Oh, the folly of the NFL

Robert Kozinets, who covers brands, marketing, and technoculture on his blog Brandthroposophy has a blog entry called What Does DRM Really Stand For? Whack-a-Mole! in which he says this:

Entertainment executives (most of them, anyways) are still swimming against the tide or hiding their heads in the sand. They’re protecting and locking their properties up. But they can’t win. They are going against the collective intelligence of the crowd, and defying communal imagination and motivation. Even after all these year, entertainment companies haven’t even come close to getting it. When they do, they’ll learn to work with the trends and not against them. That’s going to be an interesting day.

I was interviewed a few days ago by a journalist who is writing about the NFL’s new restrictions on the use of video — people are now only allowed to post 45 seconds of NFL footage, with a link back to NFL.com, and they can only have it up for 24 hours. More justifiably, they’re not allowed to put ads around NFL footage. My response was very much what Kozinets says here. The strategy, I’m sure, is to drive traffic to NFL.com and to monopolize the message. Even if they succeed in increasing the traffic, they are not going to be able to control the message, and it’s not in their own interest to do so.

Apparently they acknowledge off the record that they are not going to actually be able to stop people from posting longer footage and keeping it up longer. Whack-a-mole.

Fans are creative folks. They will find new places to put things up. They will put up themselves what has been taken down elsewhere as many times as they need to in order to keep their discussion going.

But more importantly, NFL’s revenue stream comes from many places, including, for instance, lots and lots of sales of goods with team logos. Why do people buy those things? Because they identify with the teams. Even if message-control were possible, nothing that stifles and boxes in discussion is going to enhance identification. If the NFL wants to make more money, they should be “working with the trends and not against them” by enabling fan discussion whenever and wherever fans want to have it.

Furthermore, this really annoys the media since news and other sports sites are included in these new regulations, not just fan sites. Ultimately, the price in making your fans and news venues ticked off and making it harder for them to get into discussion about the games can’t possibly be worth any modest increases in NFL.com page views they may accrue.

Despite the RIAA’s aggressive filing of lawsuits, illegal downloading has increased since they started doing it. I suspect that many people feel even more righteous in the practice since they now have such good reason to view the RIAA as unethical enemies. Does the NFL really want to be the RIAA of athletics? Yikes.

This semester’s courses

Today is my first teaching day for the Fall semester. I’m teaching two courses, an undergraduate course called Communication and the Internet, the syllabus for which conveniently mirrors the outline of the book, Personal Connections in a Digital Age, that I am writing (to be published by Polity Press).

The other is a graduate seminar in Qualitative Research Methods in Communication. Since I’ve had many people comment that they appreciate that my syllabi are available online, I thought I’d let you know that updated versions of both syllabi can now be found here:

Communication on the Internet

Qualitative Research Methods

The former has links to several online readings.

Part 2 over at Henry’s

Yesterday and today, Aswin Punathambekar and I can be found discussing music fandom and the issues it raises for fandom research over at Henry Jenkins’s blog as part of the summer series of conversations between male and female fandom scholars. Here’s a repost of the second half of our discussion for those who don’t feel like clicking (though if you’re interested in fandom and not following Henry’s blog, you ought to be):

Articulating Attachment

NB: I think people are often better able to articulate what stories mean to them in terms of the text itself: which characters they identify with (or don’t), what they think about plot turns, etc. With music, it’s very hard to find words to explain one’s connection outside of the role songs played in that moment of one’s autobiography. I have loved music more than stories most of my life but I can explain narrative conventions with some degree of competence and can’t even begin to describe things like the common rhythmic or chord structures in the music that moves me.

AP: This is an interesting point, and I would readily admit that if someone were to ask me why I enjoy A. R. Rahman’s music or why a certain playback singer’s voice moves me, I would have nothing much to say. And as I quickly realized when I began speaking with fans of A. R. Rahman, this question doesn’t move the conversation much. What would get me and other Rahman fans talking is this: tell me about your conversations and experiences interacting with other Rahman fans online. Attachment, in other words, was defined in terms of belonging in a community.It is very important to recognize that this relates to taste hierarchies and the ambivalent status of film music in Indian public culture. The question of high culture vs. low culture fandom that Jonathan Gray and Roberta Pearson brought up is very relevant here. Given that music directors and playback singers are often trained in classical music and the fact that film songs draw on classical music, fan discussions do revolve around this. In the Rahman fan community, there are fans who are well-versed in the technical (or “formal”?) dimensions of music and go to great lengths to explain them to other fans. Needless to say, this expertise becomes a form of value and these fans quickly become leaders within the community.

