Nancy Baym: Pop music and social exchange

Nancy Baym, communications professor at the University of Kansas, is a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge this summer… which means we’re lucky enough to have her speaking at the Berkman Center today on her work on social exchange theory. Her talk is titled “Changing Relationships, Changing Industries” and starts with a set of disclosures about the limits of her chosen theoretical framework.

Social exchange theory contrasts social and economic exchanges. She admits that “it’s too simplistic, and paints us as more rational than we are… but it works.” Economic exchage is based around a certain set of rules: specific obligations, set rate of exchange, set time frame for repayment, based on legal principles, impersonal interactions and the idea that the value of goods is independent of providers. This, obviously, gets fuzzy – we like certain merchants other than others because they’re nice to us…

Baym tells us that the principles beyond social exchange are very similar to those behind gift economies, but unfortunately the literatures rarely overlap. She characterizes social exchange as being based having unspecified obligations, unspecified exchange rates, and an unspecified time frame – try to firm these up and you’ll violate social taboos. These relationships are based on trust and obligation, they are inherently interpersonal, and the value tied to the provider.

Within both types of exchange, there are possible rewards – goods, services, information, love (writ large), status and money. In commercial exchanges, money is usually what’s transferred. But in social exchanges, using money directly is often socially unacceptable. Baym mentions that she needed to solve the problem of compensating friends to look after her house over the summer. “I couldn’t say ‘What will I pay for you to look after my house?’ Instead, you say ‘how about if we buy the liquor for the grad student party you throw when I’m back?'”

In the music industry, we’ve traditionally exchanged CDs and concerts for money. But between audience members, it’s gift exchange – my mixtape shows my love for you (and the artists I’m featuring.) Baym wonders, “How’s that economic exchange working out for you?” While music industry revenues have declined sharply, she notes that it’s from their historical highs in 1990, when the LP/CD transition took place. Record labels have laid off 25% of their staff and appear poised to cut further.

Baym describes herself as a huge REM fan… then ammends that she used to be a REM fan… then apologizes to REM on the video feed, in case they’re watching. She fondly remembers the age of bootleg tapes, which were given as gifts – in many fan communities, money is a taboo subject. The communities where people exchanged these goods were tough social networks to join – they required a great deal of knowledge.

Now, the internet has superempowered audiences. Groups like the Deadheads, who’d developed highly sophisticated tape trees – were suddenly transformed by torrenting and, in particular Pirate Bay. The result is a radical decentralization of distribution. There are corresponding decentralizations of publishing, of publicity and of curation… and of course, the decentralization of creative production.

Baym is particularly interested in “the Swedish model”… in no small part because she’s interested in Swedish pop music. She notes that Swedes are disproportionately represented in the music world – many Beyonce and Brittney Spears singles are made by Swedish producer Max Martin – and quips that “there are only 8 million Swedes, but 7 million are in bands, so it all works out.”

She’s been studying a consortium of 8 independent labels working together organized around a premise: the post-piracy economy. Their sense is that debating filesharing is stupid – we need to move on. And they’re sleeping with the former enemy – they share offices with the Pirate Bay and one of the labels seeds their entire catalog on Pirate Bay, to ensure their listeners are getting high quality goods.

As a working academic, she’s got a wonderful methods slide, which basically reads: I listened to a lot of Swedish pop, reviewed some records, interviewed fans, labels and musicians. (Tough work.) Her organizing question is “How does the internet empower fans?”

She notes that the internet allows fandom to transcend distance and extend reach. One of the key sites within the Swedish music ecosystem is ITSATRAP. The site’s administrator is based in Olympia, Washington – pretty far from Scandinavia – and the site is in English… but at least half the traffic is from Scandinavia. Referencing one of her earlier papers – The New Shape of Online Community – she notes that the internet provides easy group infrastructure, but that the infrastructure is messy. There’s no single fan club anymore – there are Facebook groups and mailing lists and mp3 blogs, and there may be no central organizing space.

In this new ecosystem, Baym tells us, there’s great respect for volunteers and often an unwillingness to get paid. She interviewed the administrator of Hello!Surprise, an archive of Scandinavian indie music, and asked whether he felt he should be paid for his work. He was insulted by the question – “the bands are the ones who should get paid.” This isn’t a universal view, she makes clear – some people view this volunteer work as a way into the industry.

The problem artists are facing in this new environment, Baym asserts, is getting attention, not selling music. As such, they’re often in favor of technologies like mp3 blogs… though they generally acknowledge that the radio is still the most important way to get attention to music. Despite the power of old media, Baym believes that the future of attention to music may have to do with reducing social distnce between artist and audience. She tells a story about friending her favorite Norwegian audience on Facebook, and then later posting a status message, saying that she was coming to Norway and asking someone to bring her a copy of the artist’s album, which wasn’t available as an import. The artist responded to her message, sending her a signed CD, which she cherishes as “the ultimate fan artifact”.

