- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

The revolution will in fact be televised. And blogged. And web-cammed. And MySpaced.

Every now and then comes a story that leads me to believe the hype over Web 2.0 isn’t so much hot (virtual?) air.

New York Times Magazine contributor Clive Thompson has an insanely fascinating story about a small but growing niche of indie musicians who have built an audience for themselves through personal and social-networking websites - and created a mountain of clerical work in the bargain. (Do check out the video that accompanies the story too.)

The unintended consequence of Web-driven popularity is that fans expect an unprecedented amount of personal interaction online. Thompson notes, of course, that stars like Justin Timberlake and Beyonce maintain the kind of old-school popularity that allows one to bask in waves of anonymous, impersonal adoration. But B-list artists, as Thompson calls them, must answer email, consider fans’ career advice — and, in some vague, 21st-century sense, be their friends.

This is new.

It’s been a long time in coming, in a way. As soon as bands like U2 installed webcams in their studios and the Rolling Stones took online requests for one slot of their setlist, it stood to reason that fans would want more and more intimate involvement with their favorite rock stars. Now, thanks to Thompson, we see that it’s the second- and third-tier artists who are bearing the brunt of these innovations — for the simple reason that, like Thompson’s lead subject, Jonathan Coulton, exist somewhat at the pleasure of these very intense online communities.

One positive effect of this phenomenon is that it allows singer-songwriters like Coulton to play to a decent amount of people on tour, as opposed to shagging the coastlines and playing in half-empty urban coffeehouses. Thompson notes that Coulton’s touring schedule is a series of surgical strikes: He’ll play obscure little towns — because he knows, in advance (thanks to his web interaction), where a hundred or more people will gather in his name.

If a pile of pesky emails is the downside of all this, it seems to me like a tolerable trade-off.

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