This past November, when Ariana Grande released her new single, “thank u, next,” the pop world went wild, sliding in at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 for two weeks running. In one corner of the music industry, however, Grande was overshadowed by Chinese superstar Kris Wu, whose debut album, Antares, came out the night before “thank u, next” was released. Grande fans—many of whom call themselves Arianators—and others speculated that the sales chart showing Wu’s dominance over her was the result of an organized attempt to inflate his rankings, supported by bots (algorithms that can run automated scripts over the internet, such as clicks, to boost streaming and sales numbers). According to Bloomberg, there was an organized effort to bring Wu to the top, but it was arranged by his Chinese superfans—real people spending real money on a crafty gaming of the system in support of their favorite musician.
While the effort to push Antares to No. 1 blurs the line between legitimate and rigged, it’s an apt reminder of just how much music fandom has evolved over the years. Thanks to the growth of social media and streaming, and the roles they play in measuring an artist’s success, these days music listeners are more involved in an artist’s career than ever. These new levels of access and new modes of quantifying popularity have put an unprecedented amount of power in the hands of the public. These days, being a superfan involves much more than buying a bunch of CDs and listening to them on repeat; it’s much more than getting VIP tickets to see an artist at every tourstop, or spending hard-earned cash on every release of merch and vinyl.
With that, being a superfan in 2019 means spending time following an artist’s every move on Instagram, tweeting at them in the hopes of sparking conversation, and in some cases, like the one above, rallying a community of equally passionate individuals around a concerted effort to build momentum and help a performer garner even more visibility. While it’s always been important for artists to cultivate relationships with their superfans and the people who listen to their music, buy their products, and attend their shows, these days it’s absolutely critical for artists to intimately court their audience and leverage all available tools to reach them more directly.
So, who are these superfans, where are they, and what do they love most about their idols? Aside from the legions that assemble in support of A-list artists like Nicki Minaj (the most loyal of which call themselves her Barbz), some of the most visible and engaged communities emerge around young, hip, social-media-savvy artists like Texas-raised rap group BROCKHAMPTON and the Colombian-American pop/R&B singer Kali Uchis. In order to get a better idea of what it’s like to be a superfan this day in age, we spoke with a few of these artists’ biggest advocates to find out who they are, how their communities organize, and what they love about these musicians, not to mention what emerging artists can do to nurture their following. A source of inspiration.
Nineteen-year-old Louis Cano became a Kali Uchis fan when they heard her debut mixtape, Drunken Babble, in 2012. “I was a little iffy about it at first because I didn’t really know what type of genre it was, but now, knowing her, she’s a bunch of genres if anything,” they say. Cano runs the biggest Kali Uchis fan account on Twitter, @LaUnicaUpdates, where they post information on her tour dates, photos from her Instagram and elsewhere, and Kali Uchis-themed memes that get retweeted into the thousands—sometimes by Uchis herself. Cano has seen her perform 12 times so far. They’ve traveled twice to see her and gleefully recount a time when Uchis asked them to come onstage to perform with her. “She used to do this when the shows were small—she’d ask if anyone wanted to come up to do ‘Ridin Round’ with her,” Cano says, describing what they deem the coolest aspect of her live performances.
As an aspiring photographer, Cano considers Uchis one of their biggest inspirations. “A lot of her early visuals really caught my eye, and I wanted to take that inspo and sprinkle it a little on my art, but putting my own twist on it,” they explain. As Cano’s level of engagement demonstrates, many music superfans are artists and creatives themselves; part of what draws them to a particular musician’s work is an admiration that may turn into a blueprint for their own careers, or inspiration for their own art.
Making the most of the platform.
In addition to practical info, photos, and memes, Cano often uses @LaUnicaUpdates’ 8,000-follower platform to spread awareness of sociopolitical issues that he knows Kali Uchis cares about. “I’m very much an activist and I believe in using your platform, especially in the political climate that we’re in,” they explain, detailing how they use the account to talk about voting and #BlackLivesMatter. Cano describes Uchis’ Depop store, where she donates all of the proceeds to charity, as another example of a cause they champion as a superfan.
