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Playing to the Crowd:
Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection
by Nancy Baym
More books on Music
THERE WEREN'T A lot of people online in the early 1990s. Mark Kelly, keyboard player for the English band Marillion, early internet adopter and self-titled "co-inventor of crowdfunding,' was an exception. One night after a concert someone handed him a stack of papers—printouts from an email list of Marillion fans. Kelly went home, cranked up his modem, and subscribed. What he found surprised him. The list, founded by a Dutch fan, had about a thousand fans. And though the band's primary market was the United Kingdom, the list was multinational. Most subscribers were in the United States. Marillion had never even toured the United States.
Kelly spent the first couple of years reading without posting, watching the discussion in secret. But the internet is the internet, and finally, someone said something so wrong that Kelly couldn't stop himself from jumping in to correct him. His cover was blown.
Immediately North Americans asked why they didn't tour in America.
"We don't have a record deal in the States," he told them, "and every time we toured in the past it's always been with money from the record company."
"Oh, well," a Canadian fan wrote,"why don't we raise the money for you to come and tour?" Others quickly agreed that this was a good plan.
"Well I think you're a bit crazy," Kelly told them. This was, after all, nearly two decades before Kickstarter popularized crowdfunding. "But if you want to do it. I mean, obviously we can't have anything to do with it, but if you guys want to go ahead and organize it. We're not taking the money."
Kelly told them they needed about $50,000 to make it happen. Someone set up an escrow account. Within a few weeks they had raised $20,000. Before long it reached $60,000. It seemed so improbable, Kelly hadn't even told the rest of the band.
Marillion did the tour in 1997. The fans who had fronted the money also bought tickets. Being fan-funded generated publicity. "Each gig that we were playing, there'd be a little local newspaper that would run the story about the tour fund and how the American fans had raised the money for us to tour." It was exciting, a moment of transition, and a master class in "the power of the internet, and how rabid fans can change things, make things happen""
In many ways, the industrial production of music worked well for music listeners. They gained more access to high-quality music of different types, in different forms, at the varied and often private times they chose to hear it than at any point in history. At the same time, the shift to industrialized, centralized music production disempowered the people who became audiences, reducing them to consumers in which their only power is that of consumers in general, to buy or not to buy. 'Audience' is itself a fictional construct used to abstractly pull together distinct individuals having varied concrete experiences. Audience members speak with many voices, use music and other cultural materials in many ways, and have different levels of attachment to the objects of their attention. Industrial market logic views these people as atomized, perhaps with demographic characteristics by which they can be grouped and counted, but rarely as immersed in relationships with one another. But what really happened when people were carved off from what had historically been social co-participation in musical rituals was not that audiences became isolated. It was that listeners turned - as they always had - to one another.
No sooner did the first nodes of what became the internet make their first connection than fans began using it to build stable and persistent group infrastructures for their fandom.
Where musicologists see mass media as thwarting audiences' capacity for participation, audience researchers have spent decades documenting and analyzing how productive and creative audiences became in their wake. Just as industrialization and digital media changed the work of being a musician, they changed experiences and opportunities for audiences. While musicians dealt with the challenges of building and maintaining careers in the face of the new realities of their field, audiences developed new histories of participating with one another on their own terms. Now, even as musicians struggle to find their ways in an internet-mediated music world, audiences flourish. The internet has pushed their hitherto marginal (and marginalized) tendencies into the very mainstream of media use. No sooner did the first nodes of what became the internet make their first connection than fans began using it to build stable and persistent group infrastructures for their fandom. They wove fan practices into the internet's core, helping to shape contemporary media and shifting the balance of power between audiences and professionals. Practices hidden in private spaces for decades became visible and accessible, amplifying their impact. What Jay Rosen famously called "the people formerly known as the audience" can no longer be treated only as abstract numbers in a spreadsheet. "We need to radically rethink how media audiences are positioned in our new media ecosystems," Tim Anderson argues. What used to be an audience is now "an altogether new actor that is explicitly positioned as an essential part of the design and architecture behind the production, distribution, and exhibition of information that circulates throughout new media ecosystems." Audiences distribute and exhibit others' works. They also make their own creative works- remixes, stories, covers, art, videos, designs - that can at times become more popular than official works. They create museum-worthy archives of musical information on websites and wikis. They write blogs. They share information (both accurate and wrong), recordings, and photographs. They create spaces and networks where they build and share supportive resources, identities, relationships, and practices. They are the ones who spread the word, who watch the gates of popular culture, and who set the norms for how it will transpire. They are the ones who make things happen.
With few exceptions, it took musicians years to realize that networked media could be used to communicate with fans. When musicians now come to the internet to connect, as they are often told to do, they find people who are already immersed in communities of their own around popular culture and, for many like those with whom I spoke, around them. The last pair of chapters looked at music, tracing musicians' paths as music became a commercial product while still serving its timeless social functions of managing feelings and relationships. This chapter turns to fans, asking how they spent the twentieth century, and how it is that they find themselves now in such an unprecedented position to set the terms for interactions around music, including those between themselves and musicians. I focus on fans, especially fans who are active and vocal online, because they are the most visible and influential of audiences, but they are by no means the only audiences musicians encounter online. Most listeners are not 'fans,' and most fans are pretty low-key in their fandom, more apt to lurk than perform. Those that do perform may not be fans. In the chapters to come, we see musicians deal with 'anti-fans' actively invested in disliking them, casual fans, and entirely different sorts of audiences such as family, friends, potential collaborators, business people, and random antagonists.
