– Ngoc DINH
Trang is an office worker in her 20s and a fan of a well-known boyband at present. As the band plans to drop a new album, Trang excitedly told me, a fellow fan, that she had pre-ordered two full sets of albums – eight CDs in total.
“Why that many?”, you may ask. The reasons vary, but the roots of this excessive purchase lie between three parties: fans with the support for idols, problematic music charts, and music labels with sale tactics.
Fandom and the support culture
Pop culture fans are usually part of a fandom – a community of fans. Academically speaking, fan culture or fandom refers to “a shared enjoyment of an aspect of popular culture, such as books, movies, TV shows, bands, sports” (see source).
In the pop music world, examples of fandoms are Directioners for One Direction, BTS Army for BTS, Little Monster for Lady Gaga, BeyHive for Beyoncé, etc. Passionate fans closely follow the latest updates of artists’ activities, releases, and social media posts. they listen to songs, watch performances, go to concerts and even defend artists against fake news, rumours and incidents. In the case of many fandoms, fans have formed a participatory culture, where fans not only act as consumers, but also create or frame content (Jenkins et al., 2013). For example, fans establish discussion threads, create compilation videos of their artists, make memes, write analyses, etc. Through these activities, they also form a sense of connection and sentiment with their favourite acts.
The more you buy, the more you support
As a matter of fact, fans have the incentive to purchase music products of their favourite artists, including digital (singles and albums on iTunes, for example) or physical products (CDs or vinyls).
Beyond buying the music products we need and like, fans also purchase items in high numbers mainly to support their favourite artists. This action can surely contribute to the artist’s commercial profit, but also elevate the artist’s achievement.
How? Rankings on many music charts are currently calculated based on sales. For example, rankings on Billboard Hot 100, one of the most important song charts in the world, are calculated based on sales (purchases of the digital and physical copies of a song/album), digital streaming (the number of times a song/album is streamed on platforms such as Spotify, Tidal) and radio airplay.
It is an achievement for pop artists, especially newcomers, to rank (high) in these charts since this reflects their popularity and reception by the audience. Ranking high helps to also popularise their names in the public. Simply put, more purchases can boost your favourites to stardom. Buying equals supporting. In many cases, passionate fans pay for 10 or more extreme, 50 copies of an album, or use 3-4 digital devices to stream one song.
This might be hard to understand for non-fans, but from a fan’s perspective, it is completely logical: everything to support the idols. After all, we are also in no position to judge personal preferences.
These excessive orders, however, are not helping the environment. The materials needed for physical CDs and the energy from online song streaming all have certain environmental costs.
Problematic music charts
In general, the problem goes beyond fan culture: it takes root in the way pop music charts and awards evaluate a music product. While sales may be an indicator of artists’ popularity, the quality of the music should be the central, decisive factor in an artist’s achievement. Awards are certification of their contribution to music, so they should not be based heavily (or at all) on sales.
As for the system of music charts, I admit that it is immensely difficult to change the system, but it is precisely what needs to be changed. I know Billboard has attempted to limit the chance of songs climbing up the charts due to bulk buying. I am also aware that certain selling platforms have set a limit on the number of items per order. But how about abolishing sales as a criterion? Why do we even need the Billboard charts at all? We cannot continue equating an artist’s success with sales; or else, consumerism still governs the industry.
Unhealthy sale tactics – what are the remedies?
Another big problem lies in the artist labels with their tactics to boost sales. Releasing 100 types of merchandise, or 10 versions of an album are all unhealthy tactics to boost sales.
Indeed, there are many reasons for fans to buy an album rather than listen to music. Many fans never need the CD, but they buy albums for the designs or supplement merchandise. Some need all the (four or five) versions of an album to complete their collection. If you want the merchandise, why don’t you buy only the merchandise? But merchandise is not counted for music charts, and so labels make sure they are included with CDs to boost sales. It is a vicious cycle.
Labels sometimes randomly distribute tickets to signing events with the CDs to boost sales. Then fans will buy more to increase the probability of winning that ticket.
It is almost impossible to urge labels to stop their sales-boosting techniques. They are doing business, they need to sell. Nevertheless, changing the products can be a good start. Companies can invest in “greener”, less-waste materials. For instance, New Zealand singer Lorde has taken a sustainable approach to her recent music product: She released a disc-less, plastic-free Music Box instead of traditional plastic CDs, which includes high-quality downloads, bonus tracks, and exclusive material on a 100% biodegradable card.⠀
As for concerts, British rock band Coldplay claims to put a focus on sustainability for their concert activities. They have an elaborate plan of reducing 50% carbon emission compared to their previous tours by mostly using renewable energy (solar power, biofuels, etc), and installing kinetic floors so fans’ dancing can energise the concerts. Some simpler acts can be to use compostable, plant-based materials to make LED wristbands worn by the audience, and reduce wristband production by 80% by reusing them after every show.
We cannot yet measure these efforts, but at least for stadium-concert artists such as Coldplay, this approach can at least bring about educational benefits to the audience.
All in all, nothing is done without impact, but it is important to control the amount of the impact. We can’t just stop listening to music or buying CDs, we can’t just stay home and not attend a gig. However, for us fans, maybe we really need to know what to prioritise. After all, labels can do whatever they want to boost sales, but the decision to buy is ours.
Coldplay‘s frontman, Chris Martin, puts it very well: “We could stay at home and that may be better. But we want to tour and we want to meet people and connect with people – so try and do it in the cleanest way possible.”
Jenkins, H., Ford, S. & Green, J.(2013). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York University Press.
Credits to our reader Hoang Nguyen who gave us the info on Lorde’s Music Box.