Quick Richard Thompson Followup

The other day I wrote a post praising Richard Thompson for encouraging the voices of his fans rather than just steamrolling them with his own. The post was inspired by the performance I’d seen him give the night before. [and two Davids left really interesting thoughts about how it plays out in academia]

Within 48 hours, I was getting incoming hits from his official website, where someone had found my post and added it to the list of concert reviews posted on the site. For the last week it’s been the top source of incoming traffic to this blog.

I was awfully impressed that someone behind the scenes at an official site was actively scouring the web for fan responses (I assume it’s automated, but still) and updating the website that quickly. Exemplary behavior! How neat to be brought into his dialogue without even targeting a message directly to him. It makes me want to say everything I said in that post all over again.

Kind of funny though since it wasn’t really meant to be a “concert review.”


p.s. sorry about the flaky site performance. My web hosting service, Dreamhost, has been misbehaving these last few days. I’d change providers but am not convinced others are better for a small scale operation such as this. Opinions?

The Wonders of Dialogue

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson perform. He played a solo acoustic show — just him and a well-worn guitar. No fancy nothings to fall back on but his amazing artistry and the beauty of his songs.

And his talent for communicating with his audience.

He’s got a fan base that goes back almost 40 years now, and there were a lot of people there who looked like they’d been listening to him for that long. A woman behind me sang along to every old song he did. People up front cheered when he mentioned a town several hours away, indicating that was where they’d driven from to be at this show.

So many performers do the shows they planned at the outset to do. They’ve got their set list, same set list as the night before. Thompson, in contrast, came out with set list, but every single time the audience yelled for a song he stopped, thought about it, and then either played it or explained why it wouldn’t work and then, usually, played it anyway. When he said he was going to do a Fairport Convention song he asked the audience which one they wanted then held a poll amongst the top 4 choices. When they called out for obscure songs, he laughed at their choices, said they were fringe, and then played them.

It struck me watching this that his flexibility offers a powerful lesson for everyone who has fans. He is not about control. He does what he does. He’s brilliant at it. And he’s totally comfortable with letting his shows be a dialogue with the audience. This means that sometimes he’s going to end up doing weird stuff that doesn’t quite work out (like when he yelled for a third of the audience to sing the saxophone part but they only giggled), that he’s going to occasionally forget the words or which riff comes next. It means he has to think on his feet.

But it also means that his audience leaves feeling like he was there for THEM.

Though this has nothing to do with the internet, it speaks to me of the power of the internet to allow that kind of individualized engagement with your audience even when they aren’t in the same room, but also of how so many artists try to make their online presence a monologue in which they set the terms of engagement.

On his website he has both a “Tourspeak” section in which he posts fan comments on his performances and a “Viewpoint” section in which he offers his own takes. The link to the former is before the link to the latter. That kind of says it all. Dialogue beats monologue every time.

Another Great Patronage Example

I wrote last week about Jill Sobule’s successful campaign to raise $75,000 direct from fans in order to finance her new album (she got more than that, and quickly). Now I hear, via David Jennings, via Billboard, that UK band Marillion have been doing this for some time and have just raised ten times that from more than 12,000 fans to record their 15th album.

The Marillion website has an extensive page describing the venture. They offered many of the same incentives as Sobule (name in liner notes) and some of what she did for anyone who paid the price, they did in contest form. In fact, they offered lots of prizes for people who paid up before the deadline. As a fan (though not of them), I read their list of prizes and thought “wow, they’ve really nailed what fans want” [forgive the funky formatting]:

GRAND PRIZE – The Golden Ticket (1 Winner)

An all-expenses-paid* trip from anywhere in the world for 2 to the Marillion Weekend 2009, including VIP and backstage passes for the entire Weekend.

* All necessary travel and accommodation will be booked by economy/coach class and paid for by Marillion/Racket Records in consultation with the prize winners. Food & drink outside of the pre-booked meals at Marillion Weekend 2009 is the responsibility of the winner.


Perform on Album 15 (1 Winner)

Visit Marillion’s Racket Club Studio and perform* on Album 15, and be credited for your performance in the artwork.

* Performance of a specific instrument cannot be guaranteed, and may be limited to various percussion (tambourines, shakers, hand-claps) and/or backing vocals. Final performance recording will be arranged upon arrival to the Racket Club studio. No performance fee and/or other royalties will be payable to the winner.

