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.

How to interview and SXSWi highlights

Back from my first SXSWi. General impression: A lot of wonderful people there, but way too many people. It was hard to find even the people I already knew, let alone meet new ones, though I did manage both.

I led a core conversation about interviewing, meant to pool our collective wisdom about how to be a good interviewer. It got nice write ups here and here.

I made up an interviewing cheat sheet, which you are welcome to use, reuse, recirculate or ignore as you see fit. Download it as a PDF.

My two favorite panels were Ze Frank’s and Devo’s. I have long admired Ze Frank’s amazing experiments in audience participation, including When Office Supplies Attack and Angrigami, and I expected him to be hilarious, which he was. I was not expecting him to be so insightful and moving. He spoke about how much emotion is out there on the internet, and how much it blows him away when he sees how people take the fun little tools he’s created at his site, like this flower maker, and use them to display and share profound feelings with one another. He also talked about making The Show as an experiment in living at the edge of continuous anxiety about not having anything to present and the ongoing process of learning to have faith and patience in his own creativity.

Devo presented a panel called “Devo, The Internet, and You” which was simultaneously a discussion of how they are seeking audience participation in their next album and a wicked wicked send up of corporate speak approaches to treating online audiences as marketing data.

Here is a link to their (unembeddable?) powerpoint which is more than worth the 1:43 it takes to watch it. Judging from the comments on the YouTube site, its status as parody wasn’t apparent to all, but it was crystal clear if you were there.  The highlight might have been the questions, when the audience slipped right into the same mode and asked lingo-laden queries that were as funny as the presentation (“I am really impressed at how you’ve managed to leverage synergies and I’m just wondering if there are any synergies you haven’t been able to leverage?” “Location seems to be increasingly important in this new millennium and I’m wondering if you are planning to offer location based services”). Mike Monello, of Campfire NYC, who’s a leader in transmedia storytelling (in addition to having been a maker of Blair Witch Project, he also does the transmedia for True Blood among other cutting edge projects) declared the panel “the definition of transmedia storytelling.” It was perfect.

I also enjoyed seeing Peter Sunde from Pirate Bay (and Flattr) skyped in from Sweden (“If I set foot in the United States I’d get sued so hard I’d never be able to leave”) who didn’t really say anything but was exceedingly funny and charming at it.

My biggest disappointments? Daniel Ek of Spotify offered no hope of a US launch anytime soon, and, yeah, that Twitter CEO keynote interview. Suffice to say the interviewer should have been at my session.

My biggest frustration? The panel on music curation. Anya Grundmann who’s in charge of was wonderful, but I was ultimately infuriated by music writer Chris Weingarten who at one point had the insight to say that “it’s not about finding a music blogger who has taste like you, it’s about finding a group of people who have similar taste” but ended up just whining that only the real (i.e. published in Rolling Stone like he is) music critics were capable of real critique and the rest were just wannabe fanboys driving the experts out of business. No sympathy here. And a total misunderstanding of the levels of in-depth critique fans practice every day.

p.s. best perks? Macallan’s ongoing free tastings of their 12 and 15 year scotches and free chair massage. I want that at all events I attend.

Indie Labels on Sharing, Streaming and Giving It Away

I’ve been interviewing people involved in the Swedish indie music scene these last few months. Today I thought I’d dive into them a little and share a few quotes from people running labels that I think represent a real shift in the way indies are doing business as well as how they differ from the major labels. I’m not going to identify the interviewees because I didn’t get their permission to quote them by name for this purpose, and I’m not sure it matters that much right now.

First, though some are making money on CD sales, they don’t seem to expect to and have other ideas about where the money is going to be made: live music, clubs, and sponsorship. They are high on giving their music away, or at least the singles. Says one label guy:

As a label, simple things like giving away every single as an MP3 helps a lot. If you’re a small label you have nothing to lose by spreading your music. Having a record label isn’t the best way of making money anyway… but coming from a very indie background, most 7″ singles I bought when I was younger sold 500 copies or less. Albums around 1,000 perhaps, I’m sometimes surprised the music we release sells as well as it does. [...] There are a lot of records stores closing down. But the ones closing down are the ones which aren’t niche-stores. And there’s an increase in venues to play and clubs I think. Everyone has their own club nowadays. Having your own fashion brand or starting a club is the new starting a band.

