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Published: 2004/03/30
by Aaron Hawley

Life On The Lists

Life on the Lists
By Aaron Hawley
To a lot of music fans, their day starts with a good cup of coffee, and time spent in front of the computer screen checking in with a circle of friends flung throughout the country and the globe. Instead of emailing Aunt Sally or spending hours plugging away in some online chat room, many fans have been turning to the online discussion lists which fill their inbox day and night with the latest posts about their favorite bands. These lists can contain anywhere from a handful of subscribers to thousands, each ready to chime in with their opinion. Their email is disseminated throughout the ranks and before long, a virtual community is formed. Just as with any group or gathering, there are bumps along the way, and a generous assortment of interesting characters. One of those responsible for the blossoming of the online discussion phenomenon is Shaun Gilmour.

Gilmour came to discussion lists for the same reason as many other fans do, but he stayed longer than most. A thirty four year old graphic designer by day, and drummer by night, Gilmour now runs discussion lists for a number of bands in the jam scene. "I think the first time I remember anything regarding a discussion list was the Spin Doctors community back in the early 90’s, that was back in the day when not a whole lot of people were actually even on the Internet" says Gilmour. Sneaking off to the University of Pittsburgh to use a friend’s account, Gilmour discovered the original Spin Doctors community on the Well, one of the internet’s first subscriber online communities, and was instantly hooked.

"Dan Levy actually started up a Listserv based community as the subscriber base grew. I think the reason I was drawn initially to that list was because I wanted to find out more information about what might be going on with the band, like a first look at tour dates, get some live shows and possibly some insider info too. I was surprised that there was such a tight knit community going on there". Impressed with what he saw, Gilmour sought out other bands discussion lists and ended up on the Medeski, Martin, and Wood list. "I had been on the MMW list for about a year and a half and very quickly, discussion regarding Galactic started to overtake the actual MMW content on that list. I thought, well if there’s this much content about Galactic on the MMW list then I think they could really do well with having a list of their own". Gilmour set about trying to set up a Galactic list, but found that someone had beat him to the punch by about two weeks. Gilmour happily joined the list, and within no time, found the moderator duties fall his way.

"About a month later the guy who originally started up the Galactic list decided it was too much work and turned it over to their producer at the time, Dan Prothero from Fog City Records. Dan contacted me and asked me if I would like to take over the list because he wasn’t comfortable with some of the coding and things that can be part of dealing with the list. I think he contacted me because I was one of the people on that list who was involved in the community. So I jumped at the chance". With little clue how to proceed, Gilmour threw himself into a crash course of coding, which quickly smoothed itself out and he’s been running the discussions ever since. Before long it had reached the point where managers and labels began to recognize the advantages of having their own online community and new lists started popping up.

"I’ve been asked by a lot of bands, but I’ve really had to be kind of frugal with doing lists", he says. Currently running eight lists and not getting paid to do so, Gilmour’s work is a labor of love. "If I’m going to work with a band I’d like it to be someone who I’m at least into and want to go see. Only thing that I’ve ever asked for is that the bands hook me up with copies of any releases they put out, and tickets to shows whenever I can get out to see them". He’s had no problems so far, and currently runs lists for Galactic, MMW, MOFRO, and Karl Denson among others. The bulk of his work is setting up the list and getting the kinks worked out. Most of his time is spent on the tech end of things, configuring list settings and adding and deleting members. He participates in the discussions, but doesn’t don his "list administrator" hat too often. "I don’t really guide the discussions, I actually never really have. Usually I’ll post something if I hear some new news that everyone would benefit from. I want everyone to make these community their own".

