This is a short essay I wrote for something that’s not going to happen afterall, so I thought I’d post it here instead.
Music has always been about connecting with other people. Sure it fills our hearts, lifts our spirits, and all that good stuff, but it also gives us a rack to hang our hats on. We identify ourselves in terms of the music we like. Music is one of the topics new acquaintances talk most about and some reliable predictions about other people can be made based on musical taste alone. We know this from experience, and research bears it out as well.
When I was coming of musical age in an Illinois college town in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were two, and only two, places to be and be seen: the independent record store and wherever the local bands and the smaller touring acts played. As soon as I was old enough to take a bus, I was hanging out at the record store after school. As soon as I was old enough to sneak into bars, my social life was built on which bands were playing when and who was hosting the afterparty. Those places still matter (though the indie record stores are sadly disappearing), but layered on top, around, and woven through those there are now countless websites.
Contrary to popular conception, the use of the internet for music fandom did not begin with MySpace. Many very early users of what became the internet were hardcore Star Trek loving Deadheads. No sooner had they realized that this computer network they were making might be good for something more than distributing data backups than they started using it as fans, designing new architectures to help them connect around the pop culture phenomena they loved . There’s a strong argument to be made that fans connecting to other fans have been a driving force in the internet’s continual evolution. As we use the internet to reach one another and maximize the fan experience, fans are becoming increasingly important forces in the evolution of the music industry. We’re not just consumers anymore. We’re critics, promoters, retailers, organizers, and sometimes relational partners, redistributors, or reconfigurers (and, depending on who you ask, thieves).
The fact that people use the internet to socialize around music comes as no surprise. Using social groups as an excuse to indulge in music and using music as a way to connect to social groups have roots as old as music itself. But the internet changes the dynamics of being a fan, and the relationships amongst fans, musicians and labels. The internet’s got five qualities that together make this possible.
The internet transcends space: Music used to be intensely local. Eventually touring, and later recording and broadcasting, meant that the music could spread beyond its place of origin, but fans couldn’t. Sure we could throw the sleeping bag in the Volkswagen minibus and join a roving commune of Deadheads, but we couldn’t do that and go to school or hold down a full time job at the same time. Our ability to reach other fans was based on who was in our local circles, and our access to magazines, fan club mailings, and other media that already had the power to transcend space. Now we connect to other fans in far off places without going anywhere. Lots of us do it from work. We’re all together nowhere and everywhere. This has implications – we can find a critical mass of other people who are into obscure tastes. We can find music from far off places we might never have heard. Acts that would never be heard outside their region get heard all over the world, and fans discuss and dissect what they hear in networks spread throughout and across nations.
The internet transcends time: The thing about record stores and bars is that they have hours of operation, and if you can’t be there then, you can’t be involved. The internet is always on. Forums, blogs, and social networking sites let us connect with other fans and find the artists we love or will love on our own time. This, along with the transcendence of space, means that many more people can actively participate in groups socializing around music. The band may not be playing, but their fans are still congregating. The afterparty may not be as fun without physical copresence, but it never ends.
The internet offers unparalleled reach: It used to be that a really lucky fan might get a show on the local radio station, but there was no way we could have a regional or national, let alone international stage. The access barriers were too high. It’s still not a world of equality, but the internet is the first communication medium in history that gives an individual the same technical platform for communicating to a mass audience as a multinational corporation. Sites built and driven by fans are frequently more successful at rallying fans than those built by musicians, let alone labels. Participation in fan sites dwarfs participation in official sites across the internet. Bloggers have become at least as important as professional music critics. Individuals have as big a stage as they have the energy, talents, and persistence to make for themselves. Bands aren’t the only ones “making it” through the internet. Increasing numbers of fans are finding industry employment through devoting time to their passion on the internet. Others are appropriately content to find that their newly expanded reach offers them access to a small set of likeminded cohorts they would never have otherwise found.