And another:

I’m giving up on selling CDs, but we’re making CDs and trying to get them on elsewhere, we can’t make money from selling them. I’m trying to figure out different ways to earn money and get artists to be professional musicians: Setting up clubs, trying to get people who have money to pay for the music. Like companies pay for using your music because then you can rip some fuckers with money off, like sponsorships. I have nothing against that. If the sponsorship thing is good and you feel like both parties are winning on it. Companies realize they can’t get their logo on everything.

I was particularly interested in how a third label person articulated what I see as a major theme in my interviews, the use of free music to create not just a buzz about your band, but a cultural scene around your kind of music. One could argue this has always been the case with indie music, and certainly the scene has always been important, but where the scene used to be built primarily through touring, it now can be built through file sharing, and that seems new:

If we didn’t put out mp3s, we wouldn’t get the attention we need, so it can only be positive. I view file sharing as a positive. It’s affecting the culture, listeners who are into our kind of music, they are more music fans than the general listener. That kind of person has increased in number over the last 5-6 years. In Stockholm now there are tons of clubs that play our kind of music. It’s 100% file sharing and the internet that we have to thank. All people involved in indie music have known that if we could only get exposure we’d be huge. The majors had marketing and budgets, but the internet made it easy for the independents.

He goes on to talk about the importance of active online fans and mp3 bloggers:

It’s a big thing. A lot of our fans share common values with the whole file sharing, the culture benefits. It’s a very important factor, it translates some kind of interest that we share a common value — shared music taste, discontent with the dominant major labels. mp3 bloggers are important in the development of mp3 culture. In the beginning there weren’t many mp3 blogs, it had very big impact if we put up our own site because everyone would go to the site. Nowadays mp3 blogs have taken that place. The label isn’t enough of a filter anymore. It’s great for us. If a big mp3 blog puts up a track by one of our artists it gives it credibility. It makes it easier for people to like it and accept the music.

Says the first label guy quoted above:

Hopefully, MP3s, MySpace, internet, blogs and all that changes things so that we more and more have to put our trust in people’s good taste in music (and our way of of presenting our music I suppose) rather than big muscle marketing.

Some key words in there: trust & common values. No wonder I like these guys :)

Managing Robbie Williams Fans, Part 2

picturePart 2 of an interview with Shell, webmaster for, a Robbie Williams fansite. Yesterday we got an overview of the site and its relationship with Robbie Williams and his associates. Today, she shares her insights and lessons learned from running the site:

What do you think has made the site as successful as it is?

Good, fair, impartial management who have alot of enthusiasm for the site and his membership base. Original content, that is updated constantly and a site that is very user friendly.

The members play a huge part too. They are friendly, welcoming, diverse and alot of firm friendships have developed and grown. The atmosphere on the community is great, whereas on some fansites i have come across in my research i cannot say the same.

Members are very supportive of the site and it’s staff which is also a major factor of being successful.

You’re also involved in The Admin Zone. For people who aren’t aware of that, can you tell us more about that site?

The Admin Zone is a site for new and old forum community administrators and moderators. It offers help and support as well as a reviewing service and original articles and tutorials to help build, manage and maintain a forum based website.

What insights have you gained into managing fan communities as a result of your involvement with

It wasn’t what i expected to be honest. Managing a fansite has thrown up alot of insights. The main being the treatment of celebrities by the tabloid media both online and off. I’ve learnt about online promotion and believe fansites go along way to help promote their subjects new material as well as supporting the artist online. The legalities behind online music, videos, lyrics and images has also been an insight.