And that they do. Like Gilmour, many come to the discussion lists seeking copies of the show they just saw or up to date information on their favorite band. Though the focus quickly shifts to the community. James Hughes remembers when he joined the Galactic discussion group. "I was really drawn to how kind everyone seemed to be on this particular list". Despite the veil of anonymity provided by the internet, everyone behaved themselves. "It’s easy to be callous and opinionated and ruffle feathers when you don’t have to engage people face to face, but there is very little of that on the Galactic list". It is in turn, the camaraderie and community aspect that turns the discussion list into another circle of friends. Marcus Hecht, an avid MMW fan, spends roughly an hour a day reading and posting in the six discussion lists that he is a part of. "The group of people with similar interests or a common love drew me in. From there the sense of community and often friendship between the other members kept me coming back. Usually people with such common interests discover they have other common points in their lives, like political affiliation or other topics".

Of course more often than not, the bonds made discussing the ins and outs of your favorite band, often spills over into real life. Now connected with fans strewn across the country a viable community network has been set up, and as in any neighborhood folks run into each other about town. Many people utilize these contacts to make their cross-country musical treks go a little easier. "The community happens both online and in person at shows or festivals. That has been the primary means in which I’ve met people from various lists in person – I have attended a show in a city away from my own and posted to the list that I’d like to meet up with someone from the list in that area," says Hecht.

Dan Prothero, producer and head of Fog City Records opines that the online community is the equivalent of the modern day tribe. "There seems to be lots of writing nowadays about how the tribe is the new family. It seems like there are a lot of people who leave their hometown, move to a city, cultivate interests, and help build a tribe of like-minded people, which in a way becomes their new family. The online music community is just an extension of a tribe that informally gathers at concerts". Though rooted in the music the discussions take on a variety of topics and everyone seems to get pulled in. This is not simply limited to which songs rock and which don’t, or what the hottest show from the last tour was. "The environmental issues raised by some of the band’s songs are a frequent topic of conversation on the MOFRO discussion list. One of my favorite exchanges was between Daryl, MOFRO guitarist, and his dad, a frequent contributor, arguing hilariously about the scandalous removal of a big old tree from the backyard. Just the kind of thing that you’re in on if you’re part of the family".

Like any family, the personalities of each list member are different, but as a unit, they share many of the same traits. "The listserv fans are usually the most rabid fans on the planet, traveling hundreds of miles to see music, trading and downloading shows, and discussing setlists and other band minutia", says Allan Morris, and active member of the Galactic list. Gilmour thinks, "The fans in the discussion list community are really a diverse breed of people. I’d say that those fans on discussion lists are really some of the most hardcore fans of many of these bands. They’re the ones who you are going to see going to multiple shows, taping, trading and really being part of the care and feeding of their scene". Hughes points out that, "The listers can always be found talking to one another at some point during shows trying to one-up’ one another with their inside knowledge of the band. It’s all done in a great spirit of love for the band".

Many cite this close tie to the band, their devotion to the love and spirit, if you will, as a key force in their discussion list participation. Gilmour remembers his initial introduction to the concept when singer Chris Barron would post to the Spin Doctors discussion list. "It was a connection to the band that made you feel like the band actually gives a crap about their fans". Likewise, he encourages bands to be involved on the lists that he runs. "Some of the bands are really active on their lists. Mofro is a good example. Craig their drummer, JJ their singer, and even Darryl Hance’s (guitarist) dad is involved with posting. Some of the guys in Galactic and Critters Buggin’ are on their list, but they just read what’s going on most of band members don’t participate. Karl Denson and I were just talking about this and he wants to start stepping up and being more active with his list. The fans really like the idea that they have an indirect link to getting their opinions heard by the bands themselves".

Though some artists may shy from involvement, others embrace it.

"Galactic actually named a couple of songs based on discussion on their list. One is called Weasel Ball’ which they only play live and very infrequently. Another is a song that was originally called Donkey Punch’. One of our listers has a young son on the list and she didn’t like the sexual implications of that title so they renamed it Give Mom a Rose’ and then it became Gypsy Fade’ on their new release Ruckus’". Gilmour points out that rarely do the artists have a problem with what is being said on their lists. "Mostly the band members stay out (of discussions) and let their fans just guide what gets talked about. It’s largely based on the fact that the bands are so busy that when they do get down time they really only have time to read and not post. All of the bands seem really happy that they have a community in place".

