Interview: Rich Huxley Of UK Band Hope And Social
making of our art, that only
serves to strengthen our bond, we're in this together us and our
fans, and they're the best PR team we've never paid for." – Rich
Recently, I spoke with Rich Huxley (@thehuxcapacitor), who is a member of popular UK band Hope and Social, and author of essays like Music Is Not Our Currency and Worrying About Monetizing Your Music is Holding You Back. In this interview, Huxley talks about the importance of creating musical experiences for his audience and why they actually have the potential to make fans happier.
Kyle Bylin: In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a variety of artists shift their business model from being product centric — things for the fan to buy and own — to one that’s more experience based. In the age of direct-to-fan marketing, artists have been looking for ways to create experiences that actively engage their fans outside of live concerts. In utilizing such experiences, artists have expanded their offering mix beyond possessions like records and t-shirts and have been trying to help create memories with their audiences.
At a time when everyone can now make, distribute and sell music, how have you differentiated yourself from the crowd and gave your audience something—beyond the music—that they can’t get elsewhere?
Rich Huxley: Well, for Hope and Social, we endeavor to make every show an experience. It's not just about playing the songs—that's just not enough. We feel like good people are an extension of the band, we want you to feel like you're part of our gang. So, as an extension of this, we like to involve people in our music and in our shows; for example, we'll give each audience member a kazoo and teach them one of the brass hooks to a song. Sometimes we'll invite people up onstage to play a kazoo solo onstage with the band, or to sing with us, that sort of thing.
We've run events where we've invited our fans further into our lives and our work and into our studio, to shows in the very lair that we've made our records in, and recorded our audience playing with us. There's a track on our latest album April called Eurospin which features 70 fans as a wine bottle orchestra. We recorded this song live at an event we called “Come Dine With Us” where we turned our studio into a bistro for the evening and fed, watered and waited on the people who came. Awesome fun and a great band/fan bonding experience to boot.
We ask our fans to star in our videos, to tweet their hometown for shout-outs in songs about the towns that Hope and Social are Marching On Through. We invite people to the mixing of our records(“Come Mix With Us”), even to some of the recording of our records (“Come Brass With Us” – see what we're doing here?) like in Let's Go Out Tonight (Also on April).
KB: Back in 2009, CNN published an article, which makes the contention that, in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions.
The reasoning is, in part, because when people purchase a new object — such as a computer — habituation causes the initial joy they that feel in acquiring it to slowly fade overtime, as they become accustomed to using it every day.
“Experiences,” Elizabeth Landau writes, “on the other hand, continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurred.”
How do the findings in the CNN article relate to your personal experience with putting on unique events for your audience to take part in? Do you feel that they are happier as a result?
RH: I think it's a valid point. It's certainly what I feel. Glastonbury makes me happy, even though I wasn't there this year, having had that experience makes me happy still. Also, experiences tie you in with the people you share them with. It's why bands can become such a close knit group within themselves, but also in terms of fan/band relationships, it gives people a reason to connect outside of the event. Our fans have conversations, meet-ups and transatlantic relationships outside of the band because they've shared a crypt gig or a Come Dine With Us experience.
KB: Music, while it is an experience good, suffers from a similar disparity. At first, when we hear a new album, the pleasure that we get out of hearing it isn’t as great. Our brains are still trying to predict what’s going to happen next in the song and recognize its core patterns. Once recognized, the pleasure that we get from the experience of the music goes up. We remember the words, the key rhythms of the guitars, and can anticipate when our favorite parts are coming up.
However, once we’ve overexposed ourselves to a song, the pleasure that we derive from the musical experience isn’t as great. The song has become too predictable. Therefore, the initial joy that we feel in possessing an album and hearing it; they both tend to slowly fade overtime, as we become habituated physical object and the patterns in the music experience.
As a fan, in what instances have you encountered this problem? And, as an artist, who is trying to relate to the needs of your audience, what have you done to overcome the habituation problem?
RH: Ah, the rise and fall of the great albums. Well, I don't see it as a problem per se; I think that albums should have a cycle. Just because we play an album to death then have a breather from it doesn't mean that the album is flawed; or that the medium is flawed. One's passion for a certain record needs to wane to allow space in your life for new music. Just because I don't listen to The White Album on repeat like I did when I was sixteen doesn't mean I don't love it, talk about it and hold it in high regard.
As an artist, the drop off for me is not the issue; it's the ramp between first play and regular play that I want to shorten. For Hope and Social, we try to make an album with a shape; a start, middle and an end.
