Since its inception, the Internet has opened new doors to the accessibility of fan culture and its music products. In the beginning, it was primarily the fans who were producing content online as Whaley (2003, online) discusses, with the creation of fan sites praising their favourite band and discussing their idols through binary and text newsgroups. Today, the evolution of online technology, it seems, has enabled both band and fan to interact more freely with the establishment of easy-to-use platforms such as MySpace, YouTube, Blogger and message board forums, as well as a vast amount of other online mediums. Though, interestingly, while fans are more visible, do they really have more access? In this paper, we will look at how the Internet has forged a new relationship between music and fans.
In her online article, Johnson sees these online communities as newly identified schoolyard gangs that are operated primarily by cyber bullies. (2003, Online) While virtual contact, as Johnson points out, promotes support, encouragement and sharing which in turn, overcomes social isolation, she does stress that online communication often strips emotional cues from conversation such as tone of voice, facial expressions and body language: “This creates anonymity, which hastens intimacy,” (2003, online) and thus, “flaming,” a form of online bullying, results from inadequate empathy for other individuals. (2003, online) Johnson’s study of online fan culture examines the phenomenon of the fight or flight techniques often used within these communities:
“In real life boys tend to use their “fists” to resolve arguments, and girls tend to use “friendship”. This trend follows into the Group setting online. You will find that the males tend to “flame” but remain static on the boards, and the females tend to use flight into cliques on other boards from where they use “friendship” as a weapon by exclusion and flame from a distance.”
Johnson proposes that only with the presence of strong group guides, moderators and structure will this anti-social behaviour discontinue. Another argument in relation to this online pecking order comes from Fiske’s notion that fans discriminate fiercely as the boundary between what falls within their fandom and what does not are sharply drawn. (1992 ed., p. 34) He discusses a fan’s need to argue about what characteristics allow someone to become a true fan (1992 ed., p. 34) not to mention, the importance of cultural capital within that particular community. (1992 ed., pp. 33-4) Fiske asserts the notion that fan knowledge also helps to distinguish a particular fan community from others: “The experts – those who have accumulated the most knowledge – gain prestige within the group…knowledge, like money, is a source of power.” (1992 ed., p. 43) Fiske goes on to argue that the accumulation of knowledge is a fundamental to the accumulation of cultural capital, with the cultural industries of course, recognising this and thus producing an enormous range of material designed to give the fan access to information about the object of fandom, which can be seen in online updates, official websites, scores, discographies and so on. (1992 ed., p. 42) Just one of many practical examples of this fan hierarchy can be seen on the Led-Zeppelin.com fan forum where not only knowledge, but also the duration of ones fandom acts as an assumed source of power. With over a million fans registering for one of 30,000 tickets to Led Zeppelin’s one-off show this year, it was not surprising that within their community forums Fiske’s theory of fans discriminating fiercely (p. 34) came into play. The main argument seen on these forums was primarily based on the length of fandom; i.e. the older you are the more privileged you are to have the right to a ticket. (Led-Zeppelin Forum, 2007, online) Official culture, like money, distinguishes between those who possess it, and those who do not; ‘Investing’ in education, in acquiring certain cultural tastes and competencies, will produce social ‘return’ in terms of better job prospects, of enhanced social prestige and thus of a high socio-economic capital to produce social privilege and distinction. (1992 ed., p. 31) In the case of Led Zeppelin fans, it also involves the length of time ‘investing’ in such an education. We can also apply Bourdieu’s model where the theorist analyses how fan status is built up. (Hills, 2002, p. 46) Bourdieu applies the notion that with any given fan culture, is not simply a community but also as a social hierarchy where fans share a common interest while also competing over fan knowledge, access to the object of fandom and status. (Hills, 2002 p. 46) “It is this emphasis on competitiveness, which provides the image of fans as ‘players’ …according to Bourdieu, fans play in the sense that they tacitly recognise the ‘rules’ of their fan cultures, attempting to build up different types of fan skill, knowledge and distinction.” (Hills, 2002 p. 46)
This advance in online technology and the sway towards online fan culture as the norm has also allowed bands to expand their relationship with consumers, or at least as Jenkins puts it, “regular contact creates a sense of a relationship.” (2007, online) Nowadays, most bands have a MySpace page that lets fans listen to new songs, receive updates via blog and bulletin entries, view exclusive band pictures and more importantly, to be added as “friends.” MySpace has also become a helpful medium for up and coming acts to interact with would-be fans not just in their local geographical area, but also around the world. The Arctic Monkeys are the best example of this, after having been widely reported about on their rise to indie fame via this medium. Similarly, YouTube is steadily increasing its official band channels where bands upload content for audiences to view and comment on. These kinds of outlets are free for anyone to view and enjoy, however, official fan clubs are more “exclusive” platforms where – for a price – consumers are given access to material that is restricted only to club members. This consists of specialised band content, including never-seen-before tour photos, videos; a welcome package that includes a personal membership card, pre-sale tickets as well as early access inside the venue and so on. This kind of exclusivity gives members the assurance and assumption of confirming a separation of the real fans from the regular ones on some kind of level. Ebay too, has become a more accessible gateway for fans to trade their collections within their subgroups. But interestingly, bands are getting in on the act as well – Nine Inch Nails for example, have auctioned off guitars used on stage that were destroyed at the end of a show with proceeds going to the Red Cross. (2007, online)
