Retailers: The new rock stars.

The objects around which fandom happens are broadening as the internet enables more and more taste-based social organizing. No longer restricted to pop bands, movie stars, television shows, sports teams, and science fiction novels, fans can now unite around retailers! One great example of this is the online fan phenomena regarding Trader Joes, a socially-conscious grocery store. I have a friend who moved recently — one of the things she was most excited about was the presence of a Trader Joes in her new town (though IKEA moving in soon ranked a close second). Another friend has described herself as “in love” with Trader Joes, and a third insisted on taking me there when I visited her town. Trader Joe fans spread their gospel online too: Among the Trader Joe fan sites are Are You A Trader Joe’s Fan? which specializes in recipes that can be made with Trader Joe purchases, Tracking Trader Joes, where fans gather to track store openings and events, and the all-purpose Calling All Trader Joe’s Fans. There are also sites like Nancy Dowling’s Trader Joes: A Love Fest, with links to dozens of articles about the stores but no fan interaction. Media have caught on to the phenomenon, with articles about Trader Joe’s online fans showing up in The York Dispatch, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press (“Trader Joe’s Fans Prove Retailers Are The New Rock Stars”), and elsewhere.

Fandom has jumped the shark from media products to companies. Trader Joes is one example, but there is much more of this going on. Media companies are used to thinking of customers as fans, and even they are facing more challenges than they can count figuring out how to make the most of what fans do online while protecting their intellectual property and creative control. Companies that have never thought of customers as “fans” before will have even greater challenges ahead. But if retail customers can become engaged enthusiastic proponents in the same way media fans have, there’s a gold mine waiting for the companies that figure out how best to work it. Trader Joes couldn’t buy better online advertising.

Baseball tries a “fan-led franchise”

The issues raised by “Snakes on a Plane” have nothing on those raised by letting sports fans pick the team lineups for real:

“Just goofy enough to work” may prove to be the operating principle of the Flyers’ experiment with fan-picked lineups as part of “Fan Club: Reality Baseball,” an Internet show that takes fantasy baseball leagues to new levels of interactivity.

To promote his club, Ehrenreich signed on to have cameras follow the Flyers through a half-season of baseball — 48 games — in the independent Northern League.

And Ehrenreich agreed to let fans, voting online, decide the team’s starting lineup each night. Diehard supporters, opposing fans and Web surfers who know nothing about the team have an equal say about which Flyers play and which ride the pine.

“It’s ‘Bull Durham’-meets-fantasy-sports come to life,” said Larry Tanz, chief executive of LivePlanet, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based production company that created the reality show, which can be seen on Microsoft’s MSN Video site and at

In reaching out to customers, Ehrenreich has ticked off his manager, many players and even some fans. They say the promotion threatens the integrity of baseball.

The notion that this “threatens the integrity” of baseball gets at the same fears people seem to have about fan engagement in authoring in any way — fan input threatens the integrity of YOUR FAVORITE THING SOMEONE ELSE CONTROLS HERE. But unlike with those things, this seems to offer a pretty clear measure of how well letting the fans have more power works — do they win more games?

The point that “even some fans” question integrity raises a lot of questions about what many fans want in their experience. I know I like the idea of fiction-writers taking into account input from fans. But I also know I don’t want my favorite pop bands letting fans write their songs. I’m not sure I really want them taking that much input: ‘we like the fast ones better than the slow ones’ I’m ok with, but ‘this chord change is better than that one’ — well at what point would they not be my favorite pop band anymore?

The dangers of buying fan activity

As more and more marketers get savvy to the potential of online fan buzz to at least raise interest in a product, fans online seem to be getting increasingly wary. It can be seen in the controversy swirling around whether YouTube star, lonelygirl15, is real or a viral marketing blitz leading up to something not yet announced. Even the New York Times’s Screens blogger is obsessing on this one. Trying to figure it out seems to have become part of the fun. (Update 2 days later: indeed, she’s fiction, as danah boyd covers nicely here. But some are insisting it’s the revelation that’s fake and that lonelygirl15 is real…)

Less fun is this editorial arguing that Paramount Pictures has taken over fansites for the upcoming Transformers movie, banning critics and replacing them with people singing the film’s praises:

A few weeks ago, no a few days ago, the buzz on Michael Bay’s upcoming Transformers movie was pretty bad. Fans were in an uproar over recently released pics of what it is that Bay is doing to their beloved robots. [...]

