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"The Ilicco Effect" – A case study in online music discovery.

February 24th, 2009 | 9 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

Steve Lawson, Ilicco and Whatleydude at the Nokia Open Lab by Phil CampbellFollowing on from what I was saying in the Tour round-up about playing to people who don’t get into solo bass, I thought I’d write up the story of a friend of mine who listens to a heck of a lot of me…

Ilicco is a someone I met at the Nokia Open Lab in Helsinki back in the summer. (I had, in fact, seen video online of him running around in a rabbit costume on Wandsworth Common, but we’d not met til Open Lab.)

Remember that I wasn’t playing music in Helsinki, I was there as a visiting blogger/mobile content provider, talking about mobile use for musicians. Ili and I hung out, chatted about the subjects at hand in the sessions at Open Lab, and got on great.

I’m not sure how long after we got back it was before he had a listen to some of my music, but it certainly wasn’t that he was looking for solo bassists, or ambient music, or any of the usual descriptors of my music.

No, he went to hear it because a) he knew me, b) knew I was ‘interesting’, c) had read other people in our lil’ social media world writing about having seen/heard me play.

So here’s what’s going on: I ticked three boxes:

  • contact
  • narrative
  • validation

The Contact is clearly about more than spam. I don’t consider myself to be in ‘contact’ with all the bands who ‘friend’ me on myspace. Contact is expressed in communication. We are all way more interested in what our friends are up to than we are what strangers are up to. We even recontextualise celebs as friends in our brain (ever had that feeling when you saw someone famous in the street, couldn’t quite place them, and thought you might’ve gone to school with them? that’s it.)

Just to be clear, the contact doesn’t even have to be with you – your music can and will be passed on as part of someone else’s narrative. It’s just far more likely to happen if contact with you is possible somewhere along the chain. As an example, Ilicco’s girlfriend now has her iPod stocked up with my tunes, and tweeted me to let me know how delighted she was to get the music. He gave her the music, but because I was so readily contactable, she dropped me a note to say thanks.

Narrative is all about having a story that connects – that story can be pretty much anything. My story includes geeky elements, political elements, literary elements… all of my public cultural and social DNA becomes part of my story, that people can feel some kind of shared affinity. That connection is strongest when people class you as a friend.

The Validation is also a key element. It’s the true value of reviews in mags etc. – they’re not, by and large, for people finding out about what you do, Reviews allow people who have heard you feeling OK about liking what you do. We’re pretty tribal when it comes to how we mark our territory, with music/films/books, and validation is a key component. No-one wants to make a ‘you know, I really like The Reynolds Girls type faux-pas, so having our taste validated is pretty key, especially when there’s no chance of passing it off as kitsch. Validation is mostly about our friends and community promoting the things they find that are ‘good’ (once again, I refer you to the online discover genius that is David Jennings, and this post about discovery.)

So with Ilicco, all those stages were ticked, and he discovered in my music a connection that he probably wasn’t expecting. The reason for this, and the importance of this lie in something I tweeted a little earlier:

People don’t enjoy music because of the style, but because of how it makes them feel. Style is just a search tool.

Musicians all too often get caught up in finding people who like their sort of music, ignoring the fact that most listeners are wide-open to discovering new kinds of music if it comes with context, best expressed in those three areas I listed before – contact, narrative, validation. Of course, there are people who go through this and still won’t like what you do, but that’s for them to decide, not you! Don’t pre-judge the limitations of other people’s listening habits. They’re likely to surprise you.

Further digging showed that Ilicco and I have a lot of shared musical taste. Bands we love, the music of our youth. All the things that influence the way I want music to feel will come out in my music when I get it right. He heard that, over and above any solo bass geekness that was of no lasting interest to him.

So, how can you start to connect with a new audience, an audience outside of those who will find you through descriptive keywords about what you do?

(the photo at the top is from the Nokia Open Lab, of ilicco, whatleydude and I, by the lovely Phil Campbell)

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Jennifer

    ::amused:: at Reynolds Girls ref –

    ::takes innocent tone:: But Steve… I do like that kind of cheesy pop! and I have a weakness for ordinary(ish)-looking people doing synchronised dance routines as they mime to their non-diva-esque highly-singalongable-with singing! esp if the lyrics are NOT along the lines of Ooh baby can’t live without you etc etc

    (though I have to admit I never bought that particular record… but still was grinning all the way through the video, esp the bit at the end where they dance past some unsuspecting person unlocking their front door, who gives barely a twitch of “oh. there’s some people dancing along my street.”)

    and now I have squandered part of my evening poking around on YouTube looking for better (fsvo “better”) examples of the genre :-)

    how about…
    Bananarama Nathan Jones
    The Jets Crush On You
    Mel and Kim Respectable

    All great tracks for dancing around the bedroom and singing along to!

