Modern-day fan forums: The renaissance in online music communities
This article was originally published on Resident Advisor as part of Water & Music founder Cherie Hu’s guest-edited month of June, featuring specially curated content exploring new possibilities in music and tech.
At the turn of the millennium, house heads, junglists and other electronic music enthusiasts congregated daily on message boards and chat rooms. Dubstep Forum, Dogs On Acid, Exit Musik in Singapore and even Resident Advisor‘s own forum were crucial nexus points for promoters, artists and consumers, in many cases fostering long-lasting friendships. These platforms created shared experiences where people bonded in the same context, as opposed to contemporary social media feeds that cater to individual tastes.
Tired of hyper-personalised, algorithm-driven bubbles, many music professionals are reverting to the communal spirit of forums through a fresh set of digital tools. Whether it’s immersive technologies, membership programmes or specialised chat groups, today’s online communities fulfil the same functions of old-school forums—networking and music discovery—as well as co-creation and monetisation. From Discord listening parties to collective DJing on Turntable Live, these new ventures aim to build interactive ecosystems that increase fan engagement with artists, labels, promoters and venues—and earn them revenue, too.
“Previously, the scene was very much for active players in the industry–artists, promoters, label owners, etc–-but now, you have regular punters and heads too,” explained Bas Grasmayer, community platform lead at COLORS and founder of the MUSIC x newsletter. “Community basically means all these people get to participate in an event rather than simply purchasing a ticket to a finished product.”
Many community-centric apps like Twitch have been around for a while, but surged in popularity and significance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Frustrated with paltry streaming royalties and unable to earn a living from live gigs, artists invested into a community-oriented digital strategy, monetising livestreams and hosting Patreon masterclasses. Frustration with social media had already instilled a desire for new fan-based business models, and dire conditions brought about by the pandemic forced those dreams to come true.
Today’s revitalised community movement might be rooted in tech, but it’s actually more centred around psychology, examining how people share ideas and innovate. Private messaging and posts–standard functions on most social platforms–are fine for discourse but not ideal for sharing ideas or jointly developing blueprints for a growing business. Author Amber Atherton, formerly head of strategic communities at Discord, recently published a book on this topic. The Rise of Virtual Communities explores the workings of Reddit, Second Life, Friends With Benefits, Water & Music and other web worlds, focusing on how they foster earnest cooperation and subvert the transactional nature of conventional social media.
Tatiana Cirisano, a music analyst and consultant at MIDiA Research, an analytics firm focused on media and entertainment, echoed those thoughts. “Fans don’t really have a go-to space to ‘be fans’ digitally,” she said. Social media isn’t made for fandom and often leaves fans vulnerable to toxicity and negativity, she continued. Forums typically have a moderator to keep conversation in check but unsupervised places like Twitter can often turn into a cesspool of hate speech. Streaming platforms aren’t much better, she continued. These are “highly individualised and often passive experiences, where fans don’t have many ways to express their fandom beyond listening and making playlists.”
The many faces of community on the web
A vast arsenal of digital applications exist for industry folk, fans and other participants to collectively build a sustainable future for electronic music culture. Experts agree that each apparatus should be interoperable, and not too ambitious. “Not every platform can do everything,” said Joakim Bouaziz and Tom Royer, founders of livestreaming service Echio. It’s more important for a platform to be integrated with others rather than be an all-in-one service, they added.
“The shape of community tools should feel analogous to things that people do in real life,” added Currents.fm founder Austin Hou. “Is it making the scene better? Is it fun to use? Does it help the artist sustain themselves in their scene?”
Paid memberships or subscriptions via Patreon, Currents.fm and Ampled are a popular option. By offering exclusive content and perks, clubs, promoters, radio stations and artists can have a direct-to-fan relationship, gain steady revenue and avoid external funding in an uncertain economy. 3024, Rhythm Section, New York club Nowadays and Dublin Digital Radio are among the many heavy-hitters active on Patreon, while Currents.fm users include female:pressure, Editions Mego and SVBKVLT.
Santuri, based in Nairobi, is a social enterprise that seeks to advance East African music. Currents.fm helps the organisation promote its electronic music academy programme, allowing students to showcase their DJ sets, live performances and productions to listeners worldwide. Artists can also receive money directly through an integrated tips feature.
“We’ve been able to increase our reach in terms of a wider audience and gain more supporters, who in turn support the artists,” said Santuri team member Felix Mwitah. “It’s also an avenue to channel public-facing products that students enrolled in our music academy create.”
Vancouver club Paradise has operated on a membership model since 2021, and it currently has more than 1,200 supporters. Initially conceived as a means of controlling attendance and ensuring safety protocols during the post-lockdown reopening period, its membership model has since become a crucial source of “stability and consistency,” explained cofounders Karli Fahlman and Matthew Owchar. The costs of operating a venue in Vancouver, known for a “generally dismissive or unfriendly attitude to DIY spaces,” are “immense,” they said.
“Memberships help us deliver an experience that satisfies attendees and the artists we’re booking from around the world that require a substantial amount of time and resources to get here,” they added. For now, Paradise prefers to use direct emails to manage members because Fahlman and Owchar believe it’s more conducive to “a genuine and thoughtful interaction,” as opposed to a third-party platform.
Livestreaming–think Twitch, YouTube Live, Bandcamp Live–is also a common space for fan activation, though there’s a fair degree of fatigue following a flurry of activity during the pandemic. What used to be a point of connection has turned into what many call a saturated market. Experts say livestreaming shouldn’t be a replacement for IRL shows, but its own product with compelling content. This is probably why Sessions Live, launched in the early months of the pandemic, eventually shut down.
