Gimme That Web Authenticity Thing

The Boston Globe has a piece up about indie bands using the internet to acheive stardom (if not affluence). It runs through the usual rigamarole — the YouTube video the label wouldn’t produce but the band did (Dresden Dolls this time, instead of the usual OK Go), concerts in Second Life (funny how a site with fewer than a million users is suddenly THE place for marketing your product, whatever that product may be), and, of course, MySpace. But there are also some nice reports of interesting strategies to involve fans in “authentic” relationships (i.e. those unmediated by labels):

The Dresden Dolls, a duo who describe their music as “Brechtian punk cabaret,” invite their fans to send in artwork and videos inspired by their songs.

“A fan can send me a beautiful painting, and seven seconds later, it’s up on our website , on the fan art page, and it’s visible to thousands of other people,” says singer Amanda Palmer. “I love that we can connect with people that way.”

That sort of authentic connection between a band and its fans is a relatively new phenomenon. Coulton, who writes quirky, fabulist folk songs about American history, star-crossed mad scientists, and technology, recently used his blog to invite the Web audience to submit an eight-bar solo for his song “Shop Vac” on the instrument of their choice. The best one — chosen by user voting — was incorporated into the finished song.

“Audiences want to feel that Web authenticity thing,” says Mike Denneen, a Somerville producer who has worked with Aimee Mann and the band Fountains of Wayne. “They don’t want to feel they’re being marketed to.” That puts the deep-pocketed marketing departments of such mega-labels as Universal Music Group and Sony BMG at a distinct disadvantage.

Ultimately, however, the piece ends up wondering whether all this immediate access to fans will really translate into money for musicians:

The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for knitting together a community of passionate fans (though some question whether all those MySpace “friends” will ever pony up for a concert ticket or pay for an album download.) But the Net audience expects to get a lot of things for free, including music and videos.

“We’re looking at a changing economy, in which music is free, and artists are going to have to learn to make their living through touring and merchandise sales,” says Palmer.

“The barriers to getting your music and your image out there are lower than they’ve ever been,” says Denneen, who co founded Q Division, a recording studio and record label. “But over the long-term, the big question is, how many of these people are going to be able to make a living at it?”

It’s a good question, and it will take time for these things to shake out enough that the patterns differentiating those who make money and those who don’t become clear, but it seems more and more evident that the ones who make money will be those who have created enough of a human-to-human relationship with fans that the fans WANT to give back. It doesn’t have to mean that each and every fan will pay the same amount for the same product. It doesn’t have to mean that every MySpace “friend” (and oh, the problems I have with that label) has to go to the show (on the other hand, if they don’t go, who does?). All it has to mean is that enough fans will pay enough to make it worth the musician’s while.

It’s probably the wrong metaphor, but as a teacher at a big public institution, I teach a lot of students who are there to fill their day and do what it takes to keep their parents paying the bills so they can go about the real business of getting drunk at night — but they don’t all have to want to learn so long as there are enough that do. I cultivate relationships with all of them, knowing that nowhere near all of them will make it worth my while. The metaphor breaks down since my pay isn’t directly related to their tuition, and their tuition doesn’t reflect what they get out of or put into the class, but I think there’s still something there in terms of recognizing that some of the people we work for are just going to give back an awful lot more than others.

What I keep wondering is how many bands, managers, marketers, labels, and others have the requisite interpersonal savvy to build and maintain relationships with audiences in a way that makes fans feel truly involved. It’s one thing to make good music, another to craft an appealing public image, and yet a third to craft what feel like interpersonal relationships with large groups of people.

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