A Music World That Centers On The Fan

How Information Empowers and Changes Music Fandom

image from www.nytimes.com (UPDATED) In less than a decade, the record and music industries have shifted from being artist-centric to revolving around the fan. The focal point of the traditional consumption system used to be the artist; it was up to the fan to do the rest. If the artist sat down and did an interview with Rolling Stone, whether or not the fan heard about the feature depended on their commitment to following the artist, but mostly chance. They either had to be a subscriber to the magazine or walk by the stand on precisely the right week. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know. Same goes for the release for the newest single, tour dates, and any other offerings by the artist.

To follow an artist, the fan had to pay attention to various media outlets and publications—being bombarded with the information of all the other acts that they may not have been as interested in—just to find out news about the artists that they did like. The reward for their fandom consisted solely of information; they were armed with insight into the happenings of an artist that lesser fans weren’t as aware of. The emergence of the social web has lowered the barriers of fandom and made getting updates on an artist as simple as opting into their email list, liking them on Facebook, or following them on Twitter.  Now, the fan doesn’t have to keep track of the radio stations and music publications that might happen to feature their favorite artists. They track only the ones that their most interested in.

The music world has also shifted to focus on the fan. Instead of visiting the various sites of artists, concert promoters, and ticket retailers, fans can subscribe to artists and be notified of their activities as they happen in real-time. Also, in many instances, they are targeted directly with marketing messages—in a semi-personalized manner—rather than being assumed as anonymous.

These shifts, however, do come at a cost. When it was difficult to discover info about artists, the reward for paying attention was in the news itself; the continued empowerment of their fandom. Today, artists are discovering that the information isn’t enough. Now that the barriers to fandom have been lowered, they have to provide new incentives to their fans. News before it’s even news, free MP3s, access to music before it’s officially released, and limited addition items, these are the new rewards for attention in an age when information is no longer suffices.

In effect, artists follow their fans, not the other way around. According to Nick Bilton, the lead writer for The New York Times technology blog Bits and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works, “Content will eventually automatically follow you from screen to screen and place to place.”

Bilton dreams of a future where the feeds that fans follow are intelligent enough to know what news they’ve read already, shows they’ve attended, and the music and merch that they already own; it should factor in info their friends recommend and what’s being discussed on their social networks. Most important, he argues, “these systems” should do this without fans having to instruct them or tell them anything. “Right now,” he admits, “a lot of this is wishful thinking.”

In a music world that centers on the fan though, his assertions probably aren’t that far off. As less of a premium is placed on information, artists will be forced to create new incentives in order for fans to buy into the whole package and their music, as well as a more personalized way to do so. Otherwise, Bilton thinks that many fans will simply go and get it themselves, in the way they’d prefer to consume it—a method that some might call stealing.

History has conditioned us to place artists at the center of the music and record industries—those immensely talented musicians and singers who shaped popular culture with their affluence and innovativeness. Yet, their music, as industry pundit Andrew Dubber has argued in the past, it creates meaning—that’s what it does for audiences. “And, that meaning,” he says, “is cultural. That meaning is not about what the songwriter was thinking about, or even the cultural context of what the songwriter was doing, but what it means to [the fan.]"

In other words, the music has always centered around the fan.  And with the proliferation of digital and social technologies, along with the waning influence of traditional social institutions, the rest of the music landscape is now starting to focus on them too. As the barriers to fandom change and information becomes more abundant, so too will the rewards needed to promote engagement among fans and to persuade them to buy into the full artist experience.

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  1. Thanks for this. So in the future feeds should be so intelligent as to know what merchandise we already bought. I imagine this working with some sort of centralized institution. For instance, in your feed reader you could have an option of adding different IDs that track what you’ve bought online. Be it an Amazon, iTunes or Topspin ID. It would then automatically filter them according to a set of rules.
    Ah, maybe I’m just blabbering, who knows 🙂

  2. The focus on what the fan wants rather than what the artist wants will be a big change in mentality for many who became musicians. If they see themselves as service providers, who are there to provide the music and the experiences that fans want, it’s a more accurate but fair less glamorous picture than being an artist who creates music from his/her own vision.

  3. When culture dictated the rise of jazz, crooners like Sinatra, rock and roll and hip hop, the first generation of artists in these areas all made the music they wanted. Like in “Field of Dreams” if they made it people seemed to come. Fans naturally gravitated to the music and the artists who made it. The channels of distribution were limited and controlled by a few companies. Music was something artists and their fans lived for. From the 1920’s through the 1980’s, music was one of only a handful of distractions people could focus upon. Today music has become much less of a focal point in peoples’ lives and instead lingers more in the background of everything they do, kind of like a soundtrack to their lives. There is still great music out there as much as there ever was but it’s far harder to find. Slowly but surely systems are falling into place that hopefully within a few years will make the discovery of new, great music as impacting an event in a person’s life as it once was.

  4. Interesting article about that the role is shifting from being Artist centric to more revolving about the Fan.
    My thoughts about this statement is that it should be the Artist-Fan relation that should be put centric. It’s not a one way communication, but the interactive relationship between them.
    To my opinion the Musicindustry for the last decades has been Recordlabel Centric. They decided in what artists to invest in and promote/market and were the gatekeepers towards Media and Retail. The MusicBusiness influenced and decided what the audience/fan would get. Mostly based on how they could make money from that. The artist would only get paid a relatively small part of the income generated by their audience as the record-companies had to make a lot of money to make up for the loss they made on artists that failed…
    Nowadays it’s all about CwF+RtB=$$$ (http://www.techdirt.com/rtb.php). So the role of the old fashioned industry is declining and it’s about how the Artist himself can go directly to his audience and deliver a service.
    So the Artist-Fan is now centric. The Artist and Fan can make use of services that help them to connect to each other and build an interactive mostly attention based relationship.
    The centralized music-industry that was focused on the Recordlabel is moving into a decentralized DIY2gether system where Artists and Fans both pay for services that help them to strengthen the CwF+RtB relationship.
    A good example of this new Ecosystem where artists DIY2gether is Nimbit and it’s partners (http://www.nimbit.com/partners/#gigs).
    While working for the FanFunded music platform SellaBand I really saw the CwF+Rtb system working. The music itself was not always the main reason why a “Believer” invested in an artist. The more active an Artist was in finding new potential “Believers” through Social Media, the more “Part”s (unit of investment) were sold. When reaching a certain tipping point it became more easier for the Artist to sell “Parts” as then more reluctant other potential Believers invested in the project as they followed “The Wisdom of the Crowds”.
    So this means indeed that reaching a certain amount of Fans will mean that it will kickstart a career, as before you really needed the support of the “gatekeepers” of the mass-media and retail channels.
    Currently we’re still in the disruptive phase which means that you have to rely on both the old style of marketing/promoting music and the new Ecosystem.
    Artists are still very much focussing on artefacts like a CD or reaching the cover of a magazine which they believe can be reached by signing to (major) record label. But I think that soon the artists will much more adapt to the actual special treatment that fans want.

  5. I think the “artist” model itself isn’t fan centric enough. I’d start with “the people formerly known as fans” and then determine how they want to consume music. Do they want to make it themselves? Do they want to commission performers to play what they want to hear? Do they want someone else make the music and they pick and choose what they want to listen to and how/where they will listen?
    In my mind, the “artist makes music and the fan buys from the artist” is still very much a label model, but on a much smaller scale. What happens if we break down the walls between artist and fan completely?

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