From Myspace to Livingrooms

This story about Quebec musician Craig Cardiff’s use of MySpace and Facebook isn’t really groundbreaking, but if I were a fan of his, I’d be seriously excited by what he’s up to:

Through his website, he asked fans to suggest which cities and bars he should play on his current Canadian tour. Much of the booking was then done on MySpace and another Web community, Facebook. (He also works through the booking agency Fleming Artists.)The venues on the tour are small and intimate — so intimate that three gigs are in people’s living rooms, which he will play just so long as those hosting the performance can get enough friends to chip in to make it economically feasible for him.

Since he is going where his fans suggest, Cardiff asked them to spread the word about his gigs, maybe stick up a flyer or two, all the old-fashioned stuff.

“It’s not unmediated. It’s just more fan-directed, and that’s exciting,” Cardiff says. It’s tour economics on a good-neighbour level. “I think I’ll manage to avoid hotels for most of the tour because of fans and friends who are able to offer spare rooms and couches,” he adds. Keeping tour expenses low is a must.

Cardiff rewards his fans by playing unique sets in which he works through sketches of new songs, singing and composing in front of the audience. The performances are recorded and made available as free podcasts, another element in Cardiff’s grassroots strategy.

Nice to see someone go past friend collecting and figure out a way to spin it into something local, body-to-body, and unique for a particular set of fans. Also nice to see someone using these things as a way to get fans actively engaged on a local level. I’ve been known to note the overlaps between political grassroots activity via the web and online fandom more than once, and this bears quite a resemblance to meet ups, only with someone actually going from place to place singing songs.

I’m curious how many of the final decisions are made via online communication with fans and how much is ultimately decided by the booking agency.

Bad Apples

This is one of many reports this week about Apple sending cease and desist letters to bloggers who dare to show pictures of or (rumour has it) link to sites that feature ways to create a skin for your mobile that looks just like the iPhone. This article quotes from one of the letters

“…the icons and screenshot displayed on your website are copyrighted by Apple,” the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP wrote….

Going after the people who create those skins, ok, that’s a pretty clear violation of intellectual property. But going after the people who talk about it? Hello folks, here in America we have this little thing called the First Amendment. Now I know the Constitution may seem like it’s secondary to proprietary corporate interests, but guess what? It’s not! They didn’t seem so upset about the copyright violation entailed by all those bloggers swooning over the majesty of the iPhone, so I guess it’s only a copyright violation when they don’t like it?
Besides, as Gordon Finlayson writes in the first link above:

When is Apple going to realize that the sort of people who post mods like this are the sorts of fans that have kept the company going for all these years?

I was also more than a little put off by this week’s reports that:

Black Eyed Peas Will.I.Am likes nothing more than rushing straight to the internet after a gig – to catch fans who posts illegal clips of their show on the web.[...] The 31 year old says, “I check MySpace and I look on YouTube to see who posts up phone clips of the show first. They get arrested.”

He may be right that they’re breaking the law, but it’s a very sad thing if one’s immediate response to the high of performing for adoring crowds is to run right home and see which ones you can get arrested. And besides … arrested? This is lawsuit stuff, not “hello, police officer? you need to go arrest BEPfan3398 on YouTube” “yes, sir, we’re right on it, we’ll be subpoenaing YouTube and MySpace immediately to get IP information to track that user down and we’ll have him in a cell by morning.” And where is the economic loss here? Are people not buying BlackEyedPea records because they can get a cell phone video on YouTube for free? Are they skipping the tickets and the merchandise for that reason? I can understand why musicians don’t like this stuff, and I concede that they’ve got some valid concerns, but get a grip, this is just stupid.

Music charts for geeks like me

One of the interesting things about all these different social music sites is the different sorts of charts they make of your listening habits. I’m much more taken with the ones that attend to actual listening or collection contents than the ones where you list the bands you like (as on MySpace) because it’s a bit less open to gaming (though certainly people leave their computer playing something cool while they’re out so they will appear more cool to the outside world, or turn off the plugin when they listen to something embarrassing). So it’s fun to compare the different kinds of charts the different sites generate for you.

