Superfans: They Love You First. They Book You Shows. It Gets Complicated
Originally published in Seattle Weekly
I got a letter the other day from a friend and self-professed "superfan" asking my advice in navigating some indie-rock politics. A local band that she loved dearly was being courted by major labels, and though she was thrilled for them, the band appeared to be letting it "go to their heads." She was upset not just because no one likes to see a young band develop an attitude, but because she felt she'd done a lot of work on their behalf and was being taken for granted. It got me thinking about all the hard work that superfans do on behalf of bands, but also of the pitfalls of the inevitable superfan disappointment that follows. I've been on both sides of the coin.
Before I had my own band, when I was simply a fan of rock music, I thought the word "superfan" was a grave insult. I scoffed and sneered at other fans I thought were too devoted or obsessed. My method of showing appreciation for musicians was to focus on the small, inconsequential faults of everything they did and hate them for it. Sure, I knew that rock music could change your life, but the proper way to express those feelings was to lean sullenly against the back wall, glowering, eyes closed. People who crowded around the backstage door were being too public, too demonstrative, insincere.
But after my band began to tour the world, I developed a new appreciation for superfans, and not only for the callow, self-interested reasons you might imagine. (Although admittedly, callow, self-interested reasons were a big part of it.) I was stunned and delighted when obsessive music people appreciated ME! They understood the nuances and caught all the references I sprinkled through my songs. Even better, they dragged their co-workers and reluctant boyfriends to our shows, and drove long distances to see us. Our first out-of-town show on our first tour ever was booked for us by a teenage girl in Milwaukee who pre-ordered our debut record and was already singing along to every song a week later.
By their very nature, superfans made up a disproportionate share of the people we met and maintained contact with in the early years. But as our relationships with certain superfans deepened, things started to get tangled--and not just in the filthy-minded ways you're picturing. Our fans were the "face" of our audience, the people waiting for us in St. Louis or Cambridge, Utrecht or Barcelona. They helped us sometimes more than we deserved, baking cookies, arranging places to stay, maintaining our website, and building fan sites even better than ours (see thelongwinterslibrary.com and haterhigh.com for examples), and seemed to want hardly anything in return. The only thing they asked for was access: not only to the shows, but to something personal. They connected with our music and wanted to share that connection both ways. With other fans, yes, but with us too.
Because we're indie rockers, the line of intimacy is already, purposefully, blurred. That's what sets indie rock apart, right? We're intentionally humble and available in a way that David Lee Roth or Morrissey never tried to be. Indie rock was the first post-e-mail musical genre; the burden of contacting the artists was suddenly reduced to almost nil. I was getting into imbroglios with fans on the Internet and hearing about it from kids at the merch table in the next town. The relative distance and anonymity of the Internet didn't apply.
Superfans want access, but bands, especially bands on tour, have to CONTROL access to themselves. It's one of the few things they CAN control. Time is limited and demands are high. As bands get bigger, the demands increase and the time available shrinks. Access to the band, especially the kind of unmediated and casual access a superfan treasures, is one of the first things to go after sleep and good nutrition. It's never apparent to the fan how much energy it takes a musician to sit and have a relaxed one-on-one with them in the hours before or after a show.
Superfans have a lot at stake in the relationship, too. They put their love of music ahead of many other, perhaps more obviously important, priorities. In a sense they are living the rock-and-roll life just as surely as the musicians themselves--in many cases WAY more hardcore--and the consequences are real. Fans can start to suffer from exhaustion and jadedness just as badly as the musicians they love. Jadedness is the feeling that there's nothing good or interesting any more, that nothing you do matters, and that everything gets ruined eventually. It sucks.
So this letter from the superfan girl affected me. She felt that her love, to say nothing of all the hard work she did promoting the band, was going unappreciated. Suddenly the backstage was crammed with newcomers, and the band was too young even to look at her with knowing, apologetic eyes. But I feel for the band too: They're swamped, barely keeping their heads above water. They're at the start of their journey, and already the people who loved them first are pining for a simpler time.