Does Dance Music Breed Superfandom More Easily Than Other Genres?

In the era of fan influence, the music industry is increasingly focused on identifying and leveraging superfandoms. But while other genres grapple with superfandom, dance music appears to have already gotten it down to a science.

21 min
1
Nov 2, 2023
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By
Rachel Narozniak

In May of 2022, a seven-second video of John Summit standing behind the decks of Miami dance music institution, Club Space, began to circulate on Twitter. The clip, the first tweet from a new Twitter account, John Summif (@johnsummif), wasn’t anything remarkable, save for a bald filter that the tweeter applied to Summit in jest. The gag resonated; Summif’s tweet went soft-viral.

“Me and my friends would play around with Snap[chat] filters and I was just in the mood to try [the bald filter] on him, and I was like ‘Hmm, I should put this on Twitter or something,’” the anonymous creator behind the John Summif parody account told Beatportal. “At that point, I was a really big fan of his already, so I was like, ‘How do I put this on Twitter and get him to engage with it?’ And I decided to make a full account about it.”

At the time, John Summif was little more than a lighthearted troll. Today, however, the Twitter account has cultivated a reputation for facetious, Summit-centric content, reflected by its more than 9,000 followers. Its popularity, both among Summit’s following and the broader dance music community, motivated the superfan behind the account to expand into Instagram and TikTok, where the parody has enjoyed similar success.

The John Summif concept is a shining example of what superfandom can look like in the dance space and its impact on an artist’s brand. The creator, who chooses to remain anonymous to preserve the sanctity of the parody, strikes a balance between chronically online internet culture, relatable, meme humor, and dance music fan sensibilities — a nebulous but desirable tone for social media in the dance space, particularly within the niche “EDM Twitter” sub-community. It’s a winning formula with the power to widen Summit’s own reach while attracting new listeners, and Summit and other DJs/producers have taken note of it.

“He has admitted to me that he appreciates what I’ve done and that it’s helped,” says Summif, who has since forged a friendship with the Experts Only label head (the two did not know each other when Summif fired off the fateful tweet). “I know John appreciates it, and it’s nice to know that he shows that appreciation to me.”

The creator, who spends about 10 hours developing content for the Summif accounts each week, has guided other dance acts on how to memorably and authentically interact with their fans on social media, in an illustration of the parody’s ripple effect.

“I won’t name names, but I’ve had quite a handful of artists reach out to me to try to help them curate similar content,” he shares. “They just want help or informal consulting on how they can connect with their fans in this sort of lighthearted, funny way.”

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The value of these social-based exchanges has been well-established in the music ecosystem, where social presence and voice constitute an increasingly critical area of development for new and established artists alike. Superfans, defined by Luminate as “music listeners aged 13+ who engage with an artist and their content in multiple ways, from streaming to social media to purchasing physical music or merch items to attending shows,” are a key target subgroup for artists, owed to superfans’ fervent, consistent support across mediums and channels. While superfans comprise a fraction of the general population (15%), they meaningfully contribute to artist revenue, spending more than 80% on music each month than the average United States music listener, according to the 2023 Luminate Midyear Music Report. They are also 43% more likely to say they “like to participate in the community or fandom” affiliated with a given artist.

Though neither the notion of superfandom nor strategic appeals to superfans is new, both have taken on a renewed sense of interest as the music industry works to transcend a streaming economy. Whereas superfans would purchase multiple physical music products, like CDs, each month in the pre-streaming era, streaming “placed a cap on superfan spend,” contends Mark Mulligan, Managing Director and Analyst, MIDiA Research. “The problem was that those people who used to buy multiple albums every month now only spent the cost of less than one album to get all the music they could ever want.”

“There has been a lot of talk recently of music superfans and how they may be the shining light of the industry’s future. Little surprise, given how record labels are trying to establish superfans as the next growth driver for an investor community that is growing increasingly concerned about slowing streaming growth and looming threats, such as [artificial intelligence],” Mulligan told Beatportal. “There is no doubt that superfans are crucial—they always have been. The problem is that they may not be as valuable in the future as they once were, and the reasons for that lie in the very same streaming economy that the industry is trying to build beyond.”

While the advent of streaming watered down superfan spend, superfandom continues to hold cultural capital. It is, after all, the subject of a new television show on a major broadcast network. Enter Superfan, a one-hour game show that premiered on CBS in August. On it, a gaggle of superfans competes in music-themed challenges for a chance to be crowned the guest artist’s ultimate superfan. The first season welcomed a cross-genre spate of talent, including Shania Twain, Pitbull, and LL Cool J, among others.

