Fake artists are what happens when fandom dies

The topic of ‘fake artists’ refuses to go away. For those who have been on Mars for the last couple of years, fake artists refer to artists who release under a streaming pen name but do not build any artist profile around the music. Most of this music comes from production music libraries (typically ‘royalty free’) and is seen by the traditional music business (record labels especially) as a means of gaming the system – especially as the assumption is that DSPs pay less for such music (even though record labels have started playing the game themselves). Although the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ might seem like a pragmatic solution, it, of course, only exacerbates the problem. Because the problem is not fake artists, but it is, instead, the way in which streaming is killing fandom.

Streaming is racing to be radio, not retail

Streaming is fast becoming more of a replacement for radio than it is retail. Retail used to be where (engaged, smaller scale) fans went, while radio was where (passive, larger scale) audiences went. As streaming got bigger, there was always going to come a point in which its focus would be the large passive audience segment rather than the smaller engaged fan segment. But what has happened is that streaming is turning everyone into the passive massive, even fans. Streaming has turned music into a utility, like water coming out of the tap. This might have helped drive global scale, but it came at the cost of fundamentally eroding the cultural impact of music, by making it about consumption rather than fandom. 

Streaming music soundtracks our everyday lives. There are playlists for everything we do (study, fitness, relaxing, cooking, working, etc.). By becoming pervasive, music has lost some of its magic. The fandom that was inherent in people buying music because they loved it is gone. The biproduct of ubiquity is utility. In the immortal words of Syndrome from the Incredibles: “When everyone is super, no one will be…”

The problem is that, from the ground up, Western streaming is geared for consumption not fandom. From playlists through to economics, streaming is all about consumption at scale. Songs fuel consumption, not artists. Which is the breeding ground for mood music, of which ‘fake artists’ are but one sub-strand. 

Streaming’s torrent of ubiquity

This is not to say that there is anything inherently bad about consumption, after all, radio has been a corner stone of the music business for, well, pretty much forever. Labels have had a love / hate relationship with radio, but they valued the way in which it drove sales and delivered exposure for songs and artists (especially as DJs talk about the music being played, interviewing artists, etc.). With streaming, though, the discovery journey is the destination. So, the post-consumption part of the equation just disappeared. And a consumption-first environment, tailored to individuals’ daily lives and shorn of the artist context delivered by DJs, is fertile ground for mood music. In fact, mood music is the natural evolution of a consumption-first system. A system in which artists get washed away by streaming’s torrent of ubiquity. 

Add poor remuneration for mid and long-tail artists into the mix, and you have a perfect storm. Why? Because artists are compelled to diversify their income mix to eke out every extra dollar they can get from their creativity, with production music libraries being eager customers of their ancillary work.

Fandom has moved up the value chain

Streaming may have killed off fandom within its own environment, but fandom itself has not died. It has gone elsewhere (Bandcamp, Twitch, TikTok, etc.). It is TikTok that has arguably done the most to reinvigorate fandom in recent years. But, crucially, it has inserted itself before consumption instead of after it. You will be hard pushed to find a mainstream music marketing campaign that does not include TikTok as the place to kick start discovery and (if all goes well) virality. TikTok has thus become the top of the funnel for consumption. Yet, rather than filtering out what is valuable, the process is more like panning for gold, i.e., filtering out what is not valuable – consumption. Fandom, identity, recreation, engagement, and connection are all left with TikTok, while consumption flows through to streaming. Little wonder, then, that TikTok is diluting streaming’s cultural capital. 

It does not have to be this way. Chinese streaming services demonstrate that streaming can be fandom machines too. Tencent Music Entertainment makes around two thirds of its revenue from non-music, fandom revenue. But perhaps the most startling example of just how much is being left on the table by Western streaming services, is found in NetEase Cloud Music’s inaugural earnings release. 212 million music users generated RMB 3.6 billion. 0.7 million social entertainment users generated RMB 3.7 billion. Yes, that means an audience that is 0.32% the size of the music audience generated more income in fandom-related revenue than the music audience did in music revenue. Right now, if anyone in the West is going to be streaming fandom machines, it is probably going to be TikTok (a Chinese company) and Epic Games (a company 40% owned by a Chinese company).

