Gimme That Web Authenticity Thing

The Boston Globe has a piece up about indie bands using the internet to acheive stardom (if not affluence). It runs through the usual rigamarole — the YouTube video the label wouldn’t produce but the band did (Dresden Dolls this time, instead of the usual OK Go), concerts in Second Life (funny how a site with fewer than a million users is suddenly THE place for marketing your product, whatever that product may be), and, of course, MySpace. But there are also some nice reports of interesting strategies to involve fans in “authentic” relationships (i.e. those unmediated by labels):

The Dresden Dolls, a duo who describe their music as “Brechtian punk cabaret,” invite their fans to send in artwork and videos inspired by their songs.

“A fan can send me a beautiful painting, and seven seconds later, it’s up on our website , on the fan art page, and it’s visible to thousands of other people,” says singer Amanda Palmer. “I love that we can connect with people that way.”

That sort of authentic connection between a band and its fans is a relatively new phenomenon. Coulton, who writes quirky, fabulist folk songs about American history, star-crossed mad scientists, and technology, recently used his blog to invite the Web audience to submit an eight-bar solo for his song “Shop Vac” on the instrument of their choice. The best one — chosen by user voting — was incorporated into the finished song.

“Audiences want to feel that Web authenticity thing,” says Mike Denneen, a Somerville producer who has worked with Aimee Mann and the band Fountains of Wayne. “They don’t want to feel they’re being marketed to.” That puts the deep-pocketed marketing departments of such mega-labels as Universal Music Group and Sony BMG at a distinct disadvantage.

Ultimately, however, the piece ends up wondering whether all this immediate access to fans will really translate into money for musicians:

The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for knitting together a community of passionate fans (though some question whether all those MySpace “friends” will ever pony up for a concert ticket or pay for an album download.) But the Net audience expects to get a lot of things for free, including music and videos.

“We’re looking at a changing economy, in which music is free, and artists are going to have to learn to make their living through touring and merchandise sales,” says Palmer.

“The barriers to getting your music and your image out there are lower than they’ve ever been,” says Denneen, who co founded Q Division, a recording studio and record label. “But over the long-term, the big question is, how many of these people are going to be able to make a living at it?”

It’s a good question, and it will take time for these things to shake out enough that the patterns differentiating those who make money and those who don’t become clear, but it seems more and more evident that the ones who make money will be those who have created enough of a human-to-human relationship with fans that the fans WANT to give back. It doesn’t have to mean that each and every fan will pay the same amount for the same product. It doesn’t have to mean that every MySpace “friend” (and oh, the problems I have with that label) has to go to the show (on the other hand, if they don’t go, who does?). All it has to mean is that enough fans will pay enough to make it worth the musician’s while.

It’s probably the wrong metaphor, but as a teacher at a big public institution, I teach a lot of students who are there to fill their day and do what it takes to keep their parents paying the bills so they can go about the real business of getting drunk at night — but they don’t all have to want to learn so long as there are enough that do. I cultivate relationships with all of them, knowing that nowhere near all of them will make it worth my while. The metaphor breaks down since my pay isn’t directly related to their tuition, and their tuition doesn’t reflect what they get out of or put into the class, but I think there’s still something there in terms of recognizing that some of the people we work for are just going to give back an awful lot more than others.

What I keep wondering is how many bands, managers, marketers, labels, and others have the requisite interpersonal savvy to build and maintain relationships with audiences in a way that makes fans feel truly involved. It’s one thing to make good music, another to craft an appealing public image, and yet a third to craft what feel like interpersonal relationships with large groups of people.

Pandora plans to boost fan-to-fan communication

Aside from personal charts, probably the #1 thing has going for it in comparison with Pandora is its enabling of listener-to-listener interaction. Apparently building communication amongst its users is on Pandora’s agenda for the coming year:

Harmonium: What do you have in store? Is there anything up your sleeve for 2007?

Westergren: Well, there’s lots of different things we’re working on. We’re working on mobility — where you can listen to Pandora on the go. We’re working on international growth, we’re trying to spread Pandora outside the U.S., and also add a lot more international music to the collection. And we’re also doing a little bit more work on the listener-to-listener part of Pandora, allowing people to talk to each other … and share favorites and discoveries and so on.

Smart move, too bad it’s only “a little bit.”

