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Interview: Rob Balder by Danny Birt
Review by Danny Birt
*Interview  ISBN/ITEM#: INTRBALDER
Date: 01 March 2009

Links: Rob Balder's Website / Danny Birt's Website / Show Official Info /

Fandom at large has been growing and changing over the past many years, and the music that fans listen to has been doing the same. Many science fiction and fantasy conventions (cons) invite guests specifically because of their musical talents. Danny Birt, a reviewer for SFRevu cornered Rob Balder, a music and webcomic guest of the Williamsburg, VA con Marscon 2009, to get the scoop on what the world of music in fandom is like.

The Music of Fandom: Filk, Wizard Rock, Nerdcore, and More

SFRevu: Most conventions I've been to as a fantasy author guest had filk circles on the schedule, but when I arrived here, I was surprised to find that MarsCon didn't have one.

Rob: Nope. But it's a relax-a-con.

SFRevu: On the other hand, MarsCon had several performing musicians like yourself and Power Salad, and even full-sized bands like The Cassettes, Coyote Run, and Poisoned Dwarf. Is this sort of arrangement becoming common?

Rob: You see a lot more performers at conventions these days, particularly over the past two or three years. They're making long-tail successes of themselves – they're making a go of their music within a particular niche market. It wasn't possible to do that up until a few years ago, but with the advent of Youtube, Myspace Music, and other sites and methods of distribution, bands can reach audiences they would have never been able to before. You can have fans in Europe and Asia who will actively buy your songs and support you, without ever leaving the country.

SFRevu: So there weren't really many bands in fandom before a few years ago?

Rob: There were still bands, but not as many. They could play at big cons like Dragon*Con because there were forty, fifty thousand people there, and they could financially support the band's needs playing at big venues like that. There are more cons around now, and they're seeing the value of having performers play their events in addition to having filk circles.

SFRevu: So people still sit in circles and play fan-based music for each other for the fun of it in addition to performers on a stage playing for an audience.

Rob: Oh, the number of filkers isn't going down – it's probably still increasing. But there's more music in fandom now than filk circles alone.

SFRevu: Like what?

Rob: Nerdcore.

SFRevu: What?

Rob: Think of nerdcore like geek-focused hip-hop. It's not necessarily humorous, either.

SFRevu: Okay, what else is there?

Rob: There's Dementia Music – comedy music that could be played on the Dr. Demento Show, usually in parody form. It used to be called novelty music. That's mostly what I focus on, though I am working on some nerdcore songs. Another example is Wizard Rock, which is bands that play songs about Harry Potter.

SFRevu: Only Harry Potter?

Rob: Yes.

SFRevu: No other wizards, like Gandalf or Merlin?

Rob: Nope. Then there's J-Pop, which is Japanese electronica. There's a lot of that at anime conventions.

SFRevu: Wow, there are a lot of different types of music in fandom these days.

Rob: There are! Twenty years ago, filk was more or less the only music you'd find in fandom. Maybe a SF/fantasy fan liked comedy music or certain kinds of folk, such as Celtic, that you could only find as bootlegs or on specialty radio programs or music stores. The costs of recording and producing an album were too far out of budget for amateur bands to get on their feet. But now, technology is both lowering the barriers to entry (as far as recording and mixing and producing CDs) and allowing narrow-casting to a worldwide audience. So you're seeing more acts, and more performance venues opening up for those acts at conventions, on college campuses, fan clubs, even private house gigs, etcetera. Fandom's music is expanding beyond filk, and it's really developing into multiple scenes in ways nobody predicted.

SFRevu: So all these other types of music… they aren't considered filk?

Rob: Not by filkers. I can't say that they are, no. And not generally by the musicians themselves. Some have only a vague idea what filk is.

SFRevu: I've always heard filk defined as "The Music of Fandom." These bands are fans, writing fan-themed songs for fans, and playing them at conventions for fans. How is that not music of fandom?

Rob: The real core filkers – the folks who put on filk-only conventions, who create and run the yearly filk awards – define filking as solely participatory. You are a filker if you go to a convention to play and listen to fannish music with other convention attendees. They say that if you're not doing that, then you're not being a part of the filk community, therefore you're not a filker. So filk, by that definition, is not a type of music at all. It's a type of activity.

SFRevu: But all those other fan-musicians who are doing all this fannish music for fans… If they're not playing "The Music of Fandom," is there another title that encompasses what they do, and filk as well?

Rob: Not right now. I really don't know if filkers still do claim filk is "the music of fandom." I guess some do. But there's very little basis for that, if the filk awards and the filk hall of fame are not open to all of these other forms of fannish music. I would like to see conventions with filk tracks broaden that designation to music track or have a separate performance track.

SFRevu: So we're moving into the future now. What do you see as the future of fan music? What will it be like in, say, ten years?

Rob: In ten years, music in fandom will be doing things that haven't been invented yet. To pull some wacky examples from sheer imagination, imagine if the band on stage could link up the audience members' video cameras and project what the audience is seeing up on a big screen behind them real-time. Imagine video being played like audio, instruments waving in the air tracing images on the projector and calling up video clips spontaneously to the performance. Imagine a solo act with virtual band members. Or how about a simulcast concert with half the band not physically present, but only there through Second Life or the equivalent. The most popular and significant music of fandom will be technologically driven, I think.

I would also expect that with additional conventions being started and growing larger across the US, there will be a higher profile for all types of fannish music. Niche bands will be able to reach stardom level, too. But stardom will be defined much differently from the way it is now. Half a million fans could make you a superstar.

SFRevu: What about filk?

Rob: Filk music, filk circles, and filk events will still be around, fundamentally unchanged and unchangeable. New stuff does not have to push out the old. I mean there's an 90-man barbershop chorus right near where I live, playing gigs and doing great. So filk will thrive on its own terms and rules. It just may have to give some ground as far as its general significance in fandom.

SFRevu: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with SFRevu, Rob.

Rob: Sure thing.

Rob Balder is a professional cartoonist, singer/songwriter, and game designer from Alexandria, Virginia. For more information on Rob, visit http://www.robbalder.com.

Danny Birt is a fantasy author, composer, music therapist, massage therapist, and more. For more information on Danny, visit his website www.DannyBirt.com

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