Bands are also able to distribute their music online in different ways through sources like iTunes, but in more recent months, acts such as Radiohead, have allowed their content to be downloaded for free or at a price determined by fans. (2007, online) With the Internet playing a major role in society for the better half of two decades, fans have not-surprisingly become more technologically savvy and with that, have raised issues about an increase in media piracy online. Of course, there has always been illegal copying of some kind before the Internet, but today, with just the click of a button, users are able to upload thousands of files online, which have record companies losing out on millions in sales [sic]. By identifying and embracing this issue, the band Nine Inch Nails unveiled a revolutionary promotions campaign for their new album that required fans to use their heads and their computers to unravel the mysterious concept of an Orwellian picture of the United States circa the year 2022 through an intricately sewn web of cryptic codes on t-shirts, websites and interestingly enough, USB drives found in the restrooms at some of their concerts in Europe, which also contained the band’s new video clip. (Melchor, 2007, online) Furthermore, the concept album Year Zero was uploaded onto the official band site – in it’s entirety – with the intention of letting fans pirate the album before its hardcopy release. And in 2005, the band allowed fans to “remix/reinterpret/ruin” (Santa Monica Newswire, 2005, online) the single Only, by permitting fans to download the songs master multi-tracks and produce their own version of the song.
All popular audiences engage in varying degrees of semiotic productivity, producing meanings and pleasures that pertain to their social situation out of the products of the culture industries. (Fiske, 1992 ed., p. 30) This can be in the form of texts, artwork, blogs, industrial design, web pages, fan clubs, forums, RSS feeds (an online news distribution format) and so on. Fiske argues that fan-produced pop-culture can be divided into three different categories of production: Semiotic, enunciative and textual. (1992 ed., p. 37) In the case of reading lyrics, fans are able to apply such semiotic behaviour to the text as they often derive personal meaning and interpretation, which Fiske describes as consisting “of the making of meanings of social identity and of social experience from the semiotic resources…” (1992 ed., p. 37) In other words, fans come to different conclusions based on their social experiences. However, Internet culture allows this semiotic behaviour to become more enunciative with the accessibility of online communities and interaction. On a Bloc Party forum, fans discussed the possible meanings behind each song. While one poster identified the song Waiting for the 7:18 as about “our home country and its greatness,” another poster understood it as “the endless travelling they’ve (the band) been doing.” Furthermore, yet another poster disagreed, commenting that the possible meaning is “about people getting sucked into their jobs, and don’t have any free time anymore because of their routines.” (2007, online) In the case of enunciative activity, where meanings made are spoken and shared within a public forum using the semiotic system, fan talk is the generation and circulation of certain meanings of the object of fandom within a local community. (Fiske, 1992 ed., p. 37) But, although talk is important, it is not the only means of enunciation available, which is where the Internet – to a degree – becomes irrelevant; the styling of hair or make-up, the choice of clothes or accessories and so on, are ways of constructing a social identity and therefore asserting ones membership of a particular fan community. (Fiske, 1992 ed., p. 37) One of the most dominant forms of enunciative activity in this regard is with heavy metal fans. The clothing associated with heavy metal, not to mention the long hairstyles, have strong roots in the rocker/biker subcultures, which include leather jackets; hi-top basketball shoes; motorcycle or combat boots; blue or black jeans; flannel shirts or vests; and denim jackets or vests often adorned with badges, pins and patches of their favourite bands. (Wikipedia, 2007, online) YouTube represents a site where amateur curators assess the value of commercial content and re-present it for various niche communities of consumers. YouTube participants respond to the endless flow and multiple channels of mass media by making selections, choosing meaningful moments, which then get added to a shared archive. Increasingly, we are finding clips that gain greater visibility through YouTube than they achieved via the broadcast and cable channels from which they originated. (Jenkins, 2007, online) A simple search of ones favourite band will display pages upon pages of a mixture of fan-driven content ranging from raw concert footage, exclusive footage from hard-to-get collections, video clips, interviews, fan made videos and so on. This multimedia platform, in a way, disadvantages the traditional collector in exclusivity as just about everything is shared in this multimedia marketplace.
