Long before last November, when K-pop group BTS released its album BE, Imelda Ibarra and her team of 29 colleagues were picking up signals that something was coming. “After being a fan for seven years, you roughly know: ‘OK, it has been five or six months, and [BTS] start being more active on social media,’” says the founder of U.S. BTS Army, a nonprofit that shares news, video clips, awards show tune-in info and merchandise drops to 675,000 followers on Twitter, 10,000 on Instagram, 25,000 on Facebook and millions more on its website. “It’s tiny little nuances that you pick up. There’s a joke we say among fans: ‘Always be ready.’”
Ibarra’s group sprung into action, continually posting every scrap of BTS news: appearances on Good Morning America and at the American Music Awards; dozens of photos provided by the act’s management company Big Hit Entertainment; TikToks by the band and fans; six versions of the “Life Goes On” video; interviews, behind-the-scenes clips and Instagram stories. “There is a distinct pressure,” says Ibarra, a 30-year-old Los Angeles administrative assistant who spends between 15 and 40 hours a week on the group for no compensation or perks. “We want to make sure everyone is correctly informed.”
Ibarra is part of a fan club tradition going back decades, to Beatles fans who sent a few bucks to the band in the 1960s and received through the mail exclusive Christmas records, locks of George Harrison’s hair and shreds of John Lennon’s clothing. But today’s fan clubs are more engaged, and more powerful. This is most clear in K-pop, where groups like Ibarra’s have shown the power to marshal huge numbers of people to consume songs and albums, VIP tickets, rare merch items and virtual concerts — or encourage hundreds of BTS fans to line up for days for a 2019 New Year’s Times Square performance or mount a passionate mass defense of Blackpink member Lisa, who is Thai, from racist comments on social media. During the pandemic, artists have found their fan networks to be more crucial than ever, making up for the lack of lucrative tours and personal appearances by leading their fans to livestreams, virtual meet-and-greets and, of course, new releases.
“Time and time again, people underestimate us as a fandom,” says Ibarra, “and time and time again, we prove them wrong.”
Fan clubs still exist, organized by fans like Ibarra or by an artist’s representatives, but they’re a subset of the greater digital communities of fandoms, where fans can opt in with as little as a retweet. “‘Fan club’ feels ancient — like paper mailers would come to your house once every three months when you were a kid and you’d get stickers and maybe a T-shirt and it was the only way you’d hear from the artist because it was so mysterious,” says Matt Young, a former member of Pearl Jam’s Ten club who is now president of Warner Music Artist Services, which helps artists from Michael Bublé to Shinedown communicate with their fans. “A fan club today is any and all of the ways to build community around an artist. It’s the concept of behind-the-scenes access — wanting to be close to the music and connect with like-minded fans.”
Artists can communicate quickly and directly with their fandoms, providing superfans with prerelease songs and albums, VIP ticketing, rare merch items and virtual concerts. Warner’s Artist Services website touts the division’s ability to “create actionable audience segments” by tracking fan data from websites, merch stores, social media and email marketing responses. “The main source of actionable data is knowing how the consumer behaves,” says Young. “It’s about understanding what the fans want rather than making something and telling fans to buy it.” Warner Music has steered Wiz Khalifa into a branded video game (Weed Farm) and signed My Chemical Romance to a licensing deal with Funko dolls for collectibles based on the band’s albums.
Working with artists’ managers, labels and other official reps, fandoms can get the word out quickly about new releases and merch: Justin Bieber spent two months hyping his February 2020 album, Changes, to Beliebers on social media and was rewarded with his seventh No. 1 album. And at a time when artists can’t tour and are desperate for concert revenue, Metallica tapped into its fan club to sell $115 tickets to a prerecorded concert film screened at drive-in movie theaters last August, offering presales to members.
Bieber’s reps communicate regularly with five or 10 superfans, which Jackie Augustus, head of digital marketing for the pop star’s management company SB Projects, defines as having “a large account online.” Through email, she asks them what types of products they want and tries to respond to their preferences. “Other than tweeting, ‘Here’s the album, here’s the date,’ it’s more like, ‘Let’s bring them in,’” she says. “Superfans want to be engaged in the process, and they’ll take any little bit of anything.” For example, a complicated 2015 clock puzzle, sent by direct message, allowed superfans to piece together lyrics for Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” before the single came out. Bieber’s cryptic tweets about the clock helped the song trend on Twitter, then “helped build the hype,” as Augustus puts it, and the track became his first No. 1 single.
