Last week’s new releases left me feeling completely uninspired, so instead I decided to take a look at the lengths some bands will go to make their fans feel special.
The notion of a fan club is nothing new. Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, may have invented the pop star fan club back in the 50’s and The Beatles, with the help of business guru Brian Epstein, certainly monetized their fans’ insatiable appetite for all things Beatles. The Liverpudlians merchandised everything from t-shirts and badges to plastic instruments, lunchboxes and mop-top wigs.
As today’s music business struggles to figure out how to make more money, bands have turned to selling loyalty rather than selling music. The tunes themselves are often secondary marketing tools as artists and their management put together fan club membership packages, concert tour experiences and even one-of-a-kind/once-in-a-lifetime merchandise and meet ‘n’ greet opportunities.
While fan clubs charge anywhere from $10 to $100 for annual membership dues, what they are really selling is loyalty. They figure that while the $0.99 you paid for a single may not keep an artist top-of-mind with the average casual fan, someone who pays $50 annually is going to stay engaged and dialed in to whatever the band is doing. And if they pay once, they’ll likely keep paying if the potential reward offers a significant return on the investment.
Think of it like you would a loyalty points program. Many of you reading this probably spend $25-$100 per year to carry a certain credit card that you hope will someday provide you with a ‘free’ trip to your dream destination. Well…the same basic principles are at play with the modern-day rock band fan club.
I have personally never joined a fan club that required payment. I have signed up for band email lists which let you know about tour dates and other developments, but I don’t see the value in dropping hard-earned cash only to receive the opportunity to spend more money on an ‘exclusive’ to be shared with a few thousand other die-hards.
Over the years I’ve had friends spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on tickets to see their rock idols and receive a unique band experience. These are usually top-end tickets coupled with an invitation to a pre-show mingle with the band (30 second interaction while receiving an autograph and maybe a photo) as well as a tour program or t-shirt. From what I’ve heard, the artists themselves feel uncomfortable during these interactions and would rather be back in their tour bus catching a nap or getting ready for the show.
A few bands seem to really ‘get’ what it’s like to be a die-hard fan and they have gone the extra mile to make their fans feel appreciated. Metallica always seems to have a special area or pit built into their stage for fan club members. They also give their fans special access to music, live performances and video on their fan club site that is unavailable anywhere else.
Recently U2 sent their fan club members a pretty cool 2-disc collection featuring 22 live tracks recorded on their most recent tour and voted on by the fans. For a band in a ‘down’ (non touring) year, this was a great incentive for fans to stay on and pay their dues for the year.
One of my personal favourites is Wilco, and the band has a way of recognizing fans and keeping the die-hards (do they even have casual fans) engaged. The band is regularly offering fan club members exclusive access to merchandise and live/bonus tracks, but I recently heard about something pretty cool Jeff Tweedy does for fans in his hometown, Chicago. Every year Tweedy plays a couple of acoustic shows as fundraisers for his kids’ public school. Tickets are very hard to come by and are almost exclusively snatched up by fan club members. As further incentive, and to drive additional fundraising, Tweedy agrees to play one song requested by each of the first 30 people in line at these gigs. Talk about access and rewarding fans for their loyalty and dedication. Some of the obscure requests have Tweedy re-learning the songs hours before show time, but if a fan requests it, he’ll play it.
Still, the ultimate fan club experience has to go to Pearl Jam and their 10 Club which pre-dates PJ itself and was actually started when the band was known as Mother Love Bone. Over the years the 10 Club has offered its members tremendous access to music, the band’s vast archives and exclusive experiences. Recently, “10” provided what I believe is the single greatest fan club opportunity when it recognized one of its oldest and most loyal members. Brian Farias, a Pearl Jam fan from Providence, Rhode Island, has seen the band over 100 times dating back to 1991 and was, what the band called, a Charter Member of the 10 Club. Farias was entered into a draw with nine other charter members for the chance to attend two Pearl Jam gigs in Amsterdam. While on route, Farias was also extended the privilege of putting together the complete set list for one of the shows. This, by far, has to be the single greatest fan recognition/reward I have ever heard about. Farias successfully put together what fans are calling ‘the greatest PJ set list ever’ and the band even invited him out on stage to take a bow during ‘his’ show. Wow…speechless. Twenty years, countless hours and a significant monetary investment in the band paid off in a big way for Farias, but I’m sure every single 10 Club member felt as if they too were being rewarded by the band for their loyalty.
For every great example of bands doing right by their fans, there are also examples of bands that just don’t get it. The Rolling Stones have a tremendous opportunity to reward fans this year as they celebrate their 50th anniversary. Despite launching a pretty cool archives site earlier this year and posting a few Facebook messages thanking fans for their loyalty, the Stones have missed the boat on what should be a year-long celebration. There are no gigs planned and it doesn’t appear like the band will do anything other than re-merchandise old stories and photos in a 50th anniversary coffee table book. How about inviting the first 200 people who buy the book to an exclusive club show or listening party with the band? Where’s the payback for making these guys rich beyond their wildest dreams?
Bon Jovi is another band that has been extremely successful for the last 25 years. They have a pricey fan club and sell loads of over-priced ‘experiences’ that by all accounts I’ve read, leave fans feeling ripped-off. This week they played one of their only gigs of the year in Quebec City at a summer festival. Again, getting tickets was a challenge and they had a fan club offer available for seats. How does the band reward the die-hards? By going on stage and delivering the same tired set list they’ve been playing for more than 10 years. Why not reward the fans with a new track (they’re in the studio working on a new record) or have Richie Sambora debut one of the songs from his forthcoming solo record? What did fans at this show get to see that they didn’t see the last five times the Bon Jovi machine rolled through the province of Quebec?
Loyalty is a two-way street. You can’t keep asking fans to invest without ever providing a solid return on that investment. Fans are increasingly fickle these days and music is now a disposable commodity. The one thing artists have to cultivate is loyalty.