How to build a true fan community?
Many of us have social media artist pages to share our work with the world. However, not many of us know the art of connecting with our fans and engage them effectively. This whole connecting with unknown people virtually is a weird business and many of us try to avoid it as far as possible, even though deep inside we know we shouldn't be doing this. We always tend to create a safe distance between us and anything that felt uncertain and anyone who could possibly hurt us.
Amanda Palmer in her book, The Art of Asking shares an honest account of how she connects with her fans in an intimate fashion.
Distance is a liar. It distorts the way we see ourselves and the way we understand each other. The best way to find light in the darkness is not by pushing people away but by falling straight into them.
For Amanda, her fanbase is like thousand-headed significant other who she constantly, asks for help, and offers support. She also has occasional break-ups with her fans the way she would do with a lover.
She always had to argue with security officers in the signing lines to not shoo away her fans for her to talk, and hug them after her shows. During such moments, there will be other musicians who hand over their CDs to her.
I see those CDs as something more than just some local kid trying to get his band a break. They’re like a thank-you letter, a way for one artist to wave a flag to another, like two lighthouses; part of the must-never-stop, ever-circulating gift. And you do not refuse that gift, ever.
Amanda believes in building the fan community slowly one person at a time to keep the ecosystem healthy. Her fans had let her couch surf whenever she had gigs in new cities. This has only made the bonds stronger and added to her creativity.
There’s an inherent, unspoken trust that happens when you walk through the door of your host’s home. Everybody implicitly trusts everybody else not to steal anything. We leave our phones, our wallets, our laptops, our journals, and our instruments lying scattered around our various mini-couch surfing campsites. To my knowledge, I’ve never had anything go missing. I’m often asked: How can you trust people so much? Because that’s the only way it works. When you accept somebody’s offer for help, whether it’s in the form of food, crash space, money, or love, you have to trust the help offered. You can’t accept things halfway and walk through the door with your guard up. When you openly, radically trust people, they not only take care of you, they become your allies, your family.
Looking at the weird shit people keep in their medicine cabinets. Cats to pat, who are at first standoffish then decide they love you at four a.m. when you’re finally asleep. Walls of Elvis plates. The recaptured feeling of having a sleepover party. Dodgy electric blankets. A chance to try on hats. Morning coffee in a wineglass for lack of enough cups. Children of all ages and temperaments who draw pictures for you. The ability to make your own toast. Record players. Wet grass in the backyard sunrise, where the chickens are roosting. Out-of-tune pianos and other strange instruments to fondle. Candles stuck to mantelpieces. The beautiful vision of strangers in their pajamas. Weird teas from around the world. Pinball machines. Pet spiders. Latches that don’t quite work. Glow-in-the-dark things on the ceiling. Late-night and early-morning stories about love, death, hardship, and heartbreak. The collision of life. Art for the blender. The dots were connecting.
Staying in your own home can be corrosive and stifling, especially for creative work. The surroundings can smother you with the baggage of your past and the History of You. Staying in a hotel can be a blissful blank slate. There’s no baggage, just an empty space onto which you can project anything. But staying in a stranger’s home can inspire like nothing else. You get to immerse yourself in the baggage of someone else’s past, and regard someone else’s mess of unsorted books piled up in the corner of the living room.
How crowd surfing is an act of bonding with fans?
Crowd surfing is where this moment of trust is at its physical paragon, and best of all, it’s set to the climactic soundtrack of the art itself: the music. You stand at the lip of the stage, you trust, and you dive.
Amanda also brings in this connection element when she differentiates her experience of doing house parties v/s official shows at clubs.
An official show in a club or a theater is repetitive work: soundchecks, dressing rooms, testing lights. The environment is set up to do business, not art: security checkpoints; cash registers ringing open and slamming closed; bored bartenders loudly scooping ice into drinks, waiting for you to finish your screaming and swearing so they can clock out. At a house party, everybody improvises and cobbles together space; there’s nobody who doesn’t want to be there. Dogs and kids run freely, curfews don’t exist, strangers become real friends under the magical umbrella of a unique, shared experience. The music is important—I always play for at least an hour or two—but it isn’t the absolute center of attention.
However, we can truly connect with our fans when we are not afraid of their judgment. If we are scared of their judgments, we will be preoccupied with the task of impressing them.
One simple way to connect with fans is to maintain a permission-based mailing list where we keep email addresses of our fans and potential fans to communicate what we are working on a regular basis.
Sometimes, this connection can go beyond an artist-fan relationship to more of a therapist-client relationship. Unlike the pre-internet days when there is an unnatural distance between the glamorous stardom and the fans, the internet era has opened up a channel that helps cultivate a more real and honest way to connect with people making it easier to reach their hearts. The below conversation between Anthony and Amanda in the book, The Art of Asking beautifully explains how songwriters are also, therapists in a way.
Have you ever heard of a “sin-eater”? No, I said. Tell me. It’s when a local holy man, or a guru, takes on the sins and sufferings of the community by opening to those who are in pain and filtering the pain and suffering. He takes all the emotional trash and, through his body, through his love and capacity to stay present, clarifies the pain into compassion. Lots of religions have their version of it. Jesus does it for the Christians. A community confession-booth attendant, basically, I said. Ha. Basically. There were professional sin-eaters in England. A guy, for money, would come around and eat bread over the corpse of a dead family member to purge the body of sin before it went to heaven. It’s also the magic and mystery of what we do—when we nail it—in psychotherapy. We take on the suffering of others, digest it, transform it. And artists? I asked. Sounds like art. Yeah, good artists do it. You know, the “Artist” and the “Medicine Man” used to be the same guy. “Musician” and “Shaman” used to be the same characters, in a way. Our jobs aren’t that different, you and me. I’ve seen you in the signing line, I’ve watched you. Eat the pain. Send it back to the void as love. Can I ask you a question? Ask, he said. Do you ever have days where you can’t take it all in, and it just makes you too sad? Yeah, beauty. It happens all the time.
Interacting with fans - reading and writing letters - can provide instant gratification, unlike writing songs. That way, Amanda's blog and writing actually started to feed her music.
I am, first and foremost, a musician. Writing a book was great, but I desperately want you to hear my music so I don’t lose track of myself. I made a playlist of all the songs used/mentioned in this book, and I threw in a special “welcome to Amandalanda” page of my website for those of you who have just read this book without having any idea who I am or what my songs sound like. It all started with the Art Itself, and I hope the book leads you back there.
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