Sunday, June 09, 2002

Perks pay off for bands' fans

Good seats, exclusive merchandise and the chance to meet musical heroes boosts growth of club memberships

By Robert Lopez,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fans used to battle bodyguards and screaming throngs to get close to their favorite rock stars. Now it's much easier: Join a club.

        Musicians, who often say they depend on their fans for their livelihood, have put a new spin on a traditional marketing approach. Fan clubs, once associated with screaming teen-age girls, are experiencing a resurgence among acts who might once have seen them as embarrassments.


Web site:
Annual fee: $35
Benefits: Preferred seating, usually in first third of the venue; meet-and-greets; travel packages.

Melissa Etheridge
Web site:
Annual fee: $24.95
Benefits: About 1,000 tickets available for members for each performance; travel packages; newsletter subscription.

Whitney Houston
Web site:
Annual fee: $24.95
Benefits: Preferred seating at special section in each venue; merchandise sold exclusively through the club; access to 24-hour Houston hot line.

Web site:
Annual fee: $38
Benefits: Subscription to singeršs magazine ICON; autographed photo; members only Web site.

Web site:
Annual fee: $26.50
Benefits: Preferred seating; newsletter subscription; a shot at pre-show soundcheck passes.

Dave Matthews Band
Web site:
Annual fee: $30
Benefits: Advance access to tickets; meet and greets; CD with previously unavailable clips and songs.

Web site:
Annual fee: $100
Benefits: Preferred seating within first 15 rows; four CDs a year; priority access to pre-show soundchecks, afterparties; members only Web site.

Web site:
Annual fee: $25, $45
Benefits: Standard membership at $25 includes only a subscription to the band's magazine SO WHAT! The premier membership at $45 includes advance tickets and access to members only Web site; the band also offers 30 backstage passes for members at each show.

Britney Spears
Web site:
Annual fee: $26.50
Benefits: Subscription to newsletter; exclusive merchandise; shot at pre-show soundcheck passes.

        Bands are better able to increase ticket sales, raise money and obtain some idea on the demographics of their fan base.

        “We've been thinking about firing up a fan club again,” says Linford Detweiler of Over The Rhine, the Cincinnati band that used to have a club of more than 3,000 fans. “It's a good way for us to have revenues to put out underground records that wouldn't be put out by our label.”

        In exchange, fans receive exclusive merchandise, preferred seating, travel packages and occasional meet-and-greets for $20-$50 a year

        “Most of the time I'm in the first three to five rows,” says Angela Terranova of Cincinnati, a Melissa Etheridge fan club member. “And a lot of the merchandise you can buy at concerts you can buy through the fan club (at a discount).”

Expanding technology

        “Fan clubs used to be the domain of friends and family,” says Mike Lundgren, chief operating officer of the fan club management firm Fans RULE in Lowell, Mass. “But they often lacked organization with (bands') increasing size, especially during peak periods, like when they came out with a new album and appeared on Entertainment Tonight every other day. It generated a lot of activity, and they couldn't keep up with it.”

        “Now it's more professional with paid people on staff running a fairly sophisticated operation.”

        Rather than simple newsletters to get the word out, clubs rely on glossy magazines and slick graphically driven Web sites that scream with the ferocity of a heavy metal band.

        “Fan clubs have traditionally not had very positive images,” says Tim McQuaid president of the fan club management firm Fan Asylum in San Francisco. “But, the Internet is one factor that has changed that. Now we're reaching a global audience.”

        “The Internet provides a much richer experience than the traditional two-dimensional format,” Mr. Lundgren said. “You get in and hear new tracks, see concert footage and read interviews that you can't see anywhere else.”

        Over The Rhine still maintains a thriving online community.

        “Our discussion group gets 200 to 400 messages a day,” Mr. Detweiler says. “Everyone still stays in touch with one another.”

        One popular Web site is, the official site of Aerosmith's fan club. It offers chat, taped interviews and contests in its members-only area. Fans also can purchase tickets (usually in the front third of the venue) prior to the public on-sale date. The more seniority one has in the club, the better seats they can get.

Good seats

        Preferred seating has become a major selling point for fan clubs and a good way to sell out shows.

        “We know how many fans are in each market and we hold enough tickets to cover the fans and a guest,” Mr. McQuaid says. “Members can buy tickets to any show in the world within a certain location in the venue.”

        When Xenia resident Steve Walker went to a Metallica concert in 1994 as a guest of a fan club member, it sold him on the idea of joining.

