The Language of Tribes: True Fans and Outsiders

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

Photo Courtesy of Sara Kiesling

During the 1970’s, “the black concert tour T-Shirt became a ubiquitous as a way for individuals (mostly teenagers) to signal to others that they had actually been there to see The Who in 1974 or Led Zeppelin in 1975.”1  Initially, music fans wore concert T-Shirts as a badge that proclaimed where they had been — what experiences they shared.  But, as concert T-Shirts became an essential part of music culture and began to represent the bands themselves, they were worn by young people as a badge that conveyed information about who they are and the tribes to which they belonged.  As a way of externalizing their bond, it wasn’t uncommon for members of the same tribes to dress alike.  For them, the music they listened to was “a mark of personal and group identity and of distinction.”2

Groups like The Who and Led Zeppelin gave their fans something to believe in.  When musicians are able to create a band that does this, they also create groups of people who feel that they belong – that they are part of a tribe.  “People must belong to a tribe; they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves,” E. O. Wilson argued in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.  “We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from and why we are here.”  Music is a means through which we come to understand ourselves and place in the world.  It gives us a window into other people’s lives; it shows us that we are not alone nor wicked in our ways — that someone else feels like we do.

This connection that occurs, that, for a brief moment in time, bridges the gap between an artist’s creative vision and their audience’s emotions, is perhaps the single most important aspect of music.  For it is in that instant that a song becomes more than a song, it becomes a part of someone’s life, their story.  How they interpret its meaning, make it their own, and feel that little bit of something awaken deep inside of them is really what matters.  If that person has made themselves open enough, if they’ve made themselves vulnerable enough, that song will live on — it will continue to grow and take on new meanings.  As it moves through our society, it is each individual’s unique interpretation of that song — that, when taken together — represents a part of their collective identity.

Prior to the era of recorded music, approximately the last 100 years, listening to music was a group activity, but with the invention of the phonograph, it turned into an individual one.  Instead of listening to an artist perform live, people could now listen from mass-produced cylinders and discs.  To listen to music individually meant interpreting the music as an individual.  People could sit in their living rooms alone, listening to great works and developing their own perspectives.  To listen to music in the absence of the artist meant that individuals could develop their own concept of them — that they could enjoy a personal relationship with them.  It is this notion of a “personal relationship” with an artist and an individual’s unique interpretation of what their music and lyrics mean to them that causes dissonance to arise between people who liked the same artists.

The difference of opinion, or lack thereof, that occurs between members of the same tribe, is what characterizes what type of fan they are, how passionate they are about the music, and the depth of involvement they have.  In Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin argues that, “Tribes are about faith – about belief in an idea and in a community.”  He believes that “they are grounded in respect and admiration for the leader of the tribe and for the other members as well.”  But, do members of the same tribe actually respect each other wholeheartedly?  Or, are there ways in which certain members become discriminated against?  In the domain of music, there are hierarchies of “true fans” and lesser, or “casual fans.”  Through speaking in the language of their tribe, members clarify who belongs and who’s an outsider.


True fans, as it turns out, don’t get along very well.  They discriminate against each other.  They insist upon comparing and contrasting their knowledge, level of commitment, and point of entry into an artist’s career.  They put each other under the microscope just to see who the first to squirm is.  Dissecting, prying, and scrutinizing each other, all in hopes of deriving the conclusion that it is they who are the true fan — that it is they who have the deepest passion.  Only after much discussion and excessive testing will they accept that someone is a part of their tribe — that they truly love an artist in the way that they do.  No one and I mean no one can try to bullshit a true fan.  They know a language that only they can speak fluently – that only a member of their tribe could hope to understand.

It is through this rigorous process of speaking in the native language of their tribe and asking questions that only other true fans would know the answer to, that true fans seek to differentiate themselves from lesser fans and declare superiority over them with a vengeance.  If a self-proclaimed “true fan” of an artist can’t speak in this language, they are the lesser fan.  If someone declares themselves to be a true fan of AFI and Sing The Sorrow is their favorite album, but they can’t sing the words to ‘I Wanna Mohawk (But Mom Won't Let Me Get One)’ and haven’t fallen in love with The Art of Drowning, they will be discriminated by true fans and become denounced to the rank of a lowly, lesser fan.  And, if the entire language to someone seems completely foreign and trivial, they are an outsider.

