Biting And Feeding The Hands That Feed: Audience-Musician Interactions Online

We know that audiences are engaged in all kinds of practices online that change the ways they relate to one another and to the things they’re into. But how does all that affect the people they’re talking about – and sometimes talking to?

In a keynote talk at Transforming Audiences 3 in London last week, I address that question, drawing on the interviews I’ve been doing with musicians.

As always, the talk is cc licensed for noncommercial use with attribution, so read it, and if you dig it, share it:


I’m still working through this material, so all feedback is welcome.

Fans or Friends? An interview

I recently did an interview with Dave Cool for Bandzoogle’s blog.

We covered topics like how social media have affected online fandom, benefits and challenges of social media, whether bands need to use social media and/or have their own website, whether they can keep mystique, whether they ought to be trying to be friends with fans, and even a bit on how I mix personal and professional in my online identity and why.

Read part 1 and part 2.

Fans or Friends?

Last weekend I gave a talk at the International Communication Association about the increasingly interpersonal nature of the relationships between musicians and friends. In it, I draw on the interviews I’ve done with musicians to identify some of the positive new rewards they get when they can interact directly with their fans, cover many of the tricky interpersonal issues they face in trying to negotiate how much those relationships can be like friendship, and briefly summarize the main strategies they use to manage boundaries in ways with which they are comfortable.

Here it is in PDF form for download:

Fans or Friends?

Any and all feedback (especially the constructive kind) is welcomed!


Where MySpace Went Wrong And What It Can Still Do Right

This week MySpace announced it is laying off  half of its workforce. This follows an attempt at rebranding itself as a “social entertainment hub,” a new and widely-ridiculed logo, and a warning from its parent corporation to shape up or get sold.

MySpace grew up around the LA music scene and built itself on music from the beginning. As I’ve been interviewing musicians for the last several months, they’ve told a consistent story about what MySpace offered, what it didn’t, and the extent of its decline. But they’ve also spoken to practical needs that MySpace still meets, and have some words of warning.

In this post, I’ll summarize what emerges from about a dozen of the interviews I’ve done. I identify people with their permission, and don’t identify them at their request.

MySpace reinvented the Musician-Audience Connection

When MySpace started it changed everything for bands, and though some were wary, many leapt in with enthusiasm. It offered fans a direct line to musicians that neither had experienced before. Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai explained that:

when MySpace became popular and people could write straight to a band, I think that was a point I think a lot of people had never considered that you could just email a band. So I think – definitely- when that first started we got a lot a lot of correspondence through MySpace from people I don’t think would maybe have considered sending us an email.

One artist told me that “during a time where I think MySpace was the main mode of communication between fans and musicians I got Myspace things like “oh my god I didn’t know you were a lesbian that’s awesome!” Odd though some of these exchanges may have been, and much as they might have echoed what showed up in fan mail sent through the post, the sheer quantity of people who got in touch was transformative.

MySpace transformed audience measurement

MySpace also upended the structure of the conventional music industry by providing a new kind of metric – the friend count – that has come to carry its own influence that rivals SoundScan, the industry’s flawed yet taken-for-granted standard. “These social networks come along,” described Erin McKeown:

and all of the sudden here’s this new number that can be used. So for a while it was like Myspace views or number of friends on Myspace, and then it turned into Facebook fans and Twitter followers. I have heard in the music industry ‘this is someone good to tour with because they have x number of followers’ or ‘we’re interested in signing you because you’ve got x number of Facebook fans’ and in some ways it’s replaced SoundScan.

For a while that was exciting

As Big Dipper’s Gary Waleik, a social media skeptic, described it, the friend who insisted he joined

likened it to crack, you know? He says “Watch out with this Myspace thing.” You know? “It’s like smoking crack.” Not that I would know and not that he would know probably, but you know he was talking about the addictiveness of it.

“When MySpace came along,” said Steve Lawson:

I did the same thing everyone else did when MySpace came along and searched for artists that I liked and spammed everyone that also liked them with friend requests.  And for a while it generated an enormous amount of play– of listenership.  I was getting thousands of listens a day on MySpace.”

Greta Salpeter, of The Hush Sound and Gold Motel, came up just as MySpace did:

When the Hush Sound was signed, MySpace was huge. We went from having like 5,000 fans to having 30,000 fans overnight when we got signed just because that was the social media outlet of the time, and when we got signed it was like 2005, 2006.”

But That Was Then

Musicians do still use and appreciate MySpace, for reasons I’ll cover below, but as an interactive medium to which they pay attention, they’re done with it. One tells me she prefers Twitter, and so just ports that into Facebook and MySpace:

I read everything that ends up on my Facebook and my Twitter, and I used to read all my MySpace. Now I don’t even check it. But I used to.

Another, whose band has not recorded in several years, says:

We still have a page but I think no one uses it.  We don’t get many requests for friends anymore. … The thing about the MySpace page is I put it up there and hardly ever touch it, hardly ever deal with it.  But hardly anyone looks at it.

“I got over that hype pretty quickly,” Waleik told me, “and I after that I didn’t have much of a need to be on there. I hardly ever go on there anymore.” “I think now MySpace is much less important,” said Salpeter.

