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Face the music

Online fan forums can inform - and inflame - so enter at your own risk


News Assistant Arts Editor - Buffalo News


Music has always been the left-out topic to the adage never to discuss politics or religion in public. People who love music, and even those who don't, have deeply held unswayable opinions they usually aren't bashful about sharing.

The Internet - with its message boards, newsgroups and chat rooms - was a natural fit for the music fan. A follower of a particular band or genre could communicate with someone across the country or the world without leaving his desk or dorm room. Finding rides to concerts, locating a bootleg copy of a favorite show, joining 3 a.m. discussions about drummers - it was all possible, creating an instant, organic, democratic community for those with a common passion.

Except it didn't turn out that way.

Check any other message board or chat room; they've got them for every conceivable subject. Comic books, sci-fi movies, long-distance running - you'll find someone chatting about something at any given time of the day. And the discussion, for the most part, will be supportive, informative and good-natured.

Not on the music sites. These well-meaning forums intended to foster peace, love and understanding are snarling snake pits, with fans one-upping each other with unfounded knowledge and holders of unpopular ideas going down in flames. (Want to feel the burn? Just write a story about someone's favorite band and publish it in the paper. Then stand back.) Log in, find a topic that interests or enrages you ("Christina Aguilera vs. the Strokes," "Norah Jones on Kilborn") and let it rip.

"This place is like a soap opera," Jay Gerland, founder and moderator of the message boards on wnymusic.com says. "It's a train wreck to watch. You could write books based on the characters on this message board."

Gerland, a computer programmer who has been playing in bands for more than 15 years, founded the site dedicated to locally made music in 1995. And after watching the site grow from including a real-time chat room to a more customized message board divided into seven or eight topics, he's got some thoughts as to why these sites are such rough places.

"All you have online is a user name," Gerland says. "You don't have a face. So you've got 16-year-olds around with 50-year-olds. They wouldn't hang out together at a bar or anywhere else. They've got nothing in common. Everyone's got an opinion and everyone's adamant to getting that opinion out there."

The Internet's anonymity factor isn't the entire reason. Just like in every other facet of public intercourse, etiquette's a must.

It used to be, Gerland says, "you never just came into a newsgroup, opened your big mouth, typed in all caps, asked a question that had been answered before. You came in, read the posts. The elders of the group would teach Netiquette to the newbies."

Reading the posts and getting familiar with the group is crucial to avoiding meltdowns, Gerland says, because otherwise it's hard to tell when someone's joking or being sarcastic online.

Rebel with a keyboard

Music Web sites attract thousands of people a day, and in this age of corporate radio, they're more important than ever to a band's success.

"I think with radio stations playing fewer artists in general, (an online presence) is the best way to market the bands, to get the word out," says Jim Merlis, a publicist with Big Hassle Media who represents such big-time artists as David Gray and the Strokes and also manages the Rochester band Elastica.

Merlis, who's job it is to get good news about bands out there, sees no reason to get excited over vicious online chatter. And he's even seen it work in a band's favor.

"Someone wrote a mean-spirited thing about Elastica," Merlis says, "and I kept it up there because it really jarred everyone, and everyone came to the band's defense. I was really nervous, thinking, "Should I do this?' The guy kept arguing, and it was great. Everyone was really passionate."

Which brings up a point. Cyberspace isn't paper, and posts can come down as quickly as they go up, never to be seen by human eyes again.

"We monitor message boards pretty often and sometimes get frustrated," says Ann McDaniel, director of the Warehouse, the Dave Matthews Band's pioneering online fan site. "But if we started responding to posts, we'd have to hire someone full time for that. We understand that that person just wants a bunch of attention."

Merlis agrees. "Controlling things - the more you do that, the less effective it is. The reason why the Web works is that it's a pure thing. The fans will know - the more you try to control it the less pure it is. No one can control everything on the Web."

Wild, wild Web

But what is it about music that makes the Web such a wild place? Why are music fans, free to explore this still-new medium, making such a bad name for themselves? As Gerland puts it, "if you were to have a newsgroup related to gardening, you wouldn't see it getting out of hand."

In truth, sports message boards and the like are also pretty cutthroat. But that atmosphere seems to go hand in hand with athletics and competition. That sure doesn't explain why some of the most dangerous places online are where modern-day hippies discuss jam bands.

"As social animals, we live in groups, cheer on our groups, kill for our groups, die for our groups," says David G. Myers, psychologist at Hope College in Michigan and leading researcher into the behavior of fans. "We define ourselves by our groups."

So, the group that believes that Trey Anastasio is the rustiest member of back-from-hiatus Phish is pretty much willing to fight to the death to prove its point. But since it's hard to actually inflict death via a high-speed Internet connection, they'll settle for coarse put-downs - what's known as flaming.

Myers says the feeling of group identification intensifies with success. A newsgroup related to a band that sells out stadiums in minutes instead of hours probably isn't the best place for laid-back chat but is certainly ideal if you're looking for a fight.

Not for the meek

Online music forums can still be dynamic, valuable places, even when the testosterone levels are raging. And you don't take it too personally.

"You have to have a thick skin," Gerland says. "I've been attacked on the (wnymusic.com) site. If I delete a discussion or try to bring a discussion back on topic, the next thing you know, I'm a Nazi, I'm a censor. That doesn't sit well with musicians; they're naturally rebellious."

Success seems to be something else that doesn't sit well with musicians. Gerland says jealousy is the most common fuel for Internet fires.

Seven Day Faith is one local band that's been singed a time or two on wnymusic.com. "They have a certain look, they write very catchy songs, they've gotten some attention on KISS 98.5," Gerland says, and that makes them a target.

"People complain about the Goo Goo Dolls a lot, too. There are people who say, "What are they doing for Buffalo?' "

All over the message board

Ironically, staying on topic is something posters on these sites get most angry about, even when there are so many juicy non-music subjects:

"Do Sharpies ruin CDs?" "Dell interns: Who else thinks that girl is hot?" "What World Trade Center design do U like?" "Britney drinks RedBull?"

It's amazing how often having the same musical tastes will mean having the same feelings about the impending potential war in Iraq. Group think is strong online, and those who stray will pay.

"This site is microcosm of the whole city," Gerland points out, "and there are people who are helpful, wise, immature, have dirty minds, are hippies, angry people, sensitive people, insensitive people.

"This isn't real, but it's a lot of fun, but I don't think everybody gets that."

e-mail: ebarr@buffnews.com

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