Online communities have garnered artists and fans closer together, breaking boundaries between fans and artists. How big of an issue is this?
The idea of the fan club has evolved in the internet age. While the ’90s heyday of mail-in fan clubs are largely defunct, online communities have garnered artists and fans closer together. In the early 2000s, blogs and music forums (like Okayplayer) served as a haven for fans; artists even occasionally participated in those spaces, offering early song previews and Q&As, showing how the internet could provide a more instant interaction between fan and artist while still providing a barrier between the two. Now, fan appreciation has been reconstructed through the guise of boosting promotion while repaying fans with monetary benefits, merch, or even travel, and the barriers that did exist have eroded with the advent of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
Online communities have garnered artists and fans closer together. And Instead of sending letters to artists asking for an autograph in return, social engagement has established various perks, from cheeky responses to impromptu surprises.
At the turn of the new millennium, TLC embarked on marketing for their third album, Fanmail, by choosing one fan to interview them. While Fanmail was a testament to their fans’ diehard loyalty, the album also expressed grievances of internet anxiety and unceasing access. In the current digital age, various fandoms have reached irreversible obsessions, embodied in the current phenomenon of “stan culture,” where fans feel entitled enough to demand that artists release new music — even going so far as to upload leaks of songs to streaming services.
The current fan experience is ample. But has it also been exploitative to fans who shell out hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars on meet-and-greets? Can fans become overzealous in being able to access their favorite artists in real-time? How will the reinvention of music fandom adapt in 2020?
“The driving force behind the ‘90s and early 2000s fan clubs was the allure of having access to artists that everyone isn’t privy to,” Fredd Wilson, Digital Marketing Specialist at Sony Music, said. “During that time, most fans had to rely on interviews and tabloids to keep up with their favorite artists. Now…you don’t have as many barriers to artist access…The casual fan can scroll [through] Instagram and get all the information they need.”
Last July, Summer Walker gifted 24 women fans from different cities a day of pampering through her #swfirstdayofsummer giveaway. She also gave fans in select cities the chance to hear early snippets of her debut album Over It by finding pink telephone booths that were placed in certain locations. Following the release of the album, Walker offered a brief meet-and-greet for fans who attended her aptly-titled The First and Last Tour. But a viral post from a fan detailing her disappointment with the experience, as well as unfavorable fan reviews of her live show, ultimately led to Walker canceling several tour dates amid struggles with her social anxiety. The expectation of a meet-and-greet is often reciprocal: having paid the additional fee to meet the artists, fans are then given the opportunity to connect personally with them with the hopes they can converse about how their music has impacted their life or — at the very least — get an autograph, picture, or hug.
“All the meet-and-greets I have ever been to have been awkward as hell,” Toneisha Renee, who specializes in Digital and Influencer Marketing at RCA Records, said. “The artist is usually tired after a show and the fan is usually too starstruck to speak so it just becomes a staring contest for a few minutes before the fan gets an autograph and a flick…They only benefit both parties when both parties want to be involved fully and are engaging.”
Through social media, fans can direct their support and critique of an artist in real-time. This immediacy is also granted to artists, where they not only use their platforms to respond to fans, but engage with them in a way that’s meant to build a more intimate relationship with them. Take Ari Lennox. The R&B songstress hasn’t only cultivated a fanbase through her music but her online persona, particularly through the use of Instagram’s live video feature. From transforming Disney theme songs into parodies to calling out trolls asking her to pass a message to J. Cole, Lennox offers parts of herself that may not come through her music, helping to both humanize her and give moments that her fans can share in other social media spaces. This is the case with the unofficial “Ari Lennox’s IG Live” Twitter account, which collects clips from different live videos the artist has done.
While this is an on-going trend, there is one artist, in particular, that should get credit for making developing the blueprint for maximizing one’s fanbase on social media — Cardi B. In the mid-2010s, Cardi amassed a following on Instagram while she was a dancer, charismatically offering her thoughts on stripping, sex, family, and other topics. She had built a platform off simply being herself — the “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx” — and fans resonate with her because of how authentic she comes across.
