Celebrity blogging and the “ART of telling the truth carefully”

Blogging may seem like a fairly simple, low-cost way to improve celebrity marketing (and I use “celebrity” to loosely mean anyone who might have fans). But, looking at it from the perspective of interpersonal communication research, blogging celebrities face some interesting challenges. Generally, in American culture (which is at an extreme on this matter), the prevailing pop wisdom is that the more a person self discloses, the closer his or her relationships become. That’s why you hear people bemoaning that “we don’t communicate” when in fact, they’re talking all the time. At the same time, we’re living in what’s been termed a “culture of confession” where everyone’s fessing up their private business for public consumption via talk shows, ‘reality’ tv, and half-heard mobile phone calls. Against that backdrop, blogs offer an obvious unprecedented new way to build a sense of closeness between celebrity and fan through celebrity disclosure.

But does self disclosure = relational closeness and large audiences? Interpersonal research tells us very clearly that inappropriate self-disclosures can kill a relationship. There are lots of things we don’t want to know about other people. Just as we’re likely to move gently away from the casual acquaintance who mentions at a party that he has recurring nightmares due to a lack of maternal attention in his early childhood, blogs have enormous potential to turn off fans either by revealing more than fans want to know or by revealing things that irreparably damage the fans’ image of the celebrities. If this is true in an American context, it’s even more so in cultures that place more value on public cool than openness. Consider, for instance, this disclosure from Amanda Palmer, singer of The Dresden Dolls, writing about an incident that happened when she was seventeen:

we pounded. then my hand went through the nail. i screamed. was it serious? well, it was bleeding, but not much. it was a hole, a nice little german stigmata. it only took 15 seconds before i didn’t know myself whether i was crying to get attention for a wound that wasn’t all that bad, actually in pain or shock, or crying about the fact that i was confused about whether i was crying for some real pain or over the confusion my possible ruse. this was a typical pattern in my life. maybe i was homesick. maybe i was just looking for a reason to weep and the nail was just a little gift. we bandaged and disinfected. the incident was easily forgotten. i think jan wasn’t there. but he must have come home at some point. thwok thwok thwok thwok thwok. is there anybody out there?

Now, the Dresden Dolls, who call their music “brechtian punk cabaret,” are always dramatic and over the top, and she always seems to be disclosing her deepest secrets as she sings. Could a celebrity whose career isn’t founded on being maudlin blog about this without damaging her image? And yet, even Palmer writes on her blog, about her blog:

all the journalists ask me: “aren’t you afraid you expose your private life too much?” i find this funny. my family reads this blog, my manager reads it, the label publicist reads it, brian reads it, our crew and promotors read it. this is the fucking ART of telling the truth carefully.

if i actually shared my private life in all it’s complexity and detail, i would anger and worry and confuse these people so much….i’d be crucified. so i generally save my personal conflicts, my true heartbreak, for the emails i send to the ones who don’t need me as a boss, a rock star, a musician, an idol, a promotional tool or even an artist.

it shouldn’t come as a surprise that everything i share here is heavily censored, well, slanted at least..a combination of the reckless impulses to emote and the simultaneous, hyper-conscious measuring of the consequences.

Interpersonal research makes it clear that even in our closest relationships we need privacy. It’s always challenging for celebrities to have a clear public/private persona boundary of which they are in control. With a blog, the celebrity has the added challenge of creating a very clearly defined public persona which nonetheless appears to be a private persona. Looks like Amanda Palmer has got this down, but how many others do?

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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.

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Samuel L. Jackson on the wisdom of online fans vs. “people who sit in offices”

Samuel L. Jackson, whose new film Snakes on a Plane owes more to bloggers than any film in history, envisions a new world of film making in which producers work with fans from the start:

“It’s the next step in what’s going to happen. There are so many people who are aware of films because of the information highway and most times people who sit in offices have no idea what’s going on in the real world.

“Fortunately for New Line (studio), this happened and was out of hand before they were even made aware of it. The fan demands made them understand what they had.

“Eventually I think there’s going to be films like this that are of a certain genre that some smart person will invite that type of input.

“Someone will say something like, ‘I have an idea for a film, and here’s my idea. How do you think this should play out? Who should be in it? How long should it be? Should it be one parts, two parts, or three parts?’

“The interaction from the fans will fuel this whole thing and make those people feel like they are such a part of the film. If you got a dollar from all those people you can make the film.”

Great to see someone recognize fan creativity as a business asset rather than a threat to intellectual property rights.

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