How to relate to your fans online

The band Wilco have been exemplars of how bands ought to relate to fans, providing a great model for the ‘new social rules of Internet fame’ that I wrote about yesterday. Today their new record is released, months after it’s leaked and been widely distributed online. At the end of last week, they emailed their fans what they titled “a modest proposal” (no baby-eating required):

[...] We continue to make lots of music available free to all in the road case, continue to allow taping/photos at shows, and basically just try to keep the things we do charge for of a quality that make you feel like you got a bargain. You know, mutual respect and all that. We like the way it works… a lot. We really do believe in trying to keep as much of it as free and open as is humanly possible. That seems pretty obvious… but somehow it remains a slight novelty in the modern day music business. So much so that people continually mention it in their stories when they write or speak about the band or the somewhat sad state of the music business.

Anyway, what we’re getting at here is that right now we need you to participate in a way that is part of what has made this nice little story work. We’re actually asking you to please go out next week and do the right thing for Wilco. That is, vote with your feet and prove the band’s faith well-placed and buy the record. [...]

Okay, enough campaign speeches. You get the message. And we trust that you’ll act on it as you always have. Other things on this week’s extremely busy agenda…

They trust their fans. They give to them and they assume that their fans will give back. They treat them with respect. They have been remarkably good sports about having their albums leaked over and over, they’ve all-but-outright encouraged fans to tape and distribute their concerts, they’ve made extras available online, they’ve streamed their music before releasing it, they send nice letters to the people on their email list regularly but not excessively.

They have every right to expect that their fans should reciprocate, and I love that they’ve provided what the letter calls a “reflection on the dynamic between us and you” to preface the simple call to please go out this week and buy their record.

I might add that a friend loaned me his complete Wilco collection a few years ago and I ripped it. After listening for a month or two I went downtown to the local indie record store and bought them all. I’m clearly not alone in putting my money where my ears are.

“The new social rules of Internet fame”

Clive Thompson’s got a wonderful write up of the changing relationship between musicians and fans that has been a central theme of this blog in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. He talks to several bands (Jonathan Coulton, the Hold Steady, Ok GO, the Scene Aesthetic) and presents a nicely complex description of how “B-List” musicians find new career paths open to them online, paths that require a continuous online presence spent forming “symbiotic” relationships with fans. Such relationships can be extremely helpful to artists in practical and tangible ways:

… followers have volunteered hours of their time to help further his career: a professional graphic artist in Cleveland has drawn an illustration for each of the weekly songs, free. Another fan recently reformatted Coulton’s tunes so they’d be usable on karaoke machines. On his online discussion board last June, when Coulton asked for advice on how to make more money with his music, dozens of people chimed in with tips on touring and managing the media and even opinions about what kind of songs he ought to write.

They require, however, a new model of connection that looks much more like interpersonal than mass communication. Thompson describes performing artists as “eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame.”

In Thompson’s analysis, the key challenge is managing what to keep private and what to tell. Says a Hold Steady, Tad Kubler, “I vacillate so much on this, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this sense of intimacy with our fans.” The other challenge is the sheer time involved (at one points, Thompson describes a musician as “losing” 2-3 hours a day in communication with fans, hopefully betraying more of his own attitudes towards fans than those of the artists of whom he writes). It’s clear, though, that sustaining one-on-one relationships with each fan is only sustainable when a fan base stays small. Thompson also touches on the fact that fans turn, and that the sense of intimacy can lead to fights and outbursts as well.

As you may or may not know, teaching a course called “Theories of Interpersonal Communication” has been the bread and butter of my career since 1986 and I gotta say… challenges of balancing privacy and disclosure? Challenges of having all the time and freedom to do your own thing without concern for the other people vs. wanting to be involved and interdependent? Where I come from, we’d call those ‘relational dialectics’ and we’d point out that they’re inevitable in every personal relationship. They are balancing acts we manage throughout the course of every relationship. Each artist needs to find his or her own way, but each artist/fan base relationship and set of relationships within that is going to be its own context that calls for somewhat different balances.

The social ‘rules’ aren’t out there yet, but here are some starters:

1. Treat each other with kindness and respect.
2. Respect one another’s boundaries.
3. Tell the truth.
4. Give at least as much as you take.

But even if there were a complete list of rules to follow, it will never be easy and the challenges will never go away. There’s a long list of ‘rules’ for interpersonal communication that people have studied, taught, read about, lived for decades, centuries, millennia, and we still haven’t yet figured out how to ensure that our personal relationships lead to symbiotic growth that benefits us all. We can’t expect bands and fans to solve that one. It’s a wonderful goal to strive for, though.

(Thx to Holly for making sure I found this article.)

Superslick Widgets

Please join me in swooning over the radio widget launched today. If you scroll down the sidebar on the right you’ll find that sexy little black box. Click to hear all the bands I listen to that I’ve tagged “Swedish” on

I know (most) of you don’t drop by to get turned on to new music, but give it a try, really, you might like it. And if you do, but you’ve had enough of Online Fandom for now, just click on the lower righthand corner and it’ll launch in its own little window. How sweet is that?