But over the past few weekends there’s been a shift. Paramount’s goons have taken control of the situation by pouring a wad of cash into it, and suddenly everything’s coming up roses. For instance, go to the once fan populated message board of Transformers producer Don Murphy… and you’ll find nothing but popcorn and bubblegum for the film where outrage, disappointment, and calls for boycott once stood.

There’s a reason for that. The dissenting voices have been banned and beaten down with threats.

Surf around the internet to those movie sites that were once critical of the film, and in place of their hard hitting reports about how Paramount might be screwing up, you’ll find set reports praising the film for being “faithful” and lauding the very things about the film they’d trashed only a few weeks before. It’s easy to be positive when you get an all expenses paid vacation to a movie set I guess. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been lured in by it myself. But let’s not blame this all on set visits. For some of these offenders the ass-kissing began when they got their first call from Paramount weeks ago. It’s only culimated in this.

Yes, Paramount is turning the buzz around for their Transformers project, and they’re doing it with a big silencer. Those not already bought and paid for are probably afraid to open their mouths. After all, this is the movie studio that had a website shut down for daring to run an unapproved photo.

Whether this is true or not is almost beside the point. As soon as fan activity on the internet is seen as filled with people who’ve been bought off by producers or marketing campaigns disguised as authentic self-made materials, all buzz becomes suspect, to say nothing of the consequences for honest relationships amongst fans and one another and between fans and artists/producers.

Fans as music-sellers on MySpace

You’ve likely heard the news that MySpace is going to enable selling music. Particularly interesting is that they are letting the fans sell the bands’ tunes through their own profiles:

A handful of bands have been testing the MySpace online music feature for several weeks. One is The Format, an indie rock band from Phoenix, Ariz., that boasts more than 99,000 “friends” on their MySpace page.

Terry McBride, chief executive of Canadian label Nettwerk Records, which manages the band and handles their marketing and promotion, said having fans help sell the band’s music is the wave of the future.

We have a strong belief the next major retailer in music is the consumer themselves,” McBride said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

I guess it’s not that different from being an Amazon affiliate, except it looks to me like the fans aren’t getting any of the take for sales made through their profiles. Anyone know for sure?

I wondered before about where the line is between empowering and exploiting fans, also in the context of the Murdoch empire, and this is another example. Yeah, I would love to be personally responsible for selling records by my favorite artists (I confess that I’ve been known to count how many copies of records I know were bought because of my recommendations). On the other hand, if I had a thriving little media sales empire taking place through a web profile I expended considerable energy on maintaining and keeping filled with current and compelling content, I think I’d feel a wee bit resentful if I weren’t seeing any of that income. Of course, I’d want a cut of MySpace’s profit, not the band’s.

How can enhance artist/fan interaction

People rave about for a lot of reasons, but one you rarely hear is how it can get artists in touch with their fans. I’ve had three experiences like this in the last few months, and each has been a fun thrill in its own way. All have come about because I keep a journal on there about music, promoting the artists I like and reporting on shows I see:

Skywriter are a band from Copenhagen. They sound kind of like Leonard Cohen meets Brian Ferry via David Bowie’s Berlin era. They’ve got one record on an indie label. They’re not exactly tearing up the charts, but it’s one of my favorite records of the year. So when I got the chance to write a review to that effect at Its A Trap (a site I’ll write about in another entry), I did. And then, as I usually do, I cut and pasted it into my journal. And who should show up in the comments on my journal entry than Skywriter’s singer/guitarist/songwriter, there to tell me how good my review had made him feel. Now he and I send occassional messages to one another.

I also wrote up in my journal logs of all the concerts I saw in the 1980s (I kept records! though they should have been better). So I get a message from someone saying “I was in that scene, I was at a lot of those shows.” And lo and behold, it was someone from one of those great local bands I saw so many times back them. Someone I knew in high school and liked but never kept in touch with. Now we email.

Last week I wrote a report on the incredible reunion show I got to see by late 70s/early 80s underground icons, the Embarrassment, and this morning, I got a message from one of the guys in that band, telling me how “warm and fuzzy” my write-up had made him feel. Like the guy I knew in high school, this was actually someone I’d known in the 80s, but he didn’t know it was me when he wrote.

I have seen messages that artists leave in fans’ shoutboxes (visible on the page for all to see), things like “I saw you listened to our last record a lot, our new one will be out next week.” So at least for less famous bands, is working as a vehicle for locating the people who are listening to you, or who are writing about you, and engaging them directly.

I’ve written before about acknowledging the rewards for artists of having direct interpersonal connections to fans, and all these stories drive that point home. Performers, especially those who don’t sell a lot, are happy happy happy to have a way to reach those who are buying.