Fans and Creators

Henry Jenkins talks a lot about co-creation, and with good reason – without the fans interpreting a cultural work, there’s really no imaginative space for it to occupy. Most co-creation, however, is an exercise done by fans either independently or collaboratively as fans – not in collaboration with the artist. However, perhaps this is changing:

For [NIN’s] latest album, “The Slip,” fans won’t have to steal anymore. It’s available for free. “This one’s on me,” Reznor blogged… [he] created the new set of tracks for fans to download, remix and share on his Web site…

Reconfiguring songs has always remained central to Reznor’s thinking about music; he frequently follows official releases of NIN records with long-format remix albums. Before parting with Interscope, he fought with it to post the basic tracks from his songs on his site for his devotees to do with as they pleased.

The concept of the remix does away with the idea that the official, “first” recording of a song represents the definitive version. Reznor has always had problems with authority. What better way to subvert his own influence than to encourage his fans to remix the new NIN record before it has really solidified in the public consciousness?

Some fans have already started giving him a run for his (free) money. NegodJaeff, taking the bait, brings Reznor’s “Lights in the Sky” vocal way forward and pushes the screwy piano further back to create a prouder, more effective ballad. 15Steps concocts an infectious beat for “Echoplex,” and Soundtweaker’s grimy, hook-conscious version of “1,000,000” sounds considerably more fun than the “original.””

Reznor has had an interesting journey to co-creator, as well, emblematic in a more vociferous way of the relationships many musicians have with the modern recording industry:

When he discovered in 2007 that in Australia, [Interscope] had priced his album higher than other releases simply because his fans would pay more, he angrily encouraged a concert audience to download illegally. “Steal, steal and steal some more,” he raged, “and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.”

Nine Inch Nails, of course, has benefited from years of radio play and MTV time with hits like “Head Like a Hole” and “Closer.” But Reznor has also been particularly savvy about maintaining a relationship with the hard-core fans spawned by those hits and his sound and aesthetic, generally, selling out concerts regularly even when he wasn’t receiving radio play.

What this latest move seems to indicate is a further evolution of both his and his fans’ perception of their relationship, and of the nature of creative production. Reznor is still the source and reason for fandom, but he is not the only voice that matters – he’s just the one that starts the conversation. In this model, being a NIN fan becomes more like being a member of a semi-official club or even collective – “People who listen to/remix NIN.”

Fans have always desired this sort of interaction with their creative idols – who hasn’t played air guitar or sung in the shower, imagining oneself in the role of, or onstage with, a favorite artist? – but Reznor, aware of the relationship that fans have both to music generally (download, listen, sometimes remix) and his music more specifically, has taken the next step and become something closer to a peer with his fans. The president of the NIN club.

This is a similar sort of sentiment and approach taken by Weezer, who have for years maintained excellent contact with their fans online. Their latest single, “Pork and Beans” is both an anthem for the idiosyncratic (“I’mma do the things/That I wanna do/I ain’t got a thing/To prove to you”) and a celebration of community, as the video features a score of Internet meme stars first performing some variation of their gags and then all dancing together, and with the band. It’s pretty much as awesome as it is sweet.

One interesting question to ask in all of this is – given these evolving relationships, are fans more or less likely to want to reward a creator (even/especially when they’re not required to pay for it [at least legally]) when the relationship is closer to one of a peer? Or, if not a peer, then at least not some sort of marble godhead. Of course, most people know very well they’ll never hang out with Trent Reznor or Weezer – but if they do a good remix, or video, or something, maybe they’ll get an e-mail from them saying, “Hey, that’s cool.” Or maybe that e-mail will come from another fan, and connecting together over that piece of culture draws them closer both together and to the band. Or perhaps something entirely different – finding out is half the fun.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield