Justin Bieber's Fan Photo Ban and What It Means for the Music Industry

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Justin Bieber attends The 58th Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 15, 2016 in Los Angeles.

When Justin Bieber decides to go to the park, he can’t possibly do it quietly. On May 9, while visiting Boston, the pop star ventured outdoors to listen to music on a bench and feed a squirrel. Normal activities, but fans quickly circled. It didn’t help that Bieber was wandering around shoeless, and Instagram snapshots from onlookers went viral immediately. The next day, Bieber was aggressively asked for photos by a family at a Boston bowling alley, who argued they deserved the snapshots because they bought his album. It became the last straw for Bieber’s fan photo policy.

Later that night, he posted a hasty rant on Instagram. “If you happen to see me out somewhere know that I’m not gonna take a picture I’m done taking pictures [sic],” the 22-year-old pop star wrote, adding that he felt “like a zoo animal.” The post received has received over 145,000 comments, several times more than average, and inspired equal parts support and derision. “Your fans are the reason you are as successful as you are,” one follower wrote. “Get over it.” Bieber responded that the photo ban is “smart and will be the only way I last.”

 

A photo posted by Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) on



Bieber’s shoeless Boston escapade and the resulting outburst is being taken as a signal that the star is stumbling back into his old bad-boy ways -- the brothel visits and car crashes that preceded his triumphant Purpose comeback. But picture-taking policies are an increasingly prevalent issue in the music industry. While artists like Bieber might first find fame on social media by making themselves accessible 24/7, the permanent panopticon of fans with smartphones now expect that kind of intimacy all the time. It can get exhausting.

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Comedian Amy Schumer recently implemented a no-photos policy with a similar Instagram post, following an aggressive fan incident in Greenville, South Carolina. “Yes, legally you are allowed to take a picture of me,” she wrote. “But I was asking you to stop and saying no.” Artists like Motley Crue​'s Tommy Lee have long banned fan photos, but sudden announcements like Schumer and Bieber’s might end up alienating followers who became used to seeing their every move online.


 

Fans’ relationships to stars have “changed wildly,” says Jonathan Daniel, co-founder of Crush Management, which manages Sia, Fall Out Boy, Weezer and others. Daniel began his management career in 2001, after time spent in Electric Angels and other glam-rock bands. “It used to be your connection to an artist was really you would sign up for the Aerosmith fan club,” he says. Now, taking a photo with a star who posts their own selfies feels like part of the package of fandom. “That’s why fans would feel they’re disappointed, because it feels like you took something away from them that you gave them.”

The sudden photo problems might also be an issue of music monetization. “Fans have more of a relationship with selfies than albums,” says another industry executive with over 20 years’ experience who prefers not to be named. As listeners turn to streaming services over any form of direct music purchases, musicians need other experiences to sell. And sell they do, with concert tickets or pay-to-play VIP meet-and-greets, which come with expectations of photography. Fans might pay the price simply so they can take the same selfie they saw on Instagram.

The industry exec worries, however, that increasingly expensive VIP meet-and-greets might alienate fans who can’t afford it, leading to the kind of tension that explodes in unexpected photo-ops like Schumer and Bieber’s. In March, Bieber also canceled the remainder of his meet-and-greets for the Purpose tour, writing again on Instagram that the events left him “emotionally exhausted to the point of depression,” a harbinger to the new no-photo policy.

 

Love u guys.. I'm going to be canceling my meet and greets. I enjoy meeting such incredible people but I end up feeling so drained and filled with so much of other people's spiritual energy that I end up so drained and unhappy.. Want to make people smile and happy but not at my expense and I always leave feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted to the point of depression .. The pressure of meeting people's expectations of what I'm supposed to be is so much for me to handle and a lot on my shoulders. Never want to disappoint but I feel I would rather give you guys the show and my albums as promised. Can't tell you how sorry I am, and wish it wasn't so hard on me.. And I want to stay in the healthy mindset I'm in to give you the best show you have ever seen ;)

A photo posted by Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) on



The public reaction to creating intentional inaccessibility depends on the star’s personality. If an artist hasn’t built up a reputation for self-exposure on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, then fans might already know to keep their distance during an encounter in the wild. “It’s almost like two kinds of pop stars,” Daniel says. Fans are likely to respect Beyonce’s privacy, for example, but she is the exception rather than the rule. With the publicity-shy Sia, “we say no to everything just because it really works for her, it helps her be happy,” Daniel continues. For an emerging singer-songwriter like Andrew McMahon, any interaction is important. “Every show, he meets all the fans.”

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Each star has their own strategy. “I guarantee you Gwen Stefani doesn’t turn down a selfie, Katy Perry doesn’t turn them down, Rihanna doesn’t turn down many,” the industry exec says. Taylor Swift doesn’t do paid-for VIP meet-and-greets, but that’s because fans have to be hand-selected by her team to participate for free, adding to Swift’s aura of authenticity (in 2014 she also invited 90 fans to her apartment for a pizza party, a move that for Bieber would likely end in disaster). Selena Gomez freely takes photos with fans at concerts but her Instagram account shows her perennially separated from the crowds by a metal divider, allowing access of a limited kind.

The proliferation of fan photography also hints at the mounting irrelevance of paparazzi. Why go to the professionals, after all, when anyone with a smartphone can get the shot just as easily? Gomez recently encountered this phenomenon when amateur phone photography caught her nuzzling Orlando Bloom in a Las Vegas nightclub. At least paparazzi are recognizable as such, possibly making them less dangerous than omnipresent but unknown fan observers. The relationship between pop stars and paps is changing as a result. In 2013, Kanye West gained a reputation after attacking a paparazzi at LAX, but this year he went so far as to catch a ride with a group of photographers.

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When it comes to Bieber’s announcement, it might be the context that makes it worse than the photo policy itself. “There’s nothing wrong with having some boundaries, but the way Bieber delivered the message, I think a lot of fans could easily take that personally,” says the industry exec, arguing that Bieber owes his successful return to the same fans that he seems to be scorning with the photo ban. “Fans the drive industry a lot more than they would have in the past."

Social media is a powerful tool. It creates the illusion of intimacy and authenticity even when there’s not much there -- see Beyonce’s scrupulously curated Instagram feed. Stars can use the channels they cultivate however they like, tightly controlling what their audiences see. But social media is also a space for fans to interact with celebrities however they see fit. Shutting down that perceived channel of communication can feel like a betrayal, especially when fans see a star like Bieber continuing to post selfie after beatific selfie even after disallowing them the same.

Being a pop star has long been about more than making music or releasing albums. Stars have to cultivate an entire world for their fans. These days, maintaining an active social media presence forms a major part of that. It's a tricky proposition when Bieber sends the message that real-life fan access should turn on and off at his whim. If celebrities become famous by granting fans access to themselves over the Internet, they face the expectation that the perceived intimacy will continue, whether online or off.

The split between online intimacy and public privacy presents a tradeoff. Micro-celebrities, like those trying to make their way today on new digital platforms like YouNow or Facebook Live, might be happy to trade a higher degree of exposure for a closer connection to fans. Established stars are more likely to think twice.