Perils of Conflating Music Listeners and Music Fans


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By Kyle Bylin (@sidewinderfm), founder and editor of, a music and tech think tank.

I've always been skeptical of how music startups view music listeners. There have been many times where I've read a press release or heard an elevator pitch and narrowed my eyes. The suspension of reality can be astounding at times. Music startups seem to think that people have an infinite capacity to discover music and spread their love for artists.

I understand that people are only trying to market their music services. Sometimes, they say things that (I hope) aren't meant to be taken seriously — they're simply “selling" the vision behind their product and why they decided to create it. But I always get stuck on how they talk about music listeners — what they think music listeners are willing to do and how much effort they are willing to put in to get whatever value is being created for them. Oftentimes, it sounds like music listeners will run through any maze to find cheese.

There is also a tendency to conflate music listeners and music fans. But passively consuming music is different than actively endorsing it. The people with earbuds in aren't the same as those with credit cards out. They don't necessarily transform from iPhone zombies to Phish Heads. They're just people who like music. They're not music fanatics waiting in the wings. Music startups often talk about music listeners like they're one direct-to-fan email or app download away from supporting their favorite artists and saving the music industry. But they're not.

To explore these thoughts further, I asked several music and tech experts: Do music startups and industry pundits conflate music listeners and music fans? What are the dangers of confusing a listener with a fan — of viewing listeners as something that they are not?

Wise To Determine What Type of Customer You're Marketing To

Refe Tuma is a writer and occasional music blogger.

This is another example of the danger inherent in using 'fan' terminology when discussing the 'business' in music business. If there are any dangers in confusing listeners and fans, they're primarily economic — related to money, and by extension, energy and time. This is a question about customers.

Nevertheless, a helpful definition of the distinction between listeners and fans might be that a listener is someone who consumes music somewhere on the passive end of the participation spectrum, while a fan consumes music on the active end.

There are distribution channels that cater to just about every point on this spectrum. On the passive end: traditional radio, streaming radio, licensing for TV and movies, etc. On the active end: curation tools, digital libraries, and remixing software.

Generally, the more passive the channel, the less the customer is charged, and the less revenue it generates. More active channels generally charge their customers more for their use, so they generate more revenue.

Startups seeking to provide a product or service would be wise to determine what type of customer they are marketing to, listener or fan. If they're product will be used primarily by fans, they might be able to charge more per unit (or whatever measurement applies) and find success with a smaller, more active customer base. If casual listeners are targeted, they will likely have to provide the product for free or near-free, and work hard on wide adoption.

Music Industry Vs. Musician Industry — There's a Difference

David Hahn is the founder and editor of the blog Musician Wages .

I'm sure they do conflate the two groups, but I don't think it makes much of a difference.

Music start-ups need one thing: numbers. Huge numbers. Without huge numbers of users and large market penetration, none of their business models will become profitable. Take, for instance, Spotify and Pandora, who are loudly complaining about their inability to make any money without more paying users (or lower royalty rates).

If they really want to care about who is listening, how much they care about the songs, whether they share the songs with their friends — then they should become musicians. Because ultimately, all of these concerns are much more important to the artist than to the label. What does the label care about how they get big numbers, as long as they do?

So I think the bigger problem here is conflating the music industry with the musician industry. They are, an have always been, two completely separate industries with very different priorities, expectations and goals. The only people actually selling music are musicians. They are the only ones who need to worry about who's listening.

Consider the Music Festival Brand and Artist Lineup

Amber Horsburgh is a strategist at the create agency Big Spaceship .

This is really an issue of differentiation for products and services. The dangers in confusing music listeners and music fans is not so much an issue for them, but more so the companies behind the products/services that serve them. Relying on the health of an artist's fan pool to sell a music-streaming product, for example, makes little to no sense.

Take a look at music festivals. A great deal of festivals out there differentiate themselves year after year by artist lineup — the difference between Electric Daisy and Ultra being Calvin Harris is headlining, who is a bigger deal than Avicii, hypothetically. In these instances the touring department is doing the job of the marketing department and the marketing department is doing the job of a promoter. The end result is the festival (as its stand alone brand) relying on the fans of artists within the lineup to sell out their event where their experience with their favorite artist is likely to be diluted. Not to mention the other host of uncontrollable variables — what if in the lead up to the event the artist releases something terrible, or offends a public figure or simply struggles to remain relevant?

Creating an experience that is unique to the festival brand would help them to expand their potential audience, past the fans of the artists on the lineup. The same holds true for listeners of SONOS, YouTube and online radio — listeners all get a different experience for seemingly the same task — listening to music.

The Three Types of Music Consumers

Wesley Verhoeve is the founder of Family Records .

Music consumers live in three concentric circles. The casual listener, the fan, and the hardcore fan. They're all the same in the way that it's our job to guide them from the outermost circle into the innermost one, by listening to their needs and preferences, and catering to them in a way that makes sense for everyone involved.

I don't think it's possible to mistake one for the other, especially since the financial incentives differ drastically between the circles. A fan is a fan is a fan though. They are who we, as an industry and as artists, are there for. They are at the core of our business. It's their choice to listen to our artists, but it is our job to listen to what they will tell us.

We are getting better at listening, but it's coming from a point so low that there's still a long way to go. The industry was built from a place where listening to the customers was not something that was even considered. There is no difference between selling music, and selling anything else. You listen to your customers if you know what's good for you.If music customers had actually felt heard and loved the companies they bought music from, I am certain piracy would've evolved differently. The music industry not only didn't listen to their customers, it's proactively held up their middle finger to the customer.

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