“Cavalier in style, as noted, but deeply committed, with working insights at a graduate level. Doesn’t tap into course material/theory much, but I have to give it on raw potential…”
Above is the exact quote from my history of communications professor, before listing the gracious grade I earned on this academic submission. Basically it says “you didn’t really do what I asked, but it was kind of interesting and well written, so here’s a good mark”….. Works for me! Guess not all educational figure-heads are completely crazy (Sorry, Thomas).
Below is the full, annotated version of my final paper (minus the citations to protect it from being completely stolen later) on the co-relational boundaries that exist in the realm of fandom, and how advances in communication have helped break down these barriers and move fans closer than ever to their favourite artists and creatives. Focus for the most part is on modern popular-music. Little bit of an extended read, but I quoted Tyga in an academic paper, so I’m pretty sure that alone deserves the read. Enjoy.
FAN OF A FAN:
How Advances in Communications Technology Have
Eliminated Fan-Artist Relational Boundaries
The relationship that is “fandom”, has always been a give-and-take one. From the earliest famed artisans, to the buzz that was Shakespeare’s career in the theatre-era, to the cult followings of 20th century rock-stars, fandom has always been a driving force in the realm of mainstream creativity, though possibly never more prevalent than in present day 21st century. Today, fans are closer to their favourite influences, lifelong heroes, and general role models than might have ever been previously possible. Specifically, within popular music culture this effect has reached a new peak. Not only does this mean that your favourite artist (or whomever the subject of your fascination may be) can be less than 140 characters away at any time, but this also co-relates to broadcasting in regards to reach and speed, which means interaction is at an all-time high, in both directions. Thanks to this model, more unlikely new-comers have been able to thrive due to overnight success. Unfortunately, some would also argue that due the instant gratification that is made available, or alternatively the instant failure, has in-turn limited creativity when artists instead strive to figure out a formula that fans respond well too.
What does this mean for the future of this fan-subject relationship previously mentioned? In 2015, fandom is the impelling stimulant of mainstream creativity due to technologically aided ease of communication that is making it easier than ever for fans to interact with their favourite creatives. It is important to understand how fandom has developed over the years, how this relationship continues to be generated, and how it has affected artist production from a developmental standpoint.
A History Of Internet-Based Fans
As defined by Merriam-Webster, fandom is “the state or attitude of being a fan”1. Simply put, fandom is the mutual feeling of adoration and admiration towards a common person or thing; an inclusively exclusive sub-culture. Aside from popular music fandom, other branches can include anything from literature such as fan-fiction, to the seemingly peculiar, like the official WD-40 fan page called MyWD40.com (complete with forums, photos, blogs, and the likes). A more recent (post 1990’s) development in the fandom front has been the emergence and integration of the internet into modern society, and its increasing focus2. The convergence associated with the “digital age” has greatly contributed to deconstruction of the time and space barriers associated with fandom in previous generations. This includes the possible reach of a particular group of fans, the amount included in this group, and how long it took for one of these sub-culture to grow substantially. Further development of these groups continued with the emergence of social media, with things like dedicated Twitter fan-pages amassing hundreds of thousands of followers, to go along with the millions of followers often enjoyed by the actual subject of the adulation. Now, an ineffable number of fan pages exist across most popular forms of social networking, and to other forums based ventures such as KanyeToThe, an exclusive hip-hop based fan forum.
Of course, the state of fandom is unique to each specific point in time. Fandom in 2015 looks a lot different that it might have 20, or even 50 years ago. Since 1962, a group of devotees worshiping the craft of John, Ringo, George, and Paul – the Beatles – have shown their admiration of the group, and in their day, Beatlemania was the end-all, be-all when it came to fandom. More than 50 years later, the band One Direction has a similar stranglehold with their fan group the “Directioners”. The main difference? “These fans, of course, have the Internet, which has made it even easier for them to keep tabs on the exact location of their favorite boy band 24/7. There are few lengths they won’t go to, stalking the members’ Instagram accounts to figure out what hotel they’re staying out — and spreading the word on the modern-day phone tree, Twitter.”3
Today, instead of sending fan-mail, fans can simply send Tweets and private messages. Instead of meeting fellow admirers at the concert, now you might just create a thread online and meet like-minded individuals from around the world. Instead of checking the tabloids for the latest celebrity gossip, why not follow them on Snapchat instead and get a primary, up-to-the-minute update. Instead of waiting out-side of the tour bus to be noticed by your favourite artist, simply post an open-letter online and hope it gets seen.
