Startups & Funding

How Can Musicians Engage Intermediate Fans?

shrigThe importance of uber fans is well documented, as is the power of appealing to the more casual masses.  But what about those many fans in the middle? They really like the artist, might even go to a show, but they don't spend a lot of time visiting the artist's Facebook page for updates.

If you were a music consumer pre-2001, here’s a fun experiment to try the next time you’re cleaning out your basement: go through all your old CDs and calculate how many of the bands you engaged with beyond buying the album. For example, of all the albums you bought, how many of the bands did you then go see live, or buy a t-shirt, or financially support in another way? My guess is that, unless, you’re a super-duper fan who happened to live in a very hot market and have a lot of free time and money, the answer will be “not many.” I grew up in a good touring market with a great all-ages scene and want to tons of shows, but as I flipped through my binders of discs, I realize I probably saw about a third of the bands live at some point. 

image from laurenhuston.comSince the rise of Napster and the subsequent rise of streaming, the CD market has collapsed, unless you’re Adele or Taylor Swift. What that has left is a gaping hole in the way that “intermediate” fans can interact with and financially support bands they like. The casual fan never really interacted with band anyway, beyond humming along if a song came on the radio; the advanced fan still goes to shows and buys merch. But the fan who would have gone to Tower Records after hearing a single or two and taken a chance spending money on an album — those fans suddenly have nowhere to go. 

Sure, you can listen to an album on a streaming service, but that’s not the same — for one, you don’t have the same level of commitment, both to the product and the artist. It takes a lot of listens to get to the same level of financial support for the artist, and there’s so much stuff on streaming services that can take your focus away. Because you’re spending on the service, not the artist, the investment is more ephemeral. Understand that the last thing I would ever advocate is a return to the CD as the primary means of consuming music — but we need to acknowledge that the death of the format has left a gap for a fairly significant number of consumers. 

The problem with the shift to live music as the primary way to financially engage with an artist is that it leaves a huge percentage of fans behind. A band can only hit a market a few times a year, and they can’t hit every market. If they happen to come to town a night a fan isn’t available, for whatever reason, that fan has no other alternatives now. There’s also a higher barrier to entry when it comes to newer fans — dropping some money on a CD is an easier sell than buying tickets and giving up a night of your life if you’re not familiar with a band. 

I’ll continue to beat the drum for high-quality live-streaming as a partial solution, however it winds up presenting itself. Maybe Live Nation or Bowery Presents does a deal with Netflix or Hulu, where the monthly fee I pay includes a way to live stream a show, or even watch it the day after. Maybe it’s more of a pay-per-view model, or a dedicated cable channel, or a partnership with YouTube. Regardless, you’d have a way to interact and financially support a band without the level of commitment it takes to go to a show. 

I’m also constantly shocked at how many bands fail to monetize the universe they’ve created. This is a weird example, but I’ll throw it out there — I’m what I would call an “intermediate” fan of a food and fitness blogger named Juli Bauer. I haven’t bought any of her books or been to her events, but I follow her on socials and enjoy what she has to say. In addition to being a great cook, she dresses well, and is always linking out to where to buy what she’s wearing, and (I assume) has affiliate deals with all the sellers. I’ve bought a few of the pieces I’ve seen her wear, and even though how she dresses has nothing to do with her core food and fitness brand, it’s an ancillary revenue stream she has created. 

I haven’t seen many artists do this, and some of those who do try a little too hard — I don’t need a shot of you grinning widely next to a bottle of vodka to sell me on it. But plenty of intermediate fans are drawn to artists because of their image or community as much as their music, for better or worse. I’ve talked to plenty of teenagers who don’t really love the pop band of the moment, but they go along with their friends and say they like them. These kids are probably willing to spend some money to make a token gesture of appreciation — how can a band monetize that without asking the fan to drop hundreds on tickets? 

We hear a lot about the idea of cultivating a thousand true fans, and I’m not saying that’s something artists shouldn’t do. Superfans are important and valid and they’ll stick around long after the intermediate fan has moved on to something else. But there just aren’t enough superfans in the world to keep an artist afloat in a meaningful way. If musicians can’t solve the problem of how to engage the fans in the middle, they’re doing themselves a massive disservice. How that solution plays out remains to be seen, but it’s a problem that needs to be tackled.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

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