Music Fandom vs. Narrative Fandom

Over the years, I’ve found myself mulling the differences between fandoms organized around narrative and those organized around music. It’s now a topic on which I have to pull together my thoughts in 1000 words or less for Henry Jenkins et al’s book on spreadable media. This post is really just me thinking outloud in a rough stab at a start. I would LOVE your feedback on the distinctions I’m drawing and those I’ve missed.

Narratives have characters, plots, and holes to be filled by fan creativity. Music doesn’t. Sure, you can get into discussions of lyrics, and there are many fan lyric interpretation sites out there, and heaven knows you can obsess on the musicians, but for all the time I’ve spent in music fandom, lyric interpretation has never seemed all that important to the social life around music. Music fans interpret what’s best and what’s worst in an artists’ catalogue, and they review shows, but it’s just a whole lot harder to talk about the significance of that chord change or the way that bridge takes the song into the third verse than it is to talk about what that shot of the window at the end of the scene was meant to imply or what a character meant when she said what she said.

Narrative also leaves space for much more fan creativity. Music fans may make their own videos to accompany songs, or form cover bands, or write fan fiction about musicians, but with the important exception of remixes, which remain a fairly marginal fan practice, I’ve never seen fans write songs in the same way that fans of a TV show will write stories using the characters. Music fans don’t seek to complete the music through interpretation and creativity. The music arrives complete. Fans can’t fix it or rebuild it in the same way they can with stories.

Music fans are far more likely to focus on news and information. Narrative fans certainly do this, building timelines and keeping abreast of production, casting, and so on, but music fans seem to do this as their primary activity. It’s all about when the album will be released, what the setlist will be, when the tour will happen, and what songs were played what night in what order. This is why music fan communities on the internet tend to get very quiet when the most recent album has been out for a while and the band isn’t touring. What’s to discuss?

Music fans also share the very objects of their fandom by making mix tapes, playlists, writing mp3 blogs, and sending one another recordings and bootlegs. On occassion, narrative fans will share a recording of a missed show with another fan, but, like lyrical interpretation in music fandom, this seems like a marginal practice in narrative fandom.

But I’m thinking that perhaps the most important distinction between the two fandoms is the way that music fans take the resources of their fandom outside of that fandom as part of their self-presentation in other contexts. Think t-shirts with band names (Rob Walker’s excellent book Buying In reports that Ramones t-shirts have outsold Ramones albums 10 to 1). Think playlists embedded on social network profiles. Think bumper stickers (I think “Republicans for Voldemort” is the only narrative fandom bumper sticker I’ve ever seen, though I’ve seen hundreds of stickers naming bands). When I used to work in a record store and grandmothers would come in at Christmas time to buy a gift for the grandkid and ask “what are all the kids listening to these days?” we’d respond “what kind of haircut does your grandchild have?” How does a Lost fan dress? Can you spot a Star Wars fan walking down the street? Narrative fandom is invisible unless it’s being discussed. Music fandom is much more likely to be made visible as an intrinsic part of self-definition in a wide variety of situations.

The upshot is that we should be wary of taking the practices of narrative fandom on which most fandom theory has been built as exemplary of all fandom. Different kinds of materials call for different kinds of practices, and if we’re to build theories that encompass all of fandom, we need to account for these distinctions as well as the similarities.

The Future vs The Past of Entertainment

Since leaving MIDEM my thoughts have been all ajumbled, but as they begin to settle, one thing that seems strikingly clear is the contrast between the dominant rhetoric I heard there, particularly from those within the music industry proper, and the rhetoric I heard at the Futures of Entertainment conference in November. In short, if the Futures of Entertainment was about the future – or multiple tracks the future is taking – MIDEM seemed to be largely about the past, sticking to old ways of thinking and trying to make old models work in a world they no longer fit.

In her write-up of the Futures of Entertainment conference, Flourish Klink does a great job of summarizing some of its dominant themes:

* The death of “viral” and “meme.” People choose what they pass along to other people. The content matters. If something is viral or memetic, it’s caught or coded into DNA, not chosen. “Viral” and “meme” are broadcast ideas, where the all-powerful content producer forces the weak consumers to enjoy and propagate something. They’re wrong. From Henry Jenkins.

