Why Amanda Palmer Hates The Word 'Superfan' [WAAMN Chapter 3.3]
... even though the phenomenon itself is of existential importance to her business—and yours.
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 3). Enjoy!
Amanda Palmer didn’t invent the word “superfan”, but she might as well have: after getting her start as half of punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, she started a crowdfunding campaign before Kickstarter even existed. Eventually she raised a then-record $1.2 million for her next solo album on the platform.
She has since moved over to Patreon, where she now boasts over 12,000 fans. They each pay between $1 and $250 for every morsel of creativity she releases, from song downloads to personalized postcards. Palmer promises that, when her audience reaches 15,000, she’ll perform a song of her patrons’ collective choice on the ukulele, naked, via video broadcast.
She has scores of superfans, and yet isn’t a superfan of the term itself.
“I hate the word,” Palmer tells me over the phone from New Zealand, where she’s been living since the pandemic arrived in the midst of her 2020 Antipodean tour. “I think it’s important that I hate that word, because there’s always been something about the word ‘fan,’ and by extension the word ‘superfan,’ that sort of belies fundamentally what I try to do with my community.”
“The minute you start hanging out in the cultural space where you are the celebrity and the person is a fan,” she continues, “you’ve already really fucked things up.”
For Palmer, a peer-to-peer relationship with her audience means everything—and she didn’t even realize the full extent of it until recently. When touring ground to a halt in March 2020, so did the financial lifeblood of her musical career. She found herself solo-parenting her toddler, mid-pandemic, on the other side of the planet from most of the people she knew and loved.
That left her with no time to write, record, or produce music, and she worried her superfans (or patrons, as she prefers to call them) might depart when her output dwindled. But they didn’t. The support kept coming in on a monthly basis, and she still found a way to capture periodic moments of creativity throughout the pandemic, cobbling together bursts of creativity and some longer projects including a podcast.
“My community allowed it. They could have all just left,” she says. “I’ve been carried in ways that I never could have predicted by my patrons during the pandemic.”
Amid the dark tales of all that’s been lost amid the pandemic, there are quite a few stories of people coming together to support live-oriented creators like Palmer, or to save beloved establishments ranging from neighborhood watering holes to ballet shoe stores. In most cases, it’s because of one main reason: they all have superfans (or whatever you’d like to call them). And that’s why Palmer’s peer-to-peer philosophy is so critical to any enterprise.
“We have a really interesting cultural conundrum because a lot of what is baked into success is separation,” says Palmer. “And this also is not necessarily healthy.”
In her view, the further individuals get from an artist, the more they lose track of the fundamental dynamic at play: people coming together to help someone else create something wonderful, because they believe in the intrinsic value of that particular creation. Companies make use of this dynamic, too. Some just tap into that better than others, thanks to their superfans.
Think about building cars (and let’s put aside, for a moment, whether or not we ought to have more cars). You need a critical mass of consumers buying a certain model in order to create the necessary production and distribution systems. That’s essentially crowdfunding. Building a car around a concept that people love—and cultivating superfans by talking to them every day on Twitter—is the combination that created Tesla.
That’s not where it ends. People with disposable income who adore your brand might just buy stock in your company, regardless of price, as though it were tour merch. To get technical for a moment, Tesla trades at roughly 350 times earnings. That’s a higher ratio than the average stock—by a multiple of about 20. Similarly, souvenir t-shirts at concerts sell for $30 or $40, around 20 times what it costs to produce the item.
The analogy isn’t quite apples-to-apples—it’s more like apple seeds to apples: one is a scaled up version of the other. Both rely on the power of superfans (more on this phenomenon, and how it applies in the real world, are forthcoming in subsequent installments).
We Are All Musicians Now is an audience-supported serialized book. The best way to support my work is to get a paid subscription—or to buy the new Billionaire Edition of my Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind.
But back to Amanda Palmer. Though she didn’t mention anything about Tesla or t-shirts in our interview, she looks out at the world and sees the superfan economy just about everywhere, from making art to building infrastructure.
“Government is basically crowdfunding,” she says. “A lot of that, again, has to do with what we value, what we decided as a group of people deserves attention and money.”
That reality looks different in different countries, clearly. In the U.S., after a great deal of haggling, a trillion dollars from taxpayers will finally be poured into constructing and repairing bridges, tunnels, and the like. In New Zealand, performers get government grants to tour the country.
Palmer’s fan base has served as her own personal social safety net, helping her through the pandemic. And now she’s planning a Dresden Dolls reunion, along with a host of other surprises. Who knows, perhaps she’ll end up on this platform, too.
“I now see my patrons as a more powerful pool … I know they have my back,” she says. “I’m really excited to see where that takes me now that I actually have some time.”
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 3). Sign up for weekly installments here; to check out my other books, click here.