“The new social rules of Internet fame”

Clive Thompson’s got a wonderful write up of the changing relationship between musicians and fans that has been a central theme of this blog in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. He talks to several bands (Jonathan Coulton, the Hold Steady, Ok GO, the Scene Aesthetic) and presents a nicely complex description of how “B-List” musicians find new career paths open to them online, paths that require a continuous online presence spent forming “symbiotic” relationships with fans. Such relationships can be extremely helpful to artists in practical and tangible ways:

… followers have volunteered hours of their time to help further his career: a professional graphic artist in Cleveland has drawn an illustration for each of the weekly songs, free. Another fan recently reformatted Coulton’s tunes so they’d be usable on karaoke machines. On his online discussion board last June, when Coulton asked for advice on how to make more money with his music, dozens of people chimed in with tips on touring and managing the media and even opinions about what kind of songs he ought to write.

They require, however, a new model of connection that looks much more like interpersonal than mass communication. Thompson describes performing artists as “eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame.”

In Thompson’s analysis, the key challenge is managing what to keep private and what to tell. Says a Hold Steady, Tad Kubler, “I vacillate so much on this, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this sense of intimacy with our fans.” The other challenge is the sheer time involved (at one points, Thompson describes a musician as “losing” 2-3 hours a day in communication with fans, hopefully betraying more of his own attitudes towards fans than those of the artists of whom he writes). It’s clear, though, that sustaining one-on-one relationships with each fan is only sustainable when a fan base stays small. Thompson also touches on the fact that fans turn, and that the sense of intimacy can lead to fights and outbursts as well.

As you may or may not know, teaching a course called “Theories of Interpersonal Communication” has been the bread and butter of my career since 1986 and I gotta say… challenges of balancing privacy and disclosure? Challenges of having all the time and freedom to do your own thing without concern for the other people vs. wanting to be involved and interdependent? Where I come from, we’d call those ‘relational dialectics’ and we’d point out that they’re inevitable in every personal relationship. They are balancing acts we manage throughout the course of every relationship. Each artist needs to find his or her own way, but each artist/fan base relationship and set of relationships within that is going to be its own context that calls for somewhat different balances.

The social ‘rules’ aren’t out there yet, but here are some starters:

1. Treat each other with kindness and respect.
2. Respect one another’s boundaries.
3. Tell the truth.
4. Give at least as much as you take.

But even if there were a complete list of rules to follow, it will never be easy and the challenges will never go away. There’s a long list of ‘rules’ for interpersonal communication that people have studied, taught, read about, lived for decades, centuries, millennia, and we still haven’t yet figured out how to ensure that our personal relationships lead to symbiotic growth that benefits us all. We can’t expect bands and fans to solve that one. It’s a wonderful goal to strive for, though.

(Thx to Holly for making sure I found this article.)

When the famous pop in

Bruce Willis popped in incognito to hang out in the site Ain’t It Cool News and chat about Die Hard movies. He had some rather harsh things to say, people started suspecting it was Willis (he did use his real first name, calling himself Walter B), somehow or other Willis ends up outing himself to the people behind Ain’t It Cool News, requesting a new topic:

Around 3:45am last night, Bruce Willis left a message on my cel phone regarding… talkback. As many of you have figured out… yes, Bruce is talking to you. He is Walter B in talkbacks and I’ve given him Black Box Posting powers so you can see that it is, indeed, him. I’ve also seen that he wants a new talkback, and well… what the Bruce wants, the Bruce gets… because if he wants to moonlight as a Talkbacker, that’s pretty goddamn cool!

If you want to see what he had to say, here is the ‘best of.’

Needless to say, people in the forum are tickled beyond belief that he came by to visit with them. Why don’t more famous people do this? It’s so easy. They can do it at home. And it makes their fans so very very happy.

What makes a viral campaign smart?

