Friday, May 09, 2008

Why the Stains of Fandom On Our V-Sleaves Mean More Than Ever Before: Value Added through Public Fandom

Van Hagr!
Originally uploaded by Loganpoppy
Compared to other music fans I have found little interest in publicly celebrating my favorite bands and artists. The only time I remember putting a bumper sticker on my car for a music act was the Grateful Dead teddy bear sticker, and even then it wasn't to promote them... I just loved the images. In fact, other than t-shirts, my very strong tastes are relatively reserved when compared to, say, those who would get their car plates customized to celebrate not just a band, but a specific iteration of a band. When I saw this plate, I took the picture and talked to the driver who said that while he liked both iterations, the only thing he really hated was the replacement of longtime bassist of Michael Anthony with Wolfgang Van Halen.

Much has been written about fandom that I need not rehash. However when we live in a possible "One Person, One Channel" environment this kind of public intensity, particularly when it is on the web, is something that needs to be considered in terms of what I would like to call an "Aggregated Granularity" that illuminates how specific differences, differences of iteration, opinion, version, etc, create measurable and appreciable value. Right now the most interesting iteration of how aggregating granules of information is valued in a vast media environment is the well publicized Netflix Recommendation Engine contest. Getting 10 percent performance improvement over Cinematch is worth the prize of a million dollars precisely because if you can ferret out a manner in which you can limit mismatches in a media economy of seemingly unlimited hours then you have a product that will allow you to leverage your services in an almost monopolistic fashion. Much like Google's proprietary PageRank was only percentage points better than Yahoo! or AltaVista's, it was that small difference that has allowed Google to simply dominate search.

The aggregation of small differences is the what Google offers us better than any other search engine and it is in these granules where media fans lie, plot, speak and collect. I have been thinking more about this as it has become clear that the effect of online MP3 blogs has started to take over as a major means of distributing music. Getting the word out about a record has always been the function of the music press and as Rolling Stone, Spin and NME may have dominated a good portion of the English speaking world are losing their hold as print is suffering under the weight of MP3 blogs. And how do we know this is happening? Well, ad dollars are for print are, as Crains recently noted, dwindling:

Ad pages for the three biggest music magazines slid 26% in the first quarter. Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone, the category's iconic publication, saw a 33% drop, according to just-released numbers from Publishers Information Bureau.

The magazines are reeling from the same seismic shift that has rocked the record labels—and which has made popular music more available to consumers than ever before.

Young fans are filling their iPod and Zune libraries straight from the Internet, which is also where they can listen to music and catch the latest news and reviews.

Naturally, advertisers are following them.

“We're putting money in Pandora and other music [sites] that in the olden days would probably all have gone to Rolling Stone,” says Scott Daly, executive media director at advertising agency Dentsu America, who still places ads in the Wenner Media title. “We're trying to reach young, early adopters—which Rolling Stone reaches, but it doesn't have a lock on them.”

Music magazines were also hit hard by downward currents affecting all magazines.

Cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds, responding to criticism—and lawsuits over editorial-style ads in Rolling Stone last fall—has pulled all U.S. print advertising.

The auto industry, weathering its own crisis, cut magazine ad spending by 21% in the first quarter, according to PIB. In the past, car companies always looked to music titles to reach young men.

And as compact disc sales have continued to fall, music labels have downsized their ad presence even further.

I am not surprised by this at all. One of the things that print did very well was treat general interests generally very well. It was "mass". As we all know, Mass Media is so 20th century (insert sarcasm here). Sure, Spin, NME and RS all have online presences, but they are effectively oriented around general music coverage and today's fan, one that has grown up not only with 24 hour a day online access to information and a musical catalogue won't even buy a 12 song album if they do not have to. They are particular and aren't interested in mass consumption in the classic one-size-fits-all set of practices. They may consume large quantities, but it is one grain at a time.

Which brings me back to the above picture. I don't know if anyone will use or find this picture. I have placed a number of pics in the common terrain of public flickr groups, etc. Some get visited, others don't. However, for those one or two people who visit these pictures they are valued enough to email to friends, view, and share. It's these minor iterations that, when accumulated through specific searches, that mean more than ever. These kinds of pictures, MP3 blogs devoted to subgenres of subgenres, and remix sites mean that the anyone who has ever had a specific, pointed interest in a band's most minor recordings can find them. In the 1980s I took an interest in bootlegs of REM and Prince precisely because it was hard to hear them. This kind of scarcity doesn't exist any more and the idea of a classic bootleg like Prince's "Black Album" has very little purchase these days. If you want these recordings you can find them. The question isn't whether or not you wish to go deep into an artist's catalogue, but how deep and for how long you wish to go. Now, more than ever, there is more good music available and now, more than ever, I am listening to fewer and fewer of this music than ever before. Like sweeping the sand into the ocean with broom, it's a hopeless task. However, if you can help me find that one specific grain of sand....