The Professionalisation of Amateur Fan Production

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by: David Jennings

Fans are themselves major producers of resources that aid discovery — for both committed and casual or new fans. This a theme that I’ve returned to a few times on this blog (example). In the published version of my book I wrote about the tensions that might arise if this ‘amateur’ fan production continues to get more ‘professional’:
[S]ome fan economy endeavours are approaching the status of cottage industries, and have a high profile in their niche areas. They may play a significant role in charting parts of the Long Tail that mainstream media fail to reach. Commercial interests may want to license the materials that fans have curated and created. If this happens, or if what fans have built directly helps to lift artists and creators… out of the Long Tail to reach a larger audience, they may be justified in expecting a non-trivial share of the earnings that result.

This is the point where the fan economy bleeds into the traditional media economy. There may be opportunities for some… fans to go semi-professional if they show that they can build a credible audience or network of other fans, sufficient to attract sponsorship or merchandising deals. This could become a popular route to starting or building a career in the wider media sector, but it will also cause friction and disagreements where it is perceived to threaten the non-commercial ethos of hard-line blog culture.

The first draft of the book had an extended scenario to illustrate both the creep of professionalism and the tensions it brings. I can’t write narrative or dialogue well enough to pass muster for publication in a book, so that’s why this ended up on the cutting room floor, along with my other fictional scenarios. But in the hope that it might still be of interest to some, here it is.

Guy logs on to the fan resource site for Ardglas, a ‘celtic blues’ band that he’s been following since their commercial peak in the early 1990s, and on through their split to the various solo career curves of their members, and occasional reunions. As one of the ‘full members’ of the site, Guy’s login shows him not just the latest news and updates, but also a list of tasks for developing and maintaining the site.

The tasks vary in size and area. There are social things like welcoming new members after they register — adding a human touch to the automated registration process — and then there are technical jobs, involving servers and the code that generates the web pages from templates. The most common small task is checking any updates to the wiki pages of the site, mostly to do small corrections to the format or typographical errors introduced by new material, but also to guard against vandalism or ‘spam’ advertising. Having a good eye for detail, Guy handles quite a lot of these. But it’s one of the features of the resource management system on which the Ardglas site runs that the more of these tasks Guy does, the more the system ‘recommends’ for him to do. This ‘intelligent collaborative allocation’ feature is supposed to make it easier for loose groups of volunteers to distribute and manage a complex range of tasks between them. When it was first implemented, Guy joked that it was like Marxism applied to the gift economy: "From each according to his ability; to each as much unpaid work as he can bear."

Guy got involved in this collaborative site three years ago. Previously he’d been running his own Ardglas ‘live archive’ website, which focused just on the gigs played by the band and their members, with interactive set-lists and details of any recordings that were available. Then he and others who had complementary websites decided to club together and pool their material in one, more comprehensive resource. They were led in that effort by Eric, an über-fan and technical guru over in the UK, who introduced and still manages the modular platform on which the gig listings, the wiki areas, the forums, the memorabilia archive and everything else run.

Guy is still the foremost expert, among the fans, on Ardglas’s live shows. This part of the site has developed beyond just listings now, and, comprises (with the consent of the band members) a clearing house for live recordings, which are shared non-commercially. Anyone who has such a recording submits the files themselves to the Live Music Archive (an independent site for hosting such recordings), and then logs this via the Ardglas site. One of Guy’s tasks for this afternoon is to review one such submission. These days they’ve got an almost complete set of recordings, but the hardcore fans are always interested to see if they can get better-quality versions. Often, as in this case, the person submitting the recording cannot be quite sure exactly when and where it came from. To deal with circumstances like this, Guy has a neat piece of software with which he has taken an ‘acoustic fingerprint’ of all the Ardglas recordings in the archive so far. He can feed the new recording into the database and see if it gets any matches (no two recordings of the same event are identical, but they have enough in common for the similarity to be detectable). This one seems to be from Providence, Rhode Island, in November 1993 — and it’s a recording direct from the mixing desk at the show, so it’s a valuable addition to the collection. Guy indexes it, and publishes the details on the Ardglas site with a link to the Live Music Archive.

Built into the site is an automated feed that continually searches the web for new mentions of Ardglas (filtering out references to the Irish town of the same name). Today this has flagged the appearance of a new site dedicated to the band’s second, and most popular, album. It seems to have been created by a fan who is not a member of the Ardglas site. The discussion forums are already buzzing with comment from fans across the world.

"Does anyone know this guy? Why didn’t he tell us he was doing this? We could have helped."

"Yeah, after all the effort we put into bringing everything together those years ago, why go and start fragmenting things again."

"Calm down, you guys. We’re not the Ardglas police force here, and this is the Internet, remember? Anyone can do what they want… We just link to it. It’s not like his is the only other Ardglas site out there."

"It’s pretty much the only other one that isn’t a forgotten, un-maintained cobweb site. I still think he could have at least posted something here about what he’s doing. It’s not like he can be unaware that this community exists: our site is in the Top 10 for any Ardglas search you do."

Guy chips in with his own thoughts, "I think he’s done a really great job on the design of the site, in the way it echoes the album art. It wouldn’t be easy to do that with our page templates. Maybe we should just extend the hand of friendship — tell him we like the site, and ask if there’s anything we can do to help publicise it for him, and without making it sound like we want to take it over. Maybe he’ll eventually come into our welcoming fold…"

"Oh, Guy, you’re such a diplomat!"

"You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen me negotiating with the record label about the boxed set."

Now Eric, the man who holds the website together and has the status of an elder in the community, chimes in: "I think all us who witnessed that will remember it for a while, Guy. It was one of our defining moments. For those that weren’t around back then, the label approached us to see if we’d be willing to help them compile some material for the Ardglas boxed set and DVD that came out a year or so ago. They wanted to use some of the reviews and old fanzine interviews that we’ve got here, and a short video clip that Guy had shot at a gig. He accused them point-blank of taking stuff from the fans just to profiteer by selling it back to other fans. But then we stepped back, had a discussion among ourselves and came to the conclusion that if anyone can claim ownership of the material on the site it is the band, and occasionally a reviewer or writer. We provide a way of drawing stuff together and a communications channel to keep the material alive through discussion. But we’re not about control and ownership… Besides the label helped by promoting Ardglas again for the boxed set: I think they did a really good job in the end — with a bit of help from us — and, let’s face it, they were never going to get rich and retire on the proceeds."

"Good summary, Eric — and thanks for being fairly discreet about my outburst when I went off at the deep end. And you’re right about the lessons from the experience. I guess that’s what I had in the back of my mind when I suggested being welcoming and supportive to the developer of the new site." Guy signs off from the site, and checks the time. As usual, he meant to spend just 20 minutes catching up, but ended up staying over an hour.

[Footnote: I don’t think I realised it at the time I first wrote this scenario, but I think the name Ardglas may have bubbled up via my subconscious from Van Morrison’s Coney Island. However, Guy is a fanciful projection of a friend of mine who is news editor for a fanclub magazine — he lives round the corner from me and that’s his real name.]

Photo credit: Antonis SHEN, licensed under Creative Commons.

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