What are you talking about?

One big piece of the success of MySpace has been its direct tie to musical taste. Here’s a psychological study that has some provocative hints for why music might work particularly well in the context of a social networking site:

A recent study put participants in same-sex and opposite-sex pairings and told them to get to know each other over 6 weeks (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). Analysing the results, they found the most popular topic of conversation was music. [...] The number of people who talked about music was surprisingly high. In the first week on average 58% of the pairs discussed music compared to 37% of all the other categories of conversation combined. Other categories included books, movies, TV, football and clothes.

Why then do we use music as a first port of call in getting to know another person? We probably think that music is indirectly telling us something about the other person’s personality. For this reason, the second question this study tried to answer was: how good is music as a measure of personality?

To measure this, participants were asked to judge people’s personality solely on their top 10 list of songs. [...] Overall the results showed that music preferences were reasonably accurate in conveying aspects of personality. Of the five traits, it was a person’s openness to experience that was best communicated by their top 10 list of songs, followed by extraversion and emotional stability. On the other hand, music preferences didn’t say much about whether a person was conscientious or not.

One of the points I made in my work about online community is that people tend to study online social dynamics, processes and formations without paying attention to the topics around which they are organized. But understanding what people are talking about is absolutely critical to understanding how they’re doing the talking and thus the microprocesses through which they are forming relationships and communities.

One need only look at the comments on YouTube posts to realize that in many ways, video sharing doesn’t lend itself to conversation that builds connection and community the same ways that music sharing can. But music sharing still falls short of serial drama in its ability to keep a group of people sustaining ongoing conversation over time.

The other point that emerges from this study is the centrality of fandom in defining who we are, how we understand one another, and the voluntary relationships we form.

Fans reissuing old LPs

Audiophiles often complain that CD reissues of old records sound terrible. Take, for instance, what this fan says about the quality and ethics of re-releases by the legendary psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevators, fronted by the late Roky Erickson:

“What’s been done to the ‘Elevators music when it was reissued on CD is a crime. The master tapes are long lost so “they” took any old album and ripped it to CD and did a crappy job. This CD became the future “master” for all subsequent reissues and there have been a lot. Like, if another company wants to reissue they license the music and then just go buy a CD to copy. It’s crap. The sound is thin and bad. The band gets paid nothing.

The solution? Let the fans do the reissuing:

The Roky CD Club has released the first volume of Attack of the LPs by the 13th Floor Elevators. This is the band’s first album, the Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, backed by the “Live” album. What makes these different from all the other reissues are two things: 1) they are distributed FREE to the fans 2) the signal was ripped direct from original International Artists LP pressings. The Roky CD Club is a group of Internet-based fans (loosely affiliated with the Texas Psych Google group) who collect, catalog, restore, preserve and share ultra-rare American garage-psych music. They have been active for almost ten years producing upwards of fifty volumes of material with the emphasis being on Texas Psychedelic.

But wait, you cry, isn’t this illegal?

Isn’t the Roky CD Club worried about running afoul of the Roky Erickson Trust? “No really” says a fan; “the Roky CD Club originally began operations with the blessing and help of the Roky Erickson Trust. For many years we collected a donation for discs traded that was sent to the Trust to be distributed to Roky Erickson as needed. It was only when “‘certain other'” people took over the Trust a few years ago that our long relationship with the Roky Erickson Trust soured. They have since proven that they are incompetent by surrounding Roky with his enemies and butchering the music. We call the gang running things now the “‘Roky Robber’s Roost'”. No, the helm has passed to us to “‘save'” this music and deliver it to the fans. We will not fail in that quest. Besides, we already tried working with the new “‘Head'” of the Roky Erickson Trust. After a series of increasingly bizarre and obtuse communications from him we just cut him loose. They put out stuff like: Don’t Knock The Rok and this is just like dragging the name through the dirt. It is apparent to the fans that it is 100% up to them to save this music.”

Sounds kinda like “yeah, it’s illegal but we don’t care!”