Because modern life is alienated and atomised, fans develop loyalties to celebrities and sports teams to bask in reflected glory and attend rock concerts to feel an illusionary sense of community. (Fiske, 1992 ed., p. 19) With that, interaction with a band is an inevitable aspect of musician/fan life. Most fans come away from a show feeling uplifted by physically seeing and coming into (on most occasions) non-bodily contact with their favoured musicians; screaming out the name of a band member or singing along to the music and so on. Some bands even have slogans or hand gestures, which help encourage the audience to share in this participation. Though Fiske discusses that given the prolonged intimacy of para-social relations, it is not surprising that many members of the audience become dissatisfied and attempt to establish actual contact. (1992 ed., p. 16) “One would suppose that contact, and recognition by, the persona transfers some of his prestige and influence to the active fan.” (1992 ed., p. 16) These practices give the fan a sort of validation that the musician they seek to gain attention from will indeed recognise their efforts and in turn, produce some form of response to the audience. This can be in the form of a musician singling out an audience member, pulling a fan up on stage, or throwing items such as picks, broken instruments, water bottles and so on into the crowd. Before, after and (in some circumstances) even during the performance, the Internet offers a free voice for fans to express enunciative behaviour in this regard – their oral opinions of the event are produced through tour journals in forums. Fans are able to upload photographs of the night, pictures of what memorabilia they obtained, discuss their experience and so on. A platform such as this makes, as Johnson puts it, “a software architecture that allows for transposing the event into a book form to be read and digested at a later time.” (2003, online) This modern culture also offers a free voice for fans to express themselves, in theory, to band members themselves; like a modern version of the personalised star love letter. The online fan site Wearing These Chains, is a perfect example, as the author of the site regularly creates a “Dear Trent” (Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails) thread whereby fans can openly discuss to the musician concerns, queries or affection they may have for them in assuming the musician will read their posts. Though it’s rare that any musician would read such texts, the fans still actively contribute:
I love u so much! U looked so f***ing sexy in The Hand That Feeds i f***ing fell in love with you when u did Fragile live on stage, i watched u when u were wasted i’ve had that before my cousin filmed me when i was wasted. I love u so f***ing much, i’d die 4 u, never forget that.”
(Wearing These Chains, 2005, Online)
Another more unique example of free expression specific to a certain fan subculture is The Meathead Perspective whereby the single author comments on and satirizes the fan culture of Nine Inch Nails. An interesting medium, The Meathead Perspective not only critiques the subculture, but also contributes to it with flash cartoons – a different medium of fan fiction – whereby the author creates short fictional narratives of the band’s life. This, as Fiske would suggest, is textual production; the third category of fan production. Much like the website Wearing These Chains, the author of The Meathead Perspective produces and circulates these texts specifically amongst the Nine Inch Nails community in a more narrowcast form of production as outlined by the way textual production is formed. (Fiske, 1992 ed., p. 37) But why constrict the subject text to just one band especially as the author’s hard work will never be a financial gain? Fan texts, Fiske points out, aren’t produced for profit; they don’t need to be mass-marketed, so unlike ‘official culture,’ fans make no attempt to circulate its texts outside its own community. (1992 ed., p. 37)
The Internet has helped to give both fans and bands more access to one another through the use of online multimedia. Though there is still the question of whether or not fans, while more visible online, really do have more access, not to mention, if having more of this access is better for fandom? When it comes down to it, when looking at Fiske’s statement that “many members of the audience become dissatisfied and attempt to establish actual contact” (1992 ed., p. 16) it appears that the ultimate goal of fandom is to encounter the idol and often the fantasy of establishing some kind of a real, physical contact relationship is ever present. Fans, it is evident, have more access to multimedia but they still have the same access to the band members themselves, as they are not physically engaging with band members outside of the performance environment. A more practical example, Nine Inch Nails band members engaged in a live chat platform in order for fans to “interact”. In actual fact, the “live chat” was actually a simulated reproduction of the real thing, in that fans could not directly “chat” to the band, but instead, submit questions similarly to submitting a comment on a forum, wherein, a governing body would choose suitable questions for band members to answer – if members chose to answer them. While it is understandable the reasons behind these measures due to the number of participants, it still contributes to the case that fans still do not have more access in terms of face-to-face contact. Both fans and bands are more clearly visible to each other online as vast amounts of content and production pour from each computer. However, the communication itself is still somewhat marred. Bands do contribute to the discussion through blogs, photos, videos etc and fans interact and draw in semiotic activity with this contribution. However, the same cannot be said in reverse form, as most bands do not engage in fan production and contribution online, thus no cohesive relationship is forged other than through intricate online barriers. With more productive media access being granted to online fans, the increase of availability and ease of accessing information via the Internet does have its concerns mainly to do with privacy. What’s to say that a fan couldn’t find the home address of their idol and upload the information around the world within seconds? Just like all fan cultures, it is an ever-changing platform.
References and Bibliography
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Led-Zeppelin Forum, 2007, Why 55-65yr Olds Wanna Go to the O2, Accessed 25th October 2007, from:
Lewis, L.A., ed, 1992, The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, London; New York: Routledge
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