Nine Inch Nails has clearly set the standard for super cool viral way to hype your record, give your fans a way to get seriously engaged, and garner gobs of great press all at the same time. The catch, though, is that Trent Reznor has an awful lot more savvy than most people. As MTV News staff writer James Montgomery says in a USA Today article (a very good if not super-recent in-depth overview of the story),

There are a lot of bands, like Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, whose fans grew up on the Internet and MySpace. I don’t know if they’re Reznor-level smart. He gets it. Not many bands today have the intelligence to do this.

What did Reznor do that is so smart?

1. He spread the campaign across many platforms — a network of websites, but also t-shirts, the cd itself, USB drives left in bathrooms at shows — and many of those platforms were not on the internet. By hooking into live audiences and t-shirt wearers, he directly targeted his fans’ offline social networks, which he wove seamlessly into online communities. He recognized that his audience is found on the internet and also hanging out wearing t-shirts with their friends, and his strategy recognized the overlaps between those networks and used each to enhance the other.

2. He crossed genres by getting fans to engage with a record the way they have been engaging with many television shows. Writing a concept album isn’t new, but making it an alternate reality game (ARG) that people could really play is. He developed a (semi)coherent narrative whole into which the pieces fit like puzzles. It echoes Lonely Girl and Blair Witch Project as well in that it set up web sites that gave just enough to make people want to actively seek out more.

3. He took full advantage of people’s sociability. Unravelling the story depends on social engagement. At the very least, the people who found the USB drives had to be socially oriented enough to leak the songs they contained. But people also had to tell each other about the sites. And more importantly, in order to really piece the story together, they have to collaborate. It reminds me a lot of watching Twin Peaks in 1990 and reading alt.tv.twinpeaks and trying to collaboratively solve the crime (or Lost today). In those cases and in this one, there is so much ambiguity in the ‘narrative’ that everyone can develop a theory of their own, which makes it much more fun to have access to other people’s ideas and perspectives as well.

4. He figured out new ways to do things. CDs that change color? Cool! USB drives in bathrooms? Clever! Cryptic quasi-religious armageddonesque websites? Neat-o. But next time a band leaves a digital form of a leaked song in a club or a concert hall what will people say? “Nine Inch Nails rip off, how lame.”

Having the vision to see a complete and novel project, figure out how to leak and distribute that vision throughout the fan base, and doing it as well as he did requires smarts, no doubt about it. But he also had some other things going for him, not least of which was an already present huge loyal fan base with a long history of building online community around his productions.

Short story? Great campaign but very hard to replicate, especially for bands without a fan base who’s already got a strong sense of what you’re all about. But there are some clear lessons: Use multiple interconnected platforms, including material ones that connect offline activity back to the internet, give fans clues to piece together that they’ll piece better together, understand and work the fact that fans have friends they like to talk to on and offline, and think way outside the box about distribution channels for your message. Word of warning: avoid Lite Brite displays.

Nine Inch Nails Tell a Transmedia Story

Monsters and Critics has what seems to be a nice write up about Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails’ “Internet scavenger hunt,” or what folks like Christie Dena would call transmedia storytelling (she writes about the NIN thing here), in the promotion of their forthcoming record:

‘Year Zero’ came to life in early February when Web-savvy fans discovered that highlighted letters inside words on a NIN tour T-shirt spelled out “I am trying to believe.” Savvy fans added a “.com” to the five words and, voila, located a thought-provoking, eerie Web site. Other associated sites created by 42 Entertainment were soon discovered, including bethehammer.net, anotherversionofthetruth.com and churchofplano.com, where a dark future reigns supreme.

And if dayglo tshirts tied to mysterious (and well-done) websites weren’t enough, there were even drives planted in bathrooms:

According to one post, a male fan, allegedly by happenstance, found a USB drive in a bathroom stall during a NIN concert at the Coliseum in Lisbon, Portugal. This flash drive (yes, Reznor`s idea) contained an MP3 of album track “My Violent Heart.” Additional USB drives were purportedly found in Barcelona and Manchester, England; they included MP3s of album tracks “Me, I`m Not” and “In This Twilight,” respectively.

