NYT ponders the role of the fan in webcasting

Today the New York Times has a nice big piece about the revivial of the internet in the music business, writing:

A dot-com-era bid by concert promoters to market live gigs online fizzled out. But now concert Webcasts and vintage performance clips are gaining new currency. An array of players — from independent record labels to major concert promoters — are drawing up plans to capitalize on fans’ appetites

They pay particular attention to efforts by bands, fans, promoters, and record labels to post videos to YouTube and point out that:

Within the music industry, however, there is still widespread debate about whether a thicket of copyright and contractual issues will slow or prevent some of the new enterprises from taking off.

The “big question?”

What role, if any, will be carved out for fans who take their own pictures and “bootleg” video at concerts?

Erik Flannigan, general manager of America Online’s music, film and television content, said that at a big arena performance these days “20,000 people walk through the door.” He added: “How many people who went to that show walked out with some kind of media captured? They called someone, they took a photo. Why not harness that and turn it into something?”

One idea being bounced around is the creation of online fan forums, where music lovers could post pictures and interact with one another after a show, said Jim Cannella, national director of corporate partnerships for House of Blues. “People want to be heard and they want to develop a community of people that have similar interests,” he said.

Creating fan forums is certainly one approach, and not bad though hardly novel. But it misses the enormous point that many if not most cases the fans have already done that for themselves. They are already out there pooling these resources, creating these materials, talking with each other after shows. So the question of fans’ roles is not just one of what to do with their materials, or how to bring them together online, it’s how to take advantage of the materials and online communities they are ALREADY generating on their own. The real question is how to manage what fans do anyway in ways that will benefit the artists. If you are going to create a fan forum, it has to be one that is better than what they’ve already got. Package it with ads to generate your revenue and it might not be.

I wrote the other day about the Madrugada fanboard, which is an interesting example of the value of fan materials like this. Last fall the band toured Europe. Fans on that forum recorded several shows themselves, spent a good deal of time not just creating torrents, but also in some cases remastering the recordings for best sound. Others posted photos they had taken. Living in the States, it was a lot closer to getting to see them live than I ever would have gotten without the board. There is an archive of back concerts that are periodically reseeded and traded again. I’ve amassed enough live Madrugada recordings through the board that I have a pretty good sense of what they were like on each tour of their career. This is done with the band’s tacit approval, with the understanding that there is no money exchanged and nothing available for purchase is posted, points which the webmaster gently enforces when need be. Not only did it keep fans who weren’t able to make this tour involved with the band long after their last release might have stopped getting playtime, but it also brought in fans who didn’t like the recent release, fans who wanted to know what old songs were being played. So it kept fans they could easily have lost involved with them. Would it have worked if it were a board run by the band? Maybe, if they were able to resolve the copyright questions in ways they and those around them could live with. Would it have worked if it were a board run by their label or any other third party? It could, but it would take a good deal more than simply “creating a fan forum.”

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Pop Stars Must Blog says Baltimore Sun

Here is a really interesting article in the Baltimore Sun about the importance of blogging in supporting a fan base’s relationship with a band (or, if you’re on the money-receiving end of the relationship, the importance of blogging in marketing):

“Blogging ultimately drives a pop star’s brand and leads to more sales via iTunes,” says Robb Hecht, a New York-based branding expert and marketing strategist. “It is very important for a pop star to keep a blog in our new age where music is incredibly accessible via the Internet, cell phones and various other technological advances.”

The article points out that the internet changes the relationship between fan and ‘star’ in ways that enable a much greater sense of closeness (something evident in the Pete Townshend quote in the entry below). In essense, marketing becomes relationship management on a scale somewhere far closer to interpersonal than mass communication is used to. There’s a long line of mass media research into “parasocial relationships” — the kind people develop with their favorite tv characters. The fact that blogging is continuously updated while records are released months or years apart opens new potentials for parasocial relationships with musicians:

“Blogging humanizes artists by bringing them down to the eye level of their fan base,” says Andrew Foote, account supervisor of Peppercom Inc., a communications firm in New York that specializes in digital marketing. “This interactivity gives fans the sense that they have an affiliation with their favorite artist, which empowers them to remain loyal and spread positive word of mouth.”

