An interview with an MP3 blogger

Unbeknownst to most of the world, Sweden has the world’s third largest record market, sliding in just behind the US and the UK. Sweden also has one of the world’s most fertile music scenes, giving rise to thousands of bands playing every genre there is: death metal, hardcore punk, mainstream arena rock and dance music, indie pop, prog, folk, electronica, jazz, twee. They have hip hop and Americana. I kid you not. Sweden even has its own (overrated) YouTube phenomenon: I’m From Barcelona got an absurd number of hits for the so-dry-it-makes-my-lips-chap video (at least I hope it’s dry — see the YouTube comments for other interpretations) for “We’re from Barcelona.” Videos of festival goers spontaneously breaking into the song’s chorus and covers of the song done by robots have surfaced on the web recently as well.

I’ve fallen for dozens of Swedish bands in the last few years (almost all of whom sing in English), and seeing as how I live in the middle of the contintental US, it’s all been through the internet. In pursuing Swedish music fandom, I find myself spread across a lot of inter-related sites. One I visit at least once a week is an mp3 blog started in early 2005 called Swedesplease. It’s written by Craig Bonell, who lives about as close to Sweden as I do.

MP3 blogs are increasingly important to the circulation of music. Like many fans of music below the radar, I rely on them, and I’m grateful to those who keep them going. I also see them as a move toward more individualized, less cohesive online fandom. They inherently privilege the voices of those who write the blogs over those of readers who, although they could build their own interactive communities through the comments sections (as happens in many political blogs), rarely do.

Swedesplease offers a great vantage point for exploring these issues. Craig Bonell recently took time out from scouring the internet looking for new music with which to delight his readers (fans?) to speak with me about Swedesplease. Here’s what he had to say:

What motivated you to start Swedesplease? What motivates you to keep doing it?

My regular blog is Songs:Illinois. In the course of writing that blog I would continually stumble upon Swedish acts that were not being covered in the press. So after a discussion with the rock journalist Greg Kot in which I said that so many genres are underserved by mp3 blogs I decided to start Swedesplease. It was easy to start but is hard to keep going.

Do you have any sense of who’s reading your blog? What kind of feedback do you get from them?

I get all kinds of feedback. It’s a little skewed because the people with an incentive to write me are the bands, labels and pr people. So I do get a lot of emails both personal and bulk from that group. I also just get the random Swedish music fan, some in Sweden and some expats living in the States. The other big block of readership are other bloggers. That number could be rather high since there seems to be 10,000 other mp3 blogs.

How do you find all those bands and mp3s to post? What are the sources feeding your own Swedish music fandom?

How I find all the music to feature is top secret although it revolves around checking MySpace, label websites, band websites and recommendations from fans. More so than any other country, Swedish bands are often in other side projects, so a post about say Thomas Denver Johnson could result in three or four related posts as well as related follow-up posts. Bands who claim to be fans of the blog often submit their music. As do fans of particular blogs. In fact some of my most popular posts resulted from fans submitting music (Jose Gonzales live for instance).

How has your blog generally been received by artists in the Swedish scene? Any stories you could tell of interactions with artists?

It has been well received. Bands and labels seem generally thrilled to get the attention. One of my most championed artists has been Hello Saferide. At the very beginning of her “career” she cited me as the start of her music being an internet sensation. She has since received all kinds of praise, critical success and courtship from major labels here in the States. In a bizarre kind of twist she actually interviewed me for her radio show that she does on P3 (Swedish national radio?). So in that case the fandom was reversed.

The most common reaction I get from artists about the blog is when they ask how I find all this great Swedish music and yet they live in the country and are part of the scene and haven’t heard of it before.

What role do you think a blog like yours plays in making the Swedish music scene more accessible outside of Sweden?

I hate to sound conceited but what other way can the Swedish scene be learned about if not on mp3 blogs. I suppose you could somehow subscribe to Swedish music magazines but that’d be hard, you could try to listen to Swedish radio online but I’m not sure if that’s possible or you could try to follow the scene through the mainstream press (but it’d be such a small sliver of coverage). So while I’m biased I think that mp3 blogs focusing on Swedish music are the best way to learn about the Swedish scene.

Like most mp3 blogs, yours seems to have a lot of people using it, yet very few comments and very little discussion amongst the readers. What do you think about that?

Comments on blogs is a big issue. Everyone would like some but in general no one gets any. Aside from Stereogum, Fluxblog and a couple of the other big ones, comments are few and far between and typically they get comments only when they write about Tom Cruise not Thom Yorke! I guess what I’m saying on Swedesplease and Songs:Illinois is not that controversial and thus doesn’t stir up the need to comment. Generally people read about the band and then download the music to listen to later so even if they wanted to comment on the music they haven’t had time to digest it yet. Inevitably I get comments only when I make a factual or grammatical mistake (of which there are many).

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‘MySpaces’ for Sports

And the winner for first sports-based MySpace goes to … oh, well, looks like there are two vying for that claim. A press release from SRN announces:

the launch of the beta version of a new web portal, YourSportsFan.com, on Wednesday, August 30th. YourSportsFan.com is the world’s first online platform for the interaction of sports fans, created by fans, with content driven by fans. In addition to the major sports, YourSportsFan.com will provide a national platform for sports such as archery, kayaking, and lacrosse, which are largely overlooked by mainstream media.

