Burnlounge: Another take on fans as retailers

Burnlounge bills itself as “the world’s first community-powered digital download service,” offering its own version of the emerging new music business model starring fans as retailers. See here and here for some cynical takes on this. Joe at spinme.com who used to be sympathetic has also now modified his opinion to “Burnlounge sucks.” Digital Media Wire recently interviewed Burnlounge co-founder Stephen Murray. Here are some excerpts:

DMW: What was the driving force behind the idea for Burnlounge?
Murray: I had a record company with Carson Daly and a couple other people including Ryan Dadd. We were trying to figure out how to market our artists in a new and unique way, using a process that’s always existed, which is friends telling friends about artists they think are cool.[...]

What’s the Burnlounge concept?
What we do is turn fans into retailers. It’s this whole crowd sourcing concept, giving tools and resources to enthusiasts to allow them to become part of the entertainment business, to go semi-pro, if you will.

So for that to occur you need two things: One, a platform, which in this case is a virtual record store. [...] The second thing is marketing resources. We need to give enthusiasts the tools of a professional [...]

So with those tools, how do store owners go about getting customers?
The same way that you already recommend music: you tell your friends about the music you’re into. The difference is you’re not telling them to check it out at another digital music service, you’re telling them to check it out at your own store.

They set it up with three different packages, depending on how serious people are about acting as music retailers. The less-serious models earn credit on all their sales which they can use toward purchasing music in their own stores. The more-serious “moguls” can translate their credits into cash. Minimum earning are apparently a whopping five cents a sale. I’m not sure I’d call this a next-generation snakeoil ponzi scheme, as the Digital Music Weblog has, but it seems like you’d have to move an awful lot of tunes to make it worthwhile.

More interesting than this instantiation of it, is the notion that fans are not just the record store customer, the fan is the record store. It used to be that working at the record store meant you were intrinsically cool (except, perhaps for my own employment at such an establishment for several years and all those bozos who worked at the corporate-owned other record store in town). In the near future will it be running your own online record store that makes you Really Cool? And how will people know you’re the cool kid from the record store when you’re out at the rock shows?

My peeve: just because people connect with each other doesn’t make it a “community.” As my friend Marc Smith says, community is a great term for marketing but a lousy term for thinking. Oh yeah, all the flash on their site is a turnoff too.

But peeves aside, the real question is where the line is to be drawn between Digital Music Weblog’s critique that they (or any other fan as retailer sites) are selling snakeoil through ponzi schemes and a more generous interpretation that they are empowering fans while benefiting musicians. How much money do fans and musicians have to make per sale to make it synergy rather than exploitation? It’s not an inherently bad idea to have fans selling the artists they love, in fact I’d argue it’s an inherently appealing idea. So the issue is what it takes to do it right.

When users become fans, part 2: Flickr

The other day, I wrote about Web2 sites going beyond fan forum sites and becoming objects of fandom in their own right. One very fun example of this is the Flickr group for people who are fans of Flickr. In this group, Flickr users can post their pictures that either include the letters f*l*i*c*k*r or the blue and pinkish colors seen throughout the Flickr site. Fringe? Maybe, but they’ve got 775 members and almost 1000 photographs in their pool.

I haven’t spent as much time playing around with Flickr as I have last.fm, but have generally been impressed with the staff/user communication on the site. They have the usual issues (‘did you change the interestingness algorithm? why?!?!?!’) but it seems to be handled with much less tension than one sees on last.fm, if no less confusion. Plus they’ve maintained a sleek and well-designed interface instead of getting all redesign/overly-complicate happy.

Flickr is also home to a lot of other fan groups, including tons for soccer (or football, pick your nationality), media, and, my favorite: groups for fans of…fans (and I mean the kind that make a breeze, not the kind that cheer)! See here, here, and here. Always been into chimneys with ventilation fans? There’s even a group for you!

Greg Kot writes up the Future of Music

In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot writes up the recent Future of Music Coalition summit in Montreal. The article’s an astute if not novel analysis of the state of the music business, emphasizing the shift toward lots of bands that sell 100,000 or fewer records over a few bands that sell bazillions. The role of the net, of course, gets a mention, casting online fans as the new tastemakers in place of record labels and MTV:

A new Internet-savvy music hierarchy is being created. Commercial radio, MTV, retails stores and even record companies are losing their tastemaking status, while consumers are becoming de facto music programmers who share information and music via message boards, Web pages, e-zines and MP3 blogs.

In the end, though, Kot returns to the fact that no matter how great this digital revolution may be, ultimately there is nothing that comes close to seeing a band play live:

It’s one thing to hear an MP3 file of a new band like Montreal’s Lovely Feathers, quite another to hear that band perform that same song on stage. The breathtaking intensity of the quintet’s live performance at Pop Montreal made the songs on their latest album sound quaint in comparison.

“It’s hard to quantify how we got noticed,” said the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. “No doubt Pitchfork had an impact. But who really cares reading an article? It’s the music ultimately. You listen, and you either like it or you don’t. For us, we’ve been so much about playing live and making that connection that I don’t know any other way.”

“Live music,” said former Talking Heads singer David Byrne, “is an experience you can’t digitize.”

I’m reminded of points I made in earlier posts about the Arctic Monkeys and Hawthorne Heights trying to distance themselves from the online components of their success by referencing their touring. These are not either/or propositions — to the contrary, the more fans are digging and distributing a band’s music online, the more people are going to go to the shows and the more merchandise they’re going to buy when they’re there.

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 last.fm 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.”