Monday, November 09, 2009

New Fingertips Commentary: Farewell to the Casual Fan

There's a new Fingertips Commentary essay on the main site, called "Farewell to the Casual Fan." Subtitle: "Too many 'future of music' schemes overlook the importance of listeners who don't worship you."

As always, it's a somewhat lengthy discussion, so I'm breaking it into two parts for the blog. I'll post the second part on Wednesday. The weekly MP3 selections should be up tomorrow. The essay is the same here as on the main site, except there are a handful of footnotes accompanying the piece on the Fingertips site, which flesh out the subject at hand.

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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.

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The rest of this essay will be posted to the blog on Wednesday. If you want to read the whole thing right away, got to the Commentary page on the main Fingertips site.


refe said...

While you do make some good points (and I like to support any commentary that questions the popular ideas of the moment) I think your method of analysis is a bit off.

Basically what you've done is to take these ideas and their consequences to the extreme and work backwards. You say that if an artist puts too much focus on cultivating 'super-fans' they may alienate casual fans and drive them out of rock and roll (and into jazz? Polka?), therefore the 1,000 true fans concept will have a negative impact on music and culture.

I don't disagree that some of the consequences you laid out in this post are possible, but I do disagree that this somehow means that the pursuit of die-hard fans is bad or wrong.

Artists have always tried to cultivate die-hard fans. Kevin Kelly just gave it a name and made it a somewhat measurable goal. Some bands, particularly underground acts, have even deliberately alienated casual listeners in order to strengthen their core fan base. This didn't shrink the pool of music listeners - it just caused some of those casual fans to migrate to other artists.

Also, I disagree that the pursuit of true fans will somehow drive casual fans out of rock and roll. Casual fans don’t stop listening to music - they just stop paying for it. And they’ve already stopped paying for it. The recent focus on fan-engagement is not causing this - it’s responding to it.

Besides, when a mature band sets out to engage their ‘true’ fans, I don’t believe that the alienation of casual fans is inevitable. A skilled artist can learn navigate both relationships.

Eugenia said...

I agree with refe that creating a niche in terms of customers is not always a bad thing.

One thing is for sure, that stardom with champagne, private planes and all that, won't be part of being a "star" anymore.

The profession is simply scaling down, as many other professions have had in the past.

Ben Denison said...

Thanks for a well structured and thought provoking read.

I agree totally that a swing too far towards the "engagement" approach could potentially alienate a proportion of an artists fan base, however I dont see any evidence in your argument as to why it would be the "casual fan" who would be driven away although you say it "inherently" would be. Maybe you will expand further in part 2. I personally would be very surprised if the "casual fan" would even be aware of the contemporary engagement activities being applied at the moment.

On the contrary, it is my concern that over "engagement" by a band will drive away the super fan. Do you already tire of going to a band site and being asked to engage in some sort of merry fan/band dance, when all you want to do is listen to the music?

The important thing for bands to remember is that any engagement strategies/activities need to be appropriate and cater for both casual and super fans, and themselves.

As far as I can see there is already evidence that over engagement has already generated a niche as super fans are seeking bands such as Islet that dont even have a website/myspace/bandcamp for the exclusivity and mystique factor.

Interesting read. Thanks.

Suzanne Lainson said...

I've been working on this blog post for awhile, but just published it about a two hours ago. Since it relates to the above topic, I'll toss it out.

Involving Music Fans at Many Levels

Jeremy said...

Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. I fear my sensitivity over having a post that was "too long" has potentially weakened the overall argument. Thanks for your patience; the second part will arrive tomorrow. The entire thing, as noted, is available already on the main Fingertips site for those who are okay leaving the 'feed' environment.

thehuxcapacitor said...

Really interested by Ben Denison's thoughts:

"On the contrary, it is my concern that over "engagement" by a band will drive away the super fan. Do you already tire of going to a band site and being asked to engage in some sort of merry fan/band dance, when all you want to do is listen to the music?"

How do we appeal to casual and devoted fans (are these the same people who used to be "early adopters"?) at the same time?

It feels to me that we'd need to adopt a mix of:
Front page listen/buyability as well as a host of "Connect with me" options.

Perhaps this is why twitter can work so well for artists (Amanda Palmer, Imogen Heap, Steve Lawson for example, and in my own personal experience) in that it's a conversational (and geek/fan/tech friendly) environment already, so lends itself well to those already pre-disposed to get more personally involved with an artist.