As artists increasingly vie for listeners’ minutes and dollars, major labels and streaming services are intent on identifying superfans and leveraging their support to bolster revenue streams. And thanks to the greater availability and accessibility of audience data retrievable through streaming and social media, it’s easier to identify an artist’s superfans and their unique fan behaviors now more than ever before. This data has intrinsic value to major labels and streaming services, but it is arguably even more compelling for independent artists seeking new ways to not merely engage with their followings, but to do so in a manner that truly resonates, yielding returns of various natures for both artist and audience.

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At a time when fans are unprecedentedly shaping how artists make, market, and release music, their influence is being felt in some genres more than others, including K-Pop, Afropop/Afrobeats, and dance music. In Luminate’s midyear report, dance music listeners were notably found to spend 63% more money on music categories per month than the average United States listener. This statistic suggests that dance music may better or more organically nurture superfandom than other genres, underscoring the dance space as a source from which to learn as the music industry continues to focus on identifying and harvesting superfandoms.

Of course, the live aspect of the dance music sector is a critical differentiator between dance and other genres that gives dance a unique edge. Whereas pop and hip-hop stars like Taylor Swift or Drake may only tour once every few years, albeit at a large and international scale, top-billing (and greener) dance talent is often on the road year-round. These performances may take the form of residencies, commonly in Ibiza and Las Vegas, slots at major festivals, destination festivals, and headline tours. The virtually non-stop tempo of live performance, coupled with the breadth of performance type, render dance DJs/producers some of the most consistent live acts in the music business. Miraculously, this remained true even during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the rise of the livestream format. DJs/producers, sometimes in partnership with organizations like Beatport (ReConnect), event promoters like Insomniac (Virtual Rave-A-Thon), and other brands (Tomorrowland, Tomorrowland NYE 2020) brought beats to viewers’ bedrooms at the height of COVID’s pause on in-person live music programming.

“In many respects, dance music artists rely on live more than genres of other artists. Although download sales (e.g., Beatport) are a more meaningful source of revenue for them than other genres, which rely more on the lower-paying streaming services, download sales are a career enabler for them. Get a Beatport No. 1, and the quality of the bookings a DJ can get can shoot up,” Mulligan attested in a comment to Beatportal.

DJ/producers’ broad availability offers fans more opportunities to spend their disposable income on live experiences. This reality is a driver of the disparity in monthly spend across music categories seen among dance music listeners compared to average listeners. Importantly, this accessibility can also be seen as a condition that naturally supports the transition from casual listener to superfan.

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Take, for example, the millennial behind the John Summif concept, who has seen Summit approximately 30 times across three countries, or Bao Hoang, a 29-year-old Illenium superfan who estimates that he has seen the producer anywhere from 20 to 25 times to date.

“I think I saw him three times just from June to July,” Hoang said. “I travel for a lot of his shows; I went to Ember Shores [Illenium’s destination festival] last year solo for my birthday just to go see him. None of my friends could make it, but I wasn’t missing it, so I went solo.”

Accounts of seeing one’s favorite DJ/producer at a tally that sits comfortably in the double digits aren’t just common among dance music listeners. They are also a point of pride, and this isn’t a coincidence. Often, superfan support for an act correlates with a sense of self-expression that is uniquely achieved by participating in activities related to the act’s fandom: attending live events, buying physical music products, among other merchandise, sharing their music on social media, contributing to their Discord or other social community. In this way, identity can inform superfandom. The experience of feeling seen and heard through music confers a potent sense of belonging capable of forging a deep emotional bond between listener and artist. In the art, the superfan hears resonant hints of themself; this is how support can become a public display of self.

Wearable merch is one of the mediums through which superfans across genres most visibly convey their support. The profusion of live events in the dance space means that, like shows, artist merch sold at the venues is also more frequently and widely available to fans. Collecting and sporting merch is a cornerstone of fandom in all musical genres but is arguably a special focus of the dance scene, where much emphasis is generally placed on show and “festival fits”—another vehicle for superfans to show support and, relatedly, to self-express. In recent years, artist-branded pashminas, pins, and jerseys have emerged as collector’s items among dance fans.

“I buy tons of [Illenium’s] merch, either official or unofficial. I have probably 15 of his jerseys and a bunch of different pins,” affirms Hoang, tilting his head down to show the pink Illenium hat perched atop his head. “I don’t wear much; it’s more of a collection. I have some vinyls and some patches too.”