However, not all true fans are created equal.  Fandom is made up of very rigid, yet somewhat permeable hierarchies.  For instance, there are progressives and purists, curious fans and fundamentalists.  In the case of Green Day, you’d be considered a purist if you became a true fan of them during their early years, if Dookie and Insomniac are your favorite albums and, at first, you even resisted Nimrod, because you didn’t like that think that punk bands should play acoustic songs like ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),’ but you hated the new fans that the song brought on.  Another separating point in their career came at the release of American Idiot, where many of their true fans refused to accept their new sound and stopped listening to them entirely, because they were different now.

In contrast, progressives are the true fans that continue to grow with an artist, throughout their career, despite newfound commercial appeal or drastic changes in sound.  This is what separates curious fans from the fundamentalists.  If you are a true fan of Metallica and refuse to acknowledge or even listen to any album that came after …And Justice for All, you are a pure fundamentalist.  You considered whether or not The Black Album was acceptable to your faith before you explored it and likely determined that it didn’t align with your beliefs.  But, if you’re a curious progressive, you embraced the tension between your religion and their new sound, wrestled with it and through it, and then decided whether or not to embrace the new album or reject it, to continue being a true fan or not.

Interestingly enough, some true fans choose to stop supporting an artist once they’ve reached any degree of commercial success.  Once major labels find an artist that true fans of music perceive to be cool and become devoted to, they take them, they tweak them, they make them more acceptable, and that’s when the mass consumer picks up on an artist and runs with them and then actually kills them.  Portions of their core following, of their true fans, decide to abandon an artist.  They aren’t willing to accept the sacrifices and compromises that are necessary to take if an artist wants to make music that appeals to everyone, but perfectly to no one.  This is why some true fans hoard artists away and refuse to tell friends about them, because they are afraid that success will change them.
Perhaps no separation is more pronounced than that which occurs when an artist who had been underground for a number of years finally gains mainstream traction and appeal.  Nothing makes the blood of true fans boil more than the idea that newcomers like an artist simply because they heard a single on the radio or saw the music video on Fuse.  Such hatred for these lesser fans is fueled by the belief that they only like the artist because they are popular now and that they don’t actually know about any of the great songs on the other albums.  For the mainstream rock fans that’ve only recently discovered the band Skillet due to the success of Awake and appeal of the song ‘Monster,’ they are likely to experience discord from true fans who’ve known them for at least 5 to 10 years.


Sometimes, like in the case of Linkin Park, the separation between true and lesser fans isn’t so clear, because they broke into the mainstream with their debut album Hybrid Theory and didn’t really have an underground following.  But, the year window between the release of the single ‘One Step Closer’ and the huge success that ‘In the End’ had was just enough to give true fans the ability to fight over who discovered them first and how all the lesser fans were just "posers."  In this respect, when fans of Linkin Park meet, what they talk about is why the live acoustic version of the song “The Morning After” done in 2001 is better than the collaboration that Chester Bennington did with Julien-K or why it’s even better than the version he recorded with his side project Dead By Sunrise.

True fans know that the live version of QWERTY recorded in Tokyo in 2006 is far angrier and ardent than that of the studio version that was later recorded and released exclusively to the members of the LP Underground.  Right?  It was what shifted the expectations of what true fans of Linkin Park should expect from the release that followed, Minutes to Midnight.  That the song was actually misleading is what left true fans still loving the album, but still confused as to why the heavier version that emerged didn’t even correlate with the sound that would later come out.  When true fans of Linkin Park talk about these nuances what they create are outsiders.  This is the disparity between those who simply like the band and those who deeply care about how they’ve progressed.

“If you know the language you belong,” Patrick Hanlon writes in Primalbranding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company, and Your Future.  What he argues is that all belief systems come with a specialized set of words that must be learned before people can belong within that group.  “The thing about language is that there’s always going to be a need for groups to identify themselves apart somehow,” says Mark Abley in Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.  “We live in a society in which it is incredibly complex and the only way to deal with that is to feel a part of a subgroup or make ourselves an extended family generally, and so one of the really good ways to do that is to baffle outsiders.”  Tribes use language to help create their culture, but if you take away or change their sacred words, over time the tribe’s sense of identity slowly starts to erode.

Lesser, more casual fans are what make the songs of the day a part of our collective identity.  Even if in the end they can’t actually speak in the language of the tribe, they facilitate the capacity for a tribe to continue to grow and gain new members.  True fans can and do teach outsiders the native language of their tribe, but what happens in the process is that they don’t get the joy of discovering and learning about the artist themselves.  They were taught.  Casual fans are what make the true fan and culture possible.  Without them, what we lose is the ability to share our experiences and actually declare ourselves as true fans.  After all, there’s no reason to speak in the native language of your tribe if no one else understands the words and what it is that makes those worlds sacred to you.