Invent a Character tie-in for Nightmare Before Christmas

Cinematic Happenings Under Development reports on and participates in a fun contest taking advantage of fan creativity in promoting a re-release of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas:

Calling all artists, designers, creative geniuses, film lovers and NIGHTMARE fans! This is your chance to create an original character for Walt Disney Pictures’ holiday classic, TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, making its return to the big screen this month in stunning Disney Digital 3-D. You are free to create the scariest, creepiest, most inspired character you can think of that fits into the world of Tim Burton’s beloved film. Your submission will be judged based on creativity, originality, and the unique features of the character.

We will select one winner from the submissions. Along with the winners from 4 other sites, these five finalists will be judged by the filmmakers of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. One grand prize winner and 4 second-prize winners will be announced on the site during the week of Halloween.

Of course, the winner’s character doesn’t get to appear in the film and the legal boilerplate about you-don’t-own-anything-at-all-about-what-you-submit is long enough to make the head spin, but still, it’s yet another way in which film-makers are reaching out to fans and taking advantage of their talents in ways that can benefit both producers and fans. Better still would be to create a system where people could view one another’s entries instead of the expert judges model — then you could get the whole community thing happening.

Ryan Adams Message Board Shut Down

Pitchfork, ever eager to poke Ryan Adams in the eye with a fork, sets their animosity aside to report on the shutting down of his unaffiliated fan board. Apparently rumour had it that Adams couldn’t handle the negative criticism on the site, but:

Pitchfork contacted David Smith, proprietor of, who set the record straight. “Ryan’s management contacted me Tuesday, asking that the board be temporarily shut down,” he disclosed. “Initially there were reports of censorship or an inability to deal with criticism and negative show reviews. But I’ve since had the opportunity to discuss the issue directly with Ryan…and apparently sensitive information of a personal nature had been exposed on the board which was a threat to the band.

Information is said to have included his hotel room number (shades of anyone?). Meanwhile his fans have relocated elsewhere en masse while Smith figures out how to make it harder to register for the board.

Another fine line.

Brand “Engagement” vs. Social Connectivity

One of the themes I’ve occassionally hit on in this blog is that fandom is not just about celebrities and athletes, it can also happen around brands (Trader Joe’s being one exemplar), and smart brands will figure out more and more ways to make this happen around them. The always-informative blog Micro Persuasion has an excellent post up critiquing the concept of “brand engagement” in which Steve Rubel argues:

The engagement myth is built on an insatiable desire to get consumers obsessed with our brands. That’s because TV advertising ain’t what it used to be. Often “engagement” is achieved through digital technology. Problem is, consumers don’t want to be “digitally engaged” with us. They’re only into each other.

As marketers, we shouldn’t care about brand engagement. Instead we should focus on how we get people connected with each other and measure the number of times we helped them do so. That’s why venues such as Second Life, YouTube, Facebook and other social networks are so hot: They allow people to connect with each other.

If you want to see engagement, find the right communities, build programs that empower people to connect, then get out of the way. Your brand will get a lift purely through association.

This is so right on, whether you’re talking brands or famous people. When you get people connected to one another and invested in their social relationships, they want to stay connected to each other. If your brand is the vehicle that allows them to do that, then they’re going to stay connected to your brand. Soap fans have been watching lame soaps for years in order to stay involved in their soap fan communities, music fans have been buying new records by artists they haven’t really liked since their first two albums just so they can trash them with the fans they’ve been talking to for years.

More and more, marketing = community management. But community management is an entirely different beast from advertising, in fact I’d argue that the more the former looks like the latter, the more doomed it is to fail. How do you “find the right communities”? How do you “get people connected” and measure how often it happened? How do you “build programs that empower people to connect”? Unless you’re a super lucky or genius marketer, they don’t happen just because you’ve realized it’s the way to go. Having been so deeply enmeshed with the Association of Internet Researchers and followed internet research so closely for so many years now, I know these things can be done, even if they don’t always work out the way the planners anticipated (or — more accurately — even if they never work out the way the planners anticipated), but I’m also astutely aware of how much complexity there is to these problems.

As an aside, I can’t help but note that one reason Facebook, YouTube, and Second Life are so hot is that they are getting press coverage as though they were a brand new phenomenon. Fact is, USENET had way more users than these platforms do now more than a decade ago. Connecting online is still hot, but it’s not new, no matter what Web 2 hype overcomes us. But I’ll save the rest of that commentary for another post.