Gushes beat leaks

Musicians and fans are so far ahead of the labels on “piracy” and DRM that increasingly one wonders whether ultimately either will have much use for labels at all. The Register has a short story up about Blur drummer Dave Rowntree, who argues that the labels should have known they’d lost the battle in 1997:

“If you turn back the clock when all this stuff was still on the horizon, the key realisation to have made was that we had lost the war already,” Rowntree told OUT-LAW Radio, the weekly technology law podcast. “That’s what I was going round telling everybody 10 years ago, saying ‘the horse has bolted, there’s no way of undoing what has been done already, the only thing you can do is to try and turn your business around so that you turn this into a plus rather than a minus’.”

Rowntree advises digital rights advocacy group the Open Rights Group and has been a vocal opponent of the mainstream record industry’s policies of chasing individual file sharers. When told that the last Blur album was leaked on to the internet he reportedly said “I’d rather it gushed”.

Rowntree said that the major labels’ policies of putting digital rights management (DRM) technology on music CDs to attempt to stop them being copied and shared backfired spectacularly.

“I’d rather it gushed.” I love it! He’s got some other points characterizing the people who “pirate” that are worth reading. The RIAA and its cohorts can sue until hiring lawyers eats every bit of gross income they’ve got and people are still going to rip and exchange music. Some things can’t go backwards.

I am not sure I like this whole idea gaining increasing currency that the new business model for music has to be advertising. I’m not clear on where these ads are supposed to be, but I’m pretty sure I’d rather pay money than have my music packaged with ads.

I’d like to see a model where somehow the fans channeled money right to the musicians, who could pay labels for any services they needed. Reverse the hierarchy so the labels work for the bands instead of the bands being horses in the label’s stables.

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The Internet Has No Opinions

New York Magazine has a quick little article up about online fans’ divided reactions to the just-leaked Ryan Adams record. It’s a short piece with a 3 part set up that goes like this:

The Internet loves it! (excerpt of a positive blog review follows)

The Internet hates it! (excerpt of a negative blog review follows)

We think: (their own minireview follows)

Maybe tongue is in cheek, but if they could hear us talk about music over the phone would they write “The Telephone loves it!” ?

Would they write “The Television loves it!” ?

How about “the Telephone loves it, but the Television hates it!” ?

It’s this kind of acting as though the internet* were a unified creature capable of intentionality that leads to goofy irrational claims that lead to goofy irrational policies. Wikipedia? The Internet can’t be trusted, so we must ban it from education! MySpace? The Internet is dangerous so we must never let our children use it! Our Teaching Assistants pull their hair out when students in public speaking say things like “According to the Internet…”

And, word to the writers at New York magazine — YOU’RE “THE INTERNET” TOO!

* I prefer lower case “i” — and if you wonder why, just look at how strange capitalization looks on the words “Telephone” and “Television” in the sentences above.

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Why not all friends are the same

In commenting on the enhanced value iLike can offer its users through the Facebook platform rather than the iLike.com platform, CEO Ali Partovi said:

The #1 way people discover music is through friends, and iLike’s mission is to facilitate that. Facebook enhances this in two key ways: 1) instant personalization. On our dot-com site, each new user needs to tell us their music tastes, invite their friends, and get those friends to tell us their tastes. Whereas on our Facebook site, we already know your tastes, your friends, and their tastes, so we can offer you a personalized experience automatically. 2) Not another social network. People don’t wanna go somewhere separate just for music — they want music to enhance their existing online social life. For example: where would you rather see a notification that your buddies are going to see Snow Patrol: on a separate music website, or in the Facebook news feed that you’re already checking five times a day?

This last comment was picked up by Matthew Ingram of the Toronto Globe and Mail, who said “not a bad point.”

But I think it’s a point with some real problems. One of the great shortcomings of social network sites as they currently exist is that almost all of them offer you only one kind of friend. It’s binary — you’re a friend or you aren’t. Now there are some shades of grey on some sites: Flickr lets you call people friends, family or contacts and restrict content shared accordingly; Facebook lets you limit what some friends see and limit how much you see about some friends. But no social network site offers anywhere near the shades of gray that characterize real life friendship.

So let’s think for a minute about music and friendship. Once upon a time, back in the carefree days of youth before career and family came to shape my life above all other forces, my friendship group and my pop culture taste group were one and the same. My friends were my friends because they listened to the same bands I did, or at least their interests were close enough. If there had been Facebook back then, I’d be with Partovi all the way — yeah, combine them, why keep it separate?

But it’s not that way anymore. My Facebook friends are almost all people I know face-to-face as well. The few that aren’t are those who are either friends of friends (in a get together off line and have fun sense of the term) or people with common career interests to my own that I’ve had interesting interactions with. Am I interested in their musical taste? Well, as a matter of curiosity, but I have no reason to think there’s going to be any overlap in tastes, and no real compelling reason to care if a friend who I love hanging out with at conferences is going to see Snow Patrol. I certainly don’t want these people to serve as a primary source of music recommendations and I may be delighted when they listen to my last.fm radio stream and like it, but I certainly don’t expect them to care about my musical tastes. Yes, it’s cool in those moments when I discover, for example, that Jason Mittell not only has overlapping intellectual curiousities, but a lot of overlapping musical taste too, but that’s the exception.

In contrast, I have met very few of my Last.fm friends. Most of them I imagine I’d have very little to say to if we were to meet. On the other hand, I can have rewarding interactions with them about music, and in many cases, their musical tastes are of great interest to me.

I would be happy to have my Facebook friends as part of my Last.fm friendship network, but I would never want my Last.fm friends subsumed within my Facebook network.

The short point here is that as long as we are limited to a friend vs not friend way of categorizing people, there are tremendous benefits to keeping “friends” separate on separate sites. I agree people don’t want multiple social networking sites, but until we are given meaningful ways to categorize friends within social networking sites, those of us who have online ‘friends’ of very different sorts need them.

There’s a lot of research out there about the many dynamics of relationship grouped together within the broad concept of friendship, and people developing social network sites would be wise to familiarize themselves with it and offer richer relational categorizing choices. But so long as a social network ‘friend’ is an either/or relationship, banking on the convergence of all such sites is profoundly limiting.

In particular, I suspect it is limiting the happy user base to teenagers and other young people who are most likely to have one sort of identity around which their friendships revolve (though it’s still important not to oversimplify teenage friendships). But those of us who, for better or worse, have come to have more bifurcated selves with different friendships that accompany each, and very few that span them all, are important too. There are many more of us, and all those teens are going to turn into us. Right now social network sites are used primarily by teens, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way. Older folks need music social networking sites much more than teens do for this very reason — we are much less likely have peers who we can rely on to turn us on to new music. And we’re the ones with tons o’ cash to drop on music purchases.

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Another way to make me happy

So maybe I expressed just a wee bit of jealousy that Tama Leaver made a LOLtheorist out of Henry Jenkins, but deep in my heart of hearts, the truth is, I’d rather be made into a comic strip any day. Joel Orff already did me that honor in illustrating the story of my friendship with Slivka of the band Thirdimension, of my early and lasting affection for R.E.M., and now he’s done it once again with a wonderful illustration of my love affair with The Wrens (click for full size):

wrens.jpg

One of the lessons I take from all of this is that as cool as algorithmically generated data visualizations may be, there’s still a major place for the warmth of the human hand. I especially love the third frame in this cartoon which nails the mood perfectly.

If you’ve got stories, send them his way, he’s always looking for rock ‘n’ roll fan tales.

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How the Internet Transformed What it Means To Be A Music Fan (The Short Version)

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.

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