Music fan culture centers on the exchange of affection – and that exchange is bidirectional. Amanda Palmer (formerly of the Dresden Dolls) is able to tour with a large contingent of musicians and dancers, because fans are willing to have those performers sleep at their houses – she tells Baym “the fans take care of us, not the label.” (I found this story particularly amusing because Jonathan Coulton, one of my favorite fan-supported artists, decided to stop looking for a label when he read about how little money and support the Dresden Dolls got from their record label…)

Artists are discovering when they ask audiences to offer what they think merch is worth rather than putting on fixed prices, they often get more money. Radiohead’s experiment with a “name your price” model for a CD generated far more revenue than most expected, and Trent Reznor’s experiments with hyper-premium, hand-packed CDs have generated impressive revenues. Perhaps most striking was Jill Sobule’s fan funded recording, where fan donations were rewarded with “premiums” from Sobule. (Baym tells us that one fan paid $10,000 to earn a premium of getting a personal singing lesson from Sobule and singing backup on a track of the album.) She’d hoped to raise $70,000 to pay for the record’s production and ended up raising $90,000.

Fans recognize that the artist is getting a very small cut of revenues, Baym offers, and realize “the artist has done so much for me.” They want to find ways to reward artists for work that was emotionally relevant, financially or otherwise.

Record labels, unsurprisingly, have trouble seeing matters in these social exchange terms. Baym tells us that the dialog over fans in professional record label circles tends to focus on monetizing fan loyalty: “a Facebook friend is $1.63 in annual sales, while a mailing list member is 2.50.” Monetizing is part of what helps the industry survive, and it’s important to invest in cultural production, but labels need to understand the social exchange aspect as well.

For the musicians Baym studies, she says, “Piracy? That dialog is over. How do you use it?” I.e, how do you take advantage of the fact that your music could spread with zero distribution cost and get rewarded via economic and social exchange?

There are deep, unsolved questions, she tells us: “What are the different kinds of value?
Who provides value and how? What is the new ‘fair’? What are the boundary problems? What’s the broader context of monetizing? How can we rehumanize creativity?”

Ultimately, her research reflects on the idea that music has a value far beyond the monetary. She closes with a story of interviewing an artist who told her about a particularly moving fan email. It was brief, and read: “My father just died and I can’t stop listening to you.” Baym closes: “You can’t put a value on that.”


While there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the new models for fan support Baym is documenting, there was some skepticism as well. One audience member asked whether this was a phenomenon specific to indie rock, noting that there’s been less of a DIY ethic in the hiphop world and more cultural capital around the value of “getting paid”. (I’d push back against that, certainly in the mixtape scene, but it’s an interesting point about the research’s scope.) Another question raised issues of scale – fan support might produce a singer/songwriter album, but it’s probably not going to be sufficient to create rock superstars ala Mick Jagger.

Baym offers the idea that it’s a mistake to talk about “the music industry” – there are many, many music industries, and these ideas of social and economic exchange play out very differently in the world of superstars and the worlds she’s talking about. There will likely always be superstars, and they are unlikely to interact directly with their fans… though she points out that Roseanne Cash is able to keep up a good dialog on Twitter with her fans.

I offered the thought that music might be a special case compared to other mediums where the cost of production is much higher. It’s one thing to record an album on your laptop, and another thing to produce a television series. So television fans write fanfic, while music fans start their own bands. That blurry line between fan and participant in music might lead to a different dynamic than in other fields. Baym wonders whether the cost of production will give a chance to test my theory – in ten years, will it be so easy to produce video on a laptop that the lines between professional and amateur will be as blurry in video as it currently is in audio?

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6 Responses to Nancy Baym: Pop music and social exchange

  1. “So television fans write fanfic, while music fans start their own bands.”

    That’s my theory, too. Creating music has gotten so easy because of user-friendly applications that if you want to record original music on your laptop or iPhone, you can do it. If you want visibility, you upload a video onto YouTube.

    Honestly, it’s more fun to be a rock star than just to follow them. There’s a hierarchical relationship if you are a fan following someone else. But if you are creating your own music, it puts you on more of an equal footing, even if you are nowhere near as successful as those who inspired you.

    I see music heading into photography territory. Look how we went from complex cameras to point-and-click cameras to digital cameras to mobile phone cameras to Flickr (which will now feed your photos to Getty Images). Photography is very accessible to just about everyone now.

  2. keith girvan says:

    nancy is dumb

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  4. Doug H says:

    Most of the economic action is now on the Direct-To-Fan front. Now that artists are speaking directly to fans via FB/Twitter etc how can they use that relationship to help support their careers.

    To me the music industry of today looks increasing like the dotcom boom of the late 90’s. Lots of start-ups with great ideas and tools looking desperately for a sustainable business model.

    Check out TopSpin, Nimbit and Bandcamp for some nice examples of tools. And that’s just a start.

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