The Place of Mystique in the Internet Age

The Detroit Free Press had a piece over the weekend by their pop critic, Brian McCollum, contemplating the loss of mystique in rock and roll now that there’s so very much information available online. He writes:

There’s a reason they call the Internet the great leveler: As technology increasingly lets us get a glimpse into the star machine, peeking behind the scenes and absorbing all manner of minutiae about our favorite acts, the gap between audience and artist gets ever smaller. Details and developments are recorded, shared and analyzed at a dizzying pace and volume.

YouTube, MySpace, message boards, band chats, DVDs, reality shows — for a fan, it’s all hard to resist. Knowledge is tempting. Information promises relief, the chance to unravel mysteries and satisfy questions. But today’s rat-a-tat-tat multimedia culture presents us with a hard question about our relationship with our artists: Is more actually less?

The barrage of easy information makes it difficult for the mystique to stay intact. We get access, the mystique takes a hit, we quickly lose interest, we move on.

I’m not so sure that we move on when the mystique is gone, but other than that, yeah. Later in the article he asks:

But are we losing something valuable when we keep the curtain pulled back? You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect so. Mystique long played a special role in the music fan experience. It helped build tighter bonds to artists and their music. It strengthened their grip on our imaginations. It gave them staying power.

“To me part of the magic was that you imagined what John Lennon was like, or what these songs were about. You read your own meaning into the music and the people who were making it. That was part of what made you an active fan — you engaged on a personal level,” says Glenn Gass, 51, a music professor at Indiana University. “When you get a little too close they get a little too ordinary. And you don’t want your stars to be ordinary.”

In contrast to those who just whine about the evil changes the internet has wraught, McCullum’s got the wisdom to realize this is how it is, and that’s not going to change:

But here’s the deal: There’s no turning back the clock, and until somebody unplugs the Internet, the changes in our relationship with artists are probably here to stay. The idea of pop musicians as untouchable icons might one day be seen as a dusty relic from a time when artists had mystique by default. For those future musicians who want to conjure that old-time magic, the trick might be working hard to make a name — then working hard to hide in plain sight.

He also spends some time on bands for whom the mystiquelessness is working well.

Now no one knows the wonder of mystique better than I. To this day I avoid interviews with the singer who melts me down to a puddle of atoms and I really want to know next to nothing about him. When I saw a tiny blurb in Pitchfork saying he’d been spotted passed out drunk in the gutter I wanted to cry (though it seems it may not have been him, but his guitarist, who died not long thereafter, making me really cry). I don’t even like watching his videos that much because I don’t want to really have to face the fact that his body’s not as massively hot as his voice.

But I do want to take issue on a few points. There are in fact still bands who are working the mystique even in the internet age. They have obscure websites that make it hard to find information. They have MySpace pages that throw noise at you but nothing else. They eschew videos. Furthermore, though all that information is tempting, it can be resisted.

And what’s more, there’s little to ruin a rock star’s mystique like seeing them live. Long before the internet, I  lost my affection for plenty of rock people I thought I loved when I saw them in the flesh and realized how little there was to like. On the other hand, I had a few meals and drinks and coffees with Michael Stipe for a decade there and he never lost an ounce of his mystique. Real mystique transcends information.

Most importantly, mystique is not the only way to make people into active fans. You can know everything about a person and still have plenty of room for making meaning and engaging on a personal level. Half the time (if not more) the people making the music don’t really know what that force that comes out of them means. Knowing who they are and feeling like you can know them personally doesn’t mean that the MUSIC loses its mystique.

One of the people I interviewed for my Swedish indie study, a musician, who also has a voice that undoes me (and whom I really had fun talking to) had this to say on the topic:

It’s important to remember that people who play music are just people. The internet helps that, it’s not this huge iconic book of characters, rock stars. Personally I think the rock star thing is boring and played out. Its good its just people playing folk music. Music by the people for the people.

