Happy February! Hope your 2017 is off to a refreshing, reflective and imaginative start. As always, if you’re a new subscriber, please introduce yourself by replying to this email (and thanks so much to those who already have—I love learning about your backgrounds and adventures!).
I’m writing this installment from Harvard’s campus, where I just finished my first week of spring classes. In contrast to last term, which was more pre-professional—my coursework was in linear modeling, political journalism and accounting—I’ll be wading neck-deep in theoretical studies this semester, including statistical inference, hip-hop philosophy and “technomusicology” (i.e. ethnomusicology of digital music trends). Hopefully, by exercising a different part of my brain, these courses will contribute an unexpected twist to how I think about the worlds of music and media.
This week’s discussion begins with a question: Is there a piece of music business journalism in the recent past that you actually remember? If you are a typical netizen, your answer is likely no. This is because most business- and tech-focused articles are fashioned like snacks: potent in the moment, but ultimately ephemeral in our memory, even if we save it to Pocket. Music news bites tend to override each other at a particularly rapid pace.
Yet, as someone who thinks we can learn a lot about our contemporary situation from looking back at history, I think it’s important to revisit the articles that we only cared to skim last week, or last year, or last decade. They provide an interesting rubric for measuring how far we’ve come, or, alternatively, how little we’ve changed—which brings me to this week’s subject line.
In 2009, Jeremy Schlosberg penned an essay called “Farewell to the Casual Music Fan
,” criticizing the music industry for thinking too much about superfans. My guess is that many artists and executives read and debated this essay at the time—but, if the current landscape is any indication, nobody remembered it.
Schlosberg argues that modern fan engagement schemes are unsustainable because they neglect casual music fans, who are just as crucial to the industry’s livelihood as those who are willing to shell out over $100 a year for tunes. He defines a “casual music fan” either as a disinterested/apathetic listener or as someone “who likes music and listens to a lot of it … but just isn’t especially obsessed about any given act.” Leaving out this core consumer base, he argues, would significantly shrink the market for certain genres like rock, as well as force musicians to cater exclusively to a siloed audience that automatically thinks they are “utterably [sic] brilliant,” which is artistically unproductive.
At first glance, it seems like Schlosberg’s ideas never took hold. Eight years after he yelled his warnings into the Internet void, we still put superfans on a pedestal, we still focus incessantly on the “artist-fan relationship” and on nailing down those “1,000 True Fans
,” and we still applaud creators who shift their priorities from achieving mass success to finding their own “idiosyncratic sonic niche,” to borrow Schlosberg’s phrasing.
In fact, perhaps the most prominent sign of the superfan’s modern rise is the wave of cerebral, art-house R&B and hip-hop albums that were released in 2016—including but not limited to Solange’s A Seat At The Table, Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!. In my opinion, these albums are a slap in the face to the casual fan: they present a purposely radio-unfriendly aesthetic that requires tons of repeated listens to understand and appreciate, i.e. a deliberate loyalty on the part of the listener. You can either embrace my new crazy shit, these artists seem to shout, or you can walk away.
Yet, it could also be argued that the rise of streaming as the dominant form of music consumption prizes and prioritizes casual fans, not superfans. After all, most of the hundreds of millions of Spotify streams (and in turn millions of $$) that top-40 artists receive come not from superfans, but from more casual listeners. It has also been empirically proven that the discovery-driven mindset touted by streaming services leads users to increase their breadth of listening at the expense of depth—matching Schlosberg’s definition of a “casual fan.” Consequently, in an era of curation-driven information overload, many artists today find it difficult to retain their fragile superfan following, let alone gather data on who these superfans actually are.
I’m curious to hear your stance. Do you, like Schlosberg, think superfans are overrated? Is “casual” fan engagement integral to your success as an artist/company, or do you rely more on a small handful of devoted customers? If the latter, how easy is it for you to pinpoint and reach these customers? Do you think superfan and casual-fan outreach strategies are necessarily mutually exclusive?
While there’s obviously no universal answer to these questions, my hunch is that the dominance of streaming—and the inevitable emergence of streaming-first, streaming-only music fans—means that more listening and consumption data will be at our disposal than ever before, and that a lot will have changed in our attitudes toward superfans when we look back at this moment eight years from now.