Music Ally’s Stuart Dredge reports on today’s final headline session, with Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, and Gina Bianchini of Ning. See you tomorrow!
How has social media changed the relationship between bands and their fans? Fall Out Boy Pete Wentz (centre) appeared in the final session of day one of MidemNet, sharing the stage with Ning CEO Gina Bianchini (left) to talk about the issues around it. Billboard’s Mark Sutherland (right) moderated.
Ning has created more than two million social networks for artists, but also for charities, activists and other organisations – it’s a DIY social network platform. Music has been hugely important for it, she said, with more than 40 million registered users (i.e. people using those two million Ning networks).
Wentz is one of those Ning networks. How has it changed his interaction with fans? “When you’re first starting out as a band, we would use any avenue to reach people that we could,” he said. “We were using blogs from the beginning, but as more technologies came out and we had more fans, we wanted to find a way to have a more intimate relationship with them. But it’s hard to do.”
How does he decide which platforms to use, and which he doesn’t – and does he ever wish he was back in the 70s, when bands only had to focus on making records and taking drugs (interviewer Mark Sutherland’s words, not mine, I should stress…)
“The truth is, in our age as globalised as we are, you do need to interact with your fans. They expect that of you.” However, Wentz also described social media as “a closet door” that artists can choose how wide to open – they don’t have to share their entire lives if they don’t want to.
Bianchini said it’s vital for artists to be “authentic” when using social media – if they’re not, “people smell it a mile away”. She thinks there’s going to be an even higher premium placed on artists who are really blogging or tweeting in the future, versus their entourage doing it for them. “Other people do that?!” interjected Wentz at this point.
But Bianchini’s point was that fans don’t just want to have “transactional” stuff pushed at them – they want to be a part of the music and artists that they love. “Fundamentally it’s a decision: are you gonna do it or not?” she said, stressing that the choice of which platforms to do it with is secondary to that.
“People are not really interested in just being pointed to iTunes,” added Wentz.
But can these social networks also be used to make money without alienating fans? Bianchini said yes. “Especially for an artist that has a strong fanbase, and has a career as opposed to a single hit. A single hit will not get you social media technology staying power.”
She talked about 50 Cent’s This Is 50 network on Ning, which has evolved into a site about hip-hop culture, rather than just about 50 Cent. And that’s driven millions of people to visit it every month, and then making money by running ads, selling merchandise and so on – driving traffic in from his MySpace and Twitter presence where he can’t necessarily do that as easily.
“The hub and spoke” model, she calls it. With Facebook and Twitter as the spokes – which may not be how those companies would like to be seen, you might suspect.
Wentz talked about the way social media has changed the way he interacts with his fans. “I don’t think necessarily that people should get my art for free, but there’s different ways of earning that art,” he said. “Our goal was always to create a cohesive culture that would surround the band, and the bands that we have on our label as well.”
He thinks the more fans are interacting with the band and its community, the more they’ll be interested in – for example – coming to its shows. “It’s a good time to be in music, and a horrible time to be in music. A lot of things can go wrong, but it’s like the Wild West – as long as you’ve got a pistol and you’re ready to shoot somebody, you’re going to be okay!”
Bianchini added that when fans are genuinely engaged by an artist’s community, it by definition creates more page views and more time spent on the site – which of course is better for making money. But only when the network goes beyond just ‘I am a fan of this band’. “There are opportunities in terms of advertising dollars, but also premium features on the network” – those premium features being virtual item sales, or VIP sections of the site that fans pay to access.
Sutherland asked if bands are in danger of getting overloaded – will there always be new platforms that they have to support? Bianchini pointed to the way different social sites are focusing in on different experiences – Facebook is about connecting to people you already know, Twitter is great for news and real-time events, and then LinkedIn is about professional identities.
But Ning is different (she says) – it’s about “immersive worlds around people’s passions and interests”. She stresses that these different services are linking up – Ning lets its bands tweet from within Ning, with Facebook to be added soon. MySpace is – as Owen Van Natta said in the session before this one – focusing on helping bands to push content around the Web.
So in short, it may become easier for artists to manage this proliferation of social media, not harder. “It’ll be far less chaotic when we see some of these newer ideas applied in the right way,” agreed Wentz.