I know nothing about the Roky Erickson trust, I have some covers of his songs by others (a hilarious version of “I Walked With A Zombie” by R.E.M., for instance) but never paid that much attention to him or his trust. What’s interesting here is the notion that the fans are the guardians of tradition, the ones on a sacred quest to preserve what they love for posterity when those who could and should have been in charge of this mission have failed. Listen to that language: crime, enemies, butchering, gang, robbers vs. save, quest. Legal or not, it’s true that often the fans are the only ones who care enough to do it right. So whatever’s up with the Roky Erickson Trust, they’re probably right to leave it alone.

Race relations and internet fandom

The New York Times has an interesting article today about being a black fan of indie rock (they do have the cultural memory to point out that the whole darn genre of rock was invented by black people), that includes this interesting paragraph:

The Internet has made it easier for black fans to find one another, some are adopting rock clothing styles, and a handful of bands with black members have growing followings in colleges and on the alternative or indie radio station circuit. It is not the first time there has been a black presence in modern rock. But some fans and musicians say they feel that a multiethnic rock scene is gathering momentum.

One of the early utopian dreams was that the internet would erase race. That certainly hasn’t happened. To the contrary, most racial representation and discussion on the internet is disturbingly stereotypical and racist, and a compelling argument can be made that on the whole, the net is either a space where people assume everyone is white unless they’re in explicitly non-white spaces, or where racism is magnified. Or both.

It would be great if one consequence of fans using the net to connect with one another were that we ended up with more conversation and recognition of commonality across racial lines. A white student of mine told a story about going to meet a friend she had made through a fan board and when she got there discovering that her friend was black. Race was a non-issue in their friendship before they met, and remained one afterwards. That’s how it all ought to be.

Last.fm exportable radio

Earlier I wrote (in a deleted post that went to feed first):

Last.fm just debuted a new (currently subscriber-only) beta site. Not a lot of big changes (a good thing!). The coolest change is that you can now create playlists and embed them in your blog. So let’s see if this cute little playlist of songs you can download for free on their site works here.

Well, it didn’t, plus it screwed up the blog formatting something awful, though I think that’s my blog theme’s fault and not Last.fm’s. I’d embed it in the sidebar but that seems a little too far astray from this blog’s purpose. Plus it’s too wide.

You can also now export your personal radio stream to another site — that means all the songs it knows that I’ve listened to since subscribing that it has rights to license (a lot of them!) can now be embedded as a flash player radio in any website I have. Not a player that automatically makes noise when you load the page (is that MySpace’s most annoying quality or what?), but one that lets you click to play. And they are going to make this available to everyone, not just subscribers.  This is something users have been requesting for quite a while.
This effectively means that everyone can easily run a radio station of the music they listen to off of their web page (MySpace page too). I’d think that as more of these start popping up on websites outside Last.fm it will generate a lot of viral publicity for them and get more people using their service.
Color me impressed.

Meet the Smithereens

One of my favorite albums ever is also one of the first I ever heard, Meet the Beatles (I still have the mono vinyl my parents bought when it came out). Now New Jersey powerpop band, The Smithereens, has just released a track-for-track remake of the whole record in order entitled, not surprisingly, Meet the Smithereens (“the Jersey beat meets the Mersey beat” they say). And where did they get this wacky idea?

The idea of covering the Beatles at all, DiNizio says, came from a concert the Smithereens performed at an Abbey Road on the River festival in Louisville, Ky. After that, he recalls, “We started to get e-mail from fans, When are you gonna do a Beatles tribute album?’ We put the word out on the Internet to Smithereens fans and got a terrific response. Then I had the brainstorm to do [Meet the Beatles!] and it was full speed ahead from there.”

Very silly, and can they really better what the Beatles did (I want to hold your hand still makes me grin every time I hear it), but who cares? It’s great to see a band have fun and listen to their fans at the same time.

I saw them a LOOOOOOOONG time ago because the opening band was Paul Kelly and the Messengers. Paul Kelly was great. The Smithereens were boring. Maybe I’d have liked them better if they’d been doing Beatles covers!