There’s also a negative side to fandom. We have come across a few obsessives and the staff team have had to learn how to deal with this in the best possible way behind the scenes in private without it effecting the community as a whole. It can be quite shocking and disturbing when you come across these people but the good easily outweighs the bad and luckily on Pure Robbie 99% of fans using the site do so in a positive way and respect the site’s and artists wishes .

One of our main insights was when questioning just how far discussions could go. The artist recently admitted himself into rehab for addiction to perscription drugs. Obviously this was a concern to fans but some discussions were beginning to, in the staffs opinion, intrude too much into his personal life. Fans were assuming and speculating about his health to a degree that made us feel uncomfortable and even though his management didn’t disapprove we felt that out of respect fans shouldn’t speculate and only listen to the facts both the artist, and his family and management put out relating to this personal and sensitive subject.

There’s been alot of debate on the site since about how far discussions should go and what should and should not be discussed on a public forum/fansite.

What advice would you offer others who are interested in creating a fan site?

I’d advise researching the market. If there are other fansites already for your subject look what works for them and what doesnt and build upon that. Add originality wherever possible to make your fansite stand out. Pay attention to detail when creating the sites design and layout. Theme and design should be tied together. Have a logo that is brandable, original and recognisable.

Things to include on a fansite are:

Biography, discography, filmography, an archive of all ‘old’ information on your chosen subject, image gallery, news section, original reviews and articles as well as site exclusives.

Get members involved in all areas of the site.

Consider how to generate site revenue as fansites can grow rapidly and you need to be able to generate enough revenue to keep the site up and running as things like bandwidth useage can send your hosting package up the scale pretty quickly, be prepared. You will also need revenue to run competitions etc to keep generating interest. Research advertising opportunities and member subscriptions or donations.

Also be the site that brings the news in quickly and constantly. Give members a reason to keep returning and try to maintain a good atmosphere on the community. Get members as involved in the site as possible Fansites are all about fans opinions, ensure they have outlets for these.

Are there any other things you think we should know about that I didn’t ask?

I believe Pure Robbie, and the majority of fansites online have changed the relationship between artist/subject and fan and also contribute to the online promotion of the artist and their work.

Online Fansites also help an artists profile online, their supporters can share opinions with other like minded people from around the world. Information is delieved to a wider audience alot more quickly making the fan feel closer to the artist as well as being able to keep up to date on all his goings on like future releases, projects etc…

Fans opinions, posted on fansites are picked up by search engines placing their opinions on many subjects relating to the artist/subject alongside those of critics in search engine results, giving anyone looking for information about the artist/subject a rounder, more balanced and informed perspective.

Managing Robbie Williams Fans, Part 1

Though we Americans have rarely heard of him, on the other side of the pond, Robbie Williams is big big news. And he’s got a big big fan following to go along with that. I recently spoke with Shell, the webmaster for, a very successful fansite. Shell is a mid-30s student of English, living in England, who turned her interest in online community management toward her interest in Robbie Williams about a year ago. She also works with others helping them manage fan communities. Today and tomorrow, I’m happy to share her insights into this and other fan sites:

Can you give us some background on PureRobbie? How old is it, how many users do you have? What do people do on it?

Pure Robbie opened in April 2006. I began researching this project in Nov 05 because he was embarking on a massive world wide tour and although he has some good fansites out there i wanted to create one with a focus on original articles and reviews written by fans, to bring them together in one place to share their experience of the tour and admiration of the artist and his work and one that was able to accomodate a large membership base that spans the globe. Alot of his fansites are small groups and country specific, whereas Pure Robbie was intended to accomodate fans from around the globe. I was in contact with the artists management who knew of my plans and offered advice when i needed it.

In just over a year the site has 6,000 members and 30,000 visitors every month. The members have created a massive 11,338 threads/articles and made 630,228 posts.

On the site you can find all the latest news, reviews and interviews relating to the artist from the media and discuss these with other fans plus original reviews, interviews and news written by the site staff, reporters and members. In the year we have been open we have exclusivly interviewed members of his band, management and collaborators, the latest being Mark Ronson who is currently having alot of success in the UK album charts and he has just released an album in the US featuring Robbie Williams.

