Musicians Are Connecting with Their Fans over Discord

Steven Page and Good Kid shed light on their thriving online communities
Musicians Are Connecting with Their Fans over Discord
Photo: David Bergman
Several months ago, Steven Page was preparing for one of his Live from Home virtual concerts when he ran into trouble synchronizing his audio and video. His wife, Christine Munn, suggested that he turn to his Discord — a free-to-join private chat server devoted to all things Steven Page — and ask the 800 members for help.

"I said, 'Here's a Zoom link if anybody wants to help me figure out the stuff, tell me whether it's in sync or not,'" recalls the former Barenaked Ladies frontman, speaking to Exclaim! from his home in Syracuse, NY. "And like 300 people jumped on. I did a few songs and I got some feedback. And that way, they know I'm gonna be messing around, unplugging and plugging stuff in, and that's what they're there for. For that, they're into that. And they're also totally helping me out. And it was so easy to be able to just jump on there and go, 'Hey, here you go.' And right away, all these people jumped in. That's pretty awesome."

Hundreds of Page's biggest fans attending what is basically the pandemic version of a soundcheck is just one of many aspects of the community formed via the Discord platform. It's more than just a glorified series of private chat rooms — it's slowly becoming the nucleus of Page's fanbase. Where the rock stars of the past acted with an aloofness that separated them from their fans, Page is part of a growing cohort of musicians who are going one step beyond the social media engagement that has become commonplace — he's interacting with his fans in real-time.

And, perhaps more importantly, the fans are interacting with each other. Discord channels like "meetups-on-tour" and "touring-shows" help to facilitate in-person connections, bringing together decades-long fans of Page's music. And while channels like "music" and "livestream-shows" provide a platform for the members to geek out about a shared favourite artist, that barely scratches the surface of the forum's full scope. From "thank-you-for-sharing," wherein members post about their handmade goods and art pieces, to "keep-going," a safe space for members to discuss personal struggles, to "workout-and-sing-along," where members share fitness routines and goals, Page's Discord has become a place for fans of one interest to further explore similarities and differences in a controlled environment alongside like-minded people.

It's similar to the chat rooms and message boards that dominated the internet in the '90s and '00s, but updated for today's far more internet-centric society. Activities like Page's livestream performances and weekly movie nights lean into Discord's full potential, better replicating real-world community-building events in ways that other platforms can't.

Adds Page, "They did a gift exchange last Christmas, which was awesome. It ended up being unconnected to us, which is the best. To me, that's the greatest success, is when the users of the Discord and the fans take on the sense of community so we don't have to kind of engineer it all the time."

Page is deliberate when he says "us." Munn, Page's wife of 10 years, isn't just an occasional guest like Page is; she's the architect of the Discord itself. Munn discovered the platform through her hobby of gaming. When looking for help while playing Tom Clancy's The Division, she stumbled upon a Discord server geared toward players of the game. "It was just really great for talking about the game or looking for groups to play with. That was what I had used [Discord] for in the past. I wasn't a regular. My son is 16 years old and he's on Discord all the time and he's a member of many groups, and I wasn't into it like that."

When Page was looking to start a Patreon subscription, where fans could pay monthly to enjoy exclusive material, Munn realized that a Discord might be the perfect way to further connect with subscribers and other fans. She adds, "When I saw that there was the integration through Patreon, I thought, 'Wow, that's a really cool idea.' Because I hadn't really thought about it in that sense of, 'Oh, this can be used for a musician,' because it was a gaming thing, so I was really excited to try it out. After I set it up, and when the Live from Home shows started happening, that's when I really was like, 'This could be really good. We could really foster a sense of community through Discord.' We didn't really have anything like this at all for Steven — there was not a place where fans could go and talk that was sanctioned by us. And I don't think there really was anything anymore."