What’s Killing MySpace?

The obvious answer may be “Facebook,” but that doesn’t really tell us that much. Musicians point to a variety of problems with MySpace, problems that its competitors have either solved or should be solving if hoping to stave off MySpace’s fate.

The interface: Cellist Zoë Keating, who has a past in information technology, told me:

I remember the end of 2004 I signed up for MySpace and I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was cheesy or not but I signed up. And I found– as a former kind of information architect I found the interface of MySpace really annoying from the beginning.

“MySpace is hard to use,” said Salpeiter, “it’s kind of annoying, whereas like Facebook, you know, it’s so easy for us to create invites.” Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division echoed their sentiment:

MySpace is annoying in so many ways.  One is you cannot send a group email out to very many people and if you have 5,000 fans, which we did at one point, you cannot search them.  Once you hit 5,000 it’s not searchable anymore which is so counterintuitive and so stupid.  And you also cannot group MySpace people by area.  Because I was trying to go onto MySpace and find all the people who lived in Colorado or Texas and you can’t do that.  MySpace has sown their own seeds of destruction by being so user unfriendly even though it was a good idea, it’s just rampantly stupid.  I mean it’s unbelievable how hard it is to use once you have more than a handful of friends.

Spam: Like email, MySpace has also been seriously undermined by spam. “MySpace has been spammed,” said Salpeter, “you see all these crazy advertisements all the time.” Said Braithwaite, “19 out of 20 comments are ads or people trying to promote their band. It’s too easy to exploit.” As he suggests, musicians themselves are often the spammers. Steve Lawson described:

I had over 10,000 MySpace friends and deleted 8.5 thousand of them, because it was such a mess, I had no idea who was interested in what I was doing and who wasn’t, I couldn’t work out who had spammed me, who I’d spammed.

Disconnection: Despite its use as a metric, musicians describe MySpace as disconnected from what happens outside its own social world. “We use MySpace,” Braithwaite told me, “we get thousands of plays a day but there’s no interaction.” Lawson found that his thousands of plays wasn’t “turning into anything of any value”:

MySpace had its own internal currency which was friending, but no one would sit in front of their computer on MySpace with a credit card in hand.  And there didn’t seem to be mechanisms for turning that into anything meaningful.

MySpace friends may not spend when they’re out either. Gary Waleik told me about a friend of his who had a new CD:

They had this huge following on Myspace. I mean it was ridiculous. I think it was something like maybe this wasn’t so huge but I think it was like 10,000 people or something like that and it would drive them crazy because they did one CD together. And they had a record release party and people came out and they had CDs and they couldn’t give away the CDs. They thought they could sell some at the show. They didn’t sell a single one.

Stigma: Finally, as danah boyd has found in her ethnographic interviews with American teenagers, MySpace came to carry a class, race, and region based stigma as the seemingly “classier” and “more sophisticated” Facebook has gained audience. One musician requesting anonymity described it like this:

MySpace has a bad social connotation. I know like tons and tons of people still use it. I think mostly like in the Bible Belt and the South area, that kind of thing is where it’s still really, really popular. But it almost has this connotation of classless people. You know, there are always these jokes about the slutty girls on MySpace taking pictures of themselves and the kind of asshole-looking guys flirting with the girls and, you know, that it’s just a way to kind of like find sex and fuel vanity and that kind of thing.

MySpace Still Has A Niche

All this said, for those I’ve spoken with, MySpace is not dead. It’s still a fairly easy one-stop-spot to put your materials and have them be heard, a niche that no other site has been able to supplant. ”MySpace really seems to have just moved specifically into launching bands,” said Stephen Mason from Jars of Clay, “that seems to be where I see most of its use.” Another said he thinks MySpace “still is a big deal if you’re a band, that’s about all it’s good for these days is to find bands’ pages and hear their tracks.”

Salpeter’s perspective echoes theirs:

Mostly MySpace is used for people to hear our music, to see the photographs. You know, it’s like a basic template where the audience knows where to find everything, the photos, the music, the blogs, the whatever. So MySpace is a huge one for people to discover bands. MySpace is really just like the one-stop shop where anyone in the press, any potential listeners, any other bands to just be able to get one quick picture of the band, hear one song or 10 songs if they want, look at the photos, read the bio and look at the tour dates. It’s like everything in one place.

MySpace also offers bands the chance some find problematic in other platforms to just be musicians. Said Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven and solo work:

The whole effort is just to try to speak from that platform about music, but that’s difficult to maintain.  Or speak from that platform about shows or CDs or something like that.  That was easier when people were using MySpace I am really only the musician from my page on MySpace, I’m not like a personal human being.

Said McKeown, somewhat ruefully, “MySpace was less about status updates and more about just making music available in your player and collecting friends. But then Twitter and Facebook’s microblogging aspect kind of demanded fresh personal content.”

