/20: 22
  • This New Spark of Life (Neil Gerster) 26/4/20: 26

Some of the ones I liked best did not rate terribly highly here. Instrumentals tended to do poorer, though this is not universal, such as “Here Comes the Sun” and, to a lesser extent, “Vincent” by Don McLean. My theme weeks didn’t provide any particular boost, though #BouzoukiTakeover did muster a stronger showing the first couple of days, only to settle afterwards. Sundays tended to be slower just in general. And if I tied it to public events, like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain” on Canada Day, that made a difference. I’ll finish with one I really love which scored very few views – not enough to make the bottom three, but you all suck for missing it, anyway. Snailhouse, or Michael Feuerstack, deserves just about as much love and attention as Paul Simon.

“Dollar Signs” (Michael Feuerstack) 20/4/20

Seriously, though: thanks for listening. If you want to go back to any of them, check out Twitter and use the hashtag #UkuleleLockdown It was a lot of fun to do.

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