Delta Rae, Superfans And UBI [WAAMN Chapter 3.6]
The six-piece indie act seemed unlikely to weather the pandemic—until superfans stepped in. More than a cool story, it's a model for all creators.
This is your weekly installment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. To make sure you don’t miss future serializations, subscribe here. Below you’ll find Chapter 3: Rise of the Superfan (Part 6). Enjoy!
The last time I saw Delta Rae’s Eric Holljes before the pandemic, we met for brunch at a cow-themed restaurant on the Upper West Side. We might as well have come from opposite ends of the universe: I’d just tumbled out of a Kanye West Forbes cover story vortex, while Eric’s band had recently been saved by Swifties.
It gets weirder. In an act of solidarity, Taylor Swift’s superfans had rushed to support Delta Rae’s Kickstarter after learning the group had left Big Machine Records—the label infamously snatched by Scooter Braun, an occasional manager of Kanye (arguably the top two Swiftie villains). As part of the deal, Braun swooped up Swift’s master recordings, without her blessing, hence the cavalry charge of the superfans.
Delta Rae’s campaign raised $150,000 in its first 24 hours, reaching nearly half a million by the fall. Elated, the band started using the cash to record a new album called The Light, envisioning something “hopeful, soulful, and sun-kissed.” On deck: an expansive tour accompanied by immersive live experiences like a Delta Rae-themed Gothic revival musical.
The pandemic changed all that. The Light debuted in the darkness of March 2020, and the band had to twice reschedule—and then indefinitely postpone—its meticulously-planned tour. Even with the lifeline of a PPP loan, it seemed Delta Rae would be another casualty of Covid.
“We were anticipating that this was it, this was the end of the road,” Eric tells me as we meet again, a little further uptown, on a recent fall afternoon. “We wanted to give everyone the music … and say, ‘Thank you guys for a great career. This has been wonderful.’”
Before packing everything up and shutting down, Delta Rae decided to take one last shot, inspired by the bandmembers’ early days, when they were just three siblings and a few friends making music in a spooky old house in the woods of North Carolina. With some advice from fellow superfan aficionado Isaac Hanson, they hacked together a paywalled website called Behind The Door.
For a monthly fee of $10, fans could enter a virtual environment reminiscent of that North Carolina house—complete with archival footage, unreleased recordings, and occasional livestream concerts. Bandmembers offered monthly specials: Eric’s brother Ian dove into songs he’d written; sister Brittany read tarot cards; bassist Grant Emerson explained how to strum along to Delta Rae; percussionist Mike McKee offered up favorite stories from the road.
The group released its next album, The Dark, in the winter of 2021. The launch was accompanied by a virtual production reminiscent of Sleep No More, in which Delta Rae decked out Brittany’s home in black wallpaper and set up unique experiences in every room (she performed the band’s hit “Bottom of the River” in a fogged-out laser den).
By the middle of the pandemic, Behind The Door was generating cash at a six-figure annual pace, thanks to Delta Rae’s superfans.
“They have the same passion and heart as Swifties, just in smaller numbers,” Brittany told me, somewhat prophetically, in 2019. “By far the greatest gift … has been trust—falling into the hands of our uniquely big-hearted fans.”
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These days, things continue to look up. Delta Rae just wrapped its latest tour, a rare bit of good as the Omicron surge begins to force cancellations across the entertainment spectrum. Even if the latest pandemic news means the group won’t be able to hit the road again for awhile, it now has a blueprint for long-term sustainability—one that’s useful for brands as well as bands.
This time, as Eric and I wind down our interview, it feels as though we’ve tumbled out of similar vortexes. Independent writers, like independent musicians, need some sort of safety net to help them through unexpected downturns. Absent the Scandinavian-style governmental policies that might achieve this, superfans are the safety net for creative types.
Another way of putting it: superfans are like universal basic income for creators. Of course, they’re not universal, and they can always cancel their subscription. They need to be nurtured with compelling art. But for creators who succeed, the revenue generated can be more than basic—often enough to sustain a career, sometimes comfortably.
That sort of foundation emboldens creators to take the sort of big swings that often produce the most transformative art. If you can lay that kind of foundation in your career, you might have all the support you need when times get rough.
“That’s when you learn who cares about you,” says Eric. “You don’t know how many core fans you have, and if you have any at all … until you’re in these moments of free-fall and vulnerability.”
The above is a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. You just read Chapter 3: Rise of the Superfan (Part 6). Subscribe here. For more, read my other books and follow me on Twitter and Instagram.