What’s at stake in the digital age where artists are increasingly catering to the needs of their true fans over that of the lesser, more casual fans, is that by adding multiple layers of specialization to the language of their tribe, they minimize its potential to be more widely adopted and learned by outsiders.  And, if true fans of these artists aren’t willing to teach and pass down their native tongue, heritage, and culture of their tribe, or outsiders simply aren’t willing to take the time to learn the language, what’s at risk of happening is that the language itself and the culture it created will eventually die. If those true fans ever move on to another artist and quit speaking in their native tongue, there will be no new fans to keep up the culture the original true fans created.   If a tribe’s sense of identity erodes and there’s nothing left to believe in — the tribe dies too. 

“In a world in which musicians are encouraged, if not forced, to cater exclusively to their most passionate followers, likewise a world in which music fans listen exclusively to music most passionately loved, we lose this important but overlooked capacity to connect.  The world shrinks. Something about being human is lost.”Jeremy Schlosberg, Farewell to the Casual Music Fan


  • Sara Kiesling (@sarakiesling) is 24-year-old music photographer from Minneapolis, MN.  She can be reached at:  sarakieslingatgmaildotcom.


  1. Conley, D. (2009). Elsewhere, u.s.a. New York: Pantheon.
  2. Levitin, D. J. (2007). This is Your brain on music. Plume Books.


  • kyledotbylinatgmaildotcom

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  1. Very thought provoking — sort of the dark side of the whole ‘small is beautiful’ thing.
    I know it’s partly rhetorical technique, but I’m always skeptical of the true/casual fan dichotomy. There’s a lot of gradation in there, and I think most indies already appreciate the importance of reaching and connecting with ‘fans-in-passing’ (e.g., someone enjoying your opening set for a band they went to see), in those fleeting moments where you have that person’s attention.

  2. There are so many elements with the “true fan” concept that it should give us something to talk about for years.
    I’ll toss out a few thoughts in this thread as I go along, but for now I’ll suggest that most bands won’t stay together long enough to take advantage of a lifetime of fan loyalty and most artists won’t turn out enough material to keep true fans together for decades.

  3. Thank you for commenting and I think your right that there are definitely two sides of this. And, much that I’ve not covered. Plus, I am biased by my own experiences and that of my generational hierarchy. There is also a certain degree of imagination that’s been interjected into this.
    And, your right, I think most of this is known, but the topic really fascinated me and I wanted to see what I could add on.

  4. I agree with you here too, that there’s so much to be covered, and I’m excited to see begin to see it all unravel and see some of the best minds take the topic on.
    “most bands won’t stay together long enough to take advantage of a lifetime of fan loyalty and most artists won’t turn out enough material to keep true fans together for decades.”
    I think your right, which it, in itself, could be a whole other essay.

  5. The longevity of a band or an artist is really going to come into play as we encourage more bands/artists to think of themselves as brands.
    I’ve worked with both athletes and musicians and in both cases, age becomes a factor. Athletes will only be at the top of their sports for a limited number of years and musicians may not want to tour past a certain age (though we are seeing quite a few people still on the road into their 40-70s), so you might want to build your brand while you are young and then figure out ways to extend the brand into other areas when you get older.
    For example, if you are a musician, perhaps you develop a line of clothing to sell on the road, and then if it becomes popular, maybe it will have staying power even if you aren’t performing anymore.
    It’s tough, though. Not many athletes or artists/bands remain brands after they retire from competing or performing.

  6. I’m not sure I’m reading the situation accurately, but it seems like the indie ‘market’ is tipping to favor solo artists, and I think it’s related to what you and Kyle are saying. A person can maintain a brand almost indefinitely, either as a solo performer or bringing in players as needed, whereas a band almost inevitably leads to some sort of creative (or ‘other’) conflict.

  7. A solo performer has so much more flexibility. When he/she is just starting out, all you have to pay for is that person. That means that rather than piling a band in a van, you can fly the performer to gigs as they come up.
    And creatively, it is easier to keep a solo artist going than to keep a band together.

