Fans: Curatorial Masters of the Web

Now in their 1970s, my parents have belatedly come around to Beatlemania, suggesting strongly that either my fandom genes are inherited from parents who’d simply failed to express them, or there’s some kind of reverse inheritance going on in which my parents have picked up fandom from me. Either way, John Paul George and Ringo are getting a lot of loving and critical dissection from this pair of retired literature professors.

One of the discussions we had was when I visited over the holidays was about the lack of a proper Let It Be DVD despite the ease of finding low quality bootleg versions through Amazon and other online retailers. My mother explained how the guy with all 72 hours of footage couldn’t bring himself to go through it all to reedit the film. I said this sounded like a perfect project for fans, who would surely do a magnificent job.

So it was fun this weekend to see the curatorial wonders of Beatles fans popping up in a New York Times article. The question posed by the column was what’s wrong with the music business that it can’t reissue material people actually want to purchase:

And how many record labels, just now, are facing an army of consumers who are saying, in effect: “We’ve bought this music several times already — on mono and stereo LPs, on picture discs and audiophile vinyl, perhaps on cassette and most recently on CD — but please, we beg you, sell it to us again.”

But fear not:

While EMI and Apple have been squabbling, collectors have taken matters into their own hands, pooling unreleased tracks and compiling anthologies that are far more ambitious than anything EMI is likely to release. Usually, these unauthorized desktop bootleg projects which are of course illegal have attractive cover art and copious annotations, and these days money rarely changes hands for them: the people who compile them distribute them freely and encourage others to do so either on home-burned CDs and DVDs or, increasingly, on the Internet.

Some are curatorial masterpieces. A label called Purple Chick has assembled deluxe editions of each commercially released album, offering the original discs in their mono and stereo mixes, along with the singles also in mono and stereo released at the time, as well as every known demo, studio outtake and alternative mix.

What can Purple Chick offer my mother, the Let It Be fan?

And if you want to begin the new year by commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Let It Be” sessions, which ran from Jan. 2 to 31, 1969, you still have a few days to find Purple Chick’s “A/B Road,” which offers nearly 96 hours of those sessions on 83 CDs.

96 hours. 83 cds.

And people put them together lovingly because of their passion for the band and the knowledge that the fruits of this creativity would be savored with appreciation by others.

Too bad about that “which are of course illegal” part…

How strengthens relationships and creates new ones

One of the big questions raised by social networking sites is what the heck those “friendships” really are. In this paper, written with my former Ph.D. student and now Ohio University professor Andrew Ledbetter, we examine this in the case of Based on a large survey of users, we pose the question of what predicts how strong or well developed friendships are.

The short answer is that the best predictor is not shared taste in music (which has no effect on relational development), but how many different ways people communicate with one another. For each medium added, people’s relationships are a little closer. This means that sites like can provide pairs with an additional way to maintain and strengthen their relationship that goes over and beyond what they get through email, instant messaging, phone calls and other means of interaction.

On the other hand, the “friendships” that begin via don’t go very far, even if shared taste was important to the relationship’s initiation.

Overall, the “friendships” on are pretty weak. The notion that shared taste makes people “musical soulmates” makes for good mythology, it seems, but not strong interpersonal connections.

You can download and read the paper here. For reasons I don’t understand, the tables did not get included in this PDF. If you really want to see them, email me.

If you’re in Copenhagen this week for Internet Research 9.0, drop on by and hear this presented live in person.

Fan Labor: Exploitation or Empowerment?

Hi there. Remember me? Ok, so I’ve been an epic blogging fail lately. But there’s a good reason! I’ve been writing full length things. Like the 2 papers I’m about to share here.

This coming week I’ll be in Copenhagen presenting at the Association of Internet Researchers’ ninth annual conference (Internet Research 9.0). I’m giving two papers, one about Swedish indie fans online and one about friending on

Here is the paper about Swedish indie fans. My collaborator Robert Burnett and I interviewed a number of mp3 bloggers, archivists, indie label guys and musicians. In this, we demonstrate the importance of the (unpaid) work fans do in spreading this music beyond the border of Sweden, making it a globally accessible and appreciated commodity, and we pose the question of whether this is exploitation or empowerment.

There is a critique of Web 2.0 that argues it is based on free labor done by users from which others profit. We argue that this critique has some merit, but undervalues the rewards fans get from doing this kind of work. We identify the costs fan laborers pay and the rewards they receive. In the end, the tension between empowerment and exploitation is one that each fan laborer has to manage on his or her own. We identify three strategies through which they do this: distancing themselves from the scene as outsiders, viewing themselves as peers of those they ‘work’ for, and viewing their work as an investment in a future career.

