Radiohead fans, are you tired of congregating everywhere on the Internet to sing the praises of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and those other dudes? It doesn’t seem like it, from the way that you’ll take to any comment section in any far-flung blog, but the boys in the band are betting that you’d love to find just one place to get together and find people just like you! (Plus, now that Thom et al have already changed the music industry forever and ever, they need to give their Web team something to do.) Head on over to Waste Central, Radiohead’s safe space for fans to bond over their shared ownership of the In Rainbows box set. The best part about the site? It shows that the trailblazing band isn’t afraid of following in the footsteps of Fall Out Boy, 50 Cent, Kylie Minogue, and other artists who have decided to “monetize their userbase” by cutting them off from the rest of the Internet and plopping them inside boutique social networks that are emblazoned with lots of e-commerce links.
The social networking component gives fans a reason to hang out on a site and visit more often than they would a standard Web site. And artists can sell advertisements on their sites and offer downloads and merchandise for sale — options they don’t have on MySpace or Facebook. Plus, they own the content and data on how fans use their site, which they don’t get on other social networks.
“The thing that separates Thisis50 from MySpace is we control the e-mail database,” says Chris “Broadway” Romero, director for new media at G-Unit Records, which handles Thisis50. “We can e-mail members if we want to.”
Thisis50 isn’t meant to be a fan club, but rather a platform for 50 Cent to showcase his music and music he likes, and comment on news and user profile pages. Ludacris’ WeMix.com, on the other hand, is more of a hub for aspiring artists to upload their music.
The artist networks aren’t meant to replace MySpace or Facebook, which tend to attract a broader audience and more users.
“(Artists) think about MySpace and Facebook as funnels for their own social networks,” says Gina Bianchini, CEO of Ning, a company that provides social networking tools for Thisis50, Sara Bareilles and others. “They take and use services where they don’t know the users, don’t have access and don’t have full control, and funnel those fans to something they do control.”
With the idea supposedly being that those fans will eventually only want to hang out in those artist-controlled spaces, at least until the promotional cycle for the artist’s current album ends. (Can you imagine what the Sara Bareilles social network will look like once November rolls around?) But I have to question the long-term viability of these sites for the simple reason that people only have so many hours in their day–wouldn’t they want to be in a space where they can interact with as many people as possible? (And in the case of Radiohead, don’t they already have a thriving fan community, albeit an unofficial one?) It just seems like “branded social networks” is the Web 2.0 iteration of the “official site with message boards and chat rooms and free e-mail,” and if anything it’s giving some programmers and “community managers” a chance to keep their jobs for another couple of months, which I guess isn’t a bad thing given that the economy’s in the crapper right now. But I wouldn’t bet on them for anything resembling a long-term strategy for keeping music fans engaged (that’s code for “spending money”) on a long-term basis.