The kind of fandom musicians encounter online developed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning even before mass communication technologies. When opera companies and other performers began doing national tours in the 1850s, they created a novel opportunity for young people to center their musical experiences around public, commercial events such as concerts and theatrical performances. Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt are said to have had early fandoms (as did poets such as Lord Byron), but certainly the most spectacular early music fandom formed around the 'Swedish songbird' Jenny Lind. P. T. Barnum, the man who set the standard for marketers everywhere, gave her that descriptor and then brought her to the United States for a legendary mid-nineteenth-century tour. Barnum was masterful at creating a sense of anticipation and desire through his use of publicity" Adoring throngs waited outside theater doors, went to the wharf to watch her boat arrive, stood outside her hotel room, and lined the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of her carriage. Lind's tour dominated everyday conversations, much to the consternation of nonfans. A Boston satirist complained in the weeks leading up to her 1850 appearance that wherever he went, 'all the cry was, Jenny Lind and Barnum, Barnum and Jenny Lind!' Even his friend, a seemingly responsible adult, was 'so full of madness and music that he rushed through the streets with the fearful velocity of an escaped locomotive,' he too calling out their names.
The definition of 'fan' remains unsettled, but fan scholars and fans alike generally agree that what differentiates 'fans' from other listeners is the level of feeling invested in the object of their fandom and the kinds of practices in which they engage. Fans feel for feeling's own sake. They make meanings beyond what seems to be on offer. They build identities and experiences, and make artistic creations of their own to share with others. A person can be an individual fan, feeling an idealized connection with a star, strong feelings of memory and nostalgia, and engaging in activities like collecting to develop a sense of self But, more often, individual experiences are embedded in social contexts where other people with shared attachments socialize around the object of their affections. Much of the pleasure of fandom comes from being connected to other fans. In their diaries, Bostonians of the 1800s described being part of the crowds at concerts as part of the pleasure of attendance. A compelling argument can be made that what fans love is less the object of their fandom than the attachments to (and differentiations from) one another that those affections afford. Carrie Brownstein of legendary Riot Grrrl band Sleater-Kinney (and later cult television show Portlandia), begins her autobiography, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, like this: "My story starts with me as a fan. And to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved. All the affection I poured into bands, into films, into actors and musicians, was about me and my friends."
The term 'fan' wasn't used until the late 1800s, when a journalist abbreviated 'fanatic' to describe baseball spectators. By the 1930s, it was a widely accepted American colloquialism, used in reference to sports, film, theater, and even politics. In the intervening years, many fans had organized themselves into clubs. From the start, these groups were both productive and self-reflexive. They created their own media, exchanging letters and publishing and circulating newsletters. They also built archives to document and preserve their communities. Among the most well known were the elite male-dominated science fiction and Sherlock Holmes literary fandoms. Others focused on dance, sports, and, of course, music.
Throughout the 20th century, as mass media developed, fan groups grew increasingly common and complex. As travel got cheaper and communication technologies tightened connections between nations, fans began making pilgrimages to significant sites and to meet one another, particularly after World War II. Fans appropriated new technologies as they developed to make their own creative works, often before other groups. Among the new media these audiences used in their productions were photographic setups, telephones, film cameras, tape recorders, mimeograph machines, home movie cameras, industrial staplers, and other innovations.
Television fandoms that developed in the second half of the 20th century took fan creativity to new heights. They also had different gender dynamics. Women, excluded from the male-only club science fiction fandom had largely become, found in television fandom a way to develop their skills and hone their talents. By the time distant computers made their first connections in 1969, fans, especially women, were remixing television footage to create their own fanvids, writing and editing their own zines, creating elaborate costumes, singing original folk songs, and painting images, all inspired by their favorite television series.
Just as musicians have tried hard to be good capitalists (as we saw in the second chapter), while not wanting their work reduced to capitalist values (as we saw in the first), fans too are caught in the tensions between the social values music offers and the capitalist environment in which it is produced and circulates. In many ways, fans operate and are defined by their unwillingness to adhere to the norms of capitalism. Not content to merely purchase and use, fans insist on feeling and relationship. Where commercial markets call for anonymity and limited, ephemeral involvement, fans form deep attachments. Fans creatively imbue their participation in musical life with a lasting personal connection and depth of culture. They organize themselves and make and distribute their own creative transformations of the media they love. They act more like communities or publics than like audiences, focused on their connections to one another and the group rather than to what is so blandly called content.
Yet even as they push back against it, fans embrace their consumerism. This began in many ways with Barnum, who gave a commodity focus to the artist/fan relationship, allowing the experience of fandom to be prolonged and intensified through personal investment in a set of fetishized objects peripheral to the music. Lind fans could buy Jenny Lind dolls, gloves, scarves, and handkerchiefs. I sleep in a Jenny Lind bed, a 19th-century American furniture style so popular it was the cheapest decent antique bedframe I could afford on a graduate student stipend. From early on, fandom has thus fostered collecting. Many become completists, buying every version of every release they can. Fans also create new economic value; the feeling and meaning they invest can make even items with no inherent value, like an autograph, expensive. Fans in contemporary capitalism deploy both media texts and brand messages as carriers of cultural meaning and as resources for everyday life even as companies profit from their practices.
