Deadhead's "miracle me" sign.

What Stories Will the Superfans Have?

A friend and former colleague is someone I consider to be a Deadhead*. The number of shows he’s seen of the Dead and its subsequent variants is in the double figures. Which strikes me as more than passing interest.

He would regale me with adventures—not mere stories—of his attendance at various venues, with everything from blotter acid to grilled cheese sandwiches to hitchhiking to a show to looking for water.

It always seemed somewhat ironic to me that he, the type of guy who is essentially a Chamber of Commerce Republication when such things existed, is such a fan of the band, something that’s completely analogous to the Harley riders who show up each year in Sturges and then go back to their lives as doctors, accountants, and school board superintendents.

Last week I was in a conversation with a group of what I describe, for lack of a better term, “business people.” Or perhaps “professionals.” People who work more with their minds than their hands, have a mortgage and (probably) a two-car garage. One of them mentioned that he is going this week to Riviera Maya, Mexico, with his wife to attend My Morning Jacket’s “One Big Holiday” event. That will put the number of times he’s seen the band into the high 40s.

Before COVID, the notion of working from home was not something a whole lot of people, outside of, say, day traders, had. Which explains, in part, why I heard so many stories of Dead shows.

But during the conversation one of the guys talked about one of his colleagues who was an exec at an IT company who was what one could characterize as a “professional” Deadhead. Given the nature of her job, she primarily needed an internet connection. If she had to visit a client, this simply meant access to an airport.

She acquired a Winnebago and followed the band. This provided her with the flexibility necessary and the employment required. She saw the shows. She kept her job.

Another person in the group said, “I did something like that. Except in a Pontiac Bonneville.” For those who are not familiar with it, the Bonneville was a big sedan, big like a Cadillac of yore. And while Pontiac was positioned as the GM brand that was more performance oriented than the others, the Bonneville was every bit as plush as a Buick. That said, it wasn’t the sort of thing that one would want to live in, but this guy did for nearly a year, following the Dead.

“I realized it was time to go back to real life when I saw a guy washing a plate in a puddle.”

This brought to mind what is currently going on in the music industry, the development of the means to connect with what are described as “superfans.”

For example, in January, Sir Lucian Grainge chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, sent out his annual message to UMG employees. In it he wrote, in part, “The next focus of our strategy will be to grow the pie for all artists, by strengthening the artist-fan relationship through superfan experiences and products.”

Part of that was an investment by UMG in Weverse, a platform owned by Korea’s HYBE. Weverse has some 10 million active users. Those users spent an average to 246 minutes per month on the platform.

In an interview in MusicBusiness Worldwide, Joon Choi, Weverse president, said of the site, “We became the ultimate fan hangout spot, fans chat, watch streams, and purchase official merch, all within a single superfan platform” and “Superfans are always craving unique experiences and exclusive content delivered in real time. Whether it’s live shows, exclusive content, or personalized merch, we’re making sure fans get exactly what they need and want.”

In other words, Weverse is providing the means by which the so-called “superfans,” from the comfort of their homes, can “connect” with performers and other “superfans” and, most importantly, buy stuff.

Which brings me back to the aforementioned Deadheads.

Isn’t it the case that the lengths they’ve gone to show a greater commitment to and appreciation of their band of interest in a way that the Weverse members will never realize? Haven’t they committed the proverbial “skin in the game”? While the folks associated with Weverse are certainly interested in the ROI they can obtain by selling their members with whatever—access, stuff—they can associated with a given group (or groups), it is interesting to think that not only have the Deadheads invested in seeing the band but they are—at least the ones that I know and I imagine there is a large cadre of those who became completely wrecked along the tour—professionally and financially capable of continuing their interest in the band(s).

But there is another aspect to this, one that goes to the point of to what extent today’s fans will have the same sort of sustained interest in the performers of the moment they “follow” compared with those who sleep in the back of a Bonneville.

That guy was, and is, committed. I suspect a large proportion of the Weverse membership are temporarily interested.

But as long as they spend, the music really doesn’t matter, right?

==

*Given that the Grateful Dead performed 2,314 shows from the first at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor on May 5, 1965, to the Soldier Field performance on July 9, 1995, and that there have subsequently been a few hundred other shows by the Grateful Variants, my friend’s attendances might be considered minor by other Deadheads.

 

One thought on “What Stories Will the Superfans Have?”

  1. I always held a great admiration for the fans that would follow the band, living off of measly daily per-diems and whose struggle was limited to traveling to shows and acquiring tickets. It seemed honorable in a sense, and I remained quietly jealous for many years as I sidelined myself with straight jobs.

    But in today’s climate of Sphere shows, Playing In The Sand cruises and all-inclusive vacation packages, you can’t help but be cynical. This is coming from someone who willingly participated in Dead & Co’s “Final Tour” and walked away from it with no regrets.

    As long as there’s plenty of self-awareness from these participants and they don’t believe their purchase does buy a continuation of a community long since defunct and is at most a reflection of their adult entitlement-then rock on. Any semblance of the freedom this band and their fans once had has been replaced by the fine print and waivers found on back of those Ticketmaster tickets and Live Nation venues.

    And if there’s one thing I can’t stand is running into a white-collar worker that you find out years after the fact that they’re into the Dead, Phish, Panic, et. all. If you’re able to successfully navigate the straight world and blend in without any acknowledgement of the music that most certainly was created for enrichment of the counterculture, then maybe some ridicule is in order and to be expected.

    I recently put in for some time off at work so that I could catch a couple of Phish shows during their tour of the Midwest this summer. It is nostalgia fuel-just like the Dead & Co shows were for me. It’s been nearly three decades since I’ve been to see them, so age has made the memories more precious.

    The lockdown has also fueled my rose-colored reflections, but the terms and conditions and other ticket add ons that greet me for every purchase also remind me that things are much much different and commoditized now and not affordable under a farmboy’s wages.

    This, ironically, makes all of this effort to market to the superfans a bit of a perilous business model as the Dead & Co tour made it abundantly clear that I will also need to budget EVERYTHING when planning for what should be a no-brained purchase. That includes, parking, no cash vending, surcharges, and every other fee tacked on, even when I’m getting hosed by premium-pricing that’s asked by legacy artists.

    And I don’t know about y’all, this live music ticket model has only made me tighten the belt even more for any major tours appearing at regional sheds and enormodomes in the horizon. I’ve been priced out of many of them and I’ve got zero interest in getting on a ship with my peers on some “experience” package that I would obligated by Captial One later on to pay off.

    As a responsible and straight Deadhead with a mortgage these days, I can’t rob Peter to pay Paul to hear Uncle John’s Band.

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