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Serving the Superfans: takeaways from today’s BPI / ERA / Music Ally online insight session


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Today was going to be the day for an insight session put on in London by British industry bodies the BPI and ERA in partnership with Music Ally about ‘Serving the Superfans’. Covid-19 put paid to the in-person plans, so the event was taken online via Zoom. Here’s our report of some of the key takeaways.

Music Ally’s Eamonn Forde introduced the event by talking about some of the findings from his ‘Serving the Superfans’ report which will be published next week, to follow on from today’s event.

He talked about the long history of the superfan, which stretches back to a performance in Paris by Franz Lizt in 1844, which was notorious for provoking fan hysteria.

“That essence of fandom hasn’t really changed that much. It’s about an overwhelming love for an artist and their music, and complete identification with that. The artists and fans are the two constants here, it’s just how they are connected and reach each other that has changed,” said Forde.

He’s been looking at some of the recent research on superfans, where the common thread is that “the superfan is the person who’s at the top of the pyramid, they’re the smallest in size, but they’re absolutely the most important in cultural terms, and also in economic terms,” he said.

“They’re the heavy lifters, the early adopters, the loyal flag-wavers,” he added, while noting that this loyalty can never be presumed: it has to be earned, and re-earned. “There’s a process of nurturing here. Getting it right will create superfans for life, but too many mis-steps, and you could lose those fans forever.”

The report will explore some case studies of how labels and managers engage their artists’ superfans. It’s due to be published next week.

The next speaker was Martin Vovk, head of insight at Sony Music UK, which has been breaking down the music market by fan type for several years now: indifferents, casuals, enthusiasts and fanatics, who “represent a vital audience for us”.

His presentation aimed to dispel some myths. First, that they’re a rare breed – “some kind of niche audience”. While they may be the smallest group in the UK population, there are 7.8 million in the UK alone. He also pointed out that for Sony, ‘fanatics’ and ‘superfans’ are not simply interchangeable terms. “You can still be a superfan of an artist without being a fanatic,” he said.

Sony’s most recent data suggests that fanatics are almost twice as likely to the average person to have paid for a music streaming service, more than twice as likely to have paid for tickets for a gig or music festival.

“Fanatics are a vital gateway to success for artists,” he added. “They lean in to new music discovery, so you don’t have to work as hard to reach them. They stream more often, so they can kick-start an artist’s career on streaming. They pack out gigs – at least, when gigs are happening – and they advocate passionately for artists on social media and out in the world.”

He also tackled the myth that ‘younger fanatics stream, older ones buy’. Actually, 62% of fanatics aged under 30 both stream and buy, compared to 67% of fanatics who are older than 30.

“The fanatic audience in the UK is massive and hugely valuable. Eight million people in the UK, 14% of the population. And they’re the ones that stream the most… that talk the most,” he concluded. “Understanding how to connect with them is crucial.”

He was followed by an interview with Hannah Ewens, author of ‘Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture’. Journalist Aimee Cliff was asking the questions.

The book was inspired by the growth of feminist pop-culture discourse, and the “idea of how fangirls had been spoken about in quite a derogatory way” in the past. “The idea of a fangirl… came up through male-dominated music press,” she said. But around the time when One Direction split up, the wider world got a deeper look at how this kind of fandom really worked.

“Twitter and 1D was the first time ever when we had this proper 360 look at what fandom was. One Direction fans were the first internet fandom, really. The first internet fandon that was played out publicly on Twitter.. for everyone to see,” she said. “It opened up the discussion about whether a fangirl was derogatory. And at the same time, young girls especially were reclaiming the term, through Tumblr and on Twitter.”

“There’s quite a weird distinction to make between the music industry as a whole… which has always really known that fans are extremely important financially, as well as a social-cultural construct… and the music press, which has always been quite male dominated until recently, where there are now a lot of female, people of colour, writer/editors. And that’s really changed what we think of as a fan,” she added.

Ewens was surprised when she researched her book is how similar superfans have been down the years: the technologies they use may have changed, but the cultural difference between Frank Sinatra and Beatles superfans and One Direction or Beyoncé fans now isn’t as great as you’d imagine.

“The thing that makes someone a superfan is becoming insanely invested in someone’s specific story,” added Ewens, before talking about how superfans can set the agenda of how an artist like Beyoncé is covered by the media.