Fans are often aware of the tensions their dialectical status as (anti)capitalists creates between themselves and media producers. They see how industry attempts to incorporate the tastes of the fans, and the fans to 'excorporate' the products of the industry. They know that corporate interests are always essential to, yet working against, their own. Their modes of participation may benefit, run counter to, or be entirely irrelevant to the interests of producers and marketers, whether such activities are authorized or not. Bound together in fandoms, audience members engage in a collective strategy, a communal effort to form interpretive communities that challenges the power of popular media. As we will return to in the next chapter, for artists and others in the music industries, the ability of fans to interpret, create, and distribute media among themselves is a mixed blessing, depending on what they are doing and on each artist's individual willingness to cede control. The inevitable friction between those who create mass media and the fans who remake it becomes increasingly palpable when those who own intellectual property routinely co-opt fans and their practices for the added value they bring to their products, while simultaneously demanding that fans should not divert from principles of capitalist exchange and recognize industries' legal ownership of the object of fandom.
An Exemplary Fandom
The Norwegian death-punk band Turbonegro has a fandom that demonstrates both how bands provide grounds for participatory communal experiences that transcend them and how inseparable those communal experiences are from commercial markets. Cocky and ironic, Turbonegro are aggressively not radio friendly. Their look suggests flamboyant sailors. Their album and single titles are often raunchy or absurd ('Ass Cobra,' 'I Got Erection,' 'Fuck the World (F.T.W.),' 'Hot for Nietzsche'). Without radio to promote them, they need their fans. Just as KISS had their army, Turbonegro relies on their navy, Turbojugend (German for 'Turboyouth,' a name riffing on Hitler Youth, reflecting the same dubiously appropriate jokes of the band's song titles).
Clad in matching denim jackets embroidered with a sailor hat, and often sporting white sailor hats like the band's, these fans provide both word of mouth and an instantly recognizable visual brand. Their denim jacket, lovingly called the Kutte, is a symbol of the fans' transnational unity and local identity. Made by Levis, then outfitted with specialized embroidering, the jacket is sold through a central hub in New Jersey via the fan club's website. 'Noncommittal' fans can pay $100 for a version with an embroidered Turbonegro logo and cap. Serious fans join one of the 2,300 worldwide chapters (or start their own) and pay $135 for their local chapter's version, available only by application. These Kutte say 'Turbojugend' instead of 'Turbonegro' and identify the local chapter to which its wearer belongs. Turbonegro's bass player, Happy Tom, describes the Kutte's significance like this: "You see another person wearing the jacket and basically it's like meeting somebody you've known for a while. All these people it's like they're made out of the same ilk. I think a lot of the guys in the band are from that same ilk."
The Norwegian death-punk band Turbonegro has a fandom that demonstrates both how bands provide grounds for participatory communal experiences that transcend them and how inseparable those communal experiences are from commercial markets.
As 'ilks,' fan communities have strong ideas about what constitutes appropriate fan behavior and are not shy about policing one another for adherence online or off. There are power struggles. Groups of fans oust one another. Turbojugend, for example, have rules, many rules, most of which are tongue in cheek, and many of which concern the Kutte. Having, let alone wearing, a jacket from a chapter that isn't yours is a borderline criminal offense. Local identity is to be respected. But adorning your Kutte with patches and pins from other chapters represents a willingness to travel to meet with distant brethren and thus appropriately displays commitment to the community of the whole. Wearing the Kutte is required on certain holidays. July 27, Happy Tom's birthday, is compulsory. The Kutte is expected attire at concerts, wherever you may be publicly recognized, and at fan club meetings, whether local, regional, or the annual international Turbojugend convention at a beer hall in Hamburg. Through the music, the Kutte, the chapter structure, the gatherings, and the internet, Turbojugend foster an opposition to mainstream music consumption, much like the Jimmy Buffet fans John Mihelich and John Papineau describe as "oppositional in a broader cultural sense, keeping alive a particular version of an alternative world." In the case of the 'Margaritaville' ideal of Buffet fans, their alternative vision fosters "a more general cultural premise, a traditional sense, of leisure, rest, and celebration." Turbojugend celebrate beer rather than margaritas, but they too use the fandom to establish "an alternative basis for obtaining meaning, in contrast to the basis offered through market capitalism or materialism."
For all the humor, Turbojugend, a fan club whose very name references fascism, leads the rules section of its site with a manifesto that's quite serious: "By joining our association we expect that you do not tolerate fascist or racist behavior in your Turbojugend chapter and you won't tolerate members with such tendencies. Our utmost concern is to have fun together. But it is also evident for us that everyone wearing a Turbojugend jacket is aware about this serious topic. You represent a community and should not ruin our image by thinking a jacket gives you a free ride to act stupid or run amok." Wearing a jacket is a moral commitment about the kinds of relationships true fans are expected to build with one another. They expand on this in the Turbojugend values that follow: "Turbojugend has always been and will always be something like a family. It's got to do with family values, with friendship, with loyalty, with respect. Treat your brothers and sisters like brothers and sisters. And keep an eye on each other - it's the old thing: United we stand, divided we fall."
Much like Billy Bragg's fan who no longer liked his music but still went to his concerts because that's what she and her friends do, the camaraderie among Turbojugend is more important than their appreciation of the band. Happy Tom is flattered to have such a loyal following, but he knows that nearly everyone voted against the band when Turbojugend did a survey asking whether, if forced, members would choose them or the fan club. "So it's just bigger than the band is. It's like the German guy said"—" - he fakes a German accent - "You have created the Frankenstein monster, and now it's out of your control."
Commercial markets are integral to Turbojugend's participatory community. Fans buy Turbonegro music, tickets, hats, and jackets. They buy Kuttes, which don't make much money for Turbonegro directly, but helped associate them with denim to the point where Levis launched a Nordic advertising campaign featuring the band. In a nod to their antiestablishment stance, the website rules command them never to wash the Kutte ('Kuttenwaschverbot' it yells in bold font), yet they endorse Proctor and Gamble's Febreeze air freshener as an acceptable alternative and provide a link to the brand's website in case their other suggestion, going for a swim while wearing the Kutte, doesn’t solve the problem.