    </shameless>

    ::pokes fun:: what was that you were saying about not prejudging people’s listening habits

    ::laughing away to myself here::

  • steve

    ha! Now there’s something I never thought I’d get – a response from a Reynolds Girls fan

    I’m with you on the other three you posted – all excellent examples of the genre.

    Sadly, the Reynolds Girls remain, in my estimation, interminably bad… Especially given that it’s a song all about slagging off other people’s music taste! Something about stones and glass houses comes to mind.

    Anyway, I’m off to listen to ‘Crush On You’ – thanks for the reminder. (Rain Or Shine by Five Star was a favourite of mine too 😉 )

  • Vikki

    I started studying again recently, and had a really interesting conversation with one of my tutors about the relevance of environment to how people feel about music.

    We discussed that often, when you go to a club or a gig with friends and feel absolutely no connection to the music, it’s likely that within an hour you’ll have settled into a ‘I can deal it’ frame of mind. Give it a little more time, and you’ll be dancing begrudgingly. And by the end of the night, you’ll have shaken off all of those preconceptions and be truly enjoying yourself.

    That’s why there are often random songs within people’s msuic collection. I don’t think my likes/dislikes fit nicely into one genre per say, but there are definitely ‘odd ones out’. And that’s all because I connect those songs with how I was feeling at a particular time/place :)

  • Jennifer

    Now there’s something I never thought I’d get – a response from a Reynolds Girls fan…

    ::grins::

    Because no-one in this day and age could possibly ever own up to liking them? Or just because the people who would like them wouldn’t be here? just curious.

    Anyway I have to say, it doesn’t quite feel right to say I’m “A Fan”. Which leads on to a whole other possibly-interesting kettle of fish, about what it is to “Be A Fan”. I was thinking about this as I walked to the post office this morning.

    I’m not sure I could define the boundaries exactly, but there are bands of which I would say I “Am A Fan” and other bands of which I wouldn’t actually say that. (even though I wouldn’t use the expression “I’m not a fan”, either, which I think has connotations of disapproval or dislike, rather than indifference.)

    When I think of bands/artists of which I would think of myself as “Being A Fan” – e.g. Pet Shop Boys, or Level 42, or Microgroove when they existed – there are things those bands have in common for me. One is, in most cases, I’ve made the effort to see them live. And another is that I know more than one or two tracks, and probably own a significant proportion (though not all) of their music. And for most of the songs I’ve got, I can sing along because I know the words and the sing-alongable riffs. And I might also have some background knowledge of who was in the band at different times and so on.

    There’s also some sense of a long-term interest, though it doesn’t necessarily have to imply a continuing interest in future. (The Cure and U2 and perhaps REM have all been in the “I’m a fan of” category for me in the past – in each case I’ve got all the early stuff, and seen them live – and yet I’m pretty much oblivious to anything they’ve done recently and haven’t played even their old records for a while, so perhaps my “fan status” has lapsed or gone into suspended animation or something.)

    Then there’s bands of which I’ve enjoyed their music, and possibly own some, and I would say “I like some of their stuff” or “I like them” – but somehow I’d stop short of labelling myself “A Fan”.

    To be honest the Reynolds Girls don’t even come into that second category – they’re in a category of interest even more passing and uncommitted, of which the true thing to say is that I got some genuine enjoyment from watching that video.

    I think “Being A Fan” does get into the territory of self-identity that you were alluding to above. I don’t think “what music I’m a fan of” plays a strong part in my identity in comparison to other factors, but I know it does more so for some people – sometimes quite overtly, e.g. their screen name being something to do with their fave band, or them writing to a teen magazine and signing themselves “____ fan”.

    I think the thing relevant here which is more central to my identity is the “shameless” thing – that I refuse to be part of that “Some music is embarrassing to be a fan of” thing. Which you were clearly alluding to even though I don’t get the impression that you really share it yourself. This is the factor which meant that even my passing enjoyment of the RG track was enough to provoke me into replying here. See what I mean?

    Especially given that it’s a song all about slagging off other people’s music taste!

    No, but it isn’t though! The theme is them not liking all that other music. I think the only bit that arguably skates into slagging off other people’s taste is the phrase “out of date”. Some music is older and some is more recent, but that’s not the same as being “out of date”, so that line is a bit dodgy I’ll agree. But the rest is “We don’t like this, that or the other, and our favourite music isn’t getting radio play”.

