Bands and Fans: a healthy or dysfunctional dynamic?

One of the most vivid memories I have when I think about my childhood is a metallic pink portable CD player covered in chipped band stickers and inept
Sharpie cartoons of My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way (and David Bowie, to give an
example that doesn’t make my adult self feel a little ashamed) and
enthusiastically criss-crossed with short love poems placing me firmly
in Mary Sue fan girl territory. That portable CD player was rarely out
of my bag, along with a haphazardly organised sleeve for the copious scratched CD’s I begged, borrowed, and occasionally stole from the CD racks my parents didn’t keep quite a close enough eye on.

Like many young teenagers in the flush of self-discovery, music and
fandom was one of the key ways I expressed myself; from band tees to the overwhelming feeling of community upon attending my first concert and realising I was surrounded by people who shared my passion for Paramore (and, I admit, the lure of Hayley Williams). It was a strange balance between base enjoyment of the music itself and a sense of belonging; as Carrie Brownstein from the Riot Grrrl band
Sleater-Kinney comments in her autobiography: “[m]y story starts with me as a fan … all the affection I poured into bands, into films, into
actors and musicians was about me and my friends”. The bands or
artists themselves were increasingly functioning as a springboard of sorts to jettison oneself out of that blurry adolescent sense of not belonging through finding a common way to sow the seeds of a more
structured identity.

As organised communities and fan clubs became more common, the divide between the bands fawned over and the subsequent organised communities centred around the appreciation of them became increasingly apparent – a telling example being Turbojugend, a fan club focused on the band Turbonegro. When a survey within this group was carried out to ascertain whether the members would choose the fan club over or below the band, the vast majority chose their community above the artists themselves, the actual love and enjoyment of the band itself falling disarmingly short when compared to the value of being part of the society. Spin off brands released by the artists themselves (or their labels) ranged from body wash to calendars, physical toy models in the images of band members, pin up centrepieces blue-tacked shoddily to bedroom walls gloopily kissed with lipstick borrowed from mothers make up bags, fan fictions shared
online in select communities that often romanticised or sexualised the real life subjects written or drawn: all of these things ushered music groups and artists towards the idea of selling a product as opposed to music. With this, Barthes’s essay The Death of the Author seems more and more of a tangible analysis of the phenomenon – at what point does
the scope of a fandom impose a limit on how a new consumer can
independently come to their own conclusion about the band or artist
that is now wreathed in such hype and hive mind obsession?

On one hand, we have bands promoting themselves as a collectible but not tangible product. On the flip side of this coin, however, forums such as Reddit have allowed a far more interactive interface for artists and fans to
communicate – IamA question and answer threads for band members or solo artists to interact directly with their audience, along with the many dedicated ‘subreddits’ for specific artists with a healthy amount of fan fic in the form of both visual and written creations. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the angle. As an example, in the 90s, Mark Kelly (keyboard player for Marillon, a band with its primary audience thought to be based in the UK) logged onto an online list of their fanbase composed by a Dutch fan only to be caught off guard by the
amount of fans they had in America. Within weeks of making himself known on the board and explaining they couldn’t afford to tour America, the fanbase had crowd sourced over $50,000. Subsequently, in 1997 Marillon commenced on their first American tour – something they would have found far harder to achieve had they not had the supportive activism of their online fan community.

However, the darker side of the internet encourages and enables some fans to crowd the boundaries of appreciative consumer to obsessive and potentially violent. Although never acted upon, there was a case in 2008 where a man who had written a disturbing 12 page murder
and rape fantasy based on the members of Girls Aloud and was arrested for obscenity after posting the story on his public blog. He was cleared on the basis that it was not “easily accessible” and could only be found by exceedingly specific searches. Despite his work being
speedily removed from his blog, the story was independently reposted
after the charges against him were dropped – he claimed to have no
control over this, bolstering the feeling that any attempt at
controlling ‘freedom of speech’ online is futile.

The privacy implications of fan fiction are taken seriously by dedicated communities and there are typically either clear disclaimers to cite any work in Real Person Fiction (RPF) as to be consumed and viewed in a clear fictional guise with no real life association of the public figure depicted or to actively disguise their identities as shown by the Tris/Alex series of stories based on Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Many view all fan fiction as something not to be communally shared but instead as a personal and private fantasy world to be kept underground in order to avoid potentially offending or harming the public figure in question. Even within the fan fiction communities, there are a large number of authors or artists who keep their work available only to those with password protected accounts with age verification and draw a hard line between tame spin off stories and more hardline fantasy yarns that, as with the Girls Aloud case, can easily and often do veer into the obscene. With free speech and the relentless permanence of anything posted or shared online, any work in RPF is more or less impossible to rescind after hitting ‘post’, regardless of how speedily potentially upsetting or harmful pieces are removed from the source post.

Historically, some fan communities gained popularity and traction before the internet was born, even coining nicknames for themselves. Deadheads, the term for fans of the Grateful Dead, had an interesting start that has spanned decades of new and old fanatics using the moniker. On the sleeve of the band’s 1971 self titled album (also known as Skull and Roses) there was a call to Deadheads to contact the band in order to be informed of tours, events and anything connected to the band. This quickly gained popularity, and soon enough there were many Deadheads that actively followed the band from concert to concert, tie dying t-shirts and making similar fan products to fund their musical pilgrimages. Frontman Jerry Garcia, when asked how he felt about fans recording concerts and sharing them on Tape Trading Networks, responded simply with “when we are done with it, they can have it”. The belief that it’s a moral duty to share music that one loves with other fans led into questioning whether the commercialisation that freedom of open music sharing was violating and undermining that moral act of fandom community.

The fandom world has become irretrievably entwined with that of the producing musical artist, and in some cases this is courted successfully and utilised for the benefit of the artist and fans alike. However, the knock on effects can cause irreversible damage to a ‘brand’ or public image, thus derailing the entire point of creating fan fiction or similar spin offs: a response purportedly meant to engage or explore further with the band or artist instead causing them damage in their reputation either socially or professionally. The precautions taken to anonymise identity in itself admits the inherent risks for the subject of the fantasy and by that logic, implies that the practice of fictionalising a real life subject as opposed to one merely fictional is, in essence, unethical.