The Author as Young Fangirl
Turbojugend exemplify the idea of music fandoms as organized groups that cohere around a particular band or artist. We can also understand fandom as a context for and means of self-discovery, affirmation, and friendship that moves from object to object as identities and circumstances change across the lifespan. I was no Turbojugend, but my own youth as a music fan illustrates some of these other key dynamics of fandom and some of the significant differences between fandom before and after the internet, which we'll return to at the chapter's end. I grew up in an American college town, firmly positioned in the middle class, with spare money, time, and the freedom to indulge in fandom that brought. One of the most significant gifts of my childhood was a small white AM transistor radio my best friend bought for my birthday in 1974. I lay awake nights listening to WLS, Chicago's Top 40 radio station. My friend and I discussed the songs endlessly. We knew nothing about who made the music, but knew they must be alluring. And probably sexy. Whatever that meant. Soon we were caught up in preteen girl culture, subscribing to Tiger Beat magazine and projecting our emerging sexual and romantic identities onto the heartthrobs seductively pictured in the magazines' centerfolds. We never questioned that our bedrooms should be covered with pictures of Shaun Cassidy and Andy Gibb (she preferred Leif Garrett). Nor did it occur to us that, like the girls before us who turned the Beatles into sex objects, we were upsetting gender rules about who was supposed to pursue whom. I started hanging out at the local independent record store in Campustown, a neighborhood in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where I lived, talking to the guys behind the counter. I wanted to know everything I could about the music I liked, and I didn't want to miss any music I thought I should know.
I lacked the language to call it 'sexism' or 'ageism' at the time, but the more I read music criticism and interviews with musicians, the more it stung to hear how blithely they used the trope of "13-year-old girls" as prima facie evidence that whatever music we liked was bad. They still do and it still stings, though at last 13-year-old girls have an idol willing to sing their praises in Harry Styles. "Who's to say that young girls who like pop music—short for popular, right? - have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?" Styles told a Rolling Stone reporter who asked if he worried about proving his credibility to older audiences. "That's not up to you to say. Music is something that's always changing. There's no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they're not serious? How can you say young girls don't get it? They're our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going."
The age stigma disappeared, at least until it returned in my 40s. The gender stigma remains, although for a time working in a record store brought me some measure of legitimacy as a person who may actually know something about music. Never mind that the music industry has marketed musicians as sex symbols for years, that they so often perform songs about being desperately in love with 'you,' or that some musicians are, in fact, pretty hot, women who notice that a serious musician like "David Byrne is an anatomically correct male are misguided at best." I learned quickly that to admit, in mixed company, to having a crush on a rock star is to overstep the bounds of proper feminine behavior. By the end of my teen years I understood the difference between having a crush on the musician I imagined versus the real human being, but I've never stopped having occasional crushes. How could I - why would I - when a musician's songs are designed to evoke such strong feelings of love and longing?
My development as a teenage fan was fueled by mass media and by other people. The music press - American magazines like Creem, Trouser Press, and Rolling Stone and British papers like New Music Express and Melody Maker became required reading. College radio, especially Jon Ginoli's punk and new wave show Going Underground that aired late Friday nights on WPGU, became essential listening. Most days I hung out after school with my closest friend, Jennie. We played records for each other, bonding over our love of the Buzzcocks and Split Enz and distinguishing ourselves from each other by whether we found the first Clash album or the first Generation X album more compelling. I have an autographed copy of that Clash album displayed at home, but at the time I sided with the latter for validating every angsty teenage feeling I had. Musicians still seemed far away and fabulous, but, in keeping with our adolescent quest for identity, music was now about finding ourselves, together. With the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and other British punk and new wave bands playing on the turntable and radio in my bedroom, I cut off my long hair (by myself, of course), dyed it unnatural colors, and pierced my ears with safety pins. My high school graduating class voted me 'boldest' and 'best hair.' I owe both to music fandom.
Jennie and I bought bootlegs on vinyl at the other local record store, the one willing to risk the illegality (they were eventually busted, though they remain in business today, unlike the one where I hung out). It felt a little seedy. Where did they come from? Who was getting the money and was that really OK? But bootlegs helped us in our quest to piece together more of an artist’s career and showed ourselves and each other our commitment. Eventually, Jennie and I found ways to start going along with our record store friends to see local bands and touring acts live. I still have the concert log I kept throughout the 1980s. I still have the ticket stubs and flyers.
Between the record store and the concerts, by our senior year of high school we had befriended much of the local music scene that Holly Kruse describes in her book Site and Sound. There were parties and after-parties where the cool kids 10 years older took us under wing and brought us up to speed on essential 1970s acts like David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Sparks. Before MTV launched, one local musician (still a professional drummer) and his wife dominated the party scene after they bought the crowd's first Betamax player. The videos they played for us late into the night, like Bowie's sexy, gender-bending 'Boys Keep Swinging,' left a powerful impression that shaped my emerging self-understanding and self-presentation. Local musicians became friends, but they never felt like equals. Not only were they older, there was a clear implicit hierarchy. Fans nearer to musicians were nearer to the top than other fans, but unless they were romantically partnered or working with them, they'd never be as cool. With no interest in performing (years of piano lessons had revealed deficits in both talent and caring), I decided I'd like to manage bands when I grew up.
When I got to the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate in 1982, I sought out friends who shared and could expand my taste and who wanted to see live music with me. With my two best friends in those years, Helen and Lisa, I took advantage of free time, no job, and spare cash to road-trip across the Midwest, seeing our favorite bands any place we could drive to and from without missing too much school. Helen and I had met through a mutual friend, Jamie, who had lived there longer and was more immersed in the Madison music scene. I met Lisa when a friend set us up to drive together to Summerfest in Milwaukee where Sparks, whom I loved, and R.E.M., whom she loved, were playing the same night. I had seen R.E.M. at a bar in Madison a few months earlier, and met their guitarist at a party after the show. My roommate was playing them on repeat. They got under my skin. By fall of 1983 all three of us - Lisa, Helen and me - were in love with R.E.M.
At the time R.E.M., who didn't even dress up to perform, seemed so different from the other bands around. Where others were all angles and image, R.E.M. were soft and ambiguous. Was 'R.E.M.' a reference to dreaming or not? Was it one syllable or three? The music was murky and layered. You couldn't understand a word. They seemed to do everything a band shouldn't do and they were beating the system anyhow. The lesson I took, at the formative age of 18, was that any artifice I'd spent the last several years refining wasn't necessary. I felt like my real self was surfacing.
Having access to these musicians, especially R.E.M.'s charismatic and enigmatic front man, Michael Stipe, showed me aspects of fandom that had been less apparent and, in retrospect, planted seeds that became this book.
We saw R.E.M. dozens of times, seeking the precious peak moments when something clicked during the concert and it became spiritually transcendent. I thought about my life in segments divided by R.E.M. albums and tours. They put us on the guest list as we followed them around the Midwest. We met bands they toured with, their crews, their friends, their business representatives. We felt at the center of an exciting, affirming, and creative participatory culture that touched us at every level, showing us ourselves and binding us to others. Yet the experience also alienated me from the industry in which I'd imagined I might work. In Denise Sullivan's oral history of the band, Talk About the Passion, there's a brief segment where R.E.M.'s first label representative mentions us. "In the Midwest there were three girls, one black and two white, and they were everywhere," he was quoted as saying. He listed the kinds of the places we'd appear before concluding, "I think they slept with some of those girls, but they handled it really well." I decided that a field where that was even a question, let alone the default assumption, wasn't for me. All praise to the women who persisted nevertheless.
The local scenes of my high school years gave way to a network of local scenes, connected through touring bands and the people who moved along with them. My fellow fans, these musicians, people they worked with, and I traded resources in webs of gift exchange guided by friendship, obligation, and prestige alongside money, maintaining social ties, and building community as we did. We offered our homes to touring musicians and their crews and stayed at other fans' places when we traveled. We told one another our stories. We played music for one another and traded music recommendations. In high school I'd bought bootlegs, but once in R.E.M. fandom someone gave me a live recording on cassette and introduced me to tape trading networks. Refined early on by Grateful Dead fans, these networks forbid monetary exchange. As Condry notes in an article about Japanese hip-hop fans, music fans feel a moral obligation to share music they love with one another. To sell would be to violate that basic value.
My big break as a trader came when a member of the North Carolina band the dB's, who'd taken a liking to me, told me to write to his friend and tell him he'd sent me. I did and received the gift of what was then the most exclusive R.E.M. live recording of them all, their first taped performance, in Athens, Georgia. As my quest for live recordings expanded, Helen and I began showing up at local venues with a boom box and a large microphone to make our own recordings, always asking permission, and always getting it except from the one band that seemed too drugged to notice us asking. I spent hours typing up my tape list (first on a typewriter and later a KayPro PC with a dot-matrix printer), and literally cutting and pasting it over a collage I'd made from photocopies of old gears and watch works.
When musicians and audiences really do connect, I learned, sometimes fans get pretty weird.
I parlayed my meager initial selection into an extensive collection of difficult-to-acquire live recordings. It garnered me tremendous personal pleasure. I listened to them endlessly. It also garnered me a lot of cool within my local and national music communities. As I worked my way from adolescence into my graduate school years, I continued to climb in the social hierarchy where fans share a common interest while also competing over fan knowledge, access to the object of fandom, and status. I'd acquired qualities of an elite fan. I'd seen hundreds of live concerts. I had deep expertise. I had immaculately complete collections of official releases, and my collection of live recordings was the envy of my peers. I had an impressive collection of posters and other ephemera (I still do). Most of all, I'd gotten to know musicians personally.
Having access to these musicians, especially R.E.M.'s charismatic and enigmatic front man, Michael Stipe, showed me aspects of fandom that had been less apparent and, in retrospect, planted seeds that became this book. I saw whole restaurants or coffee shops fall silent and turn toward him when he walked into the room. Most kept their distance, but I watched fan after fan approach him everywhere he went, focused on their own excitement, eager for a moment they could take away and keep. It seemed exhausting. I heard him use the phrase "psychic vampires," and saw him make instant judgments about whether the stranger in front of him might consume too much of his energy. I'm sure he enjoyed my company, but I saw also that my public female companionship before and after shows sometimes served as useful protection.
The friendships I had with musicians also complicated my relationships with other fans. I didn't like turning a connection with a real person like Stipe into a chit in a competition I couldn't decline. If I mentioned that I knew R.E.M., I was boasting. If I didn't and people found out anyway, they told me I was arrogant. There were awkward encounters. A fan in a concert-hall bathroom, curious how I got the laminated all-access backstage pass Stipe had loaned me, accused me of lying when I told her the truth. So did a co-worker. A fan outside a venue, having seen me with Stipe, approached me, shaking, and asked breathlessly, "what ARE you to him?" I saw the absurdity of the power fans can grant people who don't deserve it. When musicians and audiences really do connect, I learned, sometimes fans get pretty weird.