“I used the Beyhive as the best example to show how fans literally do… act like bees. They go out, they collect all the information, and they just have a constant stream between themselves of all this information,” she said. They’ll then bring it back to their Instagram profiles, or Facebook Groups, or subreddits, which become the key sources of news for the fandom, rather than traditional media. And in fact, those media outlets have begun writing about the superfans: their reaction to something an artist has done is a news angle.

“There isn’t actually that much music news any more, an that’s because superfans made that irrelevant… Whatever we could put out, fans will already know it and will already have spoken about it, even if we don’t know that they have.”

Ewens also talked about how social media has helped the rise of ‘stan culture’ as an additional layer of fandom. “Stan culture has made being a fan into a competition, but it’s not them that’s winning, even if they’re getting a dopamine hit,” she suggested. “It’s the artist that’s winning.”

Superfans don’t just want to stream music: they’ll also buy physical music from their favourite artists. John Reed, director of catalogue at Cherry Red Records, offered his label’s perspective on this.

“In a way, this is the age where superfans are being treated to so much amazing stuff,” he said, suggesting that in the past they were frustrated at not getting “the demos, the live recordings, the rarities: that’s where that whole bootleg market was feeding them, but the great thing is this is now being done officially.”

He talked about a case study involving artist Howard Jones, which involved digging into the vaults to find “an amazing volume of rare music”. That was important: “We don’t try to adopt a cookie-cutter approach. You have to start looking at the substance underneath something, and then build up to these packages,” said Reed.

The package was released on several physical formats: standard CD – “there’s a lot of fake news out there about CDs, it still outsells vinyl three or four to one” – but there was also a ‘two CDs plus DVD’ edition, and also a cassette.

Reed offered a warning: one label released a box-set for an artist in the form of a book, and it did well, so they decided to release all their box-sets in that format, which he thinks missed the point that it was the music that was the key.

“It isn’t necessarily the format, it’s the content. It’s what you give the fans,” he stressed. “Superfans are extremely knowledgable, they’re discerning, and they will rip you to shreds on social media if you get it wrong.”

“You have to see these things as bespoke in every sense of the term,” he said: bespoke in terms of what the hardcore fans want and expect, but also what the artists (or their estates, if they’re dead) expect, and what restrictions that might bring.

“And don’t overcharge. Be realistic and reasonable about what you can expect people to spend. It’s just about being smart, really,” he added. “Don’t start with ‘in Q4 we need a six-CD box-set from this artist’. Start from the point of view of fans… For the most part, when you go the extra mile, you get that back.”

The next speaker offered a management company’s perspective. Stephen O’Reilly, director at ie:music and MD of its new ie:music ventures division, talked about Spotify’s ‘Fans First’ tools.

Fans First is Spotify’s system for identifying the top fans of an artist on its streaming service in any given country or region. Artist teams can then offer pre-sale tickets or exclusive merchandise to those fans (via targeted emails). ie:music ran a campaign for artist Passenger, who held a free concert for his top listeners in the UK.

“We identified around 120 fans around the country and invited them to an exclusive free show in central London, and Spotify did the email, we worked with them on the composition to make sure it was on-Passenger-brand. Almost everybody that was invited took up the offer and came.”

They were told to keep it secret (and they did), with the hour-long acoustic show also recorded to be released on Spotify itself.

“It’s difficult for a lot of our third-party partners to share this data… to give you email addresses and location,” he said, stressing the need to trust that partners like Spotify will be identifying the right fans for a campaign. ie:music has worked on some fan-focused campaigns with Apple Music and YouTube, too.

What’s happening around serving superfans in the current Covid-19 environment? “Robbie [Williams] has been doing 90-minute karaoke sessions from his house in Los Angeles for the past month!” he said. “Every couple of nights, he’s been taking requests from fans on Instagram and performing for over an hour songs that he loves! We thought maybe we could turn these sessions into playlists… and enlighten and delight fans. So we’re turning these impromptu performances into curation.”

Passenger, meanwhile, has been doing livestreamed ‘Sunday Night Acoustic’ sessions on YouTube, while a band member of Neck Deep did a 35-hour session on Twitch, playing games like Animal Crossing and chatting to fans to raise money for the band’s road crew.

