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.

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  1. Great interview. There are some really interesting points made here. Rather than counter or disagree I’m gonna take some time to digest all these points. Good stuff!

  2. Me being and avid supporter of independent musicians and running an Internet Radio Station that only plays Independent Hip Hop Music…I seen and know alot of well known underground artists trying to create their own community on sites like ning and unfortunately they fail miserably. I think in this day and age of Information Overload a person is to fickle to give all his/her attention to just one artist like that and be an active member in a community. Just my 2 cents..

  3. I’ve been a member of various online communities since 1993. It’s always interesting to see how they form and what keeps them going. Generally people come together to discuss a certain idea. If there aren’t enough people, there’s not enough critical mass to keep the conversation going. If there are too many people, the conversations get bogged down and people either start leaving or they find ways to split off into smaller, most forcused groups.
    Facebook is interesting is that each friend page is a potential community built around that friend. And the people exchanging comments at each photo, link, status update, etc. are connected to the friend in different ways. So they come together to make a comment on a specific object, and then they disappear again into the bigger Facebook mass. So you see a lot of fluidity where people can drop in and drop out at whim.
    The big question is why we have the online and offline friends we do and what keeps us in contact with them. Often our friendships form because we are thrown together in school, at the office, or in the neighborhood and then we build up enough shared experiences to create a lasting friendship. That dynamic tends not to happen in the online world where we seek out each other because of shared interests and then part when we no longer share the interest.

  4. This article has made me happy and sad at the same time. Most well informed talk I’ve seen in a long time about the music industry now. I’ve been saying for quite a while that all these websites offering artists to connect with their fans and possibly make new ones is a waste of time! I’m an independent musician and there is no WAY I can keep up with it all and when I have, nothing much ever comes from it.
    At the moment I think there are really only three sites that should have time dedicated to with up to date info which are an artist’s own website, Facebook, and an industry gig/promotion/networking site (for me it’s Sonicbids). Every artist or band should obviously have a website as their main hub to represent themselves in all areas. Facebook being THE social network is obviously where any musician should be to keep up recognition of themselves and attract new fans. I use Sonicbids because it’s easy to use and update, but mostly because it links me to opportunities to advance my career (which can be done for
    free or at a price).
    Unless you’ve got the backing of a major label (which is getting harder and harder to accomplish) you won’t have the marketing to put your name and face everywhere on the planet and your going to be forced to market and handle these things yourself and there is only so much one can do.
    Free downloads of my album at http://www.chancius.com

  5. Thank you, Kevin Leflar, many times over, for this:
    “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.”
    I am so tired of the social media zealots forever pushing this idea that music is inherently “social.” It’s inherently social to someone selling a social media web site or application. (To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) But no, it’s what you’ve said: this is not how a majority of music fans experience music.
    I have rarely if ever seen any Web 2.0 pundit or entrepreneur state this so plainly. I hope this level of unclouded thinking is a new trend, both here on Hypebot and in the greater world.

  6. @Jeremy – I agree that Kevin makes a very important point there (regarding fans being passionate about the music, rather than the artist).
    I’ve always thought that the kind of “fans” spoken of in so many articles bear no resemblance to myself and the other music lovers I know. Most ardent music lovers I know love specific tracks or albums – and it’s rare that they love absolutely everything an artist has ever done. Even more rarely do they “hero worship” artists, and wouldn’t be that bothered about buying an artist’s merch.
    As Kevin says; “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.”
    For music lovers – rather than “fanatics” – it really is all about the MUSIC.

  7. I think decline of fandom is something music industry professionals are going to have to deal with, but don’t want to. A lot of the direct-to-fan concepts are based on the idea that there will be a community of fans who will buy whatever the artist is selling: merchandise, special events, etc. So we keep hearing: just give away the music, and then you can sell special packages that run from $15 to $10,000.
    I keep countering that as music is evolving, people are seeing themselves less as loyal fans who can be counted on to spend money on their musical idols, and more as participants in the whole process. That’s been a hard concept for a lot of music industry folks and musicians to grasp.
    The problem I have had with a lot of the “new music business models” is that they are a lot like the “old music business models,” just smaller. Everyone is being promised that they can be their own mini-music companies, where they will put out music and fans will come and buy something from them. There will be adoring “tribes” built around the musicians.
    But I’m not sure we can count on that, especially when you have millions of musicians all trying to do the same thing.

  8. Agree and disagree with a lot of this interview… I’ll only say that communities designed to push fame and sell wares will never succeed in the long run.
    Community resiliency comes from engagement, which generally comes from good fresh content. If a music community is designed to deliver constantly new content, it doesn’t matter how short the fame cycle is… only that the community continues to grow its numbers and expand its offering.

  9. The average listener is satisfied with simple, repetitive music.
    Computer technology now makes it extremely easy to create simple, repetitive music.
    Result: music that satisfies the average listener is falling upon us online in an absolute avalanche.
    There is more than anyone needs or wants. Hence it is free, and most is not noticed.

  10. “With respect to music in particular it is important to remember that the majority of fans are passionate only about the music.” I disagree with the notion that the average music fan does not care about the artist that creates the music they listen to. That is the definition of the word Fan short for fanatic. Pop music, which is in terms of money the biggest genre of music, is based solely on artist worship with the music somewhat secondary. So social media is a way that the average fan can connect with an artist on a level the fan is familiar with. Almost like the virtual backstage pass.

  11. apparently this guy never heard of therealtechn9ne.com shits been blowin up but then again tech isnt a one note joke like most artists these days lol

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