Music, Downloading, and the Fan Community

I’m going to wax lyrical about the humble hyperlink – it’s quite remarkable where just clicking links can take you sometimes! One of my favorite blogs is Nerdcore, partly because its mishmash of German and English keeps me up on my German while throwing me a few lines of English when I get stuck. Plus, like its name implies, it’s got all sorts of cool stuff that appeals to nerds and Digital Natives like me. Last week, a post on Nerdcore quoted linked and quoted liberally from a five-part Hypebot series on Digital Natives and the music industry. Some of the words and themes definitely sounded familiar, so lo and behold, it was good to see Born Digital quoted in part 5 of the series.

The entire series is fantastic, by the way. Hypebot’s associate editor Kyle Bylin draws on many of his personal experiences to offer up thoughts on the relationship between Digital Natives and the music industry. The most pressing issue is, of course, digital piracy. When John Palfrey, Diana, and I were invited to speak at Google DC last fall, one of the most salient questions posed was why Digital Natives seemed to have so few moral qualms about illegally downloading music from the Internet. Diana wrote a follow-up post exploring some of these reasons in terms of simple interface. Bylin, in Hypebot’s five-part series, delves into some of the deeper cultural issues that lead Digital Natives to illegally download music.

Bylin especially talks about the fan community that surrounded his interaction with music:

A digital community had been formed that transcended our own niche interest in Linkin Park or posting lyrics. It was as if the more individualized we became, the closer we were drawn to each other. Bound no longer by our musical taste, but our desires to participate, challenge, and push whatever envelope that appealed to us. Through MSN and the message board, from various parts of the world, we created, connected, and directed a fan experience that shaped our collective identities on and offline. >>

While I didn’t share an experience as intense as Bylin’s, I have to agree that my own music tastes were largely shaped not by my friends immediately around me but an online community. These days though, it’s a little unsettling how many of the new artists I discover are through Pandora! What implications does this fan community model have on the future of music though? Nancy Baym is quoted to further elaborate:

As the experiences of music fans shifts from the offline world to those encountered online, Nancy Baym states in her keynote, ‘Online Community and Fandom,’ that, “The Internet has transformed what it means to be a music fan. Fans can and do build communities more rapidly and successfully now than ever before, with consequences not just for their own experience of music, but for everyone involved in the creation, distribution and promotion of music in any capacity.” Elaborating further that, “fandom is social interaction.” because it lets fans share feeling, build social identity, pool collective intelligence, and interpret collectively. Interaction in this domain not only creates the possibility for digital communities, but it enables fan empowerment. Highlighting these five qualities of the Internet, Nancy says that it has made fans powerful because it, “Transcends distance and extends reach, provides group infrastructures, supports archiving, enables new forms of engagement, and lessons social distance.” >>

It also makes sense that the feeling of community comes hand in hand with peer-to-peer filesharing. What is obvious to all is that the music industry’s business model must evolve to incorporate the increased strength of digital fan communities. Since Radiohead first offered its album for free download, artists and record labels seems to have gone the road of deemphasizing mp3s as a major revenue source. U2’s latest album is available on Amazon for only $3.99.

More thoughts on digital piracy.

– Sarah Zhang