Geeks, Fans, and the Changing Face of Music

Clive Thompson writes a longish article for the New York Times Magazine about artists connecting with fans through the internet. He devotes a lot of space to describing Jonathan Coulton, a “geek troubador” (in the words of the Boing Boing link that alerted me to this).

Having been to his web site (via a link from Penny Arcade, downloaded some songs, and seen him live with John Hodgman, I knew Jonathan Coulton was all about the geeky music: not only does he give away dozens of songs for free on his blog, a good number of them are about things like shy programmers and zombies. The above-linked article really drives home just how linked in he is to fan cultures, though:

His fans need him; he needs them. Which is why, every day, Coulton wakes up, gets coffee, cracks open his PowerBook and hunkers down for up to six hours of nonstop and frequently exhausting communion with his virtual crowd. The day I met him, he was examining a music video that a woman who identified herself as a “blithering fan” had made for his song “Someone Is Crazy.” It was a collection of scenes from anime cartoons, expertly spliced together and offered on YouTube.

“She spent hours working on this,” Coulton marveled. “And now her friends are watching that video, and fans of that anime cartoon are watching this video. And that’s how people are finding me. It’s a crucial part of the picture. And so I have to watch this video; I have to respond to her.” He bashed out a hasty thank-you note and then forwarded the link to another supporter — this one in Britain — who runs “The Jonathan Coulton Project,” a Web site that exists specifically to archive his fan-made music videos.

Clive Thompson casts this as the changing face of music and film, but I wonder how much the geek image has to do with this. Sure, the Hold Steady has an “appointed geek” to handle fan relations online, but does he spend as much time on that as the fellow who’s writing songs about the Mandlebrot Set?

Participatory Fan Marketing, Minus the Fans

Not necessarily about geeks, but it still seemed relevant: the Wall Street Journal has an article online about music fans getting irked that professionals are winning their favorite bands’ fan-made video competitions. (Link via The Morning News.)

Some fans bristle at contestants who don’t appear to love the artists as much as they do. Eric Perry said he wished more die-hard fans had won the Incubus contest. He said he spent about 30 hours editing his own “Dig” video. “Half of me wants to say, ‘Get out! You aren’t welcomed!’ The other half knows that this was a contest,” said the 21-year-old in Shelby, Mich., who has seen the band perform three times and has his cellphone ringtone set to the Incubus song “Favorite Things.”

I imagine this must present something of a complicated dilemma to the people behind these contests. On the one hand, you want to engage your fans, make them feel more connected to the artist; on the other hand, you want to make sure you don’t end up with a lousy video, and contests of this kind typically produce pretty lousy results unless your reward is great enough to lure in pros.

I would think that the best bet of the people running such contests would be to either disallow professional entries or to do their own video alongside the contest and avoid a single “winner,” giving smaller prizes to a more diverse pool of fans. That way you get around the issue of the promo being co-opted for something it never openly claimed to be: a pitch process for spec work, which some professional communities consider unethical for anything less than multimillion dollar contracts.

Of course, the problem with both of these options is that it’s quite possible that the people running the contests do want them to be a pitch process for spec work under the flimsy guise of fan community outreach. In this case, perhaps fans are quite justified in feeling irate, and may have better luck screening fan-made films on their own terms, as various geeky fan communities (Star Wars fan films, anime music videos, etc.) have been doing for a while.

How the Nerds Rock Out

Issue #4 of Geek Monthly features an article by Rayo Casablanca on “lab nerd music,” quoting and profiling artists including Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, Severed Heads, Jonathan Coulton, and Freezepop. These artists are offered as the latest and perhaps most overtly geeky musicians in a tradition kicked off in the early ’80s: “Artists like Devo, Talking Heads, Thomas Dolby, the Residents, the Soft Boys, Oingo Boingo, They Might be Giants, and Primus wore their science chic loud and proud” (p. 28).

I’ve been aware of these bands for awhile, though I’d never heard the “lab nerd” label used to imply that they constitute a particular scene or subgenre. Nerdcore hip-hop, on the other hand, seems to have a much more cohesive community, with artists referring to one another in their lyrics and collaborating on a series of free compilation albums. Of the artists noted above, however, two (Freezepop and Jonathan Coulton) are scheduled to play at the Penny Arcade Expo this summer alongside video game cover bands and nerdcore hip-hop artists (and I believe the organizers attempted to get Darkest of the Hillside Thickets for an earlier PAX). Pulling these artists into explicitly geek-marketed events could help identify a distinctly recognizable lab nerd music scene, even if such a community (or at least a Wikipedia entry describing one) doesn’t currently exist on any large scale.

Why Parents Won’t Love Bassoon Hero

Fellow Annenberg student Deb, who studies sound and culture, sent me the following email about Guitar Hero yesterday:

Thought about you today while reading a (very) Foucaultian analysis of Western classical music practices (Western ensembles = auditory panopticons arranged around the conductor/guard tower). As everyone-and-his-congressman knows, video games lead directly to murder and mayhem, but musical training has always been touted as an influence in the other direction. Music (the antithesis of noise) orders sound, and musical training orders behavior and shapes character (or so we are told) in everyone from school children to prison inmates. I wonder if the civilizing musical aspects of Guitar Hero cancel out the violent video game aspects—if “sweetness and light” cancels out “kill, kill, kill”…

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