One of the recurring themes of the recent Future of Music Policy Summit in Washington, DC was the necessity, for musicians, to develop an “active fan base.” There wasn’t one specific panel about this, or one discussion; it was instead a constant thread through many different panels and discussions, and the seemingly inevitable answer to the industry’s $64,000 question: how on earth can musicians earn a living in the digital age?
We all know the basic plot by now. Musicians are on their own out there, lacking both the imprimatur and promotional budget once afforded by big record labels. And by the way no one wants to buy music anymore either. What’s a poor singer/songwriter boy or girl to do?
At the conference, something like a consensus emerged in response: foster the artist-fan relationship. Any number of experts in any number of different ways ultimately said the same thing: succeed with so-called “fan engagement” and you’re on your way. (Well, okay, musicians were also told, repeatedly, “not to suck.” Another worthy goal, but outside of the purview of this essay.)
And luckily for today’s musicians, the internet is just one big crazy fan-engagement machine, if properly operated. Through regular forays into blogging, Twittering, and Facebooking, musicians can get up close and personal with their fans, and use this interaction to—let’s be blunt—make money.
In the minds of those pinning the future of musician well-being on fan engagement, what they’re talking about is really a sort of fan engagement on steroids. It’s not just about collecting email addresses and talking to fans at the merch table after the show. That’s relatively easy, old-fashioned, and, now, inadequate.
Fan engagement as newly conceived is relatively difficult. It involves managing an arsenal of 24/7 social media pages and being ever on the lookout for creative avenues of interaction and out-of-the-ordinary sales opportunities. Needless to say, this is time-consuming. And—it should be noted—the path from this new, aggressive kind of fan engagement to revenue isn’t necessarily clear.
The general idea, however, is that the more that fans feel connected to musicians they love, the more they are likely to want to attend their concerts, buy not merely songs but premium items (specially packaged albums, boxes, et al), and be interested enough in their beloved musicians’ comings and goings to be willing to pay as well for any number of offshoot endeavors that the musician can dream up—custom clothing, exclusive video performances, hand-made art items, you name it.
With all this in mind you can see why the experts at the conference seemed to agree that in the digital age, the central important thing that’s changing in the music industry is not so much the technology as the artist/fan relationship. Musicians should be thinking of fans not as fans at all but, said one panelist, as “co-conspirators.”
So I’m listening to these ideas in Washington and I’m wondering what isn’t sitting right with me. Not that there’s anything wrong with the concept of fan engagement per se. How could there be? All any committed band wants to do is make an honest living through their music, and I understand why an augmented sort of fan engagement strategy may be just the way some bands eke it out in the digital age.
But I also think the fan engagement bandwagon is missing something significant in the bigger picture of how music functions in the world.
Outside of the confines of the Future of Music Policy Summit, this new approach to fan engagement has been most widely pondered and discussed in the context of Kevin Kelly’s well-known “1,000 True Fans” post from last year. As pundits are wont to do, Kelly attempted to crystalize an interesting idea into a concrete credo, which was his hypothesis that anyone producing any kind of art needs only to have 1,000 passionate, committed fans to make a living.
Most of the discussion generated by “1,000 True Fans” has focused on whether it works or not financially. Is 1,000 the right number? Is it more if you have more people in the band? I’ll leave that to others. I’m wondering about whether it works culturally.
In some important ways, if the music scene is transformed into a place in which all worthy musicians are supported by enclaves of super-engaged fans, 21st-century rock’n’roll musicians may win the battle but lose the war. Because the more that artists require so-called super-fans for their livelihood, the more they will leave behind the very sorts of casual fans that made rock’n’roll such a robust musical arena for such a long time.
For better or worse, popular music depends upon the existence of casual fans. Back when the big albums of the day were selling a few million copies, these were not purchased by a few million super-fans. Even when a band like Arcade Fire sells a “mere” 300,000 copies of an album, this does not represent an audience of 300,000 super-fans. Once a band achieves any measure of widespread success, that success hinges, somewhat paradoxically, upon catching the attention of people who aren’t really paying attention.