Appear in the Artwork for Album 15 (1 Winner)

Have your photo appear* in the album artwork of the pre-order Deluxe Campaign 2CD Edition

* Winner will be contacted with full details of how to submit photos; final artistic usage will be at the discretion of the graphic designer and/or Marillion.

Watch a Gig from the Stage (1 Winner)

Stand on stage in “Guitar World” with our guitar tech for a prime view of the show at any choice of gig on the Snow-where Else Christmas Tour 2007 (2 tickets included)

Watch a Gig from the Stage (1 Winner)

Stand on stage in “Guitar World” with our guitar tech for a prime view of the show at any choice of gig on the Album 15 Tour 2008 (2 tickets included)

Hand-written Autographed Lyrics (1 Winner)

A Marillion lyric of your choice hand-written by Steve Hogarth and signed by all 5 band members.

Autographed Album 15 Artwork Print (1 Winner)

A one-off 12″x12″ print of the Album 15 cover, signed by all 5 band members.

Your Own Private Marillion Gig (5 Winners)

Visit Marillion’s Racket Club Studio with 3 other friends/family to meet the band and hear them play a short gig at the studio especially for you.

A Phone Call from the Band (5 Winners)

Have a chat with Marillion! Each band member will select a winner, and give you a phone call to talk about whatever you’d like.

Sound-check and Front Row Passes (10 Winners)

Admission for 2 to sound check at any choice of gig on the Snow-where Else Christmas Tour 2007 (2 tickets included), plus passes to remain in the venue and/or early admission passes to guarantee yourself a front-row view of the gig.

Sound-check and Front Row Passes (10 Winners)

Admission for 2 to sound check at any choice of gig on the Album 15 Tour 2008 (2 tickets included), plus passes to remain in the venue and/or early admission passes to guarantee yourself a front-row view of the gig.

A ‘Special Thanks’ Credit on Album 15 (10 Winners)

Your name listed not only in the pre-order list of names, but also in the main album credits under the “Special Thanks” section.

Marillion Plectrums and Sticks (10 Winners)

A pair of Ian Mosley’s drum sticks, plus plectrums from Steve Rothery, Pete Trewavas, and Steve Hogarth – all used for a Marillion show.

Racket Records Gift Vouchers (25 Winners)

25 winners will receive £25 each to spend on anything they like at the Racket Records online store.


Signed Albums (50 Winners)

Have your Album 15 pre-order Deluxe Campaign 2CD Edition signed by all 5 band members.

It’s apparent from Marillion’s site that they’ve got this process down, though it’s also apparent that their strategy relies entirely on the fact that they already have a large, loyal fanbase and that some of this would not work with a new band. Still, it’s another example of a well-done and extremely successful patronage model.

The patronage model really resonates with me simply because I have often had the thought that some of the music I have bought is worth so much more to me than I was able to pay for it. I can think of at least two bands off the top of my head I would send hundreds of dollars if they just gave me a way to do it. And many others I’d gladly send ten or twenty.

More Creative Musicians Working the Web

Jill Sobule is the latest in a string of musicians figuring out innovative ways to involve fans in their pricing and production processes.* She’s out to get $75,000 in donations from fans to help her record her next record and she’s quasi-mocking the Public Radio/TV pledge process in doing it:

  • $10 – Unpolished Rock (but with potential) Level: A free digital download of the album, when it’s released.

  • $25 – Polished Rock Level: An advance copy of the CD. Weeks before the masses.

  • $50 – Pewter Level: An advance copy and a “Thank You” on the CD.

  • $100 – Copper Level: All the above, plus a T-shirt saying you’re a junior executive producer on the album.

  • $200 – Bronze Level: Free admission to my shows for 2008.

  • $250 – Silver Level: All the above, plus a membership to the “Secret Society Producer’s Club,” which means you’ll get a secret password to a website where I’ll post some rough tracks, or… something worthwhile.

  • $500 – Gold Level: This is where it gets good! At the end of my CD, I’ll do a fun instrumental track where I’ll mention your name and maybe rhyme with it. And if you don’t want your name used, you can give me a loved one’s instead. What a great gift!

  • $750 – Gold Doubloons Level: Exactly like the gold level, but you give me more money.