In fact, film music’s middlebrow status allows elite youth to claim a fan identity and belong in a fan community partly because it is not associated with lower class, lower caste, and “political” fan communities that form around film stars in south India.

NB: That’s interesting, I don’t see much of this in the music fandoms I spend time in. In fact, I think it’s pretty unusual to see any fans talking about the formal elements that make songs sound as they do. When I read Daniel Levitin’s (author of This Is Your Brain on Music) claim that the appeal of pop music is in the timbre, I had no idea what “timbre” meant, and I’d bet that most pop music fans don’t. Musicians can have those conversations, but fans that aren’t musicians rarely can, and I think this is very different from narrative where fans can not just articulate narrative conventions, but are often using them to write their own fan fictions. There is no music fandom equivalent of fan fiction except fan fiction about musicians, but that’s a total form shift.

But I think it makes perfect sense to extend a fandom approach to “high” culture, and to look at how ‘high culture’ sorts of discussion permeate ‘low culture’ fandoms. On my blog, for instance, I’ve written about wine fandom and how that doesn’t normally get considered “fandom” but that people who are into wine act just like people who are into a TV show or movie — they hold gatherings, they read supplementary materials, they go on pilgrimages to wineries, they wear winery t-shirts and baseball caps, they try to connect with others who are into the same things (there are now at least 3 online wine-based social networking sites). I knew so many people who made pilgrimages to see Wagner’s Ring Trilogy performed in its entirety on consecutive nights by the Chicago Opera.

Communities of Sound

NB: Another way in which the text at stake raises very different questions with music is how the social relationships formed around music differ from those formed around narratives. I love your point above that attachment is “defined in terms of belonging in a community.” Music has ties to location in ways stories don’t — as you know! Where narratives have the fan conventions that bring the hardcores together, music has live performance that is integral to its very being and gets everyone from the hardcores to the curious together in place. This is again a huge contrast to, say, the fan con which is only going to get the hardcores together in space. How does music’s connection to place affect the fandom that forms around it?

AP: I’m really glad you raised the issue of place.As I said earlier, fandom has been considered an important element of film culture primarily because film stars in south India have been successful at mobilizing fans along linguistic and regional lines.

Given that the Rahman fan community is first and foremost a community realized online, and that fans bring diverse stakes and affiliations to bear on their participation, mobilization along axes of caste or language is, at a basic level, rendered structurally impossible. For example, fans based in Malaysia, for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, share little in common with second-generation Indian-Americans for whom dancing to a remixed Rahman song at a club speaks to a very different set of concerns. Focusing our attention on the realm of film music thus allows us to challenge the romanticization of fan culture as subaltern politics. The realm of film music fandom forces us to acknowledge other ways of being a fan and modes of belonging in fan communities.

Of course, this does pose problems. For instance, members of the Rahman fan community appear unconcerned with questions of class and caste that have been central to fan-based political mobilizations. In the very first interview I conducted, the moderator of the group made it clear that the Rahman fan community shared nothing in common with “rowdy” fan associations and went on to remark: “we’re online, not on the streets!”

NB: I think one has to really stretch the definition of “politics” to argue it’s an important component of the fandoms in which I spend time, but place is core. One of the topics I’ve been intrigued by is the role of online fans and fan communities in taking music out of place. For instance, in the Swedish indie music scene, outside of MySpace (and arguably there to an extent) the work of exporting this cultural product is being taken on by (often unpaid) fans in America, England, France, and other countries. Songs that would never be heard outside of Sweden, and might not even get heard in Sweden, are getting international audiences through mp3 blogs and online webzines devoted to that (and the broader Scandinavian) scene. Online fandom is spreading music well beyond its locations of origin on an unprecedented scale, but their place-based nature remains an important component. In terms of the individualizing function of music fandom, being able to identify with a foreign music scene is great – I could frame myself as a big fan of local music (and I’ve done so at other points in life), but being a Kansan who strongly self-identifies as a Swedish indie fan has a lot more potential to start conversations and allows me a lot more potential to turn local friends on to bands they’d otherwise never hear. And on the other side of that, having an online community of people who are into bands as obscure as these are in America allows me to continuously find new music and to get in-depth expertise on the bands I fall in love with. Many fans in this particular fandom are far more likely to check out a new band if they are Swedish than not, regardless of where they live themselves.