Indeed, the Swedish musicians I spoke with were all thrilled to get rid of mystique. Only one label guy had any desire to maintain it, and that was for the label, not the bands on the label. It’s a lot easier to be yourself than to be a false idol.

Short take: I’ll trade relationship for artificial mystique anyday. If the music can’t generate its own fascination without the persona of its maker, then no amount of mystique will make it worthwhile over the long haul.

Radiohead Demonstrate the Value of Relationships

The Radiohead experiment demonstrates that the future of the music industry is forgetting about fans as customers of labels and instead recognizing them as people who want to have social relationships with bands. I’m not talking about pathological obsession. I’m talking about what happens when bands maintain a blog, which in effect says “we want to you to know what’s going on with us,” when they provide comment spaces and forums for fans to talk to them and then respond. I’m talking about MySpace friends links, answers to emails, free downloads, mailing list missives. These things move people from thinking about music in economic terms toward thinking of it in social terms. That brings with it a different system of trust and obligation from the one that governs economic relationships, though money may still be exchanged.

Economists seem to be shocked that more than a million people have paid an average of somewhere around 4 pounds to download the Radiohead album. “It’s not rational!” Why pay for what you can get for free? Is it some “touchy-feely” “warm glow?” An editorial in the New York Times over the weekend read:

One could argue that rationality isn’t everything. Radiohead fans might just be altruistic beings who out of the goodness of their hearts would like to give some money to a spectacularly successful and probably stinking rich rock band. But somehow, that doesn’t work as an explanation.

Or does it? Some economists suspect that what is going on is that people get a kick from the act of giving the band money for the album rather than taking it for free. It could take many forms, like pleasure at being able to bypass the record labels, which many see as only slightly worse than the military-industrial complex. It could come from the notion that the $8 helps keep Radiohead in business. Or it could make fans feel that they are helping create a new art form — or a new economy. People who study philanthropy call it the “warm glow” that comes from doing something that we, and others, believe to be good.

[...]Today, music lovers are left but two options: pay list price for an album, or perform what a fan might call a free download and a record company would call theft. Radiohead’s experiment suggests a third way out: let fans pay what they want and give them lots of touchy-feely reasons to want to give as much money as they can.

It’s important not to be dismissive of “touchy-feely reasons,” pit them against rationality, or think of them as weaknesses to be exploited for financial gain. Before people were customers embroiled in economic entertainment systems, we were humans whose rewards all came from our relationships with other people. This is true of listeners and bands. This is true of each of us in our own individual development, and in the historical development of relationships between audiences and entertainers. Music moves people. Its effect is highly personal and often highly social. When the band shows its listeners respect and treats them as they want to be treated, people want to give back because they have learned through a lifetime of social experience that in any functional relationship you have to give as well as take.


I’ll be in Vancouver all week so forgive light and maybe not even any posting.

Making the Morality Play of Pricing Visible

UK-based music industry news subscription service, Record of the Day, is running a survey asking people buying the Radiohead record how much they paid and why. You can read MANY sample answers. I have too much to say about their data to say anything and still get done what needs to be done this week, so I’ll just post a few to give you a feel for how rich and value laden the the audience’s economic relationship to music is. Radiohead have opened a broad public discussion of this whole morality play. All those tacit values we have about our relationship to music, to artists, our rights and obligations, our value to them, how some people just don’t think about this stuff while others obsess on it, and the many logistical issues at stake are laid bare:

£0.00 (United Kingdom)

I’m not even sure I like Radiohead, I found OK Computer really hard going. So I’m taking a (free) punt and seeing what it’s like, either I’ll become a new fan or continue on my way.

£15.00 (United Kingdom)

Paid this amount not only for the music but also for the chance to participate in the experience of consumer spending power being kindly given a boost by Radiohead’s new business model. That to me was worth more than the music alone. As all the pundits keep saying, musicians will make money from live events because of this move – well, this felt like participating in a live event. The fact we were allowed to choose gave the experience more value – as the exercise meant the value of money became, for a moment in time, subjective.

