Fans as music-sellers on MySpace

You’ve likely heard the news that MySpace is going to enable selling music. Particularly interesting is that they are letting the fans sell the bands’ tunes through their own profiles:

A handful of bands have been testing the MySpace online music feature for several weeks. One is The Format, an indie rock band from Phoenix, Ariz., that boasts more than 99,000 “friends” on their MySpace page.

Terry McBride, chief executive of Canadian label Nettwerk Records, which manages the band and handles their marketing and promotion, said having fans help sell the band’s music is the wave of the future.

We have a strong belief the next major retailer in music is the consumer themselves,” McBride said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

I guess it’s not that different from being an Amazon affiliate, except it looks to me like the fans aren’t getting any of the take for sales made through their profiles. Anyone know for sure?

I wondered before about where the line is between empowering and exploiting fans, also in the context of the Murdoch empire, and this is another example. Yeah, I would love to be personally responsible for selling records by my favorite artists (I confess that I’ve been known to count how many copies of records I know were bought because of my recommendations). On the other hand, if I had a thriving little media sales empire taking place through a web profile I expended considerable energy on maintaining and keeping filled with current and compelling content, I think I’d feel a wee bit resentful if I weren’t seeing any of that income. Of course, I’d want a cut of MySpace’s profit, not the band’s.

How can enhance artist/fan interaction

People rave about for a lot of reasons, but one you rarely hear is how it can get artists in touch with their fans. I’ve had three experiences like this in the last few months, and each has been a fun thrill in its own way. All have come about because I keep a journal on there about music, promoting the artists I like and reporting on shows I see:

Skywriter are a band from Copenhagen. They sound kind of like Leonard Cohen meets Brian Ferry via David Bowie’s Berlin era. They’ve got one record on an indie label. They’re not exactly tearing up the charts, but it’s one of my favorite records of the year. So when I got the chance to write a review to that effect at Its A Trap (a site I’ll write about in another entry), I did. And then, as I usually do, I cut and pasted it into my journal. And who should show up in the comments on my journal entry than Skywriter’s singer/guitarist/songwriter, there to tell me how good my review had made him feel. Now he and I send occassional messages to one another.

I also wrote up in my journal logs of all the concerts I saw in the 1980s (I kept records! though they should have been better). So I get a message from someone saying “I was in that scene, I was at a lot of those shows.” And lo and behold, it was someone from one of those great local bands I saw so many times back them. Someone I knew in high school and liked but never kept in touch with. Now we email.

Last week I wrote a report on the incredible reunion show I got to see by late 70s/early 80s underground icons, the Embarrassment, and this morning, I got a message from one of the guys in that band, telling me how “warm and fuzzy” my write-up had made him feel. Like the guy I knew in high school, this was actually someone I’d known in the 80s, but he didn’t know it was me when he wrote.

I have seen messages that artists leave in fans’ shoutboxes (visible on the page for all to see), things like “I saw you listened to our last record a lot, our new one will be out next week.” So at least for less famous bands, is working as a vehicle for locating the people who are listening to you, or who are writing about you, and engaging them directly.

I’ve written before about acknowledging the rewards for artists of having direct interpersonal connections to fans, and all these stories drive that point home. Performers, especially those who don’t sell a lot, are happy happy happy to have a way to reach those who are buying.

An interview with an MP3 blogger

Unbeknownst to most of the world, Sweden has the world’s third largest record market, sliding in just behind the US and the UK. Sweden also has one of the world’s most fertile music scenes, giving rise to thousands of bands playing every genre there is: death metal, hardcore punk, mainstream arena rock and dance music, indie pop, prog, folk, electronica, jazz, twee. They have hip hop and Americana. I kid you not. Sweden even has its own (overrated) YouTube phenomenon: I’m From Barcelona got an absurd number of hits for the so-dry-it-makes-my-lips-chap video (at least I hope it’s dry — see the YouTube comments for other interpretations) for “We’re from Barcelona.” Videos of festival goers spontaneously breaking into the song’s chorus and covers of the song done by robots have surfaced on the web recently as well.

I’ve fallen for dozens of Swedish bands in the last few years (almost all of whom sing in English), and seeing as how I live in the middle of the contintental US, it’s all been through the internet. In pursuing Swedish music fandom, I find myself spread across a lot of inter-related sites. One I visit at least once a week is an mp3 blog started in early 2005 called Swedesplease. It’s written by Craig Bonell, who lives about as close to Sweden as I do.

MP3 blogs are increasingly important to the circulation of music. Like many fans of music below the radar, I rely on them, and I’m grateful to those who keep them going. I also see them as a move toward more individualized, less cohesive online fandom. They inherently privilege the voices of those who write the blogs over those of readers who, although they could build their own interactive communities through the comments sections (as happens in many political blogs), rarely do.

Swedesplease offers a great vantage point for exploring these issues. Craig Bonell recently took time out from scouring the internet looking for new music with which to delight his readers (fans?) to speak with me about Swedesplease. Here’s what he had to say:

What motivated you to start Swedesplease? What motivates you to keep doing it?