How Music Fans Came to Rule the Internet
If, in the 1980s, I'd known half as much about computing as I knew about R.E.M. and their ilk, I'd have seen that even as I was co-creating these participatory fandoms through travel, cassettes, pen, paper, envelope, and typewriter, other fans were augmenting their music fandoms through the new, nascent computer networks that evolved into the internet we know today. Computer-mediated communication networks first emerged at the start of the 1970s, more than a decade before personal computers were available for home purchase. These early networks included ARPAnet, the US government-sponsored network that became the backbone of the internet; other early geographically dispersed computer networks such as PLATO at the University of Illinois; and a host of local systems accessible on public computer terminals, internal networks, and dial-up Bulletin Board Systems. These early proto-internets were quite different from the world of ubiquitous access so many of us now carry in our pockets. They were text-based, and, in the case of the growing internet, which was funded by the US National Science Foundation until 1994, a commerce-free zone. National and international commercial dial-up services, including America Online, Genie, Prodigy, and CompuServe did not connect with the noncommercial internet until 1994.
Some of the first email mailing lists, launched soon after email was invented and available only to those working in the computer science labs where the technology was under development, were for music fans.
From the start, there was an unusual synergy between fans, including music fans, and the developing world of networked computing. Wherever there was networked computing, there were music fan communities leading the way, long before the masses, most musicians, or those in the music industries caught on. My elementary school classroom in the mid-1970s was outfitted with an early computer networked called PLATO. PLATO ran a system called 'Group Notes' where people shared public notes files for subjects like books, movies, religion, music, and science fiction. The first public computer-based bulletin board, Community Memory, launched in 1973, put music fans at the center of the community whose memory it sought. Its first, and for a time only, terminal was located in a record store, Leopold's Records in Berkeley, California. The terminal sat beside a traditional bulletin board where musicians and others posted cards, flyers, and papers promoting performances, classified ads, efforts to organize, and general humor and philosophies. Community Memory's users left one another electronic messages about these same topics. A directory of the music postings was printed weekly and left by the terminal for people to skim. The system's popularity soon spread to other communities in the Bay Area, providing groups of people who had never used computers with new levels of access to technology and information-sharing and a new way to discuss a wide range of topics.
The Bay Area was also the home of the Grateful Dead, who were themselves interested in both technology and the fandom emerging around them. Among their local fans were computer scientists at key sites of the internet's development, such as the University of California - Berkeley and Stanford. Some of the first email mailing lists, launched soon after email was invented and available only to those working in the computer science labs where the technology was under development, were for music fans. Paul Martin of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab began dead.dis@SAIL, for Dead fans in their lab. A fan himself, Martin and another at SAIL also collaborated to create a giant electronic repository of Grateful Dead lyrics, a collection that eventually made its way to the Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who was reportedly so impressed he jumped headlong into digital culture, where he remained an influential presence.
The Goth fandoms about which Whitaker wrote created websites like www.darkwave.org.uk, to lay out rules of etiquette such as whether or not it was appropriate to discuss feelings about Marilyn Manson (no) or what exactly distinguished Darkwave from Nu-Metal (you tell me).
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, people also launched hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local dial-in computer bulletin board systems (BBSs), reached through modems connected to telephone wires. Some were devoted to or named after the Grateful Dead, among them the Mars Hotel BBS in Roachdale, Indiana, and Terrapin Station in Darien, Connecticut. The most influential BBS was the WELL, based (of course) in the Bay Area and frequented by the likes of Barlow and Howard Rheingold. In his history of BBSs, Kevin Driscoll describes the WELL's founders as consciously designing "a community-oriented system" by pulling together locals who were already connected, including "a large population of tech-savvy Grateful Dead fans." It was their income that supported the more "experimental, niche areas of The WELL." Known now for its centrality to early cyberculture, in Driscoll’s telling, the WELL was "primarily an interest-driven BBS for fans of the Grateful Dead that occasionally featured salon-style conferences hosted by well-known thinkers on the transformative potential of social computing. But by the 1980s, followers of the Dead were no longer the countercultural vanguard they once might have been, and a Deadhead BBS was hardly headline material." One of the WELL's luminaries, Howard Rheingold, describes in his early classic The Virtual Community how the Deadheads brought their affective investment in Dead fandom to the WELL. They bought the technology and spent the time to learn the system’s software "solely in order to trade audiotapes or argue about the meaning of lyrics." Not all the Dead fans circulated outside the WELL's Dead forums, but those who did "ended up having strong influence on the WELL at large." The WELL hosted seven Dead forums, including one for tapes, one for tickets, and one for tours. There were also two private Dead mailing lists. Other public conferences that likely attracted fans had names like the Beatles, Jazz, MIDI, Radio, Songwriters, Zines/Fanzine Scene, Music, Audio-videophilia, and CDs.
As ARPAnet grew into the internet, spreading to universities, government, and research sites throughout the 1980s and 1990s, music fans continued to create groups devoted to "every style of music and to most major (and many not-so-major) artists." Some of these, like the (since renamed) Springsteen mailing list Backstreets Digest became crucial communal sites for debating song meanings, following an artist's location and activities, discussing how to get tickets, sharing concert reviews and set lists, and maintaining a sense of community, especially for the fans who didn't have other fans they could befriend locally. Among the artists with fan-created mailing lists popular in my scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s were Kate Bush, Jazz Butcher, Robyn Hitchcock, Tori Amos, the record label 4AD, the "tweenet announcement" list that came out of that 4AD list, and an ambient music list. There were hundreds, if not thousands of others. The list I followed most closely was murmurs, for fans of R.E.M.