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The Who: webcasting, openness, and new business models

Pete Townshend has given up on his plan to webcast Who concerts following what the press has interpreted as a fairly nasty public spat with Roger Daltrey over whether and how to fund online broadcasts of their concerts. It’s a good example of the confusion that ensues when people just aren’t sure how to mesh the unprecedented ability of the internet to bring music to fans with the business models they’re used to.

Like Kevin Smith, Townshend takes advantage of the internet to create a kind of openness and direct connection with fans that just was not available before, using his own website to articulate the issues at stake. As he describes himself and his online fans:

I am an internet nut. In Madrid last night I met at least a dozen shining Spanish fans who up until now I have known only through exchanges on the web on Blogs or through my appearances on In The Attic. There are two way of looking at these people – either they are real fans, who buy tickets and support me unconditionally as an artist, or – as decried by Janet Street Porter recently – they are Blogging ‘Saddos’. Either way, we have fun, we connect, we are alive. At a concert where the Who play to what looked like 20,000 roaring people I also have a more intimate sense of connection with some of the audience. I suppose the only thing that’s ‘sad’ about that to the press is that it doesn’t make them any money.

When he asked for emails so he could assess fan opinions on the matter in a bid to persuade Roger, the hotmail mailbox filled within a day. And then he expressed surprise that the press paid attention:

Its Lebanon and Israel who are “at war” – not Roger and Pete.

In related news, he’s:

taking down www.thewho.com as well after tomorrow, but again this is not out of spite or anger. This was always something that was planned to be a part of the webcast package, and on this Roger is in agreement to help support a new and greatly revised website, reflecting more of his ideas, as soon as we can find a good webmaster. This new website will definitely go up prior to our first U.S. dates in September.

When even the Who can’t find a good enough webmaster to keep their site up and running and compelling for fans, that’s a sad statement on the state of official band sites.

Interview with a fan site webmaster

Around this time last year, I fell in love with a Norwegian rock band called Madrugada. Catch was, none of their records has been released in the US, they never tour here, and the only people I know who listen to them learned about them from me. What’s a newly-minted fan trying to piece together a prolific career she’s only just learned about to do?

Fortunately, I found madrugada.de. a fan site created and run by Reidar Eik, a Norwegian who lives in Berlin. The site is an amazing repository of detailed information and has a small but engaged group of dedicated and generous fans engaged in ongoing discussion on its forums.

It’s also an example of a fan page that has gained semi-official status. Madrugada have a link to the forum from their official page (though marked as an external site) and they keep Reidar informed. This seems particularly important in their online presence since, by their own admission, their own website is rarely updated (as I write, its new update is an apology for its infrequent updates). I spoke with Reidar about creating and running the site and how he sees the function of a fan page compared to that of an official site.

When did you start Madrugada.de?

November 12th 1999. I had seen them live for the first time on November 3rd the same year, and at the time there was only one poorly updated fan page available online, in addition to an official page lacking in content, and I felt that this was a band that could conquer the world and therefore deserved more. So when no one else did anything I figured I had to do it myself. It started out as a very small project where the focus was simply to present news about the band’s few upcoming European dates and how their release outside of Norway was panning out, and to present some rare tracks and live recordings in MP3 format for those who had only heard their popular (only in Norway, though) debut album.

At what point did the band/management find out about it? What were their reactions?

I am not sure when they first found out about the page. […] I did not have any contact with them or their management for the first year or so. For their European tour in the end of 2000 I figured I wanted to travel around and see as many of their shows as possible […] but also realized that this would be pretty expensive for a student. So I sent their management an e-mail asking kindly if it would be possible to get free tickets for a few of these concerts, to which former drummer Jon and Frode [bass player] replied in an e-mail and told me they loved my page and were very proud of what I was doing for them, and that I just had to show up anywhere and there would be a free ticket for me. That e-mail was the first contact I had with any of them, and of course that was a very nice start.

How do you see the role(s) of your site differing from the band’s official site?

I have always tried to be very in-depth when it comes to the information that is available on the fan page. Most of the reason for that is that I have always made the page with myself as the target audience. I want to make a page that I would want to visit, with information that I would want to read. Who the lead singer is currently dating never appealed to me in my adoration of the band, but whether an unreleased b-side was played live at a recent is big news to me. So the fanpage has always been very ‘heavy’ in areas like unreleased songs and concert setlists, but probably lacking in other areas. I realize it is not a ‘complete’ page, but my idea is that anyone can make a webpage and focus it on the parts of their subject that they really care about.

