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The oncoming fandom crisis

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Photo: Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

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by Mark Mulligan

The Chinese authorities’ crackdown on fandom represents the first major growing pain for the global fandom economy. Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) will likely be the bellwether of this shift, with two thirds of its revenues coming from non-music (i.e., fandom) related activities. But this is more than just about China - it shines a light on the dark underbelly of the global fandom machine. The companies behind K-pop and Idol acts industrialised fandom by leveraging, and even exploiting, fan psychology to massive global businesses that trade upon extracting every possible ounce of spend from fanbases. The China crackdown should act as a wakeup call for the global music market. 

The industrialisation of fandom

Regular readers will know that MIDiA has focused on fandom analysis and research for a number of years now, looking at it across all forms of entertainment. The reasons we believe it is so interesting in music is because Western streaming services monetise consumption rather than fandom, leaving both passion and spend on the table. 

The Chinese music apps illustrate just how much more can be achieved when experiences are built around the music, rather than simply relying on music to always be the experience. Alongside this, the rise of K-pop, which leans heavily on the Japanese Idol model, shows how much fanbases can be willing to support their favourite artists, particularly in terms of both spend and passion. But, as exciting as these models are, they have also been underpinned by the temptation to push fans’ spending and obsession further and further.

Even Western artists are getting in on the act. When Taylor Swift encouraged her fanbase to go and buy the re-recorded version of Fearless, she was looking for their support in her old master recordings ordeal. But who really needed the $50 for a vinyl copy most, Swift or her fans? 

This industrialisation of fandom has actually weaponised it, and, in doing so, puts its very essence at risk.

The oncoming fandom crisis

A fandom crisis is coming. Fandom is far more meaningful and profound for fans than mere consumption. It is also far harder to measure – in fact, it is only the effects of fandom that can be measured (i.e., merch sales, comments, likes, etc.). Fandom is rooted in human psychology. It is about identity, belonging and self-expression. Things that often matter more to younger people than anything else, especially teens in their formative years. It is no coincidence that the industrial fandom machines are primarily built around younger consumers. The Chinese government’s decision to limit fandom, in part because of its negative social impacts, is an extreme move, but it could also act as an ice breaker for regulatory scrutiny in Western markets. 

The fandom crisis goes beyond music

The oncoming fandom crisis is neither confined just to Asia, nor just to music. In fact, huge swathes of the global social economy are built on exactly the same dynamics. TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch – all of these platforms exploit the creator / fan relationship and have constructed sophisticated monetisation frameworks around them. The sophistication does not so much lie in payment methods or technology, but instead in deploying products that drive competitive fandom. Fans compete to be the biggest fan, often by spending more. This can be a kid spending their parents’ money to have his comment pinned to the top of a YouTube gamer’s comment stream, or a Twitch user paying to unlock exclusive emotes and sub badges of their favourite Twitch streamer. 

The platforms need to consider a crucial principle: just because you can do it does not always mean that you should do it.

A crucial moment for the business of fandom

Fandom is the ozone layer of the entertainment world, and it is a critical resource that is too often taken for granted and can be irrevocably damaged. 

This is a crucial juncture for fandom. We are beginning to see the emergence of cool new apps, like Fave, and Western labels looking East for inspiration, such as UMG tapping Hybe’s Weverse app for some of its artists. It is crucial that well intentioned efforts do not falter because of a wider fandom backlash. Fandom should be nurtured, not harvested.

Not only is there so much that can be done, the music industry needs more to be done. A key reason there are armies of BTS and Black Pink fans in the West is because a generation of kids were growing up with a sense that something was missing from music for them, that streaming simply did not let them express themselves and feel part of something. Streaming in the West does not do fandom. Streaming in China, perhaps, does it too well. Clearly, there must be a solution somewhere in the middle that enables fans to be fans, while also doing the right thing for them. 

Fandom and ethics should not occupy opposite sides of the debate. They should be intertwined and interdependent. Fandom is about who you are and what you are. Without ethics, what are any of us?

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Ecem Başak Albayrak
Honestly as a person who is highly interested in K-pop, Chinese government's decision has valid points. It seems that companies blacklisting fan accounts for inappropriate behavior are not found sufficient enough. Western fan culture has not reached "that" far but dominant fan practices originated from Eastern fan culture have reached on an an extreme level in terms of monetization and competition that as a fan, it causes a sense of being not enough for the idol(s) you support and that feeling starts to exploit you. The economy of emotions plays a huge role in here which differs the East from West. For Kpop fandom, a huge amount of fans do believe that generating data for their idols is the equivalent of generating love because semantics also function like that; but a little portion criticizes the ethical side of the practice which is basically exploiting the one's money and digital labour force for those "chaotic" acts expanded in real life. Christian Fuchs and Maurizio Lazzarato have well depictions of this type of labour. The problematic side of this decision is, since China does not have a well reputation in terms of democratic environment, their regulations regarding banning idols' appearance for their political voices or opposing hegemonic culture through defying masculinity in their looks can set barriers to the inclusive transformation of social structure. I don't think that Western-based entertainment market in general would get infulenced by this decision, yet. The fan portrayal between the West and East are not that close and they are still in the process of expanding the fan practices inspired by the East.
Mike McCready
This is incredibly interesting and I think, as you point out early in the article, it's about human psychology. As technology enables companies to collect evermore precise human behavior data and as companies are able to apply that data, it results in nothing short of a "hacking" of human psychology to which most of us are unprepared to counter, protect ourselves, and protect our loved ones. We see the results of fandom hacking in other areas, such as politics. Donald Trump is an excellent exploiter of fandom with all his merch, "Trump Cards", and the fervent following he is able to inspire... even to the point of seeming cultish. This is an endlessly fascinating topic. Thanks Mark. This has really got my mental wheels turning.