Celebrity blogging and the “ART of telling the truth carefully”

Blogging may seem like a fairly simple, low-cost way to improve celebrity marketing (and I use “celebrity” to loosely mean anyone who might have fans). But, looking at it from the perspective of interpersonal communication research, blogging celebrities face some interesting challenges. Generally, in American culture (which is at an extreme on this matter), the prevailing pop wisdom is that the more a person self discloses, the closer his or her relationships become. That’s why you hear people bemoaning that “we don’t communicate” when in fact, they’re talking all the time. At the same time, we’re living in what’s been termed a “culture of confession” where everyone’s fessing up their private business for public consumption via talk shows, ‘reality’ tv, and half-heard mobile phone calls. Against that backdrop, blogs offer an obvious unprecedented new way to build a sense of closeness between celebrity and fan through celebrity disclosure.

But does self disclosure = relational closeness and large audiences? Interpersonal research tells us very clearly that inappropriate self-disclosures can kill a relationship. There are lots of things we don’t want to know about other people. Just as we’re likely to move gently away from the casual acquaintance who mentions at a party that he has recurring nightmares due to a lack of maternal attention in his early childhood, blogs have enormous potential to turn off fans either by revealing more than fans want to know or by revealing things that irreparably damage the fans’ image of the celebrities. If this is true in an American context, it’s even more so in cultures that place more value on public cool than openness. Consider, for instance, this disclosure from Amanda Palmer, singer of The Dresden Dolls, writing about an incident that happened when she was seventeen:

we pounded. then my hand went through the nail. i screamed. was it serious? well, it was bleeding, but not much. it was a hole, a nice little german stigmata. it only took 15 seconds before i didn’t know myself whether i was crying to get attention for a wound that wasn’t all that bad, actually in pain or shock, or crying about the fact that i was confused about whether i was crying for some real pain or over the confusion my possible ruse. this was a typical pattern in my life. maybe i was homesick. maybe i was just looking for a reason to weep and the nail was just a little gift. we bandaged and disinfected. the incident was easily forgotten. i think jan wasn’t there. but he must have come home at some point. thwok thwok thwok thwok thwok. is there anybody out there?

Now, the Dresden Dolls, who call their music “brechtian punk cabaret,” are always dramatic and over the top, and she always seems to be disclosing her deepest secrets as she sings. Could a celebrity whose career isn’t founded on being maudlin blog about this without damaging her image? And yet, even Palmer writes on her blog, about her blog:

all the journalists ask me: “aren’t you afraid you expose your private life too much?” i find this funny. my family reads this blog, my manager reads it, the label publicist reads it, brian reads it, our crew and promotors read it. this is the fucking ART of telling the truth carefully.

if i actually shared my private life in all it’s complexity and detail, i would anger and worry and confuse these people so much….i’d be crucified. so i generally save my personal conflicts, my true heartbreak, for the emails i send to the ones who don’t need me as a boss, a rock star, a musician, an idol, a promotional tool or even an artist.

it shouldn’t come as a surprise that everything i share here is heavily censored, well, slanted at least..a combination of the reckless impulses to emote and the simultaneous, hyper-conscious measuring of the consequences.

Interpersonal research makes it clear that even in our closest relationships we need privacy. It’s always challenging for celebrities to have a clear public/private persona boundary of which they are in control. With a blog, the celebrity has the added challenge of creating a very clearly defined public persona which nonetheless appears to be a private persona. Looks like Amanda Palmer has got this down, but how many others do?

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Pop Stars Must Blog says Baltimore Sun

Here is a really interesting article in the Baltimore Sun about the importance of blogging in supporting a fan base’s relationship with a band (or, if you’re on the money-receiving end of the relationship, the importance of blogging in marketing):

“Blogging ultimately drives a pop star’s brand and leads to more sales via iTunes,” says Robb Hecht, a New York-based branding expert and marketing strategist. “It is very important for a pop star to keep a blog in our new age where music is incredibly accessible via the Internet, cell phones and various other technological advances.”

The article points out that the internet changes the relationship between fan and ‘star’ in ways that enable a much greater sense of closeness (something evident in the Pete Townshend quote in the entry below). In essense, marketing becomes relationship management on a scale somewhere far closer to interpersonal than mass communication is used to. There’s a long line of mass media research into “parasocial relationships” — the kind people develop with their favorite tv characters. The fact that blogging is continuously updated while records are released months or years apart opens new potentials for parasocial relationships with musicians:

“Blogging humanizes artists by bringing them down to the eye level of their fan base,” says Andrew Foote, account supervisor of Peppercom Inc., a communications firm in New York that specializes in digital marketing. “This interactivity gives fans the sense that they have an affiliation with their favorite artist, which empowers them to remain loyal and spread positive word of mouth.”

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The Who: webcasting, openness, and new business models

Pete Townshend has given up on his plan to webcast Who concerts following what the press has interpreted as a fairly nasty public spat with Roger Daltrey over whether and how to fund online broadcasts of their concerts. It’s a good example of the confusion that ensues when people just aren’t sure how to mesh the unprecedented ability of the internet to bring music to fans with the business models they’re used to.

Like Kevin Smith, Townshend takes advantage of the internet to create a kind of openness and direct connection with fans that just was not available before, using his own website to articulate the issues at stake. As he describes himself and his online fans:

I am an internet nut. In Madrid last night I met at least a dozen shining Spanish fans who up until now I have known only through exchanges on the web on Blogs or through my appearances on In The Attic. There are two way of looking at these people – either they are real fans, who buy tickets and support me unconditionally as an artist, or – as decried by Janet Street Porter recently – they are Blogging ‘Saddos’. Either way, we have fun, we connect, we are alive. At a concert where the Who play to what looked like 20,000 roaring people I also have a more intimate sense of connection with some of the audience. I suppose the only thing that’s ‘sad’ about that to the press is that it doesn’t make them any money.

