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.

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.

“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.

Quick Link to another new business model for music

Here is a write up about a German effort to connect musicians and online fans directly, in this case with actual transfers of hard cold cash. Well, kinda:

German startup Sellaband.com is hoping to leverage the wisdom, and cash, of the crowd to produce high quality independent music for free download on their site. It’s a fascinating prospect even if it seems unlikely to succeed.The way it works is this: bands upload sample music to Sellaband.com, promote the heck out of their profile page and ask fans to chip in $10 per share of a recording that will be produced when the band raises $50,000. The fans can take their money back out at any time before the goal is met. Once recordings are made, they are offered for free on the Sellaband site, where ad revenue will be split between the bands (60%), Sellaband (30%) and the hired producer and manager. Fans each get a copy of the recorded CD and bands are free to offer them any other benefits, like concert tickets, that they wish. Sellaband retains rights on the music for 12 months. The company seems confident that bands will be able to find 5,000 supporters (called “Believers”) willing to put up $10 apiece.

One week since signing on, most of the 130 bands on the site have raised between $200 and $500. One Goth band from the Netherlands has raised $4500.

No comment before I think about it more, but I would love to hear yours.

A new model for connecting fans and bands

Here’s a piece about a business start up trying to connect bands with fans and people who are likely to become fans. Reverbnation.com, based in North Carolina’s research triangle, a long-time hotbed of indie music, is set to launch this fall after getting $2 million VC$:

The Rosebuds are among the 100-plus musicians and bands that have agreed to test Reverbnation until the site launches publicly this fall. The artists are uploading concert schedules, sound files and biographical information.

The bands are also building links to their fans’ home pages, blogs and favorite song lists. Reverbnation wants to create a searchable fan database that bands and club owners can tap into to promote shows and CDs. The fans could be searched by genre, age and geographical location.

A musician’s economic value — and by extension Reverbnation’s — will be measured by the number of fans that use the site.

“It’s not just sales anymore — it’s eyeballs,” said Jed Carlson, Reverbnation’s chief marketing officer. “It’s how many hits is your MySpace page getting. That’s insight [for the music industry] into who should we call, who should we sign, who should we produce.”

Backed by $2 million from venture capitalists Novak Biddle Venture Partners in Bethesda, Md., and Southern Capital Ventures in Raleigh, the site is being developed by a team of seven marketers, Web developers and music industry veterans in Durham and New York City.

Music fans are hungry for sites that will effectively refer them not just to music they will like, but also to live shows in their area. If this site succeeds in getting its critical mass, it could be great. Or not. I’ll be watching with interest to see how the vision gets implimented in practice.