Interestingly enough, the fans of some of the biggest artists in the world create some of the most niche, exclusive fan-bases. These music-based groups have also been transformed thanks to the internet. In her studies on the online community, Nancy Baym states:
“Music fans have been connecting online from the Internet’s beginning and continue to push boundaries today. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the earliest music fan communities on the Internet were mailing lists and Usenet discussion groups, many of which still operate. In the mid–1990s, music fans were among the first to build Web sites to foster community interaction.”4
This growth continued, and has since bled into the early stages of the 21st century. In fact, the membership of music enthusiasts is credited with helping fuel the social media movement of the 2000’s. As Baym states, although not many are purely based on the music aspect, a majority of social-networking websites encourage users to list their favourite bands or artists in hopes of linking them with content that would lend itself to particular followings and their demographics.5 Furthermore, blogging platforms serve as another important link between artist and fan. What doesn’t find its own way onto the web via leaks or independent drops, are often premiered and pushed by entertainment focused blogs, websites, and other taste-making distributions. A tastemaker is defined as someone “whose judgments about what is good, fashionable, etc., are accepted and followed by many other people” – basically, these are the people who have been self-appointed to tell you what is cool.6 Not only are tastemakers important because they contribute by prudently adding to certain fan-bases and detracting from others, but moreover because of the reverse-relationship that exists between their forms of dissemination and the fans themselves, treading ever-so carefully as to not anger the wrong people.
Though not necessarily a new sensation, dating back to the 1970’s, the further emergence of the internet and all that comes with it have seemingly seamlessly impacted the relationship of subject and fan, once again putting the fan in the driver’s seat, offering a full experience while maintaining ease. Fans are closer than they have ever been.
What The Fan-Subject Relationship Looks Like
Modern fandom works in many ways – the “fan of a fan” relationship alliterated by the title – means there is no longer a singular way to be a fan. Very few conventions means that whatever boundaries are left can be stretched and bypassed to create a completely unique experience. A great example of this is a quote from recording-artist Tyga when speaking on his 2010 collaboration mixtape, Fan Of A Fan – from which the title of this article is adopted from – where he explains that the idea for the project was not only based on the mutual respect between himself and collaborator Chris Brown, but also the respect they have for their respective followings; “Fan of a Fan is basically our dedication back to the fans”.7 This demonstrates just how visible the importance of a dedicated fan base is to creatives, as well as how influential fandom can be on the culture elicited.
Further examples of how this reverse relationship can work are supported by transmedia (multi-platform media). Not only is it easier for fans to voice their appreciation, but artists are able to interact back, and help build identities for themselves outside of their art. In the slightest ways such as “favourite-ing” a tweet, all the way to replying or reposting, a sense of appreciation can be voiced in many ways. All in all, an ease of sharing is where all paths lead to.
Not only can this be favorable from a reputation standpoint, but also from a business perspective. This proposed ease of sharing that the digital age has centered around has allowed for rapid growth of different genres, or even specific artists, to all different edges of the earth. Fans are experiencing new art, artists are experimenting with radical collaborators, and we are able to witness it all happen before our eyes while picking and choosing what suits us. As mentioned before although some of the innovations haven’t changed much, there is evidence that the human brain has. According to Science Illustrated, teenage brains in the digital world are more flexible than ever.8 Humans raised in the electronically dominated age of the 2000’s are more able to sift through mass amounts of communicated information, and determine what is most important to them. But what does this mean for the sharing of music and art, and how it is accepted? When we look at numbers regarding the speed of transfer of information, advances in communication has rapidly increased how people are reached.
