Fans as Watchdogs

As has been much covered in the last week, AT&T censored anti-Bush lyrics, blanking them out of their webcast of a Pearl Jam concert. Pearl Jam responded with a message on their official site pointing this out and connecting it to the need for net neutrality. They also encouraged fans who knew of any other incidents to come forward. I’m not sure if it was there or elsewhere, but fans did come forward, and AT&T has since apologized for this pattern of eliminating anti-Bush lyrics in webcasts:

In response to fans who claimed that the audio silencing of Vedder’s sung remarks about Bush at Lollapalooza were not unique in the history of AT&T’s Blue Room live webcasts, an AT&T spokeswoman on Friday said: “It’s not our intent to edit political comments in webcasts on the Unfortunately, it has happened in the past in a handful of cases. We have taken steps to ensure that it won’t happen again.”

The statement from spokeswoman Tiffany Nels did not specify what those steps were, nor did it mention what performers were involved.

One fan who contacted The Times Friday said AT&T’s Blue Room webcast bleeped the sound during performances by the Flaming Lips and the John Butler Trio at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee in June.

A public forum on Butler’s website,, includes a discussion among fans about several audio gaps during a spoken introduction to the song “Gov Did Nothin’,” which included references critical of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

A representative for the Flaming Lips said the band has received reports from fans of some corruption of the webcast of its Bonnaroo set but added that the band had not been able to review the specifics as of Friday for this story and would not comment.

WIthout getting into whether or not I believe it’s a rogue censor gone commando or company policy at some level (duh), there are a few things worth noting. One is the power of putting fans in the role of corporate watchdog. As I’ve mentioned on this blog many times, this is yet another close parallel between fandom and political communication on the net. When you have thousands of fans paying attention, and you explicitly ask them to bring things to light, things come to light that might not otherwise.

But the other thing worth noting is that Pearl Jam fans were far from united in seeing what happened here as a bad thing. Pearl Jam encouraged discussion on their message board, and they’ve gotten it — the thread has over 300 posts and nearly 10,000 views. Some people think it’s an outrage, but there are also plenty of people arguing that Pearl Jam should keep politics out of things since some of their fans are Republicans who support Bush (an argument I’ve heard a lot concerning R.E.M.), that they are blathering idiots who don’t understand what the First Amendment does and doesn’t cover, and — most surprising to me — that net neutrality is a bad thing since, they say, those companies bear the brunt of the expenses of making the internet work. Aside from what I see as misunderstandings about net neutrality in this discussion (and also I’m sure some legitimate honest disagreement about what’s fair and right), there is also a sense in many of the posts that if you make deals with big corporations, this is the price you pay and you’ve got no right or recourse to complain.

To me, this is a good argument for net neutrality, but it is also a good argument for ensuring that communication on the internet does not end up in the hands of a small number of corporations, whether the net is neutral or not. I’ve often argued that bands need to have, own, and USE their own domain rather than putting all their eggs in MySpace’s basket. I think this makes clear the need for independent webcasters and the like as well. I realize that’s much harder than a band website, but the idea that some corporate hack gets to decide what bands can say and what fans get to hear, is unacceptable.

At any rate, fans had best keep up the watchdog job.

Comments (1) to “Fans as Watchdogs”

  1. Interesting discussion as it involves two bands I respect and one that I’ve been long obsessed with (i.e REM).

    Let me say that I think that politics and music are inexplicitly linked; that is not to say that all music is political in origin for it is not, but rather that music has been a conduit for political change for as long as we’ve had music. Thus, in that respect, I do not think that an artist should refrain from speaking their mind and if the public cannot take it, that is just their personal issue.

    However, with that preface, I think that when the political times are polarizing such as they are currently, I think that being overly political can have a backlash. So for me, a typical Ann Arbor “pinko liberal communist” (*cough*) going to a Toby Kieth concert is out of the question. But where do I draw the line? If one of my favorite groups “came out” as a Bushie, I personally do not know what I’d do. I would like to say that I would judge the music on its own merits, but I am sure that it would impact my feelings toward the band.

    I know what you mean about REM because I sat next to someone on the Monster tour who was a die in the wool Republican and was uncomfortable when Patti Smith (who was with them) spouted political statements not of his liking. Not sure if this turned him off of REM altogether, but I think that he would probably not attend another concert.

    I had an amazing experience a month or so ago at the most bizarre concert I have ever been to. The roster was: Stray Cats, Pretenders and ZZ Top. Now for me, this was no problem as I like all three. But for many, this was incongruent. As ZZ Top was headlining, 80% of the audience was there for them. I do not mean this in a pejorative way, but they were mostly working class Detroiters looking to have a good time. They did not mind the earlier acts music but here’s the funny part: when the Pretenders played “Ohio” three people around me said “isn’t that the Rush Limbaugh song?” Then Chrissie went on an anti-meat rant and everyone booed her. She responded “if you don’t like it, go fuck yourself.” Right then I said “Rock n’Roll.” Isn’t that what it is all about? Giving the finger to the “establishment”? In her case, the establishment was the crowd. Even though I am not a vegetarian, I applauded her chutzpah. I also found it particularly ironic that Rush had to pay royalties to Hynde for using Ohio EVERY day and she, in turn, donates the money to PETA.

    Sorry for going off on a tangent!