by: David Jennings
The flipside of sites run by fans is of course sites run by artists, and yesterday the New York Times ran a feature — Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog (hmmm, not a bad title; I wonder if I could adapt it…) — about what it refers to as 'B-list' artists and how they communicate with fans online.
Leading with the story of Jonathan Coulton's successful DIY singer-songwriter blog, the feature reports,
Along the way, [Coulton] discovered a fact that many small-scale recording artists are coming to terms with these days: his fans do not want merely to buy his music. They want to be his friend. And that means they want to interact with him all day long online. They pore over his blog entries, commenting with sympathy and support every time he recounts the difficulty of writing a song. They send e-mail messages, dozens a day, ranging from simple mash notes of the "you rock!" variety to starkly emotional letters, including one by a man who described singing one of Coulton's love songs to his 6-month-old infant during her heart surgery. Coulton responds to every letter, though as the e-mail volume has grown to as many as 100 messages a day, his replies have grown more and more terse, to the point where he's now feeling guilty about being rude.
I'm interested in the different ways artists have of lifting the veil about their work and their creativity. Seven years ago I worked with the theatre/performance company Forced Entertainment on an educational CD-ROM they were making about their work. I asked them why they had decided to put so much time and effort into this: why not just create another performance work instead? The answer I got back was something along the lines of "if we don't create a discourse to frame and explain our work [which can at times be 'difficult'], no one else will."
Times have changed in those seven years, and the means for documenting the creative process and opening it up to fans have changed, as Jonathan Coulton's example shows. Forced Entertainment ran a blog about the making of their most recent major show. The New York Times' reference to Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies is also telling about how interaction between artists and fans has changed.
Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In "The Catcher in the Rye," J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world. Neither would, say, Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, a singer who was initially so intimidated by a crowd that she would sit facing the back of the stage. What happens to art when people like that are chased away?
The writer presumably hasn't been to a Cowboy Junkies show for a while, because the last three times I've seen them Margo has advertised from the stage that she will be hanging out in the bar afterwards and would welcome the opportunity to chat with fans, sign CD covers and suchlike (I've heard reports that other artists find they sell three or four times as much merchandise if they appear in person at the stall, so this isn't just communing with your people that's at stake).
The case of the Cowboy Junkies is actually a minor sore point with me. In the book I refer to the CD-ROM they produced that tells the inside story of them writing and recording their 2004 album. I haven't even got the proofs back yet, and already I'm out of date: for their new album, the band have offered some similar behind-the-scenes material, but this time they're doing it by download.
There will be further stages in the evolution of artist-fan relationships, and the chances are that they some of the most interesting developments will be led by the artists with what you might call 'human scale' fanbases — that is, small enough to be able to treat fans like people instead of numbers.