* The birth of “spreadability.” When people say that they want a video to “go viral,” they mean that they want it to spread. Good media is spreadable media. From Henry Jenkins.

* Value vs. worth. Things have monetary value, but their worth is hard to measure. Companies exist in a world that’s all about money, but fans typically participate in gift economies. When companies try to “monetize” fans (and incidentally, the death of “monetize” was extensively discussed on the hashtag) they run into problems because fans don’t operate that way.

In contrast, the word “monetize” was in the very theme of the MIDEMNet program (“Monetizing the fan-artist relationship”) and was absolutely the dominant theme of the meeting. Viral got an occassional nod, though often as something scary, and the notion of spreadability was not even close to present (except when presented by those outside the industry). With a very few exceptions I heard very few people at MIDEM asking the question “how can we provide value to our audience?” Instead I heard them asking “how can we get money from our audience?”

The people at Futures of Entertainment, some of whom were working at huge mainstream media companies like HBO or NBC, were all asking: how can we use new media to get fans more involved with our product? How can we use these tools to keep them engaged and give them the resources to help them bring in new fans? How can we collaborate with fans in ways that make the product and the experience around it better for all of us?

The people at MIDEM were asking “how can we make sure that every time someone downloads a song, we get paid?” Though there were some great examples of keeping fans engaged (Mike Masnick summarizes them well here), with the exception of the industry people who worked directly with fans (like the person who runs Pearl Jam’s website or the guy who oversees Kanye West’s online presence) for the most part, there was simply no concept of “fan” there at all. Sure they used the word, but what they usually meant was “downloader,” an entirely different concept.

At MIDEM I met many industry people who are passionate about their work, and who see their chance to do what they do professionally disappearing. I spoke with a wonderful woman who used to be in music videos, for her the fact that fans will now make awesome videos for free is not a great example of artist-fan connectivity, but the end of her chosen career.

At the same time, I also met many many people who are building new careers by asking the hard and interesting questions about how to make the internet and mobile media work for both artists and fans. I left believing that the jobs are not disappearing, but they are shifting. I imagine if college teaching were replaced by, say, user-built wikis that could result in the earning of a college degree, I would feel profoundly threated as well. I would probably rant against it and point out its shortcomings.

But I hope that if I were faced with a seismic shift like that, I would be able to look toward the future and ask how I could use the skills I have to provide value to those students instead of looking to the long arm of the law, hoping they would pass regulation to ensure that students still had to take my classes the way I want to teach them.

Finally, lest this seem like I am unappreciative of having attended MIDEM, quite the contrary — I had a great time, I learned a great deal, and I find it very heartening that people like me and Mike Masnick were invited to speak there.

From TV Show to TV Brand

Yahoo! and Deep Focus have released the major findings from their survey of 2000 television viewers about how they use the internet to connect with TV shows and with what results. Among the key findings:

- A third of TV viewers go online to engage their favorite shows in addition to watching them on TV.

- Viewers over 35 see the TV show broadcast as “the main event” while those under 35 view it as just one piece of the TV show’s overall “brand” that also includes its online presence.

- 64% of information seeking activity about TV shows occurs BEFORE the show airs. Those who seek info online before a show are more likely to become regular viewers [I note that this is not surprising since these are the people most interested to begin with -- it's hard to argue from this finding that seeking information online causes increased viewing]

- People who seek information about a TV show pre-season “on average convince 5.1 of their friends to watch the show.” The people who are most likely to try to get others to watch a show are also much more likely to engage the show online.

Following up on my post about watching TV sports while logging on, the study also found that:

The most avid TV viewers tend to be into media meshing, with 65% of respondents reporting they search online for information about a TV show while they are watching it and 32% saying they keep a laptop within reach most of the time they are watching TV.

The report focuses on “using online search to find information about TV shows.” It is not clear whether they looked at things like posting to or reading discussion forums as different and interrelated activities. Either way, though, the study shows, yet again, the importance of the internet in facilitating, supporting, and expanding fan engagement. The conclusion they draw is applicable far beyond TV:

Understanding how viewers use online search to find information about TV shows, and how they engage with the content they find, is the first step in developing an online strategy that will transform your TV show into a TV brand.

