I wrote last year about Swarmteams cross-platform messaging service, and its application for coordinating networks of fans. Swarmteams is running a pilot project for the music industry this year, supported by NESTA, and going under the name of SwarmTribes®.
For many musicians, getting the first 10 or 20 dedicated fans is easy enough — but when it comes to multiplying this number things become more difficult. If and when their fan base does increase, they're faced with the challenges of managing it.
Musicians need a communication system to interact with their fans, which is adaptable and instantly reactive. They need to engage with their fans, using a means of communication that can be scaled up. This is where Swarmteams can help.
I'm pleased to say that I'll be working alongside Swarmteams as researcher, reporter and evaluator for the project (also funded by NESTA, but as an independent project). And I'm looking forward to working with Nancy Baym of University of Kansas and her colleague Ryan Milner.
The core of the Swarmteams concept is the combination of a "back to nature" communication patterns and the latest cross-platform messaging technologies.
Swarmteams founder Ken Thompson has researched biological/ecological perspectives on team organisation and coordination (laid out in his Bioteams book). Then Swarmteams have designed a communications system around this, combining SMS text messaging, email, instant messaging and RSS.
Starting with those 10 or 20 dedicated fans, bands and artists can use the techniques and technology first to build a broader base of fans and then to motivate and coordinate these fans around gigs, releases and special events.
Consider this quote from a talk on the music industry by marketing guru Seth Godin:
I have every record Ricky Lee Jones has ever made including the boot legs that she sells. Ricky Lee Jones should know who I am! (laughter) I have bought many of them (pause) well her agents, her people [should know who I am]. I’ve bought many of them directly from her site. I desperately want Ricky Lee to drop me a note telling me when she is going to be in town. I want her to ask me, "should I do a duets album with Willie Nelson, or should I do one with Bruce Springsteen?". I want to have these interactions. And I want her to say, "I'm making another bootleg, but not until I get 10,000 people to buy it as patrons before I make it". Because I'd sign up. I’d buy five if it would help.
It's this kind of interaction that the swarming platform can enable. And in the Swarmteams language, Seth would be one of Ricky Lee's 'alpha' fans, possibly with a role in passing on messages to other fans he knows, whom he has recruited to a 'swarm'.
Another recent reference point is Kevin Kelly's "Thousand True Fans" conjecture:
A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author — in other words, anyone producing works of art — needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living. A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name…
But Kevin Kelly sees all these thousand people as separate individuals, talking of recruiting one fan a day for three years and then, "The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans". That's not the way Swarmteams approaches the problem. Instead, the swarming model sees the fans as a collective (think as well of Mark Earls' Herd). This means that bands and artists can in theory share the strain of recruiting those 1,000 fans, hopefully do it much quicker, and also maintain a sense of intimate and direct contact without having to manage 1,000 relationships directly.
My job over the next months will be to test how well this theory works in practice. Beyond that, I'm interested in how the model might be adopted in other parts of the music industry ecology, such as independent gig and festival promoters, or unofficial fan communities. My work has its own project wiki.
SwarmTribes will be represented at the Association of Independent Music's Music Connected 2008 event on 28 April. I'll be there, too, recording some interviews and reactions to the concept, hopefully for a future podcast. Please come and say hello. Alternatively, if you're a band, an artist or a manager, you can sign up for the pilot directly.