An important part of any transmedia campaign is fan interaction. Audience members fully expect content to be a two-way street, certainly since the Internet has allowed them a direct channel to creators. A widely used method for musicians to encourage creative expression in their fanbase is music video contests.
Record label Stones Throw Records recently ran one to celebrate their 15th year anniversary, and founder Peanut Butter Wolf and art director Jeff Jank were gracious enough to speak with me about it.
Stones Throw Records is an independent hip hop label based in Los Angeles, featuring artists such as MF Doom, Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne, and J Dilla. By issuing consistently high quality releases and showing respect for the musicians and the listeners, the label has accrued an extremely loyal fanbase. Their Facebook page has over 115,000 fans, while most other well-known specialty labels such as 4AD, Sub Pop, and Kill Rock Stars average well below 50,000.
As part of the commemoration of their 15th year anniversary, Stones Throw chose to include their listeners, announcing a fan-made music video contest. Having conservatively produced videos over the years, Peanut Butter Wolf realized how much of their back catalogue deserved visuals.
Wolf previously had good experiences with fan-made content, after discovering the homemade Madvillain “Shadows of Tomorrow” video. He was so impressed that it was included as an Easter Egg on their Stones Throw 101 DVD, and the director Duey FM has become a friend to the label and a music video director in his own right.
Jeff Jenk also curated a vastly diverse collection of fan-made video covers of Aloe Blacc’s “I Need A Dollar” on their website, highlighting different interpretations and styles. Wolf explained, “If a picture tells a thousand words, a 3 minute film clip set to music tells a million.”
Thus, the contest emerged from a consistently supportive relationship between the listeners and the label. Wolf stated, “In my personal experience, when people are fans of the music, they do a better job with the videos.” Fans were given until July 1, 2011, to create a video from any song in the catalogue, using animation, found footage, new footage, or a combination. Semi-finalists will receive $200 credit to use in Stone Throws online store, and the winner will receive a $1000 check and the opportunity to direct an official music video.
Fan video making, or “vidding,” has existed since the 1970’s, but primarily focused on the visual content used, not the soundtrack it was set to. Fan conventions for properties such as Star Trek were often the only place they could be viewed, although VHS tapes allowed them to be passed around to some degree. However, since the advent of the Internet and video-sharing websites such as YouTube and Vimeo, there has been an explosion in fan-made videos primarily focused on the music.
The minimal amount of resources and energy required on the musician’s part has led to a number of commissioned music video contests by different artists and record labels. The relatively fluid nature of a contests allow for vastly differing purposes, rules, and parameters.
Radiohead partnered with aniBoom to hold a contest for their In Rainbows record, focusing on animated videos. Storyboards were submitted, and 10 semi-finalists were given $1,000 to create a one minute video clip. Four winning videos handpicked by Radiohead were then given $10,000 to create the full video, which would be distributed and marketed by aniBoom.
Non-music properties have also utilized such contests. The wildly successful video game Portal 2 featured the song “Exile, Vilify” by the National, left playing on a radio by the unseen character Rat Man near some of his graffiti referencing the song. Fans were encouraged to load their videos onto YouTube, tagged with Portal2NationalExile, and Valve would choose a winner this month.
This type of participation strategy, where one asks the fan to actively engage and contribute to the storytelling process, is extremely valuable for solidifying a core fanbase and sustaining their interest. Creating a direct connection with the listener and communicating to them, “We care how you feel about our music,” is also an emotionally fulfilling experience for both parties. Wolf agreed, “I like the idea of interacting directly with the fans. That’s why us DJs, recording artists, actors, etc. are on social networks, right?”
Stones Throw has consistently shown interest in their listeners. When I asked if the label had used other methods in the past to interact with fans or create a space for them, Wolf explained, “Our message board was set up to do that initially. It was a big deal for a lot of people. We even made a T-shirt that said ‘STMB’ [Stones Throw Message Board]. Our fans started doing their own ‘beat battles’ on the board and Jeff (our web designer) got involved and started supporting it.”
Jank added, “These beat battles on our forum are 100% user-run, user-voted, etc. We’ve merely helped by occasionally contributing source material. This is something we never could have done 10 years ago, but I’d love to do this on a bigger level and more open platform.”
Recognizing the two-way street of content appreciation and encouraging creative expression both validates the fan and compliments the music. The diverse collection of creative interpretations in the contest entries only add to the individual titles’ emotional appeals. Allowing such feedback does not distort or confuse the original or intended message of the artist; it only adds to the power of the song.
The entries have taken many forms. One video for Quasimoto’s “Low Class Conspiracy” references artwork of Quasimoto the character with live footage of “him” (a man in a home made costume) causing trouble around town.
Another used found footage from YouTube reminiscent of the 70s-esque J Dilla’s “U-Love” and distorted the singers and dancers’ heads.
A director literally interpreted the title of J Dilla’s “Last Donut of the Night” and showed what two Finnish cops would be willing to give up for such a prize.
Not all contests go off without a hitch. Clarity of rules and purpose in such contests is essential. Björk held a contest for idea submissions for the song “Innocence,” with a deadline of July 10, 2007. However, due to the need for more promotional work after the unpredicted success of Volta, the deadline had to be shifted forward to June 10, setting off a wave of anger from fans who would not be able to meet the new date.
Nine Inch Nails created a group on YouTube for fan-made videos for songs off Ghosts I-IV, with the stated intention of highlighting and noting exceptional ones. However, the “film festival” was never mentioned again, leaving it a holding space with no feedback or validation. The group has since been taken down.
Stones Throw has created a contest with clear purpose, rules, parameters, and a venue for public display. Having previously established a pattern of respecting their fanbase, their listeners have enthusiastically responded to the call for participation, using their time and money to demonstrate their love of the label and its music. Understanding the value of your fanbase and conveying that to them benefits everyone.
As Jeff said in answer to my question of how important it is to cultivate and invest in a loyal dedicated fanbase: “It’s everything!”