Though Hoang admits that he prefers the look of Illenium’s older merch to some of his newer merch, “I still buy it and try to collect it to support him as an artist,” he says.

Beyond traveling to see Illenium live and purchasing different types of wearable and non-wearable merch, Hoang also tries to share his music with people who may not be familiar with it. “Whenever I’m with people that don’t know him, I try to show them his music. Sometimes I post a lot about him on my Instagram stories and stuff, to try to promote him and try to get other people to start listening to him.”

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Social media’s prominence and pervasiveness enables all fans, super or not, to show their support for an artist across channels and sometimes, to connect directly with the artist. For some casual or even non-listeners, these digital demonstrations can be the match that ignites the flame of superfandom. And while one superfan’s social display of support can be compelling, when superfans convene in the form of a virtual community, the chance for a ripple effect is far greater.

Connection is an integral part of fandom. This is precisely why those who identify as ravers on X indicate their next dance music event in the “Name” field of their profiles. The opportunity to meet like minded people with similar interests and hobbies is a key aspect of Discord’s appeal to Nicole Ashley, a moderator of John Summit’s Discord community.

“We’ve been cultivating group meetups, and I actually have a full group of girls and we’re besties; we have a group text thread and we’re called the ‘Silly Summy Squishy,’” Ashley laughs. “Music is just such a huge way to make your identity these days, and I want to emphasize that because I’ve felt like I’ve held so closely to that notion in multiple periods of my life where I felt lonely or not super close to the people I was hanging out with.”

Since joining Summit’s Discord as a moderator in 2020, the 29-year-old has gone on to dedicate “upwards of 12 hours” to the task each week. In addition to monitoring the server to ensure that its community rules are upheld, she curates different design elements, helps schedule and host live server events, like artist Q&As, and stays in constant communication with fellow moderators to devise ways to diversify and drive engagement. “I just feel like an obligation to withhold the integrity of the community while still keeping it fun,” she says.

Though John Summit and Illenium represent two of dance music’s most recent and ardent superfandoms, other tried-and-true superfandoms have thrived in the space for decades. Among them is Above & Beyond’s Anjunafamily. At the heart of Anjunafamily is a sense of community and a mindfulness of the principles on which rave culture was founded: peace, love, unity, and respect. The superfandom, which, at this point, can also be considered a subculture within the dance scene, unifies fans of Above & Beyond’s Anjunabeats label, established in 2000, its sister label Anjunadeep, and the trance trio, comprising Jonathan “Jono” Grant, Paavo Siljamäki, and Tony McGuinness.

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“Our Anjunafamily is an incredibly close and widespread community, and we’re so grateful for their endless support over the years. They are such a passionate and self-organizing bunch who are not just dedicated to the music, but also to the friendships they’ve built within this community,” Above & Beyond said. “Through interacting with them at events and local meetups, we’ve been able to hear so many amazing stories about their lives, how our music has helped them, and how our music has connected them with others.”

Still going strong, after more than 20 years, Anjunafamily represents one of dance music’s longest-standing superfandoms. Look beyond the defining foci of Anjunafamily, though, and it emerges as a compelling case of how superfandom can transcend support for an artist alone to encompass a label, a festival/event brand, and even a genre of music.

To nurture superfandom or, as Mulligan puts it, to “Make Fans Super Again,” “there has to be a genuine value exchange,” wherein spend drivers “actually build and deepen [superfans’] fandom” rather than function as just another revenue stream. Owed to the higher spend on music categories seen among dance music listeners compared to average U.S. listeners (+63%), dance’s potential to organically create and foster superfandoms appears to be more latent than other genres, with many conditions of the dance space serving as boons to superfan development.

While the music industry at large and most other genres devise methods to tap into superfandoms, artist subscriptions—a medium for profitability that sustains the artist-fan relationship—may supercharge artists’ own brand and fan-building efforts while raising the profiles of other acts within the same space, according to Mulligan. Amid the music industry’s widespread zeal for superfans, dance music, like K-pop and Afrobeats, is emerging as an exemplar of superfandom, both newer and enduring, where fans by and large may simply more super in nature than those of other genres, making dance’s playbook a potent resource from which to pluck strategy in the era of fan influence.

Rachel Narozniak is a music journalist based out of the New York/New Jersey area. Find her on X.

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