I’ve been a digital groupie of many a band over the years. Back in the late 90s I tape traded Phish, Dave Matthews, and Grateful Dead shows. I don’t mention it to most people now because Birkenstocks are out and it was awfully OCD, but it was my main hobby in high school. I’d find other fans on bulletin boards and we’d exchange addresses, burn a bunch of CDs and two weeks later, I could put on my headphones and hear something no record store carried. These listening sessions — think staying up late on a school night and sneaking a beer from the garage fridge — were some of my fondest memories growing up. Most of the time the songs were the same, but that wasn’t the point. I grew to love every nuance. I became a collector. In the same way that a band evolves from practicing the same material and playing together, so did my experience as a fan. This is the show where they did the six-minute vacuum cleaner solo. This is the show where Phish covered the White Album on Halloween.
It sounds inane, but I think anyone who’s ever loved a band can relate. You try to gobble up every burp, joke, and dribbled syllable they’ve ever put on tape. You look up YouTube clips from shows you’ve been to. You read interviews. You stalk Twitter feeds (cough @justinbieber fans). You awkwardly show off acoustic covers to friends who don’t really care.
In bulk, it’s a passive experience, one of consumption and completeness rather than creation, and honestly in my digital fandom, I was no different from the old record junkies who buy imports or that one really really old guy who still has the Beatles cake cryogenically frozen.
But as I, or any musical nut will tell you, “Then came the intarwebs.”
Filesharing, streaming, live music servers. Consumption became immediate, dissemination became decentralized, and most importantly fans began to create.
Thinking about it now, I can trace this sea of change back to one moment — in 2001 when the internet fan community released the buried Dave Matthews Band album that later became Busted Stuff.
The band initially hated the tracks. They swept them under a rug and produced a more accessibly mainstream album with another producer. Many of the diehard fans, including myself, rebelled. We signed petitions, we started angry Internet letter campaigns, we exerted all of our non-existent power to make the band go back to their old ways. Those efforts predictably failed, but they did result in a nondescript CD-R being sent to one of the fan-site webmasters.
Upon hearing the commotion, an engineer sent the mix of the sessions to one of the fansite creators. Someone faked an email from the session producer, Steve Lillywhite, approving of the material’s release. Before I knew it, I was hosting a server out of my parent’s study and sending out the forbidden fruit at 16.5kbs. I remember in those first 24 hours seeding hundreds of copies to the intarwebs, barely catching a chance to appreciate the tracks. When I did, it was exhilaration. The band I loved still existed, and I had played a small part in its reemergence.
The unreleased album became known as The Lillywhite Sessions and we loved it a hundred times more than the released album, Everyday. Rolling Stone picked up on the story and ran a positive review of The Lillywhite Sessions. The band, who were probably royally pissed at first, started playing songs from the album at shows. In 2002, they released Busted Stuff, essentially a do-over album, with many of the unreleased songs re-recorded.
I don’t want to glorify the nefarious acts of a bunch of pirates. This wasn’t so much fan creation as it was outright theft. But I can’t think of any other prior occasion when a few thousand people on the internet shaped the creative direction of a mega touring band. (We were the jam band Tea Party of our time)
Luckily since then, the relationship between band and fan has been more give/give than give take, with some bands actively soliciting their fans in the creative process.
In 2006, The Decemberists challenged their fa`ns to direct a music video for “O’ Valencia” using green screen footage. The resulting videos reinterpreted the song in a hundred different ways, some awful, some unintentionally amazing, and some even spectacular.
More successfully, and completely unsolicited were the MGMT videos for “Kids” and “Electric Feel”. It takes a healthy dose of web 2.0 to believe that the most popular MGMT music videos from their 2008 album Oracular Spectacular came from an animatronic band and two kids from SoCal. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGWJbcTvL_M and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIEOZCcaXzE). The least MGMT could do was invite those contributors to appear in a later video, considering that the fan produced video for “Kids” has 30 million more views than the official version.
This summer, Arcade Fire and Radiohead collaborated with fans on efforts that are redefining how we take in music.
The Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown project, (http://thewildernessdowntown.com/), generates a personalized interactive music video for each viewer. With the deft application of Google Earth, their single “We Used to Wait” morphs into a eerie and haunting collage of growing up in suburban America. The spliced images of a viewer’s neighborhood streets hook into memories and in turn, the video asks for that output by giving viewers the chance to write a postcard to their younger self.
These postcards are collected by the band. Viewers can respond to each other’s post cards and I have a sneaking suspicion some of them will show up on big screens on tour.
Going the opposite direction, Radiohead recently learned of a fan project to produce a concert DVD. (http://radiohead-prague.nataly.fr/) An online group solicited HD video taken by fans at the August 23, 2009 show in Prague. Submitted clips were edited together into a concert DVD entirely from the fan’s perspective. Radiohead in turn kindly donated the soundboard feed from the show.
The end result is an intimate and surprisingly well-directed glimpse of Radiohead’s live show from deep within the throng of fans welling up against the stage. Shots are composed from below, a hand holding up a camera framing each shot. The energy of the crowd is proximal and relentless. When the band hits that key phrase or turn in a song, it feels as if twenty thousand fans have exploded before you.
It’s the kind of experience no production team could have created. The intrusion of camera crews would have killed the intimacy. No director would have cut scenes from shaky cameras or from funky angles beneath and around the crowd. Think of every concert video you’ve seen. The fans are ants or front row mug shots.
In the Prague DVD, the fans contribute to the experience as much as the band. They are front and center with Thom Yorke, and you can see band and crowd feeding off of one another. The end product is vastly greater than turning on a CD, or from the band’s perspective, cutting a track in the studio.
I think I understand the reason why.
It’s the same reason I used to collect every live show from a band’s catalog to revel in detail and imagine myself on the stage. Music succeeds when it becomes a deeply personal affair. At its highest form, songs leave the hands of the creators and become instruments of the listener. Thom Yorke’s “Airbag” may be a personal response to a violent car crash, but for me, it’s the sound of take off on long flights over the Pacific to visit my father when I was younger. And because Arcade Fire prompted lost memories by playing their music to the visual backdrop of my neighborhood, I will forever associate their songs with sneaking out under my parent’s nose.
If you had asked me ten years ago, when I was busy bootlegging Dave Matthews CDs, if I could have ever envisioned such an intimate relationship between the band and fan, I would have tried to sell you Grateful Dead tickets and a time machine. Thanks to the intarweb, that relationship is being forged electrodigitally. The walls between fan and band are slowly being punctured by new strands. Bands are giving us their music and letting us make it our own. From a fan’s perspective, it is absolutely awesome.