Some of you may remember me posting a while ago about the effect that social media has had on existing online communities, particularly music-related ones. Since I blogged about it, I’ve had numerous interesting and insightful conversations with others about the pros and cons of mailing lists, online forums, message boards, guest books, and the use of social media sites. If all these conversations have proven anything, it’s that – surprise, surprise – one size most definitely does not fit all.
There’s a persistent rumble concerning our seemingly ever-increasing tendency to crave immediacy in our online activity, and the movement towards social media from other platforms seems merely to confirm that this is indeed the case. Email based mailing lists and newsgroups were de rigeur when I arrived on the web back in the mid-90s; these were gradually replaced by online forums and message boards, where the content remained much the same, but the format in which that content was presented to you was very different – one repeated criticism of online forums has been that they didn’t allow the flexibility that a decent email program allows the user, although over the past three or four years, a great deal of functionality has been added to online forums to address that perception. However, from the moment that AOL first popped up on someone’s screen with a ‘Friends List’, the stampede towards social media has been pretty much inevitable, and it’s steamrollered everything in its path, for better or worse.
Some of you know that until recently I was peripherally involved with the band Karnataka. This whole topic has been of particular importance to them over the past year: the band underwent a seismic line-up change last year, and has been addressing all kinds of behind-the-scenes challenges ever since. When a band is forced to retreat from the limelight (cause for concern in this spotlight-hungry world: Evanescence’s Amy Lee admitted this month that “suits” had told her that no-one would remember who the band were when they return this coming month with a new album – and this is a band who have had a great deal more commercial success than Karnataka have enjoyed), it’s crucial for them to see what their audience make of it all. Sadly, Karnataka’s online forum was dead. We’re talking tumbleweed here, despite numerous attempts to try and engage fans and provide them with some added content that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy elsewhere. At the same time, interest in the band’s page on Facebook was increasing in leaps and bounds, as were the fans interactions with the band on that page. Proof that no matter how much effort you expend, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter: the fans will interact with you where it best suits them. And over the past 12 months or so, that place has most definitely been Facebook.
This led Karnataka to make the difficult decision to close down their forum: why expend the energy on something that is not being used? These days, when musicians more often than not also run all of their own business affairs alongside the artistic ones, what is the use in squandering energy on a White Elephant, no matter what it might be? Karnataka’s Facebook page continues to thrive, and is now updated on occasion by all the band members. There’s more chatter on the Facebook page on a quiet day than there ever was on the band’s forum.
In this respect, Karnataka are not alone. Past collaborators Panic Room are also coming to similar conclusions about their own forum, and they’re not the only ones. Even bands as large and with as dedicated a following as Marillion have been seen in recent times to mutter about what the role of their online forums might be, when so much of their communication with the fans is done elsewhere. Truly, the social revolution that has been gathering pace for the best part of a decade now is systematically undermining and destroying previously established online communities.
Even forums that defiantly remain active and have no intention of closing their doors are becoming pale shadows of their old selves. The more insular the forum, the greater the likelihood that they will survive, but this is a tsunami that cannot be stopped or turned, a domino effect that is sweeping us towards new ways of interacting, whether we like it or not. As someone who has long advocated that bands reach out and interact with their fan bases, and who has been involved with numerous mailing lists and online forums (fora?) built on just that philosophy, I’ve seen a sea change over the past six months in the attitudes of both those who frequent such fora, and those who maintain them. The attitude is one of resignation: very few bands want to give up their own dedicated corner of the web to interact with their fans, but as more and more of those fans spend increasingly large amounts of their online time in one place, the bands are reluctantly conceding that they have to take the interaction to the fans rather than the other way around.
I’ve read numerous intriguing papers and handbooks about music marketing over the past 10 years, but one comment in particular seems remarkably insightful now, with the benefit of hindsight. I can’t even remember who wrote it now (if I find it, I shall be sure to update this blog and add a credit), but generally it said that “the importance of fans will be magnified: the fan will become the centre of your entire focus”. This might sound obvious now, but 8 or 9 years ago, it was New Thinking ™. The “Music Business” had yet to realise that in order to provide longevity for an act, it really did have to become a business – and therefore adapt its world view. Previously, the musician’s eye view was “what can we do to make ourselves a success”; now it’s more a case of “what can we do for our fans that will allow them to make us a success”. On the face of it, it’s a very narrow distinction. It’s not: it a yawning chasm of difference, and increasingly we’re seeing bands who can make that distinction step up and succeed in getting people to pay attention.
Recently, Nightwish unveiled the artwork for their new album Imaginaerum (due in December: I love those Finnish nutters, so I’m really looking forward to another blast of everything-including-the-kitchen-sink metal). It features a seemingly abandoned amusement park, covered in ice and snow. I’ve always known that it’s fruitless to try and swim against the tide when it comes to online interaction, and if something dies, there are generally very good reasons for that happening… but part of me can’t help seeing the online forums and suchlike reflected in the Imaginaerum artwork. Truly they have been enjoyed and have been of use, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that their useful time is now past. Whether or not things will turn out to be cyclical, and a return to less centralised, more individualised interactions will eventually cme about, it’s impossible to say. I guess we all have to sit back and enjoy the ride. Much like those who continue to champion vinyl against the more adaptable, versatile and portable digital music formats, though, I’m sure I won’t be the only one who harbours a warm glow of nostalgia when I think back to the huge amount of fun and camaraderie that those new silent online forums provided Back In The Day.