Last week, Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches sparked a massive debate on fan hatred, and more specifically, internet trolling and the dark sides of anonymity. But fan hatred rarely exists without a counterbalance of fan love, most of which is never fully expressed or appreciated. As publisher of Digital Music News, I feel very qualified to discuss online hatred, oftentimes from anonymous sources. But I typically find value in the hate and never delete negative comments. And part of the reason is that for every vitriolic hater, there’s an equally-passionate lover who thanks DMN for helping to inform and shape their business and even artistic decisions.
I’m not even sure one can exist without the other.
Which leads to a more important question: as an artist, are you disproportionally swayed and controlled by all the hate? In a surprising study released this week on social networking for musicians, a major takeaway was that the most powerful aspects of connectivity cannot be quantified at all. And the benefits of positive feedback can be enormous. The report, by Microsoft researcher and MIT visiting professor Nancy K. Baym, explores all the aspects of online data measurement, analysis, and economic importance. And it found that one positive email, post, or tweet can make all the difference in an artist’s life and creative trajectory.
The data that matters most for assessing social value may not be measurable at all. In talking with musicians, it is clear that the most significant assessments of their worth — even those that come through social media — will never lend themselves to counting. They are the stories that come in posts, e–mail messages, and private messages which, from a metadata perspective, look interchangeable with all the other messages in the pool. It is the communication that matters in these cases, not the metacommunication. [Mike] Timmins [of Cowboy Junkies] explains that most musicians get into music “because as fans they’d been deeply touched by music in some way or another, and usually by a handful of bands or musicians, and they have their own stories as fans.”
When someone tells you their story and how your music and what you’ve written or sung or played has deeply affected — it’s often extremely private and personal sections of their lives. It’s really amazing. It does validate the whole thing for you. You know, you go through periods where you think “What the hell am I doing this for, and who’s listening?” and then you only need one or two of those, and you go “Okay, well, right there that makes it — that’s worth it right there.”
I asked if some stories were more affirming than others.
Yeah. I mean, you know, there are those who — “This song was our first song at our wedding,” which is very fantastic and beautiful, and then there are those who, you know, “This is the album I listened to with my sister at her death bed,” that sort of thing.
The American rock musician David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, who tends to provoke political arguments with his Facebook fans, told me this story:
I just remember this one guy who used to always argue and then I just noticed he sends me a message directly and it’s about his mom is actually basically dying and her final request is this one Camper Van Beethoven song, Take Me Down to the Infirmary. […] I was kind of stunned and flattered that somebody would — basically the song that she wanted to hear on her deathbed and it was just wow, I — it never really occurred to me that our music could penetrate that far into someone’s emotional life or something like that.
These outstanding moments have deep social value but are invisible from a big data or metric perspective. These musicians build information systems that take them into account by treating some kinds of data as more important than other kinds of data.
A million followers may in some ways be less valuable than a single post.
These forms of value are not accounted for in economically motivated data analyses, and efforts to encapsulate them within the language of economics misses much of what reaching an audience means to a creator. In some ways it is trite to point out that metrics cannot capture the emotional value of art, or that the emotions art invokes are beyond commodification. Yet at the same time, it is art’s power to give voice to such affect that motivates creators to create and audiences to spend money on those creations. The economics of art cannot be understood without grappling with affect. Grappling with affect entails learning how to weigh some moments — moments that may not be visible from big data or metric perspectives — more heavily than the stream as a whole. Image by epSOS.de. The image and research used under Creative Commons licenses. Written while listening to HAIM.