Why are pop music fans so obsessed with metrics?
Flora is an avid K-pop stan, but her love of pop music started with One Direction. With a decade under her belt – a decade marked by seismic changes in the marketing and consumption of music – she has seen huge changes in the way artists are supported by their most loyal fans.[Since] I was a director when I was a teenager, Stan’s culture turned heavily to numbers, ”explains Flora. “It’s just a lot more programmatic and formalized. “
Fans have been debating sales numbers and radio plays since the dawn of pop music, but social media and easy access to all kinds of data has allowed this aspect of the fandom to gain momentum like never before. “Streaming is rigidly planned, which causes enormous pressure within these subcultures,” says Flora. “I’ve seen all kinds of weird behavior being encouraged; skipping school on the day you go out, stealing parents’ devices to broadcast.” Whether it’s Swifties and Livies teaming up to make fun Billie Eilish stans for his latest album under-sale, the backlash that ensues whenever a popular artist is awarded a Fork ranking below ‘7’, or the popularity of Twitter accounts like ‘Graph data ‘ (currently at over a million subscribers), metrics are an important part of how fans talk – and argue – with each other about music. It would be easy to dismiss this fixation with data as proof that “it’s not really about the music”, but that wouldn’t be an entirely fair assessment.
“Fans have always been invested in the chart war – where there are a few artists fighting to reach number one – and have always wanted their artist to thrive,” said Hannah Ewens, author of Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Musical Culture, “But the reader they’re showing now has a different flavor.” For today’s stans, being interested in metrics is more than a passive process: in other words, they don’t just observe the figures and put down roots for their artist to succeed, but actively seek to transform them. Sometimes known as ‘graphics manipulation’, it’s often referred to as the digital trend, and it’s true that social media has made it easier by allowing fans to coordinate their efforts like never before. But this tactic actually has a long history: Prior to the ’90s (which saw the introduction of a computerized system), music charts were extremely unreliable. They depended entirely on reports from record store employees who could be, and often were, bribed by record companies to artificially boost sales figures (according to one New York Times 1996 report, these employees were often paid with “free albums, concert tickets, and even vacations and washing machines” – it’s hard to imagine the cash-strapped music industry engaging in any big deal. such hi-jinks today.) These strategies were driven by record companies, rather than fans, and they started to slow down as computer systems got more sophisticated.
“Before the 1990s, which saw the introduction of a computerized system, music charts were extremely unreliable. They depended entirely on reports from record store employees who could be, and often were, bribed. “
The introduction of streaming at the end of the 2000s, however, made it possible to democratize this process. For the first time, music fans had the power to influence chart positions beyond the expensive tactic of going to a Virgin Megastore and buying tons of CDs. Over the past decade, this practice – sometimes referred to as “usurpation” – has grown tremendously. “The Stans themselves have so much power to manipulate the cards today,” explains Hannah. “It’s common behavior to sit down and stream endless songs on different devices and buy multiple bundles of merchandise that count towards sales. Other tactics deployed by fans include using VPNs (virtual private networks) to simulate their location and organizing in online communities to stream at the most optimal times. Some fandoms have even organized donation campaigns to help their less affluent members afford premium streaming services. While this is goal-oriented rather than purely altruistic (the ultimate goal is to boost the numbers), it’s still pretty sweet.
For Flora, the ex-director and current stan of K-pop, this fixation on metrics can serve as a distraction from what should be the most important thing: the music. “People talk about new releases only in terms of numbers and don’t seem to like the songs,” she says. “It feels like Stan culture is somewhat dissociated from artistic pleasure.” But metrics continue to be an attractive part of the fandom for a lot of people. For starters, they provide some sort of objective, quantifiable barometer of quality and status, and in so doing, offer a surefire way to earn an argument online. Especially on Twitter, it’s common to see rival fandoms taunt each other with stats. “Aggressive competitiveness to prove that an artist is the best, and the proliferation of charts in the US and elsewhere means there is a lot of data to prove or disprove a stan’s point,” says Hannah. “If someone is arguing with you online saying your artist is a flop, but has a Billboard Number One to back them up, it’s hard for them to back that statement.” What better way to wipe a smirk from a rival’s face than to present objective and compelling receipts?
But investing so much in your favorite artist’s metrics also comes with an obvious risk: what if they fail? Does this result in loss of online status, and if so, how do you navigate it? According to Flora, the answer is usually denial. “People have an extraordinarily high level of knowledge of the industry that allows them to go back and blame different mapping systems – like when BTS continued to sell very well, BTS’s antis were blamed. Billboardmetric, and it got really racist pretty quickly. in place. It’s never a question that the music is bad. “For Flora, it plays into a larger shift in fandom culture.” When I was a director, there was a kind of good faith relationship with the world, where the stans truly believed that if they supported the boys enough, they could help elevate their status in the media and gain some respect. Whereas now most stans think the media is neglecting their idol and being unfair, or the public has no taste and everyone is crap. “
“If the bands don’t succeed in the United States, it could impact their ability to continue making music and will almost certainly prevent them from touring there. So, for K-Pop fans, it makes a lot of sense to improve the performance of their favorite artists.
However, this focus on metrics isn’t limited to claiming status online. According to Dr Colette Balmain, lecturer at Kingston University and specialist in K-Pop fandom, stans have good reason to be concerned about this stuff. “If an artist doesn’t find an audience, it’s not going to last very long,” she says. “The idea that there is a dichotomy between” caring about music “and” caring about metrics “is not entirely true: the emphasis on metrics is often motivated by the fact that your favorite artist can continue to make music, which is hardly a superficial reason. This factor is even more important when it comes to K-Pop, which in the West cannot count on station support. radio and mainstream media. in the United States is particularly crucial. “There are so many bands that it is impossible for them to make money only in Korea, and the United States seems to be the hallmark of success. Explains Dr Balmain.
If the bands are not successful in the United States, it could impact their ability to continue making music and will almost certainly prevent them from touring there. So for K-Pop fans in the US (and, to a lesser extent, UK), it makes a lot of sense to improve the performances of their favorite artists. For all sorts of reasons, including an incuriosity within the mainstream Western media that borders on some sort of cultural racism, K-Pop fans can’t just assume that the music they love will be fairly rewarded on the basis of of its merit. In light of this, it’s hard to blame them for taking matters into their own hands.
While a concern with metrics is often characterized as a trait unique to Stan culture, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that betrays a trivial relationship with music either. Being invested in the success of the artists you love isn’t all that different from the exhilaration and hopelessness felt by football fans on a weekly basis – and you rarely hear people say that caring about goals, trophies and position in the league comes at the expense of caring about the game itself. Whether it’s football, pop music or whatever, this kind of investment gives meaning to people’s lives, which is not a bad thing. “When your artist is doing well, it gives a feeling of validation,” says Dr. Balmain. Hannah agrees: “When artists win, fans win,” Hannah agrees. Streaming BTS, Billie, Taylor, Harry et al. might not give you clean skin, but it won’t hurt you either.
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