The Myth of Fanbase Building

There is a disturbing trend I am seeing on YouTube and TikTok where the majority of music marketing gurus are telling indie artists to “stop chasing streams” and focus on building a dedicated fanbase. They say that tripping the algorithm for Discover Weekly or playlist adds–and the resulting streams–are worthless. Instead, you need to steadily build a fanbase, and you need to build your email list, find super fans who will spend $100 a year (whether to see you live or buy merch, etc.) on your project.

I’m here to tell you — it’s kind of bullshit, and here’s why.

First, let me be clear–you should absolutely have the infrastructure to build a fanbase. You should try to gather emails. You should engage online with people interested in your posts and work on building your following. If you’re doing ads, you absolutely should be trying to target an audience that would be open to your kind of music. We know all of that.

I’m giving you permission to chase every single stream or view. You should get them however, whenever, and from whomever you can. Why? Because I am going to let you in on a little industry secret: not everyone who listens to your music is, or ever will be, a fan. Read that again.

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You really need to understand this. As independent musicians we are so connected to people at a show or in our hometown who we meet and see and get to know. But in a streaming world, many–maybe most–don’t care who you are. They are not necessarily interested in following your “journey.” They’re not trying to help you make it. They just like a few songs. They may even LOVE some. Actually, they may not even LIKE you at all, but that one track of yours is perfect for their jogging playlist. Or one of your tracks fits this time in their life for a short while.

That’s it. And that’s OK. Stop being so precious with your music. 

I want you to really think about these questions: Do you even know how you define what a fan is? What do they do on a daily or weekly basis around you as an artist? Do you know who your fans are? What is special about what you’re doing which would make a casual listener a fan?

I listen to 50-100 songs a day, every day, it’s what I do for work. But when I listen to music for fun, I might have time for 20 songs. Maybe.  There’s a band I love, I listen to them every single day – maybe 2 or 3 songs. I play them at parties. Love everything they do. I’ve never seen them play live in 10 years. Never bought merch. Never signed up to an email list. I barely “like” their posts, much less comment. Am I a fan? Feels like I am.

Then there are the early artists just starting with 1 or 2 singles. I love me some indie female pop. I have a few favorites I listen to for a few weeks or even months, and then other music takes its place. I bet you are the same way. If I find that track again, I may or may not listen to it. But in many cases, I didn’t like the next single, and our little fling is over. Just like that.

Here’s the problem with fanbase building: research tells us that perhaps as many as 40% of the email addresses you received are “burners,” meaning they are not the daily email they use. Of those, Mailchimp says the average open rate is 21.33%. And the Click Through Rate is in single digits. We know that less than 10% of your social followers see the majority of your content without promotion. We also know that ad targeting and audience development is a moving target on a daily basis and takes months to fine tune. Are all these valuable? Sure they are, but for what?

Let’s look at why the gurus tell you to get a dedicated fanbase in the first place. “Get their emails so you can notify them of live dates and sell them upcoming merch. You can start a newsletter explaining your process and what music you are working on.” Ok, great. Let’s say you got my email and even though I receive 100 emails a day I click on yours. I see you have a new song and you have new merch on your website. I click, I see your merch, and it’s not for me, I listen to your song.

It’s OK.

Most of you are not touring nationally and will not be doing so for years. So, even if I wanted to, I can’t buy tickets to your show (unless you’re Livestreaming – see previous articles). But here’s what streaming and views gets you: booked. That’s right, showing those numbers to a promoter, booker, or other act will go a long way toward allowing you to tour. Oh, and some money.

Merch is hit or miss. I probably won’t blow $35 on a shirt of unknown quality with your band logo — some might, though. As far as a newsletter, no thank you I am all good there. But what I can do is watch your video, listen to a song. You know, give you streams and views which result in some income and more social proof.

Streams do not equal fans. Hell, even the metric of monthly listeners may not be fans. These are all aggregated numbers and you have very little insight into what these people like or who they are. Did they add one song to a playlist or do they listen to your whole EP every week? Who knows? Spotify won’t tell you. What about the people who listen to your song on YouTube, do they love your video artistry or are they not even watching and just listening? Who knows?

The point is, not every listener is a fan, but you can’t make a fan without repeated listening. The music comes first, and the most important song is not your last one, it’s your next one.

If you are so concerned about “activating a customer” instead of providing entertainment, you’ve got it all wrong. It feels corporate. It can feel desperate. “Sign up! Like! Subscribe! Follow! Join my Discord! Watch my Live! Buy! Buy! Buy!”

Not everyone wants to be a fan. They have other artists who do interviews, are putting out massive releases, and a video each time. They grow and evolve. That means making better, or more interesting, music every time.  At some point, you become a fan…or not. And that’s all OK.

Make killer music. Set up the infrastructure to let the fans in closer. But for the love of Britney, don’t listen to these gurus; chase every stream and view you can, the fans will come in time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development.

Music Fans Film Concert Show with Smart Phones” by MyStockPhotos is marked with CC0 1.0.

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