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Beyond The Music: How Artists Create Communities

image from www.flickr.comGuest post by Richard Pulvino (@rpulvino) of sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

The word “community” is thrown around too loosely these days. Social media marketers work to convince fans that following an artist or band on Facebook or Twitter constitutes a commitment to becoming a member of their community. This is a fallacy, and a deceptive one by the marketers of the world.

There must be shared common values among community members to create a functioning one in its simplest form. This eliminates many artists and bands out there from saying they have a community, because purchasing an album and following someone on social network does not make a community. This delusion has transitioned away from the business world and found its way into art.

As companies must look beyond their products and services to create legitimate communities, so must music artists look beyond their own creations. The fans — casual or dedicated — must be active participants. Otherwise, the community stagnates, and all that’s left is the pulpit and the congregation — an audience that either receives the communications or disregards them without any input.

Most artists don’t create their work with the idea of building a community at the top of their minds. But their music still stands for something and that meaning is communicated to their audiences. Be it Minor Threat and its do-it-yourself ethos, The Grateful Dead and its idea of peace and freedom, or Lady Gaga and her messages of individuality and uniqueness — these values that the artists live by and promote act as seeds that their listeners can believe in and unite around.

With an absence of common values, there is only the product.

A Complementary Extension of the Music

Music artists should not hide behind their work. I say “should not” and not “cannot” because there are artists who succeed behind a veil of mystery where their music can speak for them. A majority of the time, however, there must be communication.

Whether that’s one-way through interviews in publications, or two-way through social channels — the artist must be vocal and expressive. A one-dimensional artist can create brilliant music and produce outstanding live performances, but simply doing that creates a fan-base, not necessarily a community. With the dissemination of the values through communication, artists subconsciously plant the seeds that sprout an evolved fan-base that begins to take on a life of its own.

As a result, tangible items may be created that aren’t directly tied to the music of the artist. Phish fans, for example, say that going to a show is an “experience.” There’s the music, the improvised jams, the lights, and the dancing. But then there’s the circus. There’s Shakedown Street, vendors, artists working in non-music mediums, friends and families that travel with each other from show to show throughout a tour — a living, breathing community. And it exists as a complementary extension of the music, not purely for the music. The idea of creating art, merchandise, or services that is born from the values of the community is what allows the most successful ones to survive, grow, and most importantly, evolve.

Ideas Are Rejected, But People Aren’t  

With values come opinions. With opinions come beliefs. With beliefs come human exchanges. And with human exchanges comes the marketplace of ideas. Within this marketplace, authentic, beneficial conversations and sharing takes place on a level that can rarely be replicated on a Facebook page.

Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters took on a meaning of their own that was born from both the artist’s music and her messages in interviews. Phantasy Tour sprung up from dedicated jam-band fans who embraced the associated lifestyle as much as the music. While vastly different, both of these communities thrive and evolve based on the values and idea exchange among its members.

Openness and tolerance must be present within the marketplace. This establishes strong social bonds among community members since they know that ideas may be rejected, but the people won’t be. Community managers help to create such an environment, as they act as cheerleaders and information gatekeepers. They also support community members, nurture ideas, and prompt conversations.

But in an ideal environment, a Laissez- faire approach tends to serve a community best. The manager can let the community evolve and function on its own, while occasionally stepping in to voice opinions, restart conversations, or perhaps act as a moderator.

Shared Labor Unites a Community

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Godspeed You! Black Emperor had an unorthodox metaphor for community related to auto repair shops that really hits home on what it takes from artists to create one — either at the micro level between band members, or macro with the fans. Here’s an excerpt:

Someone's hungover, someone's heartbroken, someone couldn't sleep last night, someone feels unappreciated, but all that matters is making it through the pile, the labour is shared and there's a perfect broken poetry to the hammering and yelling, the whine of the air compressor kicking to life every five minutes or so.

The shared labor idea brought up by the post-rockers is what community truly boils down to. There’s no one person who runs a community. One person may start it, but it takes a village. The values that community members share and the contributions made are what provide the opportunities to thrive. Without these, communities are audiences. And we’re left with the faux pas that companies and brands attempt to force on people. Music is the filet of all unifiers. But for the sake of the community, it only starts there.

Richard Pulvino is currently a PR and social media specialist for an integrated marketing communications agency in Rochester, NY. When he's not in the office, he can be found at shows, local record stores, or in coffee shops enveloped in as much music as possible. Image courtesy of whittlz on Flickr