Today’s fan engagement schemes, however, deny the existence of casual fans by leaving them out of the picture entirely.
Because what entices a super-fan will almost, by definition, be of no interest to a casual fan. Just because you happen to like a song or two, or even an album or two, doesn’t mean you require a musician’s real-time biographical details, doesn’t mean you crave endless streams of recording flotsam and jetsam (b-sides, live takes, remixes, etc.), doesn’t mean you’ll want to purchase objects lit by physical association with the musician (self-designed t-shirts, hand-addressed postcards, and the like) or watch repeated video presentations.
Casual fans also lack any need for the very sort of online interaction that sits like a holy grail at the center of this new idea of fan engagement. The various schemes I’m seeing now on a daily basis—make a video of a song for a contest! donate money so your name can go on the album jacket! subscribe to a service offering journal entries and/or webcasts and/or live recordings!—make no sense to a casual fan.
Most important of all, a casual fan will not spend upwards of $100 a year purchasing music and other accessory items from one band or musician.
In his original “1,000 True Fans” post, Kelly asserted that the processes artists develop to feed their diehard fans will also nurture what he calls “Lesser Fans.” I see no evidence beyond wishful thinking to support this idea.
I believe, on the contrary, that the more the music scene focuses on these kinds of super-fan activities, the more likely it will be that casual fans more or less disappear.
Such a development will not be unprecedented in the unfolding history of music. For instance, you have to be something of a super-fan to know what to do with, how to listen to, and how to interact economically with classical music. Jazz is another genre that caters by and large to super-fans.
This could be rock’n’roll’s trajectory too. And that may be for the best for all I know. But I don’t think anyone busy touting hyperactive fan-engagement scenarios has considered the large-scale consequences of transforming rock into a super-fan genre.
So let’s look at four such consequences.
Consequence No. 1: Far, far fewer fans for rock music
Proponents of these super-fan scenarios seem to be presuming that the total number of active music fans will remain somewhat the same. That’s the beauty of it, in theory: so, instead of three million people buying one particular artist’s album, 1,000 people will buy 3,000 different albums. That’s still three million music fans, right?
Actually, no. As noted earlier, in the glory days of the album-selling past, if any one artist sold an album to three million people, a large percentage of those people were casual fans—people who heard a song or two and liked them enough to buy the album, or people who had been exposed to the music via a friend, or people who were just kind of swept along by the zeitgeist.
There is of course no research to cite here; I can only go with decades of my own anecdotal observations. I’m suspecting that the ever-useful 80-20 rule may be applied, but in any case it is clear that any band throughout rock history that has broken through to some amount of widespread success—say, sales of 250,000 copies or more of one album—has done so largely on the backs (and purse strings) of casual fans. Probably, also, the higher the total number of albums sold, the higher the percentage of casual fans.
Super-fan orientation shrinks the rock’n’roll marketplace because to foster tribes of passionate fans requires throwing maybe 80 percent of the potential audience out the window.
Musicians nurturing diehard fans are not, of course, making a conscious decision to freeze out casual fans. It’s just that seeking to promote super-fans inherently alienates the non-super-fan. I disagree with Kevin Kelly’s belief that musicians will be able to “convert” their “Lesser Fans” into “True Fans” in an ongoing way. I contend, instead, that casual fans (a phrase I prefer to “lesser fans”) are disinclined, behaviorally, to be somehow lured into ratcheting up their involvement with any musician simply because they happen to like a few of his or her songs.
In my experience a True Fan is actually a type of person (and I mean that almost archetypally). I don’t think casual fans are typically or easily converted into True Fans. Sure, you might get them to give your their email address for a free MP3 but their hearts won’t be in it for the long run. (What is likely, instead, is that a True Fan of one musician will be open, additionally, to becoming a True Fan of any number of other musicians. The market isn’t expansive but, rather, cannibalistic.)
