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Music is one of few industries built entirely on the strength of fans.

Our products and services aren’t functional and are rarely tangible; instead of fulfilling a material need, they often fulfill an emotional one. Even the act of purchasing a sweatshirt derives more from loyalty than utility. Fans are the reason the music industry exists.

A few months ago, we published How to Make Money When Music is Free. In that article, I shared the story of Nipsey Hussle and his limited run of $1,000 physical albums (the run sold out, despite — or because of — the price).

I shared how artists around the world are making their living from committed fans who are willing to support artists they love with their hard-earned dollars. And I shared the startling results of a Nielsen study that indicated the music industry could add billions in additional revenue each year by offering fans more of the content they desperately crave.

Who are these fans?

But when hundreds of millions of listeners stream music free on Soundcloud or YouTube, and Spotify and Apple Music struggle mightily to sign paid subscribers, and it seems more than ever that people simply will not pay for music, well — where the hell are all those fans from the Nielsen study?

Studies and discussion in the music industry often treat all music listeners as “fans”, but it’s misleading. Not all fans are created equal. Casual listeners are unlikely to buy music, merchandise, and tickets, while some loyal fans will buy VIP meet & greet packages on the other side of the world for the chance to see their favorite artist.

Creating a solid income in the music industry means focusing on the small segment of loyal fans within the larger mass of music listeners.

Just how small is this group of loyal fans?

Research from the Boston Consulting Group indicates that just 2% of a top brand’s customers provide 20% of the company’s revenue, and drives 80% of the company’s sales. To these companies, loyal customers are worth a hell of a lot more than their weight in gold.

One loyal fan of your music is worth thousands of casual listeners. So how do you get these fans, the loyal fans?

To find the answer, we can turn to the organized sports industry.

Fans are not limited to the music industry

Luckily for us, music is not the only industry that exists on the support of loyal fans. In America and worldwide, the organized sports industry is significantly larger than the music industry. Music is a $48 billion industry worldwide, and $15 billion industry in the US. In contrast, sports is a $120 billion industry worldwide, and $50 billion industry in America.

In the sports industry, tens of thousands of people are employed to increase the number and intensity of sports fans. The sports industry has studied fan psychology with far more rigor and frequency than the music industry and any efforts to better understand fans will require at least some time spent with sports marketing research.

Sports and music fanship are both deeply tribal and emotional. Both industries are driven by sponsorship, events, merchandising, media, social influences, individual stars, and group popularity. In fact, the two industries have enough in common that a look at sports fan psychology makes a useful proxy to better understand music fans. It’s not perfect, of course, and so my conclusions must be taken with a shaker of salt.

What does sports marketing research have to say about fan psychology? As it turns out, quite a lot.

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The sports industry model of fan psychology

In 2001, Daniel Funk and Jeff James published a keystone article in the Sport Management Review. The pair of researchers, representing the University of Texas and the University of Illinois, outlined a new model of fan psychology that explained exactly how a casual fan becomes a committed one.

Their innovation is the Psychological Continuum Model (PCM), and it explains why fans wake up at 6am to paint themselves blue and chant for hours outside the stadium before an unranked football game.

Funk & James thought fan psychology should be viewed as a ladder. Each level holds a diminishing number of fans, who can be encouraged to move up the ladder towards greater loyalty, but who also often fall to the lower rungs when a team performs poorly.

A vanishing fraction of fans make up the very top level of the ladder and are called allegiant fans. These are the 2% of customers identified in the Boston Consulting study. They’re the VIP Meet & Greet music fans. They’re the ones who own every Pink Floyd album on vinyl, cassette, and CD. The ultimate goal of sports marketers — and of artists — is to grow their allegiant fanbase.

How can an artist move their fans from the bottom rung of the ladder — awareness — all the way up to the top?

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The First Floor: Awareness

Before anything else can happen, a potential fan must become aware of your music. Music discovery occurs at all points during a person’s lifetime, but it’s especially pronounced during the teens and early twenties.

Funk & James recognized that in childhood, sports preferences are mostly driven by family. Your dad likes the Lakers? For better or worse, you’re pretty likely to prefer the team, too. As you grow up, preferences start to shift. Your family takes less precedence and peers and social media become the dominant source of input. And though peers will remain influential throughout your life, as you pass through your teens, the traditional media starts to exert greater influence over your awareness.

Throughout life, sports fans become aware most often through social agents. These include:

  • Family (Parents, siblings, spouse, etc.)
  • Friends
  • School (Peers, teachers, coaches)
  • Community
  • Geographic Proximity

Social agents certainly aren’t the only way forward. Media is an alternate and powerful source of awareness:

  • Media promotion
  • Social media
  • Programming & advertising
  • Special events
  • News (of events)

Music progresses with perhaps a greater emphasis on broadcasters (blogs, radio, and television). But this floor is where most of your “fans” are destined to stay.

Awareness is certainly not the same thing as being a fan. The next step on the ladder is attraction — and that’s where things start to get interesting.

The Second Floor: Attraction

The same process happens in music. As you begin to pay more attention to a genre, you recognize differences between artists and subgenres. As you notice differences, you start forming preferences — and it’s as soon as you acknowledge a preference for an artist or genre that you reach the level of attraction.

