03.12.10

'Almost Famous' 2.0

AOL has launched a massive effort to interview every one of the 2,000 bands playing South By Southwest—by enlisting everyday music fans to talk to their rock gods. A peek inside the great fanboy-journalism experiment.

Jenn Metzler was unemployed for five months before finally finding work at a Walgreens. “It sucks,” the former book editor says of stocking shelves and moving retail at the country’s largest drugstore chain. So, partly to alleviate her boredom, Metzler started interviewing rock stars.

It was a cinch. A little over a month ago, she signed up with AOL’s music blog, Spinner, to help with the online service provider’s effort to interview all 2,000 bands and musicians attending the upcoming South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. As of Friday, March 12th, they've been "publishing hundreds [of interviews] every day,” and all 2,000 bands had finally been assigned out to contributors, a task complicated by the festival only recently announcing the remaining acts.

“So far it has worked much better than my darkest fears,” says the organizer.

Executed by Seed, AOL’s new editorial assignment platform, this massive and unprecedented undertaking has given over 500 enthusiastic—if somewhat inexperienced—writers like Metzler an opportunity to interview musicians, write profiles, of bands, and get paid.

Gallery: The Must-See Films of the Indie Arts Fest And why shouldn’t they? Legendary music journalist Lester Bangs, the inspiration for Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Almost Famous, once called interviewing bands nothing but a simple “suck-up.” To him, it was a “groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person." But to most of the fans taking part in the Seed experiment, it’s likely the closest they’ll ever get to that bowl of backstage rider m&m’s.

As far as AOL is concerned, virtually anyone can write this stuff. Some of the participants, like Allison Hussey, an 18-year-old high school student from Cary, North Carolina, are just music fans who write as a hobby and, sure, they'll take the fifty bucks per profile that AOL is paying. Others, like Dan Maxwell, a recent college graduate who now works in sales at a New Jersey private investigative firm, see Seed as an opportunity to chisel their way into a writing career.

They’re exactly the kinds of contributors Saul Hansell, Director of Seed Programming and a former New York Times journalist, was hoping to reach when he announced the Spinner initiative.

“The people I want working for us most are people like that,” says Hansell, “people who got into journalism for the same reason I did—you can earn a living, but you get a front-row seat to the world.”

In a February 17 blog post outlining the SXSW project’s goals titled, "We want you to help cover SXSW," Hansell wrote, "You don't need to have written a cover story for Rolling Stone to participate…If you are passionate about music, attend shows, and talk to bands (or just want to), this is an excellent opportunity to get your byline in front of millions of fellow music fans around the world."

Over the following week, hundreds of detailed emails poured in from writers (both accomplished and wannabe) around the country. “I can say now,” says Hansell, “that we basically accepted anyone who could write a coherent paragraph. It was mainly a test of ‘can you follow instructions.’”

Allison Hussey was "completely blown away" when Spinner emailed to say they were accepting her profile. And at 18, the time commitments they offered were ideal.

"I don't really have time for a job," she said, describing her work for Spinner as more of a hobby. "This takes me four hours and I get paid $50—that's not too bad." This, she notes, "has made this whole experience even cooler."

Amy Philips, news editor of the authoritative music website Pitchfork, agrees it’s an interesting, if expensive, experiment. “I think it's great that they're investing so much money in music writing,” she says. “Would the money be better spent in other ways? Yeah, probably.”

Is it hard? Dan Maxwell says no, and actually compared summing up "the arc of an artist in a limited space" to his time explaining musicians to customers when he worked at a record store.

Maybe that’s a problem. Philips is skeptical of the AOL experiment as anything approaching true music journalism – it essentially operates on the premise that any random person chatting up a band and scribbling down what they say equals a “profile.” Spinner’s editors even require that six of the questions asked are taken from a list of eight they’ve pre-written – rote softballs like “Beatles or Stones?” and “What’s in your festival survival kit?” and “How did your band form?”

"If they're required questions, then you're basically just asking people to do data entry for you,” Philips says. “You're not really asking much of them in terms of writing at all… You're basically just asking them to transcribe interviews."

Bingo, says Hansell. "Yes. We are inviting a mix of people into the project, some of whom have not done interviews like this before. The required questions did a lot of things. It allowed us to give some help to people just starting out, it created some consistency to the project, and it got conversations going. Lots of reporters modified and added to the question list. We love that. If you don’t need the training wheels, take them off."

Whether it’s kosher or not, AOL’s approach feels like the future. The strategy of harnessing the masses to create content is called “crowdsourcing,” a term first coined by Jeff Howe in Wired as a tool where “hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts,” and where, “the labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees.”

The concept has been used ambitiously as companies embrace its potential as a cheap, productive, and powerful way to curate or create content. For instance, in November 2005, Amazon.com launched the Amazon Mechanical Turk, a web-based application that serves as a marketplace for crowdsourced tasks, matching humans with ones computers cannot achieve. And in June 2009, The Guardian tapped its readership to scour the 458,832 pages of documents released during the British MP expense scandal. To date, 26,005 readers have reviewed 219,405 of them.

If AOL manages to reach the finish line with all 2,000 posts published, it will have gone down to the wire. But with all this farmed content, and such a wide pool of potential long-term contributors, it’s doubtful AOL would deem the project a failure. “So far it has worked much better than my darkest fears,” says Hansell.

It’s already possible to mine the data to learn a few things about the bands. A random sampling of 25 SXSW bands who were asked the “Beatles vs. Stones” question reveals a hard lean toward Beatles by nearly 2 to 1. Musicians asked about the “survival kit” show the traveling artists’ affinity for efficiency: hotel rooms, shoes, and band gear frequently appear on the list.

On the ground in Austin, Spinner will host a series of pop-up shows while Seed plans on getting attendees to contribute various dispatches from the scene. To facilitate that, a series of smartphone applications quietly hit the app stores last week. They allow SXSW attendees to report on events from the scene, on details in real-time and sometimes in 140 character dispatches to be sent out on Spinner’s Twitter. They’re calling it “140 in 140.”

One of the first things they plan on doing post-festival, after sleeping, is compare all the applications to identify any indicators. Do good resumes mean smart writers? Is there any way to tell in advance?

“We’ll see what we learn," says Hansell.

Brian Ries is a Philly-born senior editor at FREEwilliamsburg.com and social media strategist at Attention. He lives in Brooklyn.