Fans of music and the musicians that make it are about as old as the art of music itself, save perhaps for the times in history and specific pockets of social cultures around the world, where music was strictly for functional, societal, or religious purposes. Still, that leaves a litany of eras over which the everyday listener could go from first experiencing and processing a song, to liking it, and eventually advocating for the writers and-or performers of it through various forms of public praise, after enough positive repetition or explanation had been given to them. This much of the dynamic between musician and listener is nothing novel to the 21st century or year 2021.
All the same, can we talk about the convoluted, confusing, and often times cynical nature of fans and the concept of a fandom, in today’s music landscape?
For the sake of argument, let’s say that if someone is a fan of a musician or band, the fundamental reasoning behind that choice is made up of straightforward, positive intent. Furthermore, let’s account for the fact that the mainstream music industry – that is to say mainstream (Top 40) radio, primary genre charts (e.g. alternative, rock, R&B, country, etc.) mainstream music awards – does not reserve space for far more music than it does, leaving a plethora of artistically gripping, sonically well-made, and perfectly marketable music, far less visible and publicly disseminated than its more widely propagated counterparts. It’s safe to say that as a result of these two scenarios, there exists a massive body of fans to all those different artists, none of whom receive the kind of widening visibility and performative reach their music might otherwise have the innate potential to accrue under a different set of promotional circumstances.
For the fans of those musicians, songwriters, and performers, sure, there’s often an underlying hope and aspiration that their artist of choice will eventually get that “big break” and “get the recognition they deserve,” with either of those sentiments being encapsulated by the aforementioned accolades and achievements. However, as time goes on and those very specific aspirations are for whatever reason not met, plenty of the folks in a persistent fanbase will still continue to appreciate, support, and engage with new music their favorites come to release over the years. Even further still, one could argue that when a band or artist continually comes up short of breaking through the mainstream line, there comes a point when the fans may start to see that enduring ceiling as a sign of cult appreciation fandom status. (This is of course not referring to the kind of blockage and systemic barriers that keep artist out of the mainstream for reasons based in race, religion, or sexual orientation. Those kinds of barriers are problematic and need to be fixed as quickly and decisively as possible.)
In other words, when a musician or band goes long enough without getting to that next level, whomever persists in this respective fanbase might go so far as to turn the more intimate nature of the fanbase into a strength and start to think of an eventual shift to wider exposure as a threat to their favorite band’s artistic and-or stylistic integrity. The OG fans becoming protective of a band’s OG sound, if you will.
With this in mind, it’s fascinatingly ironic to see when a fanbase then exudes both this kind of insular protective fierceness and a unyielding sense of inevitable deservedness for the above mentioned forms of mainstream breakthrough, as the fundamental qualities of these two camps of thought are in direct conflict with each other. One being all about preserving the somewhat unknown, inherent “underdog” status and mentality surrounding an artist’s music and the other being all about pushing for any and every opportunity to stand at the front of all musical peers while accumulating new fans along the way. Just about the only quality these polar opposite philosophies share is a subsequent risk of gatekeeping via testing of a new fans “authenticity” but that’s a whole other discussion unto itself. From here, the question then becomes:
What is the desired outcome for the type of wide-reaching fanbases that operate with the united drive and insistent uniformity of an army?
Quite frankly, it would seem counterintuitive to simultaneously fight with such a demanding level of tenacity, for one’s favorite artist or band to attain and maintain domination of public music discourse. And then to also become defensive when the real people attached to those increasing numbers don’t turn out to embody the majority-established idea of a “proper fan.” Could this dilemma perhaps serve as a possible an explanation for the more mega-devoted fanbases out there? The kind that buy (into) an artist’s half a dozen extra physical releases, remixes, and remasters? The kind that invest money into dozens of purchases of the same music in order to manually drive sales and propel an artist to a higher chart position? In turning to these methods of artist augmentation, the diehard fans are able to help push their artist toward the industry-powered accolades the fans think their artist should receive, without necessarily needing to gather in and connect with a true corresponding number of real people to match. In a very distorted but effective in a “this is a means to an end” way to achieve a best of both worlds scenario.
Of course, given the thought this whole thing started on, fans and their common drive to support artists is nothing new so what new angle of could the super enthusiastic fans of 2021 have to offer that hasn’t already been explored through prior generations? Well, while the internet and its anonymity and emotional distance would seem an easy scapegoat, fans from days before the web had even less one-on-one connection with each other outside of concerts and meet-and-greets – especially internationally separated fans – so that dynamic isn’t new. However, the shift in who controls the mechanics of artist visibility have changed in a way that’s unique to the internet and so even with the preexistence of gatekeeping and fan armies, one could say another aspect of authentic fandom has become ingrained in fandom culture: the expectation that a person supports their fueling of their artist’s visibility via buys, streams, concert ticket bulk purchases, votes for awards, providing social media feedback, and any other present day opportunity for the listener to manually contribute their time, energy, emotions, and physical presence to chasing that big break.
Unlike the emotionally united but physically separate collectives of pre-internet decades, modern social media and consumer-driven culture has interlocked what is seen as bigger fandom, with access via economic privilege. Being an emotionally invested, deeply moved fan doesn’t always suffice and nor is it always accepted as genuine if it’s not backed up by as much assimilation with the mission of the fan base at large whenever possible. When part of the idea is to constantly convince others to like the artist you like too, it’s (again) ironic to think that should a person express hesitancy or even rejection of following a fandom’s primary actions, particularly if the reason for that is due to a lack of financial ability, there’s frequently an immediate and harsh reaction, sometimes followed by ostracization.
The amped up power and instant gratification of digital music purchases, streaming, and charting, combined with the fervor of unflappable fans can be the ultimate symbol of support for a piece of art and the people behind it. But that kind of immediacy can also lead to a loss of control and distancing from real feelings, as well as an increase in the rush to judge others.
Being a fan in 2021 is truly a double-edged experience.