And like in any group of people, sometimes opinions clash. "Whenever you get a bunch of highly opinionated, intelligent people together to discuss topics," notes Morris, "there will always be heated discussions". Those on the list seem to do a good job policing what is appropriate in the public forum, and encouraging any attacks to be conducted via private email. Jeremy Welsh, who spends his time on the MMW list, blames it on the medium, "Although the Internet helps in the discussion of everything, it is also hard to read sarcasm or hidden meanings in a simple post". He also notes that people on the list, "have very strong opinions about their’ bands – very territorial over something that for the most part is not concrete".

Gilmour finds that the most problems he has had in moderating the lists come from off topic discussions. "Most of the fighting in the early days were things like people arguing about Phish on the Galactic or MMW lists". Knowing where to draw the line can be a hard part of administrating the discussion list. "It used to get really out of hand and that’s always a touchy subject to deal with because you don’t want to step in and tell someone that they can’t say something. I’ve never told anyone that they can’t talk about anything on any of my lists, but when it starts to turn from a debate into a fight that’s when I have to step in". Gilmour also points to the "list elders" to help steer discussion and only steps in when he gets complaints from other members of the list.

Though discussions often get heated, they never seem to cross the line with the artists whose work the fans are praising, dissing, or otherwise rapping about. "Ben Ellman and I have had some discussions about things that people post about and he has expressed some concern to me," admits Gilmour, but neither the Galactic saxman, or any other artist, has contacted him to quell any discussion. Producer Dan Protehro thinks, if anything, the criticism is few and far between. "I think my work has been reviewed very, very positively on the lists". The most negative instance that he could recall was, "a review of the holiday record we just put out, saying the album length was too short. Other than that maybe you could say the reviews have been unfairly positive".

The musicians aren’t the only ones on the list who can find the spotlight turned on them. The more outspoken on the list can take on an almost celebrity-like status due to their opinions or the personality of the contributions to the discussion. "The listers always seem to find each other one way or another at shows", says James Hughes who posts as Huzie’ on the Galactic list. "I was having a beer and a smoke with some cats grooving next to me. We had been talking for about an hour or so when we finally introduced ourselves to each other. I told this guy Greg that my name was James Hughes, and says, You’re not ‘Huzie’ are you?’. It’s really an exciting thing to meet someone face to face after only knowing them electronically. It gives you a feeling of minor celebrity when someone knows who you are". Such an honor only falls to the most active on the list because, as Gilmour points out, "the majority of people are on the lists to just poke around or lurk’. They don’t really contribute, but want to keep up with what’s going on, and that’s totally fine. Then there are those people who contribute a lot and who actually have gained some sort of odd notoriety if you will". Though not exactly your name in lights, having your name flow through a person’s Inbox ten times a day seems to do the trick as well.

All told, Gilmour explains, the discussion list phenomenon is a win-win situation for all parties involved. The fans feel connected to the band, and the band has an outlet to get the word out on their projects and goings on. "If a band’s record label or management is pro-active on their lists then the kids on those lists feel like they have a closer connection to the band than the average fan. Plus it’s beneficial to provide as much information to their groups as possible. Because we all know how word of mouth works for our scene". Gilmour emphasizes that the lists are not an advertising tool, because those on the list put their foot down, just like you might if Burger King tried to put a billboard outside your bedroom window. "I’m sure a lot of record companies would like to use these lists as a means to advertise their product to a large group of consumers, but the fact is that we try really hard to keep cross pollination to a minimum on our lists. It’s not looked upon too nicely if a record label, a promoter, or a manager posts tour dates or other promotional announcements to a list that is not for their band". It used to happen more often, but because the lists seem to police themselves pretty actively, it hasn’t happened much lately.
All in all, everyone involved in the discussion list phenomenon seems to think that it’s a great thing, and here to stay. For the band’s, a medium for addressing their most devoted fans has proved an invaluable tool for getting the word out. To the rest of the music loving community in cyberspace, it’s just nice to have someplace to call home.

Aaron Hawley has been in lurk-mode since 1997.

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