[iDC] Guidance on Fan Labor?

Nancy Baym nbaym at ku.edu
Tue Oct 2 14:21:39 UTC 2007

Hi all,

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: 
http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_8/baym/index.html  .

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 
their sites).

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
Blog: http://www.onlinefandom.com
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