Wrens seek 5th online

One of my very favorite bands ever, The Wrens, has a problem — they’re brilliant in the studio where they can add layer upon layer of guitar, but some of those songs they just can’t play live. It doesn’t stop them from putting on a fantastic show, but evidently I’m not the only one who wishes they could play Ex-Girl Collection live. The solution? Get a fifth member. Their strategy? Post their tabs on their website and seek local people from the towns they’re gonna play to be their fifth member (or members, they could have different people for different songs) each night. They say it’s a way to thank the fans for all the great things they’ve done for them in the last few years. I think I might love this band even more now.

If you’ve never heard The Meadowlands, go buy it right now.

Read my Wrens love story here.

(Link via Large Hearted Boy)

Universal drops suit against ABBAMAIL

Some of you may recall that the ABBA fan site ABBAMAIL was being sued by Universal Music for selling unauthorized boots through their site. After much rallying from ABBA fans, Universal has decided merely to keep a close eye on their activities rather than going through with a law suit. Read all about it here:

We have received written advice from MIPI that Universal Music do not plan any further action against ABBAMAIL.

Our lawyers rang to advise us that the matter is now closed. Universal Music & MIPI have backed down on their original demands including wanting names, addresses etc. of fans who have purchased goods from ABBAMAIL’s webshop. They have also backed down from their demand to be given 20-30 year old audio and video cassettes from Graeme Read’s personal ABBA collection.

Above is a portion of the letter containing the relevant advice that Universal Music are not taking any further action. Now that we have this in writing and have published it on our website, we can begin to move on from this horrible and unnecessary situation and look towards the future for ABBAMAIL.

Like all letters received from MIPI, the language is tough but this is, in fact, a significant backdown from both Universal Music and MIPI. It only seems to have come about since the protest campaign that flooded Universal & Mono Music with emails from fans around the world angry about the situation. The feature article on the Sydney Morning Herald website, Australia’s most reputable newspaper, also seems to have had an impact.

ABBAMAIL did supply MIPI with raw sales numbers over the last few years and no doubt despite the aggressive wording of their letter, both Universal Music and MIPI realised that they were – after all – dealing with a fan organisation selling to hard core fans – not a major international piracy ring.

As the sitemasters note, however, the threat of suit was not without personal and financial cost to those involved.

I’m glad to see this, but stand by my position that it’s one thing for fans to distribute unreleased stuff amongst themselves for free and quite another to sell it (they have now pulled almost all of the boots they were selling). If you need money to fund your site, ask for donations like Murmurs.com does.

Two Gallants and fan journalism

By now everyone who pays attention has heard about Saddle Creek band Two Gallants‘ violent and disturbing run-in with Houston police at their show there the other week (if you haven’t, google this for summaries). Aside from issues about the enthusiasm with which some law officers whip out their tasers, it’s interesting because of the role of fan communication in its aftermath, as addressed in this Minnesota Daily editorial:

News coverage of the event has been scattered and varied from sources ranging from the Houston Chronicle and Rolling Stone to MySpace and community journalism efforts, such as first person accounts and digital videos posted online. These efforts had a huge impact on spreading news of the incident and gaining more media attention.

Some MySpace pages about the incident seem to have mysteriously disappeared, though the Two Gallants page seems to be working just fine.

I follow political blogs pretty closely (well, some of them anyway) and one thing that has become a recurring motif is the fear that strikes the hearts of politicians when they realize that YouTube can be used to put up videos of all the stupid things they say and do off the record that are captured by anyone who happens to catch it with their camcorder. The moments they turn their back on the mothers of soldiers, cuss people out, and otherwise act very unpolitic get posted and the blog networks make it viral, ensuring that anyone paying close attention gets to see it. It’s an amazing transformation in control, because reports from those present are one thing, but videos have an impact that’s hard to beat, and now that every digital camera (and many mobile phones) record video and YouTube makes their mass distribution easy, every moment that isn’t poised is fair fodder for your destruction.

What we see in the Two Gallants incident is the same thing, only this time it’s the police (or the band, depending on where you stand) instead of politicians, and it’s music fans instead of political junkies. Nearly 500,000 people have watched this video of the incident. It’s given rise to a lot of discussion about the limits of police power, what to do in incidents like this, and, of course, lots and lots of flame wars. Not the highest level of civic discourse, but still a lot more than there would have been had there been no cameras or YouTube.

Last.fm’s next incarnation

Having railed against last.fm’s communication screw up on their last beta where there were a gazillion excellent design comments met with “we don’t want design comments,” I’ll give them credit for making the point explicit up front this round. Plus it looks like there are some nice changes afoot, including some design ones.