Last.fm: Everything you’ve listened to (since you signed up and started using the plugin) that its plugins capture. You can look at it by overall artists, albums, or songs by the week (any week), or rolling 3 month, six month, or year charts. There are some problems (of course) — some listens don’t get captured, like if you listened to your iPod then on your computer without updating the iPod it loses the iPod listens or if you stream radio from something other than Pandora (it can now listen in on Pandora with a plugin), and the site is slow to learn about new albums so the artist charts tend to be more accurate.
iLike: Sucks up the whole iTunes history by most-listened, so you get an overall chart that goes back as far as your iTunes library. If you don’t use iTunes, too bad (for now), and there’s no ways to vary the charts by time period, though you can look at artists or songs. Since it gets everything on iTunes, for those who use iTunes and only listen to that and iPods, it’s pretty accurate.
MOG: Sucks up the iTunes library and sorts it by the number of songs, and gives most listened to this week, but doesn’t give overall most listened to charts. On MOG, it notes that I have more REM songs in my catalogue than Madrugada songs, whereas on Last.fm that information is lost, but it knows that these days I listen to Madrugada three times as much as I listen to REM.

All of these have their strengths, and it’s amazing how, once you’ve got personal charts, there’s no going back. It becomes an essential part of understanding your own musical taste and, for some anyway, an essential part of self-presentation to others (Last.fm gives you code so you can export a variety of chart types to any web site, iLike and MOG let you export your chart to MySpace).

But what it’s got me thinking is, for all Apple’s brilliance, why isn’t this stuff built into iTunes? How much cooler would it be if we could use the music libraries on our computers to display wide varieties of charts and export them to websites with ease.

MIT C3on Most Popular Fan Communities

Over at the excellent MIT Convergence Culture Consortium blog, Sam Ford reports on trying to assess which ‘fan communities’ get the most hits. He notes:

Are all gathering places of fans to be called communities? It’s interesting to see what sites officially label themselves as a home for the fan community. Some are officially run sites for music performers, while other are fan tributes to them. Seeing which sites seem to be the top hits for a “fan community” search is quite illuminating. As my list has shown, not knowing the exact formula for how Google and Yahoo! comes up with what’s at the top of each search, is that certain groups appear to be awfully consistent as the most sought destinations for people looking to find a “fan community.” Instead of a generic definition page or something surrounding a television show–with the exception of the Firefly fans–it appears music dominates online usage of the term “fan community” within the media industry.

I find this particularly interesting given the discussion on here a while back about the use of the term “fandom.” I get the sense that Sam shares my own broad take on the term, given entries about fans of the US Postal Service, Pringles Potato Chips, and other sites pretty far from some of the fanfic communities’ more narrow take on the term. Though I might be wrong about that. (Sam?)

But I am not all that surprised to see music dominating the usage of the term (nor do I share the surprise at Franz Ferdinand topping the chart — having been squeezed shoulder to shoulder with masses of incredibly enthusiastic FF fans at a show not too long ago — a really wonderful fun show at that). Why not? Because unlike other forms of fandom, music fandom has been an organizing principle of social life for many people for a long time, from way before the internet. It’s been the case at least since the 1960s, and maybe since the 1950s, and maybe even before that, that you could make some reasoned guesses about whether music was important to a person, and, if so, what kind based purely on how someone dressed. Punk rock took this to an extreme as the goth rockers do now, but it’s not unique to them. I’ve long said that you can tell almost everything you need to know about a person by looking from the knees down, and musical taste is something not all that hard to glean from the cut of pant legs and shoe choice. When I was in high school and college (pre-net), my social groups were based entirely on musical preferences. Now there were plenty of people for whom musical choice didn’t play that role, but for people who were into music, it was, as it still is, germane to who we hung out with.