My cousin introduced me to metal many years ago. His first choice was Avenged Sevenfold, who I didn’t particularly like — but he at least got me on the first rung of the fan psychology ladder. As I listened to more metal, I stumbled across the truly astonishing number of subgenres and artists within, and a quick listen was all it took to decide which ones I liked (hardcore) and which ones I didn’t (doom metal). I’d moved to the second rung of the ladder — turns out, I preferred Oceana.

Preferences are most often driven by one of four things:

  1. Social Impulse
    Children adopting their father’s favorite team, or people moving to a new community and adopting the home team to fit in.
  2. Performance
    Becoming a fan during an exceptional season, or in admiration of a standout athlete
  3. Advertising & Media
    The promoted attributes of players, the team, and the sport overall.
  4. Convenience & Availability
    Living nearby the stadium, or the team’s games are shown on an easily-accessed television channel.

The same drivers can be attributed to music, though the level of admiration is most often at the artist level, not the entire genre. But many of the same impulses are here.

Funk & James note that an individual at this level might watch games, and even perhaps buy and wear merchandise. But their motivation is shallow, likely extrinsic, and if they aren’t bound by family or peers, they’re often fair-weather and temporary fans of the team. When the team loses, the fan leaves.

Something similar can be seen in the career of someone like Justin Bieber. When his image took some hits, his fanbase shrunk. But now that he’s successful again, the fans are back (plus some new ones). The artist or team that we support reflects back upon us as fans. When we back a successful and growing artist, that helps us feel successful.

This sort of emotion is more pronounced on the next level of the fan psychology ladder: attachment.

As an individual begins to distinguish between teams, learns the rules of play, knows the names of teams, and understands different levels of sport, he or she moves towards attraction. – Funk & James

The Third Rung: Attachment

If a fan likes a sports team enough, an interesting shift begins to take place. Slowly, the motivation to watch games and buy merchandise and participate in the sport in support of the team slides from extrinsic to intrinsic. The features of a team (ie. success, their star player(s), the stadium, community pride) take on internal psychological meaning for the fan.

The fan stops watching the team because they’ve had a good season, or they’re local, or their spouse likes the team. The motivation has shifted to become internal.

Funk & James recommend three ways for teams to do a better job of moving fans from attraction to attachment, and each of them focuses on helping fans become internally motivated and interested in the team instead of motivated by temporary social pressures. They include:

  • Providing more information about the team, coach, and players
  • Encouraging direct experience (cheaper tickets to attend games, meet & greets with the coaches and players)
  • Developing an image that’s valued in the community (hard-working, charitable)

Life would be simpler if all we had to do was move fans to the level of attachment. But the lion’s share of revenue in the sports and music industries comes from the tiny group of fans who make it all the way to the top of the fan psychology ladder: allegiant fans.

The Final Rung: Allegiant Fans

Allegiant fans are the holy grail. They are the fans contributing most of the revenue to the sports industry (and the music industry). They’re the fans buying merchandise, supporting artists on Patreon, going to shows, and posting on social media about their favorite artists.

What makes an allegiant fan different from an attached fan? It has to do with the perseverance of their attitudes. An allegiant fan is loyal for at least months; the artist or team becomes related to their self-concept, and it gets harder to be unbiased.

Funk & James recognized that allegiant fans often disregard negative information about their favorite team, and overemphasize positive news and virtues. The same trend happens with artists — just take a look at Justin Bieber’s Twitter from two years ago.

Allegiant fans are the hardest to acquire, and fans must progress through the rest of the ladder before jumping to this final rung. How can we move fans up from level to level?

Moving listeners up the fan psychology ladder

At each level, there are concrete actions you can take to help move fans from one level to the next.

At the awareness level, your job is to get as much distribution as you possibly can. This is where record label budgets come in handy, but there are simple tactics you can use on your own — like distributing your music to all the major streaming services — that will make your music discoverable.

At the attraction level, your job is to get your music played more than once, long enough that a potential fan can recognize it as distinct from other members of your genre. Live performance is perfect, and getting your music into blogs can be even better. For artists without a lot of funds, the awareness and attraction levels will blend together.

At the attachment level, your aim is to get a personal connection with fans. This can come from acknowledging fans by meeting them after shows, having video chats, giving shoutouts on social media, and doing whatever you can to interact. You can record acoustic covers of songs your fans request and release exclusive content for them. It is your personal interactions with fans that are most powerful in moving fans from attachment to allegiance.

Finally, at the allegiance level, it’s time to reap the rewards of your efforts. Allegiant fans are willing to support you with money so long as you provide experiences and products they actually want. That means they still won’t buy your music, but they’ll buy tickets to your shows, they’ll back you on Kickstarter, they’ll buy merchandise, and will often pay for exclusive content, too.

Beyond all of this, they will reward you by bringing new fans into your audience. The same sorts of activities that move fans from attachment to allegiance are the ones that will keep them there.

This model isn’t just a useful way to think about how you can grow your base of true fans — it also plays well with the startup growth framework artists can use to grow their fanbase.

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