  • $1,000 – Platinum Level: How would you like to have a theme song written for you? I’ll have a song you can put on your answering machine and show off. Again, this could be a gift.

  • $2,500 – Emerald Level: Mentioned as an executive producer of the album — whoop-di-doo!

  • $5,000 — Diamond Level: I will come and do a house concert for you. Invite your friends, serve some drinks, bring me out and I sing. Actually, this level is a smart choice economically. I’ve played many house concerts where the host has charged his guests and made his money back. I’d go for this if I were you.

  • $10,000 – Weapons-Grade Plutonium Level: You get to come and sing on my CD. Don’t worry if you can’t sing – we can fix that on our end. Also, you can always play the cowbell.

As of this writing she’s less than $9,000 shy of her goal, which I for one find pretty impressive.

Rob Walker expresses some doubt, he disapproves of the name-mentioning in a song (me, I wonder how a song can both be “instrumental” and “mention your name”). I don’t mind it at all. I think she’s being clever and playful and I can think of lots of ways to incorporate fans’ names in song without losing one’s artistry or being creepy. Indeed, I think a lot of songwriters might find it an interesting challenge to create a song with a set of names at hand (it reminds me a bit of R.E.M.’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It supposedly based on a dream Michael Stipe had where he was at a party where everyone but him had the initials LB — “Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs!” Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean BOOM!)

On a related front, Trent Reznor, who’s always good for some innovative web stuff, has released a new Nine Inch Nails record online available in a variety of forms depending on how much you want to pay. The big news is that the $300 deluxe limited to 2500 copies has SOLD OUT. Someone wrote me this morning asking my opinion on whether album art and packaging is dying out in the age of downloading. This suggests that it may be a fantastic means of generating extra revenue from hardcore fans — 2500 x 300 = not too shabby.

* If you caught me on the Agenda last night, I apologize for spacing and confusing her with Jane Sibbery — those J.S. women doing cool net stuff, yikes.

Update: See here for another good patronage example, only with $750,000 vs. $75,000.

Can you be too engaged with your fandom?

Yesterday I stumbled across this quote from Russell T. Davies, the executive producer of Doctor Who:

Every program on the BBC has a message board on the website. I forbid it to happen on Doctor Who. I’m sorry to say this, all the science fiction producers making stuff in America, they are way too engaged with their fandom. They all need to step back.

It’s taken from an LA Times article which is now hiding behind a firewall, so I don’t know the context.

My initial reaction was [myownknee] “jerk!” but then I thought twice.

I don’t know about the claim that American scifi producers are too involved with their fandoms. Certainly the people who make Lost, Futurama, and I’m sure plenty of other shows are thinking about their fandoms as they work. Frankly, sci fi TV is not my genre and there are so many other fandom scholars who’ve got that area covered that I don’t think all that much about it. [paging you -- what do you think about this quote?]

But I’ve been working on the keynote I’ll be giving in Oslo in a few weeks, and one of the things I’m talking about there is how labels and bands ought to treat their online fandoms. One of the key points I find myself coming back to repeatedly is the importance of letting fandoms have their independence — providing enough information, goodies, and attention to nurture it, but letting it belong always to the fans who create it. When fandom is a subsidiary of the production company it sets everything up for power struggles, for self-censorship, for legal-enforcement dilemmas, for feelings of accountability and betrayal that are beyond the bounds of duty on both sides. Fans need their own spaces to do their own things.

I’ve never thought that official fan sites hold candles to the ones fans build themselves. If I were one of the thirty zillion Dr Who fans traipsing about the internet, it’s hard for me to believe the BBC would really offer the best fan discussion, even if Davies allowed it.

Fandoms can’t operate as though they belong to and are supervised by artists and producers. By the same token, artists can’t operate under continuous supervision (even internally imposed) of the most active fans any more than I, as a teacher, can forget about the students who aren’t as into my classes or the content of what I know and believe needs teaching and just teach what they want to hear to the ones who love me most. I’d be negligent and odds are my classes wouldn’t be as good. The fans who get into fandom may be more important than other fans in terms of the promotion, spearheading, and enthusiasm they provide. They may provide the most trenchant critiques and hence are usually worth listening to. But they are still a small segment of the audience, and producers need to think audience as much as they think fandoms. But even more than that — producers and artists need to operate first and foremost under the guidance and supervision of their own muses. It’s their creative process, just as fandom is ours.