Monday, September 14, 2009

The People Formerly Known as Fans

What the Internet and digital technology have given people is empowerment or at least a sense of empowerment. When it comes to music, the tools are there to allow people to make and record their music, upload it to the Internet, sell it, give it away for free, create digital stores, and so on. You know the drill.

So everyone can be a rock star, or at least feel like one. That's changing the dynamics of the music business, though not everyone has caught on yet. People still talk in terms of artists and fans (e.g., tribes, direct-to-fan sales) on the assumption that there will be people who create music and those who consume it. Instead, I think music business futurists need to think about a world where "fans" have disappeared.

In 2004 Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, wrote about "the people formerly known as the audience." He was talking about the news media, but I think it applies to music and the arts as well. People are going to gravitate to those experiences which make them feel creative and empowered.

Here's another discussion about the concept, originating from a book by NYU new media professor Clay Shirky.
One path is called Shirky Avenue, named for Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations. ... On Shirky Ave. we find mass collaboration can lead to greater audience investment, and a potentially higher payoff in terms of purchases and donations. Who doesn’t want to own a piece of something they invested their time in? "5 Ways to Attract and Empower Your Crowd," Mashable, 9/2/09.
I added a comment to the article.
I've been trying to explore this from the perspective of art, theater, and especially music.

Social media is playing an increasing role in music, and more fans are getting involved with remixes, creating videos with music by various artists, designing t-shirts, and so on. Some have adopted the concept of Godin's tribe, with the artist/band being the center of the tribe.

But I see us moving beyond that, and I'm not sure the music community is ready for it. The tribe concept still promotes the idea that there is a creative person at the center, and a group of fans revolving around it. But I see more fans wanting to become the show themselves. So I think we may be moving toward the idea that, at best, the artist is the facilitator and doesn't own the creative object that results.

I'm not sure how many musicians are ready to step into a role where their biggest contribution may be to enable the "people formerly known as the audience" to become their own source of creativity.
Unlike journalism professors and community organizers, members of the music business haven't gone nearly as far into this discussion. When music people talk about new business models, they are still thinking in terms of "fans." While they may envision fans having more freedom to decide which artists they like, there's not so much discussion of the end of fandom. A music world without fans is a scary thing indeed for most who have invested time and money into music.

However, I ran across some insightful comments from two people involved in the creation of the Beatles Rock Band game.
“This is definitely legitimate art,” Yoko Ono said of Rock Band. “A lot of artwork that I’m doing is always audience-participation.” She considers the game in the same tradition as her 1964 book, “Grapefruit,” which sought to create communal happenings through simple instructions, on the theory that art gains meaning by being shared. ("A dream you dream alone may be a dream," she wrote, "but a dream two people dream together is a reality.”)

“The music itself has a very strong power,” Ono said, “but that’s not as powerful as what people put in there for themselves.” "While My Guitar Gently Beeps," The New York Times Magazine, 8/16/09.
And the future? “In 10 years’ time you’ll be standing there, and you will be Paul McCartney. You know that, don’t you?” He made a sound like a “Star Trek” transporter. “You’ll have a holographic case, and it will just encase you, and you will be Paul McCartney.” He paused and then said, “God knows what that will mean for me.” Then he added slyly, “I’ll be the guy on the original record.” "While My Guitar Gently Beeps," The New York Times Magazine, 8/16/09.
Paul and Yoko get it.

Suzanne Lainson
@slainson on Twitter

UPDATE 9/23/09

This is an example of where I think music is headed. All of those people in the audience who join in as part of the dance are not just passive fans. They have helped to create the moment and it has been recorded and is being shown in multiple YouTube videos.
Black Eyed Peas And Oprah Orchestrate A 21,000 Strong Flash Mob Dance
UPDATE 10/12/09
And that’s the great thing about games like “Beaterator” and apps like “I Am T-Pain” or “Bloom” and even games like “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.” They encourage us to think about music and, more importantly, to imagine ourselves at the center of it. They encourage us to do something we might not otherwise do — to try our hand at music making when perhaps making music seems like something only other people do. And as much as they may seem like trifling and sometimes silly little toys, they put modern music making within reach of us all.

As Timbaland says, “I tried to give people a game but I also tried to give people who love music hope of making their own music.” "Gaming our way to musical genius," Citizen Gamer, 10/12/09.


  1. It's great that Paul and Yoko get it, because I frankly don't.

    I don't for two reasons:
    1. It's not what the majority of artists are about,
    2. It's not what the majority of the audience are about.

    We've this obsession with the Internet (and digital technology in general) being something completely new and changing everything, but it's all been done. I'm sure the idea resonates with people like Yoko, because from what I've read about the London scene in the Sixties, a lot of performance was conducted in this inclusive fashion. Other examples spring to mind, such as the Mothers' Of Invention shows at the Garrick Theater or even part of the off scene today. The common thread? This hasn't become the standard.

    I've written about it elsewhere, but to restate an observation: most people aren't particularly interested in other people. It's great to feel like you're the Guitar Hero, but watching someone else do it isn't necessarily as fun - not when we're talking thousands of people.

    Having a single authority (I use the term loosely, meaning the artist in this case) allows a wide variety of otherwise unrelated people to bond in a way that wouldn't work in that authority's absence. It's purely anecdotal evidence, but watching the growth of my own fan community here in Poland I know that without Viridian as the common denominator, it wouldn't hold. We interact with our fans on a personal basis, but there is a qualitative difference between their position and ours - one that is cultivated by them as much as us.

    So, no. This is not the way forward. The artist always has embodied something that the average person is not. That is the whole point of celebrity. People need dreams and artists are in the business of providing these.

  2. Great comment.

    I'm really interested in this topic and will be posting more about it. I've watched fan behavior shift at shows. In many cases fans are now on their cellphones texting and taking photos more than actually paying attention to the music, so I take that as a sign that they are more interested in letting friends know they are at the show than in being at the show as listening fans.

    Seems like we have progressed from classical music fans who were content to be attentive audiences to now where the audience wants to be engaged on as many levels as possible.

    But I am not asking people to agree with me. I really want to spur a conversation about this and I appreciate your perspective.

  3. Thanks for using my work and developing it further.

    Jay Rosen

  4. Thanks Jay. I remember you and many of the pioneers of online news from Steve Outing's Online News mailing list. I got interested in all of that when I was working part-time at the Apple Media Research Lab in Boulder back in 1993-94. I also remember seeing Roger Fidler's tablet mock-up back then. His office was down the hall from Apple's.

    It's been interesting to follow the latest discussions because many of the issues now are the same ones everyone was talking about then.


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