The band that had the biggest impact on me was R.E.M. They released their first record my first year of college and I don’t think it’s overstatement to say they changed my life. I’ve written about that here. By 1996 when Ethan Kaplan, then a 16-year-old, started the fan site Murmurs.com, I had been living R.E.M. fandom about as fully as anyone could for 13 years — I’d bought every record the day it came out (even buying imports first if they came out a few days sooner), I’d seen them dozens of times, I’d gotten to know some of them, I’d made lots of friends through our shared love of the band, and when the net came into my life circa 1990, finding other R.E.M. fans online was one of the first things I did. I am still on a small mailing list with many of those same people. I didn’t really feel like I needed an R.E.M. fan site after all this, but others sure did, and Ethan built them what is to my mind the exemplar of a perfect fan site. Go there any day and you will find hundreds of fans talking about everything and anything R.E.M., sharing pictures, trading recordings of unreleased material and live concerts via the site’s torrent tracker, planning get-togethers, you name it. At one time there were people trying to get enough people together to rent a bus so they could all follow R.E.M. en masse as they did a summer European tour.
Like the Madrugada board I wrote about here, Murmurs has also enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with R.E.M., with the band supporting Ethan’s work, letting the exchange of non-released material go on through the site, and generally making themselves available. Ethan has never just set up a forum and let it go, instead he’s used some computer science expertise to design new creative ways to connect fans via the site (for instance, he developed a way to display which other fans online were ‘nearest’ to you). He’s also an example of how following your passion and doing it well can land you a pretty awesome job — hot off earning an MFA with a thesis about rock concerts, he’s now the Senior Director of Technology for Warner Brothers Records where he works with R.E.M. and a hundred other bands. Here’s what he had to say about Murmurs and his role at WB:
Murmurs recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. For people who aren’t familiar with the site, can you give a brief snapshot overview — how many fans have registered? What are the main things they do there? How much traffic is there?
Murmurs right now has over 24,000 members, about 2 to 3 thousand of which are “active” participants. We get between 2 to 5 thousand people coming to the site daily. The main things people do is read news, participate on the discussion board and participate on our Torrent tracker.
Murmurs.com is an example of a site that’s the de facto official site in that fans may check remhq, but they all hang out at Murmurs. What do you think it was about Murmurs that made it so successful?
I think its a few things. One: REM is a band that was based on a home-grown, grass-roots fanbase. Even with the band as huge as they are, they are still very accessible, friendly and down-to-earth. Their willingness to accept Murmurs for what it is, and not try to commercialize it stands apart from a lot of bands. As well, REM’s use of the web on remhq.com continued their down-to-earth ethos, which also helped. I think Murmurs is successful because myself and the staff are committed to making it a fun place to be.
You’ve got a great title at WB, and I’m wondering what a Senior Director of Technology at Warner Bros Records does. What kind of projects do you work on?
Basically I am the tech guy for the entire company. In my job, I manage the entire web infrastructure for all our sites, as well as new tech initiatives, web services, technology development and a lot of R&D. Its basically what I did on Murmurs for a lot of other bands.
As someone who’s simultaneously running a fan-driven fan site and working for a major record label, what do you see as the main ways in which the interests of fans and those of labels diverge and intersect?
It used to be that fans and the label were very distinct entities that were separated by access to means of media representation. That no longer applies, as the means of communication for both fans and the artists/label is digital data. Because of that, labels have had to adapt on how we deal with fans. In the end, we’re both on the same side: the side of the artist. The label promotes, distributes and develops artists while the fans support them from underneath. I like that at WBR we’re very actively engaged with fans.
What do you think are the best ways for record labels to take advantage of the internet in building relationships with their artists’ fans?
Trust the fans to bring what they do to the table, and provide them with tools, media and good information to develop their fandom in positive ways. The thing about us is that every one of us is a die-hard fan of something at this company.
What advice would you offer other people trying to build fan sites that work?
Focus on making a place that feels like home, and that feels safe. Too often fanaticism is viewed as a negative thing, and I think a good fan-site should promote safety and a “home” feel more than anything. You can get news elsewhere. Rumors only last you for so long. A real sense of community is timeless.
You can read Ethan’s blog here.
And if you’re in the mood for some R.E.M., the stellar retrospective of their pre-Warner Brothers work, I Feel Fine, is out now.