    Of course it may well be that that sentiment was put in their mouths by Pete Waterman anyway. And I think that’s the track’s main failing for me – that even if it’s based on something they did really say at some point, I can’t believe in the song itself as their “voice”. To me it does sound more like Pete Waterman talking. Can’t believe they would have said “Demographic” – amusing though I find it to have that word in a pop song :-) It’s at odds with the whole “girl next door” thing they’ve got going on.

    Whereas e.g. the Mel and Kim one, even though as far as I know they didn’t write the song, it still sounds like they might have said all those words. (I’ve got a vague memory actually of Pete W saying it was mostly based on things they’d said. I read his autobiog one time so it might have been in that.)

    Five star, yes! Another in my “Have liked some” category. I nearly posted a link to “Love take over” here the other day – but then decided there wasn’t enough synchronised dancing in the video to qualify :-)

  • steve

    Vikki – thanks, great comments.
    “And that’s all because I connect those songs with how I was feeling at a particular time/place” – is pretty much the crux of the issue. We’re all soundtracking our lives, and it’s rare that one style of music does that effectively for more than a few months…

    Jennifer – I LOVE that we’re discussion the etymology of fandom via the medium of the Reynolds Girls. :) You so rule..!

    Why not here? just because it always struck me as a pretty poor example of the genre, and not one that anyone would’ve hung onto as a treasured 80s pop memory – the ones you listed were far better examples of what was cool about disposable pop in the latter half of the 80s.

    As for the ‘I’m a fan, but aren’t interested in what they do now, or their new work’ – I think that’s a really key area for this discussion – there’s a point where bands go beyond being bands and their music becomes a part of the fabric of our life. Such that we don’t need to listen to them for it to be there. Like relatives we don’t see, they’re still a part of what goes on, albeit in a latent, distant way.

    As a teen, I was obsessed with The Alarm – have almost everything they ever did on vinyl. These days, I could do a pretty good ‘reasons why this sucks’ essay on a lot of their output, but I still get a warm feeling if a track comes on the radio, and smile if I ever see some aging rocker in an ‘Eye Of The Hurricane’ t-shirt on the tube :) Am I a fan? probably not. Are they a part of who I am, of my story? very much so.

    These are really really fascinating discussions for those of us who are thinking about what it is that people connect with in our music. Both from the point of view of how we connect, how people find us, and how much of our teen musical adventures were driven by a series of rock ‘n’ roll myths/lies/deceptions that we were happy to be complicit in then because they were the stuff of our dreams, but that I have no interest in trying to recreate for my audience (especially given how much money it cost to sustain those myths!)

    Jennifer, I LOVE having you post here. Hope we get to meet up again soon. :)

  • Mark

    Steve,

    I thought this was a great post and I love your ‘contact, narrative, validation’ model but wonder whether you under-estimate the influence of ‘style’, especially for the young.

    I don’t listen to much music these days but I did when I was a teenager and unless my memory is playing tricks with me at that time of my life style was everything and certainly not just a search tool.

    As I remember it, you were regarded as hopelessly out of touch if seen with progressive rock albums from ‘stadium bands’ rather than newer music from punk/new wave bands.

    From what I can gather this is also how it is for my 17-year-old daughter, at least in her public persona. Shared musical tastes seem to be as important a part of the dynamics of her friendship group as they were for mine.

    Privately, she does, however, make use of social media and my clumsy remarks about how derivative her favoured bands are to work out where our musical tastes overlap and then nicks the relevant CDs from my dwindling collection (but the vinyl is so far intact) .

  • steve

    Mark,

    great points. My intention, I guess, wasn’t to underplay it, so much as to highlight that style is a) not everything, even to the people to whom it is a ‘something’, and b) to a lot of people, just an easy way of filtering out what they don’t like.

    Most teens I know use style as a tribal motif, rather than as a concept of musical exclusivity. They have music that is part of their tribe, and music that is just music, not really to be talked about or worn as a badge of honour…

    I also, as I hope comes across in the entirety of my writing, seek to find the ways in which social media practices can make us better producers and appreciators of art, so there’s often a strand of idealism woven into the narrative. Ilicco’s story is one that I’ve found repeated in a lot of people, often in not quite such a stark way, but models a whole other way to classify what we do, as well as the stylistic labels that will always be applied :)

    Does that make any sense? Please let me know if not, I have been known to waffle… 😉

  • Mark

    Steve, that’s crystal clear and I see what you’ve done now — provoked me with your sweeping ‘style is just a search tool’ line and now drawn me into reading your back catalogue. :)

  • Peter Wyeth

    To paraphrase Everett True – ‘there is no such thing as bad music, all music requires is context’ .
    It’s both a good and a bad thing but is true (to differing degrees) none the less.

    (Just read ths after you tweeting about it)