When he asked for emails so he could assess fan opinions on the matter in a bid to persuade Roger, the hotmail mailbox filled within a day. And then he expressed surprise that the press paid attention:

Its Lebanon and Israel who are “at war” – not Roger and Pete.

In related news, he’s:

taking down www.thewho.com as well after tomorrow, but again this is not out of spite or anger. This was always something that was planned to be a part of the webcast package, and on this Roger is in agreement to help support a new and greatly revised website, reflecting more of his ideas, as soon as we can find a good webmaster. This new website will definitely go up prior to our first U.S. dates in September.

When even the Who can’t find a good enough webmaster to keep their site up and running and compelling for fans, that’s a sad statement on the state of official band sites.

Even the Arctic Monkeys aren’t a MySpace Band. Honest!

To follow up on my posting the other day, here’s more on the Arctic Monkeys’ use of the internet to rise to fame. And, oh yeah, massive protestations against the notion that MySpace had anything to do with it:

It is on the internet, too, that the implications of the Arctic Monkeys’ success seem most profound. It appears to invert the music industry’s long-held fears of free-music-based, web-led meltdown. Instead, internet file-sharing and discussion built a grass-roots movement of fans for the Arctic Monkeys’ music. This practice has been institutionalised, and perverted, by MySpace.com, the massive website where individuals and bands such as the Arctic Monkeys accumulate “friends”, who support and debate their activities. Rupert Murdoch’s buy-out of the company shows the way this briefly democratic set-up is likely to go.

The implications of industry-bypassing channels seem enormous. Most commentators see the Arctic Monkeys’ hit as its first above-ground eruption, the main reason their success this year is so crucial. The band themselves, however, beg to differ. In fact, they find the idea appalling.

“Somebody said to us, ‘I saw your profile on MySpace,’ ” sniffed drummer Matt Helders to US website prefixmag.com. “I said, ‘I don’t even know what MySpace is.’ [When we went to No. 1 in England] we were on the news and radio about how Myspace has helped us.

But that’s just the perfect example of some-one who doesn’t know what the f— they’re talking about.”

Just for the record, I find MySpace too ugly to look at and don’t spend time there if I can avoid it, but it’s more than a little interesting to see the conflation between the internet and MySpace, and also to see a band that has benefited from the net so much nonetheless seek to distance themselves from it.

“Not a MySpace Band:” Internet fans are the new 13-year-old girls

When I was 13 and in love with a lot of pop bands, I would occassionally read interviews with them where they said things like “at least we don’t appeal to 13 year old girls” or “we want to appeal to more than 13 year old girls.” I got the message — REAL bands didn’t have fans like me. When I met the internet, one of the first thoughts I had was that if it had been there when I was a 13 year old girl, I’d have been so empowered as a music fan by being able to hide my age. I’d have passed for an older teen at least, and would have been respected in ways I couldn’t be in person.

But now I see that the new ’13 year old girls’ are internet users. What’s worse than having 13 year old girl fans? Having… INTERNET fans. Yep, if that’s where your hype begins, then you’re really suspect. Witness this article in which Canadian band Hawthorne Heights responds to the charge that they are “a MySpace band.”

Bucciarelli’s agitation seems warranted, as most people who bash Hawthorne Heights claim that they’re a “MySpace band” who only got popular via the internet:

“It might account for a fraction of our success,” Bucciarelli reasons. “It seems that every interview we do we get people asking us about MySpace and it being the reason behind our success, and to do that is to completely ignore that we toured for three straight years.

Note that getting popular through MySpace is constructed as a charge that merits “agitation” rather than, oh, pride? How about “yeah, we’ve been really good at combining MySpace with touring. It’s worked great for us.”

Now I have nothing against Hawthorne Heights, I haven’t heard them but kinda like their Bronte-esque 19th Century name (or is it the name of a gated community somewhere in a Neal Stephenson novel?). I choose it as an example of a phenomenon where people assume there are two kinds of fans (1) the REAL ones that you earn through [fill in form of traditional fan-garnering here] and (2) the internet ones. As though they were two distinct sets of individuals.

Last spring I noticed a lot of backlash against The Arctic Monkeys, word was their rise was based entirely on “internet hype” — what could be more suspect? This article from Boston.com outlines how the internet drove their success:

No packaging. No pitching. No payola. The notion of a band finding a fan without the machinations of middlemen inspires utopian visions of art uncorrupted, a power-to-the-people model of music making and consuming. But while Web-generated hype may be more credible than the carefully crafted fluff coming out of boardrooms, it isn’t without its pitfalls.

The pitfalls? Online fans can… CLICK ELSEWHERE JUST AS EASILY! Which, as the article points out, makes them pretty much like the record labels. And as I might add, suspiciously similar to those mythic “offline fans.”

And who are the offline fans these days? How many fans who pay no attention to a band’s online presence are left? I would like to see some real figures on what percentage of people who see live music and buy cds are true “offline fans” getting turned on to music only through the timeworn networks of radio, tv, record stores and friends. Cuz I’m guessing that just about every band who makes it these days is picking up a seriously healthy chunk of their listeners through the internet. Maybe dissing them isn’t such a good approach.