You can download the paper here.

Come back next week for the paper.

What to do when fans post live videos

Prince may be eagerly suing everyone who posts live videos of his shows on YouTube, but the Swedish label Songs I Wish I Had Written, headed by Martin Thörnkvist, one of the leaders of music-business think tank The Swedish Model, is taking the opposite strategy. They’re eagerly promoting Moto Boy these days, an interesting artist who sounds kind of like a delicate and emotive 50s crooner but looks kind of like a Bowie drag queen glam heavy metal wannabe. He’s all about contrast.

He plays out a lot, just him and his flying V guitar, and he’s got a devoted live following who are posting videos from all his shows on YouTube. Thörnkvist went through them all, picked the best version of each song, and put it together into a Moto Boy YouTube concert. He couldn’t post it to YouTube since it’s too long, but he posted it at Vimeo in a version that fans can not only watch, but embed wherever they want:

Moto boy – Youtube concert from Pickybe on Vimeo.

This is the perfect way to respond to YouTube fan videos. Find the best and highlight them. It can only do your artists good.

Online Music Discovery in Action

An anecdote from my weekend. First, a cut to the moral: Online music discovery is largely about architecture within and across sites, personal connections and serendipity. Focus exclusively on algorithms and radio streams at your peril.

Between about 1988 and 1992 I worked at a record store. My boss there was a cool local musician friend with great pop taste. When I finished my Ph.D. and moved away, he and I kind of lost touch except occasional reports from mutual friends.

A few weeks ago, he showed up on Facebook (as a number of my significant lost people from the 70s and 80s have started to lately). Yesterday he posted some pictures, including one of Future Clouds & Radar — “my fav band, listen to them please” he wrote. He mentioned they were the same guy as Cotton Mather, whose record Kon Tiki is one of my favorite albums ever. What can I say? I was reared on “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and Rubber Soul.

I went to immediately where there were 2 free downloads of theirs plus complete streaming of their 27 song double album. I downloaded. I listened. I liked. I checked out Amazon. All 10 reviewers had given it 5 stars.

I went to eMusic 10 minutes later and bought it all, including the 2 songs I’d just downloaded for free (even though it only had 4 stars there, too Beatleseque for some, apparently).

Now I’m blogging about them.

This is just a mundane little moment in one person’s musical life story, but it’s got some lessons that are important:

(1) I knew this guy from way back. He came prepackaged with massive credibility. The trick for the internet was to make his music recommendations available to me.

(2) He did it not through a playlist, not through a music application, not with a widget, not by sending me a link, but by posting a picture of the band in his Facebook photos (probably technically an IP violation and certainly not a venue seen as music recommendation related).

(3) Until the “new” facebook design, I almost always forgot to look for new friend photos. The new tab layout has made me remember to check for new pictures, so I actually found that picture.

Most online music discovery people assume that music discovery happens through radio, offline or online, which I admit much of it does, or through recommender systems, which again do have sway. Reviews in sites like Amazon, eMusic, and places like Pitchfork or Drowned in Sound are surely important.

But it’s very important to remember the serendipitous ways that we stumble across music through our connections with friends, and the need to enable that kind of discovery by making the kinds of things that fans want to promote easy to pitch and easy to find. Too often music discovery sites foreground the parts that can be done by machine, forgetting that the most meaningful music recommendations emerge unpredictably when the technosocial fabric is woven well enough within and across sites to let interpersonal surprises occur.

On a related note, triple extra credit to Future Clouds & Radar for pitching this holiday bonus:

When Radiohead released their wonderful new recording “In Rainbows ” last month for a special “pay what you want” price, few could have predicted the paralyzing backlash of consumer guilt and psychic gridlock that would grip the world as it became known that over 80% of consumers took the goods for free! The good news is Future Clouds and Radar can, in this special yuletide offer, help you and yours alleviate your guilt just in time for the holidays. By sending us just $23 US you will receive our double CD debut ($16 value) and make a $7 donation (actual Radiohead value) to our depleted coffers in the good name of Radiohead. Just write on your check or email with your payment the words “I feel bad about what I did to Radiohead” and we will make sure your act of contrition does not go unnoticed. Rest assured a band who needs your support far more than Radiohead will put the funds to good use and we will, as a special bonus, use a percentage of the revenue to fashion a Radiohead shrine available for viewing at our shows- topped off by a motorized Thome York figurine who will be programmed to gyrate spasmodically and caterwall in daring gibberish that verges on profundity at times!

I wonder how that worked out.