My regular blog is Songs:Illinois. In the course of writing that blog I would continually stumble upon Swedish acts that were not being covered in the press. So after a discussion with the rock journalist Greg Kot in which I said that so many genres are underserved by mp3 blogs I decided to start Swedesplease. It was easy to start but is hard to keep going.

Do you have any sense of who’s reading your blog? What kind of feedback do you get from them?

I get all kinds of feedback. It’s a little skewed because the people with an incentive to write me are the bands, labels and pr people. So I do get a lot of emails both personal and bulk from that group. I also just get the random Swedish music fan, some in Sweden and some expats living in the States. The other big block of readership are other bloggers. That number could be rather high since there seems to be 10,000 other mp3 blogs.

How do you find all those bands and mp3s to post? What are the sources feeding your own Swedish music fandom?

How I find all the music to feature is top secret although it revolves around checking MySpace, label websites, band websites and recommendations from fans. More so than any other country, Swedish bands are often in other side projects, so a post about say Thomas Denver Johnson could result in three or four related posts as well as related follow-up posts. Bands who claim to be fans of the blog often submit their music. As do fans of particular blogs. In fact some of my most popular posts resulted from fans submitting music (Jose Gonzales live for instance).

How has your blog generally been received by artists in the Swedish scene? Any stories you could tell of interactions with artists?

It has been well received. Bands and labels seem generally thrilled to get the attention. One of my most championed artists has been Hello Saferide. At the very beginning of her “career” she cited me as the start of her music being an internet sensation. She has since received all kinds of praise, critical success and courtship from major labels here in the States. In a bizarre kind of twist she actually interviewed me for her radio show that she does on P3 (Swedish national radio?). So in that case the fandom was reversed.

The most common reaction I get from artists about the blog is when they ask how I find all this great Swedish music and yet they live in the country and are part of the scene and haven’t heard of it before.

What role do you think a blog like yours plays in making the Swedish music scene more accessible outside of Sweden?

I hate to sound conceited but what other way can the Swedish scene be learned about if not on mp3 blogs. I suppose you could somehow subscribe to Swedish music magazines but that’d be hard, you could try to listen to Swedish radio online but I’m not sure if that’s possible or you could try to follow the scene through the mainstream press (but it’d be such a small sliver of coverage). So while I’m biased I think that mp3 blogs focusing on Swedish music are the best way to learn about the Swedish scene.

Like most mp3 blogs, yours seems to have a lot of people using it, yet very few comments and very little discussion amongst the readers. What do you think about that?

Comments on blogs is a big issue. Everyone would like some but in general no one gets any. Aside from Stereogum, Fluxblog and a couple of the other big ones, comments are few and far between and typically they get comments only when they write about Tom Cruise not Thom Yorke! I guess what I’m saying on Swedesplease and Songs:Illinois is not that controversial and thus doesn’t stir up the need to comment. Generally people read about the band and then download the music to listen to later so even if they wanted to comment on the music they haven’t had time to digest it yet. Inevitably I get comments only when I make a factual or grammatical mistake (of which there are many).

“Music fans and musicians belong to each other”

I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the depth of insight in the panel on the “High Speed Fan” at the Bandwidth conference covering music and technology, as reported by Joe Gratz, but I loved what Thomas Dolby had to say:

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.

Fans can be commited to labels, at least in the case of indie labels like America’s Barsuk or Merge, or Sweden’s Labrador, where, like in the halcyon days of Factory Records, the label is associated with a particular kind of music, particular ethos, and particular fan base. But I think those labels get there by doing what Dolby recommends. They keep it about the music and the fans, and convey the sense that the people in charge are fans too.

Dolby also points to the increased sense of closeness to fans that the internet enables artists to feel. People interested in questions of online fandom tend to focus on the fans, but it’s also worth considering how the potential of the internet to create relational closeness between fans and artists affects the artists not just financially but emotionally: it gives names, face, personalities, and a sense of individualized realness to their audience. From the perspective of a performer used to “units,” that can be pretty powerful.

Quick Link to another new business model for music

Here is a write up about a German effort to connect musicians and online fans directly, in this case with actual transfers of hard cold cash. Well, kinda:

German startup is hoping to leverage the wisdom, and cash, of the crowd to produce high quality independent music for free download on their site. It’s a fascinating prospect even if it seems unlikely to succeed.The way it works is this: bands upload sample music to, promote the heck out of their profile page and ask fans to chip in $10 per share of a recording that will be produced when the band raises $50,000. The fans can take their money back out at any time before the goal is met. Once recordings are made, they are offered for free on the Sellaband site, where ad revenue will be split between the bands (60%), Sellaband (30%) and the hired producer and manager. Fans each get a copy of the recorded CD and bands are free to offer them any other benefits, like concert tickets, that they wish. Sellaband retains rights on the music for 12 months. The company seems confident that bands will be able to find 5,000 supporters (called “Believers”) willing to put up $10 apiece.

One week since signing on, most of the 130 bands on the site have raised between $200 and $500. One Goth band from the Netherlands has raised $4500.

No comment before I think about it more, but I would love to hear yours.