Chapter 3 ("Fans as Creators") of my book uses fan activities around Galaxie 500 as an example of the dynamics and evolution of a community of listeners. In particular I portray Andy Aldridge, who has played the central role in catalysing the community, as both a 'Savant' — one of the tier of super-fans (outlined here) — and an 'Originator' — one of the 1% of online community members who create original content off their own bat. [In the photo: Andy Aldridge (right) with Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500, Luna and Dean & Britta — used with permission, see original.]
I've been a member of the Galaxie 500 mailing list since 2000, but I'm very much in the 90% of 'lurker' members who just 'listen in' to the conversation without contributing. Since I moved to London four years ago, Andy and I have met at a few gigs (and Last.fm now lets us see each other's gig diaries), and he kindly spared me an hour or so over a drink in a West London pub last October, when I was writing the book. Below are my notes from that discussion.
Despite being prolific in documenting his favourite music, Andy is a quiet and undemonstrative fan. You can't imagine him holding up a lighter in a singalong at the end of a gig — even if he smoked, or went to gigs where they have singalongs. When we met to discuss the history of the Galaxie 500 fan community, he described a period of early adulthood when his passion for music was mostly a solitary endeavour, and he knew few people with whom he could discuss or share his interests.
But in 1994, Andy got access to some free web server space, and had the HTML skills to put together a site. Why create a site about Galaxie 500? "Somebody needed to do this, and no one else was," was how he described his reasoning. (Andy also runs a few other sites, such as that for Brian, though the Galaxie 500 one takes the lion's share of Andy's and visitors' attention.)
Over the intervening 13 years, the Head Full of Wishes site (named from a Galaxie 500 lyric) has grown to be the authoritative resource for the band, and all the 'descendent' bands such as Luna that its members have gone on to play in. No doubt this has drawn on Andy's professional skills in information management (his day job is in the BBC Archives), though I was taken aback to find that Andy's technical knowledge was all self-taught.
At first, however, the site comprised just a few pages, and Andy was quite surprised that he started to get a few emails about it. It was in 1995, Andy claims, that one of these emails suggested Andy set up an email listserver to allow fellow fans to communicate directly with each other. This character was allegedly called Jesus, giving Andy (an atheist) the justification that, "Jesus told me to do it."
The first message on the email list went to four people, but from there the list took off remarkably quickly. Andy talked of his own experience of the list as being like a kid in a candy shop: he's in his element when other list members are talking about music he's never heard of, so he gets the chance to discover music he wouldn't otherwise. In the book I suggest that the Savants and Originators in any community have a disproportionate influence on word-of-mouth recommendations, but I was interested to find that Andy also enjoys being on the receiving end of others' influence.
There's nothing formal about the organisation of the community that has grown around A Head Full of Wishes, no formal positions or responsibilities. Andy may be the lynchpin, but others also chip in with whatever contributions they wish to make. For a while a Dutch member operated an FTP server that hosted large volumes of bootleg recordings. Needless to say, such activities never had official sanction. Some band members have been known to subscribe to the email list (Britta Phillips, of Luna and Dean & Britta, often participates directly, answering fan questions) and are believed to consent tacitly — the views of other rights holders like publishers have not been sought.
Andy, self-effacing and shy to a fault, keeps at arm's length from the band members. It was only under pressure from other list members in 1997 that he first made contact with Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna, Dean & Britta). He has some amusing anecdotes about an awkward visit, involving a vinyl sofa, to Dean's apartment in New York, and an answering machine message from Dean that he has kept ever since. The early fruits of this contact included a 7" Luna single, Dear Paulina, which Andy put out in a limited edition of 500 copies aimed at members of the fan community, after Dean gave him the track (from the soundtrack of the film Thursday).
Only once has a band member asked for a small change to Andy's site, and they appear both happy with his many contributions and grateful for the ongoing interest of the wider fan community. They asked him to manage the official Galaxie 500 MySpace page: Andy agreed only reluctantly and after repeated entreaties, such is his contempt for MySpace in general. He also contributed a video from his collection of off-air recordings to the recent Galaxie 500 DVD release. It was, said Andy, "nice to feel wanted".
Like any community the Head Full of Wishes/Galaxie 500 email list goes through ebbs and flows. Many members rallied round when the Twin Towers fell, since it was known that one of their number worked in the World Trade Center — happily he checked in safe and well a few days later. It's not just chat and bootlegs that the community exchanges either. They recorded and distributed their own Galaxie 500 tribute album, and also researched the feasibility of producing a privately distributed vinyl release of a CD-only album. Andy admitted that the anarchy of the community does not always serve them well in circumstances like this: he blames himself for the tribute project taking two years to realise and being less ambitious than originally conceived, while the vinyl release, he says, needed someone to take it by the scruff of the neck.
At one point the list members clubbed together to make donations to Andy to fund his flight to New York to see Luna's farewell gigs, in recompense both for his sustained anchor role in the community and the bandwidth and technology costs that he bears out of his own pocket. In the event, the Boxing Day Tsunami struck between the raising of the funds and the gigs, so Andy insisted on donating the money to the relief campaign instead.
Twelve years is a long time for an online community held together solely by an email list. Starting from four members, it peaked at around 600, and now hovers around the 400 mark. Andy points out that, on the one hand, it remains a vibrant and useful forum, but on the other 400 is only a tiny percentage of the audience for Galaxie 500 or Luna, who typically played to a higher number of people in each city they visited. Typically around 30-40 members of the list are 'active' (i.e. not lurkers like me) at any time — at 10%, this is exactly in line with proportions observed elsewhere (see Bradley Horowitz and Jakob Nielsen on this point).
One of the signs that this is a robust community is that, apart from Andy, none of the people who are active in list discussions now were active in 1995/96 when the list first came to life. However, the spirit and character of discussions — and the norms of what is considered acceptable behaviour — have remained remarkably consistent over the years notwithstanding the change in the 'voices'… And a recent discussion of the 'old days' on the list brought some of the old guard out of the woodwork, demonstrating that they hadn't left even if they had become less active over the years.
Since I interviewed Andy, he has been extending the Head Full of Wishes 'brand' (almost certainly not a term he'd use) into other social networks including Last.fm and Flickr. This shows further the role that Originators can have in bringing coherence to the mass of scattered material that is generated by individual fans, and in creating value for fellow fans and for the bands alike.