Dossier 9: Online Fandom

Why we should not stan: about fandom and the music industry

For artists, a dedicated fan base is an important, perhaps even indispensable, part of their business model. The larger the fan community, the easier it is for artists to sell a lot of albums, to get streams, and to appear in the Billboard charts. As we learned from the interview with Oumaima, there are even certain viewing techniques that ensure one person can generate multiple stream views, on YouTube for example, without being labeled a bot.

The New York based writer David Turner is interested in the music business. He wrote for Pitchfork and Rolling Stones, and now publishes his own newsletter Penny Fractions. In Penny Fractions you can read about user-centric streaming—a streaming platform model where a subscription goes proportionally towards musicians—or the dominance of major record labels. When I reached out to David for an interview, he wrote to me that stan culture is not exactly his area of expertise. And then he described stan culture as one of the worst aspects of the record industry at the moment. This made us even more eager to interview him. 

Lilian Stolk: Why do you think stan culture is one of the worst aspects of the record industry?

David Turner: Actually, there are so many bad things in the record industry, so I won’t put it on the stands for being the worst part of it. But stan culture is a hyper connection to artists that is almost cult-like, which I think can be deeply unhealthy. I don’t have any scientific data to back that up. This is my opinion. To me it also seems like just an outgrowth of artists’ marketing, and a monetisation of teenage and pre-teen behaviour online. That is basically what I find low-key not great.

LS: You are a writer. There are quite a few examples of critical journalists being attacked by the fan armies of the musicians they have criticised. Vice wrote about this: artists now hold the power in the artist/critic relationship, not just in publicity terms, but economically as well. How does this affect music journalism? Has it gotten more mild?

DT: Probably a much bigger issue with music journalism is the fact that there’s no music outlets out there, especially in the United States. The economic factors this involves impacts the music journalist. About the online harassment concern, when I was younger I wrote things that fans of artists didn’t like. I’ve received Facebook messages or Twitter messages telling me to kill myself, and more of such horrible things. It sucks, and those experiences are a reason that my social media presence is very different than how it was when I was younger. It taught me that being public online is just not really worth it. But I actually don’t think being public online is really that worthwhile to begin with. And if you’re being bullied by stans, who are more often 16 year olds with too much free time or 43 year olds with too much free time, it sucks and it’s annoying. But as long as it isn’t targeted, like your address is being put out there or stuff like that, then I do think you can just kind of ignore it or let it go. 

It bothers the responsibility for artists, and I feel like that’s kind of hard. It depends on the scale of the artists, but pushing engagement is often happening at a different level. It’s happening with the marketing teams, and all those folks who are adjacent to the artists and it is not coming directly from the artists. You just can’t say that an artist is their fans. They may cultivate the audience in some ways, but a lot of the internet and how fandom exists, exists sans the artists. A good example: a friend of mine went to a show from this emerging artist who basically had not played any shows yet. They kind of blew up during COVID and my friend went to one of their first shows, and posted about it on either Twitter or Instagram. And then she got a DM from a fan account of that artist, being like: “can you please send us any photos or videos that you have made of this artist?”

LS: So there was already a fan account for an artist that hasn’t had any show yet?

DT: Yes. So when she told me that I was like: “Well, that doesn’t really have anything to do with the artist, that’s like the fan.” This is the system reproducing itself in a new artist in a new context. But it doesn’t really have anything to do with the artist or like the artists themselves may say : “Hey, I don’t want this” or “This is bad”. The wiring that is created at this point is already moving full speed ahead. I don’t really know how much agency that individual artist has to either stopping or addressing some of the stuff that is happening.

LS: What would be the reason to start this fan account?

DT: They’re just a fan. But why I think standard fandom is kind of perverse right now is because these weird incentives and weird gaming mechanisms don’t have anything to do with the artist or the fandom. It is just sort of a way of expressing oneself in lieu of something else that they can’t express or do. And I think that’s a very sad thing. I do think that some kinds of fandoms do speak to a community, that brings people together around a shared interest. But I also see stanning being a way for people to express themselves in lieu of having any other method or form of expressing themselves, or it has less and less to do with the musician or the cultural artefact and more of sub-communities and deciding to splinter and to find new things to obsess over, without caring much about the actual original content.

LS: Do you also think that a reason for that fan to start the fan account for this emerging artist is to benefit from the popularity of that artist?