It took the radio 38 years to reach 50 million people, but it took 20 for the phone and 13 for the television. In contrast, it took Facebook 3.6 years and Twitter didn’t even need that much time — in fact, it [only] took Google Plus 88 days.9
Because the way we socialize has changed in regards to growth and trends, this means that more people than ever are experiencing the same thing at nearly the same time. Similar to the rise of the newspaper, and then radio after it, digital growth is keyed around experiences hitting in waves, that get closer and closer together, eliciting different emotions and reactions. A great example of how these waves hit, is the Japanese Rap scene. Materializing in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Japanese rap culture has exploded since to include some of the most obscure niches within the rap & hip-hop community such as “trap-rap”, which is centered around hard hitting beats and drugged-up, violent lyrics. In fact, a 2015 single by Japanese artist Kohh and Korean artist Keith Ape called “It G Ma” actually made a huge splash in the American rap industry recently, even though the song contained about 50% Korean, 40% Japanese, and only about 10% English lyrics.10 Gaining precedence through “the smoky bowels of Tokyo’s underground club scene”, Japanese hip-hop artists and fans drew inspiration from their American counter-parts.11 By 1999, in what is considered the 3rd era of Japanese hip-hop, distinct sounds and styles had been mapped out. Fast forward to present day, and the influence is clear. Not only is Japanese style hip hop prevalent, but American artists have continued to strive and gain mass followings within the region, and build meaningful relationships with the fans. Considering it took hip-hop anywhere between 15-20 years to start growing its popularity within Japan, the growth since is definitely noteworthy. This demonstrates just how few boundaries remain within the realm of fandom and how art can be shared and appreciated.
Possible Effects on Creative Output
With the effects and importance of a healthy fan-subject relationship in modern day expression, one must consider how this effects what is released for public consumption and scrutiny. The problem lies in the fact that when feedback is procured within the first hour of a certain project or piece surfacing on the internet, the make or break period of adoption is very slim. Consider this to be the standard product life cycle taught in most marketing principles, which includes the curve of adoption that is introduction, growth, maturity, and decline, 12 but then sped up infinitely. The savage instincts of the internet can kill a career within a matter of hours, or deem a project to be a “classic” within the same time frame, launching careers. An understanding of this theory means that many up-and-comers and their management team aim to find similar formulas that have worked for others, increasing the chance of mainstream success. In an interview with the NY Times in 2013, “curator of sonic ideas”, and champion of Grammy nominated artist ASAP Rocky’s career, ASAP Yams (born Steven Rodriguez, 1988-2015.), spoke about how he took a unique taste making approach to launch his artists career and shape his sound to appeal to the masses. “Even though I lived in the ‘hood, I was still on my Internety geek [stuff]”, Rodriguez explains of his coming up.13 The excerpt continues to explain the method following:
By the beginning of 2011 Rocky had a batch of songs that were ready to go. Here again Yams had a plan. Since April 2010 he’d been running a Tumblr… which had become one of the most reliable hip-hop tastemaking sites on the Internet, trafficking in obscure gangster rap, scans from old hip-hop magazines, rare photos and all manner of insider jokes. It had a devoted following — it was historical, attitudinal and an alluring blend of street knowledge and nerd knowledge…
…Using Tumblr, a blogging platform that allows easy sharing of content, was a conscious choice: “It’s like advertisement.” He was building a reputation as an online tastemaker, spotlighting up-and-coming artists and advocating for a taste level that would be receptive to Rocky’s sound when it was unleashed. “I kept my whole affiliation separate,” Yams said. “I was writing about Rocky like I ain’t know him.”
In April 2011 he posted “Purple Swag,” Rocky’s breakthrough song, a homage to Houston’s chopped-and-screwed music, to which Yams had heavily exposed Rocky. Within months Yams had gotten what he needed from the Internet: Rocky signed a major label contract and a distribution deal for ASAP Worldwide.14
Interestingly, without a co-sign from any major voice, besides the anonymous one that Rodriguez was able to create, success was achieved. Not only a testament to rap skill, or marketing genius, but also to the power of the internet. As alluded to previously, Rocky’s career had skyrocketed in a matter of hours, days, weeks. Although Rocky’s staying power has been validated by commercial and industry success to-boot, there are many documented cases of overnight internet hero’s falling off soon after: The formula is followed, the 15 minutes of fame are had (not always a complete exaggeration on the internet), “fans” are garnered, but then a follow-up is often difficult to come by. As the public expects meaningful growth, although change deemed as “too” radical is frowned upon as well, and the middle ground can be as likely as hitting as a hole-in-one, twice in a row. This leads one to raise the question: does the internet stifle creativity due to fear of failure? As the digital era of fandom continues, is instant gratification or failure the main cause of a homogeneous market? Perhaps the opposite, and although the turnover rate is high, those who can make it past the recommended expiry date eventually help contribute to a unique creative landscape. The idea of a “1st listen review” is a scary one, often disregarding the information below the surface.
