Popping the Question: How much should artists listen to their fans?

Last week I was entertained by the debacle of Jessie J unfollowing fans on Twitter, and the drama it caused, which she in turn mocked. I couldn’t believe she had broken the no.1 rule of being a pop star in the digital age: Never insult your fans. When fans get together, their ego is inflated far beyond that of any celebrity. They know they have power and they’re not afraid to use it. Jessie can survive that embarrassing Tuc advert, but spurning her fans is a mistake that won’t be forgotten.

I recently read an article which rang very true to my experiences with music fans. The writer, Paul Ford, had come up with a psychological concept he called “Why wasn’t I consulted?”. When designing websites, he found himself trying to pre-empt the complaints of users, which he seemed to be inundated with every time his work went live. He realised that these online comments were reflective of the human need “to be consulted, engaged, to exercise knowledge (and thus power).” The internet has flattered and exaggerated this need exponentially.

People have always had strong opinions about music, and believed their favourite artist would be more successful if they were in charge. The internet allows that feeling to be expressed publicly, and gives fans the opportunity to send their opinions directly to the artist. This leads them to believe they can influence the artist, and leaves them both annoyed and perplexed when they don’t get what they ask for. This is especially true when they are part of a core group of fans who agree on the route they believe the artist should take.

Artists constantly talk about how important their fans are, because they know how much they need them. That’s why Jessie’s tweets were so shocking. It’s obviously true that the artist wouldn’t have success if they didn’t have fans. However, what obsessed fans don’t realise is that, in most fanbases, they are in the minority. The casual fans are the majority, and the ones who truly determine how successful each new single or album is. But when the superfans spend their time online chatting with likeminded people, and they see other superfans getting attention from the artist, they are misled to think that their shared opinions represent the whole fanbase.

Artists themselves make a similar mistake. I’ve heard many artists I’ve worked with talking about superfans as though they represent the whole fanbase. Social media has not only given fans access to the artist, but the artist access to the fans, and they take their opinions on board like market research. However, they only see the fans who care enough to engage with them online. This is not akin to the carefully composed focus group that would be used in real market research.

Managers and labels will often choose not to show market research to their artist. It’s not healthy to read about yourself being discussed as a brand, and the comments are honest and harsh, as is necessary for the research to be productive. Social media has exposed artists to an endless array of opinions, which many get obsessed with reading. Even artists who don’t go looking for comments will see them every time they log into social media, an activity they cannot avoid if they want to remain relevant in this age.

However hard the artist tries, they can’t escape being influenced by fans’ opinions. This is why the fan is more powerful now than they ever have been. We used to talk about the media, particularly tabloids, building up a celebrity, only to later bring them down. Now, thanks to social media, this is also done by their own fans.

The line between a fan and a critic has become blurred, and I think many people aren’t sure which side they’re on when it comes to certain artists. In TV journalism, there is a new concept called “hate-watching,” and I think pop fans do a similar thing. I’m guilty of it myself. We follow the artists we hate as much as those we love, and when the artists we love do something we hate, we’re quick to highlight it and complain about it. I saw it this weekend when Britney Spears’ new single leaked, and it was some of the biggest Britney fans on my Twitter timeline who were first to point out its flaws. It’s natural to have conflicting opinions on one subject, but the fans often seem to be more critical than the critics these days.

I think this is an expression of that “Why wasn’t I consulted?” feeling. The fans get angry because the artist didn’t do what they wanted, and they’re confused because of the reasons I explained earlier. The fans know that other fans agree with them, and they know that they’ve sent their opinion directly to the artist. So WHY weren’t they consulted?!

Deciding how much to listen to fans’ opinions is increasingly tricky for artists. Those opinions are harder to ignore, and the fans have a bigger platform to express their dissatisfaction when they feel it’s necessary. However, artists are used to being inundated with opinions. They get them from the people they work with, the media, and their friends and families. Part of their job is learning when to listen, and when to tune them out, and that’s key to making the right creative and business decisions. Artists must now apply that intuition when dealing with their fans.

One of the risks of reading too many fan comments is that creativity can be stifled. Some artists work best when they hide themselves away from outside influences. Others take influence from everything that’s going on in music, from the latest releases of their competitors to obscure new genres coming up in the clubs or on the blogs. The best try to balance the two, bringing their own artistic identity to the sounds and styles of the moment.

Taking a bit of objective criticism is healthy for an artist, but superfans aren’t as well equipped to give it as they think. When you’re obsessed with an artist, you think you know everything about their personal and professional lives, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in the industry, it’s that fans really don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. However much they stalk and speculate, they will only ever have part of the full picture, and that’s how it should be. Fans don’t need to see behind the curtain.

I always had a big interest in the workings of the music industry before I was involved in it, but I realise now how little I really knew. It’s such a complicated beast that you can’t fully understand without being part of it. Unfortunately, because the music industry is a part of popular culture, people overestimate how much they know about it. Some of the misunderstandings I’ve seen from fans are hilarious, yet infuriating when they’re in relation to an act I’m working with. The most ridiculous, and bizarrely common, is when fans get angry with an up-and-coming or mid-level artist for not doing more promo. Do they really think they’re turning down the chance to perform on The X Factor, appear in the Radio 1 Live Lounge and play at Glastonbury? Believe me, no-one less famous than Beyoncé would reject these offers if they got them.

Artists today have a choice to make. One option is to focus on their superfans, keep them happy and keep them loyal. If there are enough of them, this means the artist can continue working as a musician indefinitely. However, they risk alienating casual fans, as the aspects of the artist’s music and persona that superfans love are usually their extremes, not the watered down, lowest common denominator version that appeals to a mass audience. The other option is to basically sell out, and be more accessible and palatable. This often means more success in the short-term, but they risk alienating the superfans in favour of the fickle casual fans.

An intelligent artist will spend their whole career attempting to balance the two. Business-savvy Taylor Swift has done this masterfully, moving into the mainstream gradually, allowing her country fans to grow with her. Rihanna is not such a good example, as she’s bounced back and forth between pure pop and edgy rebellion, only occasionally, such as with We Found Love, ticking both boxes in one move. But what’s kept them both at the top is their star quality and the smart people around them. If you have those two things, you can survive the opinion avalanche and re-emerge unscathed every time.

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