And the real beauty of this story is that the RIAA promptly demonstrated just how massively clueless they really are:

Excited fans then began swapping and sharing these music files online. Another Web posting alleged that all this activity resulted in entertainment blog Idolator and other sites receiving e-mail from the RIAA, demanding that they remove the MP3s from their sites.

An RIAA representative confirms this, a move that boggles the minds of many. “These . . . idiots are going after a campaign that the label signed off on,” the source says.

The article claims that only songs meant to be leaked through the campaign have actually leaked. There is more and more of this going on (Boston LiteBrites anyone) in television promotion, but I think this is the first time it’s been done to this extent in music. Please right me if I’m wrong on that.

Rolling Stone piece about this, with loads of thoughtful comments, is here.

Update: Billboard‘s original story about this (from which Monsters & Critics seems to have taken the quotes) is here.

NIN fans, if you’re paying attention, comments about this are welcome!

MySpace vs. Websites

It seems it is becoming trendier than ever for bands to assume MySpace as a proxy for the internet and just move all their self-branding, fan-reaching, media-distributing on there. This is something I have ranted against here and here. And now I’m going to rant a little more triggered by this article about a band called Knock Knock Ginger (never heard them) in which one of them says:

“If I hear of a band, MySpace is probably the first place I go. For instance, a girl from Italy recently ordered our album and she was like, ‘I really like Canadian bands, can you recommend me some?’ And I just ended up sending her 10 MySpace links. I mean, I don’t even go to websites anymore. It has almost become the new demo.

“I mean, I don’t even go to websites anymore?”

Is this really something bands (and others) want to be pushing?

As I’ve said before, I think it’s pretty obvious that unless you are trying to avoid notice, you need to have a MySpace presence. With the amount of web traffic going through there, it’s a must. For sure.

But you should also have presence in other spaces as well. And all of those spaces, in my view, should lead users back to YOUR OWN SPACE. The one YOU own. The one no one else can wrest from your control, redesign without your permission, change the rules for, etc etc etc.

So it was with considerable delight that I read this astute piece in The Atlantic Monthly adding fuel to my fire:

Already, the most popular users, like the legendarily pneumatic Tila Tequila—friend to more than 1.5 million MySpacers—are realizing that their future is in guiding people off MySpace to their own, more robust, fully customizable personal pages. Indeed, the third rail of social media may ultimately come down to that most old-media of issues: ownership. MySpace may sell the idea of itself as being without boundaries, but in fact the digital mayhem lives within a tightly controlled environment. MySpace does not let users network meaningfully with people outside its walls, and it does not let them import some functionality that promotes or drives revenue to other corporations; for example, those newly popular “widgets” that contain text or video feeds, or games. MySpace has legitimate security reasons for prohibiting the Flash-based widgets, but the effect is also to eliminate a way for corporate competitors to lure users out of the MySpace environment. And MySpace recently announced it will no longer allow users to post videos that contain copyrighted material—hello, YouTube—much as it was already filtering out some major-label music.

Most important, users like Tila Tequila do not profit directly from the traffic they generate for the site. Indeed, the value of MySpace and the other 2.0 sites is built on their ability to monetize—through ad sales and marketing, among other streams—the traffic generated by their users. The tacit trade-off is free Web hosting, tools, and distribution. This trade-off is not in itself unfair. But, as with IM, the value proposition does not remain constant. The walled-garden attributes of MySpace and Facebook, like those of the subscriber-era AOL, can quickly become liabilities. And as the value of social-media tools becomes inevitably unsexy and commoditized, it may be only a matter of time before the Tila Tequilas of the world, inspiration for millions of page views, decide they might as well go elsewhere.

All of these social media are wonderful tools for artists to display their wares, show off their connections with other bands, and build and maintain relationships with their audience, but every band ought to have a home base that is entirely within their own purview and offers more than fans can get on any other site.