University of Kansas professor and Microsoft Research visiting researcher Nancy Baym is speaking at the Berkman Center today about the Internet’s effect on the relationship between the entertainment industry and its audience, particularly in Sweden.
Economic (market) exchange.
Baym starts with a discussion of economic and social exchange. Economic exchange is impersonal and based on legal principles. It includes specific obligations, price tags and set time frames for repayment, and the value of a service or product is independent of who is providing it. Social exchange, on the other hand, is interpersonal and based on trust and obligation. It revolves around unspecified obligations, exchange rates and time frames, and the value of a service or product is tied to the person providing it. The difference between the two is the difference between buying a CD on Amazon and trading a mix tape with your high school boyfriend.
In social exchange systems, the things exchanged include goods, services, information, love, status and money. Some exchanges, such as goods for services, are okay. Others, such as love for money, are taboo. There’s always an obligation to repay, either in a direct exchange (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours) or indirectly (pay it forward).
In the music industry, the system has largely been one of economic exchange: money for records and concert tickets. As Baym points out, “this hasn’t been working out so well.” Since 1999, music sales have fallen from $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion, and layoffs have reached 25 percent.
R.E.M. and superpowers.
Baym admits she used to be a huge R.E.M. fan. It used to be that illegally trading music was difficult: you had to know the right people, the dedicated fans who carefully copied music onto cassette tapes and gifted them to friends. She notes that these tapes were rarely exchanged for money: it was a labor of love.
With the internet, audiences have “been superpowered.” The music industry is trying to centralize, but distribution is being decentralized: people are trading and sharing music, artists are self-publishing, and everyone is a critic and a publicist and a curator. Production is also decentralized.
Baym suspects the number of musicians per capita in Sweden is higher than anywhere else in the world. Despite being a small country, Sweden ranks behind only the US and UK in music sales. Many of Britney Spears’ and Beyonce’s singles were written by a Swedish producer. “It’s not just ABBA,” Baym says. “You have 8 million Swedes, and 7 million of them are in a band.”
Baym flips to her “obligatory methods slide” and describes spending three years of following Swedish music online. In addition to listening to music and writing for online music publications, she’s also interviewing musicians and fans.
How the Internet is changing the game.
She points us to It’s a Trap, a Scandinavian music journal published in Washington state. Despite the fact that the site is authored by someone who only recently made his first trip to Sweden, it’s one of the biggest sources of information on Scandinavian music in the world, and more than half of its visitors come from Scandinavia. It’s a “mess” of sites and information, but it managed to spur collective action and interest.
Baym shows us another site, Hello! Surprise!, which is a huge guide to Swedish pop. She asked the owner if he feels he should be paid for the work he does, and he laughed off the idea — for him, as for the fans sharing R.E.M. mix tapes, it’s a labor of love.
The internet has enabled new forms of engagement with the music industry: people are embedding Last.fm profiles, publishing mp3 blogs like Swedesplease and Absolut Noise, watching music videos online, and organizing real-life music events like the Glasgow-based Sounds of Sweden.
The challenge in this new space is getting attention, Baym claims.
The Internet has reduced the distance between audiences and artists.
Baym brings up the website for The Cardigans, where fans can ask the band any question they want. (Fun fact: the bass player’s sister is an Internet researcher.) Baym points up that the site is a center for social exchange of both information and status. Fans get information from the artists, and when the artists reply to questions, they bestow status on individual fans.
People who play music are just people.
— Swedish band The Fine Arts Showcase
Baym shows us Labrador, a Swedish record company that lets people donate its entire singles catalogue for free. This kind of new relationship with audiences means that bands are “making a killing” touring in places like Brazil, where audiences are pirating music but showing up for concerts in droves.
The radio is still how most people find new music, but labels are recognizing that when mp3 bloggers post their music, it can help give them credibility and bring them new listeners.
This new social exchange can include love, services and money: both artists and fans like the closeness that the Internet can give them, and many friendships have developed, with artists crashing on fans’ couches.
Several new profit structures exist in the music industry: Radiohead’s In Rainbows is one obvious example, with fans donating money for a free album out of a sense of gratitude or affection for the band. (Baym points out that when the physical CD was released, it sold like crazy.)
Baym says audiences recognize that artists get a very small cut of the price of a CD. They want to give to the artists, not the publishing company. The Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde has created Flattr, a site that “lets you show love for the things you like” — essentially, a way to tip your favorite artists.