From the perspective of any one individual musician who is happy now to be supported by his or her diehard admirers, freezing out or alienating casual fans may be pretty much okay—a necessary evil, say. And maybe this will foster a whole new kind of music, as bands aim not for mass success at all, but for idiosyncratic sonic niches, or, in any case, sounds that appeal to much smaller rather than much larger numbers of people.
Let’s just be clear, however, about what casting aside casual fans entails. If industry pundits are wringing their hands to date over shrinking bottom lines, just wait till the super-fans take over.
Consequence No. 2: Cultural disconnect
Beyond plummeting album sales, another disorienting hallmark of the digital music age has been the fragmentation of popular music into a mind-boggling array of genres and sub-genres. Are there any songs or artists that “everyone” listens to and knows about any more? Not apparently.
And yet so far, at least, this is not for want of trying. That is, many musicians still aspire to gain the ear of the multitude, if only from the instinctual understanding that if as a musical artist you have something important to say, you hope to say it to a larger rather than smaller number of ears.
In the brave new musical world of fan engagement, musicians need no longer aim in this direction. As artists, by necessity, nurture their super-fan following, no one will need to think about creating something for everyone rather than something for their marketplace of 1,000—or, even, as one recent story would have it, just forty.
By and large this is presented as a liberating idea. Release yourself from the desire to appeal to large numbers of people, follow your individual muse in a way that pleases your flock of supporters, and you shall be set free, goes the basic thinking. Let go of the ego need for millions of fans and you’ll see it’s okay to seek a micro-audience, because a) you’ll be making a living, and b) everyone listening will be listening really carefully and pretty much worshipping you.
But the point here isn’t psychological. It’s cultural. The point isn’t getting artists accustomed to aspiring to selling to only a thousand people. The point is the different nature of the involvement sought and the consequential effect on a culture being served by this new kind of musician.
Aiming to reach a vast audience and seeking to connect with a limited group of people are two very different things. The end result of having all or even most of our contemporary musicians seeking the former rather than the latter style of artistic connection means the loss of a meaningful musical commons in our joint public experience.
The restorative effect of this type of commons is subtle but powerful. Just the other day, I was working out at the gym and the song “One” by U2 came on the sound system. I am not a diehard U2 fan, and yet the song in that context triggered a deep, ineffable pleasure. Hearing a good song that everyone knows in a public setting recharges the spirit in a subtle but meaningful way.
Note that this is not just about me hearing a song I like. I hear a song I like every time I’m listening to a playlist on my iPod. This is about me hearing the song in the midst of other people, total strangers, who also know the song and are hearing it at the same time. What transpires is a communal, connective experience, even without any words passing between those having it.
This effect is the antithesis of a super-fan moment. The connection to the music is casual; it’s a sense of human connection here that provides the frisson of aliveness. Music in this way can offer a culturally constructed way of feeling at one with the world around us.
In a world in which musicians are encouraged, if not forced, to cater exclusively to their most passionate followers, likewise a world in which music fans listen exclusively to music most passionately loved, we lose this important but overlooked capacity to connect. The world shrinks. Something about being human is lost.
Consequence No. 3: Artistic claustrophobia
The decision to go from having an audience which includes diehard fans among others to having an audience exclusively comprised of the diehards will have aesthetic consequences too.
That’s because musicians aiming to slake the appetites of diehard fans are likely to retreat, however unconsciously, into a closed-off, self-referential space. The music is likely to become constricted over time, for a few reasons.
First, think about the time and energy required to feed and nurture a group of super-fans, and whether this leaves a musician time to tend to his or her actual art. In the old days, musicians needed only to convey the idea that their music was worth the price of an album or a concert ticket. This modest goal involved first putting out a good album and second getting the word out that it was indeed good—no mean feats to be sure, but at heart not too complicated. The energy was by and large directed towards writing and performing good songs, and trying to convince people to give a listen.
