From Fan Clubs To Militarys: 40 Years In The Evolution Of Fandom
The Beatles had a problem. They were getting up to 400 pieces of fan mail every day. Not a bad problem to have, but consider the math: That's 2,800 letters a week, 12,000 letters in a short month, and up to 146,000 letters in a year. Even with four members answering their share of the letters, that's 36,500 letters per Beatle. They'd never have time to record new music, get stoned, and try to save the world if they were knee deep in fan mail.
The Christmas compilation American fan club members got in the mail circa 1971.
To deal with this problem they started The Official Beatles Fan Club. For 10 years, fans of the band received newsletters, messages, and, through 1969, a special Christmas flexi-disc from the band before the club shut down in March 1972. The band broke up, and so the club had to as well.
Forty years later, fans still want to know about their heroes and feel like they have a connection with them. Some bands still have fan clubs, but it's not the same one-way street of the '60s and '70s. In fact, a lot of music fans don't even need their heroes to start a community.
Even though fan clubs have never gone away, the term is a weird one. It feels antiquated, maybe even childish. It conjures up images of posters on walls and official band lunchboxes. While the idea might have started in a different era, modern fan clubs have the ability to offer perks that the classics couldn't.
Consider again what the members of The Official Beatles Fan Club got with their membership: a membership card with a unique member number, some newsletters that featured updates on the band and plenty of photos, discounts on Beatles merchandise, and the special Christmas release.
Ten Club, Pearl Jam's official fan club, features many of the same perks: There's a PDF in place of the magazine, access to members-only merch, and a free holiday single every year. There are also benefits that The Beatles couldn't have offered in the '60s: Streaming radio, a fan forum and fan-club-only ticket pre-sales.
Metallica's MetClub takes the fan exclusives to up a bigger level. Members pay more ($45 vs. $20 for Ten Club) for a similar set of features plus they get access to exclusive fan contests and concerts. Those contests give the fans the opportunity to win backstage passes to meet the band and maybe make a personal, however brief, connection.
Even without the official backing of an artist fans still get together in different corners of the Internet. Not every band can afford to have their own fan club, and some don't want to deal with the headaches associated with one. Fans might not be able to make a connection with their favorite artist but they can make a connection with other fans.
Photo By Groovehouse
One of the most famous official fan clubs around had its start as an unofficial fan movement. Two guys in Terre Haute, Ind., loved Kiss and wanted their local radio station to give them more airtime. When they failed to make any headway with the program director, they redoubled their efforts and gave themselves a name: The Kiss Army.
Two Hoosiers start calling radio stations. People place pen-pal ads in the back of magazines. They join mailing lists. They discover the Internet and start fan pages. Someone opens up a chat room. Someone else builds a Web forum. The methods have evolved over time, but the reason remains the same: Fans want to connect with other fans.
If you're a casual Kanye West fan, you probably don't obsess over the man the way certain fans do. In 2010, a particularly dedicated group of Kanye fans formed KanyeToThe.com. Since then it's blossomed in to a fairly sizable Internet community -- most forums would love to have 4,000 people online at 9 p.m. on a Monday night. Love of Kanye might have gotten them in the door, but the fans stay to talk fashion, sports, and movies.
Some communities aren't even anchored to specific sites anymore.