DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the past 10 years, the Internet has allowed musicians to sidestep many of the traditional gatekeepers of their industry. Today, if you can build a fan base, the money will find you. And it would also appear social media and streaming services have empowered fans, who now expect easy access to songs and the people who make them. But Frannie Kelley reports it's all more complicated than that.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Over the last decade, talking heads decided that music fans are scary.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You cannot make fun of Beyonce.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: People take their Beyonce very seriously.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's serious.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I agree with you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm afraid to mention her name.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: While Rihanna didn't respond herself, her navy definitely carried the load and went off on social media about...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The BTS fan backlash is real, and the BTS army will attack you if you even look at their boys the wrong way.
KELLEY: Fans run amok is nothing new - don't forget Lisztomania in the 1840s. And it's true, that could look like cultural power, but its biggest danger might be to the objects of its devotion. Putting somebody on a pedestal maroons them there.
YOUNG M A: What up, y'all? This is Young M.A, aka Katorah Marrero.
KELLEY: At the start of this past decade, Young M.A was a teenager just trying to will herself on stage.
YOUNG M A: I was scared to perform in front of a crowd. I wasn't scared; more so, like, just - what if I don't do good? What if they don't like me?
KELLEY: By the middle of the decade, she'd put out a song that lit up her city - New York - and then the whole country.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOOUUU")
YOUNG M A: (Singing) These haters on my body - shake them off. Ooh, ooh.
KELLEY: Though her song blanketing radio and playlists was like a confirmation for M.A, it also very quickly put her in a weird position.
YOUNG M A: I never want too much fame because when I did get it, I didn't really like the taste of it too much. It was a little overwhelming mentally.
KELLEY: Partly because of her ambivalence, M.A has turned down major label offers, which means the task and the investment of building a team of loyal supporters falls to her. I asked her if the people who listen to her music are in her head when she's writing it.
YOUNG M A: You do think about those things. I don't think nobody can ever say they don't because at the end of the day, you know, you have these people that's actually engaging and buying your music. So you do want to satisfy them. But sometimes it can also be a curse because it kind of takes away from your creative zone. You find yourself either repeating yourself or just not sounding as authentic as you can sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUBBORN A**")
YOUNG M A: (Singing) And instead of confronting me, there's this big elephant inside of the room. Now you don't speak; now you a mute, so used to holding your feelings in. Now your mind is immune. Your heart is hurting. Your body's confused. You'd rather be stubborn than sit and confront it. Come on, like, we got to improve. That's not even cool. Talk even when you not in the mood. This is love, got to apply by the rules. You leaving now is like a 12th-grader deciding to drop out of school.
KELLEY: At the close of the 20-teens, musicians are acutely aware of their fans. And while commercially viable art has always walked a tightrope between fan service and invention, the industry - after a prior decade in which file sharing decimated profits - is listening hard.
COREY SMYTH: For the most part, it seems like the fans are driving the culture. But they really aren't, to some degree.
KELLEY: Corey Smyth has been managing musicians since the 1990s.
SMYTH: There's whole floors of people who are looking at analytics and algorithms and things of that sort at this point in the industry because how else can we make money? Data's so real now. I think people are living so much in the abstract of it that they're not recognizing that there is so much data that goes into everything that's being pushed towards them.
KELLEY: For most of the 2010s, Smyth has been managing the career of Vince Staples, who mines the twisted dynamics between fans and artists and the business and flips them into songs that people love. But he does still have the odd armchair critic. In the spring of 2018, he and his label thought it would be fun to call their bluff with a GoFundMe campaign that proposed his nit-picking followers fund his retirement. Staples launched it with this video.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VINCE STAPLES: On gofundme.com, you could decide to donate to the cause of $2 million, which will allow me to shut up forever, and you will never hear from me again.
KELLEY: The GoFundMe stunt failed financially, but it succeeded in priming his fans for Staples' next song. In it, he name-checks the very network you're listening to right now in the same breath as a rap magazine best known for making bets on young talent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GTFOMD")
STAPLES: (Singing) Press is trying to block my blessings. No more talking to Vince. NPR and XXL - man, I can't tell which is which.
KELLEY: He says, NPR and XXL - I can't tell which is which. What does that mean? Why is that sort of worth pointing out?
SMYTH: Because a lot of things become clickbait - and it just shouldn't feel that way, especially when you start recognizing that people like to see you blow up or act out of character. What can I get him to say that's wild? And that became the thing.
KELLEY: As far as the media was concerned, the GoFundMe was a story, which had the effect of spreading the word of Staples' new song. The song was his story. Everybody at home ate up both, reveling in the camaraderie. Young M.A knows the feeling.
YOUNG M A: People are so in tune to, like, what's going on. Like, what's the topic today? Like, now is, like, trending topic era. It's like, what's being talked about today? Let me go on my news feed and see what's on my page right now.
KELLEY: And it's not just a feeling; the scientific term for what she points out is social influence bias, according to author Tom Vanderbilt.
TOM VANDERBILT: We get a lot of our cues from what we see others doing.
KELLEY: Vanderbilt wrote a book called "You May Also Like This: Taste In An Age Of Endless Choice" (ph). It's a survey of the research that's been done into the mechanisms, both biological and societal, that influence what we like.
VANDERBILT: Just the idea that you're exposed to something again and again actually increases the probability of your liking it, whether that's food or music or a television program.
KELLEY: Some would argue that what's on top is winning, fair and square. Young M.A doesn't think so.
YOUNG M A: Uh-uh. And I'm happy you said that because 9 times out of 10, even the music you hear on the radio, you can never care for it, but if you hear it so much on the radio, you think you like it. Now it's to a point, like, do we even know what we like now? (Laughter) Or is it just, like, put in our heads, man?
KELLEY: So how do you figure it out? Over his 30 years in the business, Corey Smyth, who's worked with acts from De La Soul to Dave Chappelle, has watched emphatically original people become massively popular. He says trusting in his own taste has served him well, regardless of what everybody else thinks.
SMYTH: There's a core group of people who'll probably really, really like you, right? And then there's the people who kind of gather around that core, and they say, oh, they're having fun, then I'm going to have fun with this, too. They're the passive ones. There are more passive individuals than there are a part of the core. So I don't know if it's a democracy because I think there are more followers than there is this thing.
KELLEY: We might not be citizens of a true taste republic. We might be buried in options. And the mob does loom large in our imaginations. But the entire entertainment and information industries are just trying to replicate the single most powerful recommendation engine there is - word of mouth. And that's you.
For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG")
YOUNG M A: (Singing) Yeah, I'm Young M.A, but she call me papi.
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