None of the musicians Baym has interviewed view piracy as a threat, and many of the people she’s spoken with see their relationship with their listeners as less of an artist-fan situation and more of a “gather[ing] of like-minded people that share a common love” (Club 8). She sees evidence of a “Utopian hope of reshaping culture” that’s emerging from new online models and interactions surrounding the music industry.
Things to think about.
Baym ends with a list of questions:
- What are the different kinds of value in this industry?
- Who provides value and how? Coldplay is having fans submit their own music videos, which is awesome, but it means MTV video producers are out of a job.
- What is the new “fair”?
- What are the boundary problems? Fans may have more expectations about artists answering e-mails or at replies on Twitter than they did about paper letters. Is this okay? Where are the new boundary lines?
- What’s the broader context of monetizing? Every Facebook fan is worth around $1.63 in purchases. Baym worries about this — are we failing to nurture what’s beautiful in this industry and in the relationship between artists and listeners? We’re still trying to cast things in an economic model, despite these new forms of social exchange. People still want to pay because they love the music they listen to. What’s the best way to handle this?
- How can we rehumanize creativity? Capitalism dehumanizes the creative process, Baym argues.
There are different “music industries”: Mick Jagger is not the same as a Swedish pop band. So how far does this social exchange model scale?
Baym’s been focused largely on smaller band — “it’s hard to get Mick Jagger to give you an interview. I’m working on it, if any of you know him.” She mentions an interview with Mogwai, in which they say they can no longer handle adding people to their mailing list — it’s become unwieldy. Bands are turning to companies who handle fan management for them. As far as scaling, she gives an example from teaching: “if you remember 10 students’ names and you use their names, the students will think you know all of their names.” Part of the trick is finding a way to draw boundaries that enable artists to have their space while still helping audiences feel connected. (David Bowie used to give fans e-mail addresses at davidbowie.com.)
Does this system only work out for artists who tour? What about artists who just want to make music and make money off it, but don’t want to go around playing?
Baym doesn’t think you have to tour to make this work. Touring lets listeners connect with artists, and as music has become digital people have lost access to the physicality of the product (CDs, records) so concerts may have become more important, but right now we’re still in a period of experimentation. We don’t know yet what works and what doesn’t.
What does it mean when artists say that the word “fan” is debased an irrelevant just as researchers are starting to explore fans and fan identities? Artists are rejecting the idea of fans because it comes from some sort of industrial-economic machine, but media scholars think fans are the shit. What does the disconnect mean?
Baym believes it may come back to scale: being “small and indie” probably has an effect. She disagrees with the idea that fandom is the paradigmatic way to study media consumers — almost all of fan studies focus on television and film, but music is a different kind of media involving a different kind of participation. Also, what about anti-fans? The people who making hating Justin Bieber and Twilight an integral part of their identities?
Is this kind of social relationship limited to a particular demographic? For example: pre-teen girls can’t offer artists spaces to stay (or, really, that much money). Is it limited to a particular genre? What about hip-hop?
Baym’s trying to expand her interviews to include more diverse genres. It’s easy to make this case about indie pop, but it would be harder with rap. She notes, though, that the idea of “selling out” is changing even within indie pop: “they think it’s great if they can get, as they put it, the ‘fuckers with money’ to pay for things so the fans don’t have to.” DIY culture has become corporate — Baym wonders if the next generation will even have “selling out” as a concept.
Why don’t artists use advertising as a revenue model? Ads on their websites, ads on their CDs, etc.?
Baym believes models that rely on advertising haven’t made enough money. Last.fm tried an ad-sponsored click and play system, but it wasn’t lucrative enough. Also, not many people know how to do this. Major labels may be able to do it, but the small-time Swedish producer probably has no idea.
What about production cost? It’s one thing to put together a demo album, and an entirely other thing to create an hour of broadcast TV. The line between fan and participant in the music scene is blurry, whereas the separation in other industries is much greater. Is this phenomenon going to be limited to music, or will we see it in other fields?
Baym points to Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. “You’re not going to make Avatar in your basement,” but production costs are decreasing in other scenes as well. “There’s always going to be room for Hollywood blockbusters…and Britney Spears and Justin Bieber,” but there will probably be fewer and fewer of them as cameras and microphones and editing software get cheaper. With TV, the problem is access to the airways.
My note: we are starting to see digital television shows, like The ‘Burg.