DT: That’s actually another thing. In some ways, you get to build clout. You now even have a roadmap, like the BTS A.R.M.Y. You can sort of see that there’s like a path for you towards respect, clout, and probably also acknowledgement from the artists and the label. Maybe there’s even a monetary compensation or something. But that basically is turning fandom into a job. A very abstract job where I don’t really have a clear sense of what the career path is. But it is like you’re doing these actions and things as if in lieu of doing some other work.

LS Yeah, I was also thinking about that. On your blog you wrote about this user-centric streaming model as a way that artists can get more money from the streams, when now a big part still goes to record labels. And I was thinking, would it be possible to have a similar model where stans also profit from the revenue that the artists make?

DT: That’s something that is being explored right now in the crypto space. Again, I’m going to say what I just said a second ago, that there are some really concerning incentives to me. Even more so when you start saying that the financial success of an artist impacts your own financial success. I listened to a podcast where they talked about how there are some K-Pop acts, maybe some slightly older K-Pop acts, that were basically telling fans not to come to the airport to come greet them. They’re like “Please, we don’t want this. It’s weird. Do something else with your time”. Which is basically how I feel about stan culture. You probably don’t need to turn your fandom into a way of making money. There’s probably some other core issues that are happening here that you’re trying to ameliorate and I don’t think fandom is how you should be trying to ameliorate them. Basically, if the point of fandom is to have a secondary income stream, then I don’t really know what fandom is at that point. Because it’s not really about the thing you’re enjoying. It’s kind of about another way to find another form of profit. And that’s dire to me.

LS: Do you know how much record labels are investing in these fan communities?

DT: I think it sort of varies. I was actually just reading a New York Times story that was about YoungBoy Never Broke Again. It’s a rapper from Louisiana in the United States and he’s one of the most popular rappers in the United States by far. He’s huge on streaming. Not big on radio, never had a hit record or anything. But he’s absolutely massive on streaming. And the New York Times article linked to a few Instagram accounts that are fan accounts of him that have tens of thousands of followers that said, “Oh yeah, these fan accounts collaborate with a record label to promote his stuff and do all that kind of stuff”. So I do think that labels are aware of the top fans and probably do interact and connect with those bigger fans to make sure that those fans feel empowered to have content. But I also don’t want to give too much credence to that, because I think you should try to figure it out on a case by case basis, because oftentimes there are no labels involved. It’s pretty much just like whatever the fans want to do. Sometimes maybe, but oftentimes, it’s just happening sui generis of the artists themselves.

LS: In an interview my colleague did with a BTS stan, the stan told us that when you want the streams to be counted, you can’t just replay a song over and over because it will be flagged as a bot. You have to make a playlist that goes and plays the new BTS song, then three old BTS songs, then the new song again, and on and on.  

DT: Like I said, teenagers don’t need to be doing that. I feel like I sound like such a kronk when I say this, but it’s not a good use of people’s time. Because, to what end does this serve? The reason why they do it—and I think this is fine—is because they want to see their favourite artists do well, they really care about them. And they feel some sense of ownership of this thing, which is why the next logical step is that you would have some kind of monetary incentive into that. And that you’d want to feel some kind of reward for the amount of time you’re devoting to these projects. I don’t want teenagers, or any people, to be putting this much time into streams, where they’re just basically botting and gaming everything, because it’s not actual music fandom that’s happening there. It’s just weird to me. It’s like weird antisocial behaviour that is done via a community. But it’s a community that’s usually based all online. And it very much exists to game online charts and online metrics. So I just find it all very distasteful.

LS: You shared a lot of negative thoughts about stan culture. Do you also think there is something positive to say about fandoms?

DH: Oh, absolutely. One of the positive things about stan culture and fandom in general is that it allows folks to come together around certain things. I think the longer that you’re in a certain fandom, it also does allow you to connect across generations and see who else is also interested in this, either topic, or this particular musician or TV show or comic book or whatever. And I think that’s really cool. My dad’s a big Marvel fan. He’s been a Marvel fan since he was a kid, and so when everyone went to see the first Marvel movies he was so high because it was something that connected people with him across 40 plus years. And I think that’s really cool. I just think that a lot of the accoutrements that have arisen, especially via social media and especially when there’s been more desire to centralise and professionalise a lot of these things, is where it kind of starts going off the rails for me.