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1 December 2009

Farewell to the casual music fan?: a short attention span essay on how & why culture is produced

A question to ponder: Is the support of 1,000 True Fans better than the here-today, gone-tomorrow affections of a quarter million or more Lesser Fans?

The idea that an artist could be supported by only 1,000 True Fans was first crystallized in March 2008 in a sort of manifesto by Kevin Kelly, a NorCali futurist type whose greatest claim to fame is co-founding Wired Magazine in the early 1990s, a place where he still holds the title Chief Maverick. (This preceded Sarah Palin by many years. He is, to put it mildly, on the liberal end of the ideological spectrum.) If the portrait below is any reflection of his character, he’s a rather optimistic sort.
kevinkelly
Kelly was not making a literal argument with 1,000 True Fans. His manifesto was loaded with caveats. He did not think that nurturing a core fanbase vs. attracting more casual fans was an either/or position — rather he emphasized that “processes you develop to feed your True Fans will also nurture Lesser Fans.”  In addition to contributing proportionally more income to an artist’s bottom line, True Fans would work hard to spread word of mouth about their favorite artists’ work. Kelly also admitted that you might need more or less True Fan support depending on the medium you worked in: a video maker might need 5,000 fans while a painter might need 500. (A more technologically driven creator simply required a higher level of resources to produce.) Kelly later followed-up his original post with several follow-ups that leavened his argument by sharing the perspective of an artist who had actually utilized the True Fan model in his career. These follow-up posts were less-than-starry-eyed about the real world practicalities of appealing mainly to True Fans.

Earlier this month Jeremy Schlosberg — creator of music proto-blog called Fingertips Music — posted a kind of counter manifesto titled “Farewell to the casual music fan.” Schlosberg’s fear is that Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans model will become a literal reality. His core contention is that nurturing True Fans does not help to build a larger fanbase, but rather that it curtails an artist’s ambitions in such a way that large, communal art experiences may cease to exist.

Overall I found Schlosberg’s essay to be rather rambling & dire, but there was some very real wisdom in it. I’ve excerpted his core argument below. Note that he replaces Kelly’s term “Lesser Fan” with the more charitable term “Casual Fan”:

    There is of course no research to cite here; I can only go with decades of my own anecdotal observations….in any case it is clear that any band throughout rock history that has broken through to some amount of widespread success–say, sales of 250,000 copies or more of one album–has done so largely on the backs (and purse strings) of casual fans. Probably, also, the higher the total number of albums sold, the higher the percentage of casual fans.

    Super-fan orientation shrinks the rock’n’roll marketplace because to foster tribes of passionate fans requires throwing maybe 80 percent of the potential audience out the window…

    In my experience a True Fan is actually a type of person (and I mean that almost archetypally). I don’t think casual fans are typically or easily converted into True Fans. Sure, you might get them to give your their email address for a free MP3 but their hearts won’t be in it for the long run. (What is likely, instead, is that a True Fan of one musician will be open, additionally, to becoming a True Fan of any number of other musicians. The market isn’t expansive but, rather, cannibalistic.)…

    The end result of having all or even most of our contemporary musicians seeking the former rather than the latter style of artistic connection [True Fans rather than Lesser or Casual Fans – ed.] means the loss of a meaningful musical commons in our joint public experience.

    The restorative effect of this type of commons is subtle but powerful. Just the other day, I was working out at the gym and the song “One” by U2 came on the sound system. I am not a diehard U2 fan, and yet the song in that context triggered a deep, ineffable pleasure. Hearing a good song that everyone knows in a public setting recharges the spirit in a subtle but meaningful way.

    Note that this is not just about me hearing a song I like. I hear a song I like every time I’m listening to a playlist on my iPod. This is about me hearing the song in the midst of other people, total strangers, who also know the song and are hearing it at the same time. What transpires is a communal, connective experience, even without any words passing between those having it.

There has been some interesting commentary circulating around the posting of “Farewell to the Casual Music Fan.” For example, this humorous yet thought provoking notion of one commenter:

    “I make 100% of my income from just 1 hard-core fan. My boss.”

I, however, would like to address Jeremy’s core misperceptions about Kelly’s essay.

(A) Futurists like Kelly are in the business of projections not predictions: My main critique of “Farewell to the casual music fan” is that Schlosberg seems to think Kelly is advocating a future where every group should focus on their 1,000 True Fans. However, Kelly is not so much predicting the future as he is boiling down current events into an aphorism to help us get our head around what is already happening. The fact that there may never be another arena rock act like U2 has little to do with Kevin Kelly’s writings. It’s simply a reality born out of technological & cultural shifts that make wide distribution of only a few songs less likely. In the future, more and more people will be able to consume culture entirely from small, cultural niches if they choose to do so.

(B) Our most ambitious artists create art to satisfy the larger culture not their personal preferences: If I was an opera fan I’d be a bit sad that some of our most bombastic artists create music videos rather than librettos; if I was a chamber music fan I’d be sad about the lack of intimacy at a U2 concert. That’s not to say that U2 cannot write intimate songs. (“One” is a perfect example of them trying their hand at that.) That’s not to say that Mars Volta or Flaming Lips could not create insane, high production value operas. Instead of doing that, however, these latter two create art in the form of outrageously over-the-top rock spectacles, the medium of choice for today’s mass audience. They are following the money, the audience and their muse all at the same time.

(C) Culture is additive not Darwinian: Once a cultural form has been invented, it tends to remain in practice. There may be less artists with arena rock aspirations in 2020 than there were in 1970. However, it’s unlikely the practice of arena rock will ever go away entirely. Culture is unlike language where, say, the ubiquity of English can lead less useful languages to languish or go extinct. Culture is unlike online commerce where first mover advantage dictates that early entrants to a market segment — like Amazon.com or iTunes — will dominate.

To build on point (B), operas are still created and performed. Heck, in New York, opera’s relevance had something of a resurgence since Peter Gelb took over the Met.) Similarly chamber music — which was created to address 18th and 19th century audiences — has thrived when reconceived by contemporary curators like Ronen Givony to include ambient, post-rock & bedroom electronic artists. (Rather than link to definitions of those genres, listen to a sampling of Ronen’s Wordless Music series at WNYC.org.)

My larger point is this: music is more ubiquitous today than it was before the birth of the Walkman; it became moreso with the birth of the iPod and the internet; music in its many forms will continue to proliferate until its ubiquity becomes almost tiresome. (Similarly, literacy & reading are more widespread today than they were 500 BC. They became moreso after Gutenberg’s printing press was invented in 1440 AD, and will likely become even moreso as reading-based technologies like the smart phone become accessible throughout the developing world.) While I am hardly a utopian, the facts force me to take a glass half full perspective on the proliferation of all cultures and subcultures.

I hope this post does not read as a harsh dis on Schlosberg’s post. He is a strong writer. As an example, I’d point to his most excellent 14 point guide on why pop criticism should die.

It is, however, worth remembering that the roadblocks to communal experience are often more administrative and financial than the result of artistic indifference. For example, I failed in my attempts to find a YouTube video of U2’s “One” which I could embed in this post. You can thank their label Universal Music for that, not Keith Kelly or Bono.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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4 Comments

  1. On 2009-12-1 K-sky said:

    The Ronen Giveny website is frustratingly oblique. Any chance you have a Wordless Music sampler playlist lying around? Extra points if it’s stuff I can find on eMusic….

  2. On 2009-12-1 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    I’d suggest listening to “best of Wordless Music” programs available on WNYC.org. You can find them here: http://www.wnyc.org/music/articles/100215

  3. On 2009-12-1 Liz said:

    But what makes arena rock different is that it is in large part defined by the size of its audience. No one’s about to argue that bombastic populist guitar rock is about to disappear, we’re just skeptical about the ability the next generation of groups working in that genre to fill the Meadowlands. Though apparently Nickleback did so just this year so I guess everything’s fine.

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