£5.00 (United Kingdom)

I think it’s a very smart move – Radiohead have taken a huge moral high ground but have also given their fans the opportunity to do the same.

£40.00 (United Kingdom)

boxset. great idea. moving the industry forward. i hope music fans are honest.

£0.01 (United Kingdom)

It was quite a half-hearted offer from Radiohead – they should have actually GIVEN the album away, instead of offering a pay-what-you-like deal which makes a ton of money for credit card processing companies.

£0.00 (Canada)

I’ll listen to it first. If I like it, I’ll buy it when it’s formally released in three months or so. That’s what I do with most releases that catch my attention. I also write about music, so the artists get some honest feedback that, assuming the “product” is good, will further help sales and distribution.

£1.50 (United Kingdom)

Tried to pay £1.55 to make it an even £2.00 with the card fees, but their website only charged me £1. I’ve paid enough for all their gigs to deserve their music for free!

£5.60 (United States)

I actually meant to pay less, but I accidentally converted Dollars into Euros and not Pounds like I should have. Basically, I meant to pay $8 American. My bad. Oh well. I’m just glad to be able to finally hear the album.

Kudos to Record of the Day for making this information public instead of hoarding it for themselves! And extra kudos to them for the “Sign up here to get the results via email” link on the side.

Before there was Radiohead…

Though it’s been pointed out that they are not doing something new, they’re just the biggest band to do it yet, Radiohead are still getting all the free press one could ever want with their take-it-for-free-if-you-want-it album release strategy.

I say, it’s always good to remember history, especially given the tendency to think that The Internet Changes Everything (TM). With that in mind, I present Lustfaust, a late-70s experimental (West) Berlin band, who, 30 years ago, placed ads in mainstream music magazines that said:

Send a blank tape & postage and we’ll give you album free. Construct your own cover.

On the site where they’ve collected these ads, they write:

Lustfaust relied on maintaining a dialogue with their fans. Print was an important part of this process with both Falke Tranen and the music press being tools used to enable their pioneering of the tape trading networks.

What? Giving music away to fans for free, telling them to share it, and encouraging user generated content wasn’t invented yesterday? Who knew!

Upcoming Events

The fall travel season will soon be upon me and I am hard at work preparing talks. On October 16th I’m going to be visiting Microsoft Research, giving a talk called “I Heard it on the Net: Recent Transformations in Online Music Fandom.” Here is the abstract:

Music fans have always been enthusiastic internet users, building community through mailing lists, news groups, and web site. In the last two years, however, there have been dramatic changes in how music fandom is practiced and with what consequences for fans, artists, and industries. Music-based social networking sites, MySpace, mp3 blogs, and the success of fan-authored webzines such as Pitchfork Media have given fans new ways to act as promoters, critics, and even culture importers and exporters.

The next day I will be in Vancouver at the Association of Internet Researchers’ conference where I’ve organized a pre-conference colloquium for PhD students writing their theses and a Saturday morning roundtable discussion about researching in social network sites. Here is the blurb for the latter:

Social network sites are rapidly becoming the most popular destinations on the internet. New ones, often targeted at increasingly narrow niches (stay at home mothers, the elderly), are launched faster than even ardent analysts can track. Yet scholarship, with its lengthy time to publication, has only begun to speak to this phenomenon. This roundtable brings together an international group of social networking analysts from within academia, independent research nonprofits, and industry to stimulate discussion on what is most interesting in these networks and what poses the greatest challenges for researchers studying them.

I am excited about this panel, not least because of the stellar people who agreed to be part. They are: danah boyd of UC-Berkeley and general netfame, Nicole Ellison of MSU, Jeff Hammerbacher of Facebook, Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life project, Daniel Skog of Umeå University, and Jan Schmidt of the University of Bamberg. I expect this mix to raise some fascinating issues and discussion and I anticipate that my brain will be on fire by the end. Plus AoIR is where I see all my favorite people. Yay!