The Wisdom of Ze Frank

Whenever I teach about creativity on the internet I start with those wacky people in the early 1970s turning punctuation marks into facial expressions and end with Ze Frank. I don’t keep up with his daily show, but I always appreciate what I see. I’ve got a student writing a paper about his fan forum this semester and she’s been telling me it’s pretty intense — if you don’t watch every day you can’t keep up and you better not try. So it was with interest that I saw the New York Times article on “Online Auteurs” (ooh la la) which, toward the end, has this to say about him:

Over a typical week, “The Show” is seen more than 200,000 times, and several hundred viewers post comments in Ze Frank’s forums. It seems that he’s reading every word. Unlike a film or TV audience, Frank’s viewers have a chance to connect right in the middle of the project, and he seems almost maniacal about his loyalty to them. “I think we may have experienced the last generation of actors who can be disconnected from their audience,” Frank says. He asks for show-theme suggestions and answers questions politely, and his need to include whomever is watching sometimes feels like a lifeline to keep him from drowning. He cites this ongoing conversation with the viewer as one reason that he refuses to post his show on YouTube.

“For me, the show itself is far less interesting than everything around it. And if you stick it on YouTube, out of context, it loses all the inside jokes, all the responses, the history of what led up to that show. The framing gets lost. Also, you can’t make money off of YouTube. Unless you are YouTube.”

YouTube sells ad space, but contributors are paid nothing. And Frank is perfectly happy with the revenue from the small ads on his Web site. He says he makes about as much from a single text ad as “an entry-level hooker in Washington, D.C.”

Maybe I’ve had all the wrong career aspirations?

But following up on yesterday’s post about building your online presence through proprietary spaces, this just drives home the point. I wouldn’t advise people against using those sites, and I think a lot of what Ze Frank does could well stand alone elsewhere, but it’s a good point that on your own space you get to create the context as well as the content. Plus of course, no one’s going to buy out from under him and change how things work without his having a say.

If you’re not familiar with his work, you’re in for a treat. I am crazy about his build yer own kaleidescope but all his interactive stuff is great. His participatory projects are super fun too, check out Office Supplies Attack for a glimpse of what he can get his fans to send him.

How not to blog

Ok, give the guy some credit for trying to do right. Tim Story, director of the Fantastic Four sequel has got a blog on his MySpace page on which he’s trying to keep fans up to date on the filming and apparently getting ideas from them. But he’s also demonstrating a cardinal no-no of blogging: not posting. Since September 3rd there’s been one post, about 3 weeks ago. It was brief and apologized for not blogging more often.

I think this is a classic problem. Everyone suspects that blogging might be a good thing to do. Build fan commitment, generate buzz, all that. But blogging takes time and commitment. If you post once a month, people give up on checking in before long. Buzz doesn’t build, it fizzles. Are they better off doing nothing? Well, a regularly updated web site that doesn’t pretend to be a blog might be a better way to go about it. That way the same thing looks like a nice monthly effort to keep in touch instead of a failed effort to create an ongoing person-to-person relationship with fans.

I don’t mean to pick on Story, my point is that this happens all the time and it doesn’t have to if you understand the different expectations and requirements of different online venues, realistically assess what you have the resources to maintain, and pick the right one.

Wrens seek 5th online

One of my very favorite bands ever, The Wrens, has a problem — they’re brilliant in the studio where they can add layer upon layer of guitar, but some of those songs they just can’t play live. It doesn’t stop them from putting on a fantastic show, but evidently I’m not the only one who wishes they could play Ex-Girl Collection live. The solution? Get a fifth member. Their strategy? Post their tabs on their website and seek local people from the towns they’re gonna play to be their fifth member (or members, they could have different people for different songs) each night. They say it’s a way to thank the fans for all the great things they’ve done for them in the last few years. I think I might love this band even more now.

If you’ve never heard The Meadowlands, go buy it right now.

Read my Wrens love story here.

(Link via Large Hearted Boy)

Scott Adams’ excellent blog

The blogosphere is abuzz with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adam’s truly amazing and inspiring blog post about how he was able to regain his ability to speak despite a condition that has apparently never been recovered from before. It’s well worth reading just because it’s such a powerful story and post. But it’s also worth reading because it’s a great example of how an artist uses a blog to build meaningful personal relationships with fans. Look through his earlier posts, he’s got hundreds of responses to every entry. He’s doing it right.

Making money by fostering emotional ties

Derek Webb is a Christian musician whose records have sold about 20,000 copies apiece. He’s trying to increase interest by giving his CD away on his website, a strategy which may be increasing its sales. His label president describes it as getting “emotional, relational currency” instead of cash:

For Ino Records President Jeff Moseley, the word-of-mouth buzz that the giveaway has generated is as interchangeable as cold hard cash at this point in Webb’s career.

“This is emotional, relational currency that we’re trading for an album, as opposed to dollars and cents,” Moseley said. “We think ultimately that will turn into some type of monetary value.”

Though it’s still too early to measure results, early indications are that the effort is paying off in harder dividends than just warm-and-fuzzy feelings among Webb’s relatively narrow fan base.

On Wednesday, Moseley said that he’s seeing anecdotal evidence that Webb’s weekly album sales of about 300-500 are actually experiencing significant percentage increases in the week following the launch of the free download. Official data is not yet available.

And Webb reports that merchandise and CD sales doubled on the road following his announcement to give away the album for free download.

John Styll, president of the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association, who has been involved in battling music piracy alongside his peers in the industry over the past few years, said if Webb finds a way to make the model work, he expects other artists and labels to follow suit.

The mystery remains how exactly emotional currency translates into the green kind, but I believe he’s right that it will. Fans who feel connected, who feel grateful, who feel like you’ve been generous with them, are surely more likely to fork over money. The article also mentions another Christian artist, Keith Green, who made “a surprising amount of money giving his albums away for free in the 1980s and simply asking for a donation in return.”

Time will tell what the best way to deal with piracy is, but this sort of turning on its head is a creative way to approach it. There’s a nice theory of relationships called Social Exchange theory. The basic premise is that we seek relationships where the rewards we receive outweigh the costs we have to pay. It’s a very rationalistic model and not without problems, but it still works surpisingly well at describing and explaining much of people’s sense of what’s fair and what’s worth maintaining. One of its core premises is that when the exchange is social (versus commercial) it inherently engenders feelings of obligation — you gave me something, I owe you something next time. When I teach this, I often use the example of when you get an expensive birthday present from a friend and next time it’s her birthday you feel obliged to buy a gift of comparable value lest you be seen as a jerk. If we make the musician-fan relationship more social and less explicitly commercial, or if we at least build the social side more alongside the commercial, fans are more and more likely to feel personal obligation to the musicians.