The Lost Librarians of National Defense?

Information Week has an interesting article up about Lost fandom. It talks about Second Life recreations of Lost spaces, ABC’s official sites, and Lostpedia, the wikipedia for Lost fans:

The Lostpedia statistics page shows that the site has grown to nearly 33,000 pages. The site has received 141 million page views. It has 26,000 registered users, of whom 10 have sysop rights, for increased authority to edit and manage the site.

I talk a bit about fan-authored wikipedia entries and archives in my work about Swedish indie music fandom, but generally this is a neglected area of fandom research. Although, as some apparently realize, it’s a phenomenon with implications that stretch far beyond entertainment:

[Lostpedia founder] Croy said the site has brought him professional benefit in that it’s connected him with many interesting people. The Palo Alto Research Center (formerly Xerox (NYSE: XRX) PARC) contacted him about two years ago to study Lostpedia. “Basically, they wanted to study the way that a group of users collects intelligence, brings it back to a central place, and processes that intelligence, categorizes it and analyzes it and decides what’s good and bad.” PARC looks at each new episode as a big new batch of intelligence dumped on the Lostpedia community. “They want to see how they can apply that to the national defense projects they’re working on,” Croy said.

Fans have at least as much history as anyone — and probably more history than most — at using the internet in innovative ways to collect, label, store and make accessible enormous repositories of information. I’ve spoken recently with music librarians interested in using fan-generated genre tags (like on Last.fm) to assist them in categorizing their library’s music catalogs. Fandoms offer fantastic case studies in the practice of information science. I’d love to see more about this.

Can you be too engaged with your fandom?

Yesterday I stumbled across this quote from Russell T. Davies, the executive producer of Doctor Who:

Every program on the BBC has a message board on the website. I forbid it to happen on Doctor Who. I’m sorry to say this, all the science fiction producers making stuff in America, they are way too engaged with their fandom. They all need to step back.

It’s taken from an LA Times article which is now hiding behind a firewall, so I don’t know the context.

My initial reaction was [myownknee] “jerk!” but then I thought twice.

I don’t know about the claim that American scifi producers are too involved with their fandoms. Certainly the people who make Lost, Futurama, and I’m sure plenty of other shows are thinking about their fandoms as they work. Frankly, sci fi TV is not my genre and there are so many other fandom scholars who’ve got that area covered that I don’t think all that much about it. [paging you -- what do you think about this quote?]

But I’ve been working on the keynote I’ll be giving in Oslo in a few weeks, and one of the things I’m talking about there is how labels and bands ought to treat their online fandoms. One of the key points I find myself coming back to repeatedly is the importance of letting fandoms have their independence — providing enough information, goodies, and attention to nurture it, but letting it belong always to the fans who create it. When fandom is a subsidiary of the production company it sets everything up for power struggles, for self-censorship, for legal-enforcement dilemmas, for feelings of accountability and betrayal that are beyond the bounds of duty on both sides. Fans need their own spaces to do their own things.

I’ve never thought that official fan sites hold candles to the ones fans build themselves. If I were one of the thirty zillion Dr Who fans traipsing about the internet, it’s hard for me to believe the BBC would really offer the best fan discussion, even if Davies allowed it.

Fandoms can’t operate as though they belong to and are supervised by artists and producers. By the same token, artists can’t operate under continuous supervision (even internally imposed) of the most active fans any more than I, as a teacher, can forget about the students who aren’t as into my classes or the content of what I know and believe needs teaching and just teach what they want to hear to the ones who love me most. I’d be negligent and odds are my classes wouldn’t be as good. The fans who get into fandom may be more important than other fans in terms of the promotion, spearheading, and enthusiasm they provide. They may provide the most trenchant critiques and hence are usually worth listening to. But they are still a small segment of the audience, and producers need to think audience as much as they think fandoms. But even more than that — producers and artists need to operate first and foremost under the guidance and supervision of their own muses. It’s their creative process, just as fandom is ours.