Back in June of 2007 I had the pleasure of attending my first Bonnaroo, one of the most mind-bending music festivals on the planet. Anytime you get nearly 100,000 rabid fans together with scores of the best bands in the world, there’s bound to be magic. And for me, a lapsed fan just re-engaging with the world of live music, it was a revelation.
I don’t want to age myself here, but I’m not exactly in Bonnaroo’s core demographic, if you know what I mean. But so many bands I loved were playing there – the Flaming Lips, Ziggy Marley, Spoon, Bob Weir, Fountains of Wayne – and so many bands I’d heard of but never really heard – Kings of Leon, Lily Allen, Mavis Staples, Paolo Nutini, Brazilian Girls, Mute Math, Ween – the list went on and on and on. And oh, yes, I’ll admit, the band I loved when I was in the demo was also playing: The Police.
And I was fortunate enough to not only see most of these bands, but to also see how a festival like Bonnaroo gets created – from the backstage load ins to the incredible ballet of literally hundreds of staff and volunteers who create, in three days, a mid-sized city in the center of a 700-acre farm in the middle of Tennessee.
The reason I had such access? A good friend (thanks, Martin) had hooked me up with the festivals’ producers, an outfit called SuperFly. As I got to know them and watch the fruits of their work, I came to realize I was watching something far larger than a music festival. In short, I was watching a new culture emerge, a culture fueled in equal parts by the timeless connection between musician and audience, on the one hand, and the breakdown of the traditional music business thanks to new technologies of personal media, on the other.
It’s not like I wasn’t familiar with these trends, in theory, anyway. After all, there’s a reason I named my company “FM” – it was clear that on the web, “musicians” (talented folks who were creating independent websites) were connecting with their audiences in new ways outside traditional “top 50″ distribution models (ie, outside the old school models of major media companies like Time Inc., Yahoo, Viacom, etc.). This mirrored the rise of the counter cultural music movement of the 60s and 70s, a movement that leveraged another new technology – the FM radio band. The rise of the album and the explosion of creative freedom which resulted – well, that resonated with me when I saw talent like Dooce, or Boing Boing, or Digg start to redefine the Web.
But as I was building FM (and even before, while I was working on a book and a new conference), I managed to lose touch with the visceral, emotional connection that live music represents. And live music, it turns out, was undergoing its own incredible evolution.
Then I spent those three days at Bonnaroo.
And there, well, BAM, it hit me. Everyone says the music business is in collapse, but that’s not true at all. The old industry may be dying, but the connection between fans and bands is stronger than ever. Thanks to the web, more and more acts can find their audiences, more and more fans can find music they love, and together they are changing the world of entertainment forever. It’s nearly impossible to make money as a musician using the old system of record labels and Top 50 hits. But if you tour, if you are smart about what festivals you play, and if you use the web to connect directly with your base, well, there’s clearly a great living to be made, doing what you love to do. And new companies like SuperFly and Red Light and Another Planet were springing up to help artists do exactly that. It felt a lot like what I was trying to do with FM, the only difference being the medium. One was live music, the other was the conversational web.
Over the past year I began a conversation with the folks at SuperFly about their business and ours, and we kept an eye out for a way to connect the two. Then Rick Farman, one of the partners at SuperFly, called me and told me about Outside Lands, which they were doing in partnership with Another Planet. He said he wanted to figure out something cool to do there that had to do with technology and Bay area culture, and he thought FM might have some ideas. We agreed it could be some kind of digital campfire in the center of the festival, one informed by the same vibe that informs social/conversational media – something of and about the audience’s experience of the festival. In essence, we wanted to create a place where folks could mix their love of music with all the potential of personal and cultural technology.
Now those of you reading this already know what an incredible event Outside Lands is going to be – basically, it’s Bonnaroo west, with the first ever nighttime concert in Golden Gate Park (and it’s Radiohead, for goodness sakes) and three days of incredible music (Wilco, Jack Johnson, Tom Petty, Widespread, Beck, Broken Social Scene, Ben Harper, Jackie Greene, and about 40 others? ARE YOU KIDDING ME???!)
Over the course of several brainstorming sessions, including with Marc Ruxin at McCaan and folks at Microsoft, an idea began to take shape based on a single insight: personal media is changing how we all experience music. Remember, it had been a while since I had been to a concert. A lot had changed. Everyone there had a cel phone with a camera, for one. Or a Flip. Or a digital camera. And when an amazing moment occurred, more folks held up their digital devices than they did lighters. At Bonnaroo this past June, I took a picture that nails it for me – the image at left. A woman capturing an incredible personal memory of an incredible shared experience (in this case, it was Metallica literally blowing people’s minds), the three screens reflecting the integration of physical, personal, and shared experiences. That image informed our logo, as you can see.
So – where did all those experiences go (Searchblog readers, of course, know I’ve been thinking about this for a while)? What could be done with them if they were all put together in one place, at one time, turned into a great big feed by a smart platform that everyone could access? In short, what might happen if someone built a platform to let the crowd – the audience – upload their experiences of the music to a great big database, then mix, mash, and meld them into something utterly new?
Well, we’re about to find out. Thanks to some pretty visionary folks at Microsoft, our presenting sponsor, and Intel, a Platinum sponsor, today marks the launch of that idea realized: CrowdFire. The idea is pretty simple, really: Live music has always been a major production from the stage out to the audience: one to many, in essence. But with CrowdFire, we hope to provide all of us music fans a platform for doing with the experience of music what we’re already doing with the experience of the web: a place where all of us can share and produce our experiences: a many to many celebration of live music, in real time, as well as as an ongoing, living archive of what has happened, and what might happen next.
Sound a bit…out there? It is. Today marks the launch of our beta, and I am sure there will be bugs, blips, and general screw ups. But that’s how the web – and music – works. You get out there and you play (link to main site). The more you play, the better you get. And the more folks you play with, the faster you get better. So join us today (link again). Set up an account (link), upload some of your favorite memories around music (images, blog posts, Twitter or flickr streams, video, we’re ready for pretty much anything (link).) Take a tour around, and help us (link to suggestion box) make this thing really sing.
You might have noticed we’ve already got some pretty cool “kindling” in the CrowdFire, including photos from Jeff Kravitz, an amazing talent who recently joined the blogging world (that’s one of his many incredible images at left), as well as leading voices from the music, technology, and culture worlds.
But we need your input to really light this thing up. Browse and rate the stuff that’s already up. Add your own (there’ll be some pretty cool contests and prizes for stuff that the crowd rates as the coolest). And coming up very soon, in the next rev of CrowdFire, you’ll be able to remix all the content in the CrowdFire database, creating your own feeds, videos, and mashups.
When the festival starts, the CrowdFire really gets going. We’ll all be able to send SMS, email, and uploads of our media directly into the CrowdFire database, and we’ll have media jockeys creating streams of CrowdFire imagery in real time, which we’ll send back out into the festival grounds through a network of LED screens. We’ll also send them out into the ether of the Web, for anyone to experience. And anyone can do the same – which is pretty cool.
Big thanks to the folks who helped realize this vision – Marc Ruxin and Matt Nessier of Universal McCaan, Bill Capadanno, Laura User and Aaron Lilly of Team Microsoft, the teams at Superfly Productions, Another Planet and Starr Hill, Martin Shore and the tireless FM Team.
Thanks for coming to check out our first version of CrowdFire. Now let’s go make something cool together!