[iDC] Guidance on Fan Labor?
nbaym at ku.edu
Tue Oct 2 14:21:39 UTC 2007
Many on this list seem to be interested in issues of the unpaid labor
that internet users do. I am working on a project in which I have to
say some things about this, but labor is far from my own areas of
expertise (those would be fandom, online community, relationship
formation and maintenance, online language use) and I tend to get
lost and/or overwhelmed when the topic arises on this list. I am
going to throw out a brief description of the project and am hoping
that some of you will be able to offer some insights into these
issues that might help guide my analysis. I know the theory and
exemplars are out there, but I don't know where to begin.
I am looking at the relationships amongst independent music labels,
musicians, and very active online fans in the Swedish music scene.
I've written a paper describing how this scene is organized across
multiple international online sites and geographic locations called
"The New Shape of Online Community" which is available here:
What draws me to this topic (aside from the excellent pop songs) is
the phenomenon where (unpaid) fans, most of whom are not in Sweden,
are serving as publicists for the music, and doing a really good job
of getting it out of Sweden and into international ears. These labels
are selling most of their CDs outside of Sweden with minimal
marketing abroad (though they do make heavy use of MySpace and in
some cases license the recordings to international indie labels).
These fans do things like write English language mp3 blogs and run
Swedish-music-only club nights in places like London, Glasgow, Madrid
and Washington which barely break even. Some act as volunteer booking
agents, managing tours for these bands in their own countries.
There's a tiny bit of money to be made for the most successful of
them, but none is in it for that reason, and very few are doing
anything that has potential to bring in money (like placing ads on
Now, no one is really making substantial money on this scene, so it
is not a case where user labor is lining the pockets of others. It's
a labor of love for everyone involved -- most of the musicians and
label people either have day jobs or are poor. However, there are
still issues of potential exploitation (e.g. I interviewed someone
who was responsible for consciously and strategically manufacturing
the buzz that got an unknown band international record contracts,
financially benefiting the labels and the band but not himself). I am
trying to make sense of what motivates the fans to do this, and how
the labels and musicians make sense of what these fans are doing.
I'm also intrigued by the shifting power dynamic in which fans are
the tastemakers and filters rather than the labels and traditional
media (in this case radio and music magazines). I might add that I do
a bit of this myself on a small scale, in that I write reviews for
one of the mp3 blogs about which I'm writing.
I'm hoping that someone can point me to some smart ways or resources
to theorize the free-labor dimensions of what I'm getting at above.
Nancy Baym http://www.ku.edu/home/nbaym
Communication Studies, University of Kansas
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