        “I got to go backstage, meet all four of them (the band members) and got their autographs,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to get a good seat up front and backstage passes.”

        “I have excellent seating every time I go see Melissa (Etheridge),” said Janelle Wheeler, a member of the singer's club who lives in Chandler, Ariz. “I've never had worse than third row center.”

        At a recent Dave Matthews Band concert in Chicago, 8,000(out of 17,000) seats were set aside for fans, according to the Wall Street Journal. Should demand overtake supply, the club holds a lottery.

        “The ticket lottery gives everybody an equal shot at getting a seat, instead of first come, first serve,” said Dave Matthews Band fan club representative Nicole Kish. “They would probably sell out either way, but we just offer a different avenue.”

Membership privileges

        The Dave Matthews Band's fan club, Warehouse, boasts some of the highest numbers in the industry, with about 80,000 members, most of them college age. But the Grateful Dead retains the benchmark with about 200,000 members at its peak in the mid-1980s, Wall Street Journal says.

        Mr. Lundgren says that most bands do well with membership in the five figures. Though he is unable to comment on exact numbers for bands involved with Fans RULE, he says that Aerosmith, Mariah Carey and John Mellencamp are among their most popular acts.

        Most clubs charge $20-$50yearly, depending on level of membership. Some, such as Prince's fan club, charge more. Prince fan club members pay $100, but they receive four CDs a year and a shot at concert passes to soundchecks and after parties.

        Other clubs offer never before heard music, members only merchandise and signed memorabilia. An increasingly popular feature is the meet-and-greet that lets a few members (chosen through a lottery system) come backstage and hang out with the band.

        “They (Metallica) go out of their way to make you fee: l comfortable,” said club member Kim Bowman of Richmond, Ky., who has been backstage with the band. “They're very down-to-earth. They talk with you, laugh with you.”

        Travel packages that accompany a tour or offer trips to concert venues are also another favorite feature.

        Ms. Wheeler joined Ms. Etheridge's club in 1994 and has been on 15 trips, most recently to Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

        “They put us all in a room and Melissa talks to each person separately, like there is no one else in there,” Ms. Wheeler says. “She pays special attention to you; treats you the same as the next person.”

        “People like that fee: ling of having VIP access and a chance to meet those artists that they've connected with,” Mr. McQuaid says.

Growing audiences

        Widening demographics have also increased numbers.

        “We have members who have been in our clubs for 15 to 20 years,” Mr. Lundgren says. “Someone who's been in a club that long knows who's going to be sitting near them, because they form relationships around fan clubs.”

        “More mainstream rock 'n' roll bands have the bigger markets, as opposed to pop bands who have a pretty narrow focus,” Mr. McQuaid says. “You have a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds, but also a lot of 40- and 50-year-olds. These are people who grew up with the music, and then the younger generation picked it up.”

        Aerosmith has one of the most age-diverse fan bases.

        “Aerosmith does reach out to those who were fans in the early '70s,” a band representative says. “Then they (band members) appear on Nickelodeon or have a hit from a movie soundtrack, there are suddenly a lot of 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds who are fans.”

        “I go to concerts and see people in their 40s bringing their teen-age kids,” said AeroforceOne member Kim Kurland from Jacksonville, Fla. “You got people from all walks of life that you can relate to.”

Love of the music

        Though few unofficial clubs obtain active support from major artists (even those musicians who approve of them), they still have an allure for true fans. The Jimmy Buffett club Parrot Heads in Paradise (PHiP), for example, contains more than 140 chapters nationwide. Though not officially affiliated with Mr. Buffett, the singer does recognize them and has appeared at past conventions.

        Fans are drawn not simply for their love of the music, but also by a need for community service. Members have handed out trash bags to encourage people to clean up at Mr. Buffett's concerts, collected clothing and raised money for such organizations as the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Save the Manatees.

        “We want people to enjoy his tropical music,” said Pam Inglish, head of the Cincinnati PHiP chapter. “But we are required as a chartered club to support charities and do environmental work.”

        In spite of the increasingly elaborate perks, Mr. Lundgren said many fans are still attracted by the simple joy of belonging to a community.

        “There's that insatiable appetite to know more about the artist,” he said. “It's about creating a tight relationship. And the tighter the relationship, the more in touch we are with what the community wants.”

        “The backstage passes are huge, the preferred seating is huge, but people really like to stay in touch with the band,” said Metallica fan club president Vickie Strate.

        “Getting closer to the artist gives them a type of vibe.”


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