Superfans tend to be vocal by nature (supporting an artist as visibly as possible goes with the territory), so it’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which they help amplify the concerns of the artists they love. They can also bring attention to and stimulate conversation around a specific concern of the community they’re a part of. For instance, Tre Foster, a former admin for one of the biggest BROCKHAMPTON fan accounts on Twitter (ed. note: the fan account has been closed in 2020), says that concerns about safety are a recent hot-button topic. “I’ve been seeing a lot of tweets about people not knowing how to do mosh pits, [and how] they’re not keeping everybody safe,” he says.
The BROCKHAMPTON community discussing struggles with keeping each other safe is exemplary of the way today’s superfans build communities rooted in compassion—an inspiring result of the way networks have evolved over the years. These circles of compassion manifest, in both real-life spaces and through online networks, as sentimental relationships. “A lot of the Barbz know each other and we’re very friendly; I met my best friend [of seven years] through Nicki,” says Minaj superfan Patrick Benson. Cano and Foster have had similar experiences; Cano met their roommate and best friend through Uchis, and Foster got his first job through someone he met in a BROCKHAMPTON group chat.
Benson describes organizing street teams of fans to help promote Minaj’s music. “I printed out over 150 flyers, and we walked the streets and hung up flyers,” he recalls. “But I have two or three friends who I know from Twitter who are in New York and [recently] printed out a bunch of street merch and passed out stuff.”
Benson says tours are probably the biggest way that Minaj fans meet up and support her together. Beyond that, special events like her holiday turkey giveaway or her fashion-week appearances serve as opportunities to meet up, make friends, and support Minaj.
Forming personal connections.
Online, listeners are congregating and bonding on Twitter and in places like Reddit, Facebook, fansites, and forums where conversation, not content, is the priority. Cano and Foster have both created highly active private Twitter group chats dedicated to connecting with like-minded people. “I called the group chat Flight 22 because in 2015, she accidentally leaked three of her songs on Soundcloud and one of them was an early demo called ‘Flight 22,’” says Cano, describing the 20-person digital gathering where they met seven of their closest friends. “We got up to like 75 people,” Foster says, describing a BROCKHAMPTON chat he created. “It’s active every day—it’s really cool, and we’ve become good friends,” he adds.
In addition to online group chats, supporters are taking their digital fandom to new levels by organizing and participating in what Benson calls “streaming parties.” “Whenever Minaj drops a new song or a new feature, we’ll get on Twitter, and usually one of the big fan sites or one of the big Barbz will organize a party,” he says. Party attendees spend the day streaming the newly released song on services like Spotify and tweet about their experience, posting pictures and screenshots and using a dedicated hashtag to thread the conversation together. Though Minaj herself will occasionally get involved assert that they don’t do it for recognition: “We do it because we love Nicki and support her, and they’ve just grown organically and taken a life of their own.”
Not all musicians enjoy these intense levels of love and support, and it certainly doesn’t happen based on musical output alone. According to Cano, Foster, and Benson, artists’ eagerness to connect with fans as much as fans want to connect with them is the reason these highly engaged communities of listeners have emerged. What this means for artists is clear: Your first step to cultivating an active fanbase should be to simply get to know who they are. “Social media is your biggest advantage and your biggest tool,” says Benson—and he’s right.
If your fans are creative, consider hosting contests where they can share their best work, or bringing them onstage to perform a song with you. If they’re rallying around particular issues, consider amplifying their voices. If you have a cause you’re dedicated to, talk about it in your Artist Pick and encourage your followers to support your goals. If your fans have a blast at your shows, come up with new ways to bring them together in person, like holiday events and listening parties. Treat them to new music early by uploading directly to Spotify, and host your own streaming parties on social media. As the nature of music fandom evolves, the possibilities for connecting with these communities are endless. In the words of Benson, a certified Barb, “Having the connection with your fans and engaging the audience is literally something you can’t pay for. It’s priceless.”