I believe it's the old/big music industry that killed the album by seeking the next big hit not a great work of art. Its part of why we now exist in a singles driven era… the search that next big hit. For example, records like Gwen Stefani's (and I'm not criticizing Gwen Stefani here, I think she makes some awesome tunes) with three amazing singles but no resonance to the whole do not keep me going back for more. “Tusk”, “Revolver”, “Off The Wall”, “Worst Case Scenario” by dEUS, “For The Birds” by The Frames, Arcade Fire's albums… they all have a resonance for me.
KB: Now, it wouldn’t be anything new to argue that experiences, like live shows, continue to provide fans with happiness through memories long after the event occurred. The bonding with the friends they came with and the other members of the tribe, the feeling of screaming the words to their favorite song at the top of their lungs, and perhaps even catching a drumstick in a sea of people.
These are all memories that fans will reminisce and feel happy about, years after the concert is over. What’s interesting though is that as more artists try to create unique experiences for their audiences, they may actually make their fans feel happier and more connected them as a result. More so, than if a fan went out and bought the new album.
What are other instances that come to mind where an artist sought to create a unique experience for their fans outside of the concert hall and succeeded, in your opinion, in making their fans happier?
RH: I was thinking about this the other day actually. Gigs in unusual places always strike me as a great way to connect with people outside of standard concert venues. We toured with Embrace a while ago and they put on shows in forests across the UK. Those shows get talked about still after a number of years. It may be their crowning moment in my opinion.
The house concert is a great medium for creating happy people – it's still something rare enough for people to feel like they've been to a special event – they're sustainable economically, and they bind fans to bands and vice versa. There have also been some fantastic uses of social media – The twitter T-shirt stuff that Amanda Palmer did, people tweeting/Facbooking lyrics and commenting on songs a la Imogen Heap. They're all great things that involve people in the music more than passively listening/attending.
KB: The thing about shows in concert halls, as compared to your “Come Dine With Is” event, is that within the walls of a venue, the only sense of community that’s engendered into the audience lies in the fact that they are connected to each other, through something bigger than themselves. Sure, they are a tribe, but, the truth is that no one cares if “Jenny” isn’t there.
By contrast, in creating experiences for your fans and giving them opportunity to socialize with each other, what you’ve provided is an environment that actually reinforces their ties to each other, in a way that a concert hall cannot. If an audience member met some interesting fans at the last Hope and Social event, and they aren’t there the next time; they will be missed.
The reason that a fan shows up to an event then, it starts to transcend the market exchange and commits them to a social construct, one which carries implication that they will be missed if they don’t go.
How have the events that you’ve put on for your fans recontextualized the ties that they have to each other? Why is it important that not only do you create an experience outside the concert hall—where you give your fans the opportunity to socialize with each other—but that, where fans will also be missed if they don’t go?
RH: Well firstly I think that to a degree the ease of connection between people at our events is in part due to the size of the events. At a concert of say 1,500, it's less likely that individual fans will connect with others than in a temporary bistro in a studio. To take CDWU as an example, it's a very different thing to be stood next to (or worse for someone my height, behind) someone at a “normal” concert than to being sat next to someone eating a meal. That people are missed is, I suppose, an unintended consequence; though obviously for the band it may be better that people feel obliged to attend, I feel somehow uncomfortable at the thought of people feeling that they're letting others down by not attending.
When I've felt a tie with a band or an artist, I've always enjoyed going to concerts as part of a gang, as a bunch of mates. It's fairly primal I think, to share experiences with people you have things in common with.
KB: Lastly, in creating these events, potentially making your fans happier as a result, and engendering a true sense of community in their ranks, what you’re also doing is reconnecting fans to the material processes of arts creation and giving them the opportunity to exchange value directly—from them to you. Rather than having the transaction mediated by a multi-national corporation or web-interface, you actually are going direct to your fans and encouraging them to become more active participants in their cultural lives.
Why is it important to connect with real fans, in real places, and give them the opportunity to exchange real value directly with the artist? Why does giving fans the chance to invest in local culture and letting them see first-hand that their contributions matter—more than we know?
RH: Well first and foremost, it's good fun. Something Steve Lawson said at a music conference in Leeds which rings very true with me was “I consider it a great measure of success that the vast majority of people who come to my concerts are people I would happily share a meal with”. In the new landscape of the music industries, where music is as free as you want it to be, that all our connections are direct to and with our fans (facebook, twitter, our website, our store), we are much more likely to receive a meaningful monetary contribution from fans. People at shows have given us £20 for an item which costs £1.40 to make. People don't give us money because they can't hear our music for free, they give us money because they want us to have their money, they want us to make art. When we involve people in the making of our art, that only serves to strengthen our bond, we're in this together us and our fans, and they're the best PR team we've never paid for.