Over the past few years, different variations of the same question have repeatedly bubbled up on the music blogs: has the internet killed music fandom?
If music fans are indeed a dying breed, the industry and art form of music face a problem of apocalyptic proportions. After all, fans keep the amps humming, the records spinning, and the musicians eating.
In fact, many of the experimental 'Music 2.0' business models from the last three to ﬁve years tend to rely more on the most die-hard fans than ever before. Without these'superfans' there are no successful Kickstarter campaigns, no subscription revenues, no sales of collector's edition physical releases.
Thankfully, the fans haven't gone anywhere, and they aren't likely to any time soon. The internet hasn't killed music fandom; fandom is alive and well.
The question itself often arises from a misunderstanding of the intersection between two recent developments: unprecedented access to music discovery, and the availability of listener engagement data from the social web.
This misunderstanding, in turn, masks the more accurate question: how does the internet affect the behaviors of music listeners?
Will the Real Fans Please Log On
The internet has put a world of music at our ﬁngertips. The barriers of time, supply, delivery, and cost have been removed, leaving listeners with nearly unlimited choice. Listeners can stream albums, or pick and choose individual tracks. Devoted fans no longer need to sleep outside of a club to guarantee a glimpse of their favorite band — they're always within arms' reach.
At the same time, the social web has pulled back the curtain on listener engagement. How are they ﬁnding their music? How do they react to particular bands or performances? How often are they recommending music to their friends?
Are they fans?
Very little of this behavior was visible to the industry ﬁve years ago. That means that at the same time music discovery was exploding, so was the availability of listener data. The resulting picture has been difﬁcult to interpret, and doesn't always meet the lofty expectations of the new music industry.
So what is really going on?
I believe that how you interpret listener engagement (or, the state of music fandom) depends on how you view the role of the internet itself.
The Internet as the Great Equalizer
It's easy to assume that the unlimited information, media, and data available via the internet would lead to a gradual erosion of convictions — an equalization.
Religious beliefs would be forced to become more nuanced and thoughtful as archeological and historical data become more available to the public. Political parties would become less dichotomized as instant fact-checking becomes the norm. Superfans wouldn't feel the need to commit to a particular band when access comes so cheaply, and other options abound.
Forms of this assumption seem to underpin many of the discussions happening on music blogs today. It's easy to spot, because it's usually marked by dismal projections of the future of the music industry.
The internet is reducing die-hard fans to casual listeners. And, don't bother recording albums; why would today's listeners want to hear more than a track or two from you?
Don't get me wrong — a little anxiety is understandable. These are exciting and confusing times for the music industry, and people's livelihoods are at stake.
But, is this really how the internet works?
The Internet as the Great Polarizer
Let's take a step back from music. A recent Pew Research poll reveals that a new view of the internet is gaining ground, at least among Americans. It ﬁnds that a growing majority of people surveyed believe that "the internet increases the inﬂuence of those with extreme political views." To put it a different way, the internet can have a polarizing effect. A quick search of Twitter during the presidential debates might lead you to come to the same conclusion.
If this is true, it's easy to round up likely culprits. 'Smart' news aggregators like Prismatic ﬁlter the day's news so that you're only presented with the stories you want to read. Your Facebook newsfeed gives priority to posts you want to see. Social networks provide platforms for people with similar perspectives to connect with one another with unprecedented ease.
As a result, it's entirely possible that the resulting communities could become insulated and exaggerated. Other viewpoints are still out there, but it doesn't matter if the members of these communities aren't interested in seeking them out.
These are just a handful of examples that, many believe, point to the polarization of individuals and groups on the web.
Turning our attention back to music, this kind of polarization should be creating more superfans, not less. Right? If the internet pulls moderate people toward extremes, a greater number of casual fans should be climbing the fandom scale.
Except, that's not what's happening either.
The Internet as the Great Ampliﬁer
There is a third view that one could take toward the internet: that the web, with all of it's information, media, and services, doesn't fundamentally change human behaviors at all. Instead, it only ampliﬁes them.
Thoughtful people may become more nuanced in their thinking. Extremists may become more extreme. Fans that identify with certain bands can express their tastes in more ways, to more people. Conversely, casual listeners are given the opportunity to spread their listening hours across a wider variety of bands and styles.
People are people, and fans are fans. When we approach the world's information, media, and music, what we get back usually looks a lot like what we put in. We still do what we do, except that the internet facilitates our activities more quickly and efﬁciently than ever. The internet is not the Great Equalizer, and it's not the Great Polarizer. Both of those things can happen. But, in the end, the internet is only an ampliﬁer of human behavior.
Make Music, Make Fans
The bottom line is that there have always been a ﬁnite number of die-hard music fans. Are there more or less than before? That's still hard to say. A lot of the hoops fans had to jump through to get their music ﬁx have been eliminated, and it's hard to have any perspective when most listener engagement data is so new.
Ultimately, though, the internet can’t kill fans anymore than it can create them. The internet doesn’t make fans, bands make fans. So don't freak out. Make music, and someone will listen. How many is largely up to you.