In contrast, I don’t think other forms of fandom have been incorporated so fully into our visual identity or our social groups. We may watch the shows our friends watch, maybe even read the books they do, but do people who are into TV shows choose their friends based on the tv shows they prefer? I’m sure some do, but I’m guessing that for people really into music, that is a bigger influence on friend choice than tv is for people into tv.

Sam also raises the question of the use of the term “community.” I love my friend Marc Smith‘s take on this — “community is a great term for marketing but a lousy term for thinking.” My research suggests that whether they are to be called communities or not depends more on who’s doing the labeling than on individual experiences of the spaces. In any one group there are members who experience it as community and others who don’t, and it’s not linked clearly to participation rate — highly active participants may reject that label while lurkers may think it fits quite well.

Signing up for 3 music networking sites

My mission for this year, foolish though I may be to take it on, is to explore as many of the music-based social networking sites as I can. I’ve been using Last.fm for just over a year now and am relatively if not completely happy with it. Up until summer, they didn’t seem to have much competition at all, but now there are competitors cropping up like weeds in my Kansas garden (which would be the reason I gave up on growing vegetables and resorted to large semi-invasive perennial flowers).

As of now, I’ve signed up with three other services: iLike, Reverbnation, and MOG. Actually, come to think of it, I signed up with Pandora a while ago and now that it’s gone more social I’ll have to pop back in. So today I bring you first impressions:

iLike: Very sleek simple interface. I downloaded its “bundle” and it sucked up my complete iTunes listening history in no time. The result was an instant chart that was pretty interesting to compare to my Last.fm chart since it had a few more years of data in it. It also came up with some relatively instant “people with similar taste” for me, which was nice. They weren’t great matches, but my taste is a weird enough amalgamation of things that I don’t expect great matches. I was more than a little turned off to find a provocative babe in my inbox welcoming me to the site since the staff blog pictures suggested an all-male staff. Going for the hormonal male crowd, I guess, which I am not. It’s got very cool YouTube integration, and nicely highlights where you can stream songs or sections of them. But it’s also somehow flat. It didn’t make me want to explore, it was just kind of there. And the iTunes sidebar you have to have in order for it to know what you’re playing felt invasive after a little while. It didn’t stay shut but reopened itself every time I reopened the iTunes window (even if I hadn’t quit iTunes) so I uninstalled it, which made the site considerably less useful.

MOG: Apparently this site has lots of buzz for being so social and, along with Reverbnation, it just won Mashable’s people’s choice award for music social networking site (Last.fm won the editors’ choice). I signed up about 10 hours ago and I hate it already. Why? Because I downloaded its “Mog-o-matic” plug-in that is supposed to tell it what I’ve got in my music library and TEN HOURS LATER it is still crunching away and is NOT YET HALF WAY THROUGH. I have 7500 songs in there. It’s big, but it’s not absurd. It seems to be checking each and every song against Gracenote. WHY? I’m too annoyed by this to comment on any of the other features right now (later, fear not). Plus it is slowing down my computer dramatically.

Reverbnation: I love the concept of this site with its focus on linking bands to fans in useful ways and giving money to artists. But you can only mark yourself as loving bands that have created their own presence there. Given that all the bands I love are long-since broken up or not on the site, this is rather a large barrier to entry. I can imagine that in the days of my total immersion in local music scenes and regional bands on national tours, it would have been a necessity, and I can see why the people who are loving it are loving it.

A potentially-relevant disclaimer is that I am working with Last.fm, though providing PR and remaining mum about their competitors’ strengths are not among my duties. iLike seems to be a pretty straightforward Last.fm competitor, MOG seems to be going for similar stuff, but highlighting finding new people via music rather than Last.fm’s focus on finding new music via people. Reverbnation is doing its own thing, and seems least like a direct competitor of the three.

If you’re using any of these services, I’d love to hear your impressions.