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Why A Music Social Network Won't Succeed – Less Fan Interest Than We Imagine [INTERVIEW]

Dre Recently, I spoke with Kevin Leflar, who is the Founder, President and CEO of officialCOMMUNITY, a leader in creating commercialized online communities for established recording artists. In this interview, Leflar talks about how shortening of fame cycles and the challenges in monetizing viral activity.

Hypebot: How has the shortening of fame cycles affected the ability of online communities to mature?

Kevin Leflar: The short answer is that shorter fame cycles don't allow for social cohesion to occur around the artist/brand. The nascent interactions around the briefly famous don't coalesce into anything enduring. The potential community member just moves on to the next titillation.

The longer answer to your question depends greatly upon the definition of community. Community has come to mean a lot of different things to different people over the past ten years – in the same way the word "server" came to mean many different things in the decade prior.

Community is…

I define a community as a group that is comprised of individuals that:

  • share at least one common interest;
  • voluntarily participate in expressing that shared interest in some way, and;
  • share in the same "place";
  • during the same span of time – usually in a sustained manor.

The number of people that visibly participate in an online community is often the tip of the iceberg with respect to both size and orientation of the total membership. Many community members are very mentally engaged by lurking and could/will participate under some conditions.

What Community in my view is not…

Participants in the flash mob type of activity that surround brief spikes of fame or notoriety may not meet the above burden of being a community at all (unless the interaction is happening in an established community that is based on discussion of current events). Tweets and commenting around temporal issues or fame are a part of the greater web and a record of history of a moment in time. The content created can be important and is relevant to the community that exists. By themselves, the posts and interactions are not an indication of membership in or existence of a community.

Consider simultaneous attention in our current mass-market environment analogous to the complex, fast moving surface of the boiling water in a pot full of spaghetti. Heat rises. The surface represents what the public is paying attention to at any given moment. The hottest is propelled up to the surface where it instantly cools and sinks below the surface very quickly. Some particles from the spaghetti stick together on the surface and get bigger (fame), but most don't. While there is a lot going on below the surface and many particles will reach the surface, few will stay there.

The "attention based economy" is technologically enabling ADD for the increasingly fractured mainstream.

Fame was always transient. In 2011, it would seem that Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame for everyone has been reduced to about two minutes of fame for some few.

Hypebot: Would you argue that many artists aren't prepared nor do they have the knowledgebase to effectively monetize flash mob activity in the event that content of theirs does go viral?

Kevin Leflar: I am not aware of any example of an artist that has been able to monetize unexpected brief viral attention by being ready for it - beyond the accepting of offers that come from the attention. (example: recently the video of a homeless man with a fantastic radio voice in Ohio was featured on local news. The video was posted to YouTube and went viral. The homeless man has monetized the attention by accepting job offers).

Novel things that inspire us to share with our friends go viral… which means it is unlikely that someone will be able to repeat a formula that produced something viral and have it work a second time. As such, the artist can't know if they are releasing something that will go viral until it does. This makes preparation difficult.

When a marketing campaign for a company goes viral then the attention it creates for the company is paying off as it did for Burger King with the Subservient Chicken.

This is one of the first campaigns that I can recall going viral.

An artist that writes songs hopes to write a career breaking smash. The most important aspect of viral attention that can come from a career breaking smash is that it will open the door with the audience to other songs from this artist. If there are four or five other great songs ready to go then the initial hit can launch a career.

As it was with the record company model, a string of hits is what gives a new pop artist the potential for brand recognition with their audience and the foundation for a career. The artist's audience is more likely to come across and pay attention to an artist's second song if they liked their first song. If the second song doesn't resonate then the artist is more likely to become a one hit wonder.

There is nothing particularly new created by the manner in which the audience discovers the song (radio vs. viral sharing). The artist can only control the timing of the initial release and make sure that it is in the places that it can be discovered. Once music is released then it takes on a life of its own. Viral sharing will occur very shortly after discovery if it is going to happen at all.

Being ready to respond to notoriety created by a hit song as musician means having the ability to tour, perform, interview and photograph well and make the foundation of a career. It means coordinating efforts with a business infrastructure (manager, agent, publicist) to license the music into TV, movies and compilations and make the most of the moment and hope that it sticks. Most of the business infrastructure comes to the artist once the hit happens.

It is worth noting that if an artist has extraordinary charisma then a hit song could open the door to some other avenue of performance with or without a string of hits (Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, etc.).

Hypebot: In what ways have global fan communities redefined our traditional notions of music culture?

Kevin Leflar: Global communities of interest empowered by technology have a much greater chance of becoming self-sustaining. Traditional music culture has been technologically enabled and gone viral and global. This likely means that a number of things that wouldn't have happen 10+ years ago, have happened.

It may also mean that things that would have happened 10+ years ago will not happen. Fair to say that listening to and discovering music looks a lot different than it used to look.

The Internet has had the same impact on all information and content. Limited only by access to an internet connection and an appropriate device, everything is available everywhere all the time. That means that more people are the potential audience/fan/critic/detractor. Distribution is seamless and cost effective.

The other side of ubiquitous distribution is that everyone with an internet connection is now overwhelmed with the volume of accessible content. As a result, the traditional gatekeepers are gone and the mass of niches is replacing the mass media. There are a lot of people and brands that are positioned as tastemakers… and in addition we also have increased access to what our friends' tastes are – no matter where they may live.

There is no possibility to read, hear or see it all. Advertising has been the only revenue stream for all mass media where the advertising rates that they can charge are based on audience size. As the audience continues to fragment, the value of any one channel has diminished. By contrast, the value of word of mouth is much higher than it used to be because it is enabled by technology.

Twenty years ago, local scenes would grow and become national when mass media tuned in to it. Think Seattle in the early 1990's inspiring the "alternative" rock movement. Local musicians forming different bands, breaking up and forming different bands created a new sound. The local scene influence manifested as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden that defined many years of alternative mainstream music.

While geography may still play an important role in defining a scene… there are many other kinds of scenes that do not.

Hypebot: Put differently, the fracturing of the media landscape has caused the audience for recorded music and art of all forms to scatter. Do you see potential for a true music community – social network – to emerge?

Kevin Leflar: Online community participation is driven by a very small minority of the overall number of fans.

With respect to music in particular it is important to remember that the majority of fans are passionate only about the music. Listening to their favorite music may be an entirely personal experience for some. They don't care what other people think about the music they listen to any more than they wish to share their own experience with it.

A majority of fans that spend time, energy and money consuming music aren't really that interested in the artist that created the music. The likelihood goes up that the music fan will become more interested in the artist if the same artist produces a number of songs that impact them. At that point they may investigate to see what is online or buy a ticket to a concert.

As we sit at the beginning of 2011 with Goldman Sachs having just invested $500M into facebook at a $50B valuation, it seems that facebook will likely continue to own the social networking space for some time in the way that Google has owned search. There are and will be other social networking communities outside of facebook which will be about music. It is also true that some number of companies will also use facebook as a platform to launch music community tools.

Communities are always groups of groups. If you consider the definition of community loosely enough then you may consider the potential for a "true music community" to emerge around the platforms and tools that facilitate music specific content. I don't think that a community by this loose definition would represent anything that would feel like a shift in behavior or become the definition of a new music industry - so perhaps the most direct answer to your question is "no".

I do expect facilitated fragmentation to result in a variety of different types and sizes of groups that will engage in sharing their passion for many things including music. As is always the case the distribution of the audience will be lumpy, volatile and complex - and each community will eventually begin to stabilize or burn out and reform as interest in the subject matter fluctuates.