Fandom remains the under-tapped resource in the West, but its value is not simply in the revenue potential. Fandom is the essence of what makes music move us. Under-invest in it, and music will continue on its path of commodification. Which might serve the streaming platforms well, but not the wider music business. ‘Fake artists’ will become the norm, not the exception. To misquote syndrome “when everyone is fake, no one will be…”

Tribes are the future of fandom (and that may or may not be a good thing)

At MIDiA, we spend a lot of time exploring the fan economy and how new forms of fandom are redefining media businesses. The most significant underlying dynamic is the fragmentation of fandom: the dynamic whereby we move ever further from mass-reach media, where everyone is exposed to the same content, to a world where entertainment exists in a complex mesh of filter bubbles. Niche becomes the new mainstream. Whereas, as Asian entertainment companies have become adept at industrialising fandom in this new paradigm, Western companies are less so. In music, big record labels still have a mindset of wanting to create mainstream, global hits. But the fandom playbook is changing. Global success now depends less on how wide your message can reach, and more on how deep it can go. Mass reach is becoming superseded by conversion, and mainstream is become replaced by tribes.

What do Donald Trump and tribal fanbases have in common?

Tribalism is, for better or for worse, central to how humanity functions, and, of course, underpins millennia of armed conflict. How tribalism can manifest among strident fanbases is simply a lighter shade of the same dynamic that can send countries to war, part of the same sliding scale on which Trump operated. In fact, the tactics of the Trump movement often bore more resemblance to those used by K-pop acts than those used by political opponents.

Just like a contemporary, always-on artist, Trump fed his audience with an immense amount of content, access and engagement, and even did a live national tour. Like some of the most tribal of music fanbases, Trump nurtured a sense of otherness among his supporters – it is them against the world and the system is rigged against them. There is perhaps no better way of strengthening a tribe’s sense of oneness than strengthening its sense of otherness.

Tribalism and the role of us-vs-them

Fandom trades on basic human instincts and psychology, particularly two of the ‘deficiency needs’ in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needsbelonging and esteem (political fandom also trades on a third need: safety). Any kind of fandom depends on people feeling like they are a part of something, and how that something plays a role in identifying who they are. Tribal fandom takes this one step further, distilling this shared identity to an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality. Fans become focused on identifying, not just what makes them, well, them, but also what makes the rest of the world…not them. At its worst, that can be used by politicians, like Trump, to stoke fear against immigrants, liberals, people of colour, or basically anyone that is not part of their tribe. In less severe forms, it can manifest as artist fanbases mobilising en masse on social platforms against something they do not like. The sense of oneness, defined against the otherness of the rest, enables them to feel like the establishment is against them, even when they become the establishment, whether that be becoming the political party in power or the band that sets YouTube streaming records.

This flavour of tribal fandom has been made possible by social media and the broader way in which it facilitates online conversation. Often, social media facilitates a hyper-defensive style of discourse, with the loudest voices winning out, even if they are not the majority. Indeed, the fragmentation of fandom means that the whole concept of ‘majorities’ are becoming a thing of the past. In a political and business environment, now defined by the claims of the Facebook whistle blower, Frances Haugen, there is a growing understanding that a recalibration of social media is required, and ideally before Facebook Meta simply migrates social into the metaverse, warts and all. 

Fandom’s industrial revolution

But there is also vast positive opportunity within tribal fandom. As Chartmetric identifies, what sets K-pop artists from big Western artists is that they convert the vast majority of their audience into fans. There is little wastage. By contrast, big Western artists often have bigger total audiences, but a much smaller share that are ‘fans’, e.g., artist follower and active listener counts. This is simply taking Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans conceptand recreating it on an industrial scale. In fact, you could argue that we are entering fandom’s industrial revolution phase. As this epoch plays out, the most effective marketing and monetisation across all forms of entertainment will be that which focuses on tightly defined tribes, rather than mass market reach. The shift from cultural moments to cultural movements is only just beginning. Politics (e.g., Trump and the Brexit campaign) have learned the tricks well, as has a select group of entertainment companies (e.g., Netflix and Big Hit Music). The coming years will be shaped by everyone else playing catch up.