Relationship Building

AP: Relationship building is definitely an interesting issue. Fans of A. R. Rahman have positioned themselves very clearly as a grassroots marketing team. Some of them have business degrees and work as consultants, a large number work in the IT industry, and they’ve taken it upon themselves to figure out new ways of distributing Rahman’s music, tackling digital piracy and p2p sharing, and so on. Rahman, for his part, has acknowledged these fans’ efforts and has begun collaborating with them on a range of projects.

In the Indian mediascape, these new kinds of relationships between fans and producers haven’t received much attention. And it would be fair to say that producers are yet to figure out ways to tap into the vast space of participatory culture that has emerged online. Fans are being courted, but only because their serve as information hubs. As I see it, talent competitions on TV are the only site where fans are able to strike up conversations with music directors, playback singers, lyricists, and others in the industry.

NB: I see a lot of norms about sharing in music fan communities, most of which prohibit fan distribution of anything that can be purchased except in the context of mp3 blogs, which often operate with the tacit approval of labels. But as I say, fans are certainly acting as distributors and publicists.Another element that’s interesting here is the huge boom in online sites built to create social relationship amongst music listeners in the name of music discovery. There are new “Music 2.0″ sites launching weekly. With music we have sites that are being built from the ground up to track everything people listen to and make personal connections and music recommendations based on that. That ability to track it all and create collective knowledge algorithmically seems to be operating at a whole other level with music. These sites raise so many questions about the roles of shared taste in relationships. Looking at Last.fm, whether or not a person shares musical taste is the core issue in whether or not someone will “friend” someone they don’t already know, but how well does that predict whether they’ll have anything else to talk about?

Boys and Girls

NB: Meanwhile, aren’t we supposed to be representing some sort of gender divide? Or talking about gender?

AP: I should make it clear right away that the stakes here are very different. Given that fandom has been neglected for the most part by academics who have written on media in India, there is, at this point, little concern about who is writing about fandom. Having said that, I would like to point out that paying attention to the domain of music does create an opportunity to talk about gender and participatory culture.So far, the spotlight has been on fan communities that meet at street corners, at teashops, or outside cinema halls. Participatory culture, then, has been circumscribed as that defined by working-class (often lower caste) male youth in visible, public spaces. Once again, turning our attention to film music presents a way forward. For both commercial and cultural-political reasons, every new medium – radio, state-owned television, satellite television (MTV-India, STAR, etc.) – has drawn on film music and developed innovative programs. These film music-based radio and television programs have had a large fan following, and women’s participation in these sites has been very prominent and visible. I would argue that examining these sites of participatory culture is critical for opening up the discussion on gender and fandom surrounding Indian cinema.

NB: Pop music fandom is so blatantly gendered it barely seems worth laying out just how. Short version: girl fans want to sleep with the bands, boys want to be them. (I wrote a longer piece about this here: http://www.onlinefandom.com/archives/does-the-internet-make-it-easier-to-be-a-female-music-fan/)It seems like gender is being taken in a couple of ways in the discussions in this series thus far. First is a question of authority in the academy — those studying ‘female’ ways of doing fandom feeling excluded by more ‘masculine’ scholars. This is something I just don’t identify with at all, and I suspect there are several reasons. One is that I align myself with interpersonal and online communication as my primary research foci, and see fandom as an important and neglected context in which to explore them. The study of personal communication and relationships is gendered female to begin with, so perhaps my internet-based approach is considered techie and therefore gendered more masculine than the norm. I do feel some frustration at the failure of fandom research to adequately address the interpersonal relationships I think are at the core of fandom. Perhaps that is inherently gendered since looking at the fan/fan relationship gets us back to the study of personal relationships which, as I said is gendered female. But in terms of academic authority, I’ve never felt that my focus on fandom or the way I approach fandom has lessened that.

