As a serious musician, you probably think a lot about what it means to be successful in your work. For some of us, it’s making enough money to live comfortably. For others, it’s all about creating the most meaningful art we can and getting people to notice. The truth is that no matter how you define success in music, you’ll need dedicated and energized advocates of your work to be successful. These are fans, and they’re getting harder to come by.
Almost everything about music has completely changed over the past 20 years, but the tradition of loyal fans supporting and sustaining the artists they love has not. However, we’re living through a strange time when the digitization of music and other artforms creates an inconsistent situation of songs being heard by far more people but earning far less true fans in the process.
What’s the difference between a casual listener and a true fan?
If one of your singles, EPs, or full-length albums is getting lots of plays over streaming platforms, that’s an obvious sign that people are enjoying your music and that things are headed in the right direction. But whether you’re earning true fans or not is a complexity that the analytical information offered by major streaming platforms can’t always tell you. It’s completely possible for today’s artists to be listened to by huge groups of listeners whose connection to and interest in the music they make lasts only as long as they’re featured on a specific playlist. On the other extreme of the spectrum, many developing artists who aren’t racking up huge play and follow counts have the ability to engage listeners and win over fans.
The difference between a casual listener and a real music fan is the amount of emotional and financial investment audiences put into the music they listen to. If a listener discovers you on a playlist, plays your music for a couple of months and then can’t remember your name, they’re not a real fan. When someone goes out of their way to see your digital and physical shows, supports you by purchasing your merch, and listens to more than just one or two of your songs, they’re a fan and not just a casual listener. Casual listeners aren’t new in music, but the difference between someone passively liking music played on the radio 20 or 30 years ago and a listener checking out a new song on a playlist today is that music has far less staying power now than it used to. An unfathomable amount of new music is now uploaded to major streaming platforms every day, and listeners are barraged with far more songs than they could possibly listen to or become fans of. This means that today’s artists of every size and genre need to go out of their way to make a lasting impact on listeners if they want to make true fans.
Winning over fans in the age of streaming
To convert casual listeners into invested fans, artists need to engage audiences in meaningful ways. During the pandemic, playing live and in person isn’t easy, but if you can find ways to do it legally, safely, and creatively, that’s a solid way to earn fans by giving them live music when they need it the most. You might not be able to play in front of lots of people, but intimate and unconventional shows are the type of experiences that listeners will remember and appreciate. Before the pandemic, live-streaming shows was a nice bonus, but they’re now essential for musicians who want to forge deeper connections with fans. The more creative, personal, and engaging you can make these digital shows, the better.
If you don’t already offer merch to your fans, physical representations of you and your work are important for giving audiences something to connect with your music. CDs, shirts, pins, posters, and vinyl records are all things that fans appreciate and look for. Find ways to connect with your listeners any way you can, whether it’s replying to a video comment or addressing them directly at physical and digital shows. There’s nothing wrong with racking up high streaming and follower counts, but the work doesn’t stop there if you want to win over true fans in today’s complex, saturated, and easily distracted music culture.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.