In contrast to the previous embedded radio they offered, this one shows a short hyperlinked list of similar bands, and lets the user click on a button to ‘hear more music like this’ when they hit a song they like.

They also have a new widget that lists the last 10 songs you’ve listened to and people can click next to them to hear (usually 30 seconds, but sometimes all of) them.

I know I’m supposed to be critical about things, but sometimes I just have to shake my head in awe at the wonders of the last few years. To think I can now not only carry my entire music collection in my pocket wherever I go (and seamless integrate it into my car stereo), I can now create my own radio stations and put them all over the internet. It’s really something.

What makes a viral campaign smart?

Nine Inch Nails has clearly set the standard for super cool viral way to hype your record, give your fans a way to get seriously engaged, and garner gobs of great press all at the same time. The catch, though, is that Trent Reznor has an awful lot more savvy than most people. As MTV News staff writer James Montgomery says in a USA Today article (a very good if not super-recent in-depth overview of the story),

There are a lot of bands, like Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, whose fans grew up on the Internet and MySpace. I don’t know if they’re Reznor-level smart. He gets it. Not many bands today have the intelligence to do this.

What did Reznor do that is so smart?

1. He spread the campaign across many platforms — a network of websites, but also t-shirts, the cd itself, USB drives left in bathrooms at shows — and many of those platforms were not on the internet. By hooking into live audiences and t-shirt wearers, he directly targeted his fans’ offline social networks, which he wove seamlessly into online communities. He recognized that his audience is found on the internet and also hanging out wearing t-shirts with their friends, and his strategy recognized the overlaps between those networks and used each to enhance the other.

2. He crossed genres by getting fans to engage with a record the way they have been engaging with many television shows. Writing a concept album isn’t new, but making it an alternate reality game (ARG) that people could really play is. He developed a (semi)coherent narrative whole into which the pieces fit like puzzles. It echoes Lonely Girl and Blair Witch Project as well in that it set up web sites that gave just enough to make people want to actively seek out more.

3. He took full advantage of people’s sociability. Unravelling the story depends on social engagement. At the very least, the people who found the USB drives had to be socially oriented enough to leak the songs they contained. But people also had to tell each other about the sites. And more importantly, in order to really piece the story together, they have to collaborate. It reminds me a lot of watching Twin Peaks in 1990 and reading and trying to collaboratively solve the crime (or Lost today). In those cases and in this one, there is so much ambiguity in the ‘narrative’ that everyone can develop a theory of their own, which makes it much more fun to have access to other people’s ideas and perspectives as well.

4. He figured out new ways to do things. CDs that change color? Cool! USB drives in bathrooms? Clever! Cryptic quasi-religious armageddonesque websites? Neat-o. But next time a band leaves a digital form of a leaked song in a club or a concert hall what will people say? “Nine Inch Nails rip off, how lame.”

Having the vision to see a complete and novel project, figure out how to leak and distribute that vision throughout the fan base, and doing it as well as he did requires smarts, no doubt about it. But he also had some other things going for him, not least of which was an already present huge loyal fan base with a long history of building online community around his productions.

Short story? Great campaign but very hard to replicate, especially for bands without a fan base who’s already got a strong sense of what you’re all about. But there are some clear lessons: Use multiple interconnected platforms, including material ones that connect offline activity back to the internet, give fans clues to piece together that they’ll piece better together, understand and work the fact that fans have friends they like to talk to on and offline, and think way outside the box about distribution channels for your message. Word of warning: avoid Lite Brite displays.

Looking at Music

Continuing with the visualizing fandom line I’ve been harping on recently: several users have developed means of taking music-listening data from the site and generating all kinds of interesting things. Many are not visual — they are utilities to compare users’ listening overlaps and divergences, to assess how ‘mainstream’ or ‘extensive’ one’s musical taste is, and so on. See here for an extensive list.

Others demonstrate how visualization can provide really intriguing new ways to look at music. I am completely smitten with this oceanic visual representation of someone’s listening habits over time:


But I can’t make it work for myself as it requires Windows and some other things I don’t have.

I can, however, take advantage of this tag cloud generator that looks at the top user-generated tags for your top artists. It pretty much nailed me (though I’m not sure what that “goodgoing” is all about):


Representations like these can also be generated for groups to give an instant overview of communal taste and habits.

This is a truly new way of understanding and communicating music listening (and other elements of fandom) that the internet and, ack, web 2 APIs + user-generated content and applications make possible. Generating statistics and using them to make interesting and sometimes beautiful visual representations may not be for everyone, but I am guessing that online communities would do well to integrate utilities that let people generate visualizations of the data they accumulate, especially when they allow users to compare their own data to group data. Fandom is about identification and play, the more ways we have to represent ourselves through and play with our fandom, the more engaged we’re going to be.

And let’s hear it for the fans who are creating these programs. If I ran, I’d be trying to get some of these things incorporated into the site instead of leaving it all to clever fans to run on their own.