With Usenet and message boards having all but dried up — and let's not even get into the anarchy that is Facebook groups — Discord has filled a niche in providing a common space for fans of a particular topic. Unlike an artist-dedicated subreddit, a Discord server provides some flexibility in scope thanks to the ability to add multiple channels. Toss in audio and video chat support, and you have a platform that is ready for the many needs of consumers.

While many of the artists who are embracing Discord came into the platform with thousands of pre-existing fans, such as Page, Danny Brown and Grimes, there's room for newer artists to use Discord to build their bases as well.

Toronto power-pop band Good Kid sought out the platform because it's the kind of thing that they — a quintet of musicians and gamers who all work full-time as programmers — would use anyway. "We play games. We're a pretty — for lack of a better term — tech-savvy band," says guitarist Jacob Tsafatinos. While the five bandmates used Slack, a similar platform typically used for intra-business communication, for their day jobs, they found it financially unsustainable for a band of their size, which led them to make a Discord just so the band could communicate.

"And then," says Tsafatinos, "we were wondering, 'How do we start using it for fans?' I think we were just looking for a way for us to engage with our fans in a more direct way, and because we were already on Discord, we were like, 'Well, why don't we make a Good Kid band Discord?'"

Where Page takes a more relaxed role on his Discord, more content to let the members lead the way, Tsafatinos and his bandmates are regular presences on their server, be it in the "ask-the-band" channel where the musicians are guaranteed to respond to any question lobbed their way in a matter of hours, or in any of the interest-based channels like "gaming," "listentothis" and "chess-club."

The bandmates' other interests are central to their music — for example, their songs "Alchemist" and "Down with the King" are about anime series Fullmetal Alchemist and video game character Donkey Kong, respectively — so, to Tsafatinos, it's no surprise that fans of their music have similar interests as well, and have sought out their Discord as a way of connecting with one another.

Good Kid have celebrated their connections with their fans by creating interactive games to help promote their new material. In advance of Good Kid releasing a video game in December 2020, the band created a series of online scavenger hunts to drum up support and interest from their fans. Tsafatinos remembers, "I had been making a video game for the band for a while, and we were trying to think of a way to release it; maybe we can make a subgame that leads up to the release of this game." The video game centres around the bandmates navigating a 2D platformer — think early Super Mario games — to rescue their kidnapped mascot. Before that game's release, the band's Discord was transformed into a detective agency deciphering clues to help find the mascot's whereabouts.

Says Tsafatinos, "We created this whole Good Kid detective agency and we went super extra with it, taking inspiration from things like Neopets events and stuff like that, where we had a way to get points as you go and we had a prize shop at the end for people who were participating." Rewards included wallpapers and visual features in the Discord.

He continues, "We had puzzles and all these other games, and we even used the AI bot that [vocalist Nick Frosst's] company makes for a chatbot that people could interact with. We tried to incorporate a lot of different things. And Discord naturally has all these really fun features that you can leverage for making cool things — I was changing channel names and replacing them with binary code as a hint, and just messing with the Discord and freaking people out and doing all this fun stuff," including making fake accounts and good-naturedly antagonizing other members. "The Discord was going nuts. They're just trying to solve these puzzles."

Discord was a great way to allow fans to stay connected during pandemic lockdowns. Now that concerts have begun again, these communities are remaining active, and Page in particular has noticed greater fan coordination as a result of the Discord.

He recalls, "I went out and did my first in-person shows since the beginning of the pandemic in New Jersey and Connecticut [this past summer]. And people took road trips from all over the US to come down to see the shows. And, for instance — we usually play with the Steven Page Trio, it's me and Craig Northey and Kevin Fox, but Craig and Kevin, of course, couldn't come down. So I was doing the show solo, but the people in the audience held up cutout cardboard heads of Craig and Kevin for the songs that they're used to seeing the trio playing."

He marvels, "That was obviously all coordinated in Discord. It's not the kind of thing people coordinate on Facebook, or even DMs on Zoom. It's a byproduct of Discord."