The official page has some of the necessary information a new fan would need to get into the band. It has some audio and video clips, some nice pictures, a very basic discography, and the recent tour dates. It is not a great page by any means, but for me it works as an introduction to the band. They also have a link directly to the discussion forum of my fan page, which is a very nice touch because it enables the fans of the band to get in direct contact with each other just one click away from the band’s official page. So while lacking in content, the official page makes up for it by using the resources the fans pool together.

There was also a time where there were a lot of of news updates on the official page coming directly from the management, and that was really nice. Of course it took the focus away from my page as being ‘the’ place to get the news, but I never really cared about that. I want the news to be available to the fans, that is all.

Do you think Madrugada benefit from the site? How?

I never really thought about this for the first few years. It is just a hobby project of mine, and again, just something I make because I would want to visit a page like that about a band that I like. But last year they thanked me in the liner notes of “The Deep End,” which I was pretty surprised by. The next time I met them I thanked them and told them that I had not expected that and did not think I deserved it, to which they replied “of course you do, for all the work you do for us.” So I suppose they see themselves getting something back from the efforts I put into it, and that is really nice. Maybe what they see is that when someone else does the work, they do not have to bother with it for the official page, hehe.

What are the biggest challenges in running the site?

That it is a band I started liking in early 1999, and I have now updated a page about them on a weekly (or at least monthly) basis for six and a half years straight. It is difficult to keep your interest for any band ‘at a peak’ the whole time, to keep up-to-date with news articles and forum entries and everything, and to sit down and write about them.

I do all the work on the page myself, so if I am slacking off, the page suffers. I still want to make sure that my heart is really in it, so I have tried to maintain that the page is about what I like, because I would rather present a small page that is complete and updated when it comes to the issues regarding the band that I care enough about to still be updating six and a half years later, rather than to present outdated and half-finished sections that I have not bothered updating.

The band is very supportive of what I do, and I get a lot of feedback from fans of the band and the many people who use the discussion forum. So it is a great encouragement to hear directly from the band that I do a good job and that they are proud of what I present, and to see fans gather and get along because I set up and maintain a forum for them to use. It is difficult to grow tired of doing this when there is so much good feedback, and the band is still interesting after all these years.

Having done this for a while as you have, what advice would you offer other people starting up or running fan sites?

Focus on the small bands that really deserve your interest and the time you put into the project. If you go for a band like Radiohead, thousands have already made better pages than yours will ever be, but if you go for the local band who sound like they should be selling millions of copies, you will be the first. They might turn out to be ‘the next big thing’ and it will be great, or they might dissolve into nothing. But hopefully they have tried, and you went along for the ride.

Even the Arctic Monkeys aren’t a MySpace Band. Honest!

To follow up on my posting the other day, here’s more on the Arctic Monkeys’ use of the internet to rise to fame. And, oh yeah, massive protestations against the notion that MySpace had anything to do with it:

It is on the internet, too, that the implications of the Arctic Monkeys’ success seem most profound. It appears to invert the music industry’s long-held fears of free-music-based, web-led meltdown. Instead, internet file-sharing and discussion built a grass-roots movement of fans for the Arctic Monkeys’ music. This practice has been institutionalised, and perverted, by MySpace.com, the massive website where individuals and bands such as the Arctic Monkeys accumulate “friends”, who support and debate their activities. Rupert Murdoch’s buy-out of the company shows the way this briefly democratic set-up is likely to go.

The implications of industry-bypassing channels seem enormous. Most commentators see the Arctic Monkeys’ hit as its first above-ground eruption, the main reason their success this year is so crucial. The band themselves, however, beg to differ. In fact, they find the idea appalling.

“Somebody said to us, ‘I saw your profile on MySpace,’ ” sniffed drummer Matt Helders to US website prefixmag.com. “I said, ‘I don’t even know what MySpace is.’ [When we went to No. 1 in England] we were on the news and radio about how Myspace has helped us.

But that’s just the perfect example of some-one who doesn’t know what the f— they’re talking about.”

Just for the record, I find MySpace too ugly to look at and don’t spend time there if I can avoid it, but it’s more than a little interesting to see the conflation between the internet and MySpace, and also to see a band that has benefited from the net so much nonetheless seek to distance themselves from it.