Gender has also been brought into the question of how people engage texts — to crudely oversimplify the discussion, girls explore nuance and boys create with a more business sensibility? The idea that an interest in the production/economy of fandom is masculine is again something I have trouble identifying with. I see many gender issues in how men and women engage music and with what consequences, but less in how they are conceptualized (though this gets back to the shortage of fandom research in music to begin with — there’s some, just nowhere close to that around TV). Sometimes I wonder if music fandom is itself so very sexist that anything we’d encounter in the academy seems negligible in contrast!

Being a Fangirl (on Henry Jenkins’s Blog)

Today and tomorrow, I can be found over on Henry Jenkins’s blog, with Aswin Punathambekar interviewing one another about issues in looking at music fandom in Henry’s Fanboy/Fan Girl détente series. Hopefully Henry won’t mind if I repost here:

Who are we?
Aswin Punathambekar: I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Dept of Communication Arts (media and cultural studies) and will be joining the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan this fall term. My research and teaching revolve around globalization, culture industries, and public culture in contemporary India and the South Asian diaspora. These interests were shaped very strongly by my own experiences as an immigrant, and my participation in online fan communities began back in 1999 when I arrived in Athens, Georgia for graduate studies. I made the transition from fan to aca-fan in the Comparative Media Studies program and needless to say, was shaped strongly by Henry’s work. Over the next few years, I hope to carve out a space for the study of participatory culture within the larger field of scholarship on Bollywood and other domains of south asian media.

Nancy Baym: I’m an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. I started studying fans when I became involved with the newsgroup rec.arts.tv.soaps in the early 1990s, a project that became my dissertation (I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1994) and which finally ended up as the book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community. At KU, I teach courses about personal relationships, the internet, and qualitative methodologies. So far this decade, most of my published work has centered on the topics of online interactions in personal relationships and qualitative methodological issues in internet research (a book co-edited with Annette Markham on this topics is forthcoming from Sage Publications). Recently, though, I’ve turned my attention back to online fandom, with my blog called, oddly enough, Online Fandom (www.onlinefandom.com) and a just-published article about Swedish independent music fans (http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_8/baym/index.html). I’m also just finishing up data collection for a study about ‘friending’ on Last.fm.

AP: I approach fan communities surrounding films and film music as a particularly compelling site for examining relationships among cinema, consumption, and citizenship in contemporary Indian public culture. And the specific group that I’ve been interested in is one that has cohered around a music director (A. R. Rahman) who composes music for Hindi-language Bollywood films, regional language films (Tamil and Telugu), diasporic films (e.g. Deepa Mehta’s trilogy – Fire, Earth, and Water), and international projects like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams. This is an online fan community, and brings together hundreds of Rahman fans from around the world (www.arrahmanfans.com). While a majority of the participants are of Indian origin, a growing number of non-Indian fans have joined this group over the past few years (although they lurk for the most part).

Given the immense popularity of film stars in India and in a number of countries with large diasporic South Asian populations (Fiji, Guyana, U.S., U.K., Canada, etc.), and the large number of online and offline fan communities that have emerged around these stars, the question that comes up right away is: why do I choose to focus on a music director?

Raising this question leads me to a broader one: What new questions can we raise by shifting the focus away from films/TV shows/stars onto the realm of music?

NB: I like that your focus positions you as a bit of an outsider to what seems to be the dominant domain of contemporary fandom research, American and British television fans. I’ve done plenty of work about American TV fans in my 1990s analyses of soap opera fans on the internet, but have always come at fandom from the outside in that my interests are first and foremost about how people create the social structures that organize them into personal relationships and communities, and how they use the internet in these processes. So I would place myself within internet studies before fandom, and that brings with it some different assumptions and approaches.Fandom is a fascinating context to look at these things, though, because fans are always at the leading edge of using the internet in creative ways, and because fandom is a site where interpersonal and mass communication merge, which is often one of the internet’s defining qualities. Like you, my attention has turned in recent years to music fandom. I’ve been working on projects about the role of online fans in the export of Swedish independent music and also the nature of “friendship” in the “social music” site Last.fm. With a few exceptions, fan studies has little to say about music fandom and I’m not convinced it’s the same beast (or menagerie) as other fandoms, so yeah, what new questions get raised by looking at music?

The Text

NB: One question is simply (or not) the nature of “the text.” I find when I read much of current fandom studies, I have trouble making the connection between what they’re talking about as ‘text’ with many of the phenomena that interest me. I wonder how well you think all that theory that’s been built up around people engaging narrative fits music fandom? It’s particularly interesting in your case since you are looking at music that is tied to a narrative in film.