  8. Interesting article. (Nice photo as well.) I’ve been writing on similar themes lately and found myself nodding my head a number of times. I think you do a good job of bringing together thoughts that are oft-stated in passing but are rarely explored and expressed together as a whole.
    The language factor of fandom is particularly curious. While casual and more involved fans (of varying level of knowledge and interest as Neil suggested above) do differ and often need to be distinguished easily if only for expediency in conversation, “true” (and the alternative “real”) don’t denote a level of interest or expertise in a subject but rather a judgment of authenticity and value, especially noticeable when the phrases are used in their common comparisons: “A true fan would X”; “If they were real fans, they would Y.” Even if you don’t adhere to perfect true/false or real/fake binaries, you’re still stuck with one level of better v. varying degrees of lesser: you can be in many stages of dying, but you’re either dead, or you’re not; you can be in many stages of fannishness, but you’re either true/real, or you’re not. At its best, I find the valuation silly; at its worst, egotistic. And I say this knowing that I myself am accorded by some a level of “trueness” in certain fan circles, whether I care for the label or not.
    I had to laugh when you said, “No one and I mean no one can try to bullshit a true fan. They know a language that onlythey can speak fluently – that only a member of their tribe could hope to understand.” Fields and subjects have their terms and buzzwords indicative of a minimum knowledge base, while personal relationships over time build their own lingo through common experience, shared jokes, etc. But the internal language of a fandom is often a combination of the two, both knowledge of a subject *and* a shared experience of it. “Dialect” seems too strong a word to describe the differences, but a primary fandom language gets broken into variations of diction based on which subset of experience or organized community you happen into.
    But even without these regional variations, learning a language isn’t always easy. I’ve grown fluent in certain subject/band languages by jumping in, but others I’ve found too intimidating (either because of the language or the people using it) to want to put forth the effort required to pursue them. In the latter case, I’ve chosen to be fannish independent of the fandom — which some might automatically label as not-true despite whatever interest or knowledge I might have.
    One point in particular that jarred for me:
    “But, if you’re a curious progressive, you embraced the tension between your religion and their new sound, wrestled with it and through it, and then decided whether or not to embrace the new album or reject it, to continue being a true fan or not.
    It seems to me your “curious progressive” by definition as one who “continue(s) to grow with an artist, throughout their career, despite newfound commercial appeal or drastic changes in sound” would be less likely to turn in his/her fan credentials as a result of rejecting a new album. I’m sure I qualify for just about every category cited depending on the band, but for a number of artists, I continue to be/consider myself to be a fan of that artist even if I’m not a fan of that particular album or project or direction.
    Apologies for the lengthy comment: believe it or not, this is the short version. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  9. I’m not as interested in how fans react with other fans as I am in how artists/leaders/celebrities react with their hard core fans. Now that we are encouraging musicians to cultivate 1000 True Fans, I think we also need to explore the relationship between the artist and the fan.
    I’ve been around both musicians and athletes who have had fans follow them everywhere. On the one hand these stars appreciate the support, but on the other hand they are a bit wary of it, on the assumption that it isn’t really normal for anyone to be that much of a fan.
    I wrote this in part to explore that relationship.

  10. Thank you very much on the thoughtful comment and compliments to you for nailing a few things that had escape my grasp in it.
    Very well noticed on the curious progressive point, as it looks like I took away from the concept by also trying to make it tie in for the next idea that I wanted to talk about.
    You did a great breakdown of fandom language as well. Again, very grateful that you took the time to share your ideas with me, I learned quite a bit of takeaways.

  11. This is a very interesting thread and all of what’s been said so far I can understand and agree with. The one thing I’m still trying to fathom is the idea that, having 1,000 true fans will somehow leave out casual fans.
    I know from experience that, the Die Hard fans or fanatical fans were usually that because of their personality. They would be fanatics about a number of bands, some were a little nuts. You’d have to be a little nuts to follow bands around (groupies).
    Though it was great to have that level of support, usually after a show I would avoid the nutters :).
    I can appreciate the fact that there will always be fanatics and casual fans. Does creating an indepth connection with fans through social networks alienate the casual fan?
    Might it scare them off if becoming part of that tribe (and the language) seem too difficult or perhaps leave themselves open to scrutiny by the Fanatics?
    So how do Bands engage with their fans in a way that caters for all levels of fandom?
    Might it be useful for bands to have a couple of entry points for fans on their websites? One for Fanatics and One for casual?
    A little about me: I was a fanatic during my teens but when I became part of a successful band during the late 70’s and 80’s I became more of a casual fan. In fact, I have very rarely bought any music since 1979. 🙂
    (which makes it ironic when a band pitches their music to me)
    A fantic will listen to a song over and over, a casual fan will listen until the next thing comes along and these days there are so many distractions it’s easy to lose interest in music, if it no longer supports your beliefs.
    I think people buy into music as a way to support their beliefs and attitudes, which can change over time and as you mature (hopefully) Probably a whole other topic there.

  12. Suzanne I also thank you for the pdf. I was literally blown away from the information. Cult Marketing is very interesting. Im excited to apply some its methods and see what results I get.
    Thanks again.
    Oh and Kyle your essay was great too.

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