To test this hypothesis, I briefly analyzed the billboard hip-hop charts of 3 specific years over the last 20 years; 1995, 2005, and present day 2015. By breaking down the genre into 3 very loose categories of “gangster rap” (more traditional, hard hitting hip-hop music. Often portraying the African American experience), “hip-pop” (AKA radio rap; music that was made for a more general audience. Often singles off of projects), and “alternative” (more of an open class. May be able to fit in either category, but mainly composed of tracks not intended for the radio, but still more focuses on entertainment purposes rather than story-telling. May contain R&B and other sub-genres), I was able to create a time-line to compare. By analyzing this chart I was able to look at the diversity within the mainstream market, in hopes of determining if less variability can be seen in present day, or 20 years ago. Percentage is based on number of weeks at number 1 per each sub-genre. (Note: 2 weeks of charting remained in 2015 at the time of data gathering.
A few key aspects stand out when we look at the numbers on the timeline. Firstly, there has been almost a complete 180 from strictly “traditional” rap/hip-hop on the radio charts, to a more flexible mix of the alternative category and Radio Rap, with no “gangster rap” making it to the top of the charts. Another interesting fact that isn’t indicated by the numbers is the international presence within the charts. In 1995 only 2% of the charting music was credited to an international artist (born outside of the United States), while a whopping 35% of the artists credited with top-charting songs in 2015 were international artists. In regards to willingness to allow new sounds into the market, the research is quite inconclusive. Although we do see a complete loss of traditional rap music on the charts in 2015, in favour of alternative – which is generally accepted to be “different” – most of the artists within the upper-echelon of alternative experienced repeat success with only 3 artists contributing to the 35% that the sub-genre had a top song. Though when compared with underground sounds and trends these numbers may be juxtaposing, I believe the mainstream is a substantial area to start investigating.
Similar to the idea of open and closed classes in linguistics, i.e. a category that commonly accepts new words into the category vs. one that does not allow new additions, the charts show a comparable fluctuation. While at some points in history there has been a very narrow definition of a certain genre, in other points fans have been quicker to accept new additions. While radio rap tends to act as an incubator for formula-finding, the alternative sounds that have begun to gain ahold of market space refute this notion, showing that fans are dictating the market more than ever seen.
Similar to the debates between how oral and literate culture affected human thought and interaction, much of the same must be considered when reviewing the theory of how fandom has been influenced over the years. In this study, it is hard to decide which 2 categories co-relate: Which prefers pattern-based recurrence, and which allows that foundational separation between knowledge and knower? Is modern fandom too shallow to allow abstraction and segmentation, or does the visual properties of the digital age contribute to these aspects?
By studying communications history of any sort, whether it be the emergence of literate culture, or the rise of internet-based fandom, the importance lies in how we define humanity at a certain point in time. By looking at who we were, we can learn about who we will be.
The speed of adoption plays a large part of how we appreciate art. By attempting to understand how fandom has developed, how the fan-subject relationship is generated, and how fandom has effected artist production from a developmental standpoint we can begin to see a trend.
A possible anecdote into where fandom may be heading comes from an interesting story in the news recently. Infamous rap tribe, the Wu-Tang Clan, recently auctioned and sold a one-off copy of a secret project for a reported 2 million dollars. The project not only comes with all the goodies to be expected, but also with an airtight copyright agreement that states the contents cannot be shared for another 88 years.15 Are we heading towards the extreme that is one-off personalized projects for specific groups of fans – if not individuals – to progress fandom even further, and protect creativity? Only time will tell – but with what time has told us so far, anything seems possible.