In the age of the super-fan, the musician is charged with conveying the idea that his or her music is worth $100 a year of various and sundry purchases, some or even most of which may not involve actual music. I am not saying that this can’t be done, I’m only pointing out that this is first of all a less modest goal than musicians of the past were charged with and second of all requires a different approach to a music-making life.
Some 21st-century musicians appear to be well-suited to this new mode of being. It requires an unmitigated willingness and ability to be a public person in a much different way than is involved when simply singing songs on a stage. Artists for whom such conduct feels natural may not find it any particular kind of burden.
I suspect, however, that many musicians will find this behavior difficult to come by in any consistent way. I suspect many musicians will be unhappy when they find that time and energy that once could be devoted to writing and performing must now be deflected into other endeavors and activities that may have little to do with music.
Even if a musician can find a manager-like person who can help out with all the social media interaction and the peripheral offerings required to stoke the super-fan base, staying on top of fan engagement will still consume personal resources he or she may not have. The music may suffer. The first stage of claustrophobia is arrived at out of basic depletion.
Above and beyond the time and energy situation, creating for a tribe of passionate fans has a couple of additional artistic drawbacks as far as I can see. To begin with, the situation strikes me as similar to a politician surrounding him- or herself with sycophants, or to a writer who, after a big bestseller, no longer feels the need to be closely edited. Regardless of how talented the artist, to create exclusively for people who are predisposed to believe that you are utterably brilliant is a less than ideal environment in which to create meaningful art.
The final element of the claustrophobia relates to the look and feel and vibe of an artist catering to and grooving off of his or her tribe of super-fans. Artist and super-fans are insiders together, sharing information and ideas with an ever-present interactive feedback loop.
To the expert I heard at the DC conference, the idea that artists and highly-engaged fans will “co-conspire” like this represented nothing less than the future of music. To me, it sounds like middle school. You’ve got the cool group on the inside, and what they mostly conspire to do is keep the uncool and unworthy outsiders outside.
Insider cliques stoke egos but fall short when it comes to worthwhile activity. I am not optimistic about the quality of music likely to emerge over time from super-fan-driven musicians.
Consequence No. 4: Debilitated listeners
If the musician motivated by fan engagement is in danger of losing his or her creative touch, the fans in this scenario are at risk of a similar loss at the receiving end of the creativity.
To begin with, just as musicians may grow artistically flabby catering to a tribe of worshippers, listeners likewise may find their powers of discernment slacken in this environment.
Think about it. Listeners are congregating exclusively around artists they passionately love. They pay $100 a year or more for the privilege of buying a variety of products from their beloved musician. In that environment, there is little room for critical thinking.
And so, among this small group of devotees—who, don’t forget, have an unprecedented capacity to talk amongst themselves, and therefore reinforce established opinions—what the musician produces will wind up in one of two basic drawers: the drawer of “oh my god, I’m gonna cry, this is so brilliant”; or, the drawer of “oh my god, I’m gonna hurl, this sucks.” That’s because in this group of super-fans, particularly as the artist acquires a body of work, those who think that every tiny thing the musician does is genius will exist side by side with those who think that every tiny thing the musician did used to be genius but now (as noted) sucks.
It’s the nature of diehard fandom, and not a big deal, except to the extent that the fan engagement model becomes the bedrock of the music scene and we’re left only with the diehards. Not a lot of good happens when we are left only with colliding extremes (cf. 21st-century U.S. politics).
One of the great, if paradoxical, things casual fans bring to the scene is the fact that they don’t care quite so much. They are somewhat objective observers. For those who’ve read Nick Hornby’s new book, it’s the difference between the written reviews of Juliet, Naked that Duncan (the super-fan) and Annie (the casual fan) post online (not to mention the difference between what proceeds to happen to each of them).
