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.