Super duper! Except for that there’s already another one out there:

FanSpot.com brings sports fanatics, sports rivals and sports enthusiasts to its site to gab and jab about teams and athletes they love and hate. Launched in late July, the site so far has about 1,800 registered users, including some from Santa Clarita, who take verbal shots at one another on personal Web pages about their positions on local and national teams.

“We view it as MySpace meets a sports bar meets talk radio,” said Elon Werner, director of communications for Beckett Media LP, the Texas-based sports publishing company that created the site. (The Daily News)

I’m sure there’s room for more than one.

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Historical Precedents 101

People are notorious for overestimating both the novelty and tranformative potential of new technologies. So it’s good to be reminded now and again that the internet is not the first communication technology that disrupted relations between the famous and their followers. Here’s Carolyn Marvin writing about the telephone in her classic book When Old Technologies Were New (1988, pages 66-67):

Not even the famous, those who are widely known but personally remote, were exempt from the reorganization of social geography that made socially distant persons seem accessible and familiar. In contrast to Scientific American‘s utopian yearning for a future community where telephones made everyone available to everyone else was a businessman’s account, quoted in Western Electrician, of the telephone “maniacs” who plagued the governer of New York, Chauncey Depew: “Everytime they see anything about him in the newspapers, they call and tell him ‘what a fine letter he wrote’ or ‘what a lovely speech he made,’ or ask if this or that report is true; and all this from people who, if they came to his office, would probably never say more than ‘Good Morning.’

“Telephone maniacs?” Doesn’t sound at all like “internet saddos” now does it?

The year of that quote? 1897.

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Celebrity stalking for fun and profit

File under Fun But Creepy Panopticon Effects:

I know we all try to be sophisticated and cool and pretend we are not impressed by mere celebrities when they stroll by us as we go about our daily business, but truth be told, you get just a little giddy, don’t you? Even if you’re not a fan?

I was shopping on Christmas eve and saw both Jerry Seinfeld and Mariah Carey (no, no, not together). Unlike all my friends, I only know the topics of a few episodes of Seinfeld and, unlike most of America, I don’t pay much attention to the trials and tribulations of Mariah Carey (though I worked in a record store when her debut record came out and remember the splash she made very well). But damned if I didn’t mention having seen them to everyone I talked to for weeks and if I wasn’t somehow strangely proud to have seen two such A-list celebrities.

So along comes a website to let people share these brushes with greatness. Oh how happy for those lucky fans. Except, wait a minute, don’t fans sometimes do stuff like, you know, murder their idols? Is letting everyone know where they are each and every day really such a good idea? George Clooney doesn’t think so and has issued this exhortation to fans:

There is a simple way to render these guys useless. Flood their Web site with bogus sightings. Get your clients to get 10 friends to text in fake sightings of any number of stars. A couple hundred conflicting sightings and this Web site is worthless. No need to try to create new laws to restrict free speech. Just make them useless. That’s the fun of it. And then sit back and enjoy the ride. Thanks, George.

Well, apparently his fans listened, except for one little thing, they only seem to have sent in fake George sightings (which are very funny to read through). The site is making the most of it, not just by collecting and displaying these, but by selling a limited edition “George Clooney Stalked Me” t-shirt.

Does this site go too far? Probably, but I can certainly understand the desire for a site where people can say “omigod I just saw [celebrity name here] and he looked totally hot!” or “I saw so and so at the ATM machine and she has really skinny legs!”

Either way, I think Clooney’s got the right strategy for fighting back, leave the courts out of it and turn their own tools against them.

Many thanks to Brenna for the tip.

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“Music fans and musicians belong to each other”

I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the depth of insight in the panel on the “High Speed Fan” at the Bandwidth conference covering music and technology, as reported by Joe Gratz, but I loved what Thomas Dolby had to say:

There’s been an interesting evolution on the relationship between the industry and fans. It’s not crystal clear yet. Music fans and musicians belong to each other. The role and the obligation of the intermediary is to empower that relationship to happen more easily and more effectively without the wastage that’s sent the industry down the toilet in the last few years. Labels want to push their own brand, but the fans don’t care about that. Kids want to feel they’re being brought closer to the music and the musicians that they admire. All you, as intermediaries, should be doing is facilitating that relationship. You’ve got to put the fans and the musicians first.[...]

My first album went gold, my second album didn’t. Nobody knew who the fans were — they were just units sold. Now, I can see reviews on blogs when I get back to the hotel after a show. I can blog. I can get comments immediately. There’s a closeness with the fans that never existed before, on radio playlists or royalty statements. I’m a tech guy as well as an artist, so I can do this all myself, but a lot of artists need help with that, and you need to help them.

Fans can be commited to labels, at least in the case of indie labels like America’s Barsuk or Merge, or Sweden’s Labrador, where, like in the halcyon days of Factory Records, the label is associated with a particular kind of music, particular ethos, and particular fan base. But I think those labels get there by doing what Dolby recommends. They keep it about the music and the fans, and convey the sense that the people in charge are fans too.

Dolby also points to the increased sense of closeness to fans that the internet enables artists to feel. People interested in questions of online fandom tend to focus on the fans, but it’s also worth considering how the potential of the internet to create relational closeness between fans and artists affects the artists not just financially but emotionally: it gives names, face, personalities, and a sense of individualized realness to their audience. From the perspective of a performer used to “units,” that can be pretty powerful.

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