Superfans and supine fans: the music industry is getting its priorities the wrong way around

MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say.  The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

With the kind of zeal that is characteristic of the recently converted, the music industry is currently falling over itself to prove it is all about the superfans.

Warner Music and Sony recently stepped forward as investors in AI-driven superfan platform Fave.

The Financial Times wrote in July about how targeting superfans was changing the economic DNA of the entire music business, hooking it to blockbusting tours by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and others.

Universal Music Group has claimed that research into music streaming subscribers found “about 30% are superfans of one or more of our artists”.

Goldman Sachs, in its Music In The Air report in July, was slightly less generous than Universal, but still said that 20% of music streaming subscribers could be seen as superfans who, at the upper end, represent a $4.2 billion “Total Addressable Market” that is currently untapped.

A Luminate study also recently claimed that 15% of the general population can be described as superfans (defining them as people who engage with artists and their content in 5+ different ways).

Here a superfan, there a superfan, everywhere a superfan. Like Pokémon with a surfeit of disposable income, you gotta catch them all.

Rather than viewing fans as cuddly Pokémon characters, maybe a better analogy, this one from Aesop rather than Satoshi Tajiri, is the goose that keeps on laying the golden egg. Except the music industry not only wants to collect the golden eggs, it also wants to force-feed these geese to make foie gras on the side.

Fans? Ordinary fans? Normal fans? Who cares about those fair-weather guys? Those weekend golfers? What use are they? Unless they’re super, the music industry is not that fussed about them at the minute.

But no industry should be prioritising superfans at the expense of every other tier of fan. It also starts to become a very unhealthy relationship if they keep returning to the same people with more products and at a higher price each time, expecting them to immediately buy everything pushed at them.

In the mid-1980s, the advertising slogan for the TSB (the Trustee Savings Bank in the UK) was: The Bank That Likes To Say Yes. It was designed to make a major banking organisation appear altruistic – good luck with that – and most decidedly on the side of the customer. Spoiler: it was none of these things.

That model seems to have been inverted in this age of the superfan. Altruism is anathema here. For some of the more mercenary labels, artists, promoters and management companies, they are only enthused when financially lassoing The Fans That Only Say Yes.

Yes to buying multiple copies of the same album that just have slightly different sleeves or colours of vinyl. And yes to buying “box sets” of magazines with a different member on each cover.

Yes to buying the album when it came out on vinyl, then bought again on CD, then bought again on remastered CD and then bought again – for $1.02 shy of a thousand dollars – because it came in a tiny crate along with some miniature gnomes.

Yes to always buying the “VIP” package for a tour. And yes to always buying the “VIP” package for multiple nights of a tour.

Yes to buying one, two, three of everything at the merchandise table during the concert or at the act’s D2C shop.

Yes to joining the fanclub and paying a premium to get early access to buy really expensive (but exclusive) merchandise.

So how does that “super” prefix in “superfans” most manifest itself? It’s less about how deeply they love an act and more about how deep into their pockets they are prepared to dig for an act. Their value is only measured in how much value they pump into the economics of stardom.

As Oscar Wilde said: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

In that case, the superfan-focused part of the music industry is rapidly becoming one of the most cynical out there. The industry is preying on (and amplifying) superfan insecurity, subtly seeding the message that if they do not buy everything then they are not “real” superfans.

Superfans are inherently a minority (in terms of actual size, not in terms of spending power per capita). But what about the much more casual listeners to music? They are still fans, just with less demonstrative intensity and less willingness to spring for the priciest items. Plus there are lots more of them.

The industry needs to think of a new hierarchy in terms of both consumption and willingness to spend across all categories (live, recorded, merchandise and more). In the pyramid of fandom, there is the superfan at the very top, the supplementary fans in the middle and then what we can see as the supine fans at the bottom.

But being at the bottom and being less commercially active (or, to be crude, less “thirsty”) than the fans in the tiers above them does not, in and of itself, make them less important.

If you are doing a regular shakedown of your most loyal customers, eventually you will bankrupt them – either financially or in terms of their patience, but probably both. They paid yesterday. They pay today. They will pay tomorrow. They might even pay the day after tomorrow. But they will not pay forever. Just how far are you going to push them? Just how tightly are you going to squeeze them?

“If you are doing a regular shakedown of your most loyal customers, eventually you will bankrupt them – either financially or in terms of their patience, but probably both.”

There is some pushback happening, such as Blackpink fans publicly arguing that YG Entertainment is more interested in selling new merchandise lines for the act rather than having them create new music. But these moments tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

It feels like we are very much reaching Peak Superfan. However, what mountaineers will tell you, when you reach the peak of any of the world’s highest mountains, it becomes almost impossible to breathe as the air gets a lot thinner, it is incredibly lonely up there and the only “exposure” you encounter is the kind that will freeze you to death.

This all risks being the worst kind of short-termism as it is slowly crushing your most loyal consumers. And when you lose them – your apostles and your greatest advocates – then there is no hope for all those other fans. They will see how you squeezed the keenest fans and will increasingly think badly of you. If you do that to your biggest spenders, it starts to taste like a cocktail of desperation and disdain.

Rather than just fleecing the superfan again and again, divert most of that attention to the supine fans and find ways to nurture them. The profit margins might not be as great or as easy to realise, but their loyalty can be incrementally grown rather than, as with superfans, their goodwill incrementally extinguished.

The music business, if it carries on the way it is going, will turn into Lennie Small in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men: leaving behind it a trail of dead creatures, creatures it pets far too often but far too hard as it doesn’t know its own strength, rubbing all the life out of them.Music Business Worldwide

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