Saturday, March 14, 2009

Official Fan Clubs: A Requiem

The Jonas Brothers, Michael Jackson, the Beach Boys, The Twitter Fail Whale, Metallica, The Bee Gees, Battlestar Galactica, Beyonce, and SpongeBob.

The above list was generated through the simple process of googling the term "fan club." All of the above, along with the obligatory Wikipedia page, comprise the first page of hits. The list is stunning in its diversity, with cultural icons representative of every decade from the 1960s onward. What this might seem to imply is the constant presence and influence in society of the concept of a "fan club." However, a closer analysis reveals that there are two types of fan clubs: official and unofficial. And it might not be too much of a stretch to assert that an ongoing shift from the former to the latter is downright revolutionary.

The official fan club, which will almost always charge a membership fee, is marketed as a way to obtain a level of access unavailable to the non-member. This often manifests itself tangibly in the form of the "special offer" for exclusive merchandise, along with some kind of personalized recognition such as a "membership card/certificate." But while these tangible products are needed to seal the deal, what is really being sold is not access, but identity. There is a reason that Facebook asks for members to prominently list favorite music, movies, and books along with religious, political, and occupational affiliations. We are as apt to define ourselves by the things we like as the things we do. And if the fact that we like Metallica is central to our identity, it would be in Metallica's best interests to charge us for that.

But just as Metallica found out that it is getting harder to hold on to intellectual property rights, I think they will also find it increasingly more difficult to profit from intellectual affiliation (if they haven't already). Long before the world wide web, fandoms attempted to wrestle control of collective identity from the sanctioned gatekeepers (see "fanzines"). But with the web, the opportunities to declare independence from a prescribed fan identity abound. The need for a membership card is mitigated by the existence of a facebook group (and the ability to display this affiliation on one's profile). The opportunity to receive a newsletter is nullified by the existence of an independent message board. But most importantly, the power to identify a "fan" has been taken from the commercial entity and diffused among the consumers themselves.


Blogger thesincitymama said...

Once, in a crazed girlhood crush, I paid $5 to join the Wil Wheaton fan club. I was enticed by the promise of an autographed picture, with dreams of holding the very paper that had touched his sacred pen. They screwed me over though; the picture wasn't really autographed, it just had a copy of his signature printed in the corner. Joining a fan club on Facebook cheapens the idea of being a fan. There is absolutely no investment of babysitting money required, and you may never discover the true nature of your adored one.

2:09 AM  
Blogger Eileen said...

I never quite understood why I would pay extra just to proclaim I was a "fan" of something. I was a part of the Live fan club (the band, that is) in high school that required no money down, and got material to be part of their "street crew" that would do advertising for their upcoming shows. I did this because it was an outlet to a band that I and my friends enjoyed and it was something to do, not because I could get exclusive access to crap that I didn't want nor need. I got to meet the guys after concerts a few times, and that was better than any membership to an exclusive club.

11:47 AM  
OpenID colgatesoup said...

Azor, I can make you a copy of the Metallica club letter for $11.83. However, if word of this gets back to Lars or James or anyone else and I don't get the Us Premier Plus Plus Plus account, I will be upset.


St. Anger

9:05 AM  

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