Against the grain of the liberatory rhetoric of equality surrounding the internet at that time, early online fandoms were eager to replicate dynamics of offline fandoms, creating hierarchies, boundaries, and norms for acceptable in-group behaviors. As fan mailing lists, such as Phish.net for Phish fans, grew, fights developed between new and old members. It’s hard to maintain a sense of participatory unity when there are tens of thousands of people posting. Similar dynamics around tolerable and intolerable behaviors played out across this early internet as fan groups, ever more accessible and visible, worked to "monitor the boundaries of a specific form of subcultural performance" on USENET forums such as alt.gothic.culture and alt.gothic.music. The R.E.M. mailing list dealt with this by disbanding and becoming one of the hundreds of music-oriented USENET newsgroups, which anyone could read or post to through a "newsreader" rather than having to subscribe and receive messages in your inbox. Once moved from mailing list to USENET, the quality of conversation on murmurs quickly deteriorated into endless queries as to whether or not Michael Stipe was gay, each launching a long thread chiding the poster for posing a question the group had long ago decided was off-limits. In response, a small group of fans from the original list created a secret invitation-only mailing list.
In 1994 these decentralized, text-based forums were joined by the new hypertextual World Wide Web. At the time, only 14 percent of Americans used the internet. Mostly male, affluent, and well educated, that 14 percent, along with the smaller numbers of internet users outside the United States, included a lot of music fans. They immediately started creating websites. The Goth fandoms about which Whitaker wrote created websites like www.darkwave.org.uk, to lay out rules of etiquette such as whether or not it was appropriate to discuss feelings about Marilyn Manson (no) or what exactly distinguished Darkwave from Nu-Metal (you tell me). One of the most successful of the early fan sites eventually led to the demise of the secret R.E.M. mailing list. Ethan Kaplan, then 16 years old, built Murmurs.com, a site Lucy Bennett has discussed in depth. Just as my own R.E.M. fandom began to wane, Murmurs.com became the central place for R.E.M. fans to congregate. In contrast, the band's website, like almost all official websites of the time, was pathetic. The industry and musicians had taken very little notice of what fans were doing online. While they ignored the internet, fans gained the power to overtake official online efforts. R.E.M.'s label, Warner Bros., hired Kaplan and put him in charge of creating web presences for all their artists.
While audiences were building persistent and interconnected communities that attracted more attention than official sites, musicians and industry representatives viewed the internet primarily as a means of promotion rather than audience connection. In 1994, around when Kelly outed himself on the Marillion fan list and just before Kaplan launched Murmurs.com, the New York Times declared the internet "the biggest promotional tool for the music industry since the invention of the press release," reporting that "nearly every major record label and many independent ones have staked out space online, where they supply fans with information (and dispel rumors) about bands and offer pop musicians for live chat sessions." The comparison to a press release was apt. Just as Marillion found that their story of a fan-funded tour generated news in local papers everyplace they played, with some notable exceptions, mainstream artists and their representatives understood the value of the internet at that time in terms of its ability to generate publicity in more traditional media. "With only a fraction of the world's record buyers plugged into the internet," the New York Times article continued, "what can be more valuable for a band is the publicity that comes with breaking new ground."
Some bands sought big media coups with online firsts. In 1994, both Aerosmith and David Bowie claimed to release the first songs online. But they didn’t. "A service called the Internet Underground Music Archive had already made some 75 songs available only on the internet." More ambitious were the Rolling Stones, who broadcast a performance at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in November 1994 live on the internet, "becoming the first major rock band to do so on that network of millions of computers." The Stones too got scooped. An amateur band who just happened to work at Xerox PARC, one of the premiere computer science labs of its time, knew more about computer networks. The Stones’ "moment in the limelight was tarnished by a little-known band called Severe Tire Damage. Knowing that the channel carrying the Stones was open to anyone, and wanting to take advantage of the worldwide audience the Stones would attract, the group broadcast an impromptu performance from the Xerox PARC offices in Palo Alto, Calif., directly before and after the Stones concert."
Widely lauded digital innovators like Prince released an entire album, Crystal Ball, online with liner notes in the form of web pages in 1997. A year later Bowie launched Bowienet, a website that also offered its subscribers internet service and an email address. People like Prince and Bowie were certainly early innovators. But, for the first time since mass media put them in positions of power, they were following the fans.
The Author as Old Fangirl
One of the most memorable gifts of my midlife was when my husband gave me the first iPod in 2001. About the same size as my childhood transistor radio, and also white, it re-awoke the music fandom that had lain dormant as I built my career and family in a new city without connections to the local music scene. With gigabytes of space to fill, I began ripping every CD I had. Eventually, I got bored listening only to music I already knew. I went hunting for new music to love. When I was younger, I’d been immersed in social worlds where people I saw in daily life would play or tell me about new music and where it was easy to see shows and discover new music that way. Now there was no record store down the street where they knew my taste. There were no Jennies, Lisas, or Helens. If I wanted to see a show, I needed to find a babysitter and stay up way past my bedtime. Fortunately, there was Parasol Records, an independent store and small family of tiny labels based in Urbana, Illinois, owned by Geoff, an old high school friend. Parasol had a web shop where you could stream or download songs they recommended. Sitting in my home in Kansas, I gorged, downloading and buying with a passion that I hadn't had in years.
