Ask a fan why they love an artist and the answer is never just about their music. Themes like “what they stand for,” “how I feel when listening” and even “how they look” contribute to the long list. It’s rarely a simple process, but I’m wondering what does it take to convert casual plays into intentional listens? What does it take for an artist to gain a listener’s long-term affection? Even, why do listeners agree on a new discovery on HumanHuman? In an attempt to find this secret formula I’ve broken down my experience as an avid listener into five stages, from the first listen to becoming a lifelong advocate for a band or artist.
Chemistry with a new song often happens in the first ten seconds (according to Shazam’s VP of Product) or it can grow over time - but often emotions are what forms an attachment to an artist. That first play needs to make a listener feel, whether it makes them laugh, dance, cry, or relax. That connection is what keeps fingers hovering over the replay button. Take a look at HumanHuman’s Trending list for example. Many of the artists in the Top 50 are known for their evocative music, the best example being Sam Smith, who the media once tagged as the “Male Adele” due to his heartbreaking songs like “Lay Me Down” and “Stay With Me”.
At the same time, a song’s message is just as important as how they sound. As a feminist, I find that BANKS’ music is especially empowering on a personal level (just listen to “Wolfpack”, a collaboration with TALA that’s all about respect and support between women). To prove my point further, another social example would be Troye Sivan, whose debut album Blue Neighbood covers themes of love, self acceptance and youth at a time where lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender (aka LGBT) acceptance and advocacy is on the rise. You see, creating an attachment is the defining moment for a listener, because without it there would be no reason for them to go back and hit play again. It’s the foundation. It’s the first step. It’s vital in determining whether or not a listener will be a future fan.
Activity is about whether the listener has the opportunity or motivation to learn more about the artist. There’s nothing worse than stumbling upon a great song only to find that the artist has simply disappeared. A lot of bands should take a leaf out of Transviolet’s handbook, who did a stellar job of getting listeners to move beyond the first play and into researching. Their campaign involved sending anonymous cassette tapes to strangers, who then had to Shazam and Google the band before landing on their Facebook page - a great combination of old school and modern techniques if you ask me. If there had been no online presence, and therefore no opportunity to interact with this band further, than the hype behind their popular song “Girls Your Age” would’ve died down before long.
This stage is so important because often it doesn’t matter how the first listen happens. Most people don't recall that part of the process, they just remember the emotions and everything after. The first time I heard the HumanHuman featured Kevin Garrett was because of a SoundCloud ad. It was a completely accidental click. However, his song “Control” was a nostalgic listen due to his gospel-inspired style, and so I went down a rabbit hole in search for more of his music. I found his Mellow Drama EP on SoundCloud, an old cover of “Skinny Love” from 2011 on YouTube and many other songs and live performances to show that Kevin Garrett was here to stay.
This stage in the journey comes after the initial discovery and exploration. At this point, it’s all about availability. The more platforms an artist’s music can be found on, the easier it is to keep up the momentum and let the excitement catch fire. Recently, I was at a show where the DJ played Basenji’s “Can’t Feel Enough”. I had no problem finding it on Apple Music to download and sharing the SoundCloud link was easy. In contrast to that seamless experience, when MAALA’s second single “In the Air” premiered on Beats 1 in July, none of my friends had Apple Music. By the time the track was available on Spotify, my interest had moved on.
The force behind availability is also reliant on crowd mentality, as well as your individual experience. When a celebrity like Chloë Moretz tweets about LAUV’s “The Other,” it’s like having a verified recommendation. I'm much more likely to enjoy, replay and indulge in an artist’s music when it has potential to be apart of daily conversation, and it’s even better when I don’t have to work at making my friends listen.
When it comes to needing more than music to sustain your new found fanship, authenticity plays a huge factor in whether a listener will stick around. Authenticity is a mixture of the artists’ image, message and voice. Listeners want to know (or at least imagine) the persona behind the music. Are they approachable? Do they support certain social issues? Moreover, it’s a lot more about artist and listener interactions in a live setting than what we see online. Artists who show gratitude, interact with a crowd during a performance and play encores is one of the go-to examples of authenticity. Although social media is still important, and there’s no better example than Olly Alexander from Years & Years whose personality runs the band’s Twitter and Facebook page. The posts are unpolished as he uses emoticons in lieu of words and there’s little attention paid to grammar but it all works because it’s relatable. A great moment that comes to mind was when the frontman fangirled over a reply from Cheryl Fernandez-Versinion the band’s official Twitter account (The original tweet has since been deleted, but in true Olly fashion, he’s posted a screenshot). Seeing interactions like that make an artist likeable and gives listeners a fun reason to follow them on social media. This all serves to keep an artist on a listener’s radar.
Add all the previous stages together and the rest of a listener’s attention hinges on accessibility. Typically, this is the “wait period” before a debut album. It’s also where a steady stream of content is necessary. Content can be in the form of new singles, music videos, covers and or gigs – the whole idea is that the music isn’t an elusive experience behind closed doors. How intimate can the relationship get? It can range from a like on an Instagram post to attendance at a live show. In my experience, live performances have always been a turning point. Seeing an artist live confirms the first four stages: the experience cements the attachment, confirms the artist’s activity, reveals their levels of authenticity and being on a stage right in front of you is about as available as a musician can be. The catch is that artists can’t play every single city, so accessibility is also about creating an inclusive atmosphere, even if that’s online. This is where recorded performances come into play, because by letting listeners have a second-hand experience of a show, it helps maintain their desire to follow the artist. More importantly, it gives the online audience a reason to put “see ____” on their bucket list. My personal list includes Alt-J, whom I have never seen live except through their stellar performances on KEXP, NPR Music and other festival circuits streams.
As an artist takes off on the charts, especially after their debut album, the accessibility stage requires less intimacy. Becoming “inaccessible” is much more easily forgiven when an act moves to a position where they have a loyal fanbase who don’t need constant reminders of their existence. It’s an understanding that comes along with popularity. I would never expect James Bay to like my #tbt photo of when he performed in front of less than a hundred people at Bonnaroo in 2014. These days, James Bay can release a new song, cover or music video and I'll automatically check it out – as long as it’s easily accessible through platforms like YouTube, Spotify or Apple Music.
As my closing point, I would suggest that an artist might not only want a listener’s attention but also their affection. The biggest difference between the two is that a listener’s affection is much more proactive. Let’s go back to my journey with Kevin Garrett. After the SoundCloud discovery, I got a chance to see him perform at Bonnaroo. He was fantastic live, and even thanked me on Facebook for supporting him. After that, I noticed a shift in my behavior. I was no longer a casual listener. I encouraged my friends to listen to his music and kept tabs on his social media to see when there’d be new material. When “Refuse” was announced, he didn’t have to ask for my attention. He already had it. That’s the penultimate behavior of having a listener’s affection – their attention is already all yours.