There’s a large image gallery full of pictures from the start of his career to the present day. We also have an amazing fan fiction section where members actively post and read fiction, poetry and drama relating to Robbie Williams. On the site there is also a live chat room and we run monthly Superfan prize competitions that are very popular.We also have a ‘blog to Rob’ section where members can blog about anything or send messages to Robbie in the hope he pops by and reads them.

There are also sections on the site to discuss his music, books, films, videos, gossip, tv and radio appearances, L.A Vale (celebrity soccer team managed by Robbie Williams) as well as a download section. There’s also advertising space for fans to exchange Robbie goods.

As distractions from discussing Rob we have a very active general chat area and a games and quiz section and we run alot of prize competitions. Members have also organised meets offline in London, Germany, America and the next one is planned for Amsterdam. All of which have been very popular and fun.

You mentioned that there are a number of related resources outside the site, can you tell us more about them?

As well as the main site we have a Myspace social network. The Myspace links members of the site to other fans on the www as well as promoting our exclusive interviews, news and reviews around the www and puts fans in touch with others fans spaces which helps develop friendships.

We then have our own blogspot where again our news, reviews and interviews are promoted around the www. The news on this blog often contradicts the lies the tabloids write about him in the hope the ‘truth’ gets a shot of being heard too. Subscribers to this blog recieve daily email alerts.

We also have our own store where Robbie Williams music and goods can be bought new or second hand.

What has the attitude of Robbie Williams and his associates been toward the site?

ie music management, who have looked after Rob for over a decade have been great. They assist us in the kind of content we post on the site to keep our download section legal and pass on things the community wish to send to Rob such as messages of support, fan feedback and birthday cards/gifts. They’ve been very supportive, sending us congratulations on our first year and advising us on how to handle any media inquiries which was a great help in light of recent events surrounding our artist/subject.

Robbie has met a number of Pure Robbie members and has taken alot of time to speak with them, pose for pictures and sign Pure Robbie banners, cds, pictures etc.

Why do you think this is?

I believe they have been very positive towards the fansite as they know it is managed with experience and assists in the online promotion of the artist and his work in a very positive way. Our fansite works alongside the artists official site and does not compete with it, we offer something completly different, interaction. We offer fans a place to discuss the artist and his work and we also promote the latest additions and goods published on the official site.

Speaking to a fan recently Robbie Williams expressed that fansites like Pure Robbie were good because we could post and discuss both negative and positive media articles relating to him whereas the official site is not able to do this. For me this showed approval of his fansites and what they can achieve online.

Do you feel like you and your site have any influence on Robbie Williams and his career?

I’d like to hope so. Hopefully he and his management gain an insight into what fans think about his music etc through our comments and reviews but our main aim is to dilute all the negative articles from the tabloids, especially the UK ones, online by publishing our own news which show the tabloid lies for what they are and to get the truth, as we know it, out there.

For example, there’s just been a media frenzy relating to a new video blog he published on his official site. The UK tabloids wrote headlines like ‘Rob found God’, and questioned his mental health, whereas our news article stated what had really occured on the video blog which was an artist playing a sample of a new tune in his studio and having a joke or two. In the search engine results relating to this, our article stood beside the negative ones, hopefully helping to ‘counter attack’ it. We were also lucky enough to recieve Rob’s reaction to the media story when a fan interviewed him at a soccer game and was able to add this quote to our news article, adding strength to our ‘truth’, and helping to dilute the lies. Rob admitted the tabloid story was lies, to put it mildly.

The site also promotes respecting the artists privacy wherever possible. We do not allow any of his personal details or private engagements to be published on the site and advise fans on how to respect his personal space when around him.

We also advise on safety etc at concert venues, giving advise on parking, buying tickets, the best gates for the best view, food, accomodation and travel to these events in the hope both fans and the venue’s organises have an event that runs as safe, and smoothly as possible, giving everyone involved a great experience when seeing their idol.

Tomorrow, more from Shell on the insights she’s gained from working on this site and others.