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The state of the attention economy: why don’t fan-first platforms work?

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Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

The music industry is increasingly looking to fan-first solutions to drive its next era of growth (and solve artists’ financial woes), with all eyes towards the Taylor Swift model of fan frenzy. At the heart of this quest is a tension inherent in the ‘everything everywhere all the time’ model. On the one hand, any artist can be discovered without traditional gatekeepers, and all consumption, even the most passive, can be monetised (to an extent) through streaming. On the other hand, too much content all the time is diluting the intrinsic value of any of it, and audiences are exhausted. They are going all in on the biggest common denominators, like Swift, and fragmented across too many others in second place. 

This pattern of fragmentation is repeating itself everywhere in the digital world, from video streaming services, to songs on streaming, to creators on TikTok, to social platforms themselves. We cannot forget about the attention economy: there is only so much time in a day, only so much money in the bank, and only so many spare brain cells (so to speak) any one person has to allocate to all the content that digital entertainment increasingly demands they do to keep the machine in working order. 

For music, fan-first platforms often offer hope for solutions. By connecting true fans to their favourite creators in a dedicated space, it is easier to tap into the power of community, enhance the relationship with the artist, and encourage higher spend – be it on tickets, merch, or simply patronage (e.g., through Patreon). From big hubs (like groups on Whatsapp, Discord channels, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and X) to more specific platforms (such as Bandcamp, Fangage, Monad.Social, With the Band, Fave, EVEN, Amino) the list of places to be is now seemingly endless. And herein lies the problem. 

In Asian markets where Weverse is prevalent, the fan-first system works for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was never a shift from artist-first to song-first listening, which means fans are still predominantly artist loyal (unlike the consumption-first streaming model).  More importantly, however, the bulk of consumption and fan activity can be centralised in one place. Meanwhile, in Western markets, attention is already fragmented across so many platforms that it is causing the market itself to change shape. Audiences are now stacking platforms, rather than choosing between them, meaning less attention allocated per app. Asking fans to go to numerous extra platforms just to follow their favourite artists is fragmenting their attention even further. Warner Music Group’s proposed superfan platform, for example, will simply be one more to add on. Artists cannot switch to one platform – they still need to be present everywhere all the time in order to funnel new fans to these fan-first spaces. Asking artists to make more content to go on more platforms, when many are already burnt out from the existing marketing workload, is ultimately unhelpful. 

Moreover, we often view fans through an isolated lens; fans of James Blake should theoretically be convinced to subscribe to him on Vault, for example. However, fans of James Blake are usually fans of more than just James Blake (and of more entertainment than just music). Because of the discovery powers of streaming, fans will have potentially hundreds of artists they listen to per year. Of those, they may really love the music of two dozen. They may look into half of those to follow them on social, and be convinced to go to the shows of a third. That is a lot of subscriptions to purchase, and a lot of places to be, and a lot of decisions to make about choosing one or the other in terms of time and money. This is especially problematic for consumers used to having everything they want all in one or two main places for a low cost. 

There is also perhaps a broader issue with the way we look at fans as a source of income. The fan platform EVEN has said that many of the purchases that happen on it – from early music access, to album buys – are not necessarily coming from the biggest superfans, but simply people who like music, convenience, and ‘having it now’. People come to the platform for a myriad of reasons, and then develop better relationships with artists as a result, causing them to stay. In short, the monetisation opportunity is somewhere in the middle between ‘only superfans’ and ‘a tiny bit from everyone’. There are offerings that can appeal to tech enthusiasts, art lovers, party goers who just want a vibe and don’t mind who’s playing – far more than just an artist’s ‘superfans’.  

In this lies half of the solution. With streaming, we went too broad; with a fixation on superfans, we run the risk of going too niche. A middle ground which looks holistically at crossovers, opportunities, and ways that artists can offer value to both their core fans and a larger circle beyond them who are interested for adjacent reasons, is a good sized audience to play to. 

The other side of it is simply that we cannot fix a plague of too much stuff on too many platforms by adding more platforms to host the stuff and putting more stuff on those platforms. Of course, artists need to promote themselves in a variety of places to build and maintain their fanbases. But social platforms have their own interests beyond just being the tools of artists, which can dilute their results. 

Artists and their teams would benefit from trying to make a bigger impact while doing less. In a world of endless ubiquity, access, and attention competition, offering something small, impactful, and exclusive – something special for fans – can go a lot further towards building a brand than having a video go viral overnight. Releasing albums with no notice has not harmed stars like Childish Gambino or Beyoncé; it may be harder for smaller artists, but launching in select circles and letting fans do the legwork on social media can give value to those fans who want exclusivity, and lessen the artists’ own promotional workload. Having live events that make it online through the videos of people in attendance (fans or not); or select campaigns on only one platform where an artist’s most ardent fans predominantly live can have a similar effect. Success does not hinge on just having everything everywhere all at once, but rather, selectively publishing the right things, at the right times, in the right places.

Less is more in a post-attention economy. 

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Brett Hawkins
Thanks Hanna! We believe we are seeing an "unravelling" of the irrational exuberance in expectations that was the great hope of streaming. This unravelling was delayed by the tremendous spikes in streaming consumption during COVID and corresponding spikes in the stock prices of the big players. This provided them the rationale to continue on a path that we now see, and should have seen, is unsustainable. There is certainly no silver bullet solution. We need to provide for not only audience segmentation around features and content, but for pricing options that can accommodate a wide range of consumer consumption behaviour and wherewithal. We also believe that artists, creators and producers should be thoughtful about where and how their Premium Content can be accessed and where it should be exclusive. We believe one element of this to seriously limit where long-format content can be consumed, that it’s important to have a community aspect to this experience and that creators should use the myriad of short-form platforms out there to their advantage rather than being taken advantage of.