Last Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine features an article by Clive Thompson about online fan management and how it’s changing the game for bands, authors and other artists. It’s a great read and one with lots of lessons for brands that desire a grass roots connection with their advocates.
Performing artists these days, particularly new or struggling musicians, are increasingly eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame. They know many young fans aren’t hearing about bands from MTV or magazines anymore; fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cellphone concert video on YouTube.
Thompson looks at several artists, but the one who fits his story best is Jonathan Coulton, a Brooklyn singer-songwriter with finely-honed interweb skills. Coulton, a former code monkey, has a passionate geek following and his career is totally dependent on his ability to build community and share his music online. From this base, he’s been able to extend his “business” into offline environments. That is, he tours and plays live, knowing as he does where his fans are most highly concentrated.
This trend isn’t limited to musicians; virtually every genre of artistic endeavor is slowly becoming affected, too. Filmmakers like Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) and Rian Johnson (“Brick”) post dispatches about the movies they’re shooting and politely listen to fans’ suggestions; the comedian Dane Cook cultivated such a huge fan base through his Web site that his 2005 CD “Retaliation” became the first comedy album to reach the Billboard Top 5 since 1978. But musicians are at the vanguard of the change. Their product, the three-minute song, was the first piece of pop culture to be fully revolutionized by the Internet. And their second revenue source — touring — makes them highly motivated to connect with far-flung fans.
Thompson also delves into the downside of this instant intimacy.
“I vacillate so much on this,” Tad Kubler (of The Hold Steady) told me one evening in March. “I’m like, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this intimacy with our fans. And I’m not sure you can have both.”
The Hold Steady’s online audience has grown so huge that Kubler, like Jonathan Coulton, is struggling to bear the load. It is the central paradox of online networking: if you’re really good at it, your audience quickly grows so big that you can no longer network with them. The Internet makes fame more quickly achievable — and more quickly unmanageable. In the early days of the Hold Steady, Kubler fielded only a few e-mail messages a day, and a couple of “friend” requests on MySpace. But by this spring, he was receiving more than 100 communications from fans each day, and he was losing as much as two or three hours a day dealing with them. “People will say to me, ‘Hey, dude, how come you haven’t posted a bulletin lately?’ ” Kubler told me. “And I’m like, ‘I haven’t done one because every time I do we get 300 messages and I spend a day going through them!’ ”