Article by Jo Whitby
Photographs from: http://www.sxc.hu/
As part of my Media Studies degree over the past three months I’ve been studying and analyzing the fans of IAMX. The brief was simple for the essay: do the fans of IAMX fit the theories and concepts surrounding fandom and subculture? Well, they do and at the same time they don’t. I’ll spare you the academic blah blah; ultimately it’s just a lot of people suggesting and arguing about the same thing and being nitpicky about ‘terms’ and ‘labels’. Honestly, people have too much time on their hands in academia.
What is the point of this article, I hear you ask? I wasn’t able to express my personal views in my essay, to get more insight, a more in-depth look if you wish, at some of the discoveries I made during my research. It mainly concerned the treatment of fans in regard to censorship, what works and doesn’t work in the world of PR, particularly at management level and why musicians should want to find a balance with fan interaction that works for both themselves and their fans.
So, where do we start? Well as it happens I am a fan of IAMX too. I’m not afraid to say it these days but occasionally I used to feel, and still do to some extent, that perhaps I shouldn’t mention that I’m a fan of anything as sometimes it appears that people in the ‘professional fields’ stop taking me seriously including the musicians I am a fan of. The last thing you want as a music journalist is to turn up for an interview and overhear the PR introducing you before you go in the room as ‘a big fan’ – that term alone is like having a ball and chain attached to your ankle and a sticker on your forehead saying ‘freak’ – cue quickly enveloping blush and evaporating professionalism. Ideally a mutual respect should be developed between artist and journalist… sorry, I drifted out of reality for a moment there…
Admittedly my reaction to being called a fan is confirming a lot of the negative connotations associated with the word. Perhaps the idea that fans are obsessed freaks in need of psychological help is so ingrained in the modern psyche that it’s very hard to shake off.
Fans are important, especially if you want a long lasting career in the music or entertainment industry. Without fans a musician (or actor, comedian, painter, artist in general) cannot earn a living. It’s as simple as that really.
I chose to investigate and analyze IAMX fans as I had previously spent some time lurking around various forums and those fans I knew seemed like very interesting characters. We’ve crossed paths with Chris Corner a few times over the years on Cat On The Wall and (closer.), very shy and gracious in person (back in 1997) but I would say email interviews are a pain as the caps lock is on ALL THE TIME.
My initial research established two kinds of IAMX fan – those who frequented the fan forums/blogs/art sites: what could be described as the ‘true’ fans – and those who were just casual listeners who declared their love from time to time in comments on facebook or myspace usually followed by “come play [insert desired city of choice]”. Paul Sweetman in an article on subcultures described these kinds of fans as travellers and tourists and I have to agree that it’s a pretty accurate observation. Travellers stick around and embrace the fandom whereas tourists visit the fandom, sometimes only once, taking the bits they like as souvenirs. The fans that frequented the IAMX forums tended to participate to one forum of their choosing whilst still having a presence generally in the other forums even though it was visibly clear that two particular forums had a large dislike for each other.
One forum I spent quite a lot of time observing was IAMXFORUM.com, a community of very active and very outspoken fans. Something I had never come across before as a participant of other bands’ forums was the interaction between the fans and the management of the artist other than a positive influence. My idea of a fan forum was that it was a place that one could chat, gossip and basically share views without coming under fire from those higher up in the chain. It became clear that this was not the case for the IAMX fans frequenting IAMXFORUM.com.
A number of things occurred that I suppose you could say ‘irked’ me about the management’s actions. Firstly, I realised that the forum owners regularly received correspondence from the management asking to pass on messages to the fans about what they can or cannot talk about. Other than copyright issues and gripes about leaked albums I feel management interference should be kept to a minimum unless it is creating a positive outcome. They are, after all, working in the best interest of the artist(s) they represent and should take fans into consideration in the success of thus artist(s).
The second and more alarming action was the censorship regarding IAMXFORUM’s youtube and twitter pages. The reason for their pages being removed was the use of the name ‘IAMX’. Let me quote something from the correspondence that was then posted on the forum: “Fan videos are generally welcomed, but not in connection with the unofficial and unsupporting ‘forum’”. How to successfully make one section of your artists fans feel victimized whilst creating new words in the process… but it’s only that forum so it’s ok then? It was unclear as to whether the message originated from the record company or the management but the fact remains that whatever personal issues the management/PR/record label has between a small number of fans should not tarnish the relationship with everyone else. It’s not funny, it’s not clever and above all it’s not professional.
I honestly thought lessons had been learnt after the Prince/Lovesymbol/whatevernamehechoosestobecalled fiasco when he tried to sue his own fansites for including photos and lyrics. Surely common sense must cut in at some point? Working with fans must be more productive than working against? I asked Alec Empire what he thought about censorship in general:
“I am against censorship. To me art and music can work like a thermometer…if a lot of neo-nazi bands become popular, the problem is visible. If there is censorship, it all looks nice in our society, the problems don’t get solved, they are just hidden. Two of my albums were censored in Germany, this blacklisted me. Some people think it’s “cool” but the reality is that as an artist you can’t move on once you are on that list. Censorship is a serious threat to freedom of expression.”
Although what Empire describes is the censorship that stifles the artist it can be easily applied to the censorship of fans. The idea that problems become hidden rather than solved is particularly relevant. A forum that criticizes the artist isn’t necessarily a bad thing and you’re in the wrong business if you can’t take a bit of criticism from the fans but to then try and censor the negative opinions… is that such a good idea?
A good example of fan/artist relations is the Nine Inch Nails community where Trent Reznor makes his presence known and yet keeps a reasonable distance from the fan-to-fan interactions, allowing them to express themselves as they wish. The release of the multi-tracks of recent NIN albums displayed a mutual respect and trust that keeps fans active participants, they feel like they are on a similar level with the artist and thus the community is generally a happy one.
That’s not to say IAMX doesn’t provide anything for the fans in terms of trying to get them involved. IAMX has hosted a remix competition in the past, there are many IAMX street teams for fans to join and Corner updates a blog on myspace from time to time to keep the fans up to date with the latest IAMX goings on and some poetic ramblings to boot. I’d go so far as to say that the IAMX online campaign has been quite successful and has allowed Corner to gain access to a wider range of listeners… albeit mainly a lot of ‘tourists’ but such is the fickle world of the internet at the moment. Obviously there are some areas that still need work with regard to the IAMX online PR which the blog CONDEMNED TO ROCK ‘N ROLL discusses particularly the dreaded non-interview that many of us music bloggers face on a regular basis.
Finally, I feel that striking a balance between artist and fan interaction is essential to keep a fanbase happy and healthy. It has been observed that Corner likes to really distance himself from fans these days and while myspace blog updates are great and give a personal insight there does appear to be a level of interaction that is missing. There will always be fans that want more than what is acceptable (I did come across a few that fitted the ‘disturbed’ category during my IAMX research and they did worry me) but potentially they probably only make up 5% of the fanbase…
In the face of adversity, IAMXFORUM.com has recently released a rather lovely fan DVD, by the fans for the fans of IAMX of a performance back in 2004. It’s a really great effort and something that all the fans can enjoy. This is the kind of free promotion that most bands can only dream of. I guess this proves that you can’t keep the IAMX fans down.
Fans are ultimately very passionate people who love an artist and the music said artist makes. It is not fair to pigeonhole all fans as obsessed teenagers in their hormonal transition. Without fans Cat On The Wall would not exist. Without fans the bands I grew up listening to and being influenced by would not exist because there would be no one to listen to them, to buy their records, to spread the word. Fans are not little people at the bottom of the food chain. Fans are an important part of the music world and should be treated accordingly.