“Social media really made me. Before I got on Love & Hip Hop, I had millions of followers just off the way I speak. Just me talking. And that’s how I got discovered,” Cardi said in her 2020 Vogue cover story. “But now social media makes everything hard. This whole year has just been a lot for me. I feel like people are just so tired of me winning. I will look for my name on Twitter, and it’s like hate tweets, hate tweets, hate tweets.”
The bittersweet sentiment Cardi shares about social media is a feeling most artists can relate to. Aside from Cardi herself, other artists have vocalized their want to completely leave social media or, at the very least, take a break from it, the voracious appetite that comes with fandom often times too much to bear. This is only amplified when artists find themselves in feuds with each other, which can occasionally sprawl into all-out wars with their respective fanbase. Other times, an artist might mobilize their fanbase to demean and harass regular people.
After posting screenshots of an off-kilter direct message interaction with Nicki Minaj, journalist Wanna Thompson was the victim of an all-out digital clash with Minaj’s fanbase, The Barbz, in 2018. Thompson was nearly annihilated by scathing responses from Minaj fans, even threatening her then-4-year-old daughter. (Editors note: Thompson has written for Okayplayer in the past.)
That same year, Rolling Stone spoke with several self-described Barbz, where they talked about being fans of Minaj and drawing the line at coming to her defense.
“Where do I draw the line?” Ayan, one of the Barbz interviewed, said. “I mean, death is definitely a little bit too far. However, I also have that devil’s advocate mindset where the line is never too far for the person that is coming at the celebrity. Why is it that when the fan of that celebrity is responding that the line becomes too far? I tend not to touch on family either, death and all that kinda stuff, but I can definitely see where people are coming from when they do touch on those things, because everyone has their different boiling point and is it OK? No. Do I understand where the hatred is coming from? Most definitely.”
It’s moments like this that speak to the temperamental dark side of stanning.
“Fans are die hard and can be a bit obsessive and shit, even scary, honestly,” Renee said. “It’s beautiful to have such loyal fans, but I do wish at times artists spoke out and against the abusive behavior they see their fans dishing out.”
Megan Thee Stallion has been refreshing in this regard, using her social media platforms to encourage positivity among her fanbase, known as “Hotties.” She has dispelled any unnecessary feuds that have come her way. Such was the case last year when fans interpreted a screenshot Cardi posted on Instagram as a diss directed at Megan. (Following the post, Cardi took to Twitter to clarify she wasn’t referring to anyone specifically.) Rather than instigate, the Houston rapper took a diplomatic approach and held her fanbase to task, tweeting: “If you’re a real hottie, please spread positivity. We real around here and we fw everybody that fw us. No dry hating no dry beef [sic].”
That Megan not only centers her brand on positivity but attempts to regulate her fandom is important. Instead of rewarding fans for voluntarily attacking other artists, fan behaviors can be constructive when their favorite artist sets a pivotal standard, and it’s likely that they will follow suit.
Megan has also used her platform to bring fans together in real life. Last year, she launched beach cleanups in California, hosted a “Cognac Queen Hollywood” beauty scholarship pageant, and also made appearances at numerous “Hottie” parties throughout the country.
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In a similar fashion, Noname is also focusing on bringing together her fans offline. The Chicago artist has developed a regional book club, which has amassed a following that is steadily growing as she continues to announce new meet-ups in 2020. She utilizes her book club to not only tap in with her fanbase, but bring them into a physical space they share alongside authors, activists, and critics of color.
“I believe there are a lot of innovative ways that fandom can evolve beyond the social media platform,” Jermaine Maxwell, A&R Consultant at Dreamville Records, said. “One, in particular, would be inviting fans to studio sessions — with enforced rules, of course. When I was given the opportunity to coordinate and A&R the Dreamville Revenge sessions, it made me appreciate the music so much more. You get to witness the process behind the music without the ego or what is portrayed online.”
Though artist fandom has a long-running trivial history, there’s hope for the industry to further encourage healthy interactions with audiences, rather than just being transactional. Subsiding from tense, aggressive hurdles by fans in the last decade, 2020 is well-equipped to provide new grounds for fans and artists to connect.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae