What Is A Superfan, Truly? [WAAMN Chapter 3.1]

The term gets thrown around casually all the time—but describes a particular concept that’s crucial for anyone with customers, in any industry.

This is the 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 1). Enjoy!

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I still remember the moment I realized I wasn’t a true Star Wars superfan.

Sure, I’ve seen just about every release in my lifetime on opening night. I have a Chewbacca ornament for my Christmas tree and a miniature R2D2 to go under my menorah. I even auditioned to play the role of Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menance.

But then, while on a 2015 Forbes reporting trip to cover the Star Wars Celebration—an annual gathering that brought 60,000 die-hards to the Anaheim Convention Center—I noticed a group of revelers sprinting down a hallway. Clad in orange jumpsuits, they carried chromed-out ice cream makers and sported fake mustaches.

I had no idea what was going on until I encountered one of the runners at a taco truck later and asked him about it. Turns out he and his compatriots were engaging in “The Running of the Hoods,” a tradition started by a few German fans who thought it’d be hilarious to dress up as the character Willrow Hood—a bit player appearing for mere seconds in The Empire Strikes Back, clad in an orange jumpsuit and toting an ice cream maker.

The folks who participate in the Running of the Hoods are, in a word, superfans. They’re part of a community of Star Wars enthusiasts who watch all the movies multiple times, fill their closets with related merchandise and travel thousands of miles to attend conventions (where they create new fan-oriented traditions). And they’re part of the reason Disney’s $4 billion purchase of LucasFilm in 2012 was dubbed the “deal of the Century” by Wired.

The superfan economy is undoubtedly a lucrative one. In my mind, it’s directly linked to an important concept called the 80/20 Rule or the Pareto Principle: the idea that 20% of customers can account for 80% of income (incidentally, this rule figures heavily into addiction models, where 20% of a given population account for roughly 80% of drug purchases).

Superfans exist across a wide spectrum of sectors, but perhaps nowhere more substantially than in the music business. From the early days of Beatlemania to Taylor’s “Swifties” today, the top acts in the world have some of the top fans. But not all of them.

Though Swift herself appears to be unavailable, I’ve lined up interviews with some other fascinating artists for this next chapter, “Rise of the Superfan.” Acts from pop trio Hanson to indie rapper Russ show that when it comes to making a living in a demanding field, it’s not always about having the biggest fan base—it’s about having the most engaged audience.

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Understanding how musicians build and nurture a rabid fan community is critical to anyone looking to grow a business, as you can see from the superfans of everything from specific airlines to Pez dispensers. 

And that’s what the rest of this chapter will dig into. We’ll begin next week with a deep dive into the history and business of Hanson, a band that parlayed turn-of-the-Millennium hits into decades of touring, an enduring fan club and even a beer called Mmmhops.

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 1). Sign up for weekly installments here; to check out my other books, click here.

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