Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ben Folds and 'web spread'

I had the pleasure of seeing the majestic Ben Folds at the Hammersmith Apollo last night and again this morning, doing a 6 Music hub session, which prompted me to revisit his official website where I was struck by what incredible use the site makes of the wider web.

First off there's the splash page which invites you to create your own video to accompany his cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" and upload it to a dedicated YouTube group. Then there's the opportunity to purchase the Ben Folds Live at My Space DVD filmed at Ben’s studio in Nashville on 24th October 2006 for MySpace’s first ever live-by-request webcast. Alternatively you can watch the video premiere of "Learn To Live With What You Are" on Sony's Brightcove-powered Music Box site.

If you stopped by on 19th October 2006 you would have been directed to virtual world Second Life where Ben was hanging out, chatting with fans and previewing tracks from his new album, "supersunnyspeedgraphic, the lp", (which, incidentally, was my number 2 album of last year). If none of that tickles your fancy you could always download "Ben's iTunes Originals" (nine songs recorded exclusively for Apple's iTunes Music Store) or "Rhapsody Originals" (five songs recorded for RealNetwork's rival online music service).

What's most remarkable is just how commonplace this sort of extensive off-site activity has become amongst such a reactionary industry. Not so long ago the strategy of most official artist websites was to get people to visit and then try to keep them on the site for as long as possible.
Now it seems the record labels are well and truly waking up to the benefits of online promiscuity, recognising the economic sense of making use of existing services (rather than building your own) and the incredible viral marketing power of (comparatively) neutral spaces like YouTube, MySpace and Second Life.

Of course it's not just in the music sphere that this 'web spread' phenomenon is at work. The television dam broke online well before Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen became such a cause célèbre (colleague Dan Hill wrote extremely convincingly last March about Lost as an example of "genuinely new media ... which uses the entire web as its canvas and its entire audience as its creators") whilst in the film space, Snakes on a Plane recently eclipsed The Blair Witch Project as the apogee of cinematic web spread.

It will certainly be interesting to watch how this trend develops. Will the artist website of the future be little more than a collection of links - a jumping off point for content liberally distributed across multiple third-party sites and services - or will big media try and force the genie back in the bottle in a bid to retain control over their brands? My money's on the former although Universal's decision to sue MySpace suggests there are still a few folk within the music industry who aren't quite ready to embrace the distributed future...

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