Unlike its peers, Echio goes beyond live video and chat. Unveiled in early 2022, it can be integrated into Patreon, Bandcamp and other paid subscriptions. It’s also exploring a potential partnership with music royalty start-up Aslice. Founders Bouaziz and Royer believe most livestreaming sites don’t build engaged communities, which is why they’re looking to make Echio a medium of knowledge exchange. A new feature now allows fans to send demos to artists via in-app private messages for feedback. Artists can respond with a video on their phone or a livestream. Echio is also creating a charity fund for the musical education of marginalised groups so artists who prefer to give free feedback can donate instead.
Group chat apps are particularly well-suited for deeper relationships between artists, promoters, labels and fans because they operate in real-time, consolidating multimedia communications into a single hub. Conversations can be centred around niche topics, allowing fans to communicate directly with their beloved clubs, artists and also each other. These apps are becoming especially valuable for promoters who can instantaneously share discounts, giveaways and event details with ticket buyers. Discord is a lynchpin in this field, hosting the likes of FKA twigs, Lisbon’s Incógnito club and USM Recordings, while Telegram counts Bogota’s -1 Microclub, Radio Alhara, Jackie’s Barcelona and 宀 Club in Hong Kong as clients. Newer players include Geneva—more focused on the creator economy—and Matrix, an open-source alternative to Discord.
For musicians, these apps have become an integral marketing weapon. Recognising the value of direct artist-fan relationships, Levellr was founded in 2021 as a means to help artists expand and monetise their fan communities on Telegram and Discord. For the release of Fred again..’s 2022 album, Actual Life 3, the start-up helped him identify engaged members of his Discord community and asked if they wanted to host an IRL listening party. A series of these fan-organised events took place across the globe, with Fred again.. making virtual appearances. Fans met in person and heard the record in full before anyone else. “Labels and artists need to know their audiences better, work with ambassadors, encourage appropriate user-generated content and create work with, not just for fans,” Levellr CEO Tom Gayner said in a recent interview.
3D virtual worlds such as the metaverse, multiplayer games and other immersive platforms are also widely touted instruments for fan interaction. Coachella, Kaskade, Bandcamp and SoundCloud have all unveiled projects on Fortnite, as have rappers Travis Scott and Tyler, the Creator. However, the issue with 3D worlds is that most are designed for gaming, warned Grasmayer from COLORS. “The question for music industry professionals is can you move your audience into games or are you visiting a specific gaming audience when doing something on that platform?”
The metaverse, in particular, appears to be growing increasingly competitive–Snoop Dogg said last year that his newly acquired label Death Row Records made $40 million in the virtual ecosystem. There’s also Turntable Live, a new offshoot of Turntable.fm, that seeks to facilitate communal listening experiences, allowing users to DJ and stream music with others in avatar form. Pixelynx, a music gaming company started in 2020 by deadmau5 and Richie Hawtin, claims to be building technology and acquiring equity in various start-ups that will shape how music is experienced in the metaverse. Artists can use Pixelynx’s ecosystem of products to create “entirely new ways” of creating and sharing music, plus fans are given opportunities to remix their music, the team told RA.
“Metaverse spaces help solve the paradox where the bigger an artist gets, the harder it is for them to maintain an intimate relationship with their fans,” said Cirisano of MIDiA Research. “Here, artists can interact with fans from around the globe in a way that feels authentic to them.” More importantly, virtual environments give fans more ways to self-express, she added. But it remains to be seen if the metaverse can truly penetrate mass market audiences. Earlier this year, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, seemingly dropped its metaverse strategy in favour of focusing more on generative AI–a sign that the virtual world may not be as lucrative as anticipated.
Web3—internet on the blockchain—is perhaps the most overlooked tool among music professionals, though many believe it holds the most promise. One of its primary features are DAOs, or Decentralised Autonomous Organisations, blockchain-powered co-ops that seek to create a more equitable foundation for nightlife and music content ownership. Examples include Leaving Records’ Genre DAO, Refraction and Friends With Benefits. Still, many industry professionals remain sceptical of token-enabled communities that characterise most DAOs, pointing out how it can lead to unfair advantages and take away from Web3’s democratic nature.
Various softwares now exist for DAOs to improve their governance and operations. They include Lens, which builds social platforms on Web3 with apps similar to Twitter, Instagram and others, and Clarity, a project management aid that uses an Ethereum login process and token-based permissions. “We’re also interested in the possibilities Everwave creates, which is a music community building songs one stem contributor at a time,” the Leaving Records team said. “Once the song is complete, they sell the finished product with an even split for all those who made the final cut of the song.”
Inspired by DAOs, Recurrent Labs, a new initiative by Currents.fm, is developing artist-owned distribution networks on the blockchain to challenge what it calls “traditional pay-to-play gatekeeper models”—streaming services, social media platforms and major labels. These entities take almost 90 percent of an artist’s revenue generated by their audiences, according to Recurrent Labs, which claims artists would receive “a far greater” share of profits under its umbrella. It hopes artist-owned distribution structures will spearhead the next chapter of decentralised labels and streaming platforms, acting as infrastructure for a new wave of distribution DAOs, according to Hou. “Systems of capital are designed for entities to own stuff forever but that thinking doesn’t work for a community-oriented ecosystem,” they said.
Ultimately, critics say more work is needed for community ventures to be self-sustaining. Community is a multi-way street, meaning music professionals must build multidimensional relationships with fans instead of simply selling products to them. Several of today’s online ecosystems, including memberships and most livestreams, cater to a particular artist or brand but don’t necessarily lead to people participating in the making of an event or service. A central challenge for digital networks is figuring out how to collectively allocate resources and capture value. As more music-native movements emerge in the coming years, some will be more suitable for community-building than others.