Fandoms need to be treated with respect. “We can’t try to pull one over on them,” says Augustus. “They know exactly what we’re doing. They’re the people buying the music and going to the shows. What they want is important. I try to include them in whatever we’re doing.”
In exchange, superfans provide information both directly (if Augustus finds an old photo of Bieber that needs to be identified, she occasionally reaches out to a knowledgeable fan for help) or indirectly (through data). Using social media posts, as well as streaming numbers and ticket and merch sales metrics, managers and labels can view information about fans such as age, gender and when they’re online. “A lot of that obviously has to do with privacy and data and information that’s not meant to be shared,” says Augustus. “But we try to piece together what we can.”
Bieber himself currently doesn’t maintain an official, paid fan club, although Augustus’ team “interacts with fan accounts daily.” But many artists use their fan clubs not only for communication but for revenue, often charging lucrative dues. Eric Church’s fan club has a yearly fee of $35 and 40,000 paying members, who receive T-shirts, access to VIP tickets, meet-and-greets and other exclusive items, which adds up to annual revenue of $1.4 million. Fees vary: The Who charges $70 a year, The National $50 and Carrie Underwood $25. Official membership in the BTS Army costs $30; to enroll, fans have to sign up for the artist-to-fan communication app Weverse.
Some artists oppose mining fan clubs for revenue though. The duo twenty one pilots, for example, prides itself on building a fan community without charging dues. Without those financial transactions, the band brings in less data, aside from what every artist collects through YouTube, Spotify and merch sales. “The most important part of the fan club is deepening the community,” says Chris Woltman, the band’s manager. “Not how much money you make off of them.”
Fandoms that can sustain acts aren’t new, as generations of Deadheads, Parrotheads and members of the Ten Club can attest. And artists like Taylor Swift realized early on how recognizing and communicating directly with superfans could boost her audience. In this spirit, Church delivered vinyl copies of his 2015 album, Misunderstood, to fan club members through the mail, cementing their loyalty forever. “That was the biggest expression of, ‘You guys are going to get stuff before anybody else,’” says John Peets, manager of the country star, who recently landed “a seven-figure weekend” from fan club presales for his triple album Heart & Soul due in April. “All of that helps build the artist into something that becomes long-lasting.” (Peets also likes to collect fan data in a nondigital manner: with his eyes at live shows. “I can go up to the front of the stage and look around and go, ‘Oh, a lot of people wearing trucker hats up there — better start selling some.’”)
K-pop superstars have adopted this long-running idea of “superserving” their active fans, as Shin Cho, head of K-pop and J-pop for Warner Music Asia, calls it, and built it into an international “fandustry.” It’s big business: In late January, as part of a broader deal, Korean tech firm Naver invested more than $320 million in the company that runs Weverse, the social media app that K-pop stars use to provide music, video and other content. (The app, which reached 10 million downloads last July, recently premiered the exclusive BTS documentary Break the Silence: The Movie.) “It’s very K-pop-specific at this moment. It’s very early stage,” says Cho, noting that Interscope bedroom-pop artist Gracie Abrams, who is from Los Angeles, recently set up her own fan community on the Korean platform. “But it’s definitely time to monitor and see how this is playing out.”
Sometimes artists give to fans: In August, Blackpink’s announcement of its new single, “Ice Cream,” a collaboration with Selena Gomez, came with a custom ice cream flavor, social media freebies and an L.A. food truck making personal deliveries. And sometimes fans give to artists: In 2019, K-pop boy band Monsta X’s loyal following, known as Monbebe, was so furious about member Wonho leaving the group that it raised $20,000 to erect a billboard in New York’s Times Square demanding his return.
For such instant, powerful brand loyalty, the phrase “fan club” seems antiquated. “I wouldn’t say a fan club. It’s more like partners,” says Eshy Gazit, Monsta X’s international manager. “It’s a constant giving to one another and inspiring one another. Monsta X works hard to get the best things for the fans, and the fans work hard to empower Monsta X. It’s like a circle.”