The internet is permanent, archived, and searchable: Conversation is gone when it’s over. The party is passed when it’s ended. Most of what goes on online (at least in venues that don’t depend on real-time interaction) is still sitting there, indexed by Google and waiting for your hit. We can eavesdrop on discussions that happened months and even years ago. This means that over time fans can – and do – build impressive collaborative databases of music knowledge. Fan sites are goldmines of detailed discographies, concert chronologies, lyrics, tablatures, and so on. Fans have always been experts, but the internet enables them to take this expertise far beyond what any individual could ever offer and to make it visible and usable to others elsewhere.
The internet transcends social distance: In the internet’s early days, optimists daydreamed that once online, all those things we use to judge each other — things like race, sex, age, and appearance — would stop mattering. That was wrong, they still matter online, in all the same troubling ways they matter everywhere else. But even as people recreate social distance in online spaces, there are also ways in which distance is transcended. Take, for instance, the relationship between musician and fan. Pete Townshend’s been quoted as saying that on account of blogging, “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.” Lesser musicians go trolling for online ‘friends’ in social network sites, and once every great while, on MySpace and elsewhere, through online interaction the term ‘friend’ comes to mean something more like “friend” than “fan.” As Thomas Dolby recently told the industry:
There’s been an interesting evolution on the relationship between the industry and fans. It’s not crystal clear yet. Music fans and musicians belong to each other. The role and the obligation of the intermediary is to empower that relationship to happen more easily and more effectively without the wastage that’s sent the industry down the toilet in the last few years. Labels want to push their own brand, but the fans don’t care about that. Kids want to feel they’re being brought closer to the music and the musicians that they admire. All you, as intermediaries, should be doing is facilitating that relationship. You’ve got to put the fans and the musicians first.[…]
My first album went gold, my second album didn’t. Nobody knew who the fans were — they were just units sold. Now, I can see reviews on blogs when I get back to the hotel after a show. I can blog. I can get comments immediately. There’s a closeness with the fans that never existed before, on radio playlists or royalty statements. I’m a tech guy as well as an artist, so I can do this all myself, but a lot of artists need help with that, and you need to help them.
For the musician, a sense of personal connection to fans adds new emotional depth and reward to that relationship. For the fan, a sense of personal connection to musicians becomes almost an expectation. The labels and musicians who are able to provide that will be the ones that do best.
If all that sounds like a utopian spin on the status of fans in the age of the internet, I suppose it is, at least from the fans’ perspective. The internet has made fandom more rewarding. We can connect with so many more fans, find so many more things to be fans of, find out so much more about the objects of our affection, and often we can make connections directly with those who make the music we love. We can gain status by staking our identities to the bands and scenes we love and developing expert credential s through online interaction. [And all this says nothing of the power we have to create and distribute our own materials, including those we make out of what others have already done.] The fearmongers may cry: but this is killing the local record store! This is taking us away from our local music scenes! The internet is killing the recording industry! Not true. The record stores are being killed by the labels and the big box stores with whom they make exclusive deals, not by the fans. And local music scenes continue to thrive. Local ties aren’t weakened on account of the internet. As for the recording industry, it seems to be pretty good at killing itself without fans pulling any triggers.
As industry’s predominant reaction shows, whether change is good or not depends on whether you’ve gained or lost power. The newly empowered fans can be seen a tremendous threat to the people who’ve run the business for so long, what with all their desire for connection, attention, input and respect. The major record labels, with a few exceptions, have reacted with terror, casting fans as pirates and, at least in the United States, taking them to court. Indie labels are doing a lot better at recognizing that an empowered fan can be a magnificent ally. Musicians, with a few sad exceptions, seem to get it as well, though, like many enlightened labels, a lot of them have a long way to go in figuring out how to work it. Rule #1 for those feeling fear about navigating this new world: Trust the fans. We’re your allies, and if you’re good to us, we’ll give you love and do our best to keep you in business. Rules #1 for those without fear: Celebrate! It’s an exciting time in history to be building social lives around music.