How important is social media in the development of artists?

At Digital Music Forum, Universal Music Group executive VP Cameo Carlson said she was surprised so many twentysomethings are not interested in social networking. Daniel Glass, founder of indie label Glassnote Records, told the audience he once chose not to sign an act that showed apathy about social networking.

The problem with trying to figure out the value of social media in music is that outliers get all the attention. For every Taylor Swift and John Mayer there are scores of artists with very different strategies – or not much of a strategy.

Here’s an outlier you might not know about: Joanna Newsom, a California-based singer-songwriter. Newsom is far from a superstar, but she has attained success on a smaller scale. Her last two albums, both put out by Drag City, have each sold a bit over 70,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. She tours the U.S. playing clubs and small theaters. In Europe she will perform at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the U.K. as well as the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, Sweden.

Newsom is the other kind of outlier. She has risen to popularity in the social networking age with only the most basic of pages at the Web site of her label, Drag City. She does not have an official MySpace page, a Twitter page, a Facebook page, an official artist web site or a blog. She has nothing but a Wikipedia page, some unofficial sites kept by fans and a 9.2 out of ten from Pitchfork on her new album, Have One On Me (not to mention a 9.4 on her previous full-length).

Even though her voice is absent, Newsom is hardly invisible online. Her MP3s are on music blogs and videos can be found on YouTube. Her label is doing its job by getting reviews and features. And NPR is offering a free stream of her new album – which leads to mentions on Twitter.

Social media is about sharing. In music, word of mouth is the most powerful driver of awareness. If fans are allowed to share music and videos online, it may not much matter that the artist is trying to direct all that traffic. A simple, effective social media strategy may be to make really good music, give the fans the ability to spread the word about that music and just step out of their way. It’s worked for Newsom.