Another way listeners may be debilitated over time by the super-fan scenario is how it will accelerate the already existing trend of closing ears off to music that is not already known. And some of this closing-off will be a purely logistical problem.
The key word in fan engagement is “engagement,” after all. Musicians in this model are trying their damnedest to keep your attention—encouraging you to browse offerings, haunt message boards, enter contests, follow tweets, read newsletters, leave blog comments, and so forth. All of this takes time. A lot more time than just listening to a song or two. A principal reason that the super-fan scenario will close listeners off to experiencing new music in a more casual way is that there are still only 24 hours in a day.
Consequence of the Consequences
The ironic bottom line about the fan-engagement model of Saving the Music Industry is that, if effected, it will shrink the market for rock music far beyond the place to which technology and circumstances have already shrunk it—far beyond the place, that is, where everyone’s already freaking out.
Remember, there is no such thing as popular music without casual fans; remove casual fans from the mix and out the window also goes popularity.
I know that in theory most critics and pundits and sideline observers don’t really care about that. Being “popular” is never that cool a concept with such folks. So if that’s the case, then sure, let’s sit back and applaud as rock’n’roll takes its place next to jazz at the table reserved for music that used to be popular and now caters to a specialized set of listeners. Maybe some new and interesting musical avenues will be opened up in the process.
But here’s the thing. This happened to jazz in a more or less organic way. Yes, I know I’m oversimplifying, but with jazz one could say that the music went one direction, the mainstream audience another. (Same with classical, sort of.) The idea behind something like “1,000 True Fans” is different. Here, musicians are told to aim for slender segments of listeners. This is an aim that purposefully—if somewhat obliviously—shows casual music fans out the door.
What’s more, it’s doing so in a way that seems kind of…well, icky. Jazz musicians followed their muse away from the mainstream. It was all about the music, and if a limited number of people still wanted to listen, so be it. Via “1,000 True Fans,” musicians are being told that it’s not just about the music. It’s about the tweets and the video updates and the t-shirts and the personally-signed pottery cats and dogs and who knows what else.
Because here’s what it’s really about: figuring out how to pry $100 a year from your most ardent admirers.
There are many who say: and what the hell is wrong with that? Maybe nothing. It’s nice work if you can get it. As a major consumer of music for 30 some-odd years, I will note, however, that I am much happier when I feel as if I’m pushing money to my favorite artists rather than having it pulled out of me.
Look, it’s always been nearly impossible for most musicians to earn a living wage. And yes, the 21st century has made it even more difficult. There’s file sharing. There’s the bad economy. There’s more file-sharing. (And did I mention file-sharing?)
Worse—and pay close attention now—there’s the badly overcrowded marketplace. Thanks to the combination of laptop recording and web-based distribution, the barrier to entry for being a musician in the first place has all but disappeared. Amateurs and imposters have flooded the marketplace.
And so, even as industry experts propose fan engagement as a panacea, my conclusion is that, if effected, it will only make matters worse. It may ultimately be even harder for musicians to earn a living.
Because if everyone now thinks they only need 1,000 fans to make it as a musician, then yikes—you won’t believe how many more people will be out there trying to do just that.
And that, to me, is the biggest indictment of this well-intended but not well-thought-out idea: that it will in fact be a beacon of hope for “vanity press” musicians who write and sing and record songs that they should not even be sharing with their friends, never mind 1,000 strangers. No matter how untalented and unpromising any one person with a Mac and a dream may be, he or she will be nothing but inspired to know that all all they need are 1,000 fans and they can be a full-time, professional musician. Why, most of them probably have at least 600 Facebook friends. That sounds like they’re already more than halfway there.
Will “1,000 True Fans” work nicely for any one particular musician? No doubt it may. Set it loose on an unsuspecting marketplace, however, and watch out. Casual fans will disappear and in their wake come those we may as well call the casual musicians. I for one don’t like the trade-off.