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Music fandom’s future (and its existential crisis)

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Photo: Maelle Ramsay

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

The launch of Taylor Swift’s latest album, “The Tortured Poets Department”, broke records last week (small surprise there). Swift’s reputation for playing to her fanbase has once again proven to be in a class of its own – be it changing the fortunes of cinema chains, or altering local economies with her tour. 

She is well ahead of the game. As the industry looks beyond streaming, it is increasingly looking to fandom itself. Streaming has quantified and harnessed passive consumption, but the relationship between artists and their most passionate audiences holds the value that will drive the next chapter of music. 

This is not entirely new, of course. Fandom has always been important to music, from Beatlemania to BTS Army. It has not gone away – but it remains as fickle as ever to track, consolidate, and super-serve. A return to focus on fandom means a return to focus on the true value of music in the lives of its most ardent supporters and, perhaps, a revival of music’s cultural power just in time for the generative AI revolution. 

The superfan is king; long live the superfan

On a technical level, superfans are those who spend the most engagement time and money on music. This is not one-size-fits-all. Some of the most engaged fans may not have the money to spend on every limited vinyl release or gig t-shirt; similarly, some who have less time to engage may make up for it by spending more money. 

The proliferation of ‘behind the scenes’ content means most superfans know how their favourite artists depend on them – be it engaging with a post three times to boost it in the algorithm, streaming “Taylor’s Version” tracks instead of the originals, or knowing that a merch release helps fund a smaller artists’ next tour. Being a fan does not just mean listening to music, but being actively involved in the artist’s success, and in the communities that make that success possible. 

To that end, being a superfan is not even just about the artist. Fans find that their communities are places of like-minded people, where they can bond over shared values. Many say that these scenes are places they can be themselves – sometimes more than in their daily lives. Thus, monetising fans means walking a careful balance between asking fans to support artists and giving the fans what they themselves need from those artists, for their own benefit and wellbeing. The relationship between artists and audiences is not just one of produce and purchase, but a two-way relationship of value, social meaning, and creativity. 

The growing divide between big and small 

Streaming has allowed even the smallest artists to find their ardent support bases, even if they are scattered around the world. However, the availability of creator tools has ballooned the long-tail of niche. Social tools as well as AI editing and generation have extended this total possible pool of creators all the way out to audiences themselves. As this long tail grows ever longer, available time, spend, and attention has diluted. On top of this, the growing role of social – where music can proliferate without credit to the original artist – combined with low streaming rates, has meant even well-known artists like James Blake have found their revenues wanting. This is not a fan problem; fans have always been creative and shared music unofficially. But the expectation of “streaming success = actual success” has underserved these artists whose audiences are arguably bigger than ever. 

On the other end, Taylor Swift — an artist who, notably, built a massive fanbase before the second-order impacts of streaming kicked in — has achieved billionaire status. A growing divide between the biggest of the big and everyone else has meant that truly profitable stardom is a one-in-a-million shot against the backdrop of music being a barely-profitable creative pursuit for most. The industry may hope that a focus on superfans can fix this divide, but if the problems are dilution, low margins, and intense competition (heightened by fan creations competing directly with original works on the same platforms), there is perhaps only so far this can go

An untapped resource… or an already saturated one? 

This skewed scale may be hard to rebalance. Some look to gaming, where average revenue per user is staggeringly high, and aspire to raise this on the music side: from this perspective, superfans are just not paying enough. This “ask not what Taylor can do for you, but what you can do for Taylor” approach may not sit well with fans who perceive their fandom as a two-way value exchange. This is especially true as many have been lured by streaming into thinking they can, and should, be able to access all the music they want for a minimal price. This issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon, which will make navigating the monetisation growth of superfans tricky. 

If it is not possible to substantially grow the average revenue per fan, then the next goal would be to grow the number of fans to make higher revenue from. This begs an existential question: 

Streaming allowed the industry to track passive, casual listening on a per-listen basis. But did it really grow the number of people who listen casually? 

What used to be nearly untrackable behaviours of not just CD listening, but CD borrowing, mix-tape sharing, radio listening in stores and cafes, street corner parties with boom boxes, and live music in bars have become quantifiable – and, in fairness, this has probably grown the behaviour at least somewhat. However, just because passive listening has (trackably) grown, this may not translate to being able to grow the pool of monetisable superfans at the same rate. 

A gold rush can only pan out if there is gold to mine. Audiences are tapped out for time, attention, and spend (especially given the global socioeconomic situation). It will not be easy to convince them to redirect this degree of attention to music – and will require building more around music than just appreciation for content. It will mean creating communities, driving meaning, and empowering cultural moments those listeners want to be a part of. 

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John Doe
Bringing music out on streaming platforms like Apple , Spotify as well as YouTube seems to be only sensible if you have a lot of dedicated and committed people willing to buy your records on cd /vinyl or tape. I only listen to new music on YouTube or by chance the radio, since about 12 years ( or 3G) I admit. I have bought one CD in a long time last year because I felt I had to support an artist who I was following but it’s still in the wrapping .( who knows it may fetch a price in 50 years time ) . So I think the people that are commenting on IG or twitter are the ones that would buy the Album , but they may not listen to it unless it has material you won’t find online anywhere . Otherwise it’s good for musicians that cannot afford to bring out a physical album or aren’t in it for the money or fame.
Brett Hawkins
Here here! We think leveraging social media and streaming services for exposure and fan awareness makes sense. But if Snoop Dogg is only making $45k on 1 Billion Spotify streams, what hope to the rest of us have?! We think artists and creators should use these platforms for marketing and put their exclusive, longer-format content behind a community subscription service that provides Interactive, Mobile First Experiences. That's why we built Monad.Social. You can't eat a Like!