Be Warned

Just three years ago it was almost impossible to imagine Facebook as a more important site for music than MySpace, and it still has a long way to go if it is going to fill that space (as do Spotify and other possible contenders). But today’s top sites are just as likely to fade just as precipitously in years to come. As Waleik put it:

One of my misgivings about this whole thing, this whole phenomenon is that people go gaga over one medium and they say “Okay, this is how you do it.” And people try it for a very short period of time and the new better medium comes along and everyone just goes wholeheartedly into that, and then you know, you could see the progress from Myspace to Facebook to Twitter, everyone just loses their minds at the latest thing, and says “No, this is how you do it.”

What does this mean for musicians and others who rely on social media sites?  Perhaps more than anything, it reiterates the importance of keeping control. It’s essential to maintain a presence in some social media, but you also need to have your own mailing list, your own website, your own URL. Support what fans do elsewhere, and meet them where they are but remember to build an online identity and relationships on your own grounds as well. Zoë Keating has fooled around with Google Analytics, and is fairly certain that the people she reaches through MySpace are different from those she reaches through other sites. She warns:

everybody’s been complaining about how awful MySpace is and we’ve been waiting for it to die.  But meanwhile you better try to get people off of that — if they actually exist — to your mailing list because when it goes away you have no way to reach them.

Social Media from Musicians’ Perspectives

This is how I’ve been describing the research project I’ve been focusing on:

The last decade has brought tremendous changes in the tools and possibilities for musicians and audiences to interact with one another. On one hand, this brings new possibilities as artists can directly mobilize supporters on their behalf. On the other, it poses problems as artists try to work through changing expectations of how sociable and accessible they are supposed to be with their audiences and which ways of relating to which sectors of their audiences work best for them. Except for anecdotal success and failure stories, no one knows much about the common problems musicians face, the rewards they reap, or what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, we don’t really have a good grasp on what is really new vs. new tweaks to what’s been true for generations.

I’ve been interviewing musicians about these issues, focusing mostly on artists who had audiences before “social media” became so central to music, but also talking with up and coming younger artists. I started this project during my Visiting Researcher stint at Microsoft Research New England this summer, and I continue to talk to more artists with help from many many people who’ve been connecting me to managers, label people, and artists.

Every one of them has a tale to tell that’s different from everyone else’s. I’m hearing repetition, but I’m also hearing new things from everyone I talk to. Anyone who sells a “one size fits all” model of how to build and relate to audiences online is either peddling snake oil or oversimplifying things so much they’re not very useful.

You can read excerpts from some of the interviews on MidemNet’s blog. I thought I’d use the space of this blog to highlight how each of them speaks to a theme I’m hearing from many other musicians:

The internet internationalizes audiences.

As Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai discussed, this creates opportunities for new experiences that are both experientially and financially rewarding:

we’ve become popular in places that if it wasn’t for the internet, people wouldn’t have heard who we are, just because either people wouldn’t have the money to buy the music or there just wouldn’t be any promotion. We can pretty much play anywhere. I don’t think that would have been the case 20 years ago.  I think we would have sold more records 20 years ago just because people bought more records then, but we wouldn’t have been able to go places that we go now, like really unusual places like Chile or Indonesia or these kinds of places. I don’t think our music would have reached those places before.

How do on and offline careers connect? Do they?

Erin McKeown raised an issue of a perceived disconnect between an online persona and the touring and music-making self. Some artists don’t see any distinction between the realms, but others see it more like Erin:

But how does that translate into people in the room? I know people who have really lively online fanbases, many Facebook responses, lots of Twitter followers who draw the same amount of people that I draw in my rooms. There’s this sort of conversion that doesn’t necessarily happen, or you can’t draw a straight line between this artist has 5000 Facebook followers yet still is only drawing 30 people in this city.

In some ways I’ve begun to think of it as two different careers, you kind of have your online career where it’s like how do you communicate with those fans and what do you do for them and how do you cultivate that interaction and then there’s also do you give a good live show and when are you coming to this city?

Online community is more important than audience.

Steve Lawson, who blogs here, is on the outer edge of carving out a new kind of self-maintained career that relies heavily on being engaged in social media. One of the points he made that I’m hearing echoed elsewhere is that many artists appreciate that online media have provided a platform where their audience can talk amongst themselves and with them about topics far beyond themselves:

Because most of the chatter from the forum wasn’t talking about me because there’s only so much you can talk about one person without it becoming like really bizarrely narcissistic.  Or it’s just dull.  So we would talk about TV and politics and other music. And, I mean, I still spend nine-tenths of my time on social media platforms talking about other people’s music.

Committed fans want to participate.

It was great to talk to Mark Kelly from Marillion because they were among the very first musicians to use fan funding. He talked about what happened when they didn’t need the money and thus chose not to release a fan-funded record after having done many of them:

But the other thing we noticed was that people felt that somehow it wasn’t as special. They like the fact that they had this involvement with it, the fact that we had to keep them up to date on what was going on because we had their money, so we felt obliged to say, “Okay, well we’re at this stage now and here’s a few little samples of what we’re doing.”  So there was all that stuff which made them feel, one, financially they knew they were financing it and two, they were very much involved with the whole process as it was going along.  So there was a sense of disappointment that we didn’t do it.  And people said, “Oh, it’s a shame you didn’t do a preorder, we’d love you to do that again.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these themes or other issues the musicians raise in those interviews.