To concur with Refe too; The pursuit of dedicated fans can't diminish the value of casual fans to an artist, if it's already financially zero. I personally won't be alienating casual fans as you know what, they might have my record on and their friend hears it and they become a dedicated fan. Unintentional, accidental or passive sharing if you like.

Non-Warning: passive sharing can't damage your wealth [wink]

Jeremy said...

Okay, the second half is online now. In retrospect I'm sorry to have broken it in two, if only because of the comments being divided. Thanks for your patience in dealing with that. Also, I'm getting a bit of email that may ultimately end up in a feedback section on the main site as well. Yikes. But I'm glad to see the discussion.

One note for now: we have perhaps some unavoidable issues of semantics at play here, especially as I think about Ben's comments, and thehuxcapacitor's follow-up. I have been using the phrase "casual fans" simply to describe anyone who does not feel compelled to be engaged ("over-engaged"?) at the so-called "super-fan" level. Amongst that category of casual fan are likely to be people who are indeed quite engaged with the music but still have no interest in interaction. As noted I think in a footnote to the essay on the main site, I consider myself a casual fan, in this way, of just about every musician I listen to.

Not sure if this clarifies or confuses. Onward...

IMI said...

My first impression was about the summit you attended because it seemed like the people leading the discussions were further away from fans/public/audience than the people attending.

Music is not about making money. It's about music - that you love. Remember the phrase that predicts "everyone will have 15 minutes of fame"? Well look at reality shows to You Tube to TPain's iPhone app 'You Too Can Sing'.

Just like the way of the dinosaur, Atari and cassettes, it's all doom and gloom once someone has noticed the future has passed you by. Squabbling over the price of music has already lost an entire generation to gaming.

I can't think of any other time in my (too long) life that there has been so many choices in music - VERY good choices - that I have no hope of ever staying current enough to have heard even half of them. I love it. To my ears, the music industry has never been healthier.

You know, when I was in college, there wasn't a chance in ____ that I'd own a $300 music player filled with >$5k worth of songs. What was typical was owning a handful of albums that were traded for at the local used store. So while some have lost ground (the 'super-fan'?) has been made up with hearing more than ever and expecting it to be accessible; the whole cd or just that one song.

That almost reminds me of the way music used to be before pay to play on the radio. It seemed as if every garage had a band in the 60's. In a perfect world, the 'cream' made it to the top. But as I re-listen to some of the one hit wonders, that probably wasn't true.

The ones who did make "it" did so because they were satisfying their soul and they got exposure. Just exposure. Not working or manipulating some site, paying for bot hits, or whatever. Fans aren't play dough. Do what you like and if no one else likes it, well - did you enjoy yourself and isn't that the point?

Music is a personal experience. There is no amount of marketing that's going to create a "fan" based on advertising, tshirts, no matter how many versions of the same song is recorded.

Can you imagine waiting anticipating the next album for 7 years and when it arrives, even though the songs are different, they all sound the same? Oh wait. That happened recently. It was a huge let down. That's what happens when music is created for someone else - like fans.

The position the traditional music industry has taken towards fans has made mainstream music go underground, fractured and out of awareness. Any new technology (usually created by a fan) is met with a lawsuit. Can you imagine if the Rolling Stones hadn't been able to develop using southern blues?

Back in the 60's we had pirate radio to listen to Dylan for political reasons.

And marketing people will never understand that people are buying the music, not the campaign.

Suzanne Lainson said...

I just posted my own blog post that incorporates a thought from this one.

Adrienne said...

I am a casual fan and I sift through flotsam to purchase the odd tune here, and listen to the song there, and if they come to play here, I might like to go.
But I think I am only capable of being a casual fan because they are out there with their websites and tunes and offers and whatnotblahblah.

Roy Marsh said...

I'm struck by how many people commenting describe themselves as older - me too - and are still searching for new music; simply because that is who we are and what we have always done. Led Zeppelin were propelled to fame by not producing singles (OK pedants - one) but in their early days there was a genuine thrill in discovering this new underground music. Of course it helped to be phenomenally talented, and linked to the world of music through the highest levels. But for me that is the point. If you make your music to achieve fame perhaps you deserve obscurity. What band today would be good enough, could risk enough, and achieve by performing live concerts only? This is a rhetorical question - they could just be the next big thing, and we music lovers would, in our decades old drive to find new music, be forced from our computers and back to the streets to go find it. Bring it on.