From Mixed Tape to iTunes: Toward a Hybrid Community Center

When I was driving my son to preschool last week, listening to Sirius XM satellite radio, he said: “NO Mom! I HATE this song! I want Anne E. Dechant!”  A Cleveland-area native, singer-songwriter Anne E. Dechant is a household favorite.  We play a lot of Anne E. Dechant, and I know the kids enjoy her, but this was the first time my 4 year-old had ever requested a musician by name.  He’s not asking for Barney, or even Lady GaGa or Maroon 5.  My son’s request for a niche, as-of-yet relatively undiscovered singer-songwriter is an example of the ways in which the digital age has changed the way we create, distribute and consume most things in our daily lives.  In his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson describes three revolutionary forces of change: 1) the democratization of tools; 2) the democratization of distribution; 3) the development of communication media that bring together producers and consumers (54-55).

When I was just discovering my own musical preferences, I had few places to go other than the local FM radio stations, which played mostly top 20 hits rather repetitively throughout the day.  In order to get a recording contract and release a single, a musician first had to be discovered by an agent, and be deemed talented (or potentially popular) enough to not represent a huge financial risk for the production company.  The cost of production was daunting enough that only certain artists won contracts, and a small percentage of those record deals led to radio time.  As a consumer, I relied on Rick Dee’s Weekly Top 40 Countdown for listening guidance and recommendations – I spent my Saturday mornings compiling mixed cassette tapes with my fingers hovered above the “record” button on my parent’s rather large stereo system.

My 7 year-old daughter has no idea what this is…

Technology became more affordable as it improved, and musicians began to produce their own music.  This is the democratization of production: the cost and ease-of-use of production technology have removed many of the road blocks once faced by alternative or up-and-coming musicians and opened up the market place.   With the Internet, we no longer have to wait for a disc jockey to play our favorite song, we can easily go to the artist’s website, or the music aggregator of our choice, to download it.  This is the democratization of distribution; this is the world with fewer agents, where a singer-songwriter can make a living selling her recordings remotely, reaching wider audiences and executing sales from the comfort of her home.

The third component of the tail is a connection between supply and demand, or “amplified word of mouth” (107).  The Internet, through social media, has made it possible for me to follow Anne E. Dechant on Facebook, encourage her, contribute to her setlists, download her songs, and feel as though we have a personal connection.  I can even watch videos of her live on tour.

But what does the long-tail mean for non-profit community groups?  Have community groups changed as drastically as the music industry over the last 20 years?  Should they?  In an increasingly digitized world, one might wonder if there is there even a need for a bricks-and-mortar community center.

Do we still need physical spaces for community centers?

Some questions emerge: why and how do people use community centers?  On the ground and in the cloud, when people go to The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland (The Center), they are seeking information and support.  In this way, The Center could become an aggregator akin to ITunes or Google, listening and providing access to the events and support people seek.  In a world of abundant choice, non-profits like the center could benefit from the third force of the long tail by becoming “hybrids” with both physical and digital imprints.   According to Anderson, an aggregator is “a company or service that collects a huge variety of goods and makes them available and easy to find, typically in a single place” (88).  I toured The Center this week and was a bit overwhelmed by the content on its bulletin board.  If I was looking for something particular, how would I start? If I had no idea what I was looking for, but was just generally browsing, would I just give up and walk away?  With all this variety, people look to aggregators to help them make sense of their choices, to make recommendations and to find new things.

What if The Center categorized and reviewed local service providers, gay friendly restaurants and organizations on its website, and then further optimized for search so that when someone was searching for “LGBT lawyer Cleveland” or “lesbian therapist Cleveland,” it was among the first few websites listed on Google?  The long tail has given us micro-niches and social media allows us to be actively engaged in those niches we find most meaningful to us.  You could be a foodie, a resident of Lakewood, Ohio, and a gay man who plugs in to find exactly the restaurant for you on any given night.  You could be a questioning teen, struggling with coming out to your parents and seeking support.  You could be a business owner seeking a diversity training program for your company.  You could be a parent looking for a family-friendly pediatrician or childcare provider.  The reality is that these searches take place on the Internet frequently and, given the right social media plan, The Center could provide vetted information and support to these people.  With the click of a mouse, it could become a trusted source of online information and a virtual advocate for human rights.  Right now, The Center is functioning like a mixed tape, it’s a bit antiquated, using some social technology but not optimally.  With some planning, it can use social media to become more like iTunes, a trusted go-to aggregator for the LGBT community in Cleveland.

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