They have developed an algorithmic “taste-o-meter” so that when you check out someone else’s profile, you see a low-medium-high-super ranking of how many artists you share in common (weighted somewhat depending on how much you listen). I got a shout from a user there wondering whether I thought this would change who friended whom — would people use the ranking instead of their own perceptions and with what consequences? Another ‘friend’ on there commented he finds it offensive “as though last.fm is telling us who we can associate with.” There is already grumbling about the algorithm (aren’t there always in each and every service on the net that uses algorithms?), and the staff agree it needs tweaking. Given that some of my self-chosen friends are “super” matches, while my closest “neighbors” (those who the system thinks have taste closest to my own) are only “medium” matches, I’d say it might be the neighbor algorithm that needs tweaking. My own feeling on it: when I look at user pages, it’s the first thing I look at. If I’m a sample of one, my guess is that it will have an impact on how people perceive one anothers’ profiles. How it will affect friending is an open question. I have always had the sense that people ‘friend’ one another on there for many reasons other than shared musical taste. Very few of my ‘friends’ on there are those I think share my taste, they’re much more likely to be people with whom I’ve had an interesting interchange or two or who I already knew offline or elsewhere on the net. (Besides, no one on last.fm seems to have that good a match to my listening anyway, which is not surprising given how long it’s taken to build my narrow music collection and said collection’s strange mix of 80s alt american stuff and 00s swedish pop). Effect of the taste-o-meter is certainly a study waiting to be done.

They are also making the artist pages quite different so that all last.fm generated information appears on the left and user-generated input is made much bigger and appears on the right. I like this too because it makes more of user input, although some artist shoutboxes are full of either “they suck” or “she’s hot,” neither of which are the developers’ fault.

It looks like they are fixing the issues with their player taking iPod listens into account, another constant complaint of many.

They’ve built in a nifty flash player you can use to listen in-page and they’ve restored the ability to download (some) songs. When I look at my dashboard, the list of recommended songs I can hear all of now includes 3 I can download free. That is awesome.

And perhaps best of all, they have integrated something users have been asking for forever — events listings. It looks like there are a few glitches to work out there, but the basic idea is that artist pages will include tour dates and other important info and user profiles will have links to events for artists they listen to. You can mark which events you plan to attend and see what events your friends are going to, so it ought to help with body-to-body meet ups as well. Cool!

I still wish that they would focus on improving its basic functionality first and foremost instead of playing with its look and very small things, although some of these are important big things (especially the events). Would people rather have the taste-o-meter or the ability to capture more streaming listening? I am sure there is lots of backstage improvement going on that users don’t see, but the constant changing of this and that while leaving the basic ways we are supposed to input music, navigate the site, and the search functions woefully confusing and/or inadequate really works against them.

However, the staff communication is much better in this beta round (probably helps that the feedback is so much better too) and I give them kudos for that.

Burnlounge: Another take on fans as retailers

Burnlounge bills itself as “the world’s first community-powered digital download service,” offering its own version of the emerging new music business model starring fans as retailers. See here and here for some cynical takes on this. Joe at spinme.com who used to be sympathetic has also now modified his opinion to “Burnlounge sucks.” Digital Media Wire recently interviewed Burnlounge co-founder Stephen Murray. Here are some excerpts:

DMW: What was the driving force behind the idea for Burnlounge?
Murray: I had a record company with Carson Daly and a couple other people including Ryan Dadd. We were trying to figure out how to market our artists in a new and unique way, using a process that’s always existed, which is friends telling friends about artists they think are cool.[...]

What’s the Burnlounge concept?
What we do is turn fans into retailers. It’s this whole crowd sourcing concept, giving tools and resources to enthusiasts to allow them to become part of the entertainment business, to go semi-pro, if you will.

So for that to occur you need two things: One, a platform, which in this case is a virtual record store. [...] The second thing is marketing resources. We need to give enthusiasts the tools of a professional [...]

So with those tools, how do store owners go about getting customers?
The same way that you already recommend music: you tell your friends about the music you’re into. The difference is you’re not telling them to check it out at another digital music service, you’re telling them to check it out at your own store.

They set it up with three different packages, depending on how serious people are about acting as music retailers. The less-serious models earn credit on all their sales which they can use toward purchasing music in their own stores. The more-serious “moguls” can translate their credits into cash. Minimum earning are apparently a whopping five cents a sale. I’m not sure I’d call this a next-generation snakeoil ponzi scheme, as the Digital Music Weblog has, but it seems like you’d have to move an awful lot of tunes to make it worthwhile.

More interesting than this instantiation of it, is the notion that fans are not just the record store customer, the fan is the record store. It used to be that working at the record store meant you were intrinsically cool (except, perhaps for my own employment at such an establishment for several years and all those bozos who worked at the corporate-owned other record store in town). In the near future will it be running your own online record store that makes you Really Cool? And how will people know you’re the cool kid from the record store when you’re out at the rock shows?

My peeve: just because people connect with each other doesn’t make it a “community.” As my friend Marc Smith says, community is a great term for marketing but a lousy term for thinking. Oh yeah, all the flash on their site is a turnoff too.

But peeves aside, the real question is where the line is to be drawn between Digital Music Weblog’s critique that they (or any other fan as retailer sites) are selling snakeoil through ponzi schemes and a more generous interpretation that they are empowering fans while benefiting musicians. How much money do fans and musicians have to make per sale to make it synergy rather than exploitation? It’s not an inherently bad idea to have fans selling the artists they love, in fact I’d argue it’s an inherently appealing idea. So the issue is what it takes to do it right.