In a wide-ranging event, Jessie Scoullar, founding director at Wicksteed Works, talked next about the potential of mailing lists for engaging an artist’s superfans.

“Start building your list right away. If you have got social profiles up and they’re active, you should also be promoting your list,” she said, suggesting that artists should also prioritise their mailing list for promotion – for example on their own website – over social networks.

Among the practical tips offered by Scoullar: artists should set up a welcome message when fans sign up to their list; and align the tone with an artist’s voice and personality, including finding things for them to talk about beyond their music. Nick Cave’s ‘The Red Hand Files’ has won lots of plaudits on that score, while Radiohead’s mailing list has a dry tone that perfectly suits their personality.

“It’s vital to send regular emails to your lists so fans learn to trust it as your VIP communication channel,” said Scoullar. “It’s a good rule of thumb to send an email at least once a quarter, and/or at key moments in your campaigns. And you want to be in the habit of telling your fans the best news first.”

Another tip: trim the excess. After a year or so, having inactive subscribers will bring down your performance levels and ultimately cost you money. Scoullar advised “re-engagement” campaigns with fans who’ve been inactive, and if they don’t open them and/or respond, remove them from the list.

Next up was a segment on learning from other countries with Billboard K-Pop correspondent Tamar Herman and Field R founder and managing partner Takuya Yamazaki, talking about South Korea and Japan respectively.

Yamazaki talked about fan engagement, and the importance of the concept of ‘share’ versus the ‘control’ that the Japanese music industry is used to. “Now, the share is more important in terms of fan engagement,” he said.

70% of recorded music revenue in Japan still comes from CD sales, and superfan engagement plays on that. ‘Idol’ groups like AKB 48 sell ‘tie-in CDs’ containing tickets, which can be redeemed for access to live events, including “hand shake” meet’n’greets. “Fans want the tickets, not recorded music!” he said.

Official fan clubs for artists are also big business in Japan, with one of the biggest benefits for fans being a preferential right to get tickets, along with exclusive content and events. “It’s an established business of subscription” for groups like Arashi, who have millions of members of their fan club paying the equivalent of £35 a year.

He came back to the keywords of ‘share’ and ‘control’. Fan clubs are a controlled business model, so there is now a challenge for Japanese music companies: they have been hesitant to ‘share’ content on YouTube and streaming services, and they also now need a strategy for making money from “unofficial” content created by fans.

Over to Herman to talk about K-Pop, where the big stars have been doing a lot of the things talked about earlier in the BPI/ERA event for “a decade and a half or more”.

“Pretty much every single K-Pop band in Korea gets huge physical album sales, because if you want to meet your idols, you have to buy the albums to get a chance of getting a lottery ticket,” she said. Herman also pointed to SM Entertainment’s recent partnership with internet company to stream a concert by K-Pop group SuperM live online.

“There was no in-person audience due to social distancing, but they brought up thousands of fans through, it looked like Zoom but it was Naver’s platform, and as they were playing they panned to the fans in their bedrooms, holding up light-sticks synced to the performances through an app… And then they started talking to the audience. They had prepared individual fan questions, they had taken them in advance, and fans actively spoke to the stars on-stage… and later they had an encore session of Q&A.”

The concert generated at least $2m in revenue, by Herman’s estimate, and the experience will soon be repeated for three other bands.

“This is the first time we’re going to see a model for wholly digital concerts to be held. And this is going to go beyond coronavirus,” she said, suggesting that it will be a viable model for K-Pop artists (and perhaps others elsewhere in the world) to bring their live experience to fans in places they might not be touring.

Finally, she talked about how K-Pop fans are “essentially acting as marketing teams for artists nowadays”. For example, in Times Square in New York, every ten minutes or so there’s an ad that’s been bought by fans to send their well wishes to K-Pop stars.

“It’s become a way for fans to show their power,” she said, referring back to Ewens’ thoughts on fandom becoming a competition. “This has happened on a massive scale. It’s really commonplace in Korea, I’ve seen it in Tokyo too, and it’s now spread throughout he world,” she said. “Fans see it as just one element of their being a fan.”

The event finished with some quickfire tools and services presentations, including Push Entertainment (co-founder Simon Scott); Audience Republic (music partnerships lead Chris Woods); NDIID (CTO Alan Graham) and Landmrk (co-founder Tom Nield).

Stuart Dredge

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