One of the guys who worked at this record store was into independent music from Scandinavian countries. He'd tapped into a vein of music I'd never known that fit my sensibilities perfectly. For the first time since I'd worked in the record store I started discovering plentiful new bands to love. I devoured music by independent alternative bands from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. They rarely had label deals in the United States, although sites like Parasol were helping to distribute them there. They almost never toured North America. My tumble into this fandom was abetted by a widely distributed network of fans of Scandinavian music. As I’ve described elsewhere, these fans, both inside and outside Nordic countries, wrote mp3 blogs highlighting music they liked, posted videos, ran music news sites, created archives, and otherwise made it possible for people thousands of miles away like me to find them. Among the most important of these sites was It’s a Trap!, run by Avi Roig, a fan (and computing professional) in Olympia, Washington. For 10 years Roig posted daily tidbits of news, interviews, and links to mp3s. With some help from random other volunteers (like me), he also published record reviews. A blogger in Chicago ran SwedesPlease, where he posted brief articles about bands or songs with a link to an mp3 so we could hear (and own) it for ourselves. A blogger in Paris ran (still does as of this writing) AbsolutNoise, which, like SwedesPlease, posted daily recommendations of Swedish bands. Hello!Surprise! was a web archive constructed by a fan that cataloged more than four hundred Swedish bands, each with a description and links to any mp3s known to be available.
In 2005, I clicked on a Parasol stream and first heard Madrugada, a Norwegian band with a Portuguese name who sang in English. I fell in love from the first note. I loved them as much as I'd loved R.E.M. In my office, I look up to see a gift from a Norwegian Ph.D. student, a framed photograph her father took of their singer Sivert Høyem, looking suspiciously holy as a spotlight radiates white light from behind his bald head. Madrugada had released five albums in Norway and other parts of Europe by the time I found them, but only their first was available in the United States. They had never toured in America. Challenge accepted.
The internet was generous or, more accurately, the Madrugada fans I found there were. I made daily visits to a website run by Reidar Eik, a Norwegian fan living in Germany. One of the site’s pages was a collaboratively constructed discography of everything they had ever recorded, no matter how obscure. I checked it regularly as I amassed my collection. Another offered a chronology of every show they had ever played, including whether there were any known recordings. There was a forum where fans talked, mostly about their live shows, posted links to interviews, and where they shared links to uploads of concert recordings. In the forum I met a fan in Paris, Cédric, who took pity on an American, cut off from all other Madrugada fans, and sent me, snail mail, a CD-ROM with more than 20 live recordings he had collected. I scoured the torrent sites, eventually finding every song they had recorded in the studio and nearly every live recording fans had circulated.
It had taken me years of making the right connections to get into 1980s tape trading networks, let alone build my collection. I was able to build a huge Madrugada collection in a few short months. No status required. As a fan, I reveled in my newfound ability to use peer-to-peer networks to amass these recordings, even as I mourned the material experience and status implications we old fans had lost to this more egalitarian means of distributing information and recordings. Fans' gift culture was different online. Once posted, the resources shared were available to everyone. The internet had altered the flows of our subcultural capital, bringing "anyone with a few hours up to speed" on things that only a dedicated fan would once have taken the time to learn. It had also taken any powers musicians and the recording industry had to control the circulation of the materials they produce.
Most of the sites that fostered my music fandom in the first decade of the 2000s are already gone, lost to the effort it took unpaid amateurs to continue producing them and the shift away from mp3 sharing to streaming services like Spotify. The growth of social networks, organized around individuals rather than topics, further diffused the intensity of these online fandoms, absorbing them and recasting them as items like any other in a feed alongside status updates, selfies, shared news articles, and quizzes to determine which 1980s rockstar you are. Interaction around music has increasingly shifted to official profiles and social networks, where audiences expect musicians themselves to participate. The Madrugada board is gone. Høyem's Facebook page is buzzing, but not with the participatory culture of sharing information and recordings that fans had built on the fan site. Certainly intense music fandoms persist on social networks and in dedicated fan forums, but like the careers of so many musicians they are precarious, vulnerable to competing work demands and shifting technologies.
Encountering Participatory Audiences
The long path of industrialization and commodification that pulled musicians from participatory culture and away from audiences brought those audiences together. Mass-mediated pop culture became raw materials for fans to build their own social worlds. Instead of losing participatory consciousness, fans remade it, appropriating what could have been taken from them to do so. By 2008, more than 5 million bands, even those that had broken up, were "friending" fans on MySpace. They were late to the show. Music fans had been making friends with other fans on the internet longer than many of those musicians had been alive, recreating and amplifying the participatory skills and practices they had honed over more than a century and setting the stage for today's more participatory environment. Musicians, even when they were online, were rarely participants in these fan communities, except sometimes as fans of other bands. Those who went online looking not just to gain publicity but to build meaningful connections with their audiences before the 2002 launch of MySpace were exceptions. When it came time to "connect," participatory audiences had long since set the terms for how online music culture was going to work.
Fans will buy, though not all of them, but among themselves they insist on gift culture, with its ambivalent relationship to commerce, its preference for the free flow of information and intellectual property, and its celebration of fans' "vernacular creativity." Fans relate to and understand one another in part as communities, with all of their internal norms and hierarchy. They expect music and its discussion to be a ubiquitous, always available, a component of their daily lives. Online, fandom became an everyday practice. Fans cultivated "a kind of fluctuating, quotidian rhythm" that was "not so much spectacular but banal." Musicians, once the powerful, elusive rock stars who dropped from the sky every four years and let you listen to their album if you were lucky, land now in a realm where the audience is deep in relations with one another and their own participatory practices of meaning making. For artists, fans' online gift cultures raise dialectic tensions between participatory desires for communication and connection and personal, economic, and artistic desires to control their work and image. As we see in the next chapter, any position a musician assumes toward fans’ participatory practices sends relational messages about the appropriate distances, roles, and boundaries between them.
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