I was recently reminded this was coming up, and thought I’d contribute some thoughts on it.
Almost eleven years ago, I became part of an online community. It wasn’t the first online community I was part of, but after all these years it’s still been one of the best.
It all revolved around Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, and one of her biggest releases, Day One. But let me start at the beginning.
In my first year of university (2001), Sarah Harmer was doing a tour of Southern Ontario (and some nearby places), and Sarah Slean was an opening act for her. I knew very little about either Sarah, having heard a couple of Sarah Harmer’s songs on the radio and knowing literally nothing about Sarah Slean, but tickets were affordable and they were conveniently playing right there on my university campus. I liked Sarah Slean immediately, but didn’t think much more of her after that.
About a month or so later, I heard Sarah Slean’s song “Sweet Ones” on the radio, and liked it even more than the first time I’d heard it. I eventually bought the album, and all her other albums, and started going to her shows whenever I could. She had already developed quite a fanbase, who were all connected through a listserv/Yahoo!Group sort of mailing list. I joined, but never got overly active in it. I still made a point of going to as many shows as I could though, as she puts on an excellent live show!
Fast forward to 2004. Sarah has been recording a new album in LA for awhile (many of the songs of which we’d gotten a sneak preview of at concerts). Completely unrelated to this (I don’t think I even knew at the time she was recording there), I booked a trip to Los Angeles in late July/early August of 2004. It was my last summer with no classes, and I figured I’d never have such a long period of time to myself again, so I planned a road trip. The plan was to drive from Hamilton, ON to Los Angeles, CA, then up to Vancouver, BC and back across Canada. As a way of making myself go, I timed it around an Alanis Morissette (someone else that I was a huge, huge, huge fan of at the time) concert at the Greek Theatre in LA. At the time, Alanis had two concerts announced in LA and none anywhere else… though these two shows ended up getting sandwiched into the middle of the Au Naturale Tour with the Barenaked Ladies. I ended up buying tickets to both, on July 29 and 30.
As the date approached for me to leave, Sarah Slean started posting some concert dates in LA around the same time. And then, there it was – her last show in LA was at Genghis Cohen on July 28. I made a couple quick plan changes, and scheduled myself to arrive in LA that night. This was no easy task as it turned out – being the music-obsessed person I was at the time (I still am a little, to be honest, but have less access to this level of show in Vancouver), I also had tickets to Madonna in Toronto right before I left. I had to rush through most of the drive down to LA, though my only real regret was not spending more time in Las Vegas, where I’ve since returned to make up for it. (Side note: I also had to rush the end of the trip, as I ended up with tickets to see Alanis Morissette again at the Casino Fallsview when I returned).
The show itself was amazing – Genghis Cohen is the most bizarre little Chinese restaurant / bar / music hall you could imagine. The music seating area is arranged in church pews with small tables where you can order (really delicious) Chinese food. Anyway, long story short the show was amazing, and with some patience I was able to get an advance copy of the CD (two months before its release!) from her manager who was attending all the shows. I never got to thank the person who pointed him out to me, but remain thankful to him to this day!
At the same time, I connected with another fan on the listserv who lived in Vancouver, and we arranged to meet up while I was there. What was supposed to be a brief meeting for her to give me some bootleg tracks (on a CD-R) ended up being a several-hour long conversation at the Granville and Broadway Blenz. This fan and I ended up becoming good friends after she moved to Toronto.
This, it turned out, was only the beginning. Day One was released September 28, 2004, and in the lead-up to its release Sarah’s management launched a new website, complete with a message board meant to build on the existing fanbase that was currently using the listserv. I’m not sure if, when they launched it, they anticipated what it would become.
SarahSlean.com rapidly became a community. It soon attracted dozens, then hundreds, of her fans from around the world (though, admittedly, most were from Sarah’s home of Southern Ontario). The latest version I can find on the Wayback archive shows 721 members, but I’m pretty sure we exceeded 1,000 by its end. I was probably the most prolific poster on the boards, but a large number of people posted regularly – many of us checked in at least daily. We became the Passioneers (after a line in the song Day One).
We talked about everything – the album, the lyrics, the extensive tours that followed the album, and often even just life in general, too. We started to recognize each other at concerts, whether by coincidentally running into one another or by arranging meetings. I even met classmates I didn’t know I had, because we happened to be on the boards together.
I imagine that there probably were trolls, but if there were I don’t remember them being around very long. At times Sarah’s management got a little aggressive with their moderation, though they were eventually replaced. There were a few people who were a little… let’s say eccentric… and they were treated with compassion and friendliness. The diversity was unparalleled – a real cross-section of humanity. In short, it was about as close to a utopic online community as you could imagine. A revolution of joy.
In the first six or seven months of that board, and the tours that were running at the same time, I met around a dozen people in real life that I still consider my friends today, a decade later. We started intentionally finding one another at shows, and often even arranging rides together. I’m guessing based on her tour archive, but I probably went to six shows of hers in as many months.
This all culminated ten years ago today, in advance of her concert at The Phoenix in Toronto. Since Toronto was pretty central for quite a few of us, and some fans were flying into town for the show (which was also the final show of the tour), we decided to have a great big meetup before the show. We also decided that since Sarah had been giving of her art over the last six months (in addition to the new album, and concerts, she regularly posted new written and visual material on her website), we would create a (secret, but not really that secret) project ourselves. We launched a “scrapbook” project, where people from the boards each created a page (of equal dimensions of course) and sent them all in to someone who coordinated them centrally. The whole thing was then assembled and we brought it to the show. A number of us gathered at Salad King (in its old location, on Gould Street) for late lunch / early dinner (we wanted to be first to the show so we could be right up by the stage, of course). Many of us met for the first time that day. The show was amazing (and bloody… she cut herself on the keyboard), and we presented Sarah with the scrapbook after the show.
This was one of several pinnacles in this community, but for many of us it was a highlight. What followed was several years of getting together for shows – we often travelled together, or met up at shows, saving spots for people who had to work late or buying tickets together. We got together at festivals, and went to other artists’ concerts too. And we kept meeting – some of these people remained cyber-friends only, and I’ve met some in real life for the first time as recently as 2011.
For several years, Sarah held a pair of concerts at Harbourfront Centre every December, which became a reunion of sorts for us fans. Starting with the first year, we decided that instead of giving art again, we would give back to our communities. We created a “Passioneer Holiday Card” project, where people from the message board would give back, either by donating to an organization or by volunteering, and we compiled electronic submissions (with descriptions of what we did, and our usernames) into a card. While in theory this was one of those “fans giving a gift to the artist who probably doesn’t need it” things, this was such a great way to get together with people around the world doing good. Even though that tradition has discontinued (along with the annual concerts), I still make a point of making a donation to an unsuspecting charity around that time each year.
There have been so many highlights over the years, but these are some of mine. Thank you Passioneers for being part of my life. This community lives on without the message board, and is still the most positive online community I’ve ever been a part of.