Apr 16, 2009

Management vs. Fanagement

Josh Williams's picture
Josh Williams
Director, Product Strategy

In wee spaces sometimes found between projects, a few folks here at Hot have been investigating the spectrum of use and abuse in social websites and services.

For example, Katrina Alcorn wrote about how Get Satisfaction's "people-powered customer service" clears barriers between businesses and customers, fostering communication that results in the kind of emotionally-invested relationships that make marketeers salivate. And there's Twitter, of course, which has quickly become a weapon of choice for community managers at any business with the desire to stay closely connected with its customers. Blogging has long been seen as a best-practice for businesses wanting to appear active and engaged with their product and with the entire ecosystem around them.

All these sites and services add up to a powerful, relatively-new set of best-practices for marketing and customer service for just about any sort of business, from shoes to airline tickets.

Even music. With perhaps a few exceptions, the success of a musician is absolutely tied to the ability to connect and engage with his or her  customer-base: "the fans." Lesser-knows performers have a long history of employing DIY tactics for publicizing their shows, while bigger acts leveraged the mass media to promote a tour or album. But new social media sites and services are amplifying performers' abilities to connect to audiences.

If management is on-board, this means performers now have tools to offset sagging record sales. But if management isn't doing its job, the performer, who might've been adrift on an ice floe a few years ago, now has the option to turn from management to the fans, or "fanagement."

There's as much diversity in the ways performers and their reps engage online as there are different types of music. Some performers rarely, if ever, spend time online, while others tweet, post mobile pics, or blog several times each day; their online activity keeps them connected to their fan-base. Larger acts have marketing teams or community managers tasked with maintaining an online presence, smaller or newer acts (like The Invisible Cities, which includes Hot Studio user experience designer Han Wang) are often content with what they can personally accomplish with MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Kanye West's blog is a great example of a megastar online presence. Whether it's really Kanye posting is irrelevant. The point is that his blog has been regularly updated since 2007 with several posts each day. There a lot of posts relating to Kanye's music, and his fans know it. When he previewed demo tracks or videos for his latest album, thousands of his fans went to his site to get it first.

No big marketing spends are required to keep the audience's attention, just the cost of a site and the payroll for the content managers who keep it updated. But West's posts aren't just about his music. They touch on fashion, magazines, consumer electronics, and just about anything related to pop culture. Sure, all this content drives page views, but Kanye isn't blogging for the ad revenue. He and his management team are doing it to keep his fan-base active and engaged, while building and maintaining West's brand.

The pop-punk band Paramore is another excellent example. Early in their career, Paramore connected with fans through Livejournal. More than just a blogging service, Livejournal also has a very active community. People on LJ tended to be more invested in what happened in Livejournal-land, and I suspect the general passion of LJ users only amplified enthusiasm for Paramore, who were actually posting in that community, geling the relationship between the band and their fans. Later, Paramore launched a more traditional band site, and frequent blogging, videos, and photo posts from band members drew old and new fans. Any given blog post from Paramore's lead vocalist, Haley, will likely have 200 or more comments. The fans come to the site because they feel the band is there with them; they feel like they're sharing the site with the band and they're paying attention to what the band has to say.

There are also examples of performers who go straight to the fans. It might be because their management won't play with the new models for fan engagement, or maybe they don't know how to play, or maybe the performer just wants to cut out the middleman.

Trent Reznor and his band Nine Inch Nails always seems to be coming up with innovative ideas. Last year's NIN's tour featured some of the most intricate and inspired visual displays seen on stage. Reznor proposed a new approach to concert ticketing that could reduce or eliminate the marked-up reselling market (a.k.a. legal scalping) and ensure good seats make their way to real fans.

NIN has experimented with different album sales models, including the pay-what-you-want (like Radiohead), as well as gifting it away. NIN not only endorse the remixing of their music by fans, they also allow fans to post the remixes to the offical NIN Community site next to the original versions. Whenever possible they work with venues to allow fan photography and video recording of their shows. And just this week, NIN launched a new NIN Access iPhone app for the NIN community (and you can watch them demo it with the help of Kevin Rose from Digg); it's packed with so many cool features that it deserve a separate post. Not surprisingly, Trent is also on Twitter, and the guy is a self proclaimed tweetaholic (link). It's no suprise that Nine Inch Nail's latest large venue tour is already sold out in most towns.

It was from reading Trent Reznor's tweets that I learned Amanda Palmer's on Twitter. Reading through her posts inspired this (now lengthy) post about management vs. her approach of fanagement. Palmer is the lead singer for the punk-caberet band the Dresden Dolls, and she's got a bone to pick with her label. In fact, she wants them to fire her (as she sings in NSFW lyrics in this song to the tune of "Moon River"). It may be a bad marriage between her and the label, but that's not stopping her from getting the love she wants and deserves. Through her blog, her newsletter, and her regular tweets, Amanda is able to connect directly with her fans and make all sorts of cool things happen that never would have if she relied on her label. In a publicly posted letter, she shares how, on short notice, she gathered 150+ fans for a signing appearance in a park while touring Australia. And this was after a local management rep told her Twitter hadn't yet caught on in that neck of the woods. Perhaps more remarkably, it was her fans and not management who were arranging the logistics of her tour. They helped house some of the dancers and other performers on the tour, even going so far as to pass the hat at the end of a show to make sure all the performers went home with a couple hundred bucks in their pockets. (When I read about what her fans did, I tweeted about it, and not long after I got an @reply from Amanda. For musicians like her, engagement with fans about broadcasting, it's about conversations.)

Those in management should be paying close attention: if Kevin Kelly's theory that it only takes 1,000 true fans to make an artist successful holds, then it's going to be through new social media and community tools that artists will be able to find those fans. If management is onboard, great! But clearly performers don't have to pine away in hopes of having doors opened for them—they have the means to open doors and connect with fans on their own.

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