AP: For more than a decade now, Indian cinema has served as a key site for academics to re-think and rework our understanding of narrative, spectatorship, and participatory culture. I certainly see my work as contributing to this larger body of work (for a good introduction, take a look at the opening essay by Bhrigupati Singh here [http://www.india-seminar.com/2003/525.htm]). And you’re right in pointing out that film music complicates the boundaries and definitions of a “text.”As is well known, songs have been an integral part of commercial films since the early 1930s when sound was introduced. While songs serve a variety of narrative functions within the film, it is critical to recognize that film songs have a well-defined circuit of production, circulation and consumption that is both tied to yet independent of the films themselves.

Film songs are released 3-4 months before a film hits the theatres, and are tied closely to publicity/marketing strategies. Clips of songs serve as teasers on numerous television channels, songs are played endlessly on FM radio, they are available on music websites such as musicindiaonline.com and raaga.com, and they are also circulated as cell phone ringtones. Songs circulate in the public realm long after the film itself does and song compilations (playback singer, music director, time period, actor/actress, etc.) sell exceedingly well. There are a large number of television programs around film music, and over the past decade, talent shows have become immensely popular (,em>Indian Idol, for e.g.).

The commercial value of film music has also meant that music directors and playback singers have occupied a key role in the industry from the very beginning. Film songs, then, are associated with music directors and playback singers just as much as with actors/actresses lip-synching on the screen (Neepa Majumdar uses the term “aural stardom” to argue that we need to think about ways to conceptualize stardom in the absence of glamour and the “invisibility” of playback singers).

All of these elements shape discussions in a site like the Rahman fan community. The “text,” to put it simply, is never limited to a specific film or even to A. R. Rahman. Now, it is not enough to merely point out that the film song as a “text” is very different when compared to a film or a television show, or that the music director or playback singer is a different kind of “star.” In the context of this discussion, perhaps the more relevant question is: in what ways do fan practices surrounding film music differ from those that cohere around, say, a film star? And for me, this involves challenging the dominant narrative of fan-politics in the Indian context.

Fandom has been considered an important element of film culture primarily because of its explicitly political nature. In south India, male film stars mobilize their fan base to organize electoral campaigns and run for political office. Fan clubs are, quite often, grassroots political organizations (and almost entirely a male space). Online spaces like the Rahman fan community have been ignored for no reason other than their seemingly non-political nature. Focusing on music, then, opens up an opportunity to develop other stories of fan culture (more on this later in the discussion).

NB: I guess one piece of my answer would be that the three minute pop song as “text” challenges many of the notions ingrained in fandom study. What does it mean to fill in the blanks of a text that tells no story to begin with or – in contrast to film scores – has no connections to stories? There are concepts (“neutrosemy” seems to be an important one), that kind of get there, but I’m not sure that treating meaning making as the core fandom process works as well for music fandom as it does for narrative fandom. It seems that music is in many cases a much more direct emotional experience than narrative.

Again, I find myself shifting away from the dominant focus of fan studies – how do fans engage texts as collectives – and toward what I think are much more central issues in music fandom: how do people use music as a means of constructing their own identities and connecting with others? These are not untouched issues in fan studies, but they seem to get marginalized by what I’d consider a more literary/cultural studies approach that foregrounds what they do and don’t do in engaging the text itself.

Certainly some music fans concern themselves with lyrics, but for all the years I’ve been following music as part of various fandoms, I can probably count on one hand the number of discussions about what the words to a song mean that really went anywhere. In most of the fandoms I follow, lyrical discussion never gets past “and the words are clever” or “the lyrics stink, but the hooks are so good you can overlook it” or “I guess their drummer’s suicide really influenced these lyrics.” These just aren’t rich discussion topics. There’s much more discussion of extra-textual issues like recording dates and information, discography construction, concert chronology construction, arranging trades or torrents of concert recordings, and so on. Even when you look at a site that is specifically discussing the songs, such as Pop Songs 07 where every REM song is being blogged, the discussion is mostly about the personal experiences people associated with a song rather than what Michael Stipe meant in those words or what key the song is written in. To an extent, that’s meaning making, of course